Smoke Gets In Your Eyes: A Q&A About Death With My Sister

by - December 02, 2017

When reading Smoke Gets In Your Eyes by Caitlin Doughty I simply couldn't shut up about it. The book is an essay bundle about Doughty's experiences as a crematorium employee (mixed with her degree in medieval history), her obsession with death and her plea for death to be reintroduced into (Western) society. She writes:

"If decomposing bodies have disappeared from culture (which they have), but those same decomposing bodies are needed to alleviate the fear of death (which they are), what happens to a culture where all decomposition is removed? We don't need to hypothesize: we live in just such a culture. A culture of death denial." (p. 165)

This death denial, according to Doughty, explains our obsession with youth and the idea that the natural aging of our bodies is grotesque. Making us spend billions of dollars on anti-aging creams while ignoring the millions of children starving to death. Doughty is convinced that by reintroducing death into our lives we can achieve a 'good death':

"Accepting death doesn't mean you won't be devastated when someone you love dies. It means you will be able to focus on your grief, unburdened by bigger existential questions like 'Why do people die?' and 'Why is this happening to me?'. Death isn't happening to you. Death happens to us all." (p. 232)

As said, I simply couldn't shut up about this book when reading it. Not just because of these elevating thinking patterns, but also because of the many -what can be typified as gross- facts about dead bodies in crematoriums or unusual death rituals such as applying cannibalism (to get 'completely rid' of death) and naturally the dark humour that combines it all neatly. It provoked such a fascination that it simply had to be shared. And I knew exactly with who...

Party crashers

I wouldn't necessarily describe my sister as morbid in nature, but you would be startled with the things she says/laughs at/reads. As a comparison I asked her what she was reading at the time: a book about a deaf girl and her friend. The friend gets killed in a car crash and the ones driving the car kidnap the deaf girl as they don't want any witnesses of their fault doing. After being captured and held prisoner for some time, she falls in love with one of the people that killed her friend/kidnapped her. Eventually the car crashers get caught and put behind bars. Sounds fun right? Innocent stuff. "Yeah, but what you're reading is true!", my sister protests, "mine is just all fantasy!". Yeah... So twisted fantasy isn't as bad as cold hard facts as it isn't based on the truth? (What do you think, dearest reader?).

"After going on and on and on about the details of how a certain tribe ate their rotting deceased, she briskly turns to me and said: You'll have to shut up now."

Anyway, I thought the best time to share my newest fascination was during a train/bus ride to Utrecht for school business; I had to hand-in an essay and my sister had an exam. However after going on and on and on about the details of how a certain tribe ate their rotting deceased, she briskly turns to me and said: "You'll have to shut up now, I'm truly going to be sick and I still have to do my exam!". "Sorry", I replied somewhat sheepishly and promised to shut up till after the exams. Then I went on and on and on and on again (but this time about how dead bodies get prepared in crematoriums and how your face sinks in after your brain is removed).

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They call it death, doom and despair for a reason

Although she couldn't fully appreciate the dark horrors of reality. I persuaded sister-dear to think just a little bit longer about death with me. Call it an innocent family bonding exercise...

How would you describe your relation with death?

I try not to think about it. It isn't really a happy subject, if you get what I mean. But I don't mind talking about it as long as it doesn't get too specific or personal.

But are you scared of death?

I find it uneasy when directly confronted with it, but I wouldn't say I'm scared. There are so many other things to be scared about. But if the doctor said to me 'you're dying' I also wouldn't be cheering. *she dramatically pauses* Dead animals do give me the creeps. When I'm doing my round [she's a postman] and there's a dead bird or something lying in the drive way, I'm not going near it. No way.

So those people just won't receive their post that day?

Well one time someone who lived in that house just arrived so I could give it to him, but otherwise no. Dead animals is where it stops for me.

Doughty describes in her book how we can prevent an existential crisis if we re-evaluate our relation to death. If we aren't as fussed or confused or upset about the idea of death, we can achieve a 'good death' (Doughty also talks in this regards to a more natural way of burial, but I won't go into that). What do you think?

I think it's in human nature that we're curious about existential matters and the question 'why we die' will therefore never cease to exist. I think that if you see or relate to death through the eyes of a certain believe or religion, it already drastically changes in how you deal with it and accept it, as there's something you can hold on to. So in that way the idea of a good death is very partial.

"Although when I do reincarnate I want to become a sheep. Or a frog."

However you're not particularly religious, so what's the 'salvation' for us non-believers?

You're right. Personally I think there's more than just life and death, but I don't have a particular idea of what that more is, like heaven or reincarnation. Although when I do reincarnate I want to become a sheep. Or a frog.

Media, I think, also plays a significant role in the way we go about the idea and acceptance of death.

The news mainly focuses on tragedies, which can be seen as abnormalities. Like, they never report on someone who died peacefully at eighty-something after having lived a nice life. You generally only hear about people who are gruesomely killed. And it also mostly focuses on the how or the who but not the way people deal with those deaths afterwards.

Recently there's been some commotion in the (fashion/beauty) blogging world where people are being accused of misplacing or not using their power or influence to talk about -among other things- tragedies that have happened in the world (and to try to change them for the better). Do you think blogs should provide a space where tragedies (or world politics) can be discussed?

I think that most people write and read blogs as a way to relax or as a fun activity. I don't necessarily think bloggers are therefore obliged to write about death, doom and despair. Also as a reader I don't think you're waiting to always be ethically informed as there are so many other ways you can get that kind of information. On a more personal level, this makes me think about those people who post on Facebook that their grandma died or something with a sad face. And then a hundred people 'likes' the post. I don't think that's the way to do it.

If that's not the way, what else?

Well I think people should be more considerate if for instance somebody dies directly related to you. You should give and take time to process that grief on your own or within a closed group. Instead of immediately making it something a hundred people can like. But naturally everyone deals differently with death and grief, which makes it so difficult.

"You should give and take time to process that grief on your own or within a closed group. Instead of immediately making it something a hundred people can like."

So what do you think then, if you say social media isn't necessarily the place to discuss death and grief, about me trying to include it on my blog (see for instance here, here and here) and even making a #Blogmas post out of it?

Personally I'm not a fan. However it is a way of trying to deal with it. And if the topic is introduced with a waring attached to it [so the happy go lucky reader isn't by accident bummed out] I think it's fine.

After everything that I've told you, would you be interested in borrowing Smoke Gets In Your Eyes?

*silence* Well... I'm more of a fiction kind of person. But sure. I will flip through it when I'm in the right mood. Also I think for me a big thing would be to try to think of it as a fictional work so I don't get traumatised by the realness.

Last question: do you have any specific requests for when you die?

When I was a teenager I went through this period really being 'busy' with my death and how it should be like. Mainly because I registered myself as a donor and wanted to know all the ins and outs of what would happen to my body. Also I used to really want to get buried, but now I'm not so fussy. In general I think my funeral shouldn't be very fussy. You don't have to build me a palace or something.

Any music requests?

I will survive. ;)

Death is indeed not the happiest subject one could talk about, but it is important to talk about it from time to time. It's actually something that's on my mind a lot (casually whispering "please don't kill me" when crossing the road or the daily scheduled existential crisis at 4 a.m.). However by thinking about death in a different way, and therefore not distancing ourselves any further from it, can be very healthy and part of a healing process. That's not to say that I'm now suddenly switching 'careers' so I can play with dead bodies in a morgue for the rest of my life, but certainly talking about it -and against my sister's wishes- writing about it on here or anywhere else is a step forward into changing my thinking pattern on the horrors of getting older and closer to death day by day.

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  1. This was unexpected and I loved it. What an interesting topic... I agree that social media is not the place to talk about death to get "likes," but then we have this weird responsibility to share news--good or bad--here because it's where people look now. It's a difficult thing to tackle. This definitely got me thinking, and it's rare that a blog post will do that. Most like your sister mentioned are light and fun, but I love posts like this as well. I'm trying to find the right way to write about grief myself. Not easy...

    xx, Alexandra

    1. it's definitely not easy! But I guess by (lightheartedly) starting a conversation we can define for ourselves (and perhaps for others) how to 'deal' with death on this online platform (and especially as so called beauty/fashion/lifestyle bloggers).

      Thank you for your kind words!