Death Becomes Her
Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: And Other Lessons from the Crematory by Caitlin Doughty. W. W. Norton, 2014, 272 pp
When my childhood dog died, Uncle Tony arrived in his unassuming white minivan. Our family’s Grim Reaper, Uncle Tony has handled the funeral arrangements for all four of my grandparents, from picking up their bodies to kissing us softly and adjusting the thermostats during the wakes. He’s also indulged my morbid fascination through the years. As a kid I would sit in the back during the viewing of an old friend of the family—elderly men or women I’d never met—and tap Uncle Tony on the shoulder: Do the bodies wear underwear? (Yes) Do their fingernails really keep growing? (No). I was curious, and as I grew older I became aware of something peculiar: Nobody was talking about death until it happened.
When I picked up Caitlin Doughty’s debut memoir Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: And Other Lessons from the Crematory—now a New York Times bestseller—my eyes widened. I was eager to learn her secrets of a new and different way of thinking, one in which it’s okay to talk about dying. I was thrilled that a contemporary might offer some real insight into this secret world of death in America, insight I dare not seek from Uncle Tony, lest he conclude that his young, sweet niece is actually quite creepy.
In her author’s note Doughty alleges that humans prefer to remain in the dark as to the realities of death, but she also insists, “The closer we come to understanding it, the closer we come to understanding ourselves.” I recall a conversation with my mom.
I was seventeen and sitting in the kitchen. I knew that a “good” time for this talk would not reveal itself. I would just have to say it.
Mom. I wanna tell you something and I don’t want you to get upset.
Her face did that thing it does right before she cries. Mom is a legendary cry-baby.
If something happens to me, and I die, I want to donate my organs.
Mom looked horrified.
And I want to be cremated.
There. I said it.
Doughty’s memoir begins with her first day as a crematory operator at a family-owned mortuary in California. Through her tales of memorable bodies—Padma, a grotesque months-old corpse, and Juan, obese and dead of an overdose—Doughty weaves in stories of how her own fascination with death led to this career choice. Doughty also explores how death has been handled historically, and the customs practiced across the world, including how in the early days of Christianity bodies of martyred saints became major attractions, and how the Hindu Vedas described cremation as necessary for a soul to be released from the impure corpse. Her inclusion of death’s varying cultural significance reminded me that Americans’ only real custom is that we’re not keen to get our hands dirty. Experts, not loved ones, traditionally handle the dead here.
Early on Doughty admits, “My relationship with death had always been complicated.” She describes a scene from her childhood, crediting it as the day she lost control over death. At the mall with her father, she noticed a little girl climb up toward a railing near the escalator. “As I watched, she tipped over the edge and fell thirty feet, landing face-first on a laminate counter with a sickening thud.” In the commotion, eight-year-old Doughty knew the child was dead, but what remained in her mind was not the image. “That thud—that noise of the girl’s body hitting laminate—would repeat in my mind over and over, dull thud after dull thud.” She refers to the thud as the drumbeat of her childhood.
What Doughty finds extraordinary about the memory is not that an eight-year-old witnessed death, but that it took her eight years to do so. She points out that only one hundred years ago a child who had never seen a death would have been unheard of. Throughout her childhood Doughty kept going back to that thud. I suppose that each of us carries our own textured memories of death—a waxy touch, the thurible’s waft of incense—that connects us emotionally to our experiences of loss. I have a recurring thud of my own, an echoing sound that repeats in my mind, of my wife’s mother’s casket rolling into the crypt. Two men gave it a shove, and as the marbles beneath it spun, the casket hit the back wall with a thud. That was death. That was final. That sound has been my own drumbeat, maintaining the rhythm of loss.
When the family bought space for my wife’s mother in the mausoleum, they purchased a few crypts. My wife intends to go in there when she dies. While it’s customary to be buried with one’s spouse, our wishes are different. I don’t want to be embalmed and placed in storage as if I’m coming back. I want to be cremated. But we won't be together, my wife whines. I roll my eyes and shrug. We’ll be dead. This part of the conversation upsets her, so I back off.
Burial by Emil Nolde (1915)
Americans today regard these details too macabre to discuss, but it’s worth considering what might happen if we don’t. When my wife’s mother died, her family scrambled to make decisions based on their best guesses. You’ve seriously never discussed this? I asked, doing my best to hide the judgment seeping from my voice. My wife admitted, It’s not something we talked about. Beneath my shock was a distinct feeling of sadness; they couldn’t know for sure that they were fulfilling her wishes. In talking to my uncle and even my own friends, I realize that omitting this conversation is quite normal. Losing a loved one is tough; I wonder why we make it harder on ourselves by refusing to think about it until it’s too late. I’ve always believed it makes sense to plan for the inevitable.
When I ask Uncle Tony if he talks to his wife and kids about death he tells me that he leaves work at work. I ask him how they will know what to do when he dies, and my uncle reminds me that familial tradition can offer guidance.
We’re all going to die. This is the nature of life and to ignore it makes its reality harder to bear. In Smoke Gets in Your Eyes, Doughty reveals that one option of cremation is for a family to accompany the body to the retort and push the button that controls the flame. They rarely do. I ask Uncle Tony about this and he says the same thing, that Americans aren’t into it. Some might accompany the body to the door, but to go further is too gruesome. I nudged my wife one night and asked, Babe, are you sleeping? She mumbled, I have to tell you something. I paused. Nothing. I want you to push the button for me. She did not reply.
I agree with Doughty that the death industry in North America is flawed. We preserve our dead and store them in fortified caskets, enclose them in marble walls and bury them on hilltops, but keeping a body from decay won’t keep our loved ones with us. In Smoke Gets in Your Eyes Doughty uses her own experience to examine why Americans oppose conversations about death, and while her memoir won’t quite solve the dilemma of how best to talk to your loved ones about death, she’ll get you thinking about it. By painting a portrait of her life and revealing her journey to come to terms with death, Doughty acts as something of a guide. She’s even funny. Uncle Tony admits humor gets most families talking about death. His practiced line when people ask him what’s hardest about his job? The smell.
Doughty also questions the death industry in this country and the crushing expense some families face during an already difficult time. She doesn’t think many of us are educated on the subject, and I’m inclined to agree with her. At dinner one evening I told my father-in-law about her memoir. Isn’t it the law in New York for bodies to be embalmed? He said. No, they’re lying! I shouted. Maybe Doughty has turned me into an overzealous skeptic, but I have Uncle Tony for answers. Funerals are expensive. He tells me, revealing that they cost, on average, around $15,000, and that embalming alone ranges between $900-$1500. But he also disagrees with Doughty, insisting that today’s “consumer” knows what they want. People are afraid of the emotional end of death, of the unknown. He says. But I think we all do the right thing when the time comes.
It’s clear in my reading of Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: And Other Lessons from the Crematory that Doughty’s calling is to help people accept death, and I admire this objective. She doesn’t recommend obsessing over it, but insists it’s never too early to start thinking about our own death or the death of our loved ones, avowing, “Death isn’t happening to you. Death is happening to us all.” Doughty’s wish is for our culture to overcome our denial. “It is high time death had its own moment of truth.” If life’s only certainty is that we all must die, then we must also talk about it. This, I believe, can help us live wholly.