Death has always been a big part of my life. My Mum will tell you I was quite a morbid child at the best of times. Having suffered a number of significant bereavements by the time I’d reached my early twenties, my preoccupation with the Grim Reaper was well, set in stone. I don’t think anyone who knows me well was particularly surprised when I decided to pursue a qualification in Civil Funeral Celebrancy.
Studying for the celebrancy course revived my interest in many things death-related and so I came across Caitlin Doughty’s fascinating autobiographical book ‘Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: and Other Lessons from the Crematorium’. The author was in her early twenties when she made an unlikely career move and become a crematorium operator. The book not only recounts Doughty’s experiences at the pointy end of disposing of dead bodies, but also lays the foundations for a much wider debate about the whole business of death. Although set in the US, the issues she raises are also relevant to the UK. As well as examining the death rituals of historical and contemporary cultures and belief systems, Doughty also challenges the modern ways of disposing of the dead. We have become distant from the actual processes involved in caring for our loved ones after death, preferring instead to entrust those final ministrations to strangers, whom we pay for their skills. Doughty cites some 10 pages of sources for her work, testament to her meticulous research and obvious knowledge of her subject. I was particularly fascinated by the references to Jessica Mitford’s seminal work ‘The American Way of Death‘, which criticised what Mitford saw as funeral directors’ profiteering and led to national debate.
It all sounds as if it would make very heavy reading, but that is not the case at all. Whilst the author does not shy away from some of the detail you would expect – decomposition, the disposal of medical remains, embalming and dressing a body, there is no salaciousness or irreverence. Instead, Doughty writes with compelling conviction about a subject which she has clearly made her life’s work and which is an important one for all of us. There is even humour, although never a lack of respect for the dead.
In some ways it is difficult to recommend this book as I have no doubt that most will shy away from even thinking about the subject matter. After all, death is the only certainty in life and most of us would prefer not to think about the realities. But I believe the discussions Doughty initiates are essential ones for 21st Century society and reading such a frank, passionate and enlightening book is a great way to open the debate. Go on. Read this book and then talk about it with your loved ones. It might just change your life. Or your death.