I like informative but fun non-fiction reads. I love to learn about things but I don’t want the textbook droning feel. That’s why after hearing a radio interview of Caitlin Doughty I picked up her book. She and I hold some shared views on death, more on that below. Also I learned something about the funeral industry as well as about cremation in the interview. I found the book a page turner that I consumed voraciously. I highly recommend it but then again I’m one who still recommends Behind The Formaldehyde Curtain By Jessica Mitford decades after I read it my freshman year in college. If you find frank discussion of what happens to bodies after death disturbing, heck, if you find frank talk about death itself in relations to you and other humans disturbing this book is not for you (nor is that link to the Formaldehyde Curtain above). BUT if like me you are curious even a little bit about death, how we do it and how others deal with it the book is for you and so are my comments below.
This book is partly autobiographical exploration of Ms. Doughty’s evolving view of not just death but of how we deal with the resulting corpse. How we’ve distanced ourselves from it and gotten the thought that death itself is unclean. From the police officer telling a woman she can get diabetes from a corpse of a loved one to those who pay extra to see the of a loved one cremated Ms. Doughty experiences it all. Death is something so personal yet so universal that every encounter is different, unique but holds similarities. She looks at our culture’s distance from death and the practices of funerary cannibalism. I will say I was disappointed about how she romanticized the funerary practice of cannibalism. Having recently read Sam Kean’s The Tale of the Dueling Neurosurgeons I knew the horrors of how and why such practices effect prions that form the brain for decades to come leading to a horribly painful death. Still I agree with her point that our society needs to stop vilifying death and come to terms with it. It’s not to be feared, can’t be avoided, isn’t bad – it just is.
I found the mechanics of cremation interesting. Did you know that pacemakers have to be removed? They can explode in the retort harming the workers. Did you know that some states require ashes be ground to a powder so no teeth or bone fragments are visible? The Cremulator (I agree with Doughty that sounds like an evil villain in a comic) is a blender like device to do that. However babies have to be done by hand. Did you know that crematory operators have to perfect the baby pitch into the retort (aka oven)? Yes there’s a large jet of flame that comes down to strike the full torso of an adult, it there most of the power of the cremation is. Babies aren’t the right size to just slide in so the operators perfect the baby toss to get them there and when they miss in a hot machine, well it’s sad and results have to run again. Did you know we fatties can overflow the drip pans? Yeah, sorry whoever gets me sell it to Tyler Durden to make some kick ass soap.
In the end it’s not the dead that are the hardest to deal with, it is the living that survive them. Doughty tells of corpse pick ups where she had to face the family or a hospital security guard who thought burning babies was awful. She tells of wear red to a Chinese funeral and the dirty looks she got. (red is the color of happiness and it just happened to be her dress to work that day). In the end Doughty comes to terms with death in her own way and only asks that we do the same. Maybe we don’t do in the crematory but that we look it in the face acknowledge it’s there and deal with it. There are no right or wrong answers here but I agree with her, there are no answers in ignoring the inevitable.