A book detailing the gruesome and unsettling aspects of what happens to your remains after death might not sound like the kind of book you would want to pick up and read during your leisure time, or in my case the lull between Christmas and New Year, but ‘Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: And Other Lessons from the Crematory’ by Caitlin Doughty is an incredibly captivating and thought-provoking book. This informative, eye opening pseudo-memoir approaches the topic of death in a way that is entirely respectful and frank, yet at the same time lighthearted and humorous— a difficult balance to achieve. The author’s great personality and sarcastic sense of humor, combined with real-life stories from a crematorium, made it so I couldn’t put it down. I ended up reading it in a single day.
The precise details of what happens during body preparation and cremation as described in the book were very fascinating to me, but I won’t talk about them here, because ultimately those details aren’t all that important. If you want the juicy bits you’ll just have to read the book for yourself (and I highly recommend that you do so any way). In my mind, the brilliance of the book, and more to the point Doughty’s overall thesis, is that we as a culture over the past few centuries have separated ourselves from something that is not only natural, but an absolute certainty for all of us. Yet as we as a society continue to seek out new technologies and new ways of looking at the world, we also improve the ways that we respond to death. Caitlin summarizes this point extremely well:
“In the last 20-30 years, the world has become a global community where we do not have to live and die in the towns we were born, nor do we have to believe what our parents believed. All of a sudden we are able to choose the rituals we perform with our dead and how we dispose of dead bodies. We can think much bigger about the future of death. How we die is, after all, how we live.”
I’ve never had the hang up about death that many others seem to have, and in some ways I think my bluntness about it annoys people from time to time. There have been many instances when I’ve said to a co-worker something along the lines of “let me write that down for you in case I get hit by a bus tomorrow,” to which they invariably reply, “don’t say that! That’s awful!” I often find myself taken aback during those kinds of exchanges. Why shouldn’t I say that? Superstition? Ill will? Do they fear that I’ve somehow inadvertently jinxed myself? Perhaps it makes them realize that they, themselves, are also mortal and have booked a seat aboard the Dead Guy Express. Either way, it seems to me that should I find myself losing a game of chicken with a large vehicle, these preparations would certainly make their lives simpler.
The fact of the matter is that I very well could get hit by a bus today. Or I could be in a horrific car accident. Or I could be shot. Really, I could die in a million ways. That doesn’t mean I should avoid talking about it, as if it were Lord Voldemort or something. We should acknowledge it. We should embrace it. And by all means, and most critically, we should joke about it. We are ultimately powerless when it comes to our mortality. Death is guaranteed to get us in the end (much in the same way that taxes are guaranteed to get us while we live), yet by making jokes and laughing in the face of danger we are at least taking control over how we respond to that inevitability. We don’t give in to fear. We embrace that knowledge and use it in a way to keep us grounded and provide some much needed perspective.
Okay, so death is just a hop, skip, and a jump away for all of us. Big whoop. What can we do, while we are alive and well, to make the most effective and responsible choices? What is the best method of taking care of your remains to make it easier for your family and friends? What is the most environmentally responsible choice? And what can we learn, study, and improve to make things better in the future? Those questions are where this book really shines. For example, Doughty briefly touches on some research work that a scientist is conducting that looks at how to reuse the heat that is given off by the crematory equipment for heating city buildings and other purposes. It takes many hours to burn an adult body, and an incredible amount of energy to raise the cremation ovens to the needed ~1500 degrees Fahrenheit, so reclaiming any energy would mean great environmental progress. But it’s not just environmental research improving how society and the world responds to death; many different fields of work and study are coming together to offer new ideas and research about how to make the death industry better and improve post-death care. For example, as Doughty explains on the Order of the Good Death website:
“The Order [of the Good Death] aims to showcase the people at the forefront of this change, from a designer who creates clothing and shrouds that decompose at the same rate as your corpse, to a professor who studies how to capture energy and heat from crematoriums to heat pools and homes, to the funeral director opening a funeral home that combines an art and culture space with a place for the dead.”
Okay, great, you’re saying. But what about me? What should a person choose to do with their remains after death? A standard burial? A cremation? Are there other options? It turns out that the answer is that there are other options, but the death industry is an incredibly lucrative and profitable one. The fact of the matter is that funeral homes, crematoriums, and other companies in the death industry make a lot of money by charging for services such as embalming (completely unnecessary, by the way, especially if you are going to be cremated), caskets, vaults (often not legally required, despite what you are told), private ceremonies, and more. Caitlin Doughty addresses this issue and provides an alternate option that I find incredibly compelling:
“The way to break the cycle and avoid embalming, the casket, the heavy vault, is something called green, or natural, burial. It is only available in certain cemeteries, but its popularity is growing as society continues to demand it… The body goes straight into the ground, in a simple biodegradable shroud, with a rock to mark the location. It zips merrily through decomposition, shooting its atoms back into the universe to create new life. Not only is natural burial by far the most ecologically sound way to perish, it doubles down on the fear of fragmentation and loss of control. Making the choice to be naturally buried says, ‘Not only am I aware that I’m a helpless, fragmented mass of organic matter, I celebrate it. Vive la decay!’”
I’ll state for the record, should anything happen to me in the near future, that I would prefer a green burial. I absolutely don’t want to be embalmed under any circumstances. I don’t want a big fancy coffin, or vault, or anything like that. If at all possible, if permitted by law at the time and place of my death, I want to be put in the soil and left to decompose. The idea of becoming food for the plants and animals that I’ve consumed all my life doesn’t upset me. I find it comforting. It’s fair game. You might even go so far as to say that it’s the circle of life (hey, they should make a movie about that). I really do find a green burial to be the most economically, morally, and environmentally considerate method of body disposal. But if that’s not an option (and as of 2016 it’s not currently legal in most states), just stick me in the oven and bake until golden brown.
The feature image is by Richard Hurd and is licensed under a Creative Commons license.