Last night, I finished the long-awaited Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: And Other Lessons from the Crematory by Caitlin Doughty and my mind is still reeling. When the book arrived, I tore open the package and read the entire thing in a single day. I have so much to say and I know this is one of those books that’s going to stick with me for a long time. I don’t usually have any sort of intimate share time on here, but this is really important to me, so I’m going to talk about how death has shaped me and why I think this book is so important.
Growing up as the daughter of a pediatric ICU nurse, I was an extremely morbid child who feared that death could come for me any day and often worried myself sick over it. This manifested itself in many unhealthy ways, from voraciously reading through my mom’s medical books and convincing myself that I had any number of terminal illnesses, to visiting my mom at work and thinking that hospitals were engulfed in a miasma of death that you could somehow contract like a disease simply by walking in; among many other strange, neurotic behaviors. I desperately wanted to understand death, but felt sorely lacking in the tools to do so and I didn’t know how to ask for help either.
I was frustrated and angry that no one wanted to talk about it, but also too afraid to bring up such a taboo subject for fear of seeming psychologically unsound (even though my coping mechanisms were poor and I definitely could have benefited from some therapy). It wasn’t until I read Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s On Death and Dying at age 16 that I finally began my long journey toward death acceptance. This book was pretty life changing, but I still wanted to know more. The only other book about death my school library had was Ernest Becker’s The Denial of Death, so I read that too. I was finally reading about the things I had been feeling, but never had the words for, and it felt extremely validating.
Though more informed, I still had so many questions and concerns, some of which made me feel ashamed. What does an unpreserved dead body look like in person? What if I die suddenly and my wishes regarding my body go unspoken and unfulfilled? Is it weird that I feel I’ve missed opportunities for closure by not being allowed to see the corpses of loved ones in the past? I continued to pursue my complicated relationship with death through my teens and early 20s with macabre literature and art, while also wondering if I had any place in the funeral industry.
These are all questions that only started to be answered about 3 years ago when I came upon The Order of the Good Death. I discovered radical concepts like home death care and natural burial. Smoke Gets in Your Eyes struck a great balance between philosophical musings, some history of death rituals, and hard facts about what happens to your body when you die. Our society’s grasp of death is tenuous at best, and this is a concern that Doughty addresses with humor, wit, and refreshingly unyielding candor. It was comforting and made me feel a little less alone by addressing all the things I always want to talk about. Doughty speaks a lot about being more involved in the care of our dead, and the disconnect that currently exists between the corpse of a loved one and the ambiguous in-between after which they are quickly taken away to typically be embalmed or cremated. I still recall never seeing the corpse of my grandma as a child; only being told that she had finally died after months of painfully witnessing her wither away under hospice care and a few days later emptily gazing upon her casket. Or how just last year, my beloved rabbit Megatron died naturally in my arms at the vet, after which they abruptly took him from me; an instance where I still feel traumatized by the inability to properly mourn a pet that I deeply loved because at the time, I didn’t know I could take his body home.
I still think about death pretty much on a daily basis, but now in a way that makes me feel more invigorated and alive rather than sick and afraid. These days, I’m trying to make a living as an artist, while satisfying my preoccupation with death by taking the occasional taxidermy class, drawing things like fetal skulls, or designing shirts with a sketch of some dead person’s hand I studied at a dissection workshop. Though I sometimes still believe a career in death is calling me, I remain unsure if I have the gumption to enter and work to change an industry I take issue with at large. For now, I will continue to educate myself and admire/share the important death positive efforts of people like Doughty.