‘For fans of death only’ – Smoke Gets in Your Eyes by Caitlin Doughty

sgiyecdA coming-of-age memoir about a young woman fresh out of university who takes a job in a crematorium sounds fascinating doesn’t it? We live in a world which buries not just the dead, but all thoughts and talk of mortality and dying, where we desensitise ourselves to the concept of death to the point where, when our loved ones die, we don’t perhaps mourn in the healthiest of ways. For someone to come along and talk openly about working with the dead, and the corporate ritual that is the modern day funeral, is a welcome thing. So why then does Smoke Gets in your Eyes fall so flat so quickly?

It starts off promisingly, Caitlin Doughty recounts an experience as a child during which she witnessed (potentially) the death of another child in a shopping mall, grounding her with a sense of mortality and a wish to learn more about the end of our lives. Her early days working in the crematorium are typical workplace stories (packed full of “characters” and “jokers”) which are elevated somewhat by the weird tasks they undertake (one particular sequence in which they have to stem a flow of bubbling fat from a newly installed concrete floor is particularly grisly and fun). Doughty, a history graduate, gets the most out of the book when she delves into the history of burial rites and ritual – discussing everything from cannibalistic tribes to Norse mythology. Her thoughts and ideas about the ways in which we treat death are interesting and sometimes verge on inspiring.

However, the overall tone of the book feels off. Doughty has a tin ear for comedy, and almost all the jokes, asides, “hilarious” conversations with workmates (tediously recounted, with all jokes explained by the narrator afterwards) fail to raise even a smile. The writing veers enormously from extremely readable (the aforementioned historical passages) to an immature blog style for more present day sections. Several moments which should give some emotional heft to the narrative feel shoehorned in at the last moment, or simply forgotten about amidst the author’s desire to squeeze another terrible joke out of the narrative.

That there are moments that shine in this book makes it more of a shame that it doesn’t work. One gets the feeling that this would have worked better as a blog (the author has written several blogs of a similar nature, which is no surprise), and that instead of a memoir, this book was instead a history of funeral practices.

Any Cop?: If you have an interest in the topic then it will at least raise some interesting questions, but otherwise this is an extremely flawed book. For fans of death only.

Daniel Carpenter


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