Monday, December 15, 2014

SMOKE GETS IN YOUR EYES :: Caitlin Doughty

Like most of us, author Caitlin Doughty was shielded from death as a child, right down to the dead goldfish switched out for a live lookalike before she noticed anything amiss. But at the age of 8, Doughty witnessed the horrific death of a little girl, after which she understandably became a bit obsessed with the subject. Years later, somewhat aimless, Doughty took a job as crematory operator at a local funeral home, Westwind Cremation and Burial. Smoke Gets In Your Eyes: & Other Lessons from the Crematory is Doughty's account of that job and its impact on her thoughts and beliefs on death and dying, on both a personal and global level.

Smoke is a fascinating account of the inner workings of a crematory, as well as an eye-opening look at how death in America has been commercialized and removed from tradition. Although Doughty's main job was to run the cremation machines ("retorts"), she also assisted her co-workers in body pickups and burial/cremation preparations, including makeup and embalming. Presented in a straight-forward manner infused with Doughty's sly humor and vibrant personality, the book is far from morbid or gross (there was only one short cringe-worthy scene; bet you'll know it when you read it).

Smoke is full of fascinating and educational stories on Doughty's daily responsibilities that alone make this book worth the price of admission. But Doughty has a much broader purpose in mind. Whether she's shaving her first corpse or loading a body in a retort ("Each machine had a metal door that slid up and down, the chomping mouths of an industrial children's fable"), Doughty wants us to find a comfort level with the subject matter, aware of just how far removed we've become from a healthy relationship with death and dead bodies:

Every culture has death values. Those values are transmitted in the form of stories and myths, told to children starting before they are old enough to form memories. The beliefs children grow up with give them a framework to make sense of and take control of their lives...[T]here is something deeply unsettling -- or deeply thrilling, depending on how you view it -- about what is happening to our death values. There has never been a time in the history of the world when a culture has broken so completely with traditional methods of body disposition and beliefs surrounding mortality.

Doughty explains how these breaks were often necessitated by circumstance. During the Civil War, for example, the sheer volume of bodies, combined with insufficient time and transportation, increased the need for embalming. But death rituals have also historically been driven by religious beliefs. As society becomes increasingly secular and commercialized, we worsen our relationship with death, hiding from it at every turn. Of course, this is all to the delight of plastic surgeons, rest homes, hospitals, and funeral practitioners, each of which plays a part in separating us from the death process and, perhaps, self-awareness and closure.

Left to their own devices, human bodies rot, decompose, come apart, and sink gloriously back into the earth from whence they came. Using embalming and heavy protective caskets to stop this process is a desperate attempt to stave off the inevitable, and demonstrates our clear terror of decomposition. The death industry markets caskets and embalming under the rubric of helping bodies look "natural," but our current death customs are as natural as training majestic creatures like bears and elephants to dance in cute little outfits, or erecting replicas of the Eiffel Tower and Venetian canals in the middle of the harsh American desert.

Doughty ultimately left Westwind to attend mortuary school in order to get an inside look at how our death practitioners are being trained. She has since worked towards bringing more traditional rituals and natural deaths back into focus. She believes we are missing "rituals of true significance, rituals involving the body, the family, emotions." Rituals that can't be replaced with buying power and that provide the gift of facing our own mortality and finding closure and perhaps some comfort. You can read more about Doughty's mission at her website, Order of the Good Death, where she and other funeral industry professionals, academics, and artists "explore ways to prepare a death phobic culture for their inevitable mortality."

As a side note, the MAR was lucky enough to be selected to contribute to Pop Culture Nerd's Nerdy Special List, 2014 Favorites Edition (which you can find here), and Smoke was my contribution to that list. There are great picks from all the contributing bloggers, go check it out. And give PCN's blog a follow, she always has great reviews and information on books, movies, and other pop culture goodness (the fashion editions during awards season are not to be missed).

Final thoughts on Smoke:

STREET SENSE: Whip-smart, wickedly funny, and a natural storyteller, Doughty turns what could be a dry and morbid tale into a fascinating and enlightening must-read.

A FAVORITE PASSAGE:  A girl always remembers the first corpse she shaves. It is the only event in her life more awkward than her first kiss or the loss of her virginity. The hands of time will never move quite so slowly as when you are standing over the dead body of an elderly man with a pink razor in your hand.

COVER NERD SAYS: I really like this cover.  Neat and clean, it's nothing fancy, but gets the point across. While the coloring, bordering, and main title text can be interpreted as quite formal (perhaps even funereal?), the artwork and set-off of the subtitle text dial the formal back and bring in a little, dare I say, warmth.


Pop Culture Nerd said...

Unfortunately, I wasn't shielded from death as a kid. I have no idea whether or not I'm healthier for it. I am intrigued by the fact you found humor in this topic, which says a lot about the author's writing.

Thanks for linking to PCN! I'm thrilled to have you on board.

Rhonda Hicks said...

2 of the funniest people I have ever known have worked at a funeral home and crematorium. I'm going to pass this review on to them. Looking forward to reading this one.

Malcolm Avenue Review said...

That would be an interesting conversation to have some time. Your experience is definitely different than most kids who grew up in the U.S. It does say a lot about her writing and her personality. It's funny without mocking or taking the easy route. She's a fascinating person.

Malcolm Avenue Review said...

That's fantastic! And very interesting. Maybe you have to have a certain ability to find humor in things to keep your sanity in that job. Hope they read and enjoy it, would love their feedback. And yours, natch.

Jen said...

testing guest comments

Jen said...

Let's try this again....testing guest comments

jen_forbus said...

Testing comments again....

About Malcolm Avenue Review

I was lucky enough to be born and raised in a nifty, oak-shaded ranch house on Malcolm Avenue, a wide-laned residential street with little through traffic, located amid the foothills of Northern California. It was on that street and in that house I learned most of my adolescent life lessons, and many grown-up ones to boot. Malcolm Avenue was "home" for more than thirty years.

It was on Malcolm Avenue, through and with my family and the other families that made up our neighborhood of characters, that I first learned about and gained an appreciation for the things I continue to love the most to this day: music, animals, photography, sports, television/movies and, of course, books.

I owe a debt of gratitude to that life on Malcolm Avenue. It gave me a sense of community and friendship, support and adventure. For better and worse, life on that street likely had the biggest impact on the person I've become. So this blog, and the things I write here, are all, at their base level, a little bit of a love letter to Malcolm Avenue.


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