“Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” – The Book I Needed After My Grandmother’s Death

A photo of the audiobook on my phone beside my earbuds. They are surrounded by dried flowers leftover from one of my grandmother’s funeral arrangements. Everything rests on a fuzzy gray and white blanket. Photo by M. A. Phillips 2023

At the end of January, my grandma passed away. She was my last living grandparent, and probably the one I was closest to if I’m honest. My maternal grandfather passed before my birth, and my grandmother when I was eight. I spent many happy childhood and adolescent days at my paternal grandparents’ home which was conveniently the next street over from where I lived. Papa often worked out in the shop where he fixed tractors, so Grandma B usually watched my sister and me. She supervised many arts and crafts sessions on the kitchen table, and I followed her around the garden while she tended her plants and taught me how to identify and care for several types.

Her health started to decline when I moved away from home, and the deterioration increased when I became a mother. Raising a baby, maintaining a new career, and leading a young Druid group often made it difficult for me to travel to see her, and then the pandemic put some high obstacles between us. Truthfully, visiting her the few times I did, especially toward the end, was painful. Seeing the once proud artist and gardener hooked up to machines, palsied, and bedridden, broke my heart. I’m so grateful to my uncles who stayed with her to the very end. Having been largely absent from her death, I made sure I was there for her wake and funeral service. The burial will come later once the ground thaws.

Death on my mind, I turned to a favorite content-creator: mortician, author, and activist Caitlin Doughty. I already watched her fascinating and entertaining Youtube channel and listened to her podcast, but I decided it was time to dig into her books, starting with her first.

Smoke Gets In Your Eyes and Other Lessons from the Crematory was as intriguing as her other content, perhaps more so because it gave me greater insight into both the author and the funeral industry. I listened to the audiobook which I highly recommend, especially if you’re already a fan of Doughty since she narrates! The humor, compassion, and frankness I’ve grown fond of were all there, and I now have even more appreciation for her journey to death-positive activist on a mission to reform modern funeral practices.

As someone mourning the death of my grandmother, listening to this book was strangely comforting. When Papa died, I was too wrapped up in caring for an infant to truly process it, and with Grandma B lingering on, I suppose there was an incompleteness to his passing. One half of him remained, made further evident by Grandma’s name and birth year etched on their shared headstone. Nearly a decade later, the last of my grandparents has physically gone, and I am left to process what that means. I wondered what happens to their bodies, what will I do when my own parents follow, and what do I want to happen to me?

One of the last chapters really resonated with me even though it made me weep. Doughty recalls the death of her own grandmother then dives into an uncomfortable topic for many of us in the Western world: end of life care involving an aging Baby Boomer population, crowded nursing homes, and something my own Grandma dealt with – bed sores. It’s difficult for me to explain why hearing all this helped me, but I suppose it’s because I wasn’t there yet was aware of my grandmother’s final days. They assured me she felt no pain; she was on morphine. Even so…it all made me wonder–still makes me wonder–about the tradeoff between length of life and quality of life. Doughty’s earnest invitation into the conversation helped me feel less alone with my concerns, and gave me hope that there are people out there trying to solve these issues and improve everyone’s lives.

I highly recommend “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” to all readers*. Knowledge is power, and if you haven’t started thinking about and discussing end-of-life plans with loved ones, it’s never too late. From a Pagan standpoint, I think our communities are already moving toward death-positivity with our ancestor work. I think we’re making important progress in changing mentalities about our relationship with the dead, but we have a long way to go. I think we should be on the frontline of pushing for more eco-friendly burials and family involvement in preparing the dead both for care of the land and our own well-being. I also believe the Pagan community could do a better job supporting our oldest members. I won’t lie; I feel a twinge of guilt that I wasn’t there for my grandmother in her final days. How many elder Pagans are without anyone? Who is there for them? Who is advocating for them to have end-of-life rituals that are meaningful and calming? Who is helping Pagan families navigate a largely Christian-dominated funeral industry? Who will advocate for us when it’s our turn?

*I’m not sure I’d recommend the book to everyone who is actively mourning. I’ve been learning from Doughty for a couple years and already have a novice’s understanding of the death-positive movement. The very real and raw narrative surrounding the preparation of diverse dead bodies may be too much for some readers until they’ve had more time to process.

Published by M. A. Phillips

An author and Druid living in Northern NY.

3 thoughts on ““Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” – The Book I Needed After My Grandmother’s Death

  1. My son and I talk about this stuff. My hope is that he’ll be able to come up with something preposterous for me. My ideal would be an air burial followed by having my bones made into musical instruments, but that’s technically challenging. I’d love to live on as a flute.

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