The streets blurred gray in the early morning rain. My cab driver, unusually chatty for five in the morning, tells me that he works four days a week at his dispatch in SODO, tending the lost and found. He rattles off what bounty you might find in their basement office: mobile phones, articles of clothing, wallets, keys, umbrellas. If items linger too long on the shelves, they're donated to charity. The mobile phones, after waiting for a few months, are shipped overseas for use by U.S. soldiers.
Recently, a new type of item was left on his desk by a spooked driver: a box of ashes.
"It was hard to believe that someone would just get out of a cab and forget their grandmother," he said. There weren't any identifying marks on the box, so they couldn't chase down whom was responsible for the cremains. "I put the ashes on the shelf and hoped that the family would come and pick them up."
Later that week, another surprise was waiting for him when he arrived at work: another box of ashes.
"Another driver found it in the back seat and knew which fare had left it," he said, accelerating into the HOV lane. "He tried to get back in touch with her, but she wouldn't answer her phone. So we just put the new box up on the shelf by the other one."
I was aghast at the notion of two people abandoning the remains of loved (or not so loved) ones—but that feeling was also tinged with shame.
About seven years ago, my wife's grandmother—who was a wise and insightful woman—passed away. I wasn't able to make the trip to Hannibal to pay last respects, but my wife was able to fly there in time for the service. When she returned, she asked me to unpack her suitcase. As I sorted her dirty laundry into the clothes hamper, I noticed a small box nestled between two pairs of shoes.
"Sweetie," I said, peering into the bathroom while she dried her hair from a post-flight shower, "Do I want to ask what's in the box?"
"That's part of my grandmother," my wife said.
"Who has the other parts?"
"In her will, she'd asked that her ashes be divided up among her family. Each of us decides what we want to do with her. We could put her up on the mantel or go out to Golden Gardens and cast her into Puget Sound."
While the thought flickered through my mind that we could just keep her on our bedside table next to the alarm clock, I held my tongue and placed the box down on the bathroom counter.
"I need you to handle this," I said. "Because I can't."
With the cabbie, the conversation continued. What should he do with the ashes? We posed a number of questions and tried to answer them.
Should they be taken out to a lake, forest, or otherwise beautiful place and scattered?
One of the boxes was fused shut, so it would require heavy labor to crack it open—risking that the ashes would fly up into the face of the well-meaning person looking to do what they felt was right. (Insert pantomime of a Six Feet Under episode.)
Referred back to a funeral home?
They might be able to properly dispose of the remains, and likely with a level of decorum. But can they take responsibility for the remains? Perhaps there's somewhere to register them online.
So, why not just trash the ashes yourself?
In that situation, the rightful heirs for said dead relative would probably show up the next day, demanding what was probably in the bottom of a dumpster bin heading out to the dump. Lawsuits would ensue.
None of these solutions felt right. Neither I nor the cabbie could articulate the root cause of the whole situation: why those people—overwhelmed by grief, fear, responsibility, or anger—felt it acceptable to leave behind all that was left behind of their (possibly un)loved ones.
Some moments in our life are so profound, we don't even know how to respond until months or even years have elapsed. Our own personal biases are stretched like taffy, until either the world stretches to allow a new behavior, or we bend our behavior to our newly formed will. (Pun not intended.)
While waiting at the gate for my flight, I recalled a passage from an essay by Thomas Lynch, "The Golfatorium," from his bracing book The Undertaking: Life Studies from the Dismal Trade. Lynch has been a funeral director (and poet) for decades, and noticed after ten years that his business had "accumulated several dozen unclaimed boxes of ashes":
"We'd call every year around Christmastime to see if the families of these abandoned ashes had come to any decision about what should be done, but more often than not we'd be left holding the box… One Christmas, my younger brother, Eddie, said we should declare it The Closet of Memories and establish a monthly holding fee, say twenty-five dollars, to be assessed retroactively unless the ashes were picked up in thirty days."
After sending out letters to the relatives of the deceased, the majority of the ashes were claimed—the cost of their inattention had been made explicit. However, what interested Lynch was in exploring how people behaved when they came to his funeral parlor to pick up ashes from future cremations. Literally, how they "handled" the dead. In this range of behaviors, there are clues as to why someone would feel it acceptable to leave the last vestige of their loved ones behind:
"Some grinned broadly and talked of the weather, taking up the ashes as one would something from the hardware store or baggage claim, tossing it into the trunk of their car like corn flakes or bird seed. Some received the package—a black plastic box or brown cardboard box with a name and dates on it—as one would old porcelain or First Communion, as if one's hands weren't worthy or able or clean enough to touch it… For several it was a wound reopened. And they were clearly perturbed that we should 'hassle' them to take some action or else pay a fee. 'What do I want with her ashes?' one woman asked, clearly mindless of the possibility that, however little her dead mother's ashes meant to her, they might mean even less to me."
If this is a design problem to be solved—the lack of meaning that people may see in the remains of others, bone and ash and spirit—there are those who have put their minds to solve it, albeit in a socially disturbing way.
In the same essay by Thomas Lynch, he describes how he came to design—at least in his mind—the idea of Cremorialization, where your ashes could be formed into useful products, made to "get off their dead ashes and be good for something beyond the simple act of rememberance":
"Rather than dumbly occupying an urn, what old hunter wouldn't prefer his ashes to be used to make duck decoys or clay pigeons? The dead fisherman could become a crank-bait or plastic worms…. Ballroom dancers could be ocarinas, cat lovers could be memorial kitty litter…. The ashes of gamblers could become dice and playing chips, car buffs turned into gear shift knobs or hood ornaments or whole families of them into matching hubcaps… just as the departed would be made more valuable by becoming something, what they became would be more valuable by placing the word 'memorial' in front of it."
Can you imagine being crafted by a Robert Graves into a product used daily by others? Or by I.M. Pei into a building used daily by others?
When I got home from my trip, I went into the hall closet and took down the remains of my wife's grandmother. It was resting next to our filing cabinet with our tax documentation, right above our stash of rarely used luggage and a picnic basket we received as a wedding gift. I once feared the idea of having anything emblematic of a dead person in our home. Now, all these years later, if this box was on the mantel from this day forward, I wouldn't find it so weird… though I'm not planning on trying until my wife returns and agrees to any major change in decoration.
I keep hearing from other designers that we need to be creating more meaningful products and services that fit more cleanly into people's lives, I keep wondering if that isn't really providing meaningful change at a rate that's actually going to make our world a truly better place for our children's children. I wonder if we should be provoking too much meaning for our audiences to bear, in order to overwhelm them, to prove how today's societal norms may be standing in the way of great leaps in civilization. The majority of these shifts in perspective happen because of selfless behavior.
And is there nothing more selfless than repurposing your dead body in the name of design?