Although not the first to express the concept, in 1789 Benjamin Franklin wrote in a letter to a friend, “In this world, nothing is certain except death and taxes.” He was actually talking about the durability of the new U.S. Constitution, but the phrase began a life of its own.
Specifically, death — its surety, customs, information and philosophy surrounding it — is the subject of the book reviewed this week.
The title “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes and Other Lessons from the Crematory” by Caitlin Doughty caught my eye as I was reading another library’s newsletter. It sounded interesting and had good reviews, so we added it to the Joplin Public Library collection.
“Smoke Get in Your Eyes” is more than just a day-to-day account of Caitlyn’s life in the funeral business. In her book she weaves information about death traditions from all over the world and insights into the business of funerals in the United States.
The author’s interest in death began when she was eight years old and witnessed a little girl fall to her death in an accident at a local mall. She says, “Until that night I hadn’t truly understood that I was going to die, that everyone was going to die.”
Many of today’s children do not know much about death. This would have been unheard of even 100 years ago. Death has been removed from our daily lives, yet as Franklin told his correspondent, it is a sure thing.
Fast forward a few years. Caitlin goes through college, earning a degree in medieval history, writing her thesis on the late medieval witch trials in which well over 50,000 people were executed for supposed sorcery.
After college, wanting to gain entrance into the death industry, she takes a job in Los Angeles as an assistant at Westwind Cremation & Burial, learning the ropes and art of cremation.
She saw this job as a “way to fix what had happened to the eight-year-old me. The girl kept up at night by fear, crouched under the covers, believing if death couldn’t see her than he couldn’t take her.”
She details her experiences in learning the trade. Some are gross; some are sad; some are just downright interesting. While telling these tales Caitlin also weaves stories of death practices throughout the world and challenges our ideas about death and dying.
Wanting to dispel fear of dying, the author seeks to restore death and dying as a part of life. Since leaving the crematory, she has become a licensed embalmer, although she has serious issues with it and is establishing an alternative funeral practice.
As part of her demystifying process, Doughty has established theorderofthegooddeath.com website and also has a quirky and cheesy but interesting series of YouTube videos, “Ask a Mortician.”
If this books sounds at all intriguing, you may also be interested in “Does This Mean You’ll See me Naked – Field Notes From a Funeral Director” by Robert D. Webster. Joplin Public Library has this book only in downloadable e-book format.
“Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” is available in print at Joplin Public Library. There are already people on the hold list for it, so get your name added right away. You’ll find the book interesting, informative, disturbing and thought-provoking.