Welcome 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
As 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:
ABOUT THE REVIEWER:
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.