Review: Smoke Gets In Your Eyes by Caitlin Doughty


Smoke Gets In Your Eyes is an ambitious, philosophical book about Caitlin Doughty’s journey to understand, then help others to understand, death. This is not your typical superficial exploration of the topic of mortuary practices, distancing the reader from the anecdotes with anthropological and scientific research and interviews. It has those elements, but rather than distancing they enhance and draw the reader even more fully into the topics the anecdotes are illuminating. I was I was most interested by the vision, drive and intense vulnerability that the author revealed in the second half of the book. I look forward to reading more of her writings in the future, and hope her audience takes many of her words to heart.



OK, this is another book I found through my Facebook Group, but not because the author is a member. One of the other writers was investigating cremation (something I have a lot of personal experience with through my Forensics training) and posted a link to Caitlin Doughty’s “Ask a Mortician” Youtube series. I posted my two cents on the topic, and then later that night watched the video. I was hooked. When Doughty mentioned her upcoming book at the end I immediately bought it on pre-order.




I reached a point in this book when I knew what I wanted done with my body after my death. Doughty had reached the same (different) conclusion pages before. I remembered a recent ferry trip I had taken – from Seattle to Bainbridge Island, where the ferry had slowed and stalled in the middle of the voyage for a few minutes, sounded three long blasts on its horn before once again chugging along its commute. People around me were confused and as a ferry veteran I explained, “Oh, it was probably a wedding or a funeral – they do both. From the horn blasts, it was probably a funeral.” This enlightened my fellow passengers and I was a little surprised at how easily they shrugged it off. Someone’s mortal remains had just been poured off the back of the boat thousands of people take every day to get about their lives.

No big deal.

As I read this book, the delayed sailing was brought to mind and I knew that was what I wanted. A momentary pause on the vessel I took several times a month, a quiet dispersal in to the heart of the Sound I loved, then the voyage continuing on for all those I loved.

The decision of what to have done with their body after death will probably occur to most people who read this book. That is, after all, the goal of the author; to establish a dialog about what happens to human remains after death – the good and the icky – and to lessen the fear that lack of information brings. As Doughty points out several times in the book, our current culture is artificially removed from so many aspects of death that we have invented an entire industry to sweep under the rug what we all will have to deal with several times during our lifetimes for those we care about, and ultimately will have to hope that someone capable can care for on our behalf.

As I said in the Amazon Review, I was expecting a book more like Mary Roach’s “Stiff” – an entertaining yet ultimately even more distancing approach to the ultimate outcome of life. Don’t get me wrong, I really enjoyed that book which is perhaps why I was anticipating something similar.

But Doughty’s book removes the “this is what happens to other people” aspect, and makes it much more “this is what I saw, and what will happen to ALL OF US.” She is a revolutionary in the modern mortuary industry. She believes not in upselling or in “customizing” funerals, but in freedom to have the funeral we want, and to give others the funerals they deserve.

And not just the funeral they deserve, but ultimately the death they desire.

This book brushes repeatedly, but not graphically, on the topic of suicide. There is a smidge of idealization, particularly in the case of the elderly and already dying, but that was almost inevitable given a book about accepting mortality. When you have done that, the next logical step is deciding how you want your mortality to conclude. If this is a painful or triggering topic, a firmly discourage you from reading this book.

As someone who has touched more dead people in my life than living ones, I really appreciated reading this book. It is compassionate, thorough, and extremely thought-provoking.


My main thoughts as a writer were admiration – non-fiction is not my forte but I appreciated the weaving of personal experiences and other sources, and the very solid progression of topics. There were many themes here – youth, love, old age, control, fear, acceptance – and they reoccurred and evolved as the book progressed. This will be on the list of books I periodically re-read, just to take that journey again.

A friendly rival of mine (over at puckishwird) recently disparaged another non-fiction book I had enjoyed because of the frequent use of “I”. Doughty also abuses the “I” – she is clearly telling HER story in an auto-biographical manner. There are interwoven sections of other viewpoints to dilute that, but it will always, frequently, come back to her. I personally do not think this detracts from the book because of the general nature of her observations and introspections. This is an author with an agenda – not just to discuss a topic, but to revolutionize the way that topic is even represented in our modern culture. And in her ambition, she frequently refers to “I”, perhaps in the hope that the reader will also identify with her “I”.

So Joshua, you have been warned.

I am taking several pieces of value from this book, and will probably find a way to incorporate them into my own musings in a more fictionalized manner. There is definitely food for thought in these pages.


You can get Caitlin Doughty’s book through Amazon and other fine retailers since it was traditionally published. It’s also available through Audible. You can also find her blog here.

Next up is Casia Schreyer’s “Nothing, Everything, Nothing” – a more in-depth exploration of the topic of suicide – and then for a change of pace, R.R. Virdi’s “Grave Beginnings” about a soul who takes over corpses of the decently deceased to solve crimes. Reading these three books in a row was a total coincidence. What is with all the dead people??


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s