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Her Fine Eyes

Caustic reviews of YA books I adore. 

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Smoke Gets In Your Eyes: And Other Lessons From the Crematory

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

One-sentence review: A lovely little starter book from Caitlin Doughty, gently introducing readers to some of her thoughts about death culture and the American death industry by talking about the evolution of her own thoughts on the subject; but I hope a more in-depth (non-memoir), researched volume will arrive someday, pressing her points with data, biology, and examples. 


I follow Doughty online. I love the mission that she's on: to get Americans to talk about death, to live with it, and to understand it, so that it's a part of their lives. A point she's careful to make in the book is that life is more beautiful because we die, and I believe that's true. It gives life meaning, purpose, and an urgency that's essential to creativity. A corollary to this is the fact that fear of death prevents us from understanding our lives. Americans have removed themselves from death so thoroughly, we're often at the point of not quite accepting that we will inevitably all die. Most have never even seen a dead body in its natural state, which is almost inconceivable given that everyone dies. Instead, we shunt our sick to hospitals, stuff our elderly in nursing homes, and flood ourselves with horror movies and Halloween gore, trying to satiate those deeper questions we have, titillating our fear, and dancing around more meaningful thoughts about mortality.


This isn't Doughty's "green-burial revolution" book, which I mistakenly thought it would be. But she does include most of the important points she covers on her website, "The Order of the Good Death," and in her YouTube series, "Ask a Mortician." Namely: family and friends should know to ask for "witness" cremations, where they view the body burning and even push the button; bodies don't need embalming unless they're going to be shipped overseas; families can wash and shroud the body themselves; the body is the family's quasi-property (no one can force you to do anything you don't want with it); other than in the case of Ebola, corpses are not health hazards, even when they decompose; you have to see death up close to grow comfortable with it.


What she neglected to cover. There are so many persuasive facts Doughty failed to talk about while discussing what we erroneously call "traditional burials"--that is, burials with an embalmed body, a gasket-sealed metal casket, and a steel or concrete vault surrounding the body in the ground. The millions of gallons of eco-unfriendly formaldehyde-based chemicals that go in the bodies, down the drain, and into the ground; the energy wasted in producing caskets and vaults that ultimately do nothing to preserve the body; and more. I wanted statistics and comparisons and examples. I wanted to hear about how an embalmed corpse decomposes (versus a natural corpse). I wanted to hear about the chemistry of "liquid cremation" and what exactly gets handed back to the family. (Are the bones still all that's left, and are they crushed? Where does the used [lye-like] liquid go, and why is it safe for the environment? How many times can you reuse the liquid?) My friend read the book at the same time I did, and pointed out that too much depth, too many facts, too much "non-fiction" might have scared away Doughty's target audience. Instead, she argued, this is a personable, warm account of Doughty's first year as a crematory operator, and her experiences in mortuary school, with the message tucked away as stories, not as data. That is, just enough to get the hipsters interested in her cause, without scaring them away with morbid prose; just enough to get her some professional "cred," while the funeral industry studiously ignores her. My friend may be right, this is probably a better opening literary gambit than what I wanted: a dry, revolutionary, be-all, end-all "green burial" tome from an expert in the field.


But thirty is perhaps too young for a memoir. I loved the personal observations in Thomas Lynch's The Undertaking, but I think it was because he was old enough to have something to say. With Doughty, you get the sense that her own feelings about death are not quite settled. She admits to having been afraid--before her job in the crematory inured her--of her body being "scattered" after death. But while she wants to believe she has overcome that fear, her slight disdain for some of the uses for bodies donated to science betrays a lack of comfort with her claim that our "borrowed" bodies return to the earth one way or the other. The notion of cosmetic surgeons practicing on decapitated cadaver heads, or bodies being tossed out of planes to test parachutes, does not seem to please her, knowing that the dead person probably hoped to enrich other areas of science. But doesn't this ignore the point that the dead body doesn't care? Finally, while I was interested in her near-suicide story, I wasn't sure how it advanced the cause of the book. (It did fascinate me that, like so many people in their twenties, even this dynamic, intelligent, pretty person was a bit adrift, trying to find her place in the world and to find people [other than her devoted family] who would love her.)


Neither here nor there. I thought these books, in displays near each other, were cute doppelgangers.