Caitlin Doughty’s Smoke Gets In Your Eyes

(originally featured in Bitch Magazine)

Caitlin Doughty’s memoir begins with an elderly man and a pink plastic razor. “A girl always remembers the first corpse she shaves,” she writes. “It is the only event in her life more awkward than her first kiss or the loss of her virginity.”

Doughty is a Los Angeles-based mortician and death theorist. She best known for her organization and blog, Order of the Good Death, described as “a group of funeral industry professionals, academics, and artists exploring ways to prepare a death phobic culture for their inevitable mortality.” Between that and her YouTube series, “Ask a Mortician,” she is widely recongized as a vocal proponent of demystifying our collective cultural experience with mortality.

Doughty’s debut memoir is an unapologetic account of the intimate (and often graphic) experiences of her first few years working in the American funeral industry. She focuses mainly on her job at a busy San Francisco crematory, where she began as an inexperienced 23-year-old fascinated with death. Carefully balancing a razor-thin line between humor and vulgarity, she recounts everything from moldy human remains to cleaning up molten body fat to loading stillborn babies into the crematory retort. “Appalling? Absolutely,” she writes. “But if I let myself be sucked into the sorrow surrounding each fetus—each wanted but wasted tiny life—I’d go crazy.”

While reading, I often found myself unsure whether to laugh or cringe—and that’s the point. “There is nothing like consistent exposure to dead bodies to remove the trepidation attached to dead bodies,” Doughty writes. “What happens to a culture where all decomposition is removed? We don’t need to hypothesize: we live in just such a culture. A culture of death denial.”

With this book—and her efforts with Order of the Good Death—Doughty hopes to help “pull the shroud off our death ways.” The goals are to make death more a part of life, to reintroduce the concept of families taking care of their own dead, and to develop healthy, secular ways to deal with our mortality. Her writing evokes both the bluntness of Jessica Mitford’s 1963 exposé, The American Way of Death, and the dark humor of Mary Roach’s 2003 Stiff, while taking the informally-designated “death” genre to the next level with a blend of history, personal narrative, science, humor, and advocacy.

“A culture that denies death is a barrier to achieving a good death,” she concludes. “Death isn’t happening to you. Death is happening to us all.”

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