Books are an amazing source of life lessons and love advice, so why don’t we learn from them? Esmée will recount to you what she has learned and what you should keep in mind while finding your way through the obstacle course that is life.
When I was a teenager my mother thought I would become a forensic pathologist, due to my great love for CSI and fascination with dead bodies. I devoured books about body farms and looked into studies that would get me into forensics. When I found out that forensics isn’t really a thing you can just study in the Netherlands and that the road to being an awesome CSI investigator is a long and tedious one, my enthusiasm for crime waned. I though the same had happened to my interest in dead bodies, but reading Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: And Other Lessons from the Crematory, by Ask A Mortician Caitlin Doughty, reignited that flame.
My parents never made me feel weird for being interested in death, but my teenage friends certainly did. I wasn’t a goth and this seemed to make my fascination with the dead even more of a weird streak. I was told that what I liked was strange and morbid, and found that no one was interested in having a serious conversation about whether they wanted to be buried or cremated and why. When I raised the subject of a body farm, people around me would plug their fingers in their ears and hum until I stopped talking, so eventually I stopped talking about death all together.
From a young age we’re taught to dislike death, and with good reason. Our parents teach us to keep safe and to not get into dangerous situations that could possibly kill us. This makes perfect sense, but, as Caitlin claims in her book, we are also taught from an early age that dead bodies should be avoided at all costs. They’re dirty and scary and can give you all kinds of diseases. Sure, dead bodies aren’t good for you, but that doesn’t mean that the recently deceased are to be shunned. Decedents (dead people) don’t make you sick and contrary to popular belief, they don’t come back to life to eat your brains either. Caitlin set up The Order of the Good Death to educate people on death and to bring the discussion of death back into our culture. Most people don’t like to be reminded of their own mortality, but denying that you will one day die is also pointless. Not knowing about death can be a problem when someone dies unexpectedly and you don’t know what you could or should do. Are you allowed to touch the body? What really happens when a body gets cremated? Are bodies put up on meat hooks in a mortuary? These are all questions you don’t want to deal with while grieving, so it’s a great idea to ask them now!
There were several lessons that I took away from Smoke Gets in your Eyes that I feel are worth sharing. The first one had to do with my own insecurities about being interested in death. It’s great to find out that many people share this fascination and also have all kinds of questions about what goes on behind the scenes when a person dies. It’s completely fine to have these questions and to ask them. Caitlin will even answer them gladly on her YouTube channel where she speaks honestly and openly about anything death related. It’s not morbid to be interested in death and it’s traditions. It might actually be a good thing, as it prepares you to accept your own mortality.
This leads to the next lesson, accepting death as a part of our lives. This is what The Order of the Good Death stands for. Everyone we know will die someday and instead of contracting existential dread from that thought, we should realize that death is just a natural part of being a person. By realizing this, we can embrace death and its traditions and use this in our grieving and even in our life.
Finally it made me feel very reassured that even though morticians also get the irrational fear of dead bodies suddenly rising from the dead and grabbing your arm, nothing of the sort has ever happened to Caitlin or anyone she writes about. The dead stay dead, just like they’re supposed to.
Besides life lessons, Smoke Gets in your Eyes is filled with many interesting tidbits about the death trade. I learned that your body can take on insane colors after death and that bones are crushed in a blender called a Cremulator (best appliance-name ever). Another fun fact is that people with a lot of body-fat get cremated early in the morning, while babies gets cremated at the end of the day. Besides this, the book covers all kinds of interesting death traditions ranging from traditional Tibetan Sky burials, which is where your body gets eaten by vultures to a simple Western witness cremation, where you get to be there when the body gets cremated. One of the loved ones even get to press the button that turns on the flames! It might be a strange thing to get excited about, but as Caitlin describes it, being the one that actually cremates the body is very special. You will be with the body in its final moments, instead of shipping it off with a cremation worker you don’t even know. Would you really want your final moments as a physical body to be with a stranger? I wouldn’t. So to prevent being shoved into a piping hot oven by a stranger, I recommend you start thinking about death for a while.
After reading this book, I’m not completely sure yet what I would like done with my body when I die. I do know that there are so many more options out there than just a burial or cremation, and that I definitely have some interesting research ahead of me and maybe even a crazy career change. I advise you to read up about death with me, no matter how awkward it might be, and talk about it with your loved ones. Or maybe just strike up a conversation with a stranger. ‘Wanna try my Cremulator?’ should be an amazing pick up line.