The thing about death

The bookclub that I attend at the library is not often reading non-fiction and so when Smoke Gets in your Eyes by Caitlin Doughty was chosen, I was both surprised and pleased. Surprised that the group was willing to read about what happens when we die and about how our bodies are disposed off and pleased because this book had made the rounds on booktube and I was keen to read it.

For years, I have repeated to my husband my wishes about what should happen when I die. No funeral. No wake. Cremation and then he and the kid shall take my ashes and spread them in Scotland somewhere in the hills.

I grew up in Germany and death is big business there. The selling of plots, gravestones and grave panels is  a profitable enterprise. When a cousin of mine was seeing an undertaker for a while, the family was equally repulsed but also quite impressed since after all, there was money there. The maintenance of graves, unless you do it yourself, can cost dearly, too, especially these days with relatives often living far away from the graves that need spring planting, summer planting, winter decoration, possibly a light lighting if you are Catholic at certain holidays throughout the year, then you best hire a local service to do that for you or give money to a local friend to sort this all out for you.

As a kid, my job was to water my grandfather’s grave when it needed it and considering where I grew up in Southern Germany, that meant going twice a day during the summer for most of that season. My grandmother would plant the grave with spring flowering plants, then with summer plants and then in autumn once the geraniums and petunias were finally gone, an elaborate winter decoration would be arranged. My job was to go and water. If I did not, someone in the village would know and report back to my grandmother that I was not taking my duty seriously.


Foto by Alina Blue / Flickr – Creative Commons License

The consequences of improper grave care are at best the whole village talking about you, some maybe even to your face. At worst, the graveyard management will send you a bill for sorting it out themselves. Judgement over grave care comes before the judgement of God and while you are still alive. So even my grandmother, who never cared much for my grandfather while he was still alive, cared a lot about his grave once he was dead. To pay for the gravestone, we lived on one pot soups for an entire year. When I was 11, I declared much to the shock and horror of my aunts and uncles present for Sunday afternoon coffee that I would never be buried but burnt and my ashes scattered. My uncle pointed out that this was illegal in Germany (still is as far as I know) and so I said: well, I move somewhere to die where it is legal, then. Hello England. (Although that is not the reason, I moved here, I hasten to add, I am not that morbid.)

So Caitlin Doughty’s book that I am finding hugely fascinating really brings up some issues that I have felt strongly about since I was a kid. The weird connection we have to the dead. And my weird relationship with it all. I cannot say that Doughty changed much of my outlook on my funeral plans other than, I should maybe explain my reasoning a bit more to my loved ones, so they can “buy in” to my wishes. After all, it will be them sorting it all out.

The descriptions of the cremations of people who were not that loved reminded me of the death of my father 8 years ago. When he died we had not spoken since my grandmother died, with her death, my obligation to speak to him or to pretend that we had any sort of functioning relationship died as well. In German law, I was responsible for paying for the funeral. Much to the shock and horror of some of my relatives I went for the cheapest option: cremation and anonymous grave (no grave care, you see). They thought me heartless and thoughtless despite them knowing my father and knowing at least some of the things I suffered because of him. Minor offence: his refusal to work and thus growing up in benefit poverty. I could have forgiven that. Medium offence: His constant stealing of money from me starting when I was a kid. He plundered my savings account more than once, went to collect my earnings from the grocer who I distributed flyers for etc. He ordered stuff from mail order in my name and I then had to pay for it. And the thing no one knew apart from probably my grandmother although we never spoke of it, was that he sexually abused me until I was 14. So here I was having to make the choice of being a fool and keeping up pretence and paying for a plot with a gravestone or doing the bare minimum I was legally obliged to do and having an entire village shaking their head in disbelief at my uncaring ways. I chose the latter and still the entire pleasure cost me over €4,000. Reading Doughty’s book, I wonder if the funeral director thought me uncaring when he pressed the cremation button and interred my father’s ashes in an unmarked plot. I cannot say that I care too much about that or what the villagers think.

I think there has to be more conversation about death and how we deal with dead bodies, after all, we are all going to die at some point. And although I still got about 100 pages to read, I already highly recommend this book. It is written from an American point of view but I think even us Europeans (soon I have to say: Europeans and Britains) have similar attitudes.

Smoke Gets in Your Eyes PBK mech.indd

Paperback, 272 pages
Published September 28th 2015 by W. W. Norton Company