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Mortician wants to start a death revolution

Mortician and author Caitlin Doughty thinks Americans need to face death more honestly and openly.

Mara Zehler

They say life is journey and death a destination. Waiting at the end of that long, winding road is someone like Caitlin Doughty, a death industry professional. However, Doughty is hardly your average undertaker.

The 30-year-old mortician, who just published her memoir, "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes and Other Lessons from the Crematory," is a trailblazer in alternative funerals. She's become a leading proponent of a relatively new movement that encourages people to face their own mortality with more honesty -- what she calls "death positivity."

Doughty built a following as a death expert through her YouTube video series called "Ask a Mortician," where she takes on taboo topics such as what happens to breast implants and hip replacements when a corpse is cremated.

Doughty believes Americans are overdue for a death revolution. The way U.S. culture deals with death -- fancy caskets, overpriced funerals, embalming -- reflects our desire to keep mortality at a safe distance. And sadly, this occurs after many Americans suffer through their final days, receiving aggressive and sometimes unwanted medical care, ultimately dying without dignity.

CBS News talked with Doughty about how to make facing death and processing grief a more life-affirming experience, if a little more unconventional. This interview has been condensed and edited.

What inspired you to go into the funeral industry?

I was always interested in death in more of an academic way, and I was a medieval history major in college. It was really when I graduated from college and medieval history doesn't get you that great a job -- especially in 2008 -- that it occurred to me I might have even more of an understanding of how death works if I actually did the job myself. Almost immediately I found that to be true and my understanding deepened in many ways.

What's been one of your most memorable experiences in the funeral industry?

One day, we had a Chinese family and they did a very large "witness cremation." The whole family filed into the back and watched the body being loaded into the cremation machine and it was really, really a profound experience because they were all crying. The oldest son pushed the button that moved his father into the cremation machine, and it really showed me how much that involvement is missing in all the other cremations I was doing.

In all the other cremations it was just me, and I was the person there with the body in the final moment. I was the one pushing the button and I was the one doing the last goodbyes. I didn't know those people and I treated them with respect, but I didn't know if I should be the one doing it.

Why do you believe Americans are uncomfortable with death?

One of the things that was most shocking to me about starting to work in the funeral industry is just how industrial the environment is. Even if the people working there are incredibly caring, it is about disposing of the bodies. There's not a great deal of family involvement, no matter what you choose to do, whether it's embalming and a viewing, or a cremation.

Is this attitude specific to America or is it Westernized culture in general?

It's definitely part of Westernized culture, but I think our particular history with embalming in North America makes up part of it. Embalming is a chemical procedure that preserves the corpse and that kind of distance from accepting decomposition gives [the U.S.] a special advantage in the death denial place. But, in general, the shutting up of grief and the hiding of dead bodies is very much a Western thing.

What's problematic about doing that?

If you don't see and interact with dead bodies you really can't fully understand death. That's kind of a controversial statement because people will say, "Oh, we see it on TV all the time, we have zombie shows, crime shows." But I don't think that's the same thing.

There's a real difference between a dead body and a living body and you can really tell that death is final, and that the person has fully checked out. Going around not fully believing that you're going to die is really problematic because it affects how you think about the future of the planet, about the future of your own life, about the decisions you're making.

What are some of the misnomers about the funeral industry?

The biggest misnomer is that funeral directors are uniquely qualified to take care of dead bodies the way a layperson isn't. When in reality, unless you want the body embalmed -- which is not legally required -- you really are perfectly capable of taking care of that body yourself. You have all the resources available to you. All you need is the ability to get over your own fears. The average corpse is not dangerous and does not present a threat to you, and there's nothing preventing you in most states from taking care of it yourself.

What exactly would it entail to take care of a loved one's corpse on your own?

The person dies at home, having the body kept at home, having the body home for a period of time, washing the body, shrouding the body, having a wake at home, then delivering the body yourself, whether to the crematory or cemetery.

But don't laws restrict people from home funerals?

It can be difficult because each state has its own separate death laws. For example, California has wonderful laws about people taking care of the body themselves. The family has that body after death and they're not required to bring it to any sort of funeral home. However, California is very, very strict about burying bodies in the backyard. Under no circumstances can you do that. But even in the states where you're not allowed to do it, you can say to the funeral home, "Okay, I want you to monitor what I'm doing but I want to be in charge myself."

What can you tell us about cremation?

Cremation over the past 20 years has really become the American way of death. More specifically where we're headed is direct cremation, which is just the body -- no viewing, no family involvement -- taken away, cremated, the ashes given to you. If you live in a different state, you can get a phone call and have the ashes mailed to you. You don't even have to go in; it's completely automated.

What other trends are emerging in the death industry?

There's all sorts of new technologies that are being developed, some of which are still in prototype. One is alkaline hydrolysis, which is cremation but really through high heat and water and chemicals or lye. That was started in medical schools and now is being used in funeral homes. Then there's also things like the Urban Death Project, which is having beautiful towers where bodies are composted and trying to figure out how that would be legal. There's a lot of people trying to do interesting work to try and break us out of this burial-cremation-burial-cremation paradigm.

Why is it important now to change the death industry in this country?

We don't have the money and we don't have the resources to take care of this elderly population, especially the part of the population that doesn't want to be kept alive through extreme measures, doesn't want to be in the ICU for the last two months of their lives. Having these conversations about allowing people to die and how they want to die -- and with control -- is going to be incredibly important. I think in some ways it's going to be the next civil rights issue.

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    Jessica Firger covers health and wellness for CBSNews.com