Caitlin Doughty is a lot more famous than your average mortician. She’s the author of two books, hosts a YouTube series where she answers viewer questions, and is an advocate for reform in the funeral industry. Late last year, she released her second book, From Here to Eternity, which looks at funeral practices around the world, and that’s gaining a fair amount of buzz. But at the library, we’ve also been buzzing about her first book, Smoke Gets in Your Eyes. Jen suggested it to me a few weeks ago, and it’s an excellent, thought-provoking read! (Thanks for the great suggestion, Jen!)
Doughty started her career in the funeral business in her early 20s, with a job at a crematory in Oakland, California. This book serves partially as a memoir of her time there, as well as her experiences going to mortuary college and working for another funeral service in Southern California. However, it is also a compilation of observations and anecdotes drawn from history, sociology, anthropology, philosophy, and literature to examine how funerary practices differ across cultures and time periods. Doughty also uses the book to critique the funeral industry that she is a part of, as well as the American culture of silence about death.
I have not always enjoyed the more contemporary memoirs I have read in recent years. Many times, the writers seem to try too hard to be quirky or precious, so I was glad that Doughty avoided doing this. Some of what she writes about is really gross — definitely not a book for the squeamish — but the book is not as depressing as it sounds like it could be. She also has a good sense of humor, palpable empathy for clients, and passion for the work she does, which significantly lightens the tone.
Her critiques about the industry are well-reasoned and easy-to-follow, even for people who are not industry insiders. Personally, some of her suggestions struck me as a little bizarre, but she doesn’t come across as bitter or ranting.
One of my favorite aspects of the book, though, was her depiction of the first crematory she worked for. Most memoirs would incorporate her eccentric coworkers as a bizarrely morbid punchline, but there’s something oddly normal about their work dynamic. Ultimately, her respect for them and their sense of professionalism shines through.
If you’re looking for an interesting read, definitely consider Smoke Gets in Your Eyes. I would not recommend it for anyone who can’t handle occasionally graphic descriptions of corpses, but otherwise, it’s a surprisingly fascinating look behind the scenes at funeral homes and the funeral industry. Please follow this link to our online catalog to learn more and place a hold.
*Ebook also available on Libby.
What are your thoughts on the funeral business? Have you ever wondered what it was like to be a mortician? Have you read this book? Tell us in the comments!