Part of Issue #10 of The Highlight, our home for ambitious stories that explain our world.
Simon Sotelo was 27 when she donated her body to science.
The Portland, Oregon-based graphic designer is still very much alive — and presumably will be for decades to come. She doesn’t have any life-threatening afflictions or high-risk hobbies. But, Sotelo says, signing a contract that grants medical students in the distant future the right to study her body gives her a sense of peace in the present.
“My goal from the beginning was, how can I just make this as cheap as possible for the people who have to deal with it?” Sotelo, now 31, says. “When I was first planning it, I was like, I have no savings, I have no money.” Oregon Health & Science University seemed to offer the perfect solution: When its research is complete — typically after two years — the college will pay to cremate the remains of its donors and return it to the family. At that point, Sotelo says, she hopes her loved ones will hold a celebration of her life, not a mournful wake. She’d like “The End of the Tour” by They Might Be Giants to play.
Most Americans don’t plan for their deaths in their 20s — or maybe ever. A 2017 study in the journal Health Affairs found only one in three US adults have an advance directive, including a living will with end-of-life medical instructions, power of attorney naming a person responsible for last affairs, or both. Fewer have planned their actual funeral arrangements: Only 21 percent of Americans have even spoken to their loved ones about their wishes, according to the National Funeral Directors Association.
But “the American way of death,” as journalist Jessica Mitford called it in her 1963 classic book on the funeral industry, is changing. When Mitford first penned her investigation, she found anxiety, aversion, and few real options. Most consumers only interacted with the funeral industry on average every 14 years — and then, only under duress — so they weren’t likely to compare prices or make informed choices. As a result, Mitford argued, funeral directors could convince their hapless customers to spend more money than they had, on things they never wanted.
Today, the internet grants us instant access to lots of information and seemingly infinite options. “Embalm and bury” used to be the only way Americans processed human remains — funeral directors were resistant to cremation (it was much cheaper than burial), and consumers thought burning a body sounded awful and un-Christian. Now, a YouTube channel called “Ask a Mortician” has almost a million subscribers, and we can turn our dead into diamonds.
In many cases, younger people are leading this black-bannered parade of cultural change. Mortician Caitlin Doughty in 2011 founded the Order of the Good Death, an organization that promotes death positivity, when she was 27. Now she runs her own funeral home in Los Angeles. Hansa Bergwall was 35 when he created the app WeCroak, a digital-age memento mori that reminds its 30,000 monthly users that they are going to die five times a day — presumably to help them live in the moment. And Katrina Spade began developing the idea that would become Recompose, a company that plans to turn human remains into soil, when she was 30.
This same demographic is also the consumer of certain relevant services: The Dinner Party, a boozier take on the old-fashioned support group, caters to 20- and 30-somethings who have lost a loved one. Some British 25- to 35-year-olds are flocking to Deadhappy, a pay-as-you-go life insurance start-up. And though they don’t necessarily all follow through like Sotelo, the National Funeral Directors Association found that 15.8 percent of Americans age 18 to 39 think people should pre-plan their funerals before they’re 40 — something only 7.9 percent of people over age 60 believed.
Why, those older adults must be asking, do people in the prime of their lives seem to be preparing for their demise? The answers vary widely, from eminently practical concerns, such as crushing debt and climate change, to social factors, like wellness culture, diverse spiritual practices, and the desire of some millennials to “curate their afterlives.”
“We are a generation that is less willing to be shamed for our interests in difficult topics,” Doughty says. “We know that not talking about money has put us in a very difficult financial position, especially those that graduated around the time of the [September 2008 stock market] crash,” she adds. “And we know that not talking about death can lead to a less self-aware life.”
Liz Eddy was 27 when she got the call that her grandmother was dead. “I was met by two police officers, a nurse, and her body, and they said, ‘What do you want to do?’” Eddy recalls. “I did what most people do these days and pulled out my phone and Googled, ‘What do you do when someone dies?’”
She found little guidance and spiraled into what she calls “logistical chaos.” Eddy had to move everything out of her grandmother’s assisted living facility within a month, sort through a lifetime of belongings, and close all of her grandmother’s accounts. She spent a year trying to resolve an unpaid Verizon bill with a debt collector. The trauma eventually inspired her to start a new business: Lantern, a digital end-of-life planning tool.
The venture capital-backed site (Lantern has so far raised $890,000 in funding) offers checklists for every aspect of death, all delivered in a soothing seafoam green color palette and with dozens of conceptual illustrations. Still in the early planning phase? Sort out your organ donor status. A week has passed since the funeral? Be sure to notify the post office.
The New York-based company is still new, but Eddy and her co-founder, Alyssa Ruderman, hope Lantern will work for people of all ages, whether they’re planning their own funeral or grappling with the loss of a loved one. They tested the product on people ages 18 to 92, to ensure accessibility. But, Ruderman says, “We absolutely built it with the millennial in mind.”
This strategy, however counterintuitive, could pay off. In 2017, Nathan Gerard, an assistant professor of health care administration at California State University Long Beach, published a study of 84 millennials and their ability to talk about death. “There’s been a long held assumption that the young are somehow uninterested — or worse, ill equipped — to talk about death, let alone work with the dying,” Gerard said in an email. But he found the majority “had already engaged in a conversation about end-of-life care with a family member, and furthermore, a majority perceived themselves just as willing, if not more willing, as their parents to talk about end-of-life care options.”
Whether the Grim Reaper is at the door or decades away, consumers will find a growing number of funeral-planning resources at their disposal. Sites like Funeralocity provide comparative pricing for funeral home services by zip code. Memorials can be arranged digitally on GatheringUs. You can even draft important legal documents online on sites such as FreeWill.
Before the internet, people hoping to get their affairs in order had to find financial planners, lawyers, and local funeral directors in the phone book, then set up in-person consultations. But people have an “aversion to talking to strangers about important things,” says FreeWill co-founder Patrick Schmitt, whose site streamlines the process of generating a will, healthcare directives, and powers of attorney. Technology means they no longer have to. With sites like Schmitt’s, it’s possible to generate a legal will in 20 minutes, no human interaction required.
Since these essential forms used to be made on paper and in private, there’s little historical data about who had a will and who didn’t. But for the team at FreeWill, that information is readily available. Among its users, the number of people age 18 to 24 crafting wills is low, but shoots up among 25- to 44-year-olds, Schmitt says.
“Younger people are less likely to have assets. People make the joke, ‘I don’t know who to pass my debt onto,’” Schmitt says. But “you’ve got big shifts around religiosity, home ownership, overall wealth at this age, marriage rates, birth rates, and these things are really going to shape views on estate planning and death.”
In The American Way of Death, Mitford described a funeral industry that operated like an autocracy. The all-knowing funeral director guided the guileless consumer to the most expensive burial options — the most luxurious casket, the hardiest burial vault. Some things about dying haven’t changed, including the expense: The average cost today is $6,500.
But the death industry has diversified since 1963. Approximately 60 percent of students in mortuary science programs today are female, up from 5 percent in 1971. And new trends, like the home funeral movement, are led by “an assemblage of different groups of people, different beliefs, different practices,” says Phil Olson, a technology ethicist at Virginia Tech specializing in death studies.
Church membership is declining, and the number of Americans who say they are atheists is on the rise. (Right now, it’s hovering around 10 percent.) Though young people today may diverge from their parents’ or grandparents’ approach to death and the afterlife, many find other philosophies to guide them.
Bergwall co-founded WeCroak — the death reminder app — in 2017 as part of his own meditation practice. He quotes a Bhutanese folk saying that states, “To be a truly happy person, one must contemplate death five times daily.” The practice, which Buddhists call “maraṇasati,” or death awareness, is supposed to help people embrace uncertainty and feel the spiritual urgency required to change your life for the better. Monks in some parts of Asia meditate over dead bodies to accomplish this. Bergwall thought an app would be easier.
Users of WeCroak, which recently surpassed 100,000 downloads, skew male. Sixty-four percent are under the age of 44. Five times a day, the app sends them a push notification that reads, “Don’t forget, you are going to die. Open for a quote…” In the app, they’ll find words of wisdom culled from a range of texts, from the philosophical to the literary.
While wills and advance directives are important, Bergwall thinks his app attracts people with a broader definition of “death preparedness.” Instead of who will get what, “the conversation is more about, how can we have our affairs in order — emotionally, spiritually, relationship-wise — so we can enjoy our life now,” he says. If it sounds like we’re in the midst of a wellnessification of death, well, we probably are, Bergwall adds. In lieu of crystals and green drinks, you’ll find memento mori, “grief retreats,” and green funerals.
Anna Swenson is the communications manager for Recompose, the Seattle-based company that developed a method for human composting — and got it legalized by the Washington state legislature. She suggests that many of the changes in the death industry, and the speed at which they’re unfolding, could be driven by climate anxiety. As ecosystems collapse and the future no longer feels guaranteed, some people may feel more conscious of their own mortality. They may also feel more conscious about their impact on the planet, alive and dead.
In the United States, more than 90 percent of people are buried or cremated. But both methods have their downsides. Along with our dead, Americans also bury 20 million feet of wood, 4.3 million gallons of embalming fluids, and 1.6 million tons of reinforced concrete each year, according to the New York Times. Cremation, once marketed as an eco-conscious alternative, releases approximately 534 pounds of carbon dioxide — a greenhouse gas — per person. But newer, greener methods are emerging, from human composting to the “mushroom death suit” — available in human and pet sizes — that uses fungi to aid in decomposition.
If conventional burial all but ensured your last act on Earth was a destructive one, these green efforts often capitalize on the belief that your body can become “nutritive,” Olson, the Virginia Tech ethicist, says. People see “having a tree made out of them or turning them into compost [as a way of] giving them new life,” he says. But there’s another, darker way to read this: We want to be productive even when we’re dead. We’re taking our #riseandgrind capitalistic mentality to the grave.
Olson sees end-of-life consumerism evolving in other ways, too. “Millennials want their uniqueness or their quirkiness to come out in their final act,” he says. While much has been made about millennials and an assumed preference for “Instagram-worthy funerals,” Olson thinks this emphasis on individualism may reflect more profound social and personal angst: “It’s a way of exercising control over death,” he says. “It’s a way of coming to grips with your own mortality — to think about it and plan for it and try to make it your own.”
Marisha Mukerjee began planning her death in 2015.
Every month, the 35-year-old TV writer and producer meets with other women in the entertainment industry to talk about the ups and downs of creative projects. At one gathering a few years back, Amy Pickard, founder of the advance planning company Good To Go!, spoke to the group about death preparation. Pickard, who lost her mother, father, and grandmother in three successive years, developed a 50-page “departure file,” which, for $60, “covers everything a will doesn’t cover,” from social media passwords to how you hope to be remembered.
Inspired by Pickard’s talk, Mukerjee began filling out the booklet. She organized her passwords, made plans for her pet, and decided who would get what jewelry. “I literally update it monthly with a pencil if something needs to be put on there,” Mukerjee tells me. She also planned her funeral, which ended up being one of the trickier parts of the process.
“I grew up in a household with two religions: We were raised Catholic, and my father’s Hindu,” she says. Instead of planning what she called a “cookie cutter” funeral, like what you’d expect for your parents or grandparents, Mukerjee started from scratch. “I do want to be cremated,” she concluded, “and I would want a ceremony that would invite all religions. I know my mother would probably be like, ‘What?’ But that’s what I want to do.” She hopes her loved ones will scatter her ashes in a few of the cities she’s lived in, and in India’s Ganges River.
The possibility that other people would make the wrong decisions for her is, in part, why Sotelo, the graphic designer in Oregon, turned her interest in death planning into actual end-of-life arrangements. “When I told my mom that I was going to donate my body, she said, ‘That’s weird but okay,’” Sotelo recalls. But Sotelo’s father, who sees burial as a tenet of his Christian faith, objected.
“It is important that there are safety nets for myself in place, so that he can’t make my decisions,” Sotelo says.
Still, plans change. While Sotelo is certain she wants to eventually become a medical cadaver, she’s no longer sure she wants Oregon Health & Science University to cremate her body when they’re done with their research. She’s looking into human composting, and hopes Recompose will be nationwide by the time she dies.
Her own end-of-life plans are “an evolving process,” she says — much like the death industry itself.
Eleanor Cummins reports on the intersection of science and popular culture. She’s a former assistant editor at Popular Science and writes a newsletter about death.
Amanda Lucier is a photographer based in Portland, Oregon.