Review: Smoke Gets In Your Eyes by Caitlin Doughty (Cannongate Books, 2015)

Smoke Gets In Your Eyes.Cover

“Why would you ever write about us?” asks Mike, Caitlin Doughty’s colleague at Westwind Cremation & Burial, after she tells him her plans to write a book about working in the death industry. “We’re dull. You should make it fictionalised characters. Like us, but better.”

“I would argue that you guys are pretty interesting,” replies Caitlin, and she’s not lying. At the beginning of Smoke Gets In Your Eyes, she’s a novice mortician coming face-to-face with dead bodies. From here she delves into death rituals and procedures in other cultures and encounters the families of the deceased.

Caitlin’s personal and professional journey as a young adult also gets its fair share of page time, as she ponders where to take her career next and what will happen to her own remains once she dies. A side effect of the job, perhaps?

Tapping into curiosity

When the author starts questioning her relationship with death, she’s also challenging how the rest of us think and feel about mortal decay. Some readers will shy away here, while others will find it stimulating.

While the book does reveal what each corpse leaves behind on Earth, it only offers a glance of the lives that were once lived. More backstories could’ve made for interesting reading, but maybe this deserves its own book.

For everything that isn’t in Smoke’s pages, the extensive bibliography makes up for this and will satisfy those who’ve had their curiosity prodded by Caitlin’s insights.

Ultimately, her mission is to get us more comfortable with talking and learning about death. If you find yourself looking up the titles in the bibliography, then she’s succeeded.

Journal of a mortician 

Smoke Gets In Your Eyes is best viewed as the journal of a mortician, whose explorations and trials offer growth to both the writer and reader. It might not be as seeded in obituary as some would hope, but it’s hard to find such open access to the death industry anywhere else.

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