Thursday, 21 May 2015

Book discussion: Smoke Gets in Your Eyes.

Over the weekend I finished a book by my favourite mortician (ok, the only mortician I follow) who does the Ask the Mortician videos, Caitlin Doughty. Her book is called Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: And Other Lessons from the Crematory and is as blunt and straightforward as the videos.

I must say, while I enjoyed the book, I think youtube videos and long-form essays are more of her forte. The book was something like an autobiography with some discussion of death rituals and description/critique of the modern death industry. It was a bit all over the place and I wish there was more about the death rituals from different cultures and less about her failed romance whose inclusion in the book made no sense.

The plus side is much like the Ask a Mortician videos, it didn't hold anything back and explains very honestly how cremation, embalming, and all other death related activities work. Stuff that we should be talking about more but don't because no one likes to talk about death. I did learn that embalmers sometimes have to resort to superglue to keep peoples' mouths closed during a viewing if the person doesn't have strong enough gums to hold the wiring in place.

If you didn't like that fun fact, you probably shouldn't read this book. It can get quite heavy despite the fairly humorous tone (not literally, it's a short book) and I found I could only read a chapter or two at a time before having to switch to a light silly romance book. There was quite the disparity reading about how babies are cremated to about a woman trying to find herself in the woods and meeting Mr. Right.

I noticed while reading the book that I haven't been searching for death related material as much as I did pre-transplant. It's probably because my death no longer seems as emanate so it's not something I think about as much overall. Or possibly it's because I got a lot of my death-related issues out of the way pre-transplant and considering how close I came, feel more at peace about the idea of dying. As weird as it sounds, learning how a body decomposes and all the other random facts, really helped me come to terms with dying. That said, I'm still fascinated by death rituals and the things the funeral industry sometimes does to hide the reality of death.

I think the best and most universal part of the book was at the end (if you don't think you can handle reading the book, maybe just read the last chapter of the book at the book store sometime) when she discussed death denial in our culture. She argued that while most of us want to live forever, death is often the reason for a lot of creativity and is a motivator for a lot of our actions.

Regarding accepting death, Doughty says:
"Accepting death doesn't mean you won't be devastated when someone you love dies. It means you will be able to focus your grief, unburdened by bigger existential questions like 'why do people die?' and 'why is this happening to me?' Death isn't happening to you. Death is happening to all of us. A culture that denies death is a barrier to achieving a good death." 
She continues on but you get the idea. The only way we can get to a point where talking about death and dying is no longer taboo, is to accept our own mortality and not live in denial about the fact that we will all one day die. A good death would be one that celebrates life while grieving passing. One that doesn't try to deny that it happens but embraces that it's as natural as birth and deserves the same amount of respect and dignity.


Faith said...

Have you read STIFF by Mary Roach? I feel like it might be directly relevant to your interests...

sue said...

I like the summation of your blog... felt that for a long time. Once one looks death in the eye, so to speak, a lot of the fear goes away and makes room for curiosity and acceptance. Maybe I'll take a look at some of those readings etc. Thanks for sharing