Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: And Other Lessons from the Crematory

At 23, Caitlin Doughty had an undergraduate degree in medieval history and a lifelong fascination with death. Interested in turning her preoccupation into a profession, she eventually secured a position as crematory operator at Westwind Cremation & Burial in Oakland, Calif. In just a few months, she learned how to cremate bodies (do the larger people early in the day, babies at the end), what exactly happens after the oven (bones have to be ground down in a special blender to create the uniform ashes the family expects) and how to pick up a recently deceased body from a family at home (mostly, keep your mouth shut). She learned that dead people aren't really scary, once you get used to them, and came to believe that wired jaws and copious makeup are less attractive and less respectful than simply letting the dead look--and be--well, dead.

In her debut memoir of "lessons from the crematory," Doughty also shares her research into the death rituals and mythologies of other cultures throughout history, and points out how they differ from contemporary Western practices: while other practices conform to a system of beliefs, our so-called modern death-disposal techniques arise from a fear of mortality and a need to hide dead things away. By contrast, Doughty believes in having a more accepting attitude toward mortality. Her earnest, playful coming-of-age tale encompasses love and life (and death), and her appeal for a new cultural approach to the end of life is refreshingly frank and simple at the same time that it is profound. --Julia Jenkins, librarian and blogger at pagesofjulia

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