Smoke Gets in Your Eyes basically follows the life of Caitlin Doughty
when she works as a crematorium technician in San Francisco. She had always
been sort of fascinated by death and rituals around death. She wanted to
establish her own crematorium one day. It is also about her thoughts on death
and the ritual of death. How it is done in different parts of the world, and
how it’s done in her part of the world, the United States.
I have always had this weird fascination with death and burial. I don’t
know why exactly. It’s paired with a weird anxiety about death. Not my own death necessarily, but the death of others. Which sounds... off. I’m not saying people in general aren’t freaked out about losing their loved ones, but I have a sort of
over-hyped anxiety about it. It’s not debilitating, but sometimes I can’t stop
thinking about it, and a way to cope is to read about death and burial, which
weirdly, helps. I don’t know why either. It just seems to work.
I also did an anthropology degree in University, which is obviously
focused on people and interaction and ritual. So I also have a sort of
fascination with ritual, and death is one of the most ritual-focused things
that happens to us. I really liked Doughty’s delivery. She’s very frank about
death, about how cremation works, and what it does. And it was a fascinating
look at what actually happens when someone dies.
It’s incredibly weird to read about the really weird concept of
embalming, which is sort of, not actually necessary. Like if you’re just being
cremated there is no reason for you to be embalmed. But we seem to do it to
make dead people not look dead. Because we try to sort of shield ourselves from
death. We try to put up walls between alive and dead people. Because even
though… someone’s corpse is just their cadaver, just their physical
manifestation. Whatever makes someone into a person is gone. But I think it
makes us hold on to their bodies more and want them to not look dead.
The book is sort of smattered with death rituals from around the world.
Like in Tibet they have no way of burying their dead so they are given back to
nature, which I found fascinating. It’s also full of stories of the people who
went through the crematorium.
I really like Doughty’s blunt and honest delivery. She’s not trying to
hide what death is and how people react to death. And she’s very honest and
open about saying that we need to talk about death, and become more comfortable
with death. And that how we cope with death now might be unhealthy (like my
weird anxiety), and maybe if we learned about death, and how dead people are
handled, or dealt with, we’d be more comfortable with the concept. And there’s
some great commentary on the conveyor belt aspect of some parts of the American
funeral industry. I have no idea how this is handled in Norway, but I assume it’s
similar, because I’m also in a western country with similar ways and rituals.
So in summation I really liked this. I liked the subject matter and the
writing and the style, and Doughty is a badass.