‘Smoke Gets In Your Eyes’ by Caitlin Doughty

Smoke Gets In Your Eyes

Some books are ‘unputdownable’ which means you read them cover to cover in probably just one sitting. That usually means they’re pretty good reads. And I’ve only just discovered another type of book which you have to ‘put down’ and come up for air every so often before you dive back into reading again. Caitlin Doughty’s ‘Smoke Gets In Your Eyes’ is a book I didn’t know I’ve been avoiding my entire life. It involves a topic that I, and the rest of society (probably), try to avoid discussing or even thinking about – death. But there’s so much to learn from this woman who went to work in a crematorium at the age of 23.

Do you know how dead bodies are embalmed? Which part of your corpse gets sliced, what gets removed, what gets drained and what is injected into your system?

Did you know that metal pieces or even superglue (as a safety measure) is used to ensure the mouth of the dead person stays shut? And the spiked contraption to keep the eyelids in place, to complete that peaceful look of being ‘at rest’ in the casket?

And if, unfortunately, you have a baby or a child that has died, do you see to it personally that your child gets cremated or would you choose the ‘online’ option of keying in your credit card details and have someone else pick up your baby/child from the hospital and get it cremated out of your sight?

All too often, people don’t want to think about such things. After all, when you kick the bucket, someone else will have to make a decision on your behalf and it’s very likely you’ll either be buried or cremated. After reading this book, I’m pretty sure I don’t want any of that embalming done. And I’m probably going to pop the question to family members and friends, and find out if they have any ‘last wishes’ as to what they want done with their corpse.

While death is certain for everyone, most of us seem uneasy about planning how we want to ‘return to the earth’. I suppose some people would classify this as a taboo topic and be so superstitious as to think that thinking about death would mean the Grim Reaper’s going to come knocking on your door soon. These same people would probably think buying insurance would hasten the occurrence of an accident or bringing an umbrella when you go out would mean it’d rain that day.

I think it’s good to have certain plans in place because if a death happens suddenly, the deceased person’s loved ones would be overcome by grief and loss. They might look for an undertaker via a Google search or ask someone for a recommendation. And all too often, they might be ripped off. Like everything else in Singapore, funerals don’t come cheap, especially if you meet funeral directors who are master salespeople.

If a funeral director posed me this question:

“Wouldn’t you want a premium Batesville casket for so-and-so? Former U.S. Presidents and celebrities like Ronald Reagan and Michael Jackson had Batesville caskets! Look… it has blah blah blah… and would totally demonstrate your love for so-and-so and it even comes with a special drawer for your keepsakes blah blah blah”

… I might find it tough to say “nope, just the regular casket will do. Yup, the cheapest one. Thanks. The rest are overpriced. Any other hidden costs?”

It would be so much better if everyone had already made their wishes known, so no grieving family member needs to fall prey to hard selling, right? No need to purchase costly add-ons unless finances allow and a “show” needs to be put on for the other people coming to the funeral.

I like how Caitlin Doughty also busts some myths with this book. For instance, you don’t have to be afraid of dead bodies and that you might catch some disease from a corpse. You won’t. According to Caitlin, the bacteria involved in decomposition is different from the bacteria that causes disease. And you are more likely to become ill from being in an airplane than sitting next to a corpse. So, if you’re up for it, why not help clean and clothe the body of a loved one?

And the book is also full of interesting bits of wisdom, such as…

“When you know that death is coming for you, the thought inspires you to be ambitious, to apologise to old enemies, call your grandparents, work less, travel more, learn Russian, take up knitting. Fall in love.”


If you haven’t read this book, go purchase or borrow a copy. It’s probably one of the most life-changing (or rather, death-changing) books on the planet.


Caitlin has also done a couple of TED talks, and here are the videos for your viewing pleasure:

Great idea: composting instead of cremating the dead 🙂

And the BuzzFeed video which drew a comment about ‘what if people draw dicks on the dead guy’s face’:

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