Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Smoke Gets In Your Eyes

"Gruesome" and "fascinating" are prominent adjectives used on the book jacket of Smoke Gets in Your Eyes & Other Lessons from the Crematory by Caitlin Doughty, and I’d have to agree with both. "Hilarious" which is another one used quite regularly is a bit of head scratcher, but to each their own. This oddball of a best-selling biography which offers a peek behind the curtain of the funeral industry has been around for a couple years, so it might be familiar to some.

From the publisher: “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), Caitlin 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, Caitlin 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. ”

I’ll confess that despite countless rave reviews I started the book with a healthy dose of trepidation; unsure whether my stomach and nerves could take the read. I quickly realized that while I had no qualms reading the salacious or cringe-worthy facts surrounding cremation, a body’s decomposition, or even the goosebumps inducing details on embalming that are found in the book, what did bother me wasn’t what was in the book, but what was missing. I get that to do this job on a day-to-day basis the author must employ a level of professional detachment, or else she’d be crying and hand-wringing over every corpse. Yet, at no point during the book is there an acknowledgement that these human remains were human beings that lived and breathed and were (are still) loved by family and friends, and that to the very end, though only their shell is left, they deserved to be treated with the grace and dignity which was their due. Where in these anecdotes was the solemnity required of the occasions? Would the same witty banter and lighthearted jokes – which I concede made for entertaining reading - have been shared between Doughty and her co-workers if it was the body of their own loved one lying before them?

In fairness, the book was informative and answered countless questions you might have been afraid to even voice. It also offered a plethora of eye-opening and fascinating information on the treatment of the dead by other cultures, both in the past and present day. Nonetheless, I must honestly say that by book’s end there were tons of facts that I wished I could unlearn; a simple wish that I hadn’t opened this Pandora’s box of images and words, like trocar or needle injectors, that are now forever linked in my mind with memories of lost loved ones that went through doors similar to those of Westwind Cremation & Burial. I was a little wiser for the experience, but what was in my head and heart were two very different things. What I 'felt' was that “as human beings, sometimes it’s better to stay in the dark, because in the dark there may be fear, but there’s also hope.” (Believe it or not, that's a Grey's Anatomy quote; who knew they could be so deep?)

Alas, Smoke Gets in Your Eyes was a well-written book, quite engaging and interesting, but ultimately not my cup of tea.