We all deserve holidays, celebrations, and traditions. We all need to mark time. We all need community. We all need to bid hello and goodbye to our loved ones… All our best rituals are a kind of performance about what we need or want most.
Sasha Sagan is the daughter of renowned cosmologist Carl Sagan and writer Ann Druyan, which gave her a uniquely scientific upbringing. Her parents focused on teaching her the wonders of the universe and the powers of critical thinking and the scientific method. When she became a parent, Sagan and her partner had to decide what philosophies and beliefs they wanted to teach their own child, and the result of that decision is her book For Small Creatures Such As We.
Sasha Sagan is presenting a secular worldview, but is not hostile to religious perspectives. She expresses a warm curiosity and appreciation for the history of religious traditions around the world, and seeks to capture the spirit of religious rituals and festivals in her own life. Accordingly, she focuses each chapter on an aspect of life which has given rise to rituals in different religions: birth, coming-of-age, the changing of seasons, marriage, death, and more. She outlines how different traditions have celebrated these events, and offers meditations on their meaning alongside potential adaptations for secular or personal rituals. At its core, though, Sagan is urging us to really feel and celebrate the magic of being alive, however it works for us as individuals.
I enjoyed this book for the poetic descriptions of what living is, and I was moved by how honestly she talked about loving, losing, and grieving her father. I also thought she gave meaningful perspective on a lot of traditions and rituals that run through our lives. I came away feeling enlightened about the traditions that have shaped my life, and empowered to craft rituals that would add meaning to my own marking of time.
No matter your belief system, I think if you’re looking for a meditative read on how the sacred meets the everyday, there’s something in this book for you.
I’ve got a thing for any books that deal with death, medical, or morbid themes. (Check out my blog post on Working Stiff.) Death is not something discussed across the dinner table or out in public while waiting for the bus. Instead it is pushed to the back of our minds as something that we will deal with later, something we can put off until “our time comes”. Smoke Gets in Your Eyes & Other Lessons from the Crematory by Caitlin Doughty talks about death across a wide variety of cultures, continents, and centuries, in an effort to help us understand that we shouldn’t fear or push death to the dusty corner of our lives. We should work to become as comfortable as possible with death in order to lift up the stereotypes that surround the people who work with death everyday. (Side note: the author dives into very real descriptions of preparing bodies after death and the intricate details of some death cultures, so this book is definitely not for the faint of heart or stomach.)
Smoke Gets in Your Eyes is a work of nonfiction that tells the intertwined stories of the myriad cultures of death and the life of the author. Caitlin Doughty was born in Hawaii and had no real exposure to death until she turned 8 and witnessed the violent death of a small child at a mall. Once she was old enough, Doughty moved to Chicago where she graduated with a degree in medieval history, something that helped fuel her theoretical interest in death. After graduation, she realized that there was not much she could do with a degree in medieval history, so she moved to California and began applying for jobs at crematories in order to gain practical work experience with the dead.
This book talks about Doughty’s first job as a crematory operator, the one who deals with your loved ones’ bodies and remains, as well as “other duties as assigned”, like shaving faces, dealing with the bodies that have been donated to science, preparing bodies for funerals, and going on runs to pick up the newly deceased from wherever they died. At her first job, Doughty gets her real look into the mystery surrounding the people who choose to work with the dead for a living and is able to see what exactly goes on behind the scenes at funeral homes, hospitals, nursing homes, etc., when people die. While Doughty can indeed get very graphic, for instance she goes into great detail about the embalming process, the information she presents comparing different death cultures around the world to our own now, as well as comparing how people view death across time, is immensely fascinating and really points out to readers that the more we know and make an effort to understand death, the less we will shun it and be afraid of it. While this book does talk about the author’s journey into the death industry, Doughty also includes passages of other relevant historical and societal death practices for readers to try to understand.