The Silent Crisis: What You Need to Know About the Death Industry in Washington

To some, this article may be controversial, uncomfortable and unsightly. As a passionate Death Doula and Grief Specialist, my hope writing this piece is to bring to light a topic that has been flying under the radar and desperately needs our community’s attention. Death, dying, and bereavement can be a taboo topic in our culture but it is just as important to discuss as life. We are resilient, thoughtful, and creative folk, and I know together we can raise awareness and find solutions.

When I entered the death industry five years ago, I was employed by a local care facility that handled disposition for 70% of the decedents in Washington State. A care center is a place where your loved one goes when they pass. They provide cold storage, retorts (cremation machines), alkaline hydrolysis machines, body preparation, embalming, burials, decedent transportation, and more. Care centers play a very important role for the death industry because they allow independent funeral homes to utilize their services and not require in-home disposition, which drives rates sky high increasing costs to the community.

Washington State excels when it comes to air quality control and the amount of carbon a single cremation emits would be surprising to most. In Pierce County alone, according to the WA State Electronic Death Records, cremation accounted for 82.06% of disposition in 2022. Understandably, Washington does not love this, so they regulate how many permits can be granted. The real challenge we have is that restrictions placed on new crematories are so restrictive, it does not make it economically feasible to open new locations or capacity.

Portrait by Brazen House Studios

Grandfathered in, and originally run by a passionate owner, this care center (not pictured here) became the most popular facility from 2001 to 2023. Since being bought out by a corporate company from Florida, we have run into a sticky situation. As death rates increase and machines age out, the care center struggles to keep up with demand. 

At peak times of the year, bodies can sit for weeks before cremation, putting pressure on storage and forcing bodies to be kept on very unsanitary floors. In addition, transportation times have increased, morgues are over capacity, hospitals/medical examiners are pushed to their limits and most importantly, families feel they are not being cared for in a time of loss. This is not a humane way to treat our passed on community members. Since the purchase, they are throttling the workflow of family owned funeral homes, turning bodies away and forcing family owned homes to seek help elsewhere. Tacoma is no exception.

As a Death Doula and Grief Specialist, I too am struggling to help my clients. I have reached out to other funeral professionals and we are at a loss for what to do moving forward. There have been a few individuals who have searched for warehouses to set up care centers and have been met with closed doors as landlords are concerned about dead bodies in their warehouses upsetting their other tenants. Furthermore, Washington state will not issue permits with enough capacity to make new cremation machines economical. Aquamation machines are hard to come by and permitting is just as tricky as trying to find space. A conversation I personally had with a local county official stated that I can permit refrigeration to store animal meat but not human meat. Where do city officials think their loved ones are going? How would they feel if they knew where they are going now?

The public is disgusted with the price of funerals and cremation, yet if we cannot get this crisis under control, prices will only increase as large corporations continue to monopolize driving all small business under. This topic needs to be addressed and not swept under the rug. Death may be a taboo subject but it is time to come together and raise awareness. Dignity in the death process is too important to tolerate being treated like waste management. Call on your Washington state representatives to step up and assist, so we can meet demand and ensure every loved one is treated with respect through the whole death process.

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