Caitlin Doughty, Smoke Gets In Your Eyes and Other Lessons from the Crematory (New York: W.W. Norton, 2014), 254pp.
Every year about 2.5 million people in the United States die, but for the most part we work hard to deny and sanitize death, and avoid thinking about it in meaningful ways. Unlike a hundred years ago when people died at home and families dealt with death up close and personal, today we deal in superstitions and misconceptions. Indeed, the word "burial" comes from the Anglo-Saxon word for "conceal" (234). Caitlin Doughty's memoir aims to "look mortality straight in the eye," based upon her years working as a mortician.
Doughty doesn't spare us the dirty details of the funeral industry or the harsh realities of cremation — two hours at 1500 degrees turns a human body into about five pounds of ash and bone. In her view, "death should be known. Known as a difficult mental, physical, and emotional process, respected and feared for what it is." (124, her emphasis). We can do this by deconstructing the funeral industry, and by developing "rituals of true significance, rituals involving the body, the family, emotions. Rituals that couldn't be replaced with purchasing power." (139). There are, for example, "witness cremations" and "green burials" that forego both embalming and cremation.
Thus Doughty would disrupt our "polite complacency" about a taboo topic. "When you know that death is coming for you, the thought inspires you to be ambitious, to apologize to old enemies, call your grandparents, work less, travel more, learn Russian, take up knitting. Fall in love." (149). Which is to say, we can live a better life if we think more wisely about death.
For two other books on this subject, see my reviews of the Iraqi novelist Sinan Antoon, The Corpse Washer (Yale, 2013), and Andrew Meredith, The Removers: A Memoir (Scribners, 2014).