At the end of her life, my mother started seeing ghosts, and it freaked me out

The author’s grandmother, Marjorie Straus, with his mother, Margot Petrow, left, and his aunt Ann Youngwood.

By Steven Petrow

Last summer, six months before my mother died, I walked into her bedroom, and she greeted me with tinny hello and a big smile. She then resumed a conversation with her mother – who had died in 1973.

“Where are you?” Mom asked, as though Grandma, a onetime Fifth Avenue milliner, was on one of her many European hat-buying junkets. As I stood there dumbstruck, Mom continued chatting – in a young girl’s voice, no less – for several more minutes. Was this a reaction to medication, a sign of advancing dementia? Or was she preparing to “transition” to wherever she was going next?

Regardless, Mom was freaking me out – as well as my brother, sister and father.

As it turned out, my mother’s chat with a ghost was a signal that the end was inching closer. Those who work with terminally ill people, such as social workers and hospice caregivers, call these episodes or visions a manifestation of what is called Nearing Death Awareness.

“They are very common among dying patients in hospice situations,” Rebecca Valla, a psychiatrist in Winston-Salem, N.C., who specializes in treating terminally ill patients, wrote in an email. “Those who are dying and seem to be in and out of this world and the ‘next’ one often find their deceased loved ones present, and they communicate with them. In many cases, the predeceased loved ones seem (to the dying person) to be aiding them in their ‘transition’ to the next world.”

While family members are often clueless about this phenomenon, at least at the outset, a small 2014 study of hospice patients concluded that “most participants” reported such visions and that as these people “approached death, comforting dreams/visions of the deceased became more prevalent.”

Jim May, a licensed clinical social worker in Durham, North Carolina, said that family members – and patients themselves – are frequently surprised by these deathbed visitors, often asking him to help them understand what is happening. “I really try to encourage people, whether it’s a near-death experience or a hallucination, to just go with the flow,” May explained after I told him about my mom’s visitations. “Whatever they are experiencing is real to them.”

Valla agreed, telling me what not to do: “Minimize, dismiss or, worse, pathologize these accounts, which is harmful and can be traumatic” to the dying person. In fact, May said, “most patients find the conversations to be comforting.”

That certainly appeared to be the case with my mother, who had happy exchanges with several good friends, who, like my grandmother, were no longer living.

In a moving 2015 TED talk, Christopher Kerr, the chief medical officer at the Center for Hospice and Palliative Care in Buffalo, showed a clip of one his terminally ill patients discussing her deathbed visions, which included her saying, “My mom and dad, my uncle, everybody I knew that was dead was there (by my side). I remember seeing every piece of their face.” She was lucid and present.

Since Mom had already been diagnosed with advanced dementia, I originally thought her talks were a sign of worsening illness. In fact, current research posits that a combination of physiological, pharmacological and psychological explanations may be at play. That’s exactly what May’s hands-on experience of more than 14 years revealed to him, too.

May acknowledged that it’s understandably “hard to have empirical evidence” for such episodes in patients, but that it’s important for family members and health professionals to figure out how to respond

Last fall, another visit to Mom raised the stakes. As before, she greeted me by name and spoke coherently for several minutes before she turned to the bookcase near her bed and began cooing to an imagined baby. I watched in astonishment as Mom gitchi-gitchi-goo-ed to an apparition she referred to as “her” baby.

“My baby is very sick,” she repeated, clearly deeply concerned about this apparition. “She’s very thirsty. She’s hungry. She’s crying. Can’t you do anything for her?”

I didn’t know what to do. Neither did my siblings or Dad. I had long stopped “correcting” Mom. A year earlier, Mom had regaled me with the story that my niece Anna had made a delicious dinner the night before and was at that very moment out doing errands. In fact, Anna was away at college; also, I’ve never seen her cook, and she doesn’t even have a driver’s license. But why contradict Mom’s vision of a perfect granddaughter?

Social worker May, when asked about these sorts of imaginings, put it this way: “Don’t argue, because an argument is not what they need.” I decided to go along with the “baby” story and told Mom I was going to take the baby to the kitchen to bottle-feed her, which alleviated the crisis.

As the fall days grew shorter, Mom’s “baby” was a continuing presence at my visits, with my mother becoming increasingly distressed. I would settle things down by giving the imagined infant an imaginary bottle, or cradle her in my arms and leave the room for a while, saying I was taking her to the doctor. At one point I asked gently, “Mom, do you think the baby is you?” She didn’t miss a beat. “Yes,” she replied. “The baby is hurting.”

In fact, the largest study to date on deathbed visions reported on numerous cases when the “arrival of … a visitor appeared to arouse anxiety and intensify death fear.”

But what to do? I hated that Mom’s level of distress was skyrocketing in what turned out to be her final weeks. I simply held Mom’s hands a bit tighter and tried to distract her as best I could with family and political news. Oh, and I cooked, which she loved my doing.

One evening I made a simple dinner: spaghetti with a store-bought marinara sauce and a bright green leafy salad. Mom had pretty much stopped eating by this point, which is common as the end draws near, but she made a show of trying her best with this repast for the two of us, plus my father. It was heartbreaking to watch her try to spear the pasta, but she managed several hearty mouthfuls, saving room for a scoop of Sealtest vanilla ice cream.

After dinner, I helped her back to bed, where she exclaimed: “How did you know?” “How did I know what?” I asked. “That was exactly how I wanted my funeral to be. You invited all my favorite people, and the food was just what I would have ordered.”

She was beaming. Six weeks later, she passed – and pasta and salad were on the menu at her service.

Complete Article HERE!

The Language of Grief

Why and when one should read “The Year of Magical Thinking.”

by Katie Shi

Joan Didion’s “The Year of Magical Thinking” is a thorough, painfully poignant exploration of grief. Didion constructs this memoir with the same clarity and precision she employed in the journalistic works that brought her to fame in the 1960s and 70s. She guides the reader through her year of “magical thinking” after the death of her husband, John Gregory Dunne. While the tone of her narration is objective, she indicates her route through the spiritual and fantastical by means of the vortex in her memories that always leads her back to her living husband and healthy child.

Didion picks apart the concepts of grief, mourning and death without skimming over any explanations. She describes the history of funerals, how modern society perceives sorrow as something shameful and prolonged grief as a form of self-pity. She goes through the literature of grief and relays Emily Post’s etiquette advice in times of bereavement. She learns the medical terms that doctors use regarding her daughter Quintana’s condition, which worsens after her husband’s death. And throughout that year, Didion returns repeatedly to the night Dunne slumps over at dinner, a movement so sudden that Didion initially registers it as a joke. “Life changes fast. Life changes in the instant,” she writes. “You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.”

Didion’s perspective is certainly privileged — one can sense it from the places she’s been and the people she knows — but as much as that might estrange the reader, she doesn’t emphasize those specific details. If her closest friends happen to be celebrities, or if her memories take place in glitzy cities, Didion only mentions these facts and moments for context before focusing on the topic at hand: her personal experience with grief, and mourning, and the warning signs she wishes she had heeded before her husband’s heart attack on Dec. 30, 2003. In the book, Didion practices the anthropological version of “magical thinking” — she doesn’t deviate from her usual life routine, and she preserves her husband’s belongings (and therefore his presence) in the house. She’s unwilling to donate Dunne’s shoes, for example, because if she did then he wouldn’t be able to wear them if he returned. There is always this irrational but pervasive hope that if she performs the correct actions enough times, then Dunne’s death could be reversed.

As Didion studies everything she can find that’s been written about grief — not just novels, poetry and rituals, but also medical papers, psych studies and etiquette handbooks — she teaches the readers what she discovers from this process. Gerard Manley Hopkin’s poetry, which Dunne had referenced several times after his brother had committed suicide, returns to Didion as a talisman: “I wake and feel the fell of dark, not day.” She describes, with her trademark clinical style, how grief repeatedly and relentlessly strikes. “Grief is different. Grief has no distance,” she writes. “Grief comes in waves, paroxysms, sudden apprehensions that weaken the knees and blind the eyes and obliterate the dailiness of life. Virtually everyone who has ever experienced grief mentions this phenomenon of ‘waves.’” She cites Eric Lindemann, chief of psychiatry at Massachusetts General Hospital in the 1940s, who had defined the phenomenon as “‘sensations of somatic distress occurring in waves lasting from twenty minutes to an hour at a time, a feeling of tightness in the throat, choking with shortness of breath … and an empty feeling in the abdomen, lack of muscular power, and an intensive subjective distress described as tension or mental pain.’” This is a sensation that I, when grief-stricken, have been all too familiar with, yet I was still shocked to see how accurately described the emotions are on paper.

Didion has another famous essay, “On Keeping a Notebook,” in which she details her personal writing habits. For her, keeping a notebook has always been about preserving memories, both real and invented. “Keepers of private notebooks are a different breed altogether,” she declares, “lonely and resistant rearrangers of things, anxious malcontents, children afflicted apparently at birth with some presentiment of loss.” The sheer amount of documentation present in “The Year of Magical Thinking” is incredible. She and Dunne had recorded everything in writing — planners, notebooks, marginalia, kitchen books, Microsoft Word documents, a box with memorable quotes from a three-year-old Quintana. Didion combs through these records of their shared life in an attempt, almost, to resurrect Dunne through text. This gives “The Year of Magical Thinking” the intimacy of published diaries that personal essays, in their formality, seem to lack.

“The Year of Magical Thinking” is a wonderful read, objectively, but it becomes a necessary one for those who have experienced devastating loss themselves. Didion voices precisely what it feels like to lose what was once most important to the reader. When I suffered a great deal of personal loss, I experienced the same kind of magical thinking as Didion’s. At the time I kept wondering, what do I do with my life when there’s now a giant hole made freshly in the center of it, exposing my most vulnerable self to the rest of the world? How do I navigate the incident just before the loss occurred; how do I stop myself from returning to it over and over again? Didion didn’t give me answers, but she gave me her rapport, which turned out to be what I needed. This book gives the most to those who are in the process of grieving, offering not closure (“I realize as I write this that I do not want to finish this account,” Didion says) but an exploration of an experience the bereaved alone feel.

Complete Article HERE!

How we can truly support those facing death or grieving over loss

By Dr. Nick Busing

Living well and dying well are what we all hope for. As we face dying and death, we need all the support we can get. It comes from many places, but we all know about the challenges associated with crowded emergency departments, the wait for hospital beds, the inadequate number of community placements, the stress on home care, the shortage of personal support workers … the list goes on.

Most Canadians (75 per cent in recent surveys) want to die at home, but most cannot. Most palliative care today is still provided in the hospital. The reasons are complex and include the lack of adequate home care palliative services and the limited support available to families and caregivers as they struggle to support a loved one at home. Conversations about dying and death are often left too late, when families and friends are in a state of panic, and are unsure what to do, and therefore turn to the local hospital to help them out.

In my more than 40 years as a family doctor, I learned so much from my patients and their families. When I provided end-of-life care in the home, I often noted the critical role of the family and friends in providing support and care to the dying person. Those families who spoke to the dying person well before the last days to understand the values, wishes and beliefs that were important, coped better, as I am sure the patient did as well. This reinforced for me that dying, death, care-giving and loss are social problems with medical aspects and not medical problems with social aspects.

We need to mobilize our communities (person by person, street by street, neighbourhood by neighbourhood) to become better able to support each other as we age. Compassionate Ottawa, a grassroots organization, only two years old, lives by the following vision: A compassionate Ottawa supports and empowers individuals, their families and their communities throughout life for dying and grieving well.Compassionate Ottawa was started by volunteers, and is sustained by volunteers, all of whom want to help our community normalize discussions about dying, death and grieving so that we can reach out to each other to provide support when needed.

The compassionate city movement was started in the United Kingdom and advocates for the role of the community in providing support and care. The long-term goal for us is to achieve a new model of care for those dealing with dying, death and grieving. Compassionate Ottawa is working with schools, workplaces and faith organizations to educate them about planning for dying and death so that they foster resiliency at the individual level. We are conducting advance care planning (ACP) workshops with many community groups. Our compassionate city strives to be one that recognizes that caring for each other should not be left to the health and social services but is the responsibility of all of us.

Amongst its initiatives, Compassionate Ottawa is proud to bring the HELP project (Healthy End of Life Project) to Canada from its origins in Australia. This three-year research project, with funding from the Mach-Gaensslen Foundation of Canada and led by researchers at Carleton University, will work with two faith groups and two community health centres in Ottawa to develop the skills and confidence to offer, ask for and accept help near the end of life. We will identify the challenges and successes we encounter and hope to have lessons that will be of use not only in Ottawa but also in communities across Canada.

We cannot continue to look only to the government’s health and social services to support our friends and relatives as they near the end of their lives. A push for more resiliency in the community would be a great benefit to all of us. And downstream it would mean fewer visits to the emergency rooms, fewer admissions to hospital, less demand for experts, less costly care and, hopefully, a more satisfied and stronger population.

Complete Article HERE!

Love at the end of life

By Maryse Zeidler

Meaghan Jackson has a surprising amount of insight into death and love for a 36-year-old.

“Working here, it’s changed me,” Jackson said from a wood-panelled room at the North Shore Hospice, where she has worked as a music therapist for four years.

“It’s completely changed the trajectory of my life.”

Meaghan Jackson is a music therapist at the North Shore Hospice. Jackson says working in palliative care has changed her life.

Jackson guides the residents at the hospice through their final days. She helps them write songs for their loved ones, and plays music for them as they take their last breaths.

Jackson has worked in “death and dying” since she was 22. She says her experiences prompted her to have children early in life, and focus on the present, no matter how difficult.

“I practice the art of being present when that present isn’t pleasant,” she said.

Health practitioners like Jackson say their experiences working with dying patients offer insights into love, relationships and how to focus on what matters.

A room at the B.C. Cancer Centre in Vancouver. Health practitioners say patients facing death tend to prioritize their relationships.

Each of the four practitioners interviewed for this story — a doctor, a social worker, a nurse and a music therapist — say dying patients tend to focus their energy and attention on the people they love.

Dr. Pippa Hawley, a palliative care doctor at the B.C. Cancer Centre, says she has seen couples and families reconcile after decades apart. She’s also seen several of her dying patients get married in the palliative care unit, sometimes in their beds.

Hawley says dying patients don’t have time to take loved ones for granted.

“All of that stuff that we bother with on a day-to-day basis just fades into irrelevancy,” she says.

Dying patients face many challenges with their partners, even when they prioritize love.

Melanie McDonald, a social worker who also works in palliative care at the B.C. Cancer Centre, says every couple she helps deals with death differently.

Couples who thrive during difficult moments are often those who can balance sadness with joy and love, she says.

Social worker Melanie McDonald says couples face many challenges when faced with death.

Nurse Jane Webley, who leads Vancouver Coastal Health’s palliative care unit, says the strongest couples are best at honestly communicating their needs, feelings and end-of-life plans.

Webley says patients who find it too difficult to discuss those matters are often the same ones who push loved ones away and face death alone.

“I think that’s a protection mechanism,” she said. “I would say 90 per cent of the time, it’s fear — and that fear is brought about by lack of communication.”

Dr. Hawley says some of her patients are never able to communicate their feelings and needs. Often, she says, that’s been a long-standing issue for them.

“People tend to die as they have lived,” she said.

Talking about death and end-of-life plans is often easier for older couples who are often more in touch with mortality. But Webley says it’s never too soon to have those difficult conversations.

Another challenge couples face when one is dying is learning to give or receive help, health practitioners say.

Social worker McDonald says people who aren’t used to being caregivers, typically men, often struggle when they’re suddenly thrust into that position. But most people learn to take on that role, she says.

Health practitioners say that learning to ask for help can be a steep learning curve for some patients.

Dr. Hawley says patients can face problems as they lose their independence. But she says it’s important for people to let their partners care for them.

“Don’t feel like you’re a burden,” she said. “It’s actually a wonderful gift to be allowed to care for somebody, to show them that you love them.”

All four of the health care practitioners say love at the end of life can take many shapes.

“Love looks differently in different situations,” says social worker McDonald. “Love shows up in the end of life in friendship and in families and pets and faith traditions and all sorts of different ways.”

Complete Article HERE!

A cartoonist drew a touching tribute to his dying dog.

His readers gave him an outpouring of sympathy.

Stephan Pastis’s tribute to his dog, Edee.

By Michael Cavna

Stephan Pastis ducked into an Arizona coffeehouse last September and began to grieve. He sketched and cried as he wrote the words, “We put our dog to sleep on Wednesday.” The plot twist was, about 800 miles away, Pastis’s dog was still alive, though her time drew near.

Edee, a loving and gentle springer spaniel, was the only dog Pastis had ever had. Now here he was, a cartoonist who uses drawing as a coping technique, on a personal trip far from his Northern California home, unable to comfort Edee and say goodbye to her one last time before she was put down.

The resulting art was not the sort of sentiment that readers usually expect from Pastis, a former lawyer. As the creator of the popular comic “Pearls Before Swine,” he entertains millions of fans by often trafficking in darker and snarkier human emotions, as channeled through a gallery of animal characters, including the self-serving Rat and the wide-eyed innocent Pig.

Although some comic-strip creators draw upon events from their personal lives for inspiration, most cartoonists don’t share their experiences directly through their work, free of fictive elements or filtering techniques. But on that emotional day in Phoenix — where Pastis was visiting his father, who has Alzheimer’s disease — the cartoonist decided to get as directly personal as an artist can get. “I’ve always run to my creativity to cope with life,” Pastis says.

The main characters in “Pearls Before Swine,” by Stephan Pastis.

So he wrote that Edee had cancer. He wrote that she was so sweet that “even kids that were afraid of dogs would pet her.” He wrote that she would “protect” him from squirrels and a stuffed mallard duck while he worked in his Santa Rosa studio. And he wrote of the “hurt” in the hearts of his family, including his wife, their 21-year-old son and 17-year-old daughter.

The punchline-free purity of that comic strip, published in December, struck a chord. Hundreds of readers contacted Pastis. And this week, his syndicate, Kansas City-based Andrews McMeel, announced that the Edee strip was its most buzzed-about comic of 2018, with nearly 500 comments and almost 1,200 “likes.”

That speaks, his syndicate says, to the power of going personal.

“It connects the readers to the comic at a whole different level,” says John Glynn, president and editorial director of Andrews McMeel Syndication. “It can, however, be jarring if the audience isn’t used to it.

“Stephan has done it well and regularly enough over the years,” Glynn continues, “that his readers know that they see a version of the cartoonist that you don’t see in most comics.”

A recurring character in “Pearls Before Swine” is an avatar of Pastis, comedically depicted as a beer-bellied, stubble-faced, overambitious and pun-happy hack whose work is insulted by the very characters he has created. But on occasion, Pastis the avatar will share an honest, true-life slice of himself.

When those genuine ideas come, Pastis says, he typically tries to draw them, even if he ultimately doesn’t publish them — because he doesn’t want to gum up the creative flow.

“When I sit down to write,” he says, “what’s there is there. When something tragic has happened” — from the death of a relative, say, to the enormity of a terrorist act — “the ideas seem to have a narrow spigot, and what’s there is something you have to get out — you have to write it.”

Last September, though, Pastis was feeling especially emotional. He had just come from being on set for a Disney film adaptation of his kids’ book series, “Timmy Failure.” Now here he was in Phoenix, where his father did not recognize him, and then his wife called to say that Edee would need to be put to sleep within hours to minimize the pet’s suffering — much sooner than they had expected.

“I was all by myself out there,” he says.

Edee, the family pet of “Pearls Before Swine” creator Stephan Pastis.

The cartoonist walked to the Lux Central cafe, pulled his ball cap down low and got lost in his art, listening to such mournful music as “To Build a Home” by the Cinematic Orchestra. He was trying to communicate through pictures both his love for his pet — he never had a dog as a boy and had come to fear dogs after once being bitten — and the degree to which Edee had become a part of the family over six years.

Edee was due to be put down at 11 a.m. Pastis finished drawing and headed to the Phoenix Art Museum — where he gazed at Frida Kahlo’s 1938 painting, “The Suicide of Dorothy Hale” — before calling his wife to hear how Edee’s final moments went.

Pastis had touched many readers in 2003, when he created a heart-wrenching comic after watching a news report about a bus attack in Jerusalem that killed six children. And the cartoonist got especially personal in 2012 when a poignant “Pearls” strip eulogized his father-in-law.

For Edee, Pastis let that creative spigot again flow.

“Sometimes when you write from the heart, in a moment like that, it has a way of distilling the essence of what is in you in a very straight, direct way,” Pastis says. “What comes out is sometimes pretty meaningful.”

When the strip ran Dec. 9, the immediate response was strong and uncommonly large, the cartoonist says. Many of the readers who contacted him had recently lost their pets.

Wrote one commenter on the syndicate’s GoComics.com site: “Your comic is really hard to read. I can tell because my eyes are starting to sweat.” Some readers offered thanks and condolences and spoke of a pet’s afterlife across “the Rainbow Bridge.” Another commenter said: “Sometimes the best comics are the sad ones.”

A comic strip like that, Pastis says, “provides a sort of release of emotion — it becomes this thing they can connect to.”

And comics have the ability, he continues, “to comment on your life in a way that helps you and the people around you.”

Complete Article HERE!

Reinventing yourself:

Mourning, accepting, and moving forward

It’s okay to mourn your former self.

By

I am not the same person I used to be, and I have been mourning who I once was. My former self is gone. Dead. I’m not that person anymore, and I may never be again. It’s been a struggle, but I’m finally accepting how my life has changed and finding ways to move forward.

Throughout this period of mourning, I’ve wondered what my life will be like moving forward. What will I do as an entirely different person? Who am I? How is this new person supposed to live life? What am I supposed to do? Everything is new and different, and I don’t know how this new person is supposed to live day to day. I’m no longer me. It’s like trying to learn to live life as a completely different person. I’m changed. My thought process has been altered in a way I am still trying to understand. Even with all the uncertainty, I’m learning how to be this new person. I’m figuring out who I am, and I’m trying to adjust my ways. My life has been flipped upside down (and shaken a few times, vigorously).

I’m not going to discuss what has changed my life so profoundly, but it is indeed a life-altering change. I went through the five stages of grief, and I feel I have finally fully entered the acceptance stage. I’m moving forward one tiny step at a time. I’m learning how to live with the changes and trying to reclaim as much of my former self as I can. At this point, I don’t how much will be possible, but I’m making peace with it. I’m holding on to every little bit of my former self that I can so I don’t lose myself completely. I’m using those small parts to build a new me with enough of my old self that I recognize the person I’m becoming. I truly am a work in progress right now, and I’m hoping I grow enough that these changes don’t seem so awful. I really am getting there, and some of who I’ve always been is reappearing each day. I’m starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel, and I am slowly moving toward it. I’ll make it. It took a while for me to believe I’d get there, but I’m on my way.

This, too, will pass?

It might not. I’m thinking it likely won’t. And if it doesn’t, I’m learning that it’s okay.

Are you having an identity crisis? Let me tell you what I have learned during my journey.

  • You haven’t lost yourself completely.
    It might be difficult to find yourself, but it’s okay. Sometimes it takes a lot of time and hard work, but if you keep digging within yourself…well, there you are. Your heart feels the same toward others, and your head rationalizes the same way. Emotions impact you the same. That’s you. It might feel like you have disappeared, but you’re the same at your core. You’re still in there, and even if parts of you don’t resurface for the world to see, it’s okay.
  • Reinventing doesn’t mean giving up on yourself.
    Who you truly are will be the center of your rebirth. It will help determine who you become when you reinvent yourself. No matter what changes occur, you are still you. Even if no one else sees it, you are still in there. You’re not sacrificing your identity. You’re going to use parts of it to evolve, so the person you become reflects the very essence of who you are. That new person? It’s a refined version. It’s a better version. It is you in an evolved form—You 2.0.
  • Digging out of an identity crisis is hard, but it’s worth it.
    Every day, I feel better about myself. Every single day I spend working on reinventing myself, I regain a bit of happiness. I catch glimpses of my former self here and there, and it reminds me that it’s still me in there. It doesn’t matter how you reinvent yourself. It only matters that you keep working at it. When you realize you are still you inside, the hardest part is done. If you feel like you’re spinning your wheels, keep trudging along. It doesn’t matter how fast you move. It only matters that you keep moving and keep going forward. You’ll get there.
  • It’s okay to mourn your former self.
    Sometimes we need to go through a period of mourning. Working through the stages of grief spit me out on the other side. I’m still flailing around a bit, but acceptance has made me determined. Mourning taught me many things. I’ve learned to cope with the changes, and these coping skills are a gift of grieving. I’m using them to reinvent and learn to love myself again no matter how different I may be. Take time to grieve. Learn how to cope through grieving. Use it to reinvent yourself and grow into a person you love.

No matter what you’re going through, keep going. Just keep pushing forward. You’re going to make it to that light at the end of the tunnel.

Complete Article HERE!

Transition Green Burials is Promoting the Growth of This Eco-Friendly Practice

Climate change is on everyone’s mind as initiatives for renewable energy and sustainable public habits adapt to a more environmentally-friendly approach.

While numerous avenues for reducing the adverse impact of energy production and ocean contamination dominate most of the narrative around preserving the ecosystem, many more obscure and often overlooked practices lead to the accretion of environmental contaminants.

One of those areas is the traditional Western approach to burial practices and its subsequent impact on local ecosystems. Embalming fluid, typically composed of formaldehyde, ethanol, and water, is commonly used in burials throughout Western culture to preserve bodies for funeral services before being put to rest.

However, the proliferation of costly funeral services has led to increased exposure to formaldehyde, both to individuals who work with it directly and the environment. Compounding the issue is the myriad metals — such as bronze and steel — that are laid to rest during funeral services that do not readily compose in the soil. As demand for cemetery land undoubtedly grows, the adverse impact of the contaminants synonymous with funeral practices grows.

Transition Green Burials is a company focused on promoting the conversion to more eco-friendly burial practices, known as ‘green burials’ or natural burials.

Identifying Sources of Burial Pollutants

Formaldehyde produces the most concerning ecological threat with common burials practices because of its widespread use and identity as a dangerous animal carcinogen.

Highly toxic to animals, formaldehyde is implicated in cancer, nervous system disorders, and lateral sclerosis. Formaldehyde can also break down into urotropine during decomposition, an anti-bacterial chemical commonly used in antibiotics for bacterial infections, but that is harmful to the natural bacteria in the soil.

Pesticides and herbicides are often used in the internment process too, compounding the negative effects of formaldehyde on the soil surrounding burial areas. The downstream effects of the chemicals used in the internment process can eventually even lead to contamination of underground water sources.

Outside of common internment practices, cremation processes also lead to the emission of mercury and toxic plastic into the environment. Further, high carbon loads are needed for the cremation process, leading to increased carbon emissions, one of the fundamental focuses of environmental initiatives like The Paris Climate Agreement. With nearly 50 percent of Americans selecting cremation today, few realize the pollutants that are dispersed into the air from the procedure.

Many conservation groups, like the Green Burial Council, are seeking to promote more eco-friendly practices by limiting the use of embalming fluids, herbicides, and pesticides in the process. Further, some groups are promoting the use of biodegradable coffins, design to break down over time, mitigating the long-term impact of steel or brass caskets that can destroy habitats as burial grounds expand.

Transitioning to Fixed Cost Green Burials

The Green Burial Council cites the rise of certified green burial sites across the US as an indication of the legitimacy of their cause, and their emphasis on protecting worker health, reducing toxic pollutants, and promoting habitat conservation is gaining traction among various burial grounds and activists.  

Similarly, Transition Green Burials is taking a hybrid approach to the issue with a focus on both the environmental impact and financial advantages of green burials through their TransitionCoin, which is designed to incentivize people to change conventional burial practices.

TransitionCoin provides a fixed cost for green burials — including all of the associated services required in the course of the burial. The targeting of a fixed price is derived from the rapidly increasing cost of funeral home services, which can reach as high as $25,000 and can lead to financial struggles among grieving families.

With a fixed cost for any green burial, people who select TransitionCoin can reduce financial costs and contribute to the growing Green Burial Movement.

The conventional burial practices among Western countries using caskets and multiple proceedings through a funeral home is also more of an isolated and recent phenomenon that began following the Civil War in the US. Several religions — including Judaism — forbid the embalming of the deceased out of religious tradition, and preserving chemicals or embalming fluid are also rarely used in Islamic burials.

Green burials grounds and services have also emerged across the US already. States like California and South Carolina have certified green burial preserves set up that are registered with the Green Burial Council. The Green Burial Council provides certified standards for funeral services, cemeteries, and burial product manufacturers. There are currently 39 states with funeral providers accredited by the Green Burial Council for eco-friendly burials.

The notion of analyzing green burial practices is one of the more obscure concepts within environmental conservation, but, nonetheless, is important to take into consideration as the widespread use of formaldehyde and pesticides continue. Transition Green Burials and the Green Burial Council are actively promoting the shift to a more eco-friendly approach, and it is beginning to gain traction among both environmental activists and funeral parlors.

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