Tag Archives: family

I’m Learning to Not Hate Book Reviews

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Google tells me that the definition of putrefaction is

  1. n. the process of decay or rotting in a body or other organic matter

It sounds so simple, so uninhibited: the process of decay or rotting. There’s no emotional baggage in that. Putrefaction: a noun.

But as Caitlin Doughty explains in her book Smoke Gets In Your Eyes & Other Lessons from the Crematory, it is precisely that emotional baggage that prevents us from allowing the natural process of decomposition to happen.

Doughty, who shares my family name (Doute, though there are many alternate spellings), is a twentysomething woman fascinated with death and dying; more specifically, the way we care for our dead within (and beyond) the funeral industry in America. Her book is a memoir, a story about the time she spent working at a crematorium in San Francisco, and an exploration of what she calls “the good death,” a death that isn’t sanitized, sterilized, and industrialized, but rather natural (an ironic term, to be explained later), intimate, and peaceful.

Smoke Gets In Your Eyes makes a compelling argument against contemporary Western funeral practices. Doughty contrasts the American way of embalming the body to prepare it for viewing by making it look as “natural” (i.e.: “lifelike) as possible with the cannibalistic practices of the Wari’ in Brazil (pre-1960’s); the Egyptians who did embalm but for religious reasons, not marketing and consumerism; and Tibetans, who allow the body to be eaten by vultures, carried off into the sky to nourish other creatures. Doughty explains that there is a fear of fragmentation, and ultimately great discomfort with death itself, that drives us to preserve the body in the way that we do.

She traces this back to the mid-19th century, when the death industry in America was no more than a homegrown operation. Women cared for the dead (birth and death were women’s work) and coffins were fashioned by the family or by a cabinetmaker which were then carried by hand to nearby graves. As the population grew, bigger cities were able to support an actual industry, and so undertaking became a profession. Then came the Civil War, which created a need for rapid removal and transportation of the dead from the fields to their families: a perfect opportunity for aspiring entrepreneurs. Over time, the embalmer evolved from a job nobody wanted (as it supposedly required no special skills, and let’s be fair, it’s dirty work) to a medical specialty thanks to the marketing efforts of embalming chemical manufacturers. Embalming, as it is currently practiced, is based on a constructed narrative: corpses carry disease (they don’t), the public needs to be protected (they don’t), and preparing the dead for viewing allows the family one last “memory picture” (also not a necessity, but one we gladly buy into because we’re terrified of our own mortality).

Doughty eventually leaves her job at the crematorium and chooses to attend mortuary school so that she can learn everything there is to know from an insider’s perspective, starting with instruction: how mortuary science is taught. This is where we’re reminded that Doughty’s book is a memoir: she introduces Luke, a long-time friend she decides she is in love with. This detail seemed a little erroneous (I may have rolled my eyes), but I suppose a good love interest helps sales. To be fair, Doughty’s feelings for Luke do push the boundaries of her own mental well-being, much to her surprise, and that matters.

After graduation, Doughty holds down a job as a driver for a crematory, picking up dead bodies and bringing them back, which gives her plenty of time to think about what she calls “death values.” She begins publishing her writing on the Internet under the name “The Order of the Good Death.” The Order of the Good Death is now a fully-functioning organization (and website) that connects academics, artists, and (medical?) practitioners interested in death and dying, it hosts an annual event called Death Salon, and Doughty also runs Undertaking LA, an alternative funeral service that places control back in the hands of the families of the dead. She advocates for death acceptance instead of death phobia, and contends,

We can wander further into the death dystopia, denying that we will die and hiding dead bodies from our sight. Making that choices means we will continue to be terrified and ignorant of death, and the huge role it plays in how we live our lives. Let us instead reclaim our mortality, writing our own Ars Moriendi for the modern world with bold, fearless strokes (234).

What was most striking to me about Doughty’s book was her honesty. In the last chapter, we learn that her grandmother dies, and the funeral arrangements are in Doughty’s hands. However, her grandmother doesn’t receive the care Doughty encourages us to seek out instead of traditional embalming, viewing, and burial; in fact, of her grandmother’s viewing she says “I couldn’t believe I had let my own grandmother’s body fall victim to the postmortem tortures I was fighting against. It demonstrated just how strong a hold the mortuary industry has over our way of death” (231). My dad died last December, and though I had received a copy of this book before his death, I hadn’t picked it up until these last few weeks. My dad was cremated, but I was very much removed from the process – in fact, my sister and I were both gone when he died. We had been at his side every day for the six days he was in and out of consciousness at home in his living room, going home to sleep, and returning in the morning with coffee to wait and watch, to change his diaper, adjust his pillow, wipe his mouth, and to listen to his slow breathing. On the day he died, my stepmom suggested that we take the day off, and my sister and I both went out to the mall, separately, not knowing where the other was headed. I was in the Gap store when my phone rang and my stepsister managed to choke out the words “he’s gone.” I firmly believe that he waited until my sister and I were far enough away to let go; he was always very private, watering down his medical diagnoses as if he was explaining them to a child, and shooing us away when his health declined. I chose not to come to the house immediately. I drove home and sat in my living room in a daze, I didn’t want to see them take his body away, and I’m not sure if this was for my own sake (it’s not like the last time I saw him he had looked much different, he was sick for a long time) or because I wanted to be alone, but I like to think the latter. I did go to the house after he was gone, and I stood there holding a newborn baby in the very spot his body took its last breath, rocking her and staring at a half-eaten McDonalds cheeseburger that I had picked up out of desperation on the way over. It was comforting to know that Doughty also felt regret over how her grandmother’s death was handled. In the time that has passed, I wish that I would have been able to hold his hand through the very end, I wish that I could have been a part of the entire process, but my dad was a stubborn man.

It does not bother me to think about my dad’s corpse. It does not phase me to imagine his body decomposing (it isn’t, because he was cremated, but I do like to imagine what might have been, as strange as that may sound). I would have loved to be the one to push the button to begin his cremation, but until I read Doughty’s book, I didn’t know that was an option. I, like many of the families Doughty mentions, believed in the time-sensitive response to death presented by police and medical professionals: get the body out to the morgue as soon as possible, and let them handle it. Modern life has distanced us from so many opportunities for intimacy; those days I spent caring for my dad as he inched closer to death were some of the most beautiful, most humane moments of my entire life, and I will forever be thankful to have shared that with him. I think my dad and Caitlin Doughty would have understood one another. They spoke a common language. Doughty says that “[a] culture that denies death is a barrier to achieving a good death” (232), and I agree. My dad never denied his own death. He certainly denied his condition, but it wasn’t for fear of dying, I don’t think. It was his desire to be left alone, to let his decisions play out, to remove the burden of artificial practice from our shoulders as his caregivers. And while his death was by no means “good,” in the way we like to imagine pain-free, dying-while-you’re-asleep, life-work-complete kind of “good,” it was on his terms. And that’s worth something.

Doughty’s book brought me into what I felt I had missed out on in my own experiences with death. She managed to enter the Emerald Castle and pull back the curtain on a profit-driven industry that cares not for the dead body, not for the family, nor even for death itself, but for making a buck out of vulnerability and carrying on that tradition uncritically simply because we’ve all bought into it. Doughty’s book is one I will recommend to everyone that crosses my path. It will be shelved along with my other favorites, and I will be looking for more to read on this topic. In fact, I’ve even contacted the Cleveland Memorial Society to ask if I can sit in on a talk she’s giving there in November. The emotional baggage we carry prevents us from seeing death for what it is, and Doughty’s book is an invitation to set it aside and confront death head on, in all its rotting glory.

You can pledge to be “death positive and join The Order of the Good Death by clicking here.

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All the Reading I Didn’t Do While Pregnant

The other night, my daughter and I were curled up in my bed reading The Story of the Root Children. This is a picture book from the early 20th century (the author, Sybille Von Olfers, was born in 1881 and lived to just 1916). At 9 years old, this book is well below her reading-level, but the story is magical and thus we keep coming back to it as a reminder of the changing seasons and the life that breathes underground even after everything is frozen. These moments are pretty rare, now that she’s capable of reading books like The Cursed Child on her own, and so when she brought me that book to read even though it was long past her bedtime, I happily obliged.

When my daughter was tiny, I read to her often. There were books everywhere, mostly cardboard, and I made it my mission to teach her from the moment she could talk that words had power, that words appeared on pages alongside pictures, that she could speak them and understand them and share them. We started with the alphabet so that she would learn to recognize the individual letters. We moved on to simple words, like “cat,” and I hoped she would recognize its image even if she couldn’t sound out the letters by themselves yet. Favorite books included Goodnight GorillaThat’s Not My Pirate, and all of Eric Carle’s infamous stories like The Very Hungry Caterpillar and The Grouchy Ladybug. Another story that I loved (and still love) is The Legend of Sleeping Bear; the first time I read that aloud I sobbed through the ending. My heart swelled with pride when she began to imitate my reading aloud. Eventually, her performance turned to actual comprehension, and soon enough, she was reading on her own.

I got pregnant when I was just 21 years old. While some people are married and settled down at that age, I was most certainly not, and as a young woman (who looked even younger than I was), people seemed to think I was absolutely clueless. Maybe they felt pity toward my green Starbucks apron stretched over my growing belly, my messy hair pulled back to expose my stretched ears. I did have one customer bring me diapers and a gift card, a gesture of kindness (not pity) that I will always remember. If you have ever been pregnant, you’ll sympathize with my plight: everyone had advice to share, especially book recommendations. What to Expect When You’re Expecting is practically the pregnancy Bible, and it was shoved into my arms with great excitement. I politely declined, however, and as my pregnancy continued, my heart filled with vitriol toward the entire maternal health care system in our country.

Despite what most people may have seen, or thought, when they saw me, I was not entirely naive. Sure, I had all the wisdom that 21 brings (which isn’t much compared to what I know now in my thirties), but I also had community. Ever since dial-up internet was a thing, I had found places for myself online, a means of connecting with others who shared aspects of my own identity. I embraced email, forums, and blogging. At that time, I was an avid Livejournal user, and had joined a due date community for women who were expecting in July of 2007. Livejournal works similarly to Reddit, in that you can participate in communities, but it is different in that you also maintain a blog of your own that can be customized, like Tumblr. You can also create a profile where interests function like tags, and you can build a friends list of people you follow, and people who follow you back. Like Facebook, your Livejournal posts could be set to public or private. Though I had started out seeing an OB-GYN for prenatal care, frustration with that provider led me to consider the nurse-midwives through Planned Parenthood, who I saw until 33 weeks into my pregnancy. At that point, thanks to research I had done through Livejournal and a post with photos of a homebirth in an apartment, I switched care to a homebirth midwife and a doula. Naturally, this decision was met with criticism, but I felt confident that the information I had gathered online was sufficient and proceeded with my plans to give birth in my own living room.

Through the connections I had made online, I also discovered a different library of books about pregnancy and raising children. Ina May Gaskin became my new literary hero, with books like Ina May’s Guide to Childbirth and Spiritual Midwifery. While What to Expect When You’re Expecting covers various questions about nutrition and safety, as well as a traditional hospital birth experience, it felt sterile compared to the vibrant storytelling in Ina May’s books. Perhaps most important, Ina May’s books had pictures of actual women in actual labor birthing their actual children. No staged or hand-drawn images there. And that, ultimately, was what prepared me for what I was about to endure. I needed to see what it looked like, and I needed to hear from other women who had been through it. I didn’t need to be told not to eat soft-serve ice cream or soft cheeses, I didn’t need any more seeds of fear planted in my already-anxious mind. I needed honesty, I needed something raw, I needed to be intimately aware of what my body was experiencing. I needed some real noise to drown out the monotonous drone of medicalized, procedural birth.

I realize I sound like a bit of a radical here. I don’t have any qualms with hospital births, and I think in some cases, medical intervention is absolutely necessary. This was true for me – after my daughter was born, at home, in my living room, I went to the hospital for stitches. She was a big baby, but she was born healthy and strong. I do believe that hospital births can be positive and autonomous, especially with the help of a doula, but that wasn’t the path I took at that time.

I also realize that my title may be a bit misleading: I did, in fact, read while pregnant. I read often. I read as much as I could get my hands on. But I read intentionally. I chose not to read most of the mainstream literature because it didn’t feel right. It made me feel shame, for being pregnant without a marriage and a stable job. It made me feel as if my body had been taken over by not just another being, but by an institution, and I wanted to push back against that. I suppose I am thankful for the naivety I had at that time, because I truly believed I could do anything. The books I read and the online communities I belonged to during my pregnancy were some of the most formative experiences I had as a new mother. They helped me come into my own as a woman, and shaped the values I carry with me today, as the parent of a now-4th grader. Both books and online spaces are prioritized in our home as a means for connection, for communication, and for acquiring knowledge. I hope that my daughter realizes this, and is able to pass it along to her own family (be it blood or otherwise) someday.