BOOK REVIEWS FROM A CURIOUS MIND: I read a lot. Books and the data/stories contained within them are my oldest friends. My wife suggested in her wisdom that I should write up short summaries/observations on the books I've been reading, since people might be interested, so I did. 5+ years running. Comments are welcome.
Gets in Your Eyes: and Other Lessons from the Crematory – Caitlyn Doughty
Death is as natural as it gets.The process of life ends inevitably in
death.The true “human condition,” what
actually differentiates us from most other animals, is that we live our lives
with the foreknowledge of our own imminent demise.At least, most of us humans do.It is what pushes us to achieve, to marry and
reproduce, to explore, and to many of us, to wallow in deep depression and
self-pity.Our views on death feel
natural and organic, but they are far from it.It is our culture and our families that teach us how to look at death,
how to receive it, and experience it, and think about it.
Our western society has kept up a steady
pace of removing death from our daily lives.Whereas people used to die at home, surrounded by family, and cared for
after death by the family before burial, nowadays most people who die
non-accidental deaths do so in a hospital, nursing home, or a hospice of some
sort, usually surrounded by strangers, in a clinical, anonymous environment,
and embalmed of cremated before burial.This
is a fairly recent phenomenon.Caitlin
Doughty wrote this book after diving in head first into the world of crematoria
and funeral homes.
The author has a long history with
death, both in a personal and in a scholastic manner.She details witnessing a young girl fall from
a second story balcony at a mall when she was a very young person and how it
stamped mortality into her unprepared brain.She proceeded to mature and grow as a young girl and young woman, with
countless manias and phobias all directed at keeping death at bay.She talks about how as a kid she would
repeatedly spit into the front of her shirt, thinking that this was somehow a
talisman that would keep death from coming for her mother.Our world and her family had not prepared her
for the existence of death itself, so when she first experienced such an event,
it traumatized her deeply.
Smoke, and dead people soot, does indeed get in your eyes...
In her University studies she focused
on medieval literature, specifically anything and everything to do with death
and how different cultures saw and dealt with death and the dead bodies. After school she applied and got a job as a
crematorium operator, for a funeral home in the Bay Area of California. Ms. Doughty draws on her education and shares
parts of what she learned and studied regarding cultures and death as she describes
her life in the crematoria.
The descriptions are brutally accurate
with nothing undisclosed, from the colors of putrefaction to the hardships of
dealing with the bereaved to the horrible and unexpected accidents and
situations that can occur working in such a morbidly specialized field.As she grows experienced in her job she also
talks about her growth in life, and how she hates the funeral industry that
seeks to market every possible euphemism for death without actually discussing
the truths of death with the bereaved.Much scorn is heaped upon the con-artists who see a family’s suffering
as a means to fleece them for more and more money.She was lucky to work at a place that did not
have a corporate structure forcing them to cut corners and mass-produce
results, and with co-workers who were decent and dedicated.
This book really made me think deeply
about death and my own experiences with it.My father died at home, after a long illness, and I was able to go sit
with his body for a while by myself.I
could not imagine at the time anything worse, but I am very glad that he died
at home, surrounded by his family, and not stuck in a cold, grey box at a
hospital or hospice or nursing home somewhere.The author describes her dream for our modern world, where people can
die with dignity, be cared for by those that love them, and be interred or
cremated with a proper sense of ritual.These rituals are not for the deceased, but for those they leave behind,
and the more meaningful and resonant we can make these rituals of death, the
better we will all be as a result.Our
modern world lives in a state of constant fear and anxiety about death.We hide our aging, we ignore the elderly, and
we focus solely on youth and youthfulness, as if death could be ignored or
magically kept at bay.Death gives
meaning to our lives.Death creates new
life.We even ignore the vast millions
of deaths caused by our needs for convenient meat and vegetable.It is creating a culture with deep
imbalances, and bizarre coping mechanisms.The most popular drugs right now are prescription painkillers, used by
people of all ages to numb their inner lives, to blank out and ignore the progress
of life towards death.This book makes a
good case for fixing this before it can no longer be repaired.