A party with death: How one local group is organizing for the inevitable

From left, John Haldeman, Julia Porter, Kelly Crodian-Shuff, Hobart Frolley and Evi Numen, members of The Death Party gathered for a club meeting in Philadelphia. Sunday, Jan. 28, 2018.

Julia Porter had hit some milestones. She fell deeply in love with the man she wanted to marry. They moved in together and exchanged vows. But the responsibilities — not to mention paperwork — of being a partner and wife made her realize more than before that if she died suddenly, she’d have matters left unattended.

What would happen to the handmade magazines her sister made for her when they were teens, the letters her husband wrote her, the drawings she’s carefully kept?

One could say that she realized, at 27, that she’d be leaving a legacy. So, Porter started facing her death.

She helped found Death Party Philadelphia, a monthly gathering to explore “lifelessness” and related subjects, part of an activist-led push among young people to embrace what eventually happens to all of us. They see themselves as part of the death positive movement.

Death positive advocates want more open discussions of mortality, but that’s just the start. They’re organizing to skirt what they call “the funeral-industrial complex” that has led to the spike in funeral costs. They take issue with state-level restrictions on mortuary and burial processes. Many of their concerns are ecological; for instance, cremation releases air emissions, burying a body injected with formaldehyde can’t be good for the ground.

“The idea of being embalmed and entombed and put in this vault or heavy-duty casket that’s going to take up space and affect the environment, I don’t feel comfortable with that,” said Porter, 30, a human resources professional.

Death Party was born out of discussions that she was having with friends John Haldeman and Diane Lepore three years ago. Porter made a Facebook group in January 2016. By that March, the Death Party started meeting in real life.

Caitlin Doughty, a Los Angeles-based mortician-activist and prominent figure in the death positive movement, said these gatherings allow young people to confront and process the inevitable. “When we’re born, we’re given a terminal diagnosis,” she said. “It’s about feeling free to admit that death is scary, that you want to know more.”

Camera icon JOSE F. MORENO / Staff Photographer
Julia Porter, a member of Death Party, writes notes during a club meeting in Philadelphia.

Late last month, Death Party met in one of the upper floors of a Center City bar. Every October, members have a shindig/fund-raiser. Every December, rather than Secret Santa, they do Secret Skeleton. Almost 50 people have joined the Facebook group; seven members attended their last meeting.

Haldeman, who last year brought in a casket for his presentation on corpse reconstruction techniques, offered to lead a talk on cemetery symbolism  but thought they could make a field trip out of it — a springtime picnic at Laurel Hill. This made the group excited. Only when the mention of tracing paper came up, did anyone object.

“I’m not with damaging tombstones,” said Evi Numen, a researcher, curator, and death doula. Death doulas help the ailing as they transition. Paper and crayon isn’t good for historic marble, she explained: “If you do granite, it should be fine.”

Death Party has kinship with death cafés, which invite guests to broach the heavy topic over “tea and cake.” But death cafés have roots in Switzerland and the United Kingdom and are bigger with baby boomers. Groups such as Death Party often skew more toward millennials, fueled by internet research and organizing.

Sitting around a table, drinking wine and coffee, the group considered what Porter called “secular mourning rituals.”

“What does the memorial look like outside of a temple or a mosque?” she said. Among the death positive, funeral planning tends to get thoughtful and expressive. What if someone wanted to be memorialized in a concert hall?

“Oh, yeah,” said Connor Michalchuk, “I want to be propped up at the end of the bar.” That was a joke. Michalchuk doesn’t actually want anyone to see his body. He doesn’t want his loved ones to focus on him; he’d rather they focus on themselves.

“I’m gone, but you have a chance to be together,” he said. “That’s what mourning should be.”

He’s concerned that if he died before his parents, they might not see out that vision.

“You can put it in a directive,” said member Hobart Frolley.

Michalchuk still wasn’t confident: “If they don’t–”

“Who’s going to sue them?” Numen said, finishing his sentence.

Camera icon JOSE F. MORENO / Staff Photographer
Kelly Crodian-Shuff speaks as Hobart Frolley listens during a Death Party meeting in Philadelphia.

In Pennsylvania, there are few protections for carefully outlined burial wishes. State law, in most cases, gives that right to the spouse or next of kin. Residents can express that they’d like someone else to be in charge, and may include that in a living will. Peter Klenk, a local estate lawyer who recently worked on a woman’s plans for her own Viking funeral, encourages clients to be clear about their plans, with their nearest, dearest, and even, if necessary, their estranged, because many families don’t read wills until after memorial services.

Tanya Marsh, a law professor at Wake Forest University specializing in mortuary statutes, said the toughness of Pennsylvania’s regulatory system is due to its age. Modern embalming burgeoned as an industry in the 19th century, with the Civil War heightening the demand. Northern wealthy families began paying to have their battle-slain loved ones embalmed, then shipped home. That placed states such as New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania on the forefront of American death care. Western Pennsylvania is the home to the first crematory in the U.S., for example. But now, for those interested in newer standards, some of Pennsylvania’s burial laws appear passé. “They’ve become so rigid, they’ve been left behind,” Marsh said.

“There are so many gotcha moments in this, which is why we’re all so wrapped up in and obsessed with figuring out what’s going on,” Porter said. The process of confronting death on an emotional level should be “the scary part,” she continued. “Instead, I’m like ‘What if I don’t get four people to witness [me signing] this piece of paper in blue ink…?”

Choice and autonomy matter to Frolley. He was attracted to death positivity for environmental reasons, but also because of a friend’s death. The friend’s family had rejected him for coming out as gay, but resurfaced to arrange his memorial.

“They cut him out, then they swooped in and erased everything he was,” said Frolley. “His family refused to portray him as he was in life. It was something that really started to affect me.”

After the group set its calendar, the discussion turned to personal death goals. Kelly Crodian-Shuff noted that National Healthcare Decisions Day falls on April 16. Death and taxes seemed like an appropriate mix, so the group brainstormed how to celebrate. They landed on a Tax Day workshop, where they hope to bring in a notary and have their advance directives confirmed on the spot.

“We can be witnesses for each other,” Crodian-Shuff added. She was one of the group’s first members, drawn to death positivity because, from her teenage years through early adulthood, she contemplated taking her own life. Becoming more informed about what happens after death, including its financial and emotional burdens, made her view her situation differently.

“Ending your life isn’t going to solve anything because everyone’s life is going to end,” she said. “Really looking it in its face and confronting it kind of disarms it, in a way.”