It’s time for another foray into the world of non-fiction and today I have an absolute cracker that will go on my (so far, very selective) “top books I read in 2015” list. Obviously, I will be submitting this title toward my total in the Non-fiction Reading Challenge being hosted by The Introverted Reader, hence the armchair.
Without further ado then, let me introduce today’s contender: Smoke Gets In Your Eyes and Other Lessons from the Crematory by Caitlin Doughty. Here’s the blurb from Goodreads:
Most people want to avoid thinking about death, but Caitlin Doughty—a twenty-something with a degree in medieval history and a flair for the macabre—took a job at a crematory, turning morbid curiosity into her life’s work. Thrown into a profession of gallows humor and vivid characters (both living and very dead), Doughty learned to navigate the secretive culture of those who care for the deceased. Smoke Gets in Your Eyes tells an unusual coming-of-age story full of bizarre encounters and unforgettable scenes. Caring for dead bodies of every color, shape, and affliction, Doughty soon becomes an intrepid explorer in the world of the dead. She describes how she swept ashes from the machines (and sometimes onto her clothes) and reveals the strange history of cremation and undertaking, marveling at bizarre and wonderful funeral practices from different cultures. Her eye-opening, candid, and often hilarious story is like going on a journey with your bravest friend to the cemetery at midnight. She demystifies death, leading us behind the black curtain of her unique profession. And she answers questions you didn’t know you had: Can you catch a disease from a corpse? How many dead bodies can you fit in a Dodge van? What exactly does a flaming skull look like? Honest and heartfelt, self-deprecating and ironic, Doughty’s engaging style makes this otherwise taboo topic both approachable and engrossing. Now a licensed mortician with an alternative funeral practice, Doughty argues that our fear of dying warps our culture and society, and she calls for better ways of dealing with death (and our dead).
Read it if:
*you’ve ever wondered what really goes on behind the curtain at the crematorium
*you enjoy a memoir that jumps from light-hearted, pithy, humorous comment on everyday topics to the “Oh my Glob!”-worthy, stomach-churning imagery of post-mortem mishap.
*you are looking for a no-holds-barred, unvarnished account of what might happen to your lonely corpse if you end up as an unclaimed body in San Francisco
*you wish to discover exactly which fashionable fabrics are impervious to leaking corpse fat
*you honestly think that your use of “anti-ageing” paraphernalia will keep you looking youthful and pristine against the ravages of time
Regular readers of this blog will know that, like the author of today’s book, I have more than a passing interest in death and its workings and again, like Ms Doughty, one of my fleshlings has seriously considered exploring a job in the funeral industry. Obviously, this book was always going to be my kind of memoir.
Right from the start I enjoyed Doughty’s self-deprecating humour and the way in which she understood that her death-fascination may well seem odd and more than a bit creepy to the great majority of the population who seem hell-bent on avoiding death and its implications at any cost. I would recommend not reading this book while you’re eating, as it does jump (sometimes within the space of a sentence) from a chuckleworthy observation about the peculiarities of taking possession of a box of heads, for instance, to an eye-wateringly detailed description of some disgusting incident usually related to the body’s unsightly decomposition processes. More than once I could be heard to utter, “Hahahaha..eurggh!” If the thought of such graphic corpse chat doesn’t turn you off, you will find that this book is replete with fascinating, concerning and just plain unexpected information about the sorts of things that could happen to you once you pop your proverbial clogs.
Doughty’s focus in writing the book is undoubtedly on the bizarre and absolute detachment that many Western societies are determined to achieve from death, both in actuality and concept. She raises some valid and thought-provoking points about how in a relatively short historical period, people have gone from washing, preparing and sitting with a loved one’s corpse at home, to getting the dead thing out of the house as quickly and with as little acknowledgement as possible. While I was supremely interested in the processes of the death industry itself, I also found a lot to ponder in the latter half of the book, in which Doughty points to alternative voices that are piping up to say “Hey! Death is actually a pretty natural thing! It doesn’t have to be all spiky mouth and eyeball retainers and lead-lined, diamond studded caskets!”
Overall, I found a lot to be surprised about and plenty to keep my little grey cells ticking over in this book. It probably won’t be the kind of book that everyone will take to….but it probably should be, in all honesty. If there’s one thing I’ve learnt by observing you fleshlings, it’s that death is coming for you, sooner or later – so why not make it a good one?
Progression toward Non-Fiction Reading Challenge goal: 6/10
Until next time,