Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: and Other Lessons from the Crematory by Caitlin Doughty

Week 1: A Book by an Author Under the Age of 30

I have been on the waitlist for this book at the library for over three months. I got it just before the New Year Holiday and decided to make this my first book of the year. I have been thinking about funerals and cremation and death rituals since my trip to Pennsylvania this past fall to help my mother plan her funeral.

Although no fan of the dead body, I have a great deal of fascination for the funeral industry and death rites and rituals.  How do we honor the dead? How do we mourn and celebrate the passing of life? This seemed to be one very interesting and not often talked about viewpoint in the industry.  Also, of all the work memoirs I have read (I love personal narrative about what people do for a living.) this was something I had never read about.

Ms Doughty explains that she has been drawn to death and the macabre since she was a child and she witnessed the accidental death of a child about her own age. The image of this child falling to their death haunted her and replayed in her mind throughout her childhood and led her to contemplating death more than most children. After graduating from college Caitlin sent her resume around until she got an offer for a job at a crematory in San Francisco.  Her narrative chronicles what it is like to work at a crematory, burn bodies, work with the public in the funeral industry, her own eventual decision to go to mortuary science school, and why in fact she hated it and has begun a small grassroots movement to reform the funeral industry and bring about a revolution in how we treat death in our culture.

She does warn the reader before the book that the depictions of death and bodies can be rather grisley and hard to read. She was right about that. I especially found it hard to read about the cremation of babies and overweight people. (If your interested pick up a copy.) I read it all and learned a lot about the science of cremation.

I especially loved that the author came to know and respect and have great affection for the men who worked at and ran the crematorium. They taught her great lessons and were very good to her. She mentions them and their business often and after she goes to mortuary school returns to them for advice and interviews and even does some odd jobs.

If this topic holds any interest for you and you want to meet an unusual woman with some great ideas about reforming--not just the funeral industry--but how we think and feel about death as a culture--I strongly urge you to read this book.  Also, check out her ideas and website at The Order of the Good Death.

For those following my year in reading, Caitlin wrote this book before her 30th birthday, so I am counting it as a book by an author under 30.  I'd love to hear what people are reading in the new year. Please feel free to post it in your comments.

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