NYT best-selling author Caitlin Doughty to deliver Journal of Law and Policy symposium keynote on Thursday, Feb. 23

Photo graphic of a broken tombstone in a cemetery depicting 'James Hawkins Aug 5 1803 May 6 1903' with a graphic overlay that says 'Disrupting the Death Care Paradigm February 24'

The Wake Forest Journal of Law and Policy (JLP) spring symposium will commence with a keynote address from Los Angeles-based mortician and funeral director Caitlin Doughty, a death positivism activist and the author of a New York Times best-seller on theory and culture, at 6 p.m. on Thursday, Feb. 23, 2017, in the Worrell Professional Center, Room 1312. The event is free and open to the public.

Doughty frequently travels to give talks on the history of death culture, rituals and the funeral industry. As part of the JLP symposium, “Disrupting the Death Care Paradigm: Challenges to the Regulation of the Funeral Industry and the American Way of Death,” Doughty will discuss legal changes she sees as necessary to the reform of Western funeral industry practices.

Because a corpse is the legal quasi-property of the next-of-kin of the deceased, Doughty says she would like to see the repeal of laws in eight states that require a funeral home to be active in some part of the death care process, and to make alternative disposition processes, such as alkaline hydrolysis (liquid cremation), sky burial, promession, natural or green burial and composting, available in more states.

A native of Hawaii, Doughty graduated with a degree in medieval history with a focus on death and culture from the University of Chicago and moved to San Francisco shortly after to seek hands-on exposure to modern death practices in funeral homes. The now 32-year-old was employed as a crematory operator, funeral arranger and body-van transport driver for a year, but her frustration with bureaucratic procedures and her desire to change attitudes about death led her to attend Cypress College’s mortuary science program to become a licensed mortician and find a way to offer alternative funeral arrangements.

Doughty hoped to support death acceptance and healthier grieving by encouraging decedents’ families to be more involved in the death care process. In 2011, Doughty began her web series, “Ask a Mortician,” a humorous videocast that explores taboo death topics, and founded The Order of the Good Death, an inclusive community of funeral industry professionals, academics and artists committed to education and promoting an open and realistic discussion of death care, funerals and mourning in popular discourse through web content, to reduce fear and stigma surrounding death. “Ask a Mortician” and the Order website have led to Doughty’s features on NPR, BBC, the Huffington Post, Vice, the LA Times, Jezebel.com, Forbes, Bust Magazine and Salon.

In September 2014, Doughty published an eye-opening, candid and approachable memoir of her experiences in the funeral industry that also serves as a manifesto of her goals; her bestselling book, “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes & Other Lessons from the Crematory,” humorously addresses topics of death, decay and corpse handling to demystify the secretive culture of those who care for the deceased and challenge readers to confront their own mortality. Using the popularity of her publication as a springboard, Doughty then launched Undertaking LA, a funeral service alternative and seminar series meant to educate the public on their death options under California law.

Following Doughty’s keynote address, the symposium will resume at 9:30 a.m. on Friday, Feb. 24, with a day of presentations and panel discussions on these topics and on current legislation regarding the disposition of mortal remains. Four hours of free Continuing Legal Education (CLE) credit is available from the North Carolina Bar. A live webcast of the event will be available.

Other symposium speakers include Amy Cunningham of Fitting Tribute Funeral Services; David Harrington, an economist at Kenyon College; Philip Olson, a professor in the Department of Science and Technology in Society at Virginia Tech; Jeff Rowes, a senior attorney at the Institute for Justice; Josh Slocum, executive director of the Funeral Consumers Alliance; Lee-ford Tritt, director of the Center for Estate Planning at University of Florida Levin College of Law; and Lee Webster, president of the National Home Funeral Alliance and a member of Board of Directors of the Green Burial Council.

These presenters will introduce the main fronts challenging the dominant discourse on death care in the United States, including those concerning new methods of memorialization and disposition or the occupational licensing regime that shapes the funeral industry and the choices available to the public.

Wake Forest Law Professor Tanya Marsh, an expert in legislation regarding the status, treatment, and disposition of human remains and the only tenured law professor in America to be a licensed funeral director, will critique “The American Way of Death” with a talk contesting the ideas of twentieth century investigative journalist Jessica Mitford.

Mitford’s book, “The American Way of Death,” exposes ways in which funeral services market expensive death care to grieving family members as a way to demonstrate quantifiable love for the deceased. According to Fortune the average funeral in the United States can cost upwards of $10,000, and the funeral industry accumulates approximately $16 billion in profit annually. In the Nov. 21, 2016, episode of “Ask a Mortician,” titled “Least Expensive Death Option,”  Doughty argues that the most cost effective method for preparing a body after death is direct cremation, but cites a recent survey by the Funeral Consumers Alliance that finds 23 percent of funeral homes in the United States do not tell clients about their direct cremation options. Doughty asserts that this puts them in direct violation of laws set by the Federal Trade Commission.

Doughty considers Mitford’s book to be one of her inspirations; however, her criticism of the profit-driven funeral industry is more radical, according to a review of “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” published in The Free Lance-Star on Sept. 21, 2014. In fact, in an interview with The Atlantic published on Sept. 22, 2014, Doughty advocates for the reappropriation of pejoratives like “morbid” and argues that because death is universal, conversations surrounding it should be common and expected rather than deviant.