Book of the Week

Smoke Gets In Your Eyes: And Other Lessons From The Crematorium by Caitlin Doughty. Photo: PA Photo/Canongate
Smoke Gets In Your Eyes: And Other Lessons From The Crematorium by Caitlin Doughty. Photo: PA Photo/Canongate

Smoke Gets In Your Eyes: And Other Lessons From The Crematorium by Caitlin Doughty.

Cremating a baby’s corpse doesn’t take very long, but only if you have perfected the ‘toss’ into the furnace. If you’re already feeling queasy, then be warned: Caitlin Doughty’s book is full of even more brutal and frank details about modern death and the rituals surrounding it. The work covers molten fat pouring onto the floor, grisly embalming procedures and bodies fresh from autopsies, all in a witty mortician’s memoir, ironically bringing this house of the dead to vivid life. It’s morbid and sharply observed, but the spectre of death lurks behind everything - including a romantic decision inspired by a lookalike corpse.

If all the death sounds a bit off-putting, that’s half the point. Doughty’s real aim is to revolutionise how society thinks about dying. “We are all just future corpses,” she muses, asking us to really face the fact. The ‘death industry’, which she has seen close up, is one obsessed with denial: forgetting that we will rot and decay, and preferring to skip over any unpleasantness. She is aghast at the idea of ordering a cremation over the internet, with granny’s ashes posted out weeks later. It’s an unhealthy relationship with where we’ll all end up. Doughty lays out her ideas clearly and persuasively, edging the reader from revulsion to some acceptance of mortality, although the side-trip into sympathy for cannibalism may be too much for some.

Because everyone will die, plenty of people have given their opinion on the topic. But few have done it as exhaustively as Caitlin Doughty, providing a philosophically punchier update to Jessica Mitford’s The American Way Of Death, which gets mentioned and admonished for not going far enough. It is a brave book for brave readers and if it does not change your life, then it may very well change your death.