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

Quick-take: Fascinating glimpse in to the death industry.

Dan's Review

As I approach the anniversary of my fathers death, thoughts of my own ultimate demise floats to the top of my mind. Caitlin's book frequently reminds us: We are all doomed. We came from ash, and so ash is where we must all return. There is no escaping this fate. Caitlin tells the story of how the stacks of bodies in her cooler is an amazing cross-section of people. Death is truly colorblind. It is the ultimate equalizer.

I've also heard it described this way: Death is the price we must pay for life. The death of a close friend or family member is a stark reminder of this fact. Naturally, many of us are not happy with that bargain. Caitlin assures us that is quite normal. I wish I could say to those battling Death Anxiety (for those where the condition can be crippling), there is help in this book. Unfortunately, there is none. Caitlin has a 7-point list in the end that she details, but it is not very satisfying. Like the billions of sentient beings that lived and died before you, you will have to simply find your own peace with death.

Caitlin tells of a traumatic event in her childhood that ultimately sent her on an extreme approach to cope with death: She joined the industry. She went to work in a Mortuary (also known as a Funeral Home for those of us on the other side of the country). Doing so, she got the behind-the-scenes view. She does not hold back in this book in describing how ungodly messy working with corpses can be. A tremendous amount of trickery is required to make them presentable for the few hours a grieving family looks at them.... just to shove them into the fire. Caitlin intentionally goes graphic. She said that in her experience complete honesty and full detail of the mortuary process and how bodies decay is the best help. I agree. I cringed, but I actually felt better about the process after the description was over.

Touching on the process, another aspect of my father's death (not "passing" - Caitlin rejects the use of placeholder words), it all felt so arbitrary and needlessly expensive. Why do we spend thousands on a super fancy casket, on embalming, etc... all in a futile attempt to stop decay? Lets be clear, the body WILL decay. Nature WILL win. It will just take longer.

Caitlin has many unkind words about this too. She says the public is very uncomfortable with the idea of bodies decaying. The death industry has responded to this unease with expensive decay-resistant caskets plus the up-sell of services such as embalming. According to Caitlin, 90% of the time, there is no reason for embalming. The only reason to embalm is if the corpse will be on display for a while (like a celebrity placed outside). Oh, and by the way, the "health" reasons are bunk. You will not catch a disease from a fresh corpse.

Overall, I found this book fascinating and therapeutic. For those you wondering, Caitlin would like a green burial. After a lifetime of enjoying dead animals for her meals, she would like her body to be her turn to become a nice meal for the animals. Sounds great to me. Queue "The Circle of Life" song. Score: 5/5.

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