Saturday, February 21, 2015

Smoke Gets in Your Eyes by Caitlin Doughty

Caitlin Doughty helped me. At first, I don’t mind saying, she repulsed me with her (what I thought initially) childish and macabre sense of humor. What happened over the course of reading this book is that I became informed--reminded and informed--about the "responsible exposure to decomposition" which we as a culture are so good at hiding, denying, refusing. If I never completely relaxed, I think that is quite normal. But she really earned her $24.95 for the price of the book. That’s a lot of teaching going on.

I don’t want to be responsible for the shock readers might feel who stumbled onto this review by accident. This book is about the crematory industry and death. It is useful, but if that is not what you came for, don’t read this book nor this review.

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Caitlin Doughty reminds me of the little minx Lauren Ambrose that played in the TV serial Six Feet Under. They look nothing alike. It is a personality thing…and the subject matter, of course. I thought I would just skim this because I was having difficulty entering into the humor of this book, but I found myself learning things…slowing down…nodding my head…reading aloud to family…and laughing, against my will, at some of the scenes Doughty conjured in my head.

Doughty makes an awful lot of sense. She is a licensed mortician, youngish. She worked in a crematory at the beginning of her career, after obtaining a degree in Medieval Studies. She’d done her thesis on medieval witches accused of roasting dead infants and grinding their bones. "A year later I found myself literally roasting dead infants and grinding their bones….[those witches] were burned alive at the stake. I, on the other hand, …was thanked by the poor parents for my care and concern. Things change." See what I mean about her sense of humor?

Anyway, what I learned was extremely useful. She relates the story of a woman who said that her mother died "unexpectedly" after hospice care for six months. Doughty didn’t buy it:
"When a young person dies unexpectedly, the family will likely face what [Jessica] Mitford called the "necessity of buying a product of which they are totally ignorant." The sudden death of a young person is a horrible tragedy. In their sorrow the family should not have to worry that a funeral home would take advantage and upsell them to a more expensive casket or funeral-service package. But anyone who works in the death industry can readily tell you that a slim minority of cases involves the sudden death of a young person. Most deaths come after long, significant diseases or very lengthy lives…why [someone would] 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 her mother about what she herself wanted when she died? …Refusing to talk about it and then calling it "unexpected" is not an acceptable excuse."

Doughty does the work of sharing the history of the business of funeral homes with us: How it developed into a huge industry in the United States as opposed to cremation, and how Jessica Mitford—yes, that Jessica Mitford—almost single-handedly turned public opinion around with her book, The American Way of Death, published in 1963, the same year Pope Pius VI overturned the ban on cremation for Catholics.

Cremation is still the lesser-used option, but there is a movement afoot now to take back the business of dying with home wakes and 'natural burials' in bucolic settings. Doughty addresses the latter option, saying that she’s decided on a natural burial for herself. "Not only is a natural burial by far the most ecologically sound way to perish, it doubles down on the fear of fragmentation and loss of control. Making the choice to be naturally buried says, 'Not only am I aware that I’m a helpless, fragmented mass of organic matter, I celebrate it. Vive la decay!'"

A website she doesn’t mention gives a range of options for those who want that modicum of control, including home wakes and natural burials: WBUR Radio piece with links. After hearing Doughty’s stories and watching some of her YouTube video series, and knowing that she hints at times to prefer being torn apart by buzzards on a hilltop in Tibet rather than be cremated, one just has to think…about death: what it is and how it affects us.

Doughty may be irreverent, but she’s earned it. She earns our forgiveness with her admission:
"Everything I was learning at Westwind I wanted to shout from the rooftops. The daily reminders of death cast each day in more vivid tones…my work at Westwind had given me access to emotions I didn’t know I was capable of. I would start laughing or crying at the drop of a damn hat…[my] emotional range was blasted apart, allowing for ecstasy and despair like I had never experienced…I went from thinking it was strange that we don’t see any dead bodies anymore to believe their absence was the root cause of major problems in the modern world. Corpses keep the living tethered to reality."

Doughty quotes the social critic Camille Paglia: "Human beings are not nature’s favorites. We are merely one of a multitude of species upon which nature indiscriminately exerts its force."

Irresistibly, Doughty shares the original Hans Christian Anderson story of "The Little Mermaid," to go with her vignette about growing up in Hawai’i. Kids’ story "The Little Mermaid" is not, despite Disney’s re-creation of the fable in film, and adults reading it in 1836 when it was published would learn not to complain about their lot in life because things could be a whole lot worse.

She tells us about the wide menacing smile of a skull. "It was unnerving to think this same deranged grin lurks just beneath the flesh of everyone’s face, the frowning, the crying, even the dying." And she tells us that "Buddhist monks hoping to detach themselves from lust and curb their desire for permanence would meditate on the form of a rotting corpse."

Yes, she can be gruesome, but what she managed to do is keep my skittering mind focused on the issue of death for a couple hours, for a day. Who wants to think about this? Nobody. But it is a truth, and frankly, like Doughty, I would always have preferred to have been initiated into the secrets of reality than told as a child that there really is “a happy ending.” It keeps things real, and it keeps us focused, and it keeps us striving. Because, darn it, the scythe is at the door. (hide spoiler)]

You can buy this book here: Shop Indie Bookstores

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