Book of the Week: Smoke Gets in Your Eyes by Caitlin Doughty
We're still in the first month and I already missed two weeks in a row on my "Book of the Week" series. To be fair, one week I was re-reading Kierkegaard's Works of Love for a class I taught (now available on my "Public Lectures" page) and the next week I read Luther's The Bondage of the Will for the January edition of the Refo500 series. In a way, I kept up the reading portion but instead of giving you reviews, I gave you other media. So, I'm gonna count them! We'll say that this week's book of the week is "Book Five", counting Works of Love and The Bondage of the WIll as books three and four. (Let me have this, please!)
This week's book comes recommended by my dad and I'm pleased to tell you about it.
Book Five: Smoke Gets In Your Eyes by Caitlin Doughty
Smoke Gets In Your Eyes is part memoir, part history of death rituals, and part manifesto. Author Caitlin Doughty of Ask a Mortician fame, recalls the story of her lifelong fascination with death. The memoir itself begins with Doughty, recent graduate of the University of Chicago, moving to San Francisco to take a job as a Cremation Operator. Fascinated with death rituals and the way in which different cultures approach death, Doughty becomes disturbed by the manner in which American culture avoids death. At the crematory in San Francisco where she worked, it was possible for the bereaved to get online from thousands of miles away and arrange for the crematory to collect the body, cremate it, and mail the remains to the family. The death-denying aspect of American culture particularly bothers Doughty, leading her to become a mortician in order to try and change the industry from the inside-out.
One particular practice that bothers Doughty is embalming. The modern practice of embalming became normative during the Civil War, when families would pay to have the bodies of soldiers preserved at the battlefield and shipped home so they could see them one last time. After that, embalming became the means by which "mortuary sciences" established itself as a profession, making undertakers specialists instead of simply casket-makers.
For Doughty, embalming is a particularly violent act where the corpse is essentially mutilated in order to hide death and decay from the loved ones at final viewing. The manifesto portion of the book comes in Doughty's own commitment to reintroduce the concept of "good death" to American society. She argues instead that loved ones ought to re-learn the practices of sitting with the dead, and of washing the bodies of their loved ones in preparation for burial, to name just a few.
American death practices are ritualistic in their own way; however, they are rituals completely unmoored from any traditional or religious significance. In this sense, they are largely meaningless, excessively violent, and incredibly expensive. Instead, she proposes returning to simpler forms of burial: bodies that are not embalmed, death rituals that invite loved ones to be present in the preparation of the body, and cremations and burials that are attentive to the ways in which people come to terms with the death of loved ones.
One of the real strengths of Doughty's book is the way she narrates the history of death rituals in America. Central to this story is the story of Forest Lawn, the famous Southern California funeral home that revolutionized the vocabulary and practices of the funeral industry, and therefore, the death rituals of America (not to mention many popular conceptions of the afterlife). By attending to this part of the story, Doughty is acutely aware (and critical) of the relationship that death and capitalism have in American culture.
This is precisely where I think Doughty's suggestion that American death rituals are religionless is just off the mark. They are deeply in tune with America's main religion: capitalism. No longer aware of how facing death allows us to come to terms with our own mortality and traditional conceptions of the good life, we have re-conceptualized our funeral practices in order to be a demonstration of our deepest commitments and convictions: a good death is one that celebrates the wealth of a life. The more excessive and kitschy the death rituals, the more money spent in the burial, the more we are able to demonstrate our love and devotion. The arbitrary practices that have come to make up the death industry in America are centered around the common assumption that there is a right way and a wrong way to say goodbye, with the right way often costing families well beyond their means.