Death becomes her: Caitlin Doughty writes about her life with corpses with all the sassiness that other young women bring to penning romcoms

Smoke Gets In Your Eyes And Other Lessons From The Crematorium

Caitlin Doughty                                                                                        ★★★★ 

‘I was drawn to all aspects of mortality – the bodies, the rituals, the grief,’ said Caitlin Doughty

‘I was drawn to all aspects of mortality – the bodies, the rituals, the grief,’ said Caitlin Doughty

What do you do with a degree in medieval history? 

For Caitlin Doughty, there was no hesitation: she applied for a job in a crematorium. 

She had, she says, always been fascinated by death. 

‘Ever since childhood, when I found out that the ultimate fate for all humans was death, sheer terror and morbid curiosity had been fighting for supremacy in my mind.’ 

She claims that, as a little girl, she was ‘functionally morbid, consumed with death, disease and darkness’, and, on the evidence of this book, there is no earthly reason to disbelieve her.

In many ways, a degree in medieval history, with its surfeit of skeletons, complemented these unusual interests. 

‘I was drawn to all aspects of mortality – the bodies, the rituals, the grief.’

It took six months of applications before she finally found a small crematorium prepared to give her a job. 

She expresses surprise at such reluctance, but the reader may be rather less surprised. 

In other lines of work, eagerness is welcome, but in the funeral business it might send out the wrong signals.

Inside the warehouse of Westwind Cremation and Burial in San Francisco, she heard the roaring of flames. 

‘These are the cremation machines, I thought. There are people in there right now – dead people. 

'I couldn’t actually see any of these dead people yet, but just knowing they were nearby was exhilarating.’

Doughty writes about her life with corpses with all the wit and sassiness that other young women bring to penning romcoms.

Many of her sentences have the rhythm of comic one-liners, as though anticipating a ‘boom! boom!’ at the end. 

The effect is disconcerting. Her very first paragraph reads: ‘A girl always remembers the first corpse she shaves. 

'It is the only event in her life more awkward than her first kiss or the loss of her virginity. 

Caitlin's opening line reads: ‘A girl always remembers the first corpse she shaves'

Caitlin's opening line reads: ‘A girl always remembers the first corpse she shaves'

'The hands of time will never move quite so slowly as when you are standing over the dead body of an elderly man with a pink plastic razor in your hand.’

On her first day in her new job, she is put to work on this dead body. 

Once the family has viewed him, he is placed in a cremation machine which is heated to a temperature of 816˚C. 

Two hours later, the metal door opens to reveal the glowing red embers of his bones. The skull remains intact but crumbles in her hand. 

Later that day, she recalls ‘the strange, perverse power I had felt in that moment as skull crusher of the infinite universe’.

As you may have gathered by now, Smoke Gets In Your Eyes is not a book for the squeamish. 

Corpses are to Doughty what poppies were to Monet. 

‘Seeing a flaming human skull is intense beyond your wildest flights of imagination,’ she enthuses.

Nor does she shy away from the nitty-gritty. This is very clearly not a work of journalism, but a book written from the hard graft of personal experience. 

During her six years in the funeral business she got her hands dirty, and much else besides. 

‘You’re never really clean at the crematorium,’ she writes. ‘A thin layer of dust and soot settles over everything, courtesy of the ashes of dead humans.’

In 1963, Jessica Mitford wrote a landmark book called The American Way Of Death, in which she exposed the merciless mix of greed and sentimentality in the most expensive funeral homes in the United States. Doughty’s book is both much more personal and much less caustic. 

Whereas Mitford concentrated her attention on the front-of-house activities at the upper end of the market, Doughty writes largely about her day-to-day work with corpses in a cheap and unpretentious crematorium.

She retains a great deal of respect for her hard-working colleagues. 

Along with the dead bodies, one or two urban myths are laid to rest. 

For instance, the ashes given to relatives are exclusively those of the deceased, rather than the rumoured mish-mash of a job-lot, and corpses are never hung on meat-hooks.

Smoke Gets In Your Eyes will tell you all that you want to know, and perhaps rather more than you really want to know, about what it’s like to work in a crematorium. 

Early on, Doughty details, in her disconcertingly jaunty way, the various stages of cremation. 

First, the cardboard coffin goes up in flames. 

Then, the 80 per cent of the human body that is water evaporates. 

‘The flames then go to work on the soft tissues, charring the whole body a crispy black. 

'Burning these parts, the ones that visually identify you, takes the bulk of the time.’

To create the ashes, the remaining bones are placed into a ‘cremulator’, which Doughty describes as ‘essentially a bone blender, roughly the size of a slow cooker’, and then ‘with a loud whir, the bone fragments are crushed into the uniform powdery purée that the industry calls cremated remains’. 

These ashes are then poured into a plastic bag and sealed with a twist-tie of the type that is more commonly found sealing supermarket bread. 

From then, it’s into the urn, and Bob’s your uncle, or, rather, Bob was your uncle, RIP.

If you find this process distasteful, then in many ways you are part of Doughty’s target audience, as she is an evangelist for the desanitation of death. 

Never before in history has Western society been so shielded from the reality of death. 

Now that most people die in hospital rather than at home, it has become possible to go all the way through life without ever setting eyes on a corpse.

Doughty regards this as a dangerous aberration. 

‘I went from thinking it was strange that we don’t see dead bodies any more to believing their absence was a root cause of major problems in the modern world.’ 

By ignoring the reality of death, we are losing track of what makes us human. 

‘Corpses keep the living tethered to reality,’ she argues. ‘...We are all just future corpses.’

Fair enough, but in that last sentence it is the little word ‘just’ which could send one into a spiral of depression. 

For all her trumpeting of facing up to the reality of death, Doughty is too honest a writer to pretend that her daily walk with death was entirely positive.

She was particularly affected by the cremation of babies and foetuses, and found herself bursting into tears while clipping the hair from a baby girl, ready for her parents to put in a locket.

She wonders why she cried at this particular moment: was it because the baby was so beautiful, or did her blue eyes remind her of herself, or was she crying for all dead babies? 

But it seems to me that if, deep down, you think we are ‘all just future corpses’, then both life and death are bound to be drained of significance, leaving only a kind of blank depression. 

Even the jokiest attitude offers scant defence against bones and ashes.

It comes as no surprise to the reader when, after a period of what she calls ‘increased emotions’ during which ‘I would start laughing or crying at the drop of a damn hat’, she is driven to make a suicide attempt.

In the end, this brave and fascinating book offers a dichotomy that the author never fully resolves. 

On the one hand, she rails against what she calls ‘our society’s structural denial of death’, and even campaigns for corpses to be left out in the open, ready to be consumed by wildlife. 

‘The animals I’ve consumed my whole life should someday have their turn with me.’

But on the other hand, she recognises the peril that lurks in confronting death on a daily basis. 

‘It was hard for me to stop thinking about. 

'I wanted to quiet my brain, to stop its incessant ruminations on the whys and hows of mortality.’ 


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It was, in short, her wholehearted absorption in death that led her to try to take her own life.

For a book about death, Smoke Gets In Your Eyes is, I should add, unusually funny. 

I particularly liked some of the unsuitable answers on a questionnaire filled in by applicants for her job:

Q: Are you able to be empathetic to people without becoming personally involved? Describe a situation where you were able to do this.

A: I kill a bunch of people once.

Q: Are you able to be flexible with regards to your job duties and description?

A: Oh hell yeah.


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