Review: Smoke Gets in Your Eyes

I have resisted my penchant for All Things Morbid for some time, but couldn’t manage to force myself not to read Caitlin Doughty‘s Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: And Other Lessons from the Crematory.  It seemed fitting literary romp for the gal whose Make-A-Wish was to go to Salem, Massachusetts for Halloween. In fact, one of my favorite books of all time is Mary Roach’s Stiff.

Doughty’s book began wonderfully – full of wit, and eyes-wide-open. We learn why she chose mortuary work, and get to learn fun facts and figures about the funeral industry. Some subjects, like stillborn infants, are written about with grace and intrigue, which I can respect as an incredibly difficult juxtaposition to manage, let alone pull off with Doughty’s finesse.

Yet, my beef is in book’s perception of human dignity, not significantly discussed until the end of the book. Part reference book and part memoir, the reader learns about how certain bodies caused the author to reflect on her own life, love, and mortality. Discussing a particularly poignant exchange, Doughty remembers a “wheelchair-bound” widow that she believes “should have been the first to go.” In addition to these stereotypical conclusions, she also infantilizes the widow; after receiving his wife’s cremains, the widow “just thanked me in his thin voice, and cradled the brown box in his lap like a child.” Why should someone that uses a wheelchair die before his able-bodied wife? Why is he any less vital than any other grieving spouse?

It’s not that Doughty has ill-intentions toward the disabled widow; in fact, when he is brought to the crematory not long after, Doughty weeps for the loss of love – deep, beautiful love – that he and his former wife had. Their love is something that Doughty appears to envy. Why not, then, respect other aspects of his life?

It wasn’t until reading this book that I began to realize the deep roots of ableism in American society. I had always written the time off as liberal mumbo jumbo. But when the author began to talk about dignity, linking it with death, I grew alarmed. Doughty even references a piece by Atul Gawande (who also writes beautifully about mortality), and questions whether grandma and grandpa should be enabled to try and cheat death through medical intervention. Why not, then, the poor widow in a wheelchair?

Indeed, Smoke Gets in Your Eyes got me thinking. Just probably not in the way the author intended.

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