I’ve been having a lot of deep thoughts lately: What’s the meaning of life? Why are we here? Why am I here? What is the point of trying to live a good, responsible life if all you’re rewarded with in the end is loss?
Ultimately, I can only conclude that there is no meaning of life and that we’ve all just ended up here, as a species, through some perfect storm of science. Now, not only do we all have to try to live together, but also find whatever it is that’s going to make the experience meaningful to us individually.
Caitlin Doughty, in Smoke Gets In Your Eyes, has done just that, deciding to make it her life’s work to help people accept death as the natural part of life that it is and not as something morbid and frightening.
Doughty’s path to this mission started when, in her early 20s, she took a job as an assistant in a crematory where her main responsibility was operating the crematory ovens. This included not just the maintenance and operation of them, but prepping its occupants, a job that initially Doughty found challenging.
But she soon came to feel not only comfortable with the dead, but appreciative of the role she was playing in their final journey, as it were. While her book certainly outlines many of the less pleasant aspects of death, sometimes with wry humor, she is never disrespectful of the dead or so irreverent that it becomes mocking.
It does, at times, make for uncomfortable reading if you’ve not yet fully accepted the idea of your own mortality and the fact we’re all made of fleeting organic matter (which sometimes gets stuck in inaccessible places as part of the cremation process). And this, Doughty argues, is a problem.
She puts our current traditions like embalming and closed caskets in the context of history and other cultures, arguing that we are doing ourselves a disservice by sterilizing death, hiding it away. No longer does the western world wake their dead in their living rooms, with the open coffin sitting between the sofa and the TV. Nor do we participate in the ritualistic washing and dressing of the body, a tradition embraced in other parts of the world. Instead, we hand the body over to expensive funeral professionals to disguise death through embalming (expensive and unnecessary, according to Doughty, who says the human body decomposes at a much slower rate than we’ve been led to believe), closed caskets and burial in impenetrable vaults or coffins underground. Or, as Doughty experiences, cremated in an oven watched over by a lone crematory worker (although families can be present for this, it’s a rare occurrence).
Doughty makes a good argument. Most of the discussion around death in the western world these days is about avoiding it: How do we live longer? How do we keep ourselves alive despite the odds? How do we eke out just one more day, week or month?
Perhaps now is the time to change the debate and talk about how to better accept the inevitable and take responsibility for ushering our loved ones through their final journey, which may also help us better face our own mortality rather than just constantly trying to beat it.