It had to happen eventually: the first negative review on this site. Oh, I thought about being tactful and just saying something like, “this book wasn’t for me”, but those weasel words refused to come out of my fingertips onto the keyboard. So what follows is my unvarnished opinion. You have been warned.
I was quite excited when I spotted this in a secondhand book sale last month. It’s rare to find books about the craft of writing in these places. I hadn’t heard of the book, but it seemed worth spending a couple of dollars to check it out and maybe find one or two useful tips.
This felt like two books to me: in one, Caitlin Doughty gives us stories from her time working in a crematorium. This is the reason I wanted to read the book in the first place and it was as enthralling, confronting, heartbreaking and heartwarming as I had hoped. Doughty is a good storyteller and she has some great material to work with, from the next-of-kin who want nothing to do with their loved ones’ remains and simply instruct the crematory to send them the ashes in the post, to the loving families who bring food and grave goods to be put into the coffin and even sing to the dead before the cremation. There are also some very honest and somewhat disturbing descriptions of dead bodies and how they are handled by those who work with them. This is all fascinating stuff.
However, then there is what I’m calling the second book: Doughty intersperses her crematorium anecdotes with information about death and funereal customs from other times and other places and philosophises at length about our own culture’s relationship with the dead and their mortal remains. She also gives us an eye-opening and somewhat scathing view of the modern American funeral industry. These passages kept breaking the flow of the narrative to such an extent that in the end I simply began skipping over them. It’s not that the material is inherently uninteresting or even badly written, but the two parts of this book simply don’t mesh smoothly together. I kept wanting to get away from the general and cultural and back to the specific and personal.
If Doughty had made the choice to simply write a memoir about her crematory experiences, with maybe just a word or two about how death is treated in our society and how she feels about it, I believe that could have been a 5-star book for me. As it stands, though, 3.5 stars reflects my reading experience more accurately. I would recommend this book, just be aware of its sometimes jarring dual nature.