Last week, our friend Caitlin Doughty came to the Morbid Anatomy Museum to talk about her new book Smoke Gets in Your Eyes and Other Lessons from the Crematory. Tonya Hurley--acclaimed young adult novelist and a founding member of the museum--very kindly agreed to write the following review of the book for this blog; you can find out more about Tonya and her work by clicking here. You can order a copy of the book by clicking here.
Spoiler alert – WE ALL DIE.
But as first time author Caitlin Doughty notes in her brilliantly macabre, darkly comic memoir Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: And Other Lessons from the Crematory, “looking our mortality in the eye is no easy feat.” In fact, for many, it is impossible, conjuring up our greatest fears and worst memories. An undeniable fact which Doughty acknowledges and then summarily dismisses as she urges her readers to ‘leave their metaphorical blindfolds at the door” as she pulls back “the formaldehyde curtain” on the American funeral industry. As you would expect, Doughty explores the taboo topic of death rituals as she chronicles her time working at a crematorium and eventually attending mortuary school. More than just an eye-in-the-sky expose, however, the book is also a very personal account, delivering an insider’s unvarnished look at what happens to our bodies after we’ve shuffled off this mortal coil.
Witty, humorous and profoundly insightful, Smoke Gets in Your Eyes documents Doughty’s days at Westwind Crematorium, where eager and green behind the ears, she tells a tale that skillfully leads the reader into her secret world, part Pied Piper, part Charon, transporter of souls across the river Styx. She describes the quirky, and often philosophical, characters that make up her workplace and pass through its doors and cremation machines. To her credit, she doesn’t hold back, giving the reader tantalizing morsels of horrifying details leavened by playful humor and historical facts about death rituals around the world ranging from the post-mortem cannibalism of the Wari people to Egyptian preservation – which is closest to our western practices to Tibetan sky burial courtesy of the vultures.
Doughty, who’s life-long obsession with death informs Smoke, generously mixes details of her personal life -- considering the exact moment when she became obsessed with death as a child after witnessing a little girl plummet in the mall -- with revolutionary ideas about how to treat our dead in a more ethical, green and loving ways. There are many laugh-out-loud moments -- “Hi, this is Amy from Science support; I’m dropping off some heads”-- and moments that will make you sick in the pit of your stomach like when she describes Mike, her Westwind mentor, preparing bodies in graphic detail. There are also such gut-wrenching moments as when she talks about the baby section of the freezer -- which they call the Sad Garden -- or when she cremates a young drug addict who, close to her age, is all alone with no one to give him a proper send off, his mother relieved to no longer have to search the streets for him at night.
This book is entertaining, relatable, and revolutionary -- one that just might change your [after]life. She exposes the corporate funeral home trend and blows the whistle on the “beautiful death memory” they market. Doughty’s passion is contagious and her knowledge is boundless. She is a most likeable narrator, so likeable that you might end up wanting her to pull the switch at the crematorium before you become that “beautiful fire.”
Who should read this book: Fans of Roach’s Stiff, Mitford’s American Way of Death, and/ or anyone who plans on dying someday.
To learn more about Doughty’s mission – visit the Order of the Good Death website and be sure to check out her Ask a Mortician videos.
In short: A funny, insightful must-read for anyone who is planning to die.
Tonya Hurley is a New York Times and international bestselling author of the ghostgirl series and The Blessed Trilogy. She created two television shows, has written and directed award-winning films broadcast on IFC and PBS, and is a founding board member of the Morbid Anatomy Museum.