Over the past year or so I’ve been trying to make every possible effort to read much more non-fiction. I think I’ll always be a fiction kind of girl, but there’ s just so much fascinating and brilliant non-fiction out there that I am desperate to read. I actually think that I’ve been doing quite well on that front lately, but finding myself having read a lot of fiction books recently, I decided to switch things up and pick up something more factual.
That’s where Caitlin Doughty’s Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: and Other Lessons from the Crematorium came into play. I’ve had this book sat on my shelves ever since I saw Sophie Carlon sign its praises on BookTube. It seemed like a truly unique and slightly ominous little read which tackles the many taboos surrounding death. Our author is no stranger to death, having worked her way through the profession from burning bodies in crematoriums to having her own alternative funeral home. Across the span of this novel we follow Caitlin as she explores the many different topics surrounding death and the entire process. She looks at death rituals in our own cultures as well as others, forging the way to a more understanding acceptance of death through her own past events and experiences.
One of the things which most fascinated me throughout this book was the very interesting idea that we as a collective society are scared of death. The author brings this truth to the forefront of this book very quickly, highlighting the fact that death is such a natural and assured part of life, yet something we still try so hard to stoically ignore. At one point the author points out how we have quite literally buried the dead in our desire to try to ignore the inevitable. Obviously this can mean literally in the case of burying a corpse, but also in situations such as morgues in hospitals which are more often than not hidden away out of sight in the basements of the building. If some dies abroad and their body needs to be brought back, it may well end up on the same plane as us, but we would never know as it would be resigned to the bottom of the cargo hold. There was a time, the Victorian period being one such example, when a graceful death would mean dying at home surrounded by loved ones, where your body would often stay for a period of time. Now we have pushed every aspect of death into a medical environment, taking it away from the personal sanctum of the home. As the author notes, ‘The industrialised world has established systems to prevent such unsavoury encounters with the dead’ (p. 49).
As you can tell from the title of this book, which quite freely warns us that burning bodies in a crematorium can often lead to smoke in your eyes, this is definitely a book which has no qualms in discussing the more garish and quite frankly gross side of death. The author is eager to tell us what actually happens to a body at a funeral home before you go and view it. The copious make up to hide the deathly pallor, eyes caps with spikes to keep the eyeslids closed, gum shields which do the same for the mouth, the injections of chemicals we use because of our fear of the corpse decaying. Quite often the end result may only lead to a replica of the person we know, someone who looks vaguely the same but is also so very very wrong. The author argues that this is not done for the dead, but for the living, something to once more push back the presence of death at any cost. A passage which really made me stop and evaluate our death culture in society tells:
‘Dignity is having a well orchestrated final moment for the family, complete with a well orchestrated corpse. Funeral directors become like directors for the stage, curating the evening’s performance. The corpse is the star of the show and pains are taken to make sure the fourth wall is never broken, that the corpse does not interact with the audience and spoil the illusion’ (p. 121).
It’s quite clear to see from this entire book where the authors own opinions lie, but even though this is clear in abundance, I never felt as though she was pushing her way onto her audience. In many cases what she says makes a lot of sense and its certainly intriguing to consider, but that didn’t always mean that I necessarily agreed. Coming from someone whose had a deceased family member go through the quite traditional routes of embalming and being made up so that we could view one last time, I found the process quite liberating. It obviously gave us the opportunity to say our own goodbyes, as well as a chance to see that person looking like their own self again after a traumatic time in hospital. Although it’s clear the author has a preference for a more natural view of death, she is well aware of the massive cultural differences across the board. She is able to question these beliefs whilst also being aware that whilst we might see something as wrong, for another culture that is all that they know as right.
This book deals with massively difficult topics which are typically seen as quite taboo in society. One of the most memorable for me was a chapter on deaths in babies and what might happen to their bodies afterwards. It’s a horrible thing to have to consider and something which society shuns to the background once more, yet we can’t let ourselves forget that someone has to deal with this issue! Whilst working in her first crematorium Caitlin really did see it all; from barely formed foetuses to young toddlers and children; She had to find ways to cope with this, ways of honouring these babies and giving them a last goodbye which embraced their death and acknowledged it. Yet she also needed ways to protect herself and to get the job done. Some of these passages have a lot of black humour which comes into the mix. Talking of cremating deceased babies she writes:
‘There is no mechanical loading device to deposit babies neatly into the chambers fiery arms, as there is for adults. You, the crematorium operator, had to perfect the toss: the baby leaving your hand and coming to rest right below the main flame as it shot down from the ceiling of the retort. You had to make sure the baby landed in the sweet spot. With practise, you came to be very good at it.’ (p. 92).
Obviously it’s a completely garish image, but it’s what must happen and something we can’t just hide away. As you can see, Caitlin performed her own daily rituals in these cases, recognising these babies in death whilst also letting herself get on with the required job.
I think it’s pretty easy to see that this is a completely unique read with 50% fascination, 20% grossness and 30% humour. Caitlin uses her own personal events within the death industry to excavate our ideas about death from where they have been concealed so carefully away. She brings us a corpse and shows us that it is nothing but a natural counterpart of life. It’s may be unsettling at times, and frankly hilarious at others, but it is without a doubt one of the most thought provoking books I have read so far.