By Patrick Stuart, BCW President
Have you ever wondered about death? I don’t mean in the existentialist, why are we here, is there really an h-e-double-toothpicks-type-stuff, but rather the more, shall we say, grittier side of things. Such as how do we decompose? If someone dies at a Burger King, who’s responsible for the body? And what happens during a cremation? Admit it, you’re curious. Yo también. But be curious no more, because mortician and author Caitlin Doughty recounts her experiences in cremation, embalming and other practices in the book Smoke Gets in Your Eyes & Other Lessons from the Crematory.
In case you’re unfamiliar with Caitlin, she’s run a website for several years aiming to educate people in the death process (more on that later). But her growing popularity and success has led to books, travels around the world, a YouTube channel, TED talks and her own non-profit funeral home. In Smoke Gets in Your Eyes, she starts at the beginning as a college graduate with an esoteric liberal arts degree and zero job experience, which naturally leads to employment in a San Francisco mortuary. However, the first line of the book immediately sets up the author’s sense of humor and no-nonsense approach: ‘a girl always remembers the first corpse she shaves.’ Be honest . . . as an opening, that’s killer (har, pun intended). But from that point on, she takes us on her journey as a body snatcher and crematory operator, discussing in frank detail all the fascinating bits involved with the processing of death. The ways bodies decompose, how to make corpses appear lifelike, what’s left after cremation, the details of embalming (and why she’s against it), and several other topics. Although the subject matter is dark, her approach is matter-of-fact, deliberately contrasting how death has become part voodoo/part taboo in our modern society. And as mystery writers who dole out death on a regular basis, let’s face it; we should know as much about the subject as possible.
A follow-up book by the same author is From Here to Eternity; Traveling the World to Find the Good Death. This time, Caitlin recounts her years between mortuary school and opening her own funeral home, traveling and observing various funerary rites and practices around the world. Her goal is similar; to educate and ‘normalize’ death by getting up close and personal to it, but this time from different cultural viewpoints. She visits a region of Indonesia known as Tana Toraja, where the local ethnic group mummifies their relatives and keeps them in their houses, sometimes even their beds, before moving them years later to their final resting place. There’s also Crestone, Colorado, one of the few places in the U.S. that allows natural, open-air cremations. Also skull worship in Bolivia. The mummies of Guanajuato, Mexico (which freaked out Ray Bradbury so much that he wrote a short story about them). And of course, the Western Carolina University ‘body farm’ of North Carolina. All with plenty of details to spur your writerly juices, and perhaps add a little oomph to the exposition in your next novel.
Bonus: if you’re looking for even more information (or just want to kill some time), I highly suggest Caitlin’s YouTube channel Ask A Mortician. There’s several videos, ranging from roughly 5 – 15 minutes each, all covering a wide variety of topics from the Pearl Harbor Memorial (the author is originally from Hawaii) to necrophilia, shrunken heads, Victorian corpse photographs, what happens during a graveside exhumation, and many other subjects. As testament to their popularity, many of these videos have over one million views, being both informative and showcasing the author’s trademark droll sense of humor. And if you like, you can even make a quick, tiny contribution to her non-profit, which a) is how she pays for it all, and b) will cause you to feel all warm and fuzzy inside. Or maybe that’s the expired sushi you discovered earlier in your refrigerator . . . either way, check it out. Oh, and keep writing.