Thursday, December 18, 2014

Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: book review and thoughts about death

Two summers ago, I went to my friend Sheila's funeral and burial. Since Sheila had been cremated, there was no casket. Instead, most of her ashes were concealed in an urn that was placed inside the burial vault while the mourners looked on.

It was sort of shocking to me to watch her urn being put in the ground in front of me. In my experience, the burial of the remains was always performed behind the scenes, after the dedicatory prayer, and out of the sight of loved ones. I thought a lot about this event, and the more I thought about it, the more I appreciated it. Sheila's young daughters, who would certainly come to visit in the future, would know exactly what was underneath the beautiful headstone that marked Sheila's remains. They weren't preserved to look "natural" or "lifelike." They were simply non-scary, non-threatening ashes, remains of a lovely life cut too short. They would never wonder if she still looked the same as when the casket lid was shut (as I often do when I visit my dad's grave site.)

The shock became sort of comforting as I thought about it. The obviousness of the events took wonder about a dead body below the ground out of the equation. No dead body preserved with chemicals in a cement vault in a metallic casket, all for the mourner's comfort and the cemetery's landscaping convenience, paid for at a premium price, with the feeling that anything less than the best makes you cheap. (Sidenote: I was called "cheap" in conversation just this week about this topic. The exact words were "you are too cheap to be embalmed." Um, okay. I guess I am. Because yes, I not only don't like the thought of my dead body being filled with chemicals, I also don't like my loved ones paying a large sum for it. I'll own that, but not in the way it was said.)

Now, I'm not really 100% sold on cremation. But I also don't oppose it in quite the way I did when I was younger. The culture I live in seems to believe in the traditional funeral establishment. But I don't count myself as one of the believers. Sheila's funeral was simply another step in my own (morbid) journey of how I've come to think about my own death (a long, long time in the future, thankyouverymuch.) I decided years ago to not be embalmed. I've also decided to have a green burial (more on this later in the post.) I don't judge others for their desires for their own burial, but those are my current plans for that future event.

Which brings me to the book I've been reading: Smoke Gets in Your Eyes & other lessons from the Crematory, by Caitlin Doughty.  It is possibly one of the best autobiographical memoirs I have ever read. Told in first person, Caitlin tells of how she became obsessed and morbidly afraid of death as a child, which led to her first job in a funeral home, pushing the big red button on the crematorium for people from all walks of life.  She also has a blog and a website,

I cannot say enough good things about this book. Caitlin talks very openly about our society's lack of death rituals, especially as most people become increasingly less involved in religion. Most of us are afraid of dead bodies, convinced that they will give us diseases, that we don't have any rights to the deceased's body after death, that we cannot transport them on our own or keep them longer than a few moments after they have passed from life to death. Our society likes to have death be behind closed doors. We are are secluded from death because it reminds us that we will die, and we don't like to be reminded.

I loved this book. I loved how she tackled the societal beliefs and norms that we have about death. Reading about the lack of regard many people have for their dead made me sad that I didn't participate in more of my own father's burial. I wish I hadn't let fear keep me from helping to dress him. I know I am a daughter, and that it would be weird to dress my father. But I wish I had. Even just his outer clothing. What I dislike about my lack of involvement is that it came from fear. Fear of my dad's scary dead body. I know that my sister participated in the dressing of one of her close relatives, and that she felt a great amount of peace from it. I regret not doing something similar for my dad. I won't let that fear impede me in the future.

If I thought I had strong beliefs about what I wanted to happen to my own body after death before reading it, they are even stronger now. Even though it sounds weird and new-agey, I think a home funeral would be very special to have or attend for a loved one. When I die, I don't want my family to be afraid of my body. (Nor do want them to keep it in the back bedroom as it waits for resurrection.) I want some sort of middle ground type of event to mark my passing. This passage perfectly describes my feelings for my body:

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!"
And another good sentence or two:

I understood I had been given my atoms, the ones that made up my heart and toenails and kidneys and brain, on a kind of universal loan program. The time would come when I would have to give the atoms back, and I didn't want to attempt to hold on to them through the chemical preservation of my future corpse.

I know, I know. It's morbid. But it's inevitable, and I don't want to pretend my own death (or the death of my loved ones, as much as I don't want it) won't happen (in a really, really long time.) I don't want to pretend I will always be young. I want to embrace the process of life, that leads, you know, to aging and eventual decomposition. It will happen whether I fear it or not. It feels brave. It feels empowered.

Check out Caitlyn's website. Read her book. It's disturbing, but I think we need to be a little disturbed. I think we need reminders of our mortality. We need to make decisions about our own deaths.


Feisty Harriet said...

So interesting!! Lots to think about here.

I went to a funeral last year for a young man and it was so unlike any I've attended, and so very very touching. There were tributes and laughter and tears and anger and stories and Shakespeare and Beatles and Pink Floyd was a celebration of life and a beautiful ceremony of loss and heartache.

I want my funeral to be more like that...and I am more and more sold on the idea of cremation.


Amy Sorensen said...

I'm so looking forward to reading this.

It is empowering to know now how you want to be taken care of after death. I love the thought of my borrowed molecules being returned to the world...becoming a tree is so much more peaceful to me than the idea of being locked up in a cement tomb.

Also: you are not cheap. That isn't the place you're coming from. I know that and YOU know it too. XO