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Death Becomes Jeff Jorgenson

The funeral director looks death in the face—and suggests we do the same.

By Jessica Voelker September 11, 2018 Published in the October 2018 issue of Seattle Met

Jeff Jorgenson photographed at Alki Beach, August 21, 2018.

Image: Mike Kane

From flower arrangements to stationary, caskets to urns, funeral directors often dictate the way we dispose of our dead. This means fat profits for the pros, says Jeff Jorgenson, founder of Bellevue-based Elemental Cremation and Burial, but it can all add up to a rather unsatisfactory mourning experience and a mountain of unnecessary expense. Meanwhile, he’s pushing his industry to embrace carbon-reducing innovations like alkaline hydrolysis—a chemical process that breaks down bodies using water and lye. Armed with a master's degree in science and management, and an ambitious goal to disrupt the way we do death, the Magnolia native says it’s high time we took back control of the final act. —Jessica Voekler

Most people, whether they admit it or not, have curiosity as to what happens after death.

You don’t wake up in the morning going: You know what, today could be the day I die. We deny it, but the reality is there.

Fear of death is a fear of change. My fear of that change is no more or no less than yours. What I don’t have is a question mark as to what’s going to happen to my body.

A funeral director is a person that gets permits so that you can dispose of a body. That’s really raw for me to say, but that’s what families come to us to do.

It wasn’t until I lost my mom that I truly internalized this. You don’t need me to apologize for your loss, you don’t need me to glad-hand you through it. You need [me] to fix the problem.

This business is so backwards. It’s a licensed profession, and so we’ve always come at it like attorneys or dentists or doctors—we know what’s best, and we’ll tell you what you can do, and then we’ll figure out what your needs are.

What I think about a lot is, How do we as an industry change?

We’re at such a loss for words when we talk to people [about] death.

If you came to me and said, “My mom just died,” I’d be like, “Ooh. That’s rough.” Not: “I’m sorry.” I’m not. I don’t know your mom, and I don’t know you. Is that cold? Not at all. I feel for you; I’ve lost my mom. “How are you holding up?”

Funerals are for the living—yeah, of course they are. However, the living are trying to honor someone who isn’t there with their guidance. If all of that interplay comes together, the now-deceased has had the conversation that they want. You remove that question of, Am I doing the right thing?

Talk to your family. I don’t think any of these conversations are, “Okay, let’s sit down and talk about it.” They’re miniature conversations that you have that ultimately culminate in a plan.

Sometimes it’s the parents that say, “You know what? I’m going to die someday. This is what I want.”

[Families] will say to me, “What about urns?” Look around the house, if there’s something sentimental that works as a container, use that. Look at family members that do woodworking, metalworking, pottery—maybe they’ll make something that will be far more meaningful.

When my mom died, I was done. Six months of cancer, late nights; it was awful to watch her die. I was her funeral director, I got her dressed and filed her death certificate. When it came to a memorial service I’m like: “You people do it, I can’t.”

It wasn’t about me at that point.

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