Smoke Gets In Your Eyes & Other Lessons From the Crematory by Caitlin Doughty: A Review

In 1961, a paper in the Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology laid out the seven reasons humans fear dying (p. 191):

  1. My death would cause grief to my relatives and friends.
  2. All my plans and projects would come to an end.
  3. The process of dying might be painful.
  4. I could no longer have any experiences.
  5. I would no longer be able to care for my dependants.
  6. I am afraid of what might happen to me if there is a life after death.
  7. I am afraid of what might happen to my body after death.

If you find any of these fears lurking about in your mind or your heart, or perhaps just a healthy curiosity about the North American funeral industry and the treatment of death, Caitlin Doughty’s memoir might just be for you. Recounting a time in her early 20’s when she began working in a California crematory, Doughty details her experiences as a retort operator (depositing and removing bodies from cremation furnaces, as well as all of the prep work leading up to a cremation), and as a body removal agent, retrieving decedents from their homes, often with loved ones standing by.

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Doughty spares no detail in her descriptions of the corpses in her care and the myriad degrees of decay they present, however, it is never simply gratuitous. While many of the details may likely be read as shocking or even gruesome by the average North American reader, sitting a typical distance from the truth about death in a society that goes to great lengths to make it appear as “peaceful” as possible, her real talk about death and dying shines a welcome light on a reality that each of us are moving towards.

“Accepting death doesn’t mean you won’t be devastated when someone you love dies. It means you will be able to focus on your grief, unburdened by bigger existential questions like “Why do people die?” and “Why is this happening to me?” Death isn’t happening to you. Death is happening to us all (p. 185).”

More than detailing her personal experiences of death on a daily basis, Doughty delves into the cultural and societal aspects of the North American funeral industry, holding up the traditions of a culture of secrecy, mystery, and privacy surrounding dead bodies against cultures of open mourning, families caring for their dead, and even the theory behind one particular culture’s history of cannibalism. Doughty frames this commentary by her argument that it is the very secrecy and privacy of the North American funeral industry, meant to ease the pain and suffering of loved ones left behind, that feeds the North American obsession with mortality a never-ending supply of death focused fear and anxiety.

“We can wander further into the death dystopia, denying that we will die and hiding dead bodies from our sight. Making that choice means we will continue to be terrified and ignorant of death, and the huge role it plays in how we live our lives. Let us instead reclaim our mortality, writing our own Ars Moriendi [(Art of Dying)] for the modern world with bold, fearless strokes (p. 187).”

Doughty’s mission to change the current landscape of death and dying in North America is clear, as is her belief that changing our practices can indeed help to change our minds, eventually (hopefully) opening us up to a more intimate set of rituals for those experiencing loss and less bizarre rituals of body modification for those who have died. To this end, she cites the basic concept of what many will recognize as cognitive behavioural therapy:

“our neurons break connections and form new pathways all the time. Even if you’ve been programmed to fear death, that particular pathway isn’t set in stone. Each of us is responsible for seeking out new knowledge and creating new mental circuits (p. 186).”

Doughty’s book is not only informative as she pulls back the proverbial (and often literal) curtain to expose death for what it really is and for what it can be, it is also effective. Presenting her argument in the form of a memoir, her interlacing stories of personal and professional life set over the universal backdrop of the reality of mortality offer readers a well-woven weave of light and dark, curious and morbid, and endless compassion for both the living and the dead.

Doughty’s book can be purchased in both hardcover and e-book formats online and in stores. You can find more reviews from regular readers like you and I at goodreads.com.

Have you read this book, or is this something that interests you? Please comment below so we can connect!

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2 thoughts on “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes & Other Lessons From the Crematory by Caitlin Doughty: A Review

  1. I have been thinking a lot about this as my retirement approaches and I’ve been given a cancer diagnosis. Wish I didn’t feel such fear of the unknown.

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    1. Thanks for commenting! According to the author, it may be the unknown that is causing your fear…perhaps you will choose to give this a read some day. I’d love to know if it changes your perspective, if you do. Be well :)

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