Book Review: Riveting tales from the crematory

I first encountered Caitlin Doughty while watching Ted Talks. Her talk, a burial practice that nourishes the planet, explores different ideas for burial that don’t pollute the environment with toxic, cancer-causing formaldehyde. It was absolutely fascinating, so when I learned that she was a published author with three books, I wasted no time getting my hands on them.   

In Smoke Gets in Your Eyes, Doughty tells the story of her journey into the funeral industry, from crematory assistant, then mortuary school, to founder of the death acceptance collective The Order of the Good Death. The book opens with her first day as a crematory assistant, flashes back to her first encounter with death, and goes over frank and often graphic descriptions of what happens to bodies at the funeral home and beyond. It’s definitely not a book for the faint of heart, but far from being all sadness, horror and gore, this book is also hilarious, candid, and empowering. Doughty challenges the idea of death avoidance that has permeated our society’s death rituals in the last hundred years with the rise of the multimillion-dollar funeral industry. She challenges the reader to ask themselves what do you want to happen to your body when you die?

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Her next two books are equally enjoyable and fascinating. In From Here To Eternity, Doughty explores different current cultural death rituals. From Zoroastrian sky burials, to Bolivian natitas, and Japanese kotsuage ceremonies, there is an immense diversity on how humans care for the dead.In Will My Cat Eat My Eyeballs?, Doughty answers questions children have posed about death such as can Grandma have a Viking funeral?, or what would happen if you swallowed a bag of popcorn before you died and were cremated?

Death is inevitable. No matter how much we might not want to, we will all, eventually, die. It is an unchangeable and, at times, terrifying truth. It certainly terrified me, but after reading Dougthy’s three books, death feels less frightening and more like just another part of being human. It is not something I’m looking forward to but it is not something I avoid talking about. I most definitely recommend these fascinating, hilarious, and poignant books to those of a curious mind and a brave heart.

Ariana Galeano is the Head of Community Branch Services at the Richmond Public Library

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