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Book Review: Smoke Gets in Your Eyes by Caitlin Doughty

It is very rare to have read a book just because the first sentence of the book is strong enough to generate tremendous interest. If you picked up Smoke Gets in Your Eyes by Caitlin Doughty, you will be hooked by its first sentence. Though the book is non-fiction but highly riveting because it delves deep into the subject of death, which humans fear most.


Caitlin Doughty was eight when she saw a girl fall to her death from the second floor of a mall. In response, she developed obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), which among others, had her walking around her house three times before feeding her dog, checking five times to make sure a door is locked and jumping from three feet into bed.

Doughty managed to overcome the disorder as she grew up but developed something else, instead a strong interest in the funeral industry. It was her way of coping with the realization that everyone, including her, would die one day and could, in fact, die at any moment.

When she turned twenty three, she went to work as a crematory operator at a mortuary i.e. funeral home. She went on to study at a college of mortuary science. At one point, she worked as a body transporter, collecting and transporting bodies to a large centralized mortuary.

For someone involved in a field that deals with doom and gloom, Doughty has lots of humour, which she doles out with equal dosages of tenderness. At one point, she reveals her initial dream of opening a mortuary which helps families mourn their dead in exciting new ways and puts the fun back into funeral.

Besides humour, there is plenty of feeling in this thoughtful memoir of Doughty’s first few years in the death industry. She does not just speak of the dead but also of dying. She notes that the human species may be one of the very few species which knows that it will die for sure one day. She cautions that no matter how creatively one tries to ignore or forget this fact, and no matter how powerful, loved or special one feels, one day one will end up lifeless.

On a larger scale, Doughty uses her personal experiences and extensive research to look at the wider question of how modern society deals with death, comparing it with traditional practices. She seeks to make readers more aware of their own mortality and to lessen their fear of death.

Besides this book, Doughty also has a website called the Order of the Good Death and a YouTube series called Ask a Mortician. The Order is a group of funeral industry professionals, academics and artists determined to prepare a death-phobic culture for their inevitable mortality through talks, round-table discussions and death salons, where people meet to chat about their inevitable doom.

The book is about the author's thoughts on death and how people culturally view it, from the vantage point of working in a crematorium. It is nicely researched and towards the end almost sounds like a queer philosophy. The matter-of-fact and sometimes even bold view of death is mildly astonishing, but that's part of the message that the author is trying to tell.

Despite based on death of life, it is a good book to read. Given that the author is trying to interpret death and call out the commercialization of post-death care, there's some gory detail in there.

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