Caitlin Doughty began her career at a crematorium in 2006 with no experience and only a degree in medieval studies. Ever since then she has gone deeper into the world of death. In her memoir, Smoke Gets In Your Eyes & Other Lessons from the Crematorium, Caitlin guides us through her journey into the death industry. The book is part biography, part commentary. Smoke includes stories from Doughty’s life, as well as facts regarding religious and cultural practices of death across the ages, and commentary on what she points out as failing funeral and medical systems.
While she leads us into the back room of what she often refers to as the death business, we see the quirky and odd incidences which occur at a crematorium. We’re also shown the wide range of reactions that come with the death of a loved one or stranger, as well as the practices some cultures still hold true.
She guides us gently through her own struggles in coming to terms with an interest in death. After seeing a child die in an accident while she was a kid, Doughty has been culminating her ideas of death for many years. She graduated college with a degree in medieval studies with a focus in death and culture. After not wanting to teach and not having many other career options, she took a job a a crematorium in California. This only pulled her further into the world of death in which began contemplating how and why we have gotten to where we are today in regards to the fear of death and routine burials and cremations.
The longer Doughty stayed at the crematorium, the more she wanted to know about today’s burial practices. It’s not that she supports them, but it’s always better to fight a battle when you know the facts from both sides. As she points out, death is sterilized today. Bodies are often whisked away before they grow cold. They’re then drained and pumped with embalming chemicals in order to preserve them. From there a body is typically primped to be presented to the deceased’s loved ones, but the result is usually a bit disturbing as the person can look a bit artificial. And after all of this prep and money, the body is stuffed in a ridiculously priced box and shoved in a vault or grave OR is burned to ash. (This doesn’t even cover the overview of what happens to the bodies of the deceased who are John Does or are abandoned because the family cannot foot the bill.) Doughty goes to mortuary school to learn the exact ways this is all done, as well as to get into the funeral industry where she can practice until she can open her own funeral home that would promote better death practices.
Caitlin Doughty is an advocate for better death practices. People need to be allowed to grieve and celebrate the deceased in their own way. Also, death should not be hidden or shunned. It is part of life and will happen whether or not you or I like it. Doughty has developed ways to fight the good fight for what she refers to as the good death (one that does not involve struggle, unnecessary sadness or pain, or tragic accidents). In some of her darkest times, Doughty began writing essays which she would then post online. The site would eventually become known as The Order of the Good Death, and it is now a growing organization. It’s goal according to the about page:
“The Order of the Good Death is a group of funeral industry professionals, academics, and artists exploring ways to prepare a death phobic culture for their inevitable mortality.”
Doughty has also created her own YouTube series, Ask a Mortician, in which she answers questions regarding death… no matter how odd. Questions stem from history, industry practices, myths, and all sorts of randomness.
While the videos and some of the articles she posts are entertaining, it’s important to remember that this is all part of her way to raise more awareness for better deaths. She plans to continue to march through life waving a death positive banner for all to see in the hopes of spreading ideas and acceptance, as well as growing The Order of the Good Death.
Notable sites and sources:
Doughty, Caitlin. Smoke Gets In Your Eyes & Other Lessons From the Crematorium. New York: W. W. Norton & Company. 2014. Print.
By Mara Zehler (Caitlin Doughty) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons