Monday, October 30, 2017

Review: Smoke Gets In Your Eyes: And Other Lessons From The Crematory – Caitlin Doughty


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








19 comments:

  1. Fascinating story! I don't know if I could read it, though, I think all those facts would stick in my brain and I would think about it too much!

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  2. Great review! I admit this is a topic I have thought about more than once as I have spent many years in healthcare and am no stranger to postmortem care. Love that you included the facts!

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    1. Thanks! I imagine that people who work in healthcare have to think about death pretty often.

      Aj @ Read All The Things!

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  3. Ooo, interesting review post - especially with the fun facts!

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  4. This one sounds absolutely fascinating! Thank you so much for a really enjoyable review:)). I love those fun facts...

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  5. We actually know a funeral home owner in town who is also the county coronor and yup he certainly has his sense of humor, I think he has to in this kind of business because some of the things they deal with is absolutely soul crushing.
    I have a copy of this :D glad you enjoyed it I def want to read it more now

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    1. I hope you love it! It’s a very thought-provoking book.

      Aj @ Read All The Things!

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  6. Wasn't this a great book!?!? I wouldn't have picked it out for myself but it showed up at my house randomly and I picked it up and simply couldn't put it down. Glad you enjoyed it!

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  7. This sounds fascinating! I've seen this around, but because of the subject I was never really tempted to pick it up. I'm still not sure that I will read it, but I sure enjoyed the peek inside you gave!

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    1. Thanks! I can understand why a lot of people don’t want to read it. :)

      Aj @ Read All The Things!

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  8. I read this one a little while back and I really enjoyed it. I liked who she takes such a taboo subject and actually made it interesting - and thought-provoking. It made me want to think about my final journey. Great nonfiction and awesome review!
    Rebecca @ The Portsmouth Review
    Follow me on Bloglovin'

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    1. Thanks! This book definitely made me think about my own corpse. I’m pretty young, so I never really thought about what I want done with my body.

      Aj @ Read All The Things!

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  9. My first year of college, I read an essay on embalming. I remember being blown away. I like to read things like this as well. Why in the world we hide the inevitable, I'll never know. Enjoyed your review!

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    1. Yeah, it’s weird that death is taboo. It’s part of life. We should know about it.

      Aj @ Read All The Things!

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  10. Sounds fascinating. My parents both went for cremation, and had signed up for a full-body-to-science-donation thing that meant we called the number on the card, someone showed up, and three weeks later got a box of ashes delivered to us. They took care of everything, and it was free, which at a time like that is super helpful.

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