“A girl always remembers the first corpse she shaves” is the first line in Caitlin Doughty’s memoir. It evokes interest and revulsion in exactly the way the author intended, and it’s a theme that is carried throughout. Smoke Gets in Your Eyes is an aptly titled creation by a writer who describes herself in the opening chapter as “a hapless twentysomething” who takes a job in a funeral parlour/crematorium in California.
From the outset the reader is given a graphic, yet factual, description of some of tasks that she routinely performed whilst working in “Westwind Cremation & Burial”. Little euphemism is employed in the text, thus making you cringe at times, yet Doughty’s memoir is very engaging, sometimes very funny, even as it panders to the (very likely) morbid human curiosity of its readers. What goes on in this type of establishment is something few people want to speak about, but most people would want to know, and Doughty tells it very well. The final chapter does reveal, however, that this book was written after Doughty’s departure from the business, and that she had left the funeral trade in the US because she felt compelled to write about it.
The result is a book that not only captures the spontaneity of a job which would seem to be, but is not, repetitive; it also reveals a wealth of research in terms of the history and geography of the dead’s disposal. Names and expositions from famed human anthropologists and historians such as Philippe Aries, Geoffrey Gorer and Ernest Becker, might be expected in a book about death but Doughty draws from literary luminaries too, like Edgar Allan Poe, Dante, Lord Tennyson and Charles Beaudelaire, a bibliography that is impressive and that genuinely informs the text.
For those who know something of the British scene around death and disposal, the contents of Smoke Gets in Your Eyes will surprise, and for those who know nothing of the trade, it will surprise even more. The sixth chapter, “Pink Cocktail”, discusses the embalming of bodies in the United States and describes procedures that are, almost, a universal occurrence, adding to the already high costs of funerals. Embalming in the United Kingdom, indeed in most countries of the world, is done for either preservation or presentation; the former when a body needs to be kept for an extended period, for example, when relatives are coming from other continents to a delayed funeral, and the latter to keep the cadaver looking presentable for viewing. Providing that the storage place for bodies is reasonably cool, the need for embalming for presentation is rarely necessary. Doughty, in this chapter, does more than highlight the unnecessary nature of embalming, she explains how it is done, what chemicals are used, and how the American Civil War brought the idea of embalming into the public realm. The “patron saint” of American embalming, Dr Thomas Holmes, apparently embalmed 4000 bodies during the conflict, at a charge of 100 dollars a time; he used injected chemicals but others employed a “discounted” option: removing organs and packing the body with sawdust. If this revelation seems distasteful, then be warned, Smoke Gets in Your Eyes has more disturbing, but equally fascinating, revelations on its pages.
Smoke Gets in Your Eyes is a cleverly crafted vehicle for opening up discussion and thinking on a challenging subject. Doughty looks at death and dying from a detached view; she considers her own mortality and that of her closest family, and thinks about how her intimate knowledge of the funeral trade impacts on her views. Certain sections of this book are deliberately unnerving, but it is unique in tackling a difficult subject with candour. When you eventually put it down you might want to wash your fingers.