A memoir turned polemic turned treatise about death in the United States, this book begins with the narrator, Caitlin Doughty leaving college with a degree in Medieval Studies (focusing on death and death rituals) and taking a job in the crematory industry in San Fransisco. We jump right in and follow the new hire as she’s shaving an elderly dead man for the funeral preparation. Like Doughty, we too are brand new to this world and like her getting a hands on initiation into it. Through subsequent chapters we learn bits and pieces of both the history of the death industry in America (and the wider world) while also learning more and more about Doughty’s life and how she was led into this life’s work. The biographical elements of the book are interesting and wry in good measure, and the historical elements also feel well-researched and knowledgable.
The book gets murky when it turns into a kind of polemic, not so much against the death industry itself, but against American perceptions of death and critics of mortuary. There’s a central defensiveness that mires this book. It’s almost as if Doughty wants to shield herself and her friends from the very criticism she herself is making. At times, there’s a feel of #notallmorticians to the book too. In a critical reading of Jessica Mitford’s The American Way of Death which Doughty credits Mitford with revolutionizing the funeral industry, Doughty criticizes Mitford as dehumanizing the industry, ie lighting a match and tossing it behind her because Mitford focused so heavily on a cost analysis of funerals. In addition, she blames Mitford (and the American public) for devaluing death by increasing the use of cremation and no funeral deaths. Mitford was a journalist who was responding to at least a century’s worth of emotional exploitation of grieving. The history of mortuaries in the United States, which Doughty agrees with, is riddled with conartists and sellsmanship that helped to dehumanize the process of death. Mitford focused on the ways in which this means financial exploitation and doesn’t contend very much with rituals of death. She was also a Communist from a British elite family, so didn’t really have much to add. So to blame her for revealing the deep shame of the industry is unfair to Mitford and lets mortuary off the hook. In addition, Doughty is arguing from a complicit position — at one point criticizing people for buying the product she and her company (one that she treats as beloved) is selling. It’s hypocritical and frustrating, and doesn’t work for the book. Also, like the con-artists she criticizes in the book, she’s positions herself in some offensive ways as a medical practitioner (almost) and makes some callous and flippant comparisons that sour the reading: ie at one point she compares people believing that dead bodies are an especial health risks to myths about AIDS.
I soured on this book the further along I got with it, I have to admit. I am glad for the insider look, and when she’s talking about death rituals, I don’t really disagree with her, but the defensiveness at the core of this, as the funeral industry insists upon itself, weakens the whole experience for me.