The Bookworm Sez: Take a look behind the scenes at a funeral home

The Bookworm Sez: Take a look behind the scenes at a funeral home

Ashes to ashes. Dust to dust.

That’s supposedly what we are, and what we’ll end up being: just a few pounds of powdered remains that a good wind might easily scatter. That’s strange to think about — but comforting, at the same time.

For Caitlin Doughty, it was a fascination — so much so, that she imagined she might someday start her own funeral home. In the new book, “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes” (c.2014, W.W. Norton, $24.95, 254 pages) you’ll see how she landed at a crematory instead.

For most of her life, Caitlin Doughty was terrorized by death.

It started when she was eight years old, and witnessed another child’s accidental death in a Hawaii mall. From then on, Doughty says she was “consumed with death, disease, and darkness yet capable of passing as a quasi-normal schoolgirl” who decided early that, once she grew up, she’d start her own “elegant house of bereavement.” She’d call it “La Belle Mort … a place where families could come to mourn their dead in exciting new ways…”

Instead, she moved to San Francisco and got a job at Westwind Cremation & Burial, a family-owned funeral home.

But even for someone who’d had death on her mind for years, there was a lot to learn: she needed to know how to shave a corpse, how to retrieve bodies from homes and hospitals, how to prepare people (living and dead) for a funeral and — her main job — how to work a cremator. That last one was important, since “two of the world’s humans die every second” of every day and Westwind had secured a contract with the city to dispose of unclaimed bodies.

Most people, says Doughty, think that what funeral directors do is “both mystifying and disgusting.” It’s an attitude toward death that didn’t used to be; not all that long ago, families had intimate experience with it until modern culture began to “prevent such unsavory encounters …”

And yet, since we’re all going to die anyway, why not embrace the truth? That was a question that led Doughty to mortuary school, and the hopes of a new life. But she had to grapple with depression and her own mortality first.

Without a doubt, “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes” is TMI: Truly, Mortally Irresistible.

Author Caitlyn Doughty writes with a cheeky attitude that’s darkly funny but surprisingly vulnerable: we see an initial bravado that we know is shaky, but we also understand that whistling in the dark belies steely resolve.

In further explaining her job, Doughty is truthful and straightforward but with no gratuitous stomach-churning. Instead, she tickles our curiosity as she takes us behind the scenes, up next to the crematory, thereby guiding us away from our end-of-life fears and toward a better understanding.

I loved this GenX memoir but I was almost afraid to read it — not for what it says, but because I knew it would eventually end. It’s a book that’s hard to look away from; in fact, once you start “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes,” you’ll be turning pages until nothing remains.

The Bookworm is Terri Schlichenmeyer. Email her at

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