In this edition of Books with Friends, I chatted with Natasha from Natasha Devine Photography about Smoke Gets in Your Eyes & Other Lessons from the Crematory, by Caitlin Doughty. I’d seen a couple photos of this book before, but never really gave it much thought. After hearing Natasha talk about it though, I’m hoping I find time to read it for myself one day!
Death has always been a scary topic for me, and I’ve been trying to come to terms with it more because, well, it’s inevitable. One of my uncles is also a funeral director, and my Dad works part-time with him now too, so the funerary business isn’t exactly foreign to me. However, I still found some of these topics to be new and weirdly interesting, and hope you do too.
What about this book made you want to read it?
For years I had been considering going back to school as a mortician. The funerary industry and practices always interested me, and I feel a dedication to provide comfort and support to those experiencing loss. It’s, understandably, a rather somber industry, so I wanted to learn as much as I could before applying to schools to ensure I was fully aware of what I was getting into. I did some research and picked up a handful of recommended books, including Smoke Gets in Your Eyes by Caitlin Doughty.
I had read a lot of reviews and recommendations for Smoke Gets in Your Eyes and I think what spoke to me the most was the author’s transparency about her experiences. There is no sugar coating it; Doughty provides the blunt and honest truth, as uncomfortable and unappealing as it may be at times.
What, if anything, was the most surprising aspect of the book?
I think the most surprising aspect of the book was seeing how dysfunctional our relationship with death is in North American culture. I already had started to disagree with certain practices and traditions but reading the facts and the way that Caitlin Doughty presents the information, it was a bit appalling to recognize how toxic that relationship really is.
Also, while it wasn’t surprising to me as I had done previous research, I find that many people are not aware of the process of embalming. After sharing some of the information with friends and family (and seeing their looks of horror) I think that portion of the book would hold some surprising information for people. A lot of work goes into the preparation of a body before visitations, viewings and funerals. It’s much more than getting them dressed and applying a bit of makeup and I feel like some of the more ‘intense’ details of these procedures could be a shock to some people.
Did the book change any of your ideas or assumptions about funerary customs/traditions? If so, what was the biggest one?
It was a refreshing glimpse into the industry because she exposes a lot of — dare I say — old-timey traditions that we have hung on to, almost to a fault.
If you had asked me a few years ago about typical funerary traditions in our culture and society, I would have answered: preparation of the body (whatever that entailed), visitations, a funeral or religious service and then burial. In some cases cremation for those who wished it.
That answer wouldn’t be incorrect, it’s just vague and slightly uneducated. After reading Smoke Gets in Your Eyes, I have a much better understanding of why these practices are in place.
I would go so far as to say that now I would strongly recommend against them. There are other options available, including but not limited to cremation, that are better for the planet, better for those working in the funeral industry (embalming chemicals are toxic, my friends!) and in many cases more affordable. Of course, there may be religious limitations in some cases but overall, I would now advise against embalming if and when possible.
I read in a couple reviews that the author speaks about our culture of “death denial.” How do you think the book goes about breaking down stigmas regarding death? (I don’t know if stigma is the right word … maybe stigmas/thoughts on our fear of death?)
I love you for asking this question. I think stigma is the right word as there is definitely a degree of revulsion and plenty of negative associations around death in our culture. The topic makes people immediately uncomfortable and I think even seen as a socially taboo subject. People seem far more likely to talk about politics, religion, sex, and war before they ever broach the subject of death and dying.
As the term “death denial” suggests, we as a culture prefer to think of it as something that doesn’t happen, and yet it’s something so many of us think about and will experience — likely several times — throughout our lives. The author actually describes this relationship with death as “fundamentally flawed” and shares many examples to support this. This one example really stuck out to me:
“…the daughter of a deceased woman looked me deeply in the eyes and said, ‘This planning is so difficult, only because Mother’s death was so unexpected. You have to understand, she had only been on hospice for six months.’ . . . That’s 180 days of your mother actively dying . . . Your mother was dying and you damn well knew it. Refusing to talk about it and then calling it ‘unexpected’ is not an acceptable excuse.”
It’s natural for us to fear what we don’t know or understand, but are we not making it worse for ourselves through this death denial? We do everything we can to hide death and pretend it doesn’t exist which only seems to perpetuate the fear. If nobody is talking about it, it will never become a ‘comfortable’ idea. If the processes, the industry, and topic itself continues to be a taboo subject of distaste and secrecy, how are we to evolve and discover new traditions and practices? If we are constantly hiding the dying and the dead away from the living, how are we expected to better understand the process?
“We have put the dead beneath. Not just underground, but under the tops of fake hospital stretchers, within the bellies of our aircraft, and in the recesses of our consciousness.”
I think as far as breaking down this stigma or way of thinking, everything in the book helps. The book itself is a tool in helping to educate and break down some of the walls we’ve put up and allows the reader to better understand how things happen and why.
The “why” is just as important. Traditions are great, but do we know when or why they originated? Why did we “evolve” into using high-end caskets? Why do we so often choose embalming when there are other options? Why do these practices exist and are they actually as good as we seem to believe they are?
There are so many important questions that need to be raised, but if nobody is talking about it, who is going to ask them?
Sidebar: Caitlin Doughty has also created a death positive movement called The Order of The Good Death which allows members to continue to break down the walls of our death denial culture, encourage important conversations, and reclaim the power surrounding their wishes.
I saw on Goodreads that you had highlighted a few lines from the books. One of them was: “Exposing a young child to the realities of love and death is far less dangerous than exposing them to the lie of the happy ending.” I agree with this line, but am curious as to why it stuck out to you?
It was a line that made me pause. I went back and re-read it several times to fully grasp what Doughty was conveying. For some context, the full quote is:
“Exposing a young child to the realities of love and death is far less dangerous than exposing them to the lie of the happy ending. Children of the Disney princess era grew up with a whitewashed version of reality filled with animal sidekicks and unrealistic expectations . . . Disintegration and death have never been the most popular endings with the general public. It’s far easier to swallow a good old-fashioned love story.”
It might be easier to swallow, but in the end, is it better? Are these little white lies that we tell children more appropriate, in the long run, than the truth? If these children are raised believing everybody lives “happily ever after” and everything is shiny and good, does this not make the harsher realities of our world even more difficult to swallow?
I’m not suggesting parents explain the process of decomposition to their three-year old, but maybe we should question our sugar-coated stories to pave the way for a more well-balanced individual who doesn’t experience a form of culture shock at the first displays of cruelty that the world has to offer.
Instead, wouldn’t “exposing them to the realities of love and death” be “far less dangerous” than sending a child raised in a comfortable bubble of white lies into the world?
Who would you recommend this book to?
Everyone. Afraid of death? Read it. Curious about any part of the funeral industry? Read it. A history buff interested in where the traditions and practices came from? Read it. Need a compelling book that will open your mind and get that grey matter thinkin’ about some stuff? Read it. Morbid sense of humor looking for some unique information to spark a conversation during your next dinner party or cocktail hour at a wedding? Read it.
What’s next on your reading list?
I think the next one on the docket is Down Among the Dead Men: A Year In the Life of a Mortuary Technician by Michelle Williams. Even though my career path has shifted slightly, I’m still looking to learn as much as I can about the industry.
That said, I also have a looming stack of fiction novels in my TBR pile so I have some options.
Natasha’s extra BONUS ROUND of important things to add:
- Please, please, PLEASE consider organ donation.
- If you do not already have a will or advance directive in place, please look into creating one. We’ve covered that it’s unpleasant to think about and we would all rather live in a fantasy world where nothing bad ever happens BUT, in the event that dream doesn’t come true, don’t leave your loved ones guessing about what you would have wanted while caught up in legal red tape all while trying to grieve. There are lawyers who can work with you to make sure that all the important questions are answered. I hope it won’t need to be used any time soon, but you can rest easy knowing that those details have been worked out, resulting in less stress for your loved ones during their mourning.
- When creating your will and making decisions about final arrangements, ask important questions, know your options, and educate yourself so that you can make an informed decision.
- One more time for the kids in the back: Please, please, PLEASE consider organ donation!