Many years ago, I bought my mom an odd Mother's Day gift. It was a little book called Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers, by Mary Roach. People looked at me funny, admittedly, but our family is kinda into the gory details. When I started seeing buzz about Smoke Gets In Your Eyes and Other Lessons from the Crematory, by Caitlin Doughty, I knew I'd found the next Stiff. Something gross, insightful, and worth sharing. Luckily for me, Heather beat me to the punch and bought this book for me! Which I, in turn, shared with my mom. In short, we're all very happy for having read it.
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. (From Goodreads.)
So what does all that boil down to? Doughty is honest about her everyday work in a San Francisco crematory. She describes the process, the machinery, the everyday work of dealing with corpses: smells, appearance, decomposition. She also explores the lesser-known parts of death work: picking up bodies from the morgue, the hospital, ordering cremation services online, dealing with people's families in the midst of their toughest times. She also ruminates on the funeral industry in general....the good, bad, and ugly. Furthermore, she finds opportunities to share death practices from around the world and how other cultures, in facing death in a more straightforward manner, may actually have a healthier relationship with their mortality.
There is a lot going on here, and it's just wonderfully done. The writing is warm and humorous and inviting. The stories might make you a little queasy at times, but it's ok because Doughty is dealing with the same feelings...especially in the beginning. So whether she's grinding bones, getting sloshed with melted fat, or ruffling around in the "reefer" cooler, we're in good hands.
I went into this book expecting some honest gross stories, but what really comes of it is some really raw emotion and well-thought arguments about the way Americans deal with death. It was plenty to think about, and it's definitely worth sharing with your mom if she's into this sort of thing.
Also, if you're interested in learning more about this topic and Caitlin Doughty's work, check out her YouTube channel, Order of the Good Death. There's a whole "Ask a Mortician" series!
Pub. Date: September 2014
Publisher: W.W. Norton and Company