Book Review: Smoke Gets in You Eyes by Caitlin Doughty

By on Nov 16, 2017 in Book Reviews, Spring | 0 comments

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Title: Smoke Gets in Your Eyes

Author: Caitlin Doughty

Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company; 1 edition (September 28, 2015)

Language: English

ISBN-10: 0393351904

ISBN-13: 978-0393351903

Genre: Memoir

Rating: 4/5


“Most people want to avoid thinking about death, but Caitlin Doughty―a twenty-something with a degree in medieval history and a flair for the macabre―took a job at a crematory, turning morbid curiosity into her life’s work. Thrown into a profession of gallows humour and vivid characters (both living and very dead), Caitlin learned to navigate the secretive culture of those who care for the deceased. 

Smoke Gets in Your Eyes tells an unusual coming-of-age story full of bizarre encounters and unforgettable scenes. Caring for dead bodies of every colour, shape, and affliction, Caitlin soon becomes an intrepid explorer in the world of the dead. She describes how she swept ashes from the machines (and sometimes onto her clothes) and reveals the strange history of cremation and undertaking, marvelling at bizarre and wonderful funeral practices from different cultures.

Her eye-opening, candid, and often hilarious story is like going on a journey with your bravest friend to the cemetery at midnight. She demystifies death, leading us behind the black curtain of her unique profession. And she answers questions you didn’t know you had: Can you catch a disease from a corpse? How many dead bodies can you fit in a Dodge van? What exactly does a flaming skull look like?

Honest and heartfelt, self-deprecating and ironic, Caitlin's engaging style makes this otherwise taboo topic both approachable and engrossing. Now a licensed mortician with an alternative funeral practice, Caitlin argues that our fear of dying warps our culture and society, and she calls for better ways of dealing with death (and our dead).”


After completing an obscure arts degree Caitlin Doughty applied for a job in the death industry. She arrived filled with romanticized views on death. In her position as crematory operator she quickly had to review her ideals. The book traces her journey for the first three – four years of her career in the death industry and also her journey to building a manifesto or sorts on how we can move towards the notion of a “good death”.

This is a memoir and told from the author’s point if view. The book covers a relatively short period in the author’s life, tracing her first year as a crematory operator, her training as a mortician, her role as a driver for an industrial crematory operation and finally as the manager of a crematory branch. The story takes place in California.

The book will appeal both to readers of memoir and those interested in the subject of death and the history of modern, American, death practises. The author manages, in her relatively informal style, to cover both in a way that is both entertaining and dignified. For me the balance between personal story and the bigger questions of how we manage death was well handled. I found the first few chapters of the book a little bit slow but from then onwards I was engaged throughout the remainder of the book without feeling it was too fast or two slow. The book deals primarily with the physical details of death and the death industry. It isn’t glamorised or macabre, so I would not recommend this to readers expecting a horror or vampire-esque” genre.

I picked up this book because I like to read “non-celebrity” memoirs and it didn’t disappoint in that regard. On selecting the book I didn’t expect to find myself questioning my own responses to death and dying. The book gave me an opportunity to have some of my assumptions about dying reflected back to me and to begin questioning in them in a way that was non threatening and not at all morbid. I came away feeling more at ease with the prospect of death as well as having a heap of personal questions about the physically of dying to think about.

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