Tuesday 20 March 2018

The chronicle of death that's rarely told

Smoke Gets in Your Eyes, Caitlin Doughty, Canongate, €19.40

Smoke Gets In Your Eyes cover
Smoke Gets In Your Eyes cover

Aine O'Connor

"Ashes to ashes, dust to dust". It's a line we seem to grow up knowing, whether via funeral services or David Bowie, but if you ever wondered just how much we amount to in the way of ashes or dust, Caitlin Doughty has written a book to tell you that and so much more about what happens to our dead bodies.

When she was eight years old and living in Hawaii, Doughty witnessed a girl fall from the first floor of a mall and smash on the ground. Although still unsure if the child actually died, the incident began for Doughty a fearful obsession with death.

After facing the fear in different ways she decided that the ultimate way was, at the age of twenty three, seven years ago, to get a job in a crematorium. That did not prove easy for a young woman with no experience in the field but the job she eventually got was in Westwind Cremation in Burial in Oakland, California. The journey she undertook, excuse the pun, led her first to set up a YouTube channel Ask a Mortician in which she chronicled, for many followers, the undeniably fascinating world of the dead. This was followed up with the book, whose full title is Smoke Gets in Your Eyes and Other Lessons from the Crematorium, which became a New York Times bestseller and is this month published on this side of the Atlantic.

The book opens with Doughty's first task, to shave a dead man called Byron. Her struggles with his slack jaw and the pink disposable razor set the tone of dealing with life dealing with death and is delivered in her light, witty prose.

There is the nitty gritty of handling dead bodies, from collecting them from the families to returning their ashes after cremation, her own lessons and observations about these practicalities and her co-workers all of which is interesting albeit in a slightly macabre way. However, as well as also providing the context of her own autobiographical stories, her parents' algae infested-swimming pool, being flogged at fetish parties she and her friends snuck out to as teenagers and struggling to get further education, there is a huge amount of information about death rituals.

There are facts like how to remove a pacemaker so it doesn't explode during cremation, quotes from literature and scientific studies, information from throughout the world and throughout history and Doughty cleverly intertwines them all.

Details from the past and places as far flung as Java and Ancient Egypt are interwoven with stories of the bodies she has taken care of to create the backdrop for what might be seen as the point of her book. This point is namely that we need to, or at least can, rethink our attitude towards caring for our recently deceased. Death is the great Leveller, the one thing that we can be sure of, so why are we so afraid of it?

Although often funny it is never irreverent, it is merely matter of fact and encourages the reader to consider how and why we have so sanitised and commercialised the death process that we increase the fear around it.

Although written well and with a light touch it is such an information intense book that it does not lend itself to hours in bed with a cup of coffee. But neither does it need to be read altogether, there is a narrative of sorts but really each chapter almost stands alone so it is the kind of book you can pick up for a short time.

And as for those ashes? Any adult human, when all is told and accounted for, amounts to four to seven pounds of greyish ash and bone.

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