Bringing “the dead where they should go and the living where they should be”, the evolution of death

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Last month, California legalized a burial practice called human composting.

Here in Washington, the practice has been legal since 2019.

This is one of many signs that, for the first time in a long time, the funeral industry is changing.

Near the West Seattle Bridge exit in the SODO neighborhood, there is a warehouse. It’s at the end of a street, opposite a recycling centre.

There is a painted mural on the front and a garden. It’s strange to be surrounded by industrial companies, with garbage trucks passing by. This is not where one would expect to go for a funeral.

Katrina Spade says the contrast is part of what makes her company special.

“The process is about getting back to nature,” Spade explains. “And yet, here we are in the middle of the city, in an industrial space. So it’s an interesting juxtaposition of those two things.”

Spade is the founder and CEO of Recompose, a Seattle company that composts humans after they die. Earlier this year, Recompose opened its first in-person funeral home.

“Usually on a ceremonial day, the person’s body is lying here on a cradle,” Spade explains. “Friends and family lay wood shavings and straw on the body as part of the service. And then we open the door of this ship and place the body inside.”

Once the service is over and family and friends have left, the crib is moved to the other side of the warehouse, where the composting begins.

The warehouse is filled with 54 containers, where the bodies will actually begin to decompose. They are stacked in a hexagonal honeycomb pattern.

Think of the process as if you were composting on a forest floor – covered in sticks and dead leaves, and maybe a squirrel or two, and slowly they turn into topsoil.

A person can become a cubic meter of soil.

Katrina’s goal wasn’t always to create her own funeral home. For her, it started as a design exercise. What would it be like to create a space where the dead are composted? And how to make a place for the dead a little less funereal?

Because, for a long time, when we needed burials, there was only one option.

“For 70 years, the business model was the same, says Henry D. Johnston. He is a funeral director and embalmer based in Ellensburg. He is also chairman of the board of the WCCFA, or the Washington Cemetery, Cremation, and Funeral Association.

“You die on Monday, we meet you on Tuesday, we have your funeral on Thursday – about three days and it’s done,” Johnston said. “And every funeral was pretty much the same.”

Human composting isn’t the only way the funeral industry is changing.

Johnston says it’s because what people expect from a funeral or funeral is changing.

“A good funeral is one that gets the dead where they need to go and the living where they need to be,” says Johnston, quoting funeral director and author Thomas Lynch.

Johnston says his funeral home offers natural burials in partnership with another funeral home, but they haven’t taken off the same way we’re seeing in Seattle. In Henry’s experience, at least for now, the need for human composting in Ellensburg just isn’t there, at least not yet.

But the pandemic has brought out other needs.

“What I’ve noticed is that the pandemic has put people back in the minds of the significance of the ceremony,” Johnston said. “I’m talking about memorial services, celebrations of receiving life, honoring someone’s life after death. It puts society in a kind of ceremonial state of mind. It’s important. Ritual is important. . Honoring life is important.”

More than a million people in the United States have died from Covid. Chances are most people have been affected by a pandemic-related death.

For Henry, this brought a need for ceremony.

But at the Seattle Cooperative Funeral Home, the pandemic has brought something different.

“We really find that a lot of people want simple services, or no services coordinated by the funeral home,” says Amanda Stock, executive director of the People’s Memorial Association.

The Co-Op Funeral Home was founded in 2007, as a funeral home for the People’s Memorial.

They offer another kind of “alternative” to the traditional funeral industry, an alternative pricing structure.

Being a cooperative means that the funeral home is owned by its members. They have a board of directors and make decisions jointly, including the price of services.

Last year, the funeral home served approximately 785 deaths.

They also offer another alternative burial option – aquamation.

“It’s an alternative to flame cremation, sometimes called water cremation,” says Kimberly Forsythe, general manager of The Co-op Funeral Home. “It uses water temperature, pressure and an alkaline solution to gently break down the body. And what’s left are our bones, which are then processed and returned to families in an urn. So the end result is very similar to traditional flame cremation. . But it uses one-eighth the energy.”

Aquamation is currently legal in 20 states. Stock says about 27% of funeral homes in Washington offer it as a service. She also says her growing popularity may be tied to something that’s particularly important to Washingtonians.

“We care a lot about the environmental impact of our mortuary care practices, which aren’t generally as popular in other states,” Stock says.

Stock isn’t the only one noticing this trend.

“Our younger generation sees it as a reality that needs to be acted on immediately,” she explains. “And I think there’s an urgency to that, it’s very different from this generation of my generation, and they make their decisions accordingly.”

Micah Truman, is the founder and CEO of Return Home, a human composting company in Auburn.

When the establishment opened its doors in June last year, it was not really aimed at customers. It would look like a crematorium, a place where you bring a family member and come back later to pick up the remains.

But, as Henry Johnston mentioned, people wanted the ceremony.

“We found that not only were people coming to see us, but they were coming every day,” Truman says. “And they didn’t just want to come every day, they wanted to sit next to their person’s ship. And they didn’t just want to sit next to the person’s ship, they wanted to decorate it and put some photos and love letters. this.”

Not all of the changes people see in audience needs are positive. Yes, some people want more ceremonies, greener burial options, or create new forms of service pricing and payment.

But, according to Johnston, people also want things to be easy, like death never is.

“We are becoming a disposable society,” says Johnston. “And we’re becoming a society where we want everything to be easy. And so for a lot of people, cremation, they see it as easy.”

In recent years, cremation has overtaken traditional burial as the most popular form of burial in the United States.

That’s partly because it’s cheaper. Where a traditional burial can cost $12,000, a cremation can cost $1,000.

But Johnston says his hope that people will walk away from cremation has nothing to do with the cost.

Instead, it’s about closure.

“What they ultimately do is create more heartache for themselves in the long run,” Johnston said. “By not dealing with things and addressing things the moment a person dies.”

Thus, after 70 years of shutdown, the funeral sector is changing.

What people need changes. And funeral homes are evolving to meet this need.

With all these new alternatives and ideologies, good and bad, what does the future of funerals and the funeral industry look like?

This is something the industry is trying to figure out right now.

For Katrina Spade with Recompose, it’s all about continuing to build, even when you face pushbacks. For Return Home’s Micah Truman, it’s about creating an industry that’s both empowered and humane. And for Henry Johnston with Johnston & Williams Funeral Home and Crematory, it’s about community.

As with everything else involving something so personal, whoever you ask will tell you something different.

But what seems clear is that the process is becoming more personalized and accessible.

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