One of the things that makes goths special is that we are not afraid to look death in the face. We take special delight in exploring taboos, especially the taboo of death. The entire aesthetic of the gothic subculture reflects a time when people interacted heavily with death—specifically the Victorian era, with its elaborate mourning customs and associated wardrobe, art, and accoutrements. Unfortunately, much of mainstream American culture does not share our morbid proclivities. In fact, Americans seem to have become obsessed with shielding themselves as completely as possible from death and dying. We relegate death to the sanitized rooms of hospitals and allow funeral workers to whisk our loved ones away as soon as possible to be prepared for cremation or burial by total strangers. Did you know you can even order a cremation online and have your loved one picked up, cremated, and mailed back to you in an urn without ever interacting with a single human being or having to face any visual reminders of death?
Well, Caitlin Doughty is here to change that. Caitlin, a young mortician already well-known around the darker parts of the internet for her endearing Ask a Mortician video blog series (see the first video below) and her more serious website and social movement called The Order of the Good Death, has recently published her first book: Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: & Other Lessons from the Crematory. Smoke is Caitlin’s personal memoir charting her path from a young child traumatized by an early encounter with death to a grown woman holding her own in the funeral industry and hoping to change the way that our culture deals with death.
Peppered throughout with humorous and occasionally disturbing vignettes of daily life amongst the dead, Smoke is a fun and entertaining read for anyone whose morbid curiosity has ever led them to wonder what exactly happens to our bodies after we die and what goes on behind closed doors at the crematory. Caitlin has that special brand of dark humor that is sure to be appreciated by gothic readers.
But Smoke has a far more serious side as well. The book delves into the emotional trauma of witnessing death at a young age, recounting 8-year-old Caitlin’s experiences when she sees another young girl fall from a balcony at her local mall. Caitlin also shares her occasional emotional moments as a crematory operator, musing on her special role as the only person present at the final send-off of the dead and the emotional impact of cremating babies, suicides, and the neglected elderly. Periodically throughout the book, Caitlin takes on an essayistic tone and appeals for more open communication about death and more personal involvement in caring for your dead family members. Smoke is a call to action to stop shielding yourself from death at the expense of meaningful ritual and a healthy understanding of mortality.
I rarely read nonfiction, but Smoke kept me glued to the page as strongly as any paranormal romance novel. The book is fast-paced, flowing easily from one vignette to another to random metaphysical musings or dissertations on the state of the death industry today. Caitlin is just as approachable and charismatic in her writing as she is in her videos, and I guarantee you will find yourself laughing and crying along with her as you read this book. I highly recommend Smoke to anyone interested in how cultures deal with death or how to personally come to terms with your own mortality—or to anyone who simply wants to indulge in some morbid curiosity. However, the squeamish may want to brace themselves before diving into this book—Caitlin does not spare us the gooey details of death.
Have any thoughts on the book, or any recommendations for more great reads about death and culture? Please share in the comments!