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 on the discussion of death. That same humor shines throughout her new (and first) 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 disposition provider. 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 all the grisly details of death most people avoid by turning their loved ones over to professionals for disposition.
Still, she keeps the humor in the descriptions. She is a strong advocate for people to talk about funeral planning before there’s a death in the family. Here’s a short example:
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.
She then goes on to suggest getting taken advantage of at a used car lot because she didn’t do her research is her own fault. It’s the same with funeral consumers. Shop around before you need these services.
Doughty was raised in Hawaii, and she developed a compelling interest in mortality as a child after seeing a little girl fall to her death at a shopping mall.
Her journey in Smoke Gets In Your Eyes takes her from an obsession with death to calm acceptance. Her outlook on her own disposition evolves from cremation to green burial and home funerals. “Traditional” burial, with metal caskets and vaults and embalming, is out from the start. Throughout, she throws in tidbits of information about death in other cultures and throughout history.
You can hear a podcast interview I did with Caitlin on A Good Goodbye Radio last year. Download the podcast.
Bravo to Caitlin Doughty for a refreshing, frank look at what goes on behind the scenes in the funeral business. Check out her trailer about the book. May she live long and prosper.