June 2015

Noted

‘Smoke Gets in Your Eyes’ by Caitlin Doughty

By Linda Jaivin
‘Smoke Gets in Your Eyes’ by Caitlin Doughty
A&U Canongate; $27.99

Caitlin Doughty begins this funny, smart, clear-eyed and compassionate book about death with an account of how the exotic dancer-turned-spy Mata Hari chose to stand unbound and unblindfolded before a French firing squad in 1917. “Looking mortality straight in the eye is no easy feat,” Doughty observes, evoking the fearful respect I’d felt on learning that Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran had made a similar decision. “To avoid the exercise,” Doughty continues, “we choose to stay blindfolded, in the dark as to the realities of death and dying. But ignorance is not bliss, only a deeper kind of terror.”

In Smoke Gets in Your Eyes (subtitled ‘And other lessons from the crematorium’), Doughty whips off our blindfolds. We learn, in ghoulish and scholarly detail, about such things as the moulds and blooms to which decaying bodies are susceptible, what cannibals really think of human flesh, the role of the morgue in fin-de-siècle Parisian popular entertainment, and the potential for trouble when a very large woman is cremated in a newly renovated oven. (Warning: do not eat your cheese toastie while reading about that.)

Doughty traces her obsession with death back to her witnessing, at the age of eight, a toddler accidentally plunge to her death in a mall. She gravitated to the study of medieval death practices and beliefs at university. At 23 she landed what was then her dream job: crematorium worker. On her first day, her boss handed her a pink plastic razor and told her to give a corpse a shave.

Doughty worked at this family-owned mortuary with nice, interesting people. She later realised how fortunate she was. While studying to become a qualified mortician, she learnt just how corporatised the funeral industry in the US has become, with “assembly line” processing, market-driven funerary upsizing in the form of cosmetic embalming and custom caskets, and, most disturbing of all, a euphemistic culture of “death denial”.

Doughty, who writes in fascinating detail of traditional and historical customs and beliefs around death, argues persuasively that “we cannot possibly live without a relationship to our mortality”. Her interest in “developing secular methods for addressing death” led her to found the LA-based Order of the Good Death. (Mission: “Accepting that death itself is natural, but the death anxiety of modern culture is not.”) It may sound like a grim read, but Smoke Gets in Your Eyes is in fact a buoyantly life-affirming book. Death, after all, “is the engine that keeps us running, giving us the motivation to achieve, learn, love, and create”. It is, as she points out, the ultimate deadline. 

Linda Jaivin

Linda Jaivin is an author and translator of Chinese. Her books include Eat Me, The Infernal Optimist and A Most Immoral Woman. Her most recent works are the novel The Empress Lover and the Quarterly Essay ‘Found in Translation’.

In This Issue

Image

Best laid plans

The 2015 budget has come and gone, but where is Joe Hockey's National Conversation?

Image of Algiers

Raised voices

Punk and gospel influences combine to make the personal political on Algiers’ self-titled debut

Disunited kingdom

A win for David Cameron and the Conservatives in the UK was inevitable

‘The Green Road’ by Anne Enright

Jonathan Cape; $32.99


Online exclusives

Image of US President Joe Biden meeting virtually with Chinese President Xi Jinping from the Roosevelt Room of the White House, November 15, 2021. Image © Susan Walsh / AP Photo

The avoidable war

Kevin Rudd on China, the US and the forces of history

Composite image of Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese speaking during the first leaders’ debate on April 20, 2022. Image © Jason Edwards / AAP Images

Election special: Who should you vote for?

Undecided about who to vote for in the upcoming federal election? Take our quiz to find out your least-worst option!

Image of the Stone of Remembrance at the Australian War Memorial, Canberra. Image © Lukas Coch / AAP Images

Remembrance or forgetting?

The Australian War Memorial and the Great Australian Silence

Image of Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese, Labor MP Emma McBride and shadow housing minister Jason Clare after meeting with young renter Lydia Pulley during a visit to her home in Gosford on May 3, 2022. Image © Lukas Coch / AAP Images

Property damage

What will it take for Australia to fix the affordable housing crisis?