Smoke and Miracles

SarahWhat do death rituals and miraculous births have in common? They figure prominently in the latest two books Sarah has read. Find out more about them by reading her reviews listed below. And as always, check out our Facebook page for more reviews from Sarah and the latest happenings at the Everett Public Library.

Smoke Gets In Your Eyes & Other Lessons from the Crematory
Caitlin Doughty

smokeHaving always been fascinated by death, Caitlin Doughty took a job as a crematorium operator at a funeral home in Oakland, California. This book chronicles her exposure to the funeral industry and her perspectives on death and the human body. Caitlin’s duties involve picking up bodies from various locales, including the coroner’s office and hospitals. She deals with the deceased’s family and friends when retrieving bodies from their homes. She notices a huge discrepancy between people’s comfort levels with death. Some prefer to wash and dress their loved ones themselves, and others don’t want anything to do with the corpse. Our culture has trained us to relinquish ownership of death, and leave tasks once done at home, to the direction of undertakers.

Caitlin intertwines death culture from around the world, emphasizing the American people’s isolation from death. As more people die in medical environments, rather than home, many people go through life with little or no exposure to dead bodies. She gets trained on how to operate the cremation furnaces, and uses frank, honest language to describe a procedure most have never seen. As a warning, there are very graphic descriptions as she goes through the process; I recommend avoiding eating while reading. As Caitlin progresses in her funeral operator career, her vision becomes more concrete. She wants to make death accessible to people, and open a dialog on a topic most would like to avoid. This is a unique and honest memoir.

The Girl Who Slept with God
Val Brelinski

girlwhoJory’s sister Grace returns from a missionary trip to Mexico a little early, and with a big surprise. She’s pregnant, and she is insistent that it’s a miracle conception, and she’s having God’s baby. Jory’s father Oren is a prominent college astronomy professor. While scientific in his work, he is a devout evangelical in his faith, and has raised his 3 daughters accordingly. In their small, rural community, Oren decides to move Grace into a rural homestead, and instates Jory as her overseer and companion. Grace is pulled from school, and Jory is forced to attend a public rural high school, quite the shock from her previous Christian academy. Pulled away from their family, the girls struggle with being abandoned. They find friendship in an elderly neighbor woman, who provides motherly advice. Jory tests the boundaries of adolescence, experimenting with boys, substances and developing a friendship with an illicit ice cream man. A beautiful coming-of-age story, and remarkable debut from Brelinski, who was raised in an evangelical household herself.

Morbid Curiosity

It’s not that I’m afraid to die, I just don’t want to be there when it happens.  ~ Death (A Play) by Woody Allen

Most of us are fans of denial when it comes to thinking about shuffling off the mortal coil. The idea of dying is at best depressing and at worst terrifying so not thinking about it seems like the healthy thing to do. And yet, if you’re a mass of contradictions like me, you can’t help being morbidly curious about the people whose professions have them dealing with death all the time. Happily, well maybe not happily, there is a small subgenre of memoirs that are from coroners, undertakers, doctors and others that deal with ‘death issues’ on a daily basis. Here are three recent ones that I found particularly illuminating. Do be forewarned though, they contain realistic descriptions of procedures and situations that are not for the faint of heart.

Working Stiff by Judy Melinek and T.J. Mitchell
workingstiffThis is the tale of Melinek’s rookie year as a New York City medical examiner. From suicides, accidents, murders and the much more common ‘natural causes’, the author lays out the particulars of how the bodies she performs autopsies on reveal the manner of death. Despite the gory details, this is not just a cold and calculating CSI type memoir though. She gives everyone involved, both the living and the dead, humane and complex portraits. As she describes her duties you really get a sense of what it must be like to work in a profession where you are confronted with mortality on a daily basis. Layered throughout the book is the classic attitude of realism, gallows humor and humanity that is required to survive in ‘the city’ and that comes in particularly handy in the medical examiner’s office.

Smoke Gets in Your Eyes by Caitlin Doughty
smokegetsinyoureyesWritten by a practicing mortician and host of a popular web series titled Ask a Mortician, this book is an entertaining memoir but also a serious and thought-provoking examination of how society tries to deal with death and the dead. The author recounts, in admittedly gruesome but humorous detail, her introduction to the ‘death industry’ working at Westwind Cremation and Burial in Oakland. As she encounters the methods and tools of the trade (cremation, embalming and the horrifying trocar to name a few) she uses the opportunity to examine the history and social context for each practice. Many interesting conclusions are reached, but a central one is the great lengths we go to as a society to separate ourselves, both physically and emotionally, from the dead and the damage this separation causes.

Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End by Atul Gawande
beingmortalWhile this book is far less gruesome than the previous two, I found the ideas it presents the most disturbing. Gawande is a practicing surgeon but this is not a memoir about his profession. Instead it is an examination of the disconnect between the medical profession’s view of death as a failure and the inevitable fact that we all die. He cuts through professional jargon such as ‘end of life care’ and ‘assisted living’ by interviewing and telling the stories of those facing the indignities of aging and death and modern medicine’s response to the process. These stories include his father’s decline and they are touching, instructive, and difficult to deal with all at the same time. By confronting the experience head on, however, Gawande gains important insight into how the medical community, and all of us, can actually serve the needs of those facing their final chapter.

Well, after reading these books I guess there is no denying the fact that I’m going to die someday. Wait, I refuse to accept that. I’m sure we will all be fine.