Thursday, August 21, 2014

Caitlin Doughty's Lessons from the Crematory

Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: And Other Lessons from the Crematory

Last spring, some of you may remember, I audited a journalism course at Florida Gulf Coast University. I really threw myself into it, and though I certainly didn't have to complete the assignments, I did want to pull my weight. So when we were assigned a 700 word personal essay, I decided to write about my experience purchasing a cremation service. You should have seen the kids' faces the day we went around the room and shared our ideas! Horrified. Appalled. Disturbed. Well, I get it, they're twenty and I'm sixty-five.

When I began reading early reviews about the perfectly titled, "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: and other Lessons from the Crematory," by Caitlin Doughty, I knew that I wanted to be an early reader. I wasn't disappointed. Ms. Doughty came to the subject of death and its treatment at the hands of dishonest funeral directors, guilt-inducing religious (she's not), and the general public, much the way I did but at a considerably younger age. Just think of all the angst she's spared herself.

The fear of death can be debilitating. It can stop you in your tracks, determine how you live your life for good or ill, and is a stultifying feeling that I personally blame on my Catholic upbringing. For Ms. Doughty, it was witnessing a horrific accident that resulted in the death of an eight-year-old. After earning a degree in medieval history studies, Caitlin, turned to a crematorium in Oakland, California, for her next life lessons.

This is one feisty gal. She didn't stand on ceremony or expect to be treated specially because of her fancy college degree. She jumped right into the heat, handling the bodies that need to be prepped for family visits, pulling them from the fridge and wheeling them into the ovens. I've seen this operation, believe me, it's pretty basic and, she tells us, very dirty. And yet, it is so right. After all, if you believe that the soul leaves the body at the moment of death, no problem. If you don't believe in anything at all, well, still no problem, right?

There is plenty of humor to be mined in the dust bins of the crematory and Caitlin is a very funny lady. There are also instances in which people behave so badly, especially families, that it's disheartening. If you've ever watched an episode of CSI, you understand that death can be a messy business. She pulls no punches about the ways of a body in decomposition. But don't be squeamish, she also takes every opportunity to quote from some of her favorite writers, Jessica Mitford and Joseph Campbell, two of my personal heroes as well.

There may be some extraneous bits to this book, but death and its handling is an important topic which needs to be talked about, so I was willing to overlook the parts about a love affair gone wrong. Perhaps it's there to let readers know that Caitlin had a life outside the crematory. The object of the book is to get families talking, to prod people to make their wishes known to those who care about you. I did, and it's such a load off my mind.

Caitlin now works as a successful mortician with her own business, an active online video presence, and an audience of people willing to be pragmatic as they work with her to try to create a "good death." To get a better sense of Caitlin Doughty and her calling, visit her wonderful website at:

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