Books

Mortuary memoir ‘Smoke Gets in Your Eyes’ tackles a subject we’d rather avoid: death

Caitlin Doughty
Caitlin Doughty

There are people who pick up the bodies of loved ones and of the anonymous dead and transport them to the crematorium.

People who prepare the bodies for a final viewing, who place them in the fire, who grind any remaining bones, who collect the ashes.

Ever wonder about the nitty-gritty of how all that goes down? Of our other dead-body practices? Caitlin Doughty thinks you should. And question why we do it.

“Smoke Gets in Your Eyes & Other Lessons from the Crematory” is her grisly, gnarly and often funny memoir of the first few years on the job as a crematory operator at Westwind Cremation & Burial in Oakland, Calif. Set for release Sept. 15, it’s the current selection of the FYI Book Club.

Doughty has been called the Bill Nye of death, having gained recognition nationally as host of the popular web series “Ask a Mortician.”

She thinks the wall we’ve placed between ourselves and death — specifically, the bodies of the dead — is odd and psychically unhealthy. She wonders about our fear of decomposition. Doughty sees in our futures a more active role in preparing and burying our dead.

Here are edited excerpts of our recent conversation with the author.

Q. What possessed you to take a job at a crematorium? You were 23?

A. Yes. I think it was a combination of lifelong interest and millennial ennui, in the sense that I had studied the subject of death academically for many years. I was a medieval history major at the University of Chicago.

Death was my fascination. I knew about death on paper, but there were so many people who knew what it was like to work in the industry. And as you can probably guess, when you’re a medieval history major, no one is knocking on your door to give you a job.

Taking that job was more, “Wouldn’t that be crazy?” I would say everything got really serious very quickly.

Growing up, do you think your feelings about death were fairly ordinary?

Not necessarily, because I did witness a tragic death when I was younger. I saw a little girl fall off a mall balcony. I didn’t know her, but that was my introduction to the reality of death and not a particularly good introduction.

It wasn’t “here are the facts about death, the positive and negative.” It was more “you can die” and “anybody you know and love can be ripped from you any second.”

I’m assuming the job at Westwind was your first up-close experience with corpses.

In high school, I had a volunteer job at a hospital, and I had transferred dead bodies on cots. But never the experience of being alone in a room with a dead body, touching it and working on it.

You don’t shy from the details about cremation and other funeral practices.

That was deliberate. I wasn’t going to pull any punches with the descriptions. In some advance reviews of the book, the writers say they are fascinated by the detail, but that it’s not for everyone.

But my opinion is that it is for everyone. Reality is for everyone. Death is not something you decide whether or not to be involved in. Surprise spoiler: Death is for you.

Are some of those details what you refer to as the “savage realities” of the funeral industry?

My first experience on the job, the story in the opening chapter about shaving Byron, isn’t about the savage realities. That was just being with a dead body and doing basic tasks with it for the first time. I think some of those tasks are beautiful and ritualistic.

The savage realities are about the industry as a whole, how you roll a body into an oven like a factory, how you grind the bones. It’s a very industrialized, factory-like environment.

You were a crematory operator, but you also were able to observe the embalming process. Describe your reaction.

I knew what embalming was, basically the chemical preservation of the body. My only vision of it was just tubes going in and out of the body, but that was a sanitized version, and I’m not into sanitizing things.

To see it was pretty shocking to me because of how thorough it is, the sucking out of all the fluids in the stomach and chest, the draining of all the blood and pumping all the chemicals into the bloodstream. It was pretty extreme.

And then when I learned how optional it really is. There’s a cultural acceptance of embalming as being necessary and required, but that’s very much something the funeral industry has created.

Did your feelings about cremation evolve?

Cremation has been branded really well. Our culture has come around to it. When you ask people why they want cremation, they largely have the same set of reasons. It’s cleaner, it’s efficient, it’s less expensive. It’s the right way to go.

But something else pervades our culture, the fear of decomposition. It might be part of the fear of growing older. We want to just skip that stage altogether.

We prefer to just zap the body with fire and be left with dust. But when you think about it, the body is designed to decompose. That’s what all animals, including humans, do.

Your book brings up death practices, the way corpses are treated, in other culture and times. Why?

I think the more you know about different practices, the more you question your own assumptions. We don’t realize, for example, that people in other countries think embalming as we do it in North America is weird, although it’s gaining acceptance other places.

There are many ways to handle a corpse. You can put it directly into the ground. You can cremate it on an open pyre.

The Wari’ people (of South America) would eat their own dead, which sounds horrifying but it was a ritual with meaning. You have to know their intentions.

That’s part of the message of the book. There are so many ways to understand death. If you are someone with this crazily strong opinion about what should be done with dead bodies, that’s fine for you. But you can’t really say other ways are disrespectful or wrong.

And you’d like to see us become more comfortable with the bodies of loved ones, even without the embalming process. Why is that?

The public is told that embalming sanitizes the corpse, making it safe to be around the body, even though it had been perfectly safe to be around corpses for thousands of years of human history and hundreds of years of American history. For the vast majority of deaths, the bodies are very, very safe.

I do very much believe that American society would benefit from seeing, not corpses on TV, on crime shows, but real natural dead bodies being dead. And over a period of time, for two days, in your home.

Seeing death is really not so scary. The dead body is not out to get you. In two days it’s not actively decaying. Being with the body this way can make the transition of the death easier, and make it easier to face your own death.

It’s an attitude change, for one thing.

I think the fundamental thing is the idea of treating the body as your responsibility. This is a person who is part of my family or a friend or someone in my community, and I’m going to take care of this body.

I’m going to wash it and dress it, and we’re going to have it here. And then we’ll decide, are we going to bury or cremate?

Tell about the online salon you founded on the topic of death practices.

I started Order of the Good Death almost four years ago. It’s for people from all different kinds of careers but who focus on death — pathologists, funeral directors, academics, artists.

They want to share their work. They want people to be talking about this and engaging in an important cultural conversation.

And “Ask a Mortician” is a web series that came out of that idea. These are four- to five-minute videos in which people ask me questions about behind-the-scenes in the death industry, the legalities of handling the body.

I give honest information, delivered in a friendly way that people can hear without being overly freaked out.

Do you have plans for another book?

I had never really thought of myself as someone who would write a book. But when I saw what was happening at the crematory, and how rich the characters were, I just knew I would someday write a book about it.

This book has been in the works for almost seven years. Nothing in my life has been as interesting as that first year because it was such a shock and such a coming-of-age thing.

If this book is effective in getting people to think about our death practices, and another opportunity comes along, I would probably do it. I want to do everything I can to get this message out there.

To reach Edward M. Eveld, call 816-234-4442 or send email to eeveld@kcstar.com. On Twitter @eeveld.

EXCERPT

From the opening chapter of “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes & Other Lessons From the Crematory” by Caitlin Doughty, published by W. W. Norton & Company Inc.

A girl always remembers the first corpse she shaves. It is the only event in her life more awkward than her first kiss or the loss of her virginity. The hands of time will never move quite so slowly as when you are standing over the dead body of an elderly man with a pink plastic razor in your hand.

Under the glare of fluorescent lights, I looked down at poor, motionless Byron for what seemed like a solid ten minutes. That was his name, or so the toe tag hung around his foot informed me. I wasn’t sure if Byron was a “he” (a person) or an “it” (a body), but it seemed like I should at least know his name for this most intimate of procedures.

Byron was (or, had been) a man in his seventies with thick white hair sprouting from his face and head. He was naked, except for the sheet I kept wrapped around his lower half to protect I’m not sure what. Postmortem decency, I suppose.…

His eyes, staring up into the abyss, had gone flat like deflated balloons. If a lover’s eyes are a clear mountain lake, Byron’s were a stagnant pond. His mouth twisted open in a silent scream.

“Um, hey, uh, Mike?” I called out to my new boss from the body preparation room. “So, I guess I should use, like, shaving cream or . . . ?”

Mike walked in, pulled a can of Barbasol from a metal cabinet, and told me to watch out for nicks. “We can’t really do anything if you slice open his face, so be careful, huh?”

Yes, be careful. Just as I’d been careful all those other times I had “given someone a shave.” Which was never.

I put on my rubber gloves and poked at Byron’s cold, stiff cheeks, running my hand over several days’ worth of stubble. I didn’t feel anywhere near important enough to be doing this. I had grown up believing that morticians were professionals, trained experts who took care of our dead so the public didn’t have to. Did Byron’s family know a twenty-three-year-old with zero experience was holding a razor to their loved one’s face?

I attempted to close Byron’s eyes, but his wrinkled eyelids popped back up like window shades, as if he wanted to watch me perform this task. I tried again. Same result. “Hey, I don’t need your judgment here, Byron,” I said, to no response.

It was the same with his mouth. I could push it shut, but it would stay closed only a few seconds before falling open again. No matter what I did, Byron refused to act in a manner befitting a gentleman about to get his afternoon shave. I gave up and spurted some cream on his face, clumsily spreading it around like a creepy toddler finger-painting in the TwilightZone.

This is just a dead person, I told myself. Rotting meat, Caitlin. An animal carcass.

This was not an effective motivational technique. Byron was far more than rotting meat. He was also a noble, magical creature, like a unicorn or a griffin. He was a hybrid of something sacred and profane, stuck with me at this way station between life and eternity.

By the time I concluded this was not the job for me, it was too late. Refusing to shave Byron was no longer an option. I picked up my pink weapon, the tool of a dark trade. Screwing up my face and emitting a high-pitched sound only dogs could hear, I pressed blade to cheek and began my career as a barber to the dead.

THE CAITLIN DOUGHTY FILE

Age: 30

Hometown: Los Angeles, grew up in Hawaii

Education: Bachelor’s degree in medieval history at the University of Chicago, mortuary degree from Cypress College in California

Web projects: Founded the Order of the Good Death, a discussion among death professionals, and Ask a Mortician, a web series, at orderofthegooddeath.com.

Work project: Undertaking LA, a company to help people with do-it-yourself funerals

JOIN THE DISCUSSION

The Kansas City Star partners with the Kansas City Public Library to present a “book of the moment” selection every six to eight weeks. We invite the community to read along.

Members of FYI and the library staff chose “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” by Caitlin Doughty.

If you would like to participate in an upcoming discussion of the book, led by the library’s Kaite Stover, email kaitestover@kclibrary.org.

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