June 2015

Noted
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’.

June 2015

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