cover image Smoke Gets in Your Eyes and Other Lessons from the Crematory

Smoke Gets in Your Eyes and Other Lessons from the Crematory

Caitlin Doughty. Norton, $24.95 (256p) ISBN 978-0-393-24023-8

In this valiant effort Doughty, a Hawaii-born LA mortician and creator of the web series "Ask a Mortician," uses her work as a crematorium operator at the family-owned Westwind Cremation and Burial in Oakland, Calif., to challenge the way we view death. Having studied medieval history in college, Doughty found an early job with the real deal: feeding the two huge "retorts," the cremation machines in the Westwind warehouse, with corpses%E2%80%94some not so fresh%E2%80%94retrieved by order from private homes or, more often, from hospitals, nursing homes, and the coroner's office. Doughty was eager to prove her mettle, and offered to do any number of odious tasks, such as shaving corpses, or otherwise helping Bruce the embalmer prepare them for the bereaved family's viewing: pumping them with the "salmon pink cocktail" of formaldehyde and alcohol, wielding the trusty trocar, and sewing closed mouths and eyelids. Her descriptions about picking dead babies up from the hospital prove particularly difficult to read. Nonetheless, Doughty does stare death in the face, by tracking down numerous ancient rituals (she observes approvingly how some Eastern cultures still participate in the preparing of the body), pursuing fascinating new words such as "desquamation" and "bubblating" (both refer to excess fluids), and celebrating the natural function of decomposition. (Sept.)