Monday, July 14, 2014

A Book Review from Boswellian Mel: On Fire for Smoke Gets in Your Eyes & Other Lessons from the Crematory

I mean, come on--look at this jacket design!!

If you read nothing else this year, read Caitlin Doughty's debut collection of essays Smoke Gets in Your Eyes & Other Lessonsfrom the Crematory. It’s not what you think. Perhaps you see that word—crematory—and wince. Perhaps you’ve had a rough year and death looms large. Or you don’t want to jinx a splendid year. Or just don’t like to think about death. This book is surely morbid and depressing, right? Wrong!

Now, I won’t go so far as Smoke Gets in Your Eyes is the MOST UPLIFTING THING you’ll read all year. Instead of a cheerleader, Caitlin Doughty is a firm realist. Her voice is that of the friend you go to when you want the unflinching truth. She does not revel in death. Nor does she abhor it. Rather, she approaches death with a scholar’s focus and the passion of person who has found her calling in the industry.

One part memoir to one part anthropology-meets-sociology study, Doughty is frank in her portrayal of the many aspects of the death industry with which she has been involved. Her flair for the written word makes her descriptions of some tasks—from embalming a corpse in advances stages of decay to shaving babies—easy to imagine and difficult to shake. This is exactly the point. Most people in this country believe death is a frightening, abstract thing that should be overcome, but when the battle is lost—preferably behind closed doors—professionals are required for the clean-up. That’s not fair. Doughty feels it’s time for people in the US to face death. Given that it is the one thing everyone on this planet has in common—we’re all terminal from the day we’re born—death should be the one thing we can count on to bring us together.

Doughty--labor of love.

I learned from Smoke Gets in Your Eyes that a typical American funeral home is invested in driving a wedge between people and death. Bodies are embalmed and covered with makeup to look “natural” so grieving families aren’t shocked during viewings, and then buried in metal coffins to stave off decay. There are infinite ways to “personalize” death—if you can afford them. In this day and age, you can even order a cremation online: have the cremationist pick up the body, prepare it, process it, and deliver the ashes to your front door. For a price, a person can choose not to face death. These are the supplies our death denying culture demands.   
Once upon a time, every house included a “dying room,” usually at the front of the house. We have replaced these with “living rooms,” filled the space used for death at home and quiet reflection with TVs and couches, and people are trundled off to nursing homes and hospitals to die. Whereas once people could die in the privacy and familiar surroundings of their own homes to be cared for by loved ones upon death, today most Americans would rather leave death to professionals. Caitlin Doughty believes—and I agree after reading Smoke Get in Your Eyes—that this is a sad state of affairs.

My problem with this hands-off approach to death is the same problem I have with hospital intervention in birth: if a person wants to handle life-alterings event in the comfort of their own home, they should be allowed to. I’m not saying that amateur hour is nigh—just that professionals shouldn’t intervene or control intimate moments if the family doesn’t want them to. If a person wants to handle the preparation and burial of someone they love, they can! It is safe and legal to wash and dress the body of a deceased loved one. There are laws in this country against home burial (check with your state, county, and district), but if you want a loved one to die at home and you want to grieve with them, and to wash and dress the body for a particular ritual, this is perfectly within your legal right. To say this another way, if your loved one is dying and they don’t need a hospital, they don’t have to die in a hospital—they can die at home. This is the crux of the revolution…because many of you might be thinking that if your loved one is dying, they must certainly need a hospital.

The Marilyn Munster of the Death Industry. 

You may be tempted to write Doughty off: she’s young, vivacious, healthy, perky, pretty, optimistic, and neatly groomed, so what could she possibly know about death? Doughty is all these things, and she certainly has her critics. But Doughty is also whip smart. She’s the founder of The Order of the Good Death, a salon gathering thinkers from myriad fields to discuss the death revolution. She keeps a blog and posts regular “Ask aMortician” videos on the Order website. In Smoke, we learn that Doughty is a woman who understands that the best way to change the industry is from within. She completed mortuary school, despite differing views on some of her instructors’ messages and practices, to validate herself to critics who interpret her Polly Anna demeanor as naiveté and lack of industry experience. Doughty is the Marilyn Munster of the Death Industry. She doesn’t fit in with traditionalists—and this has nothing to do with her looks. Rather, she is out of place with traditionalists because she believes a revolution is necessary. After reading Smoke Gets in Your Eyes, I agree wholeheartedly.

Caitlin Doughty’s mission is only beginning with The Order of the Good Death, “Ask a Mortician,” and Smoke Gets in Your Eyes. One aspect of this work is to address the myriad misconceptions about death and dying that are so pervasive in the US. Another piece of the puzzle is to address the funerary rites our culture deems acceptable. Did you know that there are midwives who specialize in helping families cope with grief? Yeah! They’re called death doulas. Did you know that you don’t necessarily need to be embalmed or cremated? Nope! You can choose a “green burial,” which is placement in the soil at a green burial site, covered in just a simple shroud or a biodegradable vessel (like a wicker casket). No headstone necessary: should your loved ones want to visit your grave, they can take a GPS waypoint at the green burial location or plant a tree that will then absorb your decaying body as nutrients. Artist and designer Jae Rhim Lee has even developed something called an Infinity Burial Suit, which is a black garment laced with infinity mushroom spores. Cultivated with the amazing ability to break down the tissues of the human body, these mushrooms can even process toxins and heavy metals.

More than a treatise detailing her views on death as a mortal working in the death industry, Smoke Gets in Your Eyes is a collection of recent scientific and sociological developments dealing with death, as well as a chronicle of some little-known traditions and beliefs about death. The writing comes from a place of passion and intellect; in these pages, Doughty feels like a friend and mentor. She does not condescend. She does not flaunt her knowledge. Nor is she flip about her work, as some of the more “traditional” morticians who have criticized her would have you think. Smoke Gets in Your Eyes may be the most important book you read in your lifetime. It’s paradigm-shifting, conversation-starting, life-altering stuff—buy a copy for yourself and several to share with friends and loved ones.