Last Updated on September 5, 2023, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 842
Ignorance of Death Leads to Fear of Death
Throughout Smoke Gets in Your Eyes, Caitlin Doughty examines the notion that the American fear of death and dying is rooted in ignorance. Her own formative experience of death came at the age of eight, when she saw a girl fall to death at a mall and realized that she, too, was mortal. The resulting trauma shaped her behavior for years and led to her choice of a career in the funeral industry.
Humans are unique in self-awareness and understanding of our own mortality—a “mental burden” tied to curiosity. WIth the recent proliferation of nursing homes and private morgues, people have become uninvolved in the death and burial of loved ones. A process that used to be intimate and caring—from the washing of the body to the building of a coffin—is now placed in the hands of professionals. But Doughty finds that familiarity with dead bodies is a “reminder that our bodies are fallible, mere blips on the radar of the vast universe. That reminder of our fallibility is beneficial” because it keeps people from denying the reality of death. By contrast, knowledge can “alleviate the fear of death.”
This theme is brought out most clearly in Doughty’s own experience. Merely working in a mortuary is not enough to remove her deep-seated trauma and fear. She must research and make her own decisions about the sort of funeral and fate for her body she wants. Upon deciding on a natural burial, she visits a nearby natural-burial cemetery to “[look] down over the mounded graves and contemplate my date with decay.” By “staring directly into the heart of my fear” she could “[start] to break free of it.”
She sees the same fear and thirst for comfort in visitors or callers to the mortuary where she works. People who called with questions about the fate of their bodies or of their loved ones’ remains got “brutally clear answers” involving decomposition and funerary equipment. “The strange thing was,” Doughty observes, “the more honest I was, the more satisfied and grateful people were.” If ignorance leads to fear, knowledge leads to comfort.
American Culture Avoids the Reality of Death
As Doughty learns more about preparing bodies for cremation and preserving bodies for burial, she realizes how frequently the public presentation of death is divorced from the reality of bodily decay. Doughty reflects that “dead people look very, very dead,” whereas “the processes used to make someone appear natural are often highly unnatural.” Embalming requires the use of carcinogenic chemicals and the destruction of internal organs, a process that horrifies Doughty. In mortuary school, she reads trade magazines full of artificial products and procedures intended to maintain a corpse’s “natural” appearance; these range from chemical injections to makeup to shaving.
Doughty argues that during the Civil War American culture first confronted the discrepancy between the expectations and realities of death. The war’s huge numbers of casualties resulted in the need to embalm bodies before returning them home. This practice reconceptualized the corpse as a product and eventually made embalming and mortuary services into a profession that “protected the public from disease.” Unlike previous funerary rituals in the home, embalming could not be performed by families. Doughty observes that “it is not a ritual that brings us comfort” but rather a procedure maintained to justify the involvement of the funeral industry in death. The most significant entailment of the American mortuary industry is that Americans now only confront sanitized or artificial versions of death, not the natural process of death.
To Understand Death is to...
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Doughty has an exchange with a privileged classmate who can’t bear the idea that he’ll die. This inspires Doughty’s realization that death is perhaps the greatest source of creativity and motivation. It is a literal deadline that “[gives] us the motivation to achieve, learn, love, and create.” By hiding the reality of death from the public, the funeral industry is cheating the public of “the realistic interaction with death and the chance to face our own mortality.”
Doughty faces this reality in vivid and sometimes gruesome ways, such as when cleaning up a gush of molten fat from a cremation furnace. “When at last the situation was under control… I was sweaty, defeated, and drenched in lard, but I felt alive.” Her own childhood encounter with sudden death—witnessing a girl fall to death—led to parental silence and to her own unacknowledged trauma. But “exposing a young child to the realities of love and death is far less dangerous than exposing them to the lie of the happy ending.”
As a crematory operator and body-transport driver, Doughty realizes that the living can be comforted by contact with their departed loved ones. They might receive closure to the relationship or be eased into the grief process. In addition, “looking at the body you see yourself, and you know that you, too, will die. The visual is a call to self-awareness. It is the beginning of wisdom.”