Allen & Unwin, RRP $27.99
Death. It’s not a topic most people like to linger on. And those who do perhaps feel they are indulging in morbid and shameful thoughts. Our modern Western societies seem to have done away with death, making it as foreign and invisible as possible so that the living can get on with living… and with spending money.
For me, however, death has always held a fascination. My bookshelves contain probably more books dealing with death and burial practices than might be considered decent. And perhaps the less said about my obsession with the Black Death and with transi tombs, the better.
Most of us, in our cosy, wifi-enabled world, are spared the sight and smell of decomposition. We are removed from the normalcy of death; we all die, it’s one of the things all humans have in common. We are protected from the normal biological processes by hospitals and by morticians and, in a way, by ourselves.
Only a century ago, we cared for our own dead; washing and preparing the body, keeping vigil. Now the choice is taken away from us, either by legislation or unawareness of alternatives. You may be interested to know that, at least in Victoria, approval for burial or cremation in a place other than a public cemetery can be sought. There are, of course, many other provisions that mean gaining this approval would not be easy, but the option to do without the avaricious funeral industry is certainly there. It makes me wonder if anyone has attempted to gain approval for a Viking-style burial. As long as the body is in a hygienic*, closed receptacle of approved materials made to ‘prevent escape of offensive liquids or exhalations’, all you need is a massive warship, a hoard of gold, maybe a willing slave sacrifice or two and you’re golden.
Smoke Gets In Your Eyes is the autobiographical memoir of Caitlin Doughty, founder of the Order of the Good Death†. It traces her path from traumatised child to death guru‡. From her time at a small crematorium in San Francisco, Doughty shares with us stories of the bodies she encountered as she prepared them for their final journey into the mouth of the cremation machine. We are taken by the hand on house calls, embalmings, preparation for viewings and into the heart of the cremation retort itself. Among her own experiences, Doughty intersperses stories of death rituals from around the world, past and present.
Fair warning: if you are of a squeamish disposition you may perhaps want to look elsewhere for your light reading needs. Doughty spares no punches when it comes to frank discussion on the grossness of death. She does not shy away from discussing putrefaction in all its colourful glory—from the ew factor of skin slip to the, well, ew factor of face mould.
Despite the topic, the book is laugh out loud funny—laugh on public transport funny no less. And it is that skillful levity that serves to make the moving moments even more poignant. The cliché ‘you’ll laugh, you’ll cry’ definitely warrants use here but the author’s respect for the dead and death is clear. Doughty’s mission is to educate and to change our perception of death and with this book I believe she has done just that. Certainly Smoke Gets In Your Eyes sparks contemplation on something we all must come to eventually.
Rest in peace.
* Whatever the hell that means. What are you going to do? Catch death off a corpse? Maybe in highly unlikely circumstances but that’s exactly what they are: unlikely. Has the person died in the last few hours from a highly contagious disease? No? Then keep calm, it’s just a dead person.
† A fantastic website and excellent resource for all sorts of information and discussion on death.
‡ That’s right, I said death guru. I’m not apologising.