Facing your own mortality can be a terrifying task, and Caitlin Doughty’s memoir aims to make us do just that. When she was 23 years old, Doughty took a job at Westwind Cremation & Burial, a family-owned mortuary in Oakland, Calif., that’s described as an anti-Forest Lawn, with very few bells and whistles but a whole lot of heart. Her role at Westwind was to be a jack of all trades, performing gruesome tasks such as shaving the dead, washing the dead and slamming bodies into the retort to be burned. As readers, this means we must get through these graphic expositions.
Doughty, who rose to Internet popularity with her Web series “Ask a Mortician,” compensates by applying hefty doses of gallows humor and biting wit. An example: “No matter how many heavy-metal album covers you’ve seen, how many Hieronymus Bosch prints of the tortures of Hell, or even the scene in ‘Indiana Jones’ where the Nazi’s face melts off, you cannot be prepared to view a body being cremated.” See? You’re in good hands.
Although her endearingly anxious inner workings take up a large part of our time at Westwind and beyond, we are introduced to three of her co-workers, all of them eccentric. There’s Mike the boss, Chris the body transporter and Bruce the embalmer. They each teach her something different about their professions, so when she leaves the business to attend mortuary school, she seems to be exiting a darkly charming world she really did come to love.
But the book gets sadder as we learn how miserable getting an advanced degree can be — worse for the author than working in a crematory. Doughty even tried to commit suicide at one point, though she glosses over this episode in the book.
What holds “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” together is Doughty’s attempt to make us all more aware of our own mortality and to lessen, perhaps even eradicate, our fear of death. She describes embalming and cremation in clear, graphic imagery that lets us know exactly what becomes of us after we die. This way, she says, “rather than denying the truth” of death, we can “embrace it.”
A book as graphic and morbid as this one could easily suck its readers into a bout of sorrow, but Doughty — a trustworthy tour guide through the repulsive and wondrous world of death — keeps us laughing most of the way.
SMOKE GETS IN YOUR EYES
& Other Lessons From the Crematory
By Caitlin Doughty
Norton. 254 pp. $24.95