I do not think that there can ever be enough books about anything and I say that knowing that some of them are going to be about Pilates.The more knowledge the better seems like a solid rule of thumb, even though I have watched enough science fiction films to accept that humanity’s unchecked pursuit of learning will end with robots taking over the world.-Sarah Vowell

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Smoke Gets In Your Eyes and Other Lessons from the Crematory by Caitlin Doughty

Caitlin Doughty grew up on the island of Oahu, on Hawai'i.  When she was eight years old she was at the mall competing in a Halloween costume contest, which she had just won first prize.  She went to the rail to look down on the first floor, thinking of how she was going to spend the money, and looking for her father, when she saw a young girl fall from the escalator and land with a thud on the ground, dead.  That thud sound would reverberate throughout her childhood in her head.  She began displaying signs of OCD in order to cope with the Post Traumatic Stress she was experiencing from the incident.  Eventually, the OCD went away, but the frightened girl, hiding under the covers at night, remained locked deep within herself.  After graduating with a degree in Medieval History, she made a momentous decision.  She decided to apply to mortuaries for a job in the hopes of coming to terms with her fear of death.  After an exhaustive search, she was taken in at Westwind Crematory and Burial as the person who operates the crematory machine.

This book explores not just how a crematory works, or an embalming table, or the picking up of bodies, or body parts, as the case may be (a woman with diabetes who lost her leg, asked for it to be cremated), but about a young woman exploring life by coming to terms with death and death practices and how our fear of death is warping our culture and calls for a better way of dealing with death.  There are many examples from other cultures, historical tidbits that are truly fascinating, and her own experiences working at the crematory.

The crematory takes a while to heat up in the morning, so adults are usually the ones to start the day.  Later, at the end of the day, if they have any babies (if the baby is born in utero, the hospital pays for a cremation) they go at the end of the day since it does not take much fire to transform them to ash.  In this job, you see it all.  They have one gentleman who is too large to fit the casket the family ordered for him.  Rather than charge the family extra (and explain why), Mike, the manager, has Caitlin stuff him into a casket, which amazingly they did.  Also, if you want one final viewing of your loved one before they are cremated, there is an additional fee.  This is for your own good.  It goes toward making your loved one look more human, than rotting corpse.  One such woman's mother had swelled after death and her daughter brought an old favorite dress her mother had worn when she was slimmer.  They had to use saran wrap on her arms and legs to get her into the dress, plus a few other cosmetic secrets to help her look better.

There are sometimes witness crematories, where the family and loved ones are there, such as in a Buddhist ritual, or a unique one.  At a Chinese ceremony, she had the misfortune to be wearing a red dress that day.  In the Chinese culture, red represents happiness.  She had no idea they were coming in that day, or she would have definitely dressed differently.  They gave her dirty looks and such, so she stayed as much in the background as she could.

Sometimes there is a death that gets to her.  She had cremated m89any babies, but one, a blonde one and a  half year old, whose hair she had to shave so her parents could have the hair, really affected her and she broke down in the crematory.  Sometimes a comedy of errors occurs, as when they had just gotten the crematory redone and she placed a rather large woman inside.  Something happened and her fat  began to ooze out of the door.  She and Mike grabbed buckets to collect it all.  It destroyed her outfit.

The longer she works there, she begins to feel that Americans are not facing death and preparing for it.  She comes up with a unique view of how to face this dark end with dignity and how to embrace life.  This journey she sets out on awakens her to a new worldview and a way to make the death business better.

*Note: Here are some things you should really consider doing now if you haven't already.
1. Make a will.  This is highly important.  If you don't want to go to a lawyer, there are websites that will do it for a cheap price.
2. Get life insurance. You do not want to leave your family paying for your death and debts after your death.
3. Make a decision about whether to get a DNR (Do Not Resuscitate) and make a decision about whether you want to be hooked up to a machine for your survival.
4. Decide what you want to have happen to your remains after death and write them down.  There are more options than you can believe possible.  Read the book Corpse by the incredible author Mary Roach for ideas.  The entire book explores every possible option.


Fearing death, I wanted to reclaim control over it.  I figured it had to play favorites; I just needed to make sure I was one of those favorites.
--Caitlin Doughty (Smoke Gets In Your Eyes: Other Lessons from the Crematory p32)

The Romanian philosopher Emil Cioran said that suicide is the only right a person truly has.  Life can become unbearable in all respects, and “this world can take everything from us….but no one has the power to keep us from wiping ourselves out”.  Perhaps not surprisingly, Cioran, a man “obsessed with the worst”, died an insomniac and recluse in Paris.
-- Caitlin Doughty (Smoke Gets In Your Eyes: Other Lessons from the Crematory p52)

Exposing a young child to the realities of love and death is far less dangerous than exposing the to the lie of the happy ending.  Children of the Disney princess era grew up with a whitewashed version of reality filled with animal sidekicks and unrealistic expectations.  Mythologist Joseph Campbell wisely tells us to scorn the happy ending, “for the world as we know it, as we have seen it, yields but one ending: death, disintegration, dismemberment, and the crucifixion of our hearts with the passing of the forms that we have loved”.
-- Caitlin Doughty (Smoke Gets In Your Eyes: Other Lessons from the Crematory p144-5)

In many ways, women are death’s natural companions.  Every time a woman gives birth, she is creating not only a life, but also a death.  Samuel Beckett wrote that women “give birth astride of a grave”.  Mother Nature is indeed a real mother, creating and destroying in a constant loop.
-- Caitlin Doughty (Smoke Gets In Your Eyes: Other Lessons from the Crematory p172)

The only thing that’s certain is that nothing ever is.
-- Caitlin Doughty (Smoke Gets In Your Eyes: Other Lessons from the Crematory p198)


Link to Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/Smoke-Gets-Your-Eyes-Crematory/dp/0393351904/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1478093497&sr=8-1&keywords=smoke+gets+in+your+eyes


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