It’s taken me all week to decompress from my jam-packed weekend in Seattle. This was the seventh Death Salon (the third I’ve attended) and I met so many amazing, curious — dare I say morbid — people from around the country. They were social workers and death doulas and librarians and student morticians and one Anglican priest from Canada… academics and artists and all of them fascinating, open, and friendly. For someone who’s spent the last nine months at home, finishing a book and tending a sick kid, it was mind-blowing.
The weekend began with a tour of Lake View Cemetery, hosted by Seattle’s branch of the Obscura Society. As I walked up from the bus, I discovered the Grand Army of the Republic Cemetery of Seattle. It made a lovely quiet place to sit for a moment, catch my breath from the march up the hill, and put on some sunscreen. Later I learned that the GAR Cemetery is one of the most haunted places in Seattle. To me, it was one of the most peaceful.
Last time I visited Lake View, the cemetery was green with winter’s rains. This time, it was golden. The skies overhead were dramatic with pent-up rain and the smoke from surrounding forest fires. Thanks for Jared Steed, we learned Seattle history, met a pair of the city’s fabled madams and a Native princess, heard a ghost story or two, and ended up at the graves of Bruce and Brandon Lee. The tour was the perfect introduction to the city and the Death Salon.
I wish I’d introduced myself to some of the others on the tour and joined them for dinner, but I’d gotten up at 4:30 and hadn’t been able to check into my hotel room yet. I planned to stop in to Elliott Bay Books and look for cemetery books, but my directions were garbled. Eventually I gave up, went back to the hotel, had an amazing solo dinner at Thai Tom, and struck off in search of a bottle of wine.
On my way, I discovered Gargoyle Statuary and the cemetery photography of Dan Westfall. The owners are incredibly nice people — and should be carrying 199 Cemeteries next month. Directly after I met them, I went back to my room to collapse.
The Death Salon began in earnest in the morning with Sarah Chavez‘s talk about the history of women’s work with the dead and the future of the Death Positive movement. I couldn’t take notes fast enough! I am fascinated by the idea of women working with death as an act of resistance.
Sarah’s talk, as were all the rest all weekend, was illustrated live by Silent James, who also designed the Death Salon Seattle logo. He is truly amazing.
Lunch took place over at the School of Social Work. The Death Salon Director, Megan Rosenbloom, had invited me to facilitate a discussion over our delicious box lunches, so I joined a bunch of strangers to talk about cemeteries.
In the afternoon, Taryn Lindhorst discussed the symptoms of oncoming death. She was followed by Angela Hennessy, who introduced me to a range of contemporary artists whose work examines the intersection of race and death. Her lecture was so engrossing that I hope the recording will be available so I can watch it again. The afternoon ended with Caitlin Doughty, founder of the Order of the Good Death, talking about pet funerals. Her slides were lovely.
After a quick dinner break, I came back to the School of Social Work to help set up the evening session. The highlight of the evening was Paul Koudonaris’s lecture “The Unbreakable Bond,” about pet cemeteries and animal memorials. I expected his spectacular photography, but I didn’t expect his speech to be so emotional. People around me were sharing packs of tissues.
The next morning began with Megan Devine, author of It’s OK that You’re Not OK, talking about grief: both how to survive it and how to support others who are grieving. It was an important subject, one I was surprised hadn’t come up earlier in the weekend.
Another highlight of the day was when Brian Flowers, designer of The Meadow Natural Burial Ground, described new rituals families have developed around green burial. He was passionate and compelling. Oddly enough, though, his talk made me more convinced that cremation is the way I want to go. For me, there’s something magical in the purifying flame.
We trekked back to the School of Social Work for a classroom-style discussion over lunch. Part of the discussion ranged over the cultural and classist assumptions inherent in a “good death,” “green burial,” and the way that a lack of memorialization leads to erasure: lots of food for thought.
In the end, the conversations that I had with other attendees were the highlight of the weekend for me. We are all grappling with death: our own, our loved ones’, and how to honor those fears and losses. I’m comfortable that the answers must be individual and hard-won.
The next Death Salon will take place at Mount Auburn Cemetery in September 2018. You can find more information here. Mount Auburn, if you haven’t seen it, is one of the most beautiful places in America.