Last Updated September 5, 2023.
Caitlin Doughty is the author of the memoir Smoke Gets in Your Eyes and thus is both narrator and protagonist. Caitlin grows up in Hawaii, and at age eight becomes fascinated with death when she sees a child fall to death at a mall. At the age of twenty-three, she begins work as a crematory operator for Westwind Cremation & Burial in San Francisco; there, she hopes to learn the ways of the funerary industry. She initially has a vision of reducing people’s trauma and fear of death by education through a planned funeral home called La Belle Mort (The Beautiful Death). As Doughty learns more about modern Western death practices and their way of distancing loved ones from death, she becomes more determined to promote more direct confrontations with the rituals of mortality. She moves to Los Angeles and attends mortuary school, intending to change the funeral industry from within. But she is brought physically and emotionally low by being required to participate in rituals and practices she doesn’t support. After completing her education, she begins a web series called “Ask a Mortician” and writes essays under the name “The Order of the Good Death.”
Doughty’s boss and the crematory manager of Westwind, Mike is a balding white man in his forties of average height and weight. He is married and has a daughter and previously worked to secure amnesty for refugees. His taciturn manner at first intimidates Doughty, whose response to necessary but potentially repellent tasks he monitors closely. Doughty comes to appreciate and respect his stern manner as well as his dry humor. His rare praise fosters an atmosphere of self-sufficiency and competence in his employees. He asks Doughty profound questions about mortality when she leaves his employment, revealing his deep empathy with the grieving. Along with Bruce, he serves as a professional industry consultant to Doughty throughout her time in mortuary school.
A tidy but mournful-looking man in his late fifties, Chris transports bodies from their place of death to Westwind for cremation or embalming. He is solitary and grumpy but skilled and patient, calmly guiding grieving families through the process of body transport and teaching Doughty about the trade. He nurtures a redwood tree from a leaf, considering it his finest accomplishment. But he knows that it will eventually be chopped down and recognizes the symbolic resonance of that fact.
Bruce is a professional embalmer who prepares bodies at Westwind. He is about fifty years old, African American, and has a youthful, cheerful appearance. He used to instruct at the San Francisco College of Mortuary Science and is eager to teach Doughty about the embalming process. Friendly and professionally exacting, he is expert in the particulars of the decomposition and preservation process. Along with Mike, he serves as a professional industry consultant to Doughty throughout her time in mortuary school.
Rarely on-site at Westwind, Joe is the founder and owner of the business. After a sunk boat ruined his plans to scatter families’ ashes at sea, Joe started Westwind as a small business that quickly grew when he won the City of San Francisco’s contract to dispose of unclaimed, homeless, and indigent dead. When harassment from bureaucratic cronies leads to the loss of the contract, Joe files and wins a lawsuit against the city coroner’s office. At the time Doughty works for him, Joe has kept this contract for nearly twenty years.
Zoe is a student of criminal justice who rents out a room to Doughty while she works at Westwind. Zoe’s duplex is in the Mission...
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District of San Francisco. After Doughty moves to Los Angeles, the Mission District becomes gentrified.
Doughty’s close friend Luke resembles a body Doughty encounters at work, startling her into pursuing a romance with him. When she moves to Los Angeles to attend mortuary school, she lives near Luke and confesses her romantic feelings for him in a letter. Luke cuts off all contact with Doughty, signaling the emotional death of their friendship.
Lucile “Tutu” Caple
Tutu is Caitlin Doughty’s grandmother, a vibrant world traveler who suffered a brain bleed at the age of eighty-eight that irreparably changed her personality for the remaining four years of life. Requiring daily in-home care, Tutu is fortunate to possess the necessary resources to live out her life in comfort. Though Doughty oversees Tutu’s funeral arrangements, including a witness cremation, Tutu’s body is made “natural” with artificial postmortem procedures before the family arrives.
Byron, Padma, Mr. Martinez, Mrs. Adams, Jacob, Mr. Huang, Cliff, Elena Ionescu, Juan Santos, and Jeremy
These are deceased individuals whose bodies Doughty prepares for family viewing, cremation, or transport in her early employment at Westwind. In working with them, Doughty learns her role as crematory operator and becomes more comfortable with bodies in all states of decay and preparation. Each deceased individual represents a different burial skill or need. Byron requires a shave before his family viewing. Padma’s body is in an advanced stage of decay. Mr. Martinez’s body requires storage in the crowded refrigeration unit. Mrs. Adams dies at home. Jacob’s is a violent death from suicide. Mr. Huang’s family is deeply involved in his cremation, whereas Cliff is embalmed and buried alone. Elena Ionescu’s family’s desire to view her body before cremation requires extensive preparation to look “how they expect it to look.” The body of Juan Santos, a portly man, decomposes differently due to his great weight. Jeremy’s sister is suspicious of the mortuary’s practices, which are unfamiliar to her. By using the names of the deceased individuals, Doughty keeps their humanity at the forefront.