Book Review: Smoke Gets in Your Eyes by Caitlin Doughty

Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: And Other Lessons from the Crematory

I’ve watched Caitlin’s Youtube channel Ask a Motician for a few years (though I haven’t kept up with the latest videos), and I’ve owned this book for almost as long. I actually had the opportunity to meet Caitlin a couple years ago when she did a speaking event at an art museum in Minneapolis, Minnesota. I read her other book during that time, and yet, while I started this one near that time, I never felt motivated to finish it. It’s not a bad book, by any means, but it does have one fatal flaw that I’ll get to in a minute.

Release: 2014

Format: Paperback

Page Count: 254 pages

Synopsis: Caitlin Doughty has worked in the death industry for years, and now brings stories from her first job at a funeral home and how it changed her understanding of the world and modern society’s fear of death.


The writing style of this book is extremely engaging, and individual stories are vividly described while teetering between awesome and gross. Doughty doesn’t shy away in describing the smell of a decomposing corpse or the bone-crushing work (pun intended) of a crematory worker. This book also shares an important message that modern society desperately tries to separate itself from death, which leads to nothing but unhappiness and fear of illness (as we’ve seen one with this coronavirus which is happening as I write this). Many people lack an acceptance, respect, and understanding of dead. In that, this book does an exceptional job telling a very important message. However, many of the stories are meandering, disconnected, and I found it very difficult to make myself finish it because, once I got the message of the book, everything else was filler.

I found it interesting to learn about how crematories are run, from the burning machines themselves to different customers’ requests. It was also interesting to learn about embalming and the history of the funeral industry, especially in America. Saying that, a lot of the individual cases and stories told overlap, feeling like retellings with a couple new details of previous ones. This is strange, considering this book is only about 250 pages, and yet it almost felt like it could have been 150 with little to nothing lost.

Most of the story focuses on the year Caitlin Doughty worked for a funeral home in San Francisco, where she had her first experiences with the death industry and began to understand that society’s distance from death isn’t helping anyone.

However, Doughty is very much a nihilist, giving the book almost a depressing feel to it. She finds no meaning in life, only hoping to have a good death, because death is the end. The entire book is almost saying that life is pointless and meaningless and thus we must find meaning in our own mortality. It’s a really saddening message, and not one I entirely agree with, because I think meaning can be found in many things in life even if you don’t have a religion or believe in an afterlife.

While I did enjoy this book, I realize while I understand the messages, the rest were stories about Doughty’s experiences that argued for her messages. It was a bit like reading a thousand arguments for the importance of death. I feel like after the 70th argument, one might get a bit tired.

However, I don’t want to complain about this book because I am extremely glad I read it and it’s certainly a book I might later reference if I’m researching the funeral industry. Especially at a time where society is pushing more and more advanced funeral techniques instead of understanding we should return to the ground when we die (like that old Bible phrase that goes something like “you are from dust and to dust you shall return”). Most people making money in the industry disagree with Doughty, which makes her voice all the more refreshing.

Have you read this book? Or heard of it? Does it look interesting to you? Let me know your thoughts down in the comments, follow my blog for more musings and, as always,

Best wishes in your life full of adventure,

Madame Writer

7 thoughts on “Book Review: Smoke Gets in Your Eyes by Caitlin Doughty

  1. Great review. This book sounds very interesting to me, even though, like you, I won’t probably enjoy all the repetition and the nihilist outlook. Still, I may pick this book up – I am also interested in the history of funeral tradition and practices in the US and always on a lookout for books that talk about and try to explain death. I guess it will probably be a good and serious! October (Halloween) read.

    “She finds no meaning in life, only hoping to have a good death” – well, I guess for someone who made her career in a funeral practice – death is a point in life in some way, but it does not mean this is applicable to everyone 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s definitely an interesting read, and a good idea for Halloween. If you do end up reading it, I look forward to your thoughts about it. It’s a unique worldview, and the best part was definitely the information about the funeral industry.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I have the book but haven’t yet read it. I appreciate your review though. I more expected it to be more of an exploration or something about how people approach death and dying.

    Liked by 1 person

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