Smoke Gets In Your Eyes: And Other Lessons From The Crematory – Caitlin Doughty
Most people want to avoid thinking about death, but Caitlin Doughty—a twenty-something with a degree in medieval history and a flair for the macabre—took a job at a crematory, turning morbid curiosity into her life’s work. Thrown into a profession of gallows humor and vivid characters (both living and very dead), Caitlin learned to navigate the secretive culture of those who care for the deceased.
Review: I’ve always been fascinated by corpses. I know that probably sounds awful, but I grew up on a steady diet of ghost stories and Stephen King novels. If a story didn’t have any corpses in it, I was very disappointed.
When I read the synopsis of Smoke Gets in Your Eyes, I knew that I needed this book. I’ve read a lot about bodies, but I don’t know much about the funeral industry.
The author graduated from college with a degree in medieval history, and the only job she could get with that was “beer wench” at a medieval-themed restaurant. She decides to work at a crematory instead. This book is a collection of darkly humorous anecdotes, observations, death-related history, and insider information about how the funeral industry operates.
You’d expect a book about death to be depressing, but this one isn’t. I actually laughed out loud a few times because the author has a wonderful sense of humor. Her coworkers are funny, too. I guess you need to laugh a lot if you’re going to burn bodies for a living. The humor starts right away. This book has one of the best opening lines ever:
“A girl always remembers the first corpse she shaves.” – Smoke Gets in Your Eyes
The book isn’t all funny, though. Working with bodies and grieving families has an impact on the author’s mental health. I love that she’s honest about the difficult parts of her job. It would’ve been easy to make this book humorous and nothing else.
This memoir is more philosophical/psychological than I expected. The author spends a lot of pages talking about modern society’s relationship with death. This stuff is interesting, but not as interesting as the author’s personal anecdotes.
I read the majority of this book in one sitting. It’s an engaging, informative memoir. I recommend it to everybody because it encourages readers to think about topics that they’d often rather ignore.
Fun Facts About Corpses
1. In the past, death was everywhere. Most children died before reaching adulthood. Funerals were held in homes. Churches—which were surrounded by cemeteries—were community meeting places. Nowadays death is hidden. It’s mostly kept in hospitals and nursing homes. People can go their entire lives without seeing a dead body. The author argues that death would be less anxiety-provoking if we understood what happens during the dying process and afterward.
“The fear of death is why we build cathedrals, have children, declare war, and watch cat videos online at three a.m.” – Smoke Gets in Your Eyes
2. Fat corpses smell worse than thin corpses. Bacteria love to eat fat and multiply.
3. It requires a lot of effort to make a corpse look “natural.” Spiky bits of plastic are used to keep the eyes shut. Wires are shot into the jaw to keep the mouth closed. There are special kinds of makeup just for dead people. Plastic wrap is wound around the body so that the bloated limbs fit into clothes. None of this is very “natural.”
4. Corpses don’t make hospitals look good. You can’t just roll a corpse down the hallway at a hospital. That’s why hospital workers use fake gurneys to move dead people. To the casual observer, it looks like a regular empty gurney, but the corpse is hidden inside it.
“I had lived my entire life up until I began working at Westwind relatively corpse-free. Now I had access to scores of them—stacked in the crematory freezer. They forced me to face my own death and the deaths of those I loved. No matter how much technology may become our master, it takes only a human corpse to toss the anchor off that boat and pull us back down to the firm knowledge that we are glorified animals that eat and shit and are doomed to die. We are all just future corpses.” – Smoke Gets in Your Eyes
5. During the American Civil War, undertakers followed armies around. After a battle, they’d gut the corpses and stuff them with sawdust right on the battlefield. (As long as someone paid them to do it.)
6. The author isn’t a fan of embalming bodies. It’s a standard practice in the funeral industry, but it’s not always necessary. It’s just an extra cost for the dead person’s family. This is why you should make plans for your own corpse. Know what you want done with your body and how much everything should cost. Leave instructions for your family.
“Though you may have never attended a funeral, two of the world's humans die every second. Eight in the time it took you to read that sentence. Now we're at fourteen. If this is too abstract, consider this number: 2.5 million. The 2.5 million people who die in the United States every year.” – Smoke Gets in Your Eyes