Wednesday 15 July 2020

Smoke Gets In Your Eyes

With the imminent launch of Secure the Shadow, I thought this made for apt reading:

From her first day at Westwind Cremation & Burial, twenty-three-year-old Caitlin Doughty threw herself into her curious new profession. Coming face-to-face with the very thing we go to great lengths to avoid thinking about she started to wonder about the lives of those she cremated and the mourning families they left behind, and found herself confounded by people's erratic reactions to death. Exploring our death rituals - and those of other cultures - she pleads the case for healthier attitudes around death and dying. Full of bizarre encounters, gallows humour and vivid characters (both living and very dead), this illuminating account makes this otherwise terrifying subject inviting and fascinating.

This was a really excellent book, looking at what happens to your body after you die. It's fairly graphic, doesn't pull any punches - the story about the overflowing fat is one you'll definitely remember - but it really gets you thinking about what you would like to happen to your remains, and what the options are. It's delivered with wonderful humour:

A girl always remembers the first corpse she shaves. It's the only moment in her life more awkward than her first kiss or losing her virginity.


It was a double life I lived, shuttling between the worlds of the living and the dead. The transition was so abrupt that some days I wondered if they could see it in my eyes. 'Good afternoon, here I am in your multi-million dollar home, covered in people dust and smelling vaguely of rot. Please pay me a large sum of money to mold the impressionable mind of your teenager.'

And there's some fascinating historical points: 

The Council of Rouen in 1231 banned dancing in the cemetery or in the church under pain of excommunication. To require such a forceful ban, it must have been a popular pastime. The cemetery was the venue where the living and the dead mingled in social harmony.

I just really connected with a lot of what Doughty was saying. I share a similar relationship with death. There were several points where I found myself nodding, such as the question of whether someone is a he, a person, or an it, a body, after death - something I considered in Angorichina.

It was also extremely normalising to hear her reaction to witnessing sudden and traumatic death, and the emotions that stirred. I had a similar experience years back, where I arrived on the scene of an accident moments after it happened. It was a car accident. I heard the person driving past one moment, alive, and found them unmistakably dead the next. It was fairly gruesome. My legs still give way at the sound of sudden car brakes skidding, though I held it together remarkably well at the time, doing everything you're supposed to do in that situation with extreme clarity of mind - trying to open the door, checking to see if someone's breathing - then realising it's unlikely considering what's splattered across the glass. I seriously wanted to hug the author when she spoke about the sanitisation of everything. I think that, more than anything, really buggered my brain. All I ever saw was the mess, and it was tidied away so incredibly quickly with such perfunctory neatness, that I never got that time to process in my mind that he was dead. Everything in me was too awake to danger, too high on adrenaline and fear. What I needed, more than anything, was to sit with the body, hold its hand, and truly look at it - him - whatever. I needed a visual confirmation that it was okay. Instead, I just had that shock image of the mess. There was no after image to replace it. I didn't need him cleaned up or anything, I just needed to see exactly what had happened, the honesty of his injuries, and that it was over. Clearing people away is supposed to be dignified and 'good' for the living, but it isn't. Not always.

A lot of what Doughty was saying after witnessing a death were the same thoughts I was having. It just opened a great big black pit inside of me, and that stuck around for a long time. I felt like I was falling and couldn't stop. He wasn't the first corpse I'd seen. I'd visited my nana and a guy I knew as a kid, when they were laid out at the funeral home. And that was okay. It affirmed that they definitely weren't there, just shells left behind, as Doughty puts it. I've also seen a lot of limed bodies at Murambi, and far too many skulls and human remains at memorials across Rwanda. Those affect you in a different way. But that particular car wreck - and it was literally a car wreck - was alien to anything I had encountered before, and it required a different approach. One that our culture is not au fait with.

Anyway, maybe that's why I've written a book about post-mortem photography. There's usually method to the madness in anything creative. 

I liked her leaning towards exposing her body after death for nature to reclaim. I'm on board with that. I used to hang out at Tinkinswood a lot when I was younger, it's a cromlich in Wales. Next to the giant capstone is a pit where they reckon they used to expose bodies. The Parsi also build a Tower of Silence, or Dakhma, to expose bodies to crows. That or a Sky Burial is fine by me, but I suspect, given what our laws will allow, it's either cremation or a green burial beneath a tree. After reading this, I think perhaps I prefer the idea of a green burial rather than cremation. Definitely no embalming. Having seen where my friend is buried - No.1052 - I don't like Rwandan cemeteries much. They're all uniform white tiles beneath the burning sun, whereas I grew up with the cultural expectation of a shaded, wooded cemetery somewhere, each headstone a little personalised. But to get me back to the UK cheaply and unembalmed, I'd probably need to be cremated first. Whatever. I'd be dead. Wouldn't matter much.

Strangely, falling into a fire drunk and burning half my hand actually reduced my fear of cremation rather than increased it. It also reduced my fear of being burnt alive as a witch. It would be undeniably awful, but, if, like in The Hangman's Daughter, they drugged you up first, it would probably be all over before you felt much. I didn't feel much for a couple of hours after. The next three months were hellish, incredibly painful, but at the moment it happened, I was too drunk and too shocked for it to register. 

Not that you'd actually be alive when you went into the furnace, but, y'know, just in case you were... 

Anyway, I really enjoyed this book for discussing such interesting and important issues.

I also didn't realise that when you donate your body to science, you're doing so 'in a very general way'. Your cadaver might be used to train the next generation of neurosurgeons or cure cancer, or it might be used to practise plastic surgery, or even thrown out of a plane to test parachutes. Fascinating.

Worth a read. Plenty to think about.

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