As the latest gathering of The Kansas City Star’s FYI Book Club started, one of the attendees remarked on the timing.
“It’s rather fitting that we meet to discuss ‘Smoke Gets in Your Eyes’ tonight. There’s two constants in life: death and baseball.”
The venue was fitting, too: Signature Funerals in Kansas City.
The debut book by Caitlin Doughty, about working in a crematorium and forging a different philosophy for death in America, has rocketed to the top of the best-seller lists.
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The author recorded a special message for the book group and posed the first topic of the night: How do you feel death has been hidden from you by your culture, community or family?
“Death was sugarcoated and served with ice cream,” Jenn Kay of Lenexa said immediately. “My grandfather always took the kids out for ice cream during funerals.”
Anne Ducey of Kansas City didn’t recall attending any funerals as a child, and for her own child, she debated it.
“I finally decided, yes, it’s important for my daughter to see what death is and not be afraid of it. It was a good choice.”
The daughter of a minister, Naphtali Faris of Kansas City recalled: “I saw so many funerals as a kid, that I had funerals for everything, pets, chipmunks, bugs. I thought that’s what you did.”
In the old days, the deceased likely was laid out in an open coffin in the family parlor. Compared with our immediate forebears, Mel Neet of Kansas City wryly observed, “We experience a collective anxiety that makes everyone something of a Woody Allen regarding death. We have the luxury of being frightened. Even our surroundings are lush.”
Laughed Beverly Johansen of Peculiar, “Years ago, we’d have heard them hammering and sawing on the coffin out back.”
Dan Verbek of Weston appreciated Doughty’s forthright descriptions of cremation, comparing them with some in Norman Maclean’s “Young Men and Fire.”
“I think Doughty’s studies in medieval poetry and history made these descriptions of fires and bodies so accessible.”
To Greg Curtin of Kansas City, “How bodies are inventoried and treated during inventory by corporations optimizing the process was eye-opening.”
Laura Isaac of Mission agreed the book demystified the process.
“A dead body is not immediately dangerous and embalming is not necessary. These are things we’ve grown up with. I learned that the public can be more insistent on what we want for our deceased loved ones.”
Doughty’s gallows humor amused Lindsey Foat and Caitlin Cress, both from Kansas City. “You cringe but these are the author’s own coping mechanisms, too,” she said.
Cress said she laughed at the term “peanut butter” used for body putty, and how Doughty described the death of her first pet, Superfly, a fish.
Jill Badell, a funeral professional at Signature Funerals, appreciated Doughty’s genuineness.
“I liked how she described the process and could express herself so honestly. The frank conversations we could have before death occurs happen in the book, and they are happening here tonight. Our society is moving toward open, honest discussion about our own mortality.”
What do we talk about when we talk about death? For this group of readers, anything goes.
Kaite Stover is director of readers’ services for the Kansas City Public Library.
FYI Book Club
The Kansas City Star and the Kansas City Public Library present a “book of the moment” selection every six to eight weeks and invite the community to read along. If you would like to participate in a book discussion led by the library’s Kaite Stover, email email@example.com. Watch for the next selection, “Dear Committee Members” by Julie Schumacher, to be introduced in FYI.