MedHum Mondays Presents: A Review of SMOKE GETS IN YOUR EYES

DailyDose_darkstrokeWelcome back to the Daily Dose and MedHum Mondays! Medical humanities has many definitions; some of them complimentary, others oppositional. My favorite, and the one we generally promote on the Dose, is this: the intersection between healing, history, and the human, broadly considered. However, there is another aspect of medicine important to our understanding of what it means to be human: the science of death.

Granted, most people probably don’t associate medicine and death; after all, isn’t death a failure of medicine? Not so. In fact, through dissection and the study of organs and tissues, medicine has gained enormous insight in the last five-hundred years (see notes about Vesalius 500). In addition, physicians once practiced “corpse medicine”–Galen actually suggested that the blood of slain gladiators could cure epilepsy. So: death can be about medicine…and it is certainly about story. Today, we are happy to present a review of Caitlin Doughty’s Smoke Gets in Your Eyes, written by anthropology graduate student Julia Balacko.

Doughty, Caitlin. Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: And other Lessons from the Crematory. W. W. Norton and Company. September 15, 2014.
Review by Julia Balacko

indexAs a scholar who studies the relationship between students and human anatomical specimens, I never stray far from discussions about the treatment of dead bodies. This aspect of my research has proven the topic of endless curiosity to many people who learn about my work. They exclaim, breathless, “You study cadavers? Organs in jars? But dead bodies are wretched, and you’re so cheery!”

That human remains should be objects of mystery, thought about strictly by miscreants with a penchant for brooding in cemeteries at dusk, is the misconception Caitlin Doughty disarms in Smoke Gets In Your Eyes: And Other Lessons from the Crematory (W.W. Norton & Company, 2014.) Doughty’s book dispels the fear of speaking about death, and encourages its readers to think seriously about how we dispose of human bodies. Doughty criticizes the sanitized approach to body disposal in the United States and other developed countries. The text holds that our reliance on funerary professionals, intensive embalming, and cremation isolates us from the verisimilitude of mortality and decomposition, as well as bars families from assisting in the disposal process.

Although Doughty frames the book as something of an exposé by turning the processes of body retrieval and cremation into public knowledge, she writes without journalistic ire towards the funerary industry that she presents. Doughty depicts her coworkers in the crematory with admiration, rather than blaming them as agents in a system that perpetuates body disposal as an emotionally bankrupt and financially costly process. Likewise, she pens descriptions of human bodies, sometimes ravaged by late-stage decomposition, with the same mélange of disgust, trepidation, and fixation as the readers feel upon glossing these passages. “Thick, spidery white mold shot out of her nose, covering half of her face,” Doughty notes about a corpse she names Padma. The author confesses that she struggled to look away, and that “until you see a dead body like Padma’s, death can seem almost glamorous.”

Though it avoids sensationalism, the book refuses to shelter its readers from the unpleasantness of cremating bodies. Doughty does not shy from her most revolting anecdotes from the crematory, including one instance of an obese cadaver whose fat bubbled out from the machinery as it burned. However, it is clear that the point of these tales is not to distress us, but instead, to reacquaint us with the realities of death. If we are to educate ourselves about the treatment of our dead, Doughty holds, we must be willing to understand that dead bodies prove paradoxical. The book draws a careful line between human remains as uncomfortably vulgar, while often far less repugnant to behold than we imagine.

Doughty’s text scarcely aims to wag a judging finger at the families of the deceased, or at the professionals who staff crematoriums. However, it does criticize the sterilization of body disposal without considering the meaning of modern funerary traditions. Doughty frowns upon the reliance on cremation and embalming, allowing family members of the deceased to allow their hands to remain clean (indeed, literally) of contact with the dead. In one chapter, Doughty writes, “viewing the embalmed body evolved as the cultural norm in the United States and Canada, but the Brits…chose a complete absence of the corpse. It is difficult to say which custom is worse.” She denounces these detached methods of displaying and discarding the body, contending that our over-technicalization of body disposal is a symptom of our ignorance towards mortality.

Here, I diverge from Doughty’s assertion. I wondered whether our contemporary, admittedly technicalized system of treating human remains has indeed become our new cultural practice in the Western world. These modes of treating the dead are not an imposition on older traditions of disposal that we must reclaim, but their own, potentially meaningful ways of dealing with the dead that reflect contemporary reliance on technological innovation. Would the rise in naturalistic funerary practices, and heightened involvement of the family in preparing the body for disposal, too quickly uproot these existing rituals?

Rather than a failure of the book to address this issue, I believe such questions are exactly the ones Doughty hopes to raise as she opens a public conversation about death and dying. Without reflecting on an unmentionable topic, there is little space for improving prevailing practices, or expanding disposal options for human remains. If anything, Doughty’s bestselling memoir will no doubt make it safer to talk about—and maybe even to research—the dead.

More about Smoke Gets in Your Eyes and Caitlin Doughty:

Julia Balacko is a second-year PhD student in medical anthropology at Case Western Reserve University. Her research addresses the cultural history and development of anatomy and dissection in American medicine. She holds an MA in Humanities from the University of Chicago and a BA in English Literature from Washington and Jefferson College.

Approaching Death: Death as transition

DailyDose_PosterA few months ago, I wrote a short series titled Approaching Death as a way of exploring grief rituals for my upcoming book with Elliott and Thompson (DEATH’S SUMMET COAT). Regardless of where we live or who we are, we must make preparations for the end that awaits us all. Historically, this was a problem of space and health as well as grief and loss. While our ancestors had to bear the burden of sorrow for a missing friend just as we, they also had to deal with pressing practical concerns–such as, what do we do with the body? To leave it lying would attract animal life and pestilence; to burn it would use fuel, to bury it would require workable soil. And so, in each culture, burial differs markedly due to climate and geography as well as spiritual practice and cultural assimilation. Today, I provide a brief look at death-in-transition.


Tibetan Buddhists practice “sky burials,” the tradition tibetof ritually dissecting the dead into small pieces and giving the remains to birds. Sky burial not only solves the practical concern of removing a body in the cold, tree-less mountains, it agrees with the fundamental core of their cultural belief. Located in the Himalayas, Tibet has a diverse ethnic population and practices more than one religion, though Tibetan Buddhism remains primary. For Buddhists, the cycle of birth, death, and rebirth is crucial to understanding our present life, though different branches of Buddhism understand these cycles differently and have different sacred texts, all follow the teachings of Siddhartha Gautama (the Buddha).  Though some aspects of Buddhism still consider the divine, Buddha himself is not thought to be a god. Rather, he is a figure who attained nirvana. Nirvana is a difficult concept to grasp, but it says a great deal about the Buddhist perspective on death.

Traditional Buddhist ideas see life as cyclical, following the doctrine of samsara which literally means “wandering” from one life to the next. The object is to ascend in the chain of being, and this is achieved through karma. As Michael Coogan, professor of religious studies, explains, karma is best thought of as a “law of moral retribution.”[ii] To rise, however, also means to humble oneself, to be free of desires and liberated from earthly attachments. Nirvana is achieved when desire ceases and karma is exhausted, but this means an end to rebirth. When Buddha achieved nirvana, he ceased to exist.

To Buddhists, death is both the beginning of rebirth and also a final embrace of non-existence. Preparation for this cycle begins in life, but continues into death. Buddhist meditation master Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche explained it by suggesting that the Tibetan Book of the Dead could also be reasonably called the Tibetan Book of Birth.[iii] Over a period of forty-nine days, a lama (religious person) chants from the book over and over, frequently in front of the corpse, but after burial, they will chant over a picture or momento, so that the soul may obtain a good rebirth. Death, in this sense, is all about the transition.

Buddhists are not the only ones who see death as a transition to another state or another life. Various cultures (including the Cambodians, tribes of Borneo, people from Madagascar) see death as the beginning. In 1913, Sir James George Frazer documented Fijian after-death rituals, wherein it was believed that the real journey begins after death, and that the soul must encounter numerous dangers that it can, in fact, “die” from.  Among the Arunta, Frazer describes a second ceremony to force the soul on its voyage.[iv]

There are so many different ways of approaching death. Studying them enriches our own experiences and helps us “approach death” in new ways.

Death’s Summer Coat will be published by Elliott and Thompson in 2015

[i] Michael D. Coogan. Illustrated Guide to World Religions. Oxford University Press (2003), 192.

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche. “Commentary.” Tibetan Book of the Dead. London, Shambhala (2000), 1.

[iv] Sir James Frazer. The Belief in Immortality and the Worship of the Dead: Volume 1. (1913), 373. Googlebooks. Accessed 3/14/14.

The ‘year of awe’ : A guest post by Tessa Harris

FictionReboot2Welcome back to the Fiction Reboot and Daily Dose! Today we are very pleased to invite back the brilliant and talented Tessa Harris, author of the Anatomist’s Apprentice Thomas Silkstone mystery series. Tessa’s marvelous story-telling, coupled with her conscientious research into the 18th century, make for heart-pounding reading. Today, she provides us with a guest post aDailyDose_Posterbout the “year of awe”…

…Because sometimes, truth is stranger than fiction.


Year of Awe | Guest post by Tessa Harris

A deadly fog that killed both man and beast, a blood-red moon, savage thunderstorms and great meteors: no wonder most people in eastern England thought the world was about to end in 1783!

coverSince the publication of my third novel, The Devil’s Breath, in January, several readers have told me they had never heard of this eponymous phenomenon that caused so much havoc in Europe in the years 1783-4. I have a confession to make; nor had I.  Not, that is, until in April 2010 when most of Scotland and England and, indeed, much of northern Europe, found themselves at the mercy of a volcanic ash cloud. Thousands of flights were canceled, millions of air passengers were stranded and the economic fall-out was huge. I had friends who found themselves stuck in Italy for over a week longer than they planned and my husband couldn’t fulfil a business engagement in Aberdeen.

It was only when the UK press picked up on this contemporary calamity that the historical one was revealed to a mass readership, myself included. Newspaper headlines in the UK declared: How an Icelandic volcano helped spark the French Revolution and Volcanic ash cloud may have killed 10,000, which as it turned out, is a conservative estimate.

Naturally, as my particular historical interest is in this period, I was prompted to dig deeper. What I found was both fascinating and almost unbelievable. To begin, we need to go back to a cataclysmic event in the summer of 1783.  volcanic fissure in Iceland called Laki.  On June 8, 1783, a volcanic fissure in Iceland, called Laki, burst asunder, sending 122Mt of sulphur into the atmosphere. The impact on Iceland itself was disastrous, wiping out most sheep and horses and more than 20 per cent of the population. Such was the devastation that the Icelandics even invented a word for it – Moduhardindin – meaning ‘the hardship of the fog.’

What compounded matters, however, was the fact that the summer of 1783 was one of the hottest on record in Europe and the high pressure caused the wind to blow in a south-easterly direction – straight toward northern Europe.

Sores and patches appeared on the skin of animals

By June 23 the highly toxic cloud of sulphur had reached Britain. On the east coast, in Lincoln, a visitor reported: “A thick hot vapour had for several days before filled up the valley, so that both the Sun and Moon appeared like heated brick-bars.” (Gentleman’s Magazine, July 1783.)

In Huntington, the poet William Cowper wrote of the ‘thickest fog’ he could remember. He went on: “We never see the sun but shorn of its beams, the trees are scarce discernable at a mile’s distance, he sets with the face of a hot salamander and rises with the same complexion.”

Further south, in Hampshire, the naturalist Gilbert White wrote of “The peculiar haze or smoky fog that prevailed in this island and even beyond its limits was a most extraordinary appearance, unlike anything known within the memory of man.” As the summer wore on plagues of flies irritated horses, meat was inedible a day after butchery, and milk turned sour within hours.

Soon, however, the effect of the fog across the sun meant that temperatures dropped. We know from White’s careful records that there were 28 days of continuous frost that summer!

Crops began to fail, insects died, and fruit simply fell off tees. Naturally the effect spread to livestock, whose food became in short supply. One Cambridge newspaper reported: “The grazing land, which only the day before was full of juice …did immediately after this uncommon event , look as if it had dried up by the sun, and was to walk on like hay.”

Sores and patches appeared on the skin of animals and the rural chaos led to a hike in food prices. At Halifax market, in Yorkshire, a mob gathered to force merchants to sell their wheat and oats at old prices. Moreover field workers, exposed to high concentrations of noxious gases, began to choke and die of respiratory illnesses.

Recent research has shown that before the year was out as many as 23,000 people had died from inhaling these gases or related conditions. Cambridge University researchers looked at the burial records for 404 church parishes in 39 English counties and discovered two peaks in mortality during the Laki event. In both cases, the worst affected region was the east of England. Data shows the summer of 1783 was particularly hot and that the first months of 1784 were amongst the coldest on record. The researchers believed that the mortality peaks could be partly attributed to these temperature extremes. Add to this fine, airborne particles of volcanic gases transported in the haze and you have a recipe for disaster – literally.

There is even some evidence to suggest that the Scottish poet Robert Burns was one of the thousands affected by the inhalation of sulphuric gas. In August 1784 he wrote of his “fainting fits and other alarming symptoms of pleurisy.”A prayer, when fainting fits, and other alarming symptoms of a pleurisy or some other dangerous disorder, which indeed still threaten me, first put nature on the alarm.” A prayer, when fainting fits, and other alarming symptoms of a pleurisy or some other dangerous disorder, which indeed still threaten me, first put nature on the alarm.” A prayer, when fainting fits, and other alarming symptoms of a pleurisy or some other dangerous disorder, which indeed still threaten me, first put nature on the alarm.”

By the time the fog had really taken hold, another, and even more terrifying, episode had begun. Contemporaries gave it the truly Hollywood-style epithet the year of awe or annus mirabilus.  During this period, a remarkable number of large meteors were spotted over Britain and throughout Europe. The aurora borealis was also seen very far south. These phenomena contributed to the impending sense that the ‘Day of Judgement’ was at hand.

On August 18, however, another rogue ingredient was added to this apocalyptic stew.  What became known as “the great Meteor” was an exceptionally bright meteor seen across Britain and much of northwest Europe. A letter from Whitby published in the London Chronicle spoke of “an extraordinary meteor…whose lustre almost equalled the sun.” Another observer said that the “whole horizon was illuminated; so that the smallest object might have been seen on the ground.” There are even contemporary engravings of the meteor, the most famous by Thomas Sandby of the phenomenon seen from Windsor Castle.

“an universal terror seized the whole town”

Such extraordinary events naturally prompted the less educated masses to believe that the end of the world was nigh and some ministers even fueled fears. One is reported in the Morning Post and Daily Advertiser as describing seeing “a revelation in flames, a huge beast with seven heads and ten horns.” Little wonder then, that the founder of Methodism, John Wesley, wrote in his diary that on a visit to Witney after a violent thunderstorm: ‘Those that were asleep in the town were waked and many thought the day of judgment had come….Men, women and children flocked out of their houses and kneeled down together in the streets.’

A correspondent from Devon wrote to the Morning Herald and Daily Advertiser: “About three hours ago we were all struck with a panic too dreadful to be described: an universal terror seized the whole town, and most people believed the world was at an end, for that the moon was falling from heaven.”

There were those who took great delight from the experience. Take, for example, an excerpt from this letter in the Whitehall Evening Post which stated: The globe of fire that appeared on Monday night…could not, I think, have astonished or terrified any other than the ignorant part of the beholders. It was the most pleasant and beautiful phenomena ever seen, and consequently could not be terrific.”

The more ‘enlightened’ scholars of the time, however, tried to find a scientific attribution for the extraordinary events. One suggested in the London Chronicle that the August meteor may have been “occasioned by some of the vapours issuing from volcanoes upon the New Island lately sprung up in the ocean, about nine leagues to the S.W of Iceland.”

It was, however, none other than Benjamin Franklin whose 1785 essay, entitled Meteorological Imaginations and Conjectures, speculated that the dry fog and cold winter might be related to Laki’s eruption. He also suggested that the fog might be due to: “the consumption by fire of some of those great burning balls or globes which we happen to meet with in our rapid course round the sun….”

So why are our history books not full of contemporary accounts of this phenomenon, of analyses and of comment? The truth is that the ‘Great Fogg’ was itself ‘clouded’ if you’ll excuse the pun, by the momentous political events of the day. King George III and his ministers were so preoccupied with the war with the American colonies that mentions of the strange weather and the effect that it had on various populations was extremely limited. Death was an everyday part of life, much more so than it is now. Most people did not question why so many were suffering coughs, sickness and debilitation. It was up to a genius like Franklin to figure out a possible scientific explanation for the momentous episode that may have changed the course of history for ever.