Smoke Gets in Your Eyes & Other Lessons
from the Crematory by Caitlin Doughty
W.W. Norton & Company, 2014; 244 pp
Reviewed by AprilJo Murph
“Rather than denying the truth, it [is] a revelation to embrace it, however disgusting it might sometimes be” (125).
Caitlin Doughty, newcomer to the publishing world, is a familiar face to millions of youtubers who know her from her funny and informative series Ask A Mortician, where she answers questions about death, grief, and what it means to live with the knowledge that spoiler alert! we’re all gonna die someday. In her debut essay collection slash memoir, Smoke Gets in Your Eyes, Doughty transforms herself into an effortlessly charismatic and intelligent narrator. Not everyone can tell you about slinging the corpses of babies into the fire without flinching from the barbarity of the act, and emerge then from the scene even more human than before.
The combination of writer and death worker isn’t completely novel to the nonfiction world, Thomas Lynch’s collection of essays Bodies at Motion and at Rest tackled his dual life as a poet and funeral director; Alison Bechdel’s graphic memoir Fun Home is as largely informed by her coming of age in her father’s funeral home as it is her literary education. Yet, where Lynch often escapes into metaphor and Bechel into theory, Doughty remains present. She wants her readers to confront the gritty reality of death, but not as voyeurs, poets, or philosophers – Doughty believes that understanding mortality is the key to understanding the messiness of existence.
Death enthusiasts, who have plumbed the depths of the flourishing subgenre of mortuary nonfiction, will find many of Doughty’s essays trend familiar ground: the rising industrialization of the dismal trade shutting mom and pop out of business; the shift from expensive embalming based services to cheap and impersonal cremations; and the desire to craft memorable DIY or ecofriendly funerals for those closest to us. However, this memoir shines when Doughty questions her lifelong desire to care for the dead, and by extension, the living.
A self-proclaimed leader of the Death Acceptance Movement, Doughty opens up her experiences in the crematory and outside of it. The book loosely follows a five year period when she tried entering the field, giving it the flavor of an immersion journalism piece like Tom Jokinen’s Curtains but it is the time we spend with Doughty herself, whether as a child traumatized by witnessing a deadly fall at the local mall, or as a suicidal twentysomething dealing cutting ties to hike Northern California, that makes this memoir a stand out meditation on loss and living.