Thursday, August 18, 2016

Smoke Gets in Your Eyes by Caitlin Doughty

Smoke Gets in Your Eyes is equal parts morbid, hilarious, inspiring and ruthlessly genuine. Caitlin Doughty’s memoir is much more than her riveting experience as a crematory operator and her journey to becoming a licensed mortician. It’s her fight against the fear of death, a fight that almost destroys her, but instead she gives this fight and its beauty to the world. And much like the orange rot that can sometimes trail our faces during death, we may never be ready to see it. But as Caitlin stresses throughout Smoke Gets in Your Eyes, witnessing death is how we ready ourselves for it, and yes, even embrace its terrible beauty.

When I wasn't cringing I was laughing and gasping in wonder as I savored every page of this book. Caitlin may be a mortician, but first and foremost she is an observer and writer, using her descriptions and self-deprecation as weapons in her fight to bring death back to life. It took only a few pages to fall in love with Caitlin’s peculiar poetic outlook. On the way to her first day of working at Westwind Cremation & Burial she spots a “homeless man wearing a tutu [and dragging] an old car tire down the alley, presumably to repurpose it as a makeshift toilet.” And later that day, even though I felt mortified on her behalf I still couldn't keep myself from laughing uncontrollably when she freaked out about her first shave ever on a dead man and "kept expecting to hear cries from the viewing room of “Dear God, who shaved him like this!”

As she learns more about the mortuary business Caitlin makes startling observations. While using a combination of the cremation machine, a bone blender (it's called a cremulator) and her own hands to turn humans into ash she thinks about her own skull and how “[it] might be crushed too, fragmented by the gloved hand of some hapless twentysomething like [her].” And later, in a particularly poignant moment, while discussing the pros and cons of donating bodies to science, Caitlin remembers her grandfather’s bout with Alzheimer’s and emphatically states, “If the donated heads of Alzheimer's patients… could make a difference to other families, off with their heads, I say.” Caitlin’s curiosity of death reaches beyond American practices. She explores not only the history of our death practices but also compares us to other cultures, including the cannibalistic beliefs of the Wari’ and the “Tibetan's belief that a body can sustain other beings after the soul has left it.”

Caitlin’s morbidity is just shy of appalling. But this is balanced by her ample enthusiasm and passion for her job. One of the things that happens to us when we die is that our bodies go into a refrigerator. Each body has its own very ordinary cardboard box. When Caitlin retrieves a body from the ‘reefer’ she compares her excitement to “the early ‘90s stuffed toy for young girls, Puppy Surprise.” When a child bought one of the doggies it was always a surprise how many babies the dog would have. “Such was the case with dead bodies. Every time you opened the box you could get anything from a ninety-five-year-old woman who died peacefully at home hospice care to a thirty-year-old man they found in a dumpster behind a Home Depot after eight days of putrefaction.” For anyone who’s ever seen a puppy surprise in action this is a brilliant analogy, albeit a touch appalling.

Maybe you are fascinated by death or completely clueless about what happens to our bodies when we die. Or perhaps, like most of us, you’re struggling with the loss of a loved one and are looking for a death pick-me-up. Smoke Gets in Your Eyes will inspire you, exercise your soul and laughter muscles and maybe like Puppy Surprise, give you exactly what, or a little more, than you were hoping for. Maybe, like me, you will hope your body ends up in a space suit made entirely of mushroom spores. Or you will want to push the button on the cremation machine after your loved one’s body is pushed inside, and later, dig around in their ashes for the precious cremation tag so you can save it to be added to your own ashes someday. Thanks to Smoke Gets in Your Eyes, I feel a little bit more at peace with death’s terrible beauty. I think, no matter what, every person who reads this will glean some of that same peace. And together we’ll wholeheartedly applaud Caitlin Doughty for constructing a living bridge between death and the conversation we all so desperately need to have with each other.

If you're curious what Caitlin Doughty is up to these days check out this excellent article about her in The New Yorker!

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