BookPage Nonfiction Top Pick, September 2014

“So, really, what’s a nice girl like me doing working at a ghastly ol’ crematory like Westwind?” Caitlin Doughty asks near the beginning of Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: And Other Lessons from the Crematory, her by turns shockingly gruesome, mordantly funny and, ultimately, richly thought-provoking memoir about working in an Oakland, California, mortuary and crematorium.

It’s an excellent question. Part of the answer, we learn, lies in the death obsession Doughty developed as an 8-year-old after witnessing a child’s plunge from an escalator in a shopping mall in Hawaii where she grew up. One flowering of that obsession was a plan to create a slick, modern, hip—fun, even—mortuary she would call La Belle Mort.

But, Doughty soon discovers that “the day-to-day realities of working at Westwind were more savage than I had anticipated.” And she proceeds to write graphically—and wittily—about those realities: the transportation, embalming and cremation of all shapes, sizes and ages of dead bodies and body parts. Here is one of the less graphic passages: “For those of you who have not had the privilege of smelling Eau de Decomposition, the first note of a putrefying human body is of licorice with a strong citrus undertone. Not a fresh, summer citrus mind you—more like a can of orange-scented industrial bathroom spray shot directly up your nose.”

Doughty’s very unsentimental education at Westwind and, later, in mortuary school has turned her into a forceful and eloquent advocate for confronting the reality of death, as readers will discover in the final chapters of this memoir. “I went from thinking it was a little bizarre that we don’t see dead bodies anymore to believing their absence was a root cause of major problems in the modern world,” she writes. “Death should be known. Known as a difficult mental, physical and emotional process, respected and feared for what it is.” Smoke Gets in Your Eyes offers a path toward that knowledge.

ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read a Q&A with Doughty for Smoke Gets in Your Eyes.

This article was originally published in the September 2014 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

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