Death Discussion : A Review of Caitlin Doughty’s ‘Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: And Other Lessons from the Crematorium’

‘The meaning of life is that it stops’ – Franz Kafka


A few months ago now by the magic of the YouTube algorithm a video called ‘Ask a Mortician – Worst Way to Die?’ popped up in my recommended viewing list, I was intrigued by the title and clicked. A few hours later I was deep into Caitlin Doughty’s YouTube back-catalog on her brilliant channel ‘Ask a Mortician’ and within those hours my attitude towards death had already started to shift, I found myself agreeing with her video’s overarching theme that we have to talk about death properly, and that as a culture we just don’t do that.

We are surrounded by death in modern Western culture. Yet the death we are surrounded by isn’t natural, or normalized. It is sensationalized, like in a show like ‘Game of Thrones’ the bodies stack up on the screen and we as viewers become a bit disappointed if each brutal slaying isn’t as dramatic, gory, and shocking as the last (my personal fave GoT death is still the molten gold crown from season one). It is made into to the subject of a joke (see comedies like ‘One Foot in the Grave’ and ‘Death Becomes Her’). Whole series of detective drama center around the bodies in the libraries, in the drawing-room, in the abandoned house with the locked room.

I think by surrounding ourselves with all this, I’m going to call it ‘entertainment death’, we convince ourselves that we are talking about it, that we’re doing just fine and we as a culture are perfectly okay with death. But that’s a little like when a homophobic person will say something like ‘I’m fine with the gays I just don’t want them to shove it down my throat’ but they’re okay with the pretty lesbian couple on ‘Hollyoakes’ or the camp humour of Alan Carr, by saying that they mean they’re not fine with it, if you’re not comfortable seeing two men holding hands you are homophobic and that’s the end of that. If you can stomach an episode of GoT but you would be uncomfortable with the thought of helping tend to wash the body of your loving relative after their death, like we were doing only 150 years ago, then you are still scared of death. You have every right to be scared of a person you love dying, but to be scared of confronting what that death entails is different. To refuse to make funeral plans with your loved one before they die is showing that you are being held back by your own fear of the reality of death. Doughty explains all these feelings in a much more eloquent manner and in greater depth than me in her book.

Her book is a veritable roller coaster of emotions, funny anecdotes about the reality of working with and against corpses to prepare them for their funerals, moving sections about the reality of dealing with death day in day out and how when you have to place the corpse of an 11 month old baby in for cremation it can all become too much, frank discussions of Doughty’s relationship with her own mortality and how close she once came to suicide, and amazingly positive new attitudes towards death that Doughty is trying to promote throughout the funeral industry. This is a book for everyone because the subject matter is not as niche as you may first think, only morbid Goths would read a book about death surely? But maybe goths have the right idea in taking an interest in their own mortality. We should all take more of an interest in dealing with our fears about death and think more about how we want to be treated after our deaths, rather than jokingly brushing it off with ‘just bury me in the back garden’ or hide our fear behind a ‘I want a funeral that celebrates my life’ attitude with an urn in the shape of a tennis racket or a headstone shaped like Pac-Man hiding the reality of a dead body beneath layers of embalming, decoration, and pseudo-positivity.

We are all going to die. That’s a fact. My mum is now a retired maths teacher and in her classes on probability she would ask the class to name something that had a 100% certainty of happening. They would say things like ‘the sun will rise tomorrow’ (it might not), ‘it gets dark at night time’ (it might not). And she would, I’m sure with suitably dramatic delivery, say that we will all die. With 100% certainty, every single one of us will die, and that’s okay.

Question: What’s the point in being happy now if you’ll be sad later? Answer: because you’re happy now. Question: What’s the point of living your life to the fullest if you’re going to die anyway? Answer: because you’re alive now, and without the motivation of the passage of time you’d be lost in the monotony of routine. If you’ve ever seen a good episode of Dr Who you’ll know that as an immortal being the Doctor is forever running away from death, he leaves his friends and companions behind because he is afraid of seeing them age and die and be left behind on his own once again, he has to take companions on his adventures because he constantly needs new eyes to see the universe through, he’s seen it all before and the only way he can keep going and keep being excited by it is the constantly move, change and try to forget that unlike like a human being he doesn’t have the great motivator that is the fact that it will end hanging over him making him get out of bed.

This post has turned much more into a discussion than a review but I think that just kind of shows the profoundly positive effect this book has had upon me. I truly feel enriched for having read it.

Overall rating: 5/5

The book, along with other death resources can be found here


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