Smoke Gets In Your Eyes (& Other Lessons from the Crematory) by Caitlin Doughty

A young woman’s mortuary career and enthusiasm for death inform an entertaining and thought-provoking memoir.


At 23, Caitlin Doughty had an undergraduate degree in medieval history and a lifelong fascination with death. Interested in turning her preoccupation into a profession after a move to the Bay Area, she found it surprisingly difficult to get a job in the mortuary business without relevant experience, but eventually secured a position as crematory operator at Westwind Cremation & Burial in Oakland, Calif. In just a few months of working with her deadpan boss Mike, socially awkward body-transport driver Chris and jovial embalmer Bruce, Caitlin learned a great deal, as she relates in her debut, Smoke Gets in Your Eyes.

She learned how to cremate bodies (do the larger people early in the day, babies at the end), what exactly happens after the oven (bones have to be ground down in a special blender to create the uniform ashes the family expects) and how to pick up a recently deceased body from a family at home (mostly, keep your mouth shut). She learned that dead people aren’t really scary, once you get used to them, and came to believe that wired jaws and copious makeup are less attractive and less respectful than simply letting the dead look–and be–well, dead.

In her memoir of “lessons from the crematory,” Doughty shares tidbits of research into the death rituals and mythologies of other cultures throughout history: Tibetan sky burial, the dutiful cannibalism of the Wari’ people in the jungles of Brazil, ancient Egyptian embalming techniques. She points out a central difference between contemporary Western practices and theirs: the Wari’ and others conform to a system of beliefs, where our so-called modern death-disposal techniques arise from a fear of mortality and a need to hide dead things away. In her experience at Westwind, and later in mortuary school, Doughty developed her own value system, emphasizing an honest relationship with our mortality and a frank acceptance of and love for our dead.

Doughty’s research, musings and anecdotes about the crematory are charmingly conveyed in an earnest yet playful voice, brimming with surprising humor as well as insight. Her coming-of-age tale encompasses love and life (and death), and her appeal for a new cultural approach to the end of life is refreshingly frank and simple at the same time that it is profound. Despite addressing a subject that will strike some as morbid or unpleasant, Doughty is an engaging and likable narrator,and Smoke Gets in Your Eyes is thoughtful and approachable.

This review originally ran as a *starred review* in the August 21, 2014 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.

Rating: 8 dresses.

7 Responses

  1. By an odd coincidence, this is something I’ve been thinking about quite a bit recently (although, unlike Ms. Doughty, I don’t have any particular fascination with death).

    My mother passed away about a month ago, and I’m looking at her cremated remains as I write this (well, at a large wooden “urn” which contains them, which is sitting next to a somewhat older wooden “urn” containing my father’s ashes, which my mother had been using as a doorstop).

    It is interesting to spend time with people in the death business. When the funeral director and I happened to talk one day about Lauren Bacall, who had just died, she (the funeral director, not Ms. Bacall) immediarely started to consider where Ms. Bacall’s funeral might have been held, whether she would be cremated or shipped to the West Coast to reside next to Mr. Bogart, etc.

    I never would have thought about any of those questions. My reaction to her death was mostly to think that I needed to see The Big Sleep again (I had, completely by coincidence, watched To Have and Have Not just a week or so before — possibly because both of my parents loved that film, as do I).

    Also, to have possession of somebody’s ashes (or, as the funeral people always call them, “cremated remains”) is to be the recipient of many (many) suggestions about what should be done with them. For some reason, people resist the idea that they can just stay where they are (on top of my bookcase) until some time, probably years from now, possibly never, when I feel like considering the question.

    As my mother observed, not long before her death (at 98), the weird thing about death is that it’s going to happen to everybody, but nobody ever wants to talk about it.

    Also, I still think it was ridiculous that Ingrid Bergman won the Oscar for Murder on the Orient Express when Bacall was so much better in the picture.

    • Anthony, I am always glad to hear from you! I appreciate your mixing in a Bacall review with your meditations here – I am a big fan of To Have and Have Not (and you know I don’t catch many movies). I’m sorry for your recent loss. And I’m glad this book (review) had something to say to you. I agree that it’s interesting that we can’t talk about death more… I work in a cancer hospital, so I have some perspective and some thoughts on the subject, too, although my personal reflections aren’t welcome in the reviews I write for Shelf Awareness.

      How interesting, your experience with the funeral director and musing on where Bacall would be sent, how she’d be dealt with.

      I have a small portion of my grandfather’s ashes – all the grandkids got a little, for dispersal as we see fit. I have had some ideas but haven’t gotten around to taking any action yet. Maybe I’ll just keep him, also on my bookshelf…

      • The thing about the bookshelf option is that you can always change your mind later. If you’ve scattered them in the ocean, that’s pretty permanent. 🙂

        I read a blog post once by someone who had edited a collection of short stories, and she said realized halfway through that quite a few of the stories involved people’s ashes. I immediately thought of the possibilities for humor, but I could tell right away that I wasn’t being Appropriately Serious about the whole thing.

        Me, I write mysteries, so when I have experiences like my recent ones with the funeral industry, I start to wonder if there’s a possibility for a mystery story. A murder at a funeral…

        Two of my mysteries are set in hospitals, since I was visiting my mother in the hospital a lot. Might as well use it as research.

  2. Oh, I like your murder-at-a-funeral idea! Do it!

    And hey, Caitlin Doughty would say that there is room for humor even in dealing with death. Although you’d have to be kind of suave about it.

  3. […] this list, I can’t pick out even one that didn’t teach me something. Some are weird (for example). But put them all together, and they make for a fine […]

  4. […] be satisfied with The Drunken Botanist*, Euphoria, Wayfaring Stranger, The Fish in the Forest, Smoke Gets In Your Eyes, The Kind Worth Killing (by Peter Swanson, review to […]

  5. […] Doughty wrote Smoke Gets in Your Eyes to share what she’s learned about the mortuary business and, more importantly, about death, […]

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