I just finished reading Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: and Other Lessons from the Crematory by Caitlin Doughty — author, mortician, and public advocate of the good death. The woman who recommended the book to me described it as “a good read, if you don’t mind morbid,” and so I braced myself slightly as I began Doughty’s reflections on death, corpses and working in the funeral industry.
The fact that I didn’t find the book morbid (sure, there was plenty of talk about the smells and sounds and sights of death, but nothing that I wouldn’t read while eating) tells me that I must not mind morbid. This might have something to do with the fact that one of my numerous part-time jobs is in hospital chaplaincy. Though nothing in comparison to Doughty, I do spend a decent amount of time with dead people. This has normalized death — the sounds, smells and sights of it, but also the inevitability of it — for me, making it seem less morbid and more like an ordinary fact of life.
Doughty’s book made me realize how grateful I am to have a job that has normalized death for me. Doughty named many of the problems that individuals for whom death isn’t “normal” face: anxiety when contemplating their own mortality if not flat out refusal to consider their own mortality, willingness to prolong life at all costs even if it means a substantial decrease in quality of life, and shying away from rituals that can promote healthy grieving in the face of the death of a loved one.
She also named many of the benefits that being aware of, present to, and open in the face of death (the deaths of others, the fact that we will die, etc.). To quote Doughty: “Death might appear to destroy the meaning in our lives, but in fact it is the very source of our creativity. As Kafka said, “The meaning of life is that it ends.” Death is the engine that keeps us running, giving us the motivation to achieve, learn, love, and create.”
In many ways, this book confirmed what I have felt privileged to learn through years of chaplaincy work. I often regret (on behalf of others) that my friends and family members don’t have the opportunity to work with dying individuals and grieving families, because I have found it to be such a valuable and life changing experience. Now, I’m glad that I have a book to recommend to these friends and family members.