Straight Talk on Death

Rather than run from death or challenge him to a duel, Caitlin Doughty looks him in the eye and shakes his hand, whispering “I’m not afraid of you,” and, more importantly, “thanks.” In Smoke Gets in Your Eyes (and Other Lessons From the Crematory), she recalls her experiences working at a mortuary and advocates a more honest view of death, condemning an America that tries its darnedest to ignore it.

Death, she reminds us, is neither an obstacle to be overcome nor a mere unpleasantness to be ignored until the end of our lives. Rather, it’s a vital part of the human experience, “the very source of our creativity.”

The topic is serious, but this book is hilarious, often disgustingly so. The bodies Doughty encounters as a mortician aren’t the dignified figures of a wake or, she points out, the unnaturally beautiful corpses of a crime procedural. These bodies bloat, grow mold, become discolored, have their faces peeled down for autopsies, and make a mess. While cremating a larger woman, Doughty’s dress was stained by “a sluice of gushing molten fat” (emphasis in original).

I caught myself laughing out loud at that image, then remembered that hardly a page before, Doughty writes tenderly of how the deceased’s “permed white hair and soft hands” reminded her of her grandmother, “who raised seven children and made cinnamon rolls from scratch.” The author doesn’t flinch from describing dead bodies, but she never revels in death, or fails to consider what the bodies (or body parts) were in life. Her fascination with death is not morbid or psychotic, but realistic, even compassionate.

Doughty bemoans our separation from death, particularly as she sees it manifested in embalming—“decorating our dead as lurid, painted props on fluffy pillows.” Describing an embalmed relative, she writes “[h]er mouth had been pulled into a grimace with wires and superglue.” The “naturalness” embalming aims at is not natural at all. She argues that the practice evolved not for medical or religious reasons but to add a veneer of medical professionalism to undertaking. (Throughout, Doughty offers tidbits on how other cultures have dealt with death.)

Her view of death is, she admits, “secular to a fault.” She looks forward to an afterlife not in a spiritual realm but in the natural one, as her body is broken into parts for the planet that sustained it. However, as she acknowledges, both atheists and people of faith—including Christians—can participate in more honest conversations about death.

Faith is often misused as a reason not to think about death, as its unpleasant realities are overlooked in favor of the imagery that’s been used to evoke the ineffable afterlife—palaces on clouds, streets of gold, righteous crowds in white robes. (This misuse doesn’t refute faith claims any more than eugenics refutes evolution.)

But the defeat of death central to Christianity doesn’t mean that our deaths won’t be painful, or that they won’t hurt others, or that our bodies won’t rot afterwards (only one escaped that fate). It means there’s something on the other side—not something we’re very certain about, but something to look forward to—and that at an unexpected but inevitable time, death will cease to matter.  And spiritual immortality can surely be reconciled with physical decomposition—the cells you were born with won’t be present at your death, anyway, so why would it matter if our bodies’ last cells are no longer with us? These are reasons to be more honest about death, not to cloak it in euphemism or prolong the last years of our lives via costly medical battles.

For her own death, Doughty has decided on a green burial, one that embraces decomposition rather than stalling it. She’s also a founder of the Order of the Good Death, a “death acceptance collective.”

The straight-up memoir leading up to this founding is unremarkable. I’m sure your scorned love caused you pain, Caitlin, but it you don’t give it the humor and insight you give your time in the mortuary.

Thankfully, this dull patch is a rare misstep in an uproarious, tragicomic narrative. Doughty’s description of the cremation mentioned earlier, which left her “drenched in lard,” applies just as aptly to reading this book: “I was horrified…but it would be a lie to describe the experience as anything less than exhilarating, the repulsive going hand in hand with the wondrous.”

–Published September 15th by W.W. Norton


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