Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Smoke Gets in Your Eyes and Other Lessons from the Crematory by Caitlin Doughty

Summary (courtesy of Goodreads):  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.

Smoke Gets in Your Eyes tells an unusual coming-of-age story full of bizarre encounters and unforgettable scenes. Caring for dead bodies of every color, shape, and affliction, Caitlin soon becomes an intrepid explorer in the world of the dead. She describes how she swept ashes from the machines (and sometimes onto her clothes) and reveals the strange history of cremation and undertaking, marveling at bizarre and wonderful funeral practices from different cultures.

Her eye-opening, candid, and often hilarious story is like going on a journey with your bravest friend to the cemetery at midnight. She demystifies death, leading us behind the black curtain of her unique profession. And she answers questions you didn’t know you had: Can you catch a disease from a corpse? How many dead bodies can you fit in a Dodge van? What exactly does a flaming skull look like?

Honest and heartfelt, self-deprecating and ironic, Caitlin's engaging style makes this otherwise taboo topic both approachable and engrossing. Now a licensed mortician with an alternative funeral practice, Caitlin argues that our fear of dying warps our culture and society, and she calls for better ways of dealing with death (and our dead).

And here's what I thought:  This book would make a good companion to Stiff by Mary Roach.  I had read Stiff a while ago , and this book gave an interesting, first-person experience that further widened what I learned about customs surrounding the deceased.   Caitlin Doughty has a writing style that is warm (and sometimes humorous), but she's very respectful about death.  She gives a lot of information about the history of different traditions, and also explains why things are done a certain way (like, how bodies can be prepared, etc.).

I don't know if this book would be for all readers, but I enjoyed it.   I felt like I learned a lot, and it was an interesting read.  Doughty has a no-nonsense approach to her writing, and a good sense of humor about what crematory professionals and morticians can encounter in their work.

First lines:  A girl always remembers the first corpse she shaves.  It is the only event in her life more awkward than her first kiss or the loss of her virginity.  The hands of time will never move quite so slowly as when you are standing over the dead body of an elderly man with a pink plastic razor in your hand.


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