Nov 21, 2014

Book of the Moment - Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: And Other Lessons from the Crematory


Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: And Other Lessons from the Crematory
by Caitlin Doughty

Summary from Amazon.com:
"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."

 I don't read a lot of non-fiction but this one happened to catch my eye while I was in line to check out. In particular, it was the subtitle "& Other Lessons from the Crematory" that got me to pick it up and read the summary. And that was pretty much all it took to convince me I had to read it.

I'll start my review by telling you this book won't be for everyone. As you might imagine, there's a lot of discussion about death and the handling of the dead. While I didn't find anything to be too gruesome in nature, more often it's the "mundane" day to day tasks that working in a crematory requires that may be off putting to some. Of course, being a fan of horror movies, my definition of gruesome may differ greatly from yours.

Having said that, this isn't a clinical discussion by any means. Doughty relates her experiences with equal amounts humor, honesty, and historical context. I really enjoyed her style of writing, it felt like we were having a casual chat. If you can imagine having a friendly chat about prepping people for their funeral, embalming, or cremation.

Throughout the book, she weaves in her own philosophies on death and opinions on the current state of how we, as a culture, deal with the business side of death. And I have to say, I found myself agreeing with a lot of her thoughts. Most of people don't really think twice about the way things are done because that's just how we've always seen it. But when you stop to think about it, isn't it a little odd to pay hundreds, if not thousands, for a fancy box that is only going to be placed underground inside a concrete box?

The only way these time honored traditions might change is if we start questioning just why we do the things we do. In 2011, Doughty founded the Order of Good Death in an attempt to bring the discussion of death back into pop culture. This is a great idea, check out her site and her "Ask a Mortician" YouTube videos.

At various points she also talks about how death is dealt with in other cultures. I found the differences, especially their openness in facing it, fascinating. Some return their dead to nature, giving food to the flora and fauna, and others consume parts of the dead!

When I first started the book, I was excited to take a peek behind the black curtain where most people wouldn't even want to acknowledge Things were being done, much less talk about them. After about the first third I started wondering if I should continue on because as interesting as it was I was starting to think a lot about mortality (not only my own but family and friends), funerals, and the like. As I kept on with it, those thoughts moved to the background as I began to see where Doughty's ideas were going.

As I started out by saying, this book will not be for everyone. However, I think everyone should at least try to read it. In addition to giving insight into things we prefer not to talk about, it will also make you think not just about death, but also about living your life.

Rating: 5/5 Flame Jets

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