If you are a fan of Caitlin Doughty, the star of the “Ask a Mortician” YouTube video series and founder of The Order of the Good Death, you know the humorous touch she puts into discussions of death. That same humor shines throughout her book, Smoke Gets In Your Eyes & Other Lessons from the Crematory.
We follow our heroine through the doors of Westwind Cremation & Burial, a Bay area low-cost provider. At the start of the book, she’s a newbie to the funeral industry, a crematory operator who hasn’t yet attended mortuary school. She gives us a close-up look at one purveyor’s operations offering the American Way of Death.
She does not flinch from conveying the details of death. Decomposition, bodies in refrigeration units, the overflowing grease from cremating a portly woman, the process of embalming and the tricks of preparing a body for viewing – she shares the death details most people avoid when they turn their loved ones over to professionals for disposition.
Still, she keeps humor in her descriptions. Doughty is a strong advocate for people talking about funeral planning before there’s a death in the family. Here’s a short excerpt from the book regarding preneed planning:
Arranging a funeral at Westwind, the daughter of a deceased woman looked me deeply in the eyes and said, “This planning is so difficult, only because Mother’s death was so unexpected. You have to understand, she had only been on hospice for six months.”
This woman’s mother had been on hospice (end-of-life care) for six months. That’s 180 days of your mother actively dying in your home. You knew she was ill long before she went into hospice care. Why did you not look up the best funeral homes in the area, compare prices, ask friends and family, figure out what’s legal, or most important, talk to your mother about what she herself wanted when she died? Your mother was dying and you damn well knew it. Refusing to talk about it and then calling it “unexpected” is not an acceptable excuse.
Doughty was raised in Hawaii, where she developed a compelling interest in mortality. When she was a child, she saw a little girl fall to her death at a shopping mall, and the experience impacted her psyche enormously.
Her journey in Smoke Gets In Your Eyes takes her from an obsession with death to calm acceptance. She attended mortuary school in Los Angeles to earn her credentials in the industry, and she founded The Order of the Good Death in 2011. Yes, she is a licensed mortician, although she prefers to help guide people toward a more natural approach to final arrangements.
In the book, her outlook on her own disposition evolves from leaning toward cremation to preferring green burial and home funerals. “Traditional” burial, with metal caskets and vaults and embalming, is out of the picture from the start.
Throughout the narrative, she throws in tidbits of information about death in many different cultures and funeral practices throughout history.
“I think it’s really easy for us to forget that how we ‘do death’ in the United States is not how they do death everywhere, not now, not historically,” explained Doughty. “The more that we can feel comfortable with death rituals around the world… we can feel more open to our own new practices, we can think outside the box.”
The industry response to her book varies. Younger — and female — funeral directors who want to see the changes she proposes are supportive. “Older funeral directors who were not so happy with me sent messages to me that had a sort of ‘hey, missy’ sort of tone,” said Doughty. “Fortunately, those were in the minority.”
Bravo to Caitlin Doughty for a refreshing, frank look at what goes on behind the scenes in the funeral business. Smoke Gets in Your Eyes is a combination memoir and call to action for becoming an educated and involved funeral consumer. FBA
Gail Rubin, CT, The Doyenne of Death®, brings a light touch to serious subjects as a speaker using humor and funny films to attract people to discuss mortality, end-of-life, estate and funeral planning issues. She is a Certified Thanatologist – a death educator – and Certified Funeral Celebrant. A pioneering Death Café hostess, she is author and host of the award-winning book, TV and radio programs A Good Goodbye: Funeral Planning for Those Who Don’t Plan to Die and Mortality Minute radio spots. Her website is www.AGoodGoodbye.com.