lessons from the crematorium

This month’s book club selection was Smoke Gets in Your Eyes by Caitlin Doughty. The book club I joined alternates between fiction and non-fiction every month, and I originally thought I would be skipping a lot of the non-fiction months, but I was really intrigued by this book. (To be fair, I joined not very long ago, so there have only been two non-fiction months for me so far, so I guess I’m sitting at 50% participation on non-fiction.)

Smoke Gets in Your Eyes was first published in 2015, and was apparently a New York Times bestseller, so maybe a lot of people already know about it (?) If you don’t, it’s basically about Doughty’s experience with working in the funeral (or death) industry — mostly about her time working at a crematorium.

But the book wasn’t just written to tell us what it’s like working at a crematorium and to describe dead bodies to us. Doughty also seems to be fascinated by rituals surrounding death, and with people’s beliefs and thoughts about death and dying. It’s something that will happen to everyone but people don’t really talk about it, don’t really understand it.

It was a very interesting read, and pretty short too, so I highly recommend it. Doughty writes really well — kind of like a blog but more professional while still being personal and humorous (yes, this book about dead people still has funny moments). There’s definitely a lot of food for thought here, and brilliant conversation topics. Our book club meeting is actually tomorrow, but I thought I’d get some thoughts down before then.

Similar to what Doughty mentions in Smoke Gets in Your Eyes, I read an article the other week that said most Australians want to die in their own homes, but only something like 10% do, and everyone else dies in hospitals, nursing homes, or unexpectedly in unexpected places. Sure, I guess it sounds peaceful and whatever to die at home, but the location of one’s death doesn’t seem as important to me as how one feels at the time of death. Of course, location can affect feeling, but we can have peace and contentment outside of our homes, right?

A recurring message in the book was Doughty’s disapproval of how the American death industry operates. Supposedly there are a number of myths about deaths and funerals. One is that a dead body will rapidly decompose and must be removed ASAP. Not true, she says, some cultures keep the deceased at home for several days. They wash and take care of the body, hold a wake, or whatever other traditions they have.

Another myth is that all bodies must be embalmed before burial. When I read about this in her book, I realised how silly it was — why would you preserve a body that you’re burying in the ground and will never see again? They will still decompose eventually, but you’re basically paying for something you don’t need. Maybe if there is an open casket at the funeral, but not everyone opts for that.

Another thing people don’t realise is that once someone dies, their body becomes the property of their next of kin. If you “own” a body, the funeral industry cannot do anything without your consent. It’s a legal right.

In a “western” country, when people die, they generally either get cremated or buried in a cemetery. Ask the average person to give you another option, and they would probably struggle to come up with something. One thing I really liked about Smoke Gets in Your Eyes was that Doughty addresses this lack of awareness. For example, there is such thing as a natural burial, whereby your body gets buried in a designated place in nature, to be reclaimed by the earth and its creatures.

Throughout the book, Doughty writes about death rituals in other cultures around the world. The one I found particularly interesting (and logical) was about people who live in the high mountains of Tibet: They don’t have anywhere suitable for burying dead people, and there isn’t enough wood for cremation fires, so, instead, they will cut up a dead body, and prepare it for consumption by vultures and other animals.

The main question I’m still pondering is why the book is called Smoke Gets in Your Eyes. At no point do I recall her writing about smoke getting in her eyes (she does, however, talk about getting a layer of “people dust” on her every day). If anything, reading this book was an eye-opening experience. The implication fo getting smoke in your eyes is blurred/clouded vision, stinging eyes and irritation — none of which I got from this, and none of which Doughty seemed to get from her time in the death industry.

14 thoughts on “lessons from the crematorium

  1. Enjoyed your tales on the book (and I love non fiction so much)
    A few years ago we found out about how “big business” this industry was and some people are taken advantage of – I wonder if she mentioned anything about that –
    And I have friends that want the natural burial – I guess they plant trees with the body and it can be special –

    • Yes, she does go into that a bit e.g. sometimes embalming is clearly not necessary but the industry makes you believe it’s a standard and essential part of the process. If I remember correctly, Doughty, herself, said she’d want a natural burial too

  2. The song goes, “When a lovely thing dies / Smoke gets in your eyes.” I suppose she was playing with death / cremation smoke / sentiment with the title. Good review–thanks!

  3. That sounds like a really interesting book. I’m putting it straight on my To Read list (which is about 100 books long, so … it will probably be a while until I actually read it).

  4. I am more and more drawn to the idea of becoming fodder for a tree, being repurposed and planted with a tree and such manners of disposing of a body that are now cropping up. I feel cemeteries are becoming a thing of the past, places nobody visits and I certainly don’t want to end up in a cement hole in the wall.
    Sounds like a great book. Western cultures need to become more familiar with death and not keep it at a remove and sanitized like we tend to do.

    • Who knows, maybe one day people of the future will be reading books about how we used to bury dead people in cemeteries, and they’ll think what a bizarre thing it was to do!

  5. Very interesting Sharon. I expect many people go along with whatever the funeral home tells them should be done because they are so out of their element (and upset to boot so they don’t feel like making waves). There are more books like this now and I’m glad of it.

    • Good point about how it’s usually a very upsetting and unfamiliar situation. But I suppose it’s even more reason why people ought to start learning about it earlier on!

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