When a character in The Sims 2 dies, whether because they’ve reached old age or their pool ladder has mysteriously disappeared, the Grim Reaper comes to collect them, makes some notes, mumbles in a deep and gloomy voice, then disappears in a shaft of light. The dead Sim becomes either a little grey urn, or, if you move the object outside, a headstone, and the house that pot or grave marker sits in will henceforth be haunted by a disgruntled ghost of the appropriate colour (red for death by fire, blue for drowning—who also leave infuriating puddles all over the place). This was, in a weird but real way, my first exposure to the funerary process. I mean, minus the colour-coded ghosts, dead people do magically turn into either urns or headstones, right?
Caitlin Doughty’s hybrid memoir-exposé Smoke Gets In Your Eyes and Other Lessons From the Crematorium goes to great pains to make this whole business less magical. There is, in fact a lengthy and unglamorous process between loss of life and the arrival of an urn or placing of a headstone, most of which has been covered up, industrialised, and removed as far from the eyes of everyday people as possible and placed in the realm of gross taboo. To the point where dead bodies are transported from hospital room to morgue on gurneys that are then covered with an extra layer so, as if in a magic trick, they appear to be empty. Nobody wants to see death anymore, and, Doughty argues, it’s making society a warped kind of place.
The book is filled with a neat balance of anecdotes from her time cremating bodies and at mortuary school, history lessons on various death rituals from around the world, and philosophical and emotional discussions on how the modern clinical cover-up of death as a process is invariably hurting the living. The phrase “morbidly fascinating” is tailor made to describe this piece of literature. Also “gallows humour”, because it’s certainly the funniest book about dead bodies I’ve ever read (though I admit I haven’t read many, not since Evelyn Waugh’s The Loved One, a satire of the Hollywood sparklification of the funeral industry… which Doughty brings up, since, though it was written in the 1950s, it’s still shockingly relevant today).
The prose style is conversational and easy to digest, and the comedic bounce is possibly the biggest aspect of the book that makes it so inviting, and has booted it to bestseller status. It’s a point of success in Doughty’s mission to make death more acceptable, because the humour and heart in the writing really normalises the whole thing. Like, having to clean up the molten human lard that’s sloughing out of the cremation machine (getting it all over her dress) is as much of a “day at the office” anecdote as me talking about a particularly obnoxious customer. It’s all just a matter of perspective. And it lifts “the black curtain” on a topic people are generally told they don’t want to know anything about, and points out that it’s actually simultaneously fascinating and ordinary.
She talks about the freaky process of embalming, of the weird stuff that happens to the body as it begins to decay (busting some myths along the way, baffled, among other things, by the fact that a police officer would tell a family they need to get their dead mother’s body to a funeral home immediately or they might catch diabetes from the corpse, or that people think the crematorium is a giant hole piled high with bodies that all get burned at once), of the frightening fact that you can order your loved one’s cremation over the internet, and, again and again, how it’s inherently unhealthy how removed modern society is from death. We don’t want to see it or even think about it, a far cry from the home deaths and rituals of closure from the past. It’s been medicalised and industrialised beyond recognition, and the whole thing’s enough of a farce that she sets out on a mission to change the way people think of and accept death.
I’ve talked a lot about the deaths of fictional people on this blog, so it’s interesting to be mulling over the realities of human demise instead. Smoke Gets in Your Eyes is certainly thought-provoking as a piece of nonfiction, as well as being engaging, heartbreaking, and hilarious by turns. It’s kind of nice to speak so openly about it, even if I as a reader am only on the receiving end of her authorial voice. Since my experience with The Sims’ colour-coded phantoms I’ve had my own brushes with the Grim Reaper, as indeed we all will, so the business of hardcore denial and avoidance is really only serving to emotionally stunt us and leave us unprepared. Doughty encourages us to rip back the Reaper’s hood and look him in the eye, and… well, I might not yet be brave enough to do that and remain at peace with myself, but it’s certainly food for thought and an important discussion to have.