Most people want to avoid thinking about death, but Caitlin Doughty a twenty-something with a degree in medieval history and a flair for the macabre took a job at a crematory, turning morbid curiosity into her life s work. Thrown into a profession of gallows humor and vivid characters (both living and very dead), Caitlin learned to navigate the secretive culture of those who care for the deceased.Read more...
Most people want to avoid thinking about death, but Caitlin Doughty a twenty-something with a degree in medieval history and a flair for the macabre took a job at a crematory, turning morbid curiosity into her life s work. Thrown into a profession of gallows humor and vivid characters (both living and very dead), Caitlin learned to navigate the secretive culture of those who care for the deceased.
Smoke Gets in Your Eyes tells an unusual coming-of-age story full of bizarre encounters and unforgettable scenes. Caring for dead bodies of every color, shape, and affliction, Caitlin soon becomes an intrepid explorer in the world of the dead. She describes how she swept ashes from the machines (and sometimes onto her clothes) and reveals the strange history of cremation and undertaking, marveling at bizarre and wonderful funeral practices from different cultures.
Her eye-opening, candid, and often hilarious story is like going on a journey with your bravest friend to the cemetery at midnight. She demystifies death, leading us behind the black curtain of her unique profession. And she answers questions you didn t know you had: Can you catch a disease from a corpse? How many dead bodies can you fit in a Dodge van? What exactly does a flaming skull look like?
Honest and heartfelt, self-deprecating and ironic, Caitlin's engaging style makes this otherwise taboo topic both approachable and engrossing. Now a licensed mortician with an alternative funeral practice, Caitlin argues that our fear of dying warps our culture and society, and she calls for better ways of dealing with death (and our dead)."
Publishers Weekly® Reviews
- Reviewed in: Publishers Weekly, page .
- Review Date: 2014-08-11
- Reviewer: Staff
In this valiant effort Doughty, a Hawaii-born LA mortician and creator of the web series "Ask a Mortician," uses her work as a crematorium operator at the family-owned Westwind Cremation and Burial in Oakland, Calif., to challenge the way we view death. Having studied medieval history in college, Doughty found an early job with the real deal: feeding the two huge "retorts," the cremation machines in the Westwind warehouse, with corpses—some not so fresh—retrieved by order from private homes or, more often, from hospitals, nursing homes, and the coroner's office. Doughty was eager to prove her mettle, and offered to do any number of odious tasks, such as shaving corpses, or otherwise helping Bruce the embalmer prepare them for the bereaved family's viewing: pumping them with the "salmon pink cocktail" of formaldehyde and alcohol, wielding the trusty trocar, and sewing closed mouths and eyelids. Her descriptions about picking dead babies up from the hospital prove particularly difficult to read. Nonetheless, Doughty does stare death in the face, by tracking down numerous ancient rituals (she observes approvingly how some Eastern cultures still participate in the preparing of the body), pursuing fascinating new words such as "desquamation" and "bubblating" (both refer to excess fluids), and celebrating the natural function of decomposition. (Sept.)
A mortician's tell-all
The voice behind the popular web series “Ask a Mortician” exposes the grisly, hilarious details of working in a crematorium—and argues that everyone needs to be more closely connected to the realities of death.
Your book is often vividly gruesome—and just as often very funny. What do you think is the source of your “gallows humor”?
My parents are both very clever people. I grew up around humor. It just made sense to apply it to conversations about death and mortality. Especially since these heavy topics can often be easier to take in if they’re delivered with a lighter touch.
You write that the day-to-day realities of working in a crematorium “were more savage than I had anticipated.” What surprised you most in your first days at the crematory?
The bodies were savage, in the sense that I had never seen so many corpses in one place. But the real savagery was that the corpses were essentially abandoned. Our funeral home came to pick them up and take them away from their families and store them in a giant freezer. I was the only person there when the bodies were cremated. Most people have no idea they can be much more involved in the death care of the people they love.
Your obsession with death began when you were 8 years old and saw a child plunge from an escalator in a shopping mall. Working in the mortuary seems to have brought some resolution to your obsession. Was writing the book also cathartic in some way?
Absolutely. Part of writing the book was to let other people know that we’re all obsessed with death, to a degree. Death is the human condition, and it’s perfectly OK to be fascinated by it, perfectly OK to want information about what goes on behind the scenes. It’s not morbid, or deviant, or wrong. In a way, writing the book helped me to fully embrace that idea as well.
You’re critical of the modern American funeral industry. But you are also critical of Jessica Mitford’s landmark exposé of funeral home practices, The American Way of Death (1963). What’s your beef with Mitford’s book?
I try to make it clear that I have a great deal of respect for what Mitford did. However, I think she was so focused on subverting the old men of the traditional funeral industry that the book ended up being pro-direct cremation. Direct cremation (cremation with no services of any kind) is the cheapest alternative, but it doesn’t allow for something I believe we need, which is to care for and interact with our dead bodies. To have the body just disappear can hurt the grieving process.
You’re on a kind of mission in Smoke Gets in Your Eyes. Why is it so important that people have a closer connection with death?
I am on a mission! I would never claim to be an objective reporter. Death affects everything we do as humans, and we’re much healthier when we understand this. Other than television and film, we never see death any more, it’s not a part of our daily lives. We view this as “progress” but I don’t believe it is. We need the reality of death to remind us that we are not immortal, and our actions have real consequences.
ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our review of Smoke Gets in Your Eyes.