Smoke Gets in Your Eyes & Other Lessons from the Crematory

Doughty, Caitlin

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Memoir

  • Date of entry: Aug-30-2020
  • Last revised: Aug-31-2020


At 23 years of age, Caitlin Doughty went to work for a crematory in Oakland, California, and looked human mortality right in the eye. She reports on her first six years in the funeral industry, learning about it and also resolving to stay in it so that she can improve it. Her eye-witness account provides the basic narrative structure of this book. 

She makes house calls to gather up the dead and drive them to the crematory. She is fascinated by several specific bodies, giving us portraits of them and their past lives. Some of them are our least-well-off citizens, and these occasion touching prose.

Doughty realizes that her fear of death has roots of seeing, at eight years of age, a child dying from a fall in a two-story shopping mall. Her work with bodies helps her heal from her trauma. She imagines that her history may be a parallel for American society as a whole that now hides, covers up, and ignores the realities death and dying. She specifically envisions changes that will result in healthier attitudes and practices in the funeral industry. 

Doughty describes in detail how the dead are embalmed, made up to look “natural,” and presented to relatives at viewings. She criticizes these rituals as demeaning to the dead and causing unnecessary expense to their families. She describes Forest Lawn cemetery as the Disneyland of the Dead, recalling Jessica Mitford’s critical book, The American Way of Death (1963).

Having studied medieval history at the University of Chicago as an undergrad, Doughty brings many texts into her discussion, from history, anthropology, literature, philosophy, medico-legal discussions, religion, and social criticism. All societies have customs for dying, death, and burial; many of them, she feels, are healthier and more realistic than those of contemporary America.         

Finishing her time at the crematory, she decides to stay in the industry in order to improve it. She graduates from the Cypress College of Mortuary Science and passes exams to become a licensed funeral director in the state of California. She posts her essays and manifestos on the Internet under the name “The Order of the Good Death.” Many others join her in a movement against American “death dystopia” (p. 234).  


This is a no-holds-barred account on the one hand but also, on the other, an academic and visionary book. Doughty gives us, in various chunks, the three realms of expose, history, and cultural criticism—a triple-threat presentation that has energy from the contrasts in style and subject matter.   

As for expose: Doughty describes cremation in detail, suicides from the Golden Gate Bridge, and “floaters,” corpses that have been in water for many days. Her style is specific and dramatic; it breaks the usual avoidance taboos of our society. She pulls back the curtain to give us unsparing descriptions with extraordinary imagery of sight, smell, and sound. Some readers will be shocked…and perhaps also fascinated. 

The discussions of academic, artistic, and cultural backgrounds give us the sense that the modern American funeral practices are an anomaly, an outlier in the history of humans and in customs around the world. These are intelligent and thoughtful passages. A ten-page “Notes on Sources” gives bibliographic information for scores of books and articles, although not page numbers for citations.  

Her criticism of current practices emerge from her personal experience as a worker in the industry and her psychological healing from her obsessive compulsive disorder caused by viewing the accidental death. Her healing was not through cognitive behavioral therapy in her youth, but, she says, through her choice to work directly with the dead (see her section “The Thud,” pp. 25-35). “The Thud” refers to the sound of impact of the falling child. Many chapter titles are playful/challenging phrases. There are also swear words freely used in quotations of speakers and in Doughty’s own energetic—and often judgmental—comments.           

I believe possible improvements in our funeral industry are well served by her triple approach, even as they are sometimes jarring next to each other. This is an important and welcome book. Not only does it criticize social norms about death and funeral practices, but it also lays out alternatives for more realistic and healing paths forward, both in guiding concepts and in specific practices. 

The book appeared in 2014. As of this writing, her website (now extensive) discusses a dozen topics such as home funerals, green death technology, natural burial, and the “death positive movement” in general, all active today in concept and, in some settings, in practice. (See Doughty has her own funeral and cremation service today in Los Angeles. 


Caitlin Doughty is creator of the Web series "Ask a Mortician," founder of The Order of Good Death, and author of two later books, From Here to Eternity; Traveling the World to Find the Good Death (2017), and Will My Cat Eat My Eyeballs?: Big Questions from Tiny Mortals About Death (2019).


W.W. Norton & Company

Place Published

New York



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