This book shed a lot of light on a pretty dark subject, without making it too creepy.
When I'd originally picked up Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: and Other Lessons from the Crematory - in hardcover for a positive steal of $7 this past year at a University Bookstore sale - I didn't know what I was in for, other than a gorgeous cover and fascinating subject matter. When I checked out with a handful of other titles in tow, the cashier raised her eyebrows at it, shook it in her hand, and said, "Dude. This is a good one." I have to say, she's absolutely right.
The book follows the career beginnings of author Caitlin Doughty, as she starts work in a San Francisco mortuary as a crematory operator. Now working as an alternative death specialist and funeral director in Los Angeles, the book shapes the development of her personal perspectives on the death industry, starting with her first attempt at shaving a dead body.
The anecdotes are visceral and unnerving - from lobbing a dead baby underhand into the crematory so they hit where the fire is hottest, to having the extra fat of a super-plus body leaching out of the machine onto the shop floor - but accompany straightforward answers to questions you didn't know you were allowed to ask: what happens to the bodies of the homeless and indigent populations of California? How long does it take for a corpse to actively start rotting outside of refrigeration? Can I order a remote cremation through the power of the Internet?
Obviously, there are parts of the book that are a little hard to read, but the author knows that. Doughty recounts an early life experience witnessing the death of a three-year-old at a mall, as well as the ensuing childhood obsessive compulsive disorder she developed as a result, with empathy and attention. Many of her interactions with the corpses she crosses paths with are illustrated with moving ties to her own life, whether it is considering the lives left impacted by the loss of the twenty-something who stood in front of a train, or comparing the face of a John Doe cadaver to an unrequited love she contemplates losing in a similarly anonymous fashion.
To be honest, the only part of the book that rubbed me a little the wrong way in places was our narrator herself, who seemed a little self-aggrandizing in parts, overly self-deprecating in others, and overall, just a little bit weird. Her opinions were loudly stated and uncompromising; however, in that way, the book is a complete success, in extrapolating on not just her career growth, but in how her start in the industry completely shaped the reasons why she decided to open her own practice. It's almost more of a sort of alternative business account than just a fascinating memoir.
Final Verdict: A creepy, comprehensive, and ultimately, compassionate account of one woman's early journey through the death industry, this book provides an insight into some of society's most well-hidden business practices, by exposing career insights into a job you had never really considered before. For anyone who loved Mary Roach's Stiff - or perhaps wonders about their own cold end - this book is an engaging and illuminating read.
Have you read a nonfiction account of a strange career? Would you ever read a book about this industry? Let me know, in the comments below!