Making Space for Death Making Space for Death

Visual artist: Daan van Houten

Death and the City#2 Death and the City

Diana Skidmore

Urban Death Project
mass shootings

Making Space for Death

What does it mean to invite death into our cities? With high density, an aging baby-boomer population, and escalating gun violence; urban death is on the rise. Addressing the question of how we can make room for death in urban spaces requires multiple approaches. It is undeniable that death occurs in our cities every day; in hospitals, private homes and in public spaces, and our typical response to death is one of emergency. Caitlin Doughty blames this response on the funeral industry, “the conventional funeral industry has given people the impression that death is an emergency, but death is not an emergency, death is the opposite of an emergency. Look at the person who died—all that stress and pain is gone from them. And now that stress and pain can be gone from you.” (The Urban Death Project).  In the case of violent death, or death that can be prevented through medical intervention, the events prior to death are indeed a state of emergency. Responding quickly to a person having a stroke or heart attack can prevent their death. However, when we are faced with death, the period of emergency has passed and the need to create space for acknowledging, honoring, and processing death, arises.

Any discussion of contemporary concerns around death must include insights from the innovative thinkers Katrina Spade and Caitlin Doughty. As I began to reflect on how urban America deals with death, Spade’s work as the founder of The Urban Death Project immediately came to mind. Through this project, Spade offers a simple, beautiful solution to the practical question of disposal. Doughty, the multifaceted mortician and author of Smoke Gets in your Eyes (2014), likewise provides a means to examine death in contemporary society in an open way, using humor and humanity to get us through the very real sadness that death brings. I look at these contemporary figures to scrutinize issues of sustainability and the need to address loss of urban space as well as the loss of space to contemplate and reflect upon death, prohibiting a more meaningful awareness of death. As I wrote, the recent mass shooting in San Bernardino filled my mind, permeating my thoughts on death. In this article, I seek to present a response to the never-ending, in fact escalating, death toll from gun violence, while simultaneously maintaining my argument in favor of increased awareness and conversation of death in our urban spaces.

With over 2.5 million deaths across the nation annually, death rates in American cities are variable. These deaths result from so called natural causes, such as aging and disease, but as this last year has demonstrated, a disturbing number of deaths are the result of violence. Looking only at gun violence, at the time of this article, 315 people have been murdered in mass shootings in the year 2015. A total of 12,533 deaths have resulted from all categories of gun violence this year. This is a painful example of the ways in which the living and dead interact.

As a result of our unregulated gun laws, our annual death rates increase. And, while far more people die of ‘natural causes’, the responsibility for deaths by gun violence lie in the hands of the living. Of course the responsibility lies with the perpetrators of violence, especially those enacting terror within their own nation, but it does not end there. Responsibility also rests in those legislators and civil servants whose inaction continues to endanger the citizens they profess to protect. There is also an amount of responsibility resting in the hands of the citizens. We cannot simply point fingers of blame. This is, for example, more than a mental health problem, Metzl writes in his article “Mental Illness, Mass Shootings, and the Politics of American Firearms” (2015). It is more than a bipartisan political problem, more than a problem of specific cities deemed as dangerous. This is a national problem, and one in which every level of society; citizens, politicians, Republicans, Democrats, and unaffiliated alike must act to change.

Mass shooting events are highly publicized, so how can I say that we need to have more conversations about death? Of course the media reports on these violent deaths and social media responds in audible outrage, but the discourse quickly fades, which is demonstrated through the abhorrent lack of legislative reform in response to the murder of hundreds of American citizens by American citizens every year. This examination of murder makes it difficult to propose methods for dealing with death in a more open, accepting manner. Looking into the face of death is difficult when death is accidental and therefore blameless, or expected, as in the case of old age. Even more painful are those deaths that are sudden, violent, and unjust. How can I argue in favor of examining death? In order to do so, I want to depart from the causes of death and deal with the reality of the dead body, which is increasingly losing its right to urban space.

Reduction of life’s complexities to the binary trope of good and evil pushes death outside of urban society. To be alive, better yet, to be young, thin, attractive and physically active are nearly universal desires. Social theorist Zygmunt Bauman uniquely illustrates, “how we survive death-anxieties today; contemporary, liquid modern culture has engaged us in ceaseless pursuit of the unattainable consumer sensation of bodily fitness as a way to suppress and thus survive our death-anxieties in a self-propelling manner.” (Higo, 2011).  Death is posed in opposition to the youthful body coveted in contemporary US culture. As such, it has been relegated to the margins, exiled from our urban living spaces. With such focus on youth and beauty in American urban settings, how can space be reserved for death? I certainly do not imply that the needs of the dead equate to the needs of the living. And yet, the needs of the living and the dead are inextricable. Everything that lives now will one day die. We know this, but we do everything in our power to repress this truth. We seek to postpone death, whether through healthy living or medical interventions. When death inevitably comes knocking and we can no longer avoid facing it, we behave as ostriches. With our heads hidden, we expect someone else to take death away, clean it up and make it presentable for an open casket viewing or render it unrecognizable through cremation before we briefly acknowledge that death has passed through our lives. We do not allow death to stay long in our cities. Those who argue against the repression of death are seen as macabre, morbid, even perverse. Unwillingness to examine death only serves to perpetuate practices that are no longer sustainable. Our cities have finite space for cemeteries, embalming fluid leaks into ground water, poisoning the environment and the alternative mode of cremation reduces bodies to inorganic ash, offering no nutrients to the soil where they are so often scattered.  By analyzing the interconnection and interdependence between the living and the dead, we can find solutions to the question of what to do with death in our cities.

One method of addressing death in urban spaces is to encourage the survivors to care for the body of their deceased loved one. Caitlin Doughty uses this approach and states a goal to “end our deliberate estrangement from the dead body.” There is a growing alternative death care movement in the United States. Families are learning to care for the body of their deceased by washing, dressing, and preparing the body for its final resting place. Increasingly, Americans are choosing cremation, a dramatic shift away from burials with their corresponding costly and unnecessary embalming, caskets and professional preparation of the body for open-casket display. This open-casket tradition is encouraged as a way to say a final goodbye to the deceased and the preservation of the body to remain as it was in life has built a multibillion dollar funeral industry. I and other proponents of alternative death care argue, rather than seeking to preserve our deceased to appear as they did in life, let us task ourselves to sit with the face of death and learn to view it for all of its unknowable beauty.

As more and more families choose cremation, space has been created for further evolution in our understandings and practices surrounding death. An alternative approach in addressing death can be found in Katrina Spade’s Urban Death Project. This project serves to change the way the living deal with death by providing an architecturally intelligent and aesthetically pleasing urban building that will host memorial services and process the bodies of the deceased. This process occurs through decomposition and is founded on years of cross-disciplinary research including sociocultural anthropology, architecture, sustainability, urban planning and death care, to name only a few. The Urban Death Project is increasing death discourse and placing the solution to urban death within the boundaries of our cities. Already, we can find representations of death within our cities through memorials and statues commemorating and honoring those long dead. These sites also serve as gathering places to honor those who have died in more recent years. By incorporating urban architecture that invites and allows us to remember the lives of those we love, the presence of death can be woven into the fabric of urban society in a manner that is respectful while challenging the monolithic conception of death as inherently evil.

Death will continue to be portrayed on the news as violent crimes continue to be committed within our cities. And while it is vital to be aware of these deaths so that we can challenge our nation’s gun laws, it is equally crucial to acknowledge those deaths occurring simply as a natural cycle of life. For it is the latter that are greater in number and more often unremarkable except to the immediate family and surviving loved ones. Death is a daily reality; nearly 107 people die per minute globally. This cold, unfathomable statistic returns our attention to the intractable relationship between living and dead. Not a minute goes by without someone dying and maybe they aren’t someone you love, but their death impacts those who do love them.  Eventually, we are all touched by death. Concluding, I argue that rather than hiding away, pursuing eternal youth and forcing our dead outside of urban settings, let’s gather around our dead, care for them in a sustainable manner and keep their memories alive by creating urban spaces reserved for this necessary interaction between the living and dead.   

Diana Skidmore is an undergraduate student of Medical Anthropology and Global Health at the University of Washington.  Currently, she is studying on exchange at Univerzita Karlova in Prague, Czech Republic.  Her areas of research include healthcare, death and dying, and the impacts of gender identity on access to human rights.  In addition to her academic pursuits, Diana is a licensed massage therapist, practicing in Seattle, Washington.

Works cited

Doughty, Caitlin. Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: And Other Lessons from the Crematory, New York, Norton & Company, 2014.

Higo, Masa. "Surviving Death-Anxieties in Our Times: Examining Zygmunt Bauman’s Social Theory of Liquid Modernity" Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association Annual Meeting, Caesar's Palace, Las Vegas, NV, 2011.

Metzl, Jonathan. “Mental Illness, Mass Shootings, and the Politics of American Firearms”, American Journal of Public Health, 2015.

Spade, Katrina, Doughty, Caitlin. ‘The Urban Death Project’ <>, 2015.