Caitlin Doughty truly puts the “fun” in “funeral” with this book*. Confronting Western ideas of death and mortality, Doughty introduces us to the people she’s worked with throughout her career (both living and dead) and how these people have changed her life and her views of death.

image of Doughty's book "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes"

Western culture has taught us not to think about death. At all. Or, when we do, we don’t actually talk about it. We use gentler terms such as “passed away” or “moved on” to describe the final conclusion to someone’s life. And we certainly, absolutely do not want anything to do with the body.

Doughty reminds us that, historically, the family has taken care of the deceased in their own home. The idea sounds horrific to us now—a dead body? In my house? Now we have moved the care of our dearly departed loved ones into the hands of complete strangers. Strangers like Doughty and her coworkers at Westwind.

Taking care not just to impart a history lesson, Doughty shares anecdotes of her own work as a crematorium operator. From perfecting the morbid “toss” to raking ash and bones out of the retort (the crematory), the journey of our deceased is nothing like we could have imagined. Did you know that the crematorium has a “bone blender” to pulverize the last bits of bones in the ashes? Well, now you do. And that’s not the only crazy/creepy/horrifying thing that you’ll learn from this book.

Carefully and beautifully written, Doughty confronts her own mortality throughout the book. Through childhood to adolescence and into adulthood, her ideas about death have changed dramatically. From witnessing a tragic accident to majoring in medieval history to nearly driving off a cliff, Doughty shows us that even undertakers have a tense relationship with death.

I was absolutely captivated by this book. At every turn I found myself mouthing, “Oh my gosh,” or wondering how anyone could have witnessed such traumatic events and still want to work in the death industry. Doughty admits that she’s had naïve ideas about changing the funeral industry and creating “happier” spaces for death; but her true revelation sent me reeling.

There were numerous times during the book, most notable when Doughty would talk about her own family and her fears about their deaths and funerals, that I would become choked up. It made me think about my family, my friends and what would happen when they died. I fully admit to tearing up while reading this book. I often get emotional when thinking about what will happen when people leave my life. It’s deeply emotional and it truly makes you realize that we hardly know anything about this morbid industry.

Doughty implores and invites us to become more familiar with our dead. It may seem like a horrifying invitation, but it’s one, she emphasizes, that needs extending. With mail-order cremations available online and strangers in charge of our loved one’s last moments, we desperately need to re-evaluate our relationship to death and the dead.

Historical rituals, foreign ones, and our own changing relationship with death are just a few of the topics that Doughty covers in her book. This is not a scary book, I promise. There are some moments that make you gasp or jump, and some that may startle; but it is not a grim-and-gory, blood-and-guts story. It’s a story about “the most normal and universal act**” in the world.


*She also puts the “holy shit” in “funeral,” but that doesn’t work as well.
**Doughty’s own words.

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