‘These Are Real People Dying’ —

Why an Artist Filled His Yard With Flags

Plastic flags, each representing a Texan who died from Covid-19, outside the home of Shane Reilly, an artist in Austin

Shane Reilly plants a flag for each Texan who dies of the coronavirus. As the national death toll nears 200,000, The New York Times used an image of his memorial to illustrate the staggering scale of loss.

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In May, when Shane Reilly, an artist in Austin, Texas, started planting one flag in his yard for every Texan who died from the coronavirus, the state had fewer than 1,000 deaths.

Now, Texas is approaching 15,000 people dead, and the nation will soon hit 200,000.

For passers-by and those who have seen pictures of the memorial, including an image featured on the front page of Monday’s New York Times, Mr. Reilly’s yard serves as a sobering reminder of the losses so many American families have endured this year.

I spoke to Mr. Reilly recently to ask how his project started, and where it stands today. Portions of our conversation have been edited for clarity.

Take me to the beginning. What made you want to do something so public? And how did you land on flags as the way to tell this story?

I’ve got an immunocompromised son, so when the coronavirus hit, I started paying close attention to it. We live on a corner, so I see people walking by every day and I would notice that they just weren’t wearing masks, and I thought, something’s not hitting home with them.

These are real people dying, real Texans dying, and I’ve got a kid in quarantine here at home and people are acting like this is almost a vacation.

So I thought, what could I put out there that would wake people up and make them say, “Oh, this is real, this is something we should pay attention to”?

Where do you get the flags?

I started getting them from Lowe’s and Home Depot. Lowe’s carries orange and pink, and Home Depot carries red and white. When I started this project we were at 850 deaths here in Texas. I thought, “Wow, 850 flags in this yard is really going to wake people up.” So I bought 1,000 just to be on the safe side.

And now we’re at roughly 15,000 deaths.

As I’m talking to you I see a guy and a girl outside, taking photos of my yard. I get a lot of that. I get a lot of people walking by and taking photos.

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The response has been pretty amazing. I’ve had several handwritten letters in my mailbox, no name on it, no return address. Just, “Thank you for doing this, I’m a first responder and I’ve seen a lot of deaths from this.” Or, “My mother died of this, thank you so much.” Other people have left bundles of flags outside. It’s been pretty touching.

For people who haven’t seen this in person, can you explain how your yard has changed over time?

In the beginning I was trying to space everything out in an even pattern. I thought that would have more of an impact, to see this uniform field of flags.

Now I’m at the point where there are so many flags I just kind of walk in between rows until I can find a large enough space, and I just plop a bunch of them down. When I hit 3,000, I had people telling me, “You’re going to run out of space.”

What started just in the corner now covers the entire front yard and the entire side yard. I put flags out about every other day, but there were certain times when Texas was spiking that I couldn’t wait two or three days because there would be 1,000 more flags I would have to put out if I waited that long.

Now that you’ve been doing this for so long, does it still carry the same emotional weight?

I never lose sight of the fact that these are people’s lives. That stays with me every time. The other day I put out 300 flags and, you know, that hits you. But also I’m looking out at this sea of flags and it seems never-ending.

I can’t keep carrying that weight like I did earlier in this project, so I’m starting to build a callous. That sounds awful, but I do have to remind myself sometimes that this was someone’s mom, this was someone’s lover, this is real.

As the nation approaches 200,000 deaths, how are you grappling with that?

My first emotion is anger. There was a plethora of information out there to suggest that we could have done things differently, but people in charge chose not to. They actively went in the other direction.

I squarely place a lot of these deaths on them. Proper leadership could have saved tens of thousands of lives.

It’s shocking and saddening and infuriating. And every day, people walk by my house still not wearing masks.

Complete Article HERE!

In his life and death, my uncle taught me the real meaning of bravery

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For her Loading Docs short Going Home, film-maker Ashley Williams paid tribute to her late uncle Clive by learning to fly.

Some people say I was brave to fly. I tell them my Uncle Clive was the one who had courage.

He was diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer at the age of 50. He had no choice about dying. But he made a choice about how and when he wanted to die.

When I was funded by Loading Docs to make a personal documentary about Clive, I knew I had to challenge myself to do something adventurous, something he would do. He always loved to fly, so what better way to honour him than take to the sky myself and paraglide.

This year marks 10 years since he passed. I wanted to make a film that both honoured Clive’s memory for those who knew him, and shared his story with those who didn’t. In a year when New Zealanders are voting on the End of Life Choice Act, I believed the timing was right, and could offer insight to those that need it.

In preparation for the documentary, as well as the flight, I buried myself in my uncle’s legacy – as a photographer, an adventurer, a scientist and a spiritual seeker. I dug out his old photos and read the letters he wrote over his final year, letters that were integral to the making of this documentary. What struck me most was his courage in facing a terminal illness, dealing with his own loss, yet managing and helping others in their grieving too. Now that is brave.

Making this film I learnt a lot more than just whether or not I could fly. I discovered it’s not just about the big, bold moments when we are brave. It’s about things like kindness in the face of adversity, being able to laugh when things don’t go to plan, standing up for what you believe in and being honest with yourself and others.

Clive taught me that life is about the little adventures along the way. So much of life is out of our control – there will always be the possibility the wind direction might change. So for the days you can, you fly! And oh, how I flew. Up there, among the clouds, being a bird. I realised why I had to do this and it changed me forever.

It also helped me understand what it must have been like for Clive, to have been caged in his bed near the end, watching out his window as the wind blew the clouds across the sky. To have known it was a perfect day to fly, or just go for a walk, but not be able to. When you’re that close to dying, surely you must know a thing or two about living. Clive was always the wise one.

Through Clive’s life and his decision about how he died, when he had only days to live, I hope viewers will consider those who no longer have a choice about whether they die or not, who are asking for the right to die with dignity.

I also want to encourage everyone to read the Act before voting. It’s designed for those suffering from a terminal illness that is likely to end their life within six months, for those who have significant and ongoing decline in physical capability, who have unbearable suffering that cannot be eased, and who are able to make an informed decision about assisted dying. This law could bring real support for people who need it in their time of pain and suffering, and in doing so also provide support and care for those left behind.

My hope is that if I ever face terminal illness I can do it with as much courage and grace as my Uncle Clive. I also hope I’ll have a choice that affords me the dignity I deserve.

Complete Article HERE!

Why Indians of all faiths commemorate the dead with food

An excerpt from ‘Turmeric Nation: A Passage Through India’s Tastes’ by Shylashri Shankar.

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Each February, on the lunar day my father passed away, I wake up at dawn, bathe and drive over to my mother’s house. I enter the kitchen and begin sorting the vegetables. I wash the spinach and soak it in salted water. The bhindi, I pat dry. I remove the mud clinging to the arbi, rinse the green chillis, ginger and coriander leaves. Then I make a cup of tea for my mother who is unwell, and sit at the dining table to choreograph my cooking moves this year. Sixteen dishes have to be made by half past ten when the priests will arrive. Four hours to wash, chop, chiffonade, boil, cook, simmer, combine, soak, grind and fry vada, knead dough for puris, pickle the mango, roast the arbi over a low flame for half an hour, make the rice, kheer and mango chutney. Everything has to be done from scratch – no preparations can be made the previous day. Even the vegetables have to be cut on the day.

I begin the dance between the tasks like a Sufi dervish, meditatively and fluidly. These were my father’s favourite dishes – keerai, kootu, rasam, puris (we used to compete over how many puris we could eat), bhindi fry, crispy arbi with rice flour and spices, the mango and gur boiled in its own juice, and the mint chutney. These dishes were made on the tenth day after his death, and each year my mother and I make these dishes on his death anniversary. As I cook, I also think of others whom I loved who have passed away – my aunt who lived with us and was famous for her coconut barfis and chikkies, my perima who made the most delicious chutneys, pickles, papads and pastes and sent them to us from Shimoga every couple of months, my favourite uncle who was born on the same day as me and who lived a simple and contented life. I remember the things they did, and what we shared. There is a sense of calm, of peace, of unhurried movement. I salt and spice by instinct, not by taste. I cannot speak over the food, and I cannot taste it – it would be polluting. The priests arrive. After a short chant, they are ready. I serve everything course by course, on a banana leaf. They eat everything and take second helpings. I cook only occasionally, so you’d think the spices would be off, but instinct serves me well on this day. Or is it the emotions and memories infusing the cook?

Research shows that rituals can help in relieving people of their grief and other feelings that torment the spirit. A ritual, whether it is a religious one or something you have made up, helps to restore a sense of control to the mourner, control we have lost in the unexpectedness and the suddenness of the tragedy. A ritual involving cooking returns that control to you as you decide when the coriander seeds have been roasted enough, when the vegetable is done to a crunchy bite, and when the chana is cooked.

It is not surprising that many traditions contain rituals where the person who has passed on is remembered through food. The bereaved are comforted by other mourners who bring dishes like fried chicken, biryani, sandwiches and so on. The Koran, for instance, discourages the family of the dead from cooking but urges the community to bring food to the family. In Hyderabad, Muslims bring biryani, haleem, kebabs and dahi baday. Across the pond in Sri Lanka, visitors dressed in white deliver food to the mourners and the monks. The Buddhist ceremony, Daane, involves eating parupu (dal), kiri bath (rice and coconut milk) and gotu kola sambol. Pitru paksha of Hindus observed during the dark half of the lunar calendar uses food to commemorate the dead. So do similar festivals in other parts of the world: All Souls Day in Italy and Sicily where marzipan delicacies are crafted in the form of fruit and vegetables, and the Day of the Dead in Mexico where sugar skulls, candied pumpkin and mole negro are prepared for the souls of the dead.

Why are these dishes and not some others used in the formal rites? Is it because they create a sense of calm, some succour to the grief-stricken mourners? Is it ethnicity, religion or the geographic location that makes a dish or particular ingredients comforting to a mourner? In India, religion plays a key role in deciding whether vegetarian or non-vegetarian foods can be served to a mourner. Unlike Muslim and Christian mourners, Hindu mourners eat vegetarian meals even if chicken and fish are part of their daily diet. Why? It could be because death is involved in the act of eating meat (dead animals) since in Hindu culture a person is both bodily and morally what he or she eats.

But in a study of mortuary rites in Benares, Jonathan Parry highlights how some aspect of the deceased is symbolically digested not only by the ghost but also by the ‘chief mourner, by the impure Funeral Priests (a specialist subcaste known as Mahabrahmans) and by the pure brahmans’. Parry points out that in some instances, as in the funeral rites of the Raja of Nepal, the Funeral Priest was fed the deceased’s ground-up bone in a preparation of kheer (concentrated milk and sugar), and was laden with gifts and banished from the kingdom. By digesting the deceased, his pure essence is distilled and translated by the digestive fire of the stomach to the other world, while his impure sins are eliminated. The ghost is converted into an ancestor, or pitr. The food served to the group consists of rice boiled without salt but garnished with milk and horse bean lentils (urad dal).On the thirteenth day, the mortuary feast is prepared.

Nirad Chaudhuri narrates an incident where a wealthy relative had to rubber-stamp the backs of peoples’ hands to prevent them from eating twice, many having trekked over 50 miles to attend the feast. It is not just the wealthy who have to feed hundreds of people to mark the end of mourning. The poor have to do it as well, and usually incur high debts as they sell their bullocks and grain and borrow at exorbitant rates of interest to meet the expense of feeding the village. For the Gonds and the Bhumias, the death feast is the most expensive ceremony.

The formal rites also involve other offerings in the soul’s passage from being a ghost to becoming an ancestor. Hindus offer rice or flour balls known as pindas. Some castes leave these pindas outside and hope that a crow will eat it. If it does, the ghost has become an ancestor. In Mysore, some middle castes throw three balls of butter at the idol beseeching it to open the gates of heaven (vaikuntha samaradhana).

Death need not be only of the body. The death of a relationship can be quite brutal. In mourning for the ‘we’ that has died, you may turn to your favourite dishes and binge-eat day after day. Well, don’t. In randomised trials of over 45,000 participants, London-based researchers discovered that eating meals high in vegetable and fiber and cutting back on junk food eased depression. But not anxiety. Also these meals worked better on women than men. They are trying to figure out why. NIH research has found that enhanced recovery from depressive disorders is delivered by oysters, mussels, seafood and organ meats, leafy greens, lettuce, peppers, cauliflower, cabbage, and broccoli. Now we have an Antidepressent Food Score, a nutrient profiling system to give dietary recommendations for mentally ill people.

What about foods that can increase and worsen depression? These typically are sugar-rich foods – cookies, doughnuts, red meats, fried chicken and soft drinks – that create a high followed by a crash. But dark chocolate, thank god, enhances the mood by releasing endorphins to the brain and promotes a sense of well being. I tested it over a two-week period of nibbling two slices of chocolate after lunch. Godiva’s 78 per cent cacao made me perky while Cadbury’s Crunchie left a claggy sensation in my arteries. Either there is some truth to it or I may be exhibiting the recency effect – remembering best whatever I have read or encountered most recently.

The moral of the tale is to treat grief as a natural phenomenon and address it through rituals, simple or elaborate, and eat foods that produce equanimity.

Complete Article HERE!

The Upside Of Virtual Grieving

By Caitlin Stall-Paquet

I attended my first Zoom funeral this past June. My husband Aaron’s aunt Maria, who lived in Pennsylvania, died of breast cancer, but her passing was still defined by the pandemic. Sitting in front of a laptop at the dining-room table in my mom’s house in southeastern Quebec, Canada, we, along with a dozen or so others who couldn’t be there in person, watched our American family gather for the small service.

Despite a few to-be-expected technical issues — people not knowing how to mute or talking over each other — it was incredibly moving. I could see the faces of all the other online participants at once, noticing their collective grief more than I ever would have in person, a mournful mosaic. Towards the end, the funeral organizer asked if anyone joining remotely wanted to share a story. Everyone in attendance turned towards the laptop screen and the grief of the absent unexpectedly took the spotlight. Though I didn’t share, I felt more visible than I ever have attending a funeral, aside from when I delivered my father’s eulogy. It was unlike any service I’ve been to, in a good way.

COVID-19 has forced us to reassess everything in our lives these past few months, but especially our relationship to death and grief. It’s the great force hanging over this pandemic, the thing we fear, what we’re fighting to stave off, while it’s simultaneously thrust in our faces on a daily basis via news reports and press conferences. Though this proximity to loss is a new experience for those who have been luckily shielded from saying goodbye to a loved one, we can all use it to become better at handling grief beyond the pandemic. There have been a lot of calls for not returning to “normal” post-COVID, and the way we mourn deserves to be part of that change.

In part, because many of us aren’t great at dealing with death.When my father died from cancer when I was 29, barely anyone knew how to talk to me about it. (Though it comes from a good place, “I’m sorry for your loss” can start feeling impersonal after a while.) Three-and-a-half years later, I’ve gotten used to my sadness being awkwardly side-stepped or ignored.

There are a few who are willing to dive into the grief weeds with me, who ask questions about my dad and understand that, though the years pass and the pain changes, it never goes away. But many people act like even mentioning someone I love who has died is a faux pas, turning the individuals themselves into taboos. Though grief will always be a personal experience, it doesn’t need to be an isolated one. I’ve never met anyone who wants to be forgotten after they’re gone, so it’s no stretch to assume that the dead want their names in our mouths, shared times in our minds, and swells of feelings in our hearts.

Many of us aren’t great at dealing with death. When my father died from cancer when I was 29, barely anyone knew how to talk to me about it. Though it comes from a good place, ‘I’m sorry for your loss’ can start feeling impersonal after a while.

This loneliness we feelwhen faced with death can be exacerbated by the way we mourn. Although Christianity has been on the decline in the US, our society’s handling of grief has been largely shaped by that faith’s solitary and stoic traditions. For many, grief is seen as something best talked about behind closed doors, and if you’re lucky, in therapy. We’re told to “stay strong” and have been taught to treat mourning as a disease to cure ourselves of within a tidy time frame. After that, we’re mostly silent about our pain rather than reflecting on its shape-shifting, life-altering nature.

This was partially why the Zoom funeral felt so important. It reminded me that, though they’re held to honor the dead, funerals are mostly for the living, one of the few times we’re allowed to mourn openly. The virtual service drove home the importance of coming together even though physical distance felt more impassable than ever. There was also something surprisingly reassuring about attending a funeral at home, surrounded by familiar comforts, with the option of turning off the camera or stepping away from the screen if we needed a moment. It’s unique to be forced to grieve in this new way, so privately and publicly at once. It was something I didn’t realize I’d needed.

For years, I’ve been envious of people who participated in Mexico’s Día de Muertos (Day of the Dead), the holiday that honors those who’ve passed, year after year, long after they’re gone. The celebration reminds me of a trip I took in 2015 to central Bali, just before the one-year anniversary of my uncle John’s death. My visit in the mountains coincided with a Hindu-Balinese cremation ceremony known as ngaben: It started with a long procession through the village for which people wore bright clothes adorned with tons of flowers, and it culminated in an outdoor cremation.

The closest I’ve come to that communal celebration of death was when I was nine years old and my family held a haphazard shiva after my zaida died. As per the Jewish week-long mourning tradition, we covered the mirrors in his Montreal apartment, and people dropped by to sit in uncomfortable chairs. But more importantly, I had a lot of time with my extended family during which zaida’s passing could settle in and move us through a spectrum of emotions, tears, and jokes, solidifying our relationships in the process. That’s the thing about mourning, when it’s shared openly, it brings people together.

Taking the time to let grief sink in feels natural in a pandemic when we’re alone with so much time on our hands.During quarantine, I got more recognition for my sadness than I have in the past, too. Maybe that’s because we were mourning all sorts of things — the normalcy of our lives, our lost connection to each other, the tenuous future. With our everyday fast-paced routines stopped in their tracks, it became painfully obvious how much we craved the contact we’ve taken for granted. Isolation also seemed to make many better at paying attention to what truly matters. On what would have been my father’s 66th birthday, my friend Catherine left me flowers on my doorstep. Another friend left me a voicemail playing one of my father’s favorite songs in its entirety, a gesture that made me laugh-cry like I never had before, and I felt closer to both of them for it.

It’s a cliché that death is the great unifier, but COVID-19 has given us the opportunity as a global population to reflect on what that means and empathize like never before. We can use our times of solitude — as we might have to go back into isolation periodically — to contemplate and appreciate the lives we get to live, while paying our quiet dedication to those who are gone. Allowing the loss to redefine us while also moving on is surprisingly healing, and that in the end is the greatest tribute we can give.

Complete Article HERE!

What happens to a bank account when someone dies?

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The old saying goes “you can’t take it with you,” but that leaves the question: What happens to the bank accounts that you leave behind? While the departed aren’t concerned, their heirs are affected by how the deceased set up their bank accounts.

What happens if the sole owner of an account dies?

If someone is the sole owner of a bank account, what happens next depends on a few factors.

Many banks allow their customers to name a beneficiary or set the account as Payable on Death (POD) or Transferable on Death (TOD) to another person. If the account holder established someone as a beneficiary or POD, the bank will release the funds to the named person once it learns of the account holder’s death. After that, the financial institution typically closes the account.

If the owner of the account didn’t name a beneficiary or a POD, the process can get more complicated. The executor, or person who administers a person’s estate when he or she dies, will become responsible for using the money to repay creditors and dividing the remaining funds according to the deceased’s will.

What happens to joint accounts when someone dies?

Most joint bank accounts include automatic rights of survivorship. In short, if one of the signers on the account passes away, the remaining signer (or signers) on the account retain ownership of the money in the account. That means that the surviving account owner can continue using the account, and the money in it, without any interruptions.

It’s worth noting that the death of an account holder can impact the insurance on an account. The Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. will continue to insure an account as if the decedent is alive for six months after his or her death. Once that time passes, the FDIC coverage stops. Joint accounts can receive up to $500,000 in protection; however, that amount will revert to the $250,000 in protection applicable to individual accounts if one of the joint account holders dies.

Still, if you’re a signer on a joint account, it’s worth checking with your bank to make sure that the account has automatic rights of survivorship. Some banks will freeze joint accounts if one of the signers dies, which could be a problem if you rely on the account for regular spending.

What happens to a bank account when someone dies without a will?

If someone dies without a will, the money in his or her bank account will still pass to the named beneficiary or POD for the account. If someone dies without a will and without naming a beneficiary or POD, things get more complicated.

In general, the executor of the state is responsible for handling any assets the deceased owned, including money in bank accounts. If there is no will to name an executor, the state will appoint one based on local law. The executor has to use the funds in the account to pay any of the estate’s creditors and then distributes the money according to local inheritance laws.

In most states, most or all of the money will go to the deceased’s spouse and children.

How do banks discover someone died?

Banks can discover the death of an account holder in a few ways.

Family member

One of the most common ways for a bank to discover that an account holder has died is for the family to inform the bank.

If a loved one has passed away, inform the deceased’s bank by bringing a copy of his or her death certificate, Social Security number, and any other documents provided by the court, such as letters testamentary (a court document giving someone legal power to act on behalf of a deceased person’s estate) provided to the executor.

Informing the bank lets it begin the process of distributing the deceased’s funds and closing the account.

Social Security

Often, funeral directors will take on the task of informing Social Security of a person’s death on behalf of the family. This saves the family the effort of telling Social Security about their loved one’s passing and makes sure that the heirs don’t have to deal with returning Social Security checks that shouldn’t have been issued.

If Social Security sent a payment for a month after the deceased’s death, the payment must be returned. Social Security will contact the bank that received the payment to ask for the return of funds. If the bank didn’t already know about the account holder’s death, receiving that request will inform it that the account holder died.

How to avoid complications

The last thing that people want to think about while grieving the loss of a loved one is money. There are some proactive steps that you can take to help your loved ones avoid complications if you die.

“Always have a will drawn up by an estate attorney and set up beneficiary designations or TOD, but the easiest way to deal with bank accounts is to simply have an authorized signer on the account so they don’t have to wait,” says accountant Eric Nisall, who has recent experience with handling the accounts of a deceased loved one advises. “They can just go in and take the money or wait and remove the decedent at a later time.”

If you have power of attorney for a loved one who is in poor health, you can add a joint account holder or a TOD to their accounts in preparation for the future.

Another important thing to do is to make sure that your family knows about all of your financial accounts. With the rise of online banking, it’s much easier for accounts to get lost in the shuffle.

“I think a common mistake is not knowing about all of the accounts,” says Nicole Rosen, a registered agent. “When my mom passed away, there was one account that didn’t have a POD. I couldn’t access this single bank account and it laid dormant. The bank charged enough fees to drain and overdraw the account.”

So, a good strategy is to consolidate your accounts as much as possible, leaving fewer accounts for your heirs to track down.

If you’re trying to find accounts left behind by a loved one, try checking your state’s unclaimed money database. Banks have to surrender unused accounts to the state after a period of time set by local law. The state then lists that unclaimed money for the original owners to find before escheating it for public use. You might be able to use these databases to find money that you or your loved one forgot about.

Bottom line

No one likes to contemplate their mortality but making basic preparations with your finances can save your loved ones from financial stress while grieving your loss. Make sure to use beneficiary and POD designations whenever possible and have a will drawn up by an attorney to outline your final wishes.

Complete Article HERE!

This ‘Living’ Coffin Uses Mushrooms to Compost Dead Bodies

This ‘Living’ Coffin Uses Mushrooms to Compost Dead Bodies

Hendrikx with the ‘Living Cocoon’ coffins.

by Becky Ferreira

For tens of thousands of years, humans have developed funeral rites and burial practices that reflected the attitudes of their particular time and place. These traditions of honoring the dead continue to evolve into the 21st century, as people seek “green burials” that are more environmentally friendly than standard coffins. 

One of the newest examples comes from Loop, a Dutch biotech company that recently unveiled a biodegradable coffin made of fungus, microbes and plant roots. Called the “Living Cocoon,” the coffin is designed to hasten bodily decomposition while also enriching soil around the plot.

“Normally, what we do as humans is we take something out of nature, we kill it, and we use it,” said Bob Hendrikx, founder of Loop, in a call. “So I thought: what if we humans start moving from working with dead materials toward a world in which we work with living materials?”

“We would not only become less of a parasite, but we could also start exploring super-cool material properties, like living lights, walls that are self-healing, and that kind of stuff,” he added.

Hendrikx was inspired to develop the Living Cocoon while presenting a living home concept at last year’s Dutch Design Week. While houses are obviously for the living, Hendrikx got to thinking about adapting the concept into a coffin powered by mushroom mycelium, which is the filamentary vegetative part of the fungus.

“Mycelium is nature’s biggest recycler,” Hendrikx said. “It is continuously looking for dead organic matter to transform into key nutrients.”

Developed in collaboration with Delft University of Technology and the Naturalis Biodiversity Center, the Living Cocoon contains a moss bed packed with mycelium, plant roots, and a lush ecosystem of microorganisms. It is already on the market in the Netherlands, and has been used for a burial at the Hague.

Initial tests of the coffin indicate that it degrades in soil over about 30 to 45 days, and the Loop team estimates that bodies within coffins should be composted after three years. Mushrooms can also remove contaminants from soil, so the researchers have a “bigger vision” to use the coffins to purify dirty environments.

“We have a dream of having super-new natural funeral-based concepts in which we go to different cities and search for the most dirty soil and start cleaning that up,” Hendrikx said.

“We already have this product launched on the market, but what we want to really know is how long does [decomposition] take exactly, what does the decomposition phase look like, and also—this is super-important—what kind of chemicals can it absorb and in what amounts,” he added.

The Living Cocoon is one of many emerging concepts that aim to reduce the environmental tolls of current mortuary norms. Right now, both caskets and cadavers are treated with chemicals that leach into soil over time, potentially contaminating groundwater.

Green burials are exactly not a new phenomenon, as Indigenous cultures around the world have practiced environmentally friendly mortuary practices for thousands of years. For instance, “sky burials” that expose bodies to high altitudes where they can be scavenged by birds and animals, are still practiced in the Himalayas today.

But more novel funeral technologies such as “water cremation,” in which bodies are broken down in water and potassium hydroxide, are attracting the interest of people who want to tread lightly on the planet, even after they no longer live on it.

To that point, the Loop team thinks that the Living Cocoon will help people access the right end-of-life experience for them.

“I think people are ready for this,” Hendrikx said.

Complete Article HERE!

How to Die (Without Really Trying)

A conversation with the religious scholar Brook Ziporyn on Taoism, life and what might come after.

By George Yancy

This is the fifth in a series of interviews with religious scholars exploring how the major faith traditions deal with death. Today, my conversation is with Brook Ziporyn, the Mircea Eliade professor of Chinese religion, philosophy and comparative thought at the University of Chicago Divinity School. Professor Ziporyn has distinguished himself as a scholar and translator of some of the most complex philosophical texts and concepts of the Chinese religious traditions. He is also the author of several books, including “The Penumbra Unbound: The Neo-Taoist Philosophy of Guo Xiang” and “Zhuangzi: The Complete Writings,” as well as two works on Tiantai Buddhism . — George Yancy

George Yancy: For many Westerners, Taoism is somewhat familiar. Some may have had a basic exposure to Taoist thought — perhaps encountering translations of the “Tao Te Ching” or Chinese medicine or martial arts or even just popular references to the concept of yin and yang. But for those who haven’t, can you give us some basics? For example, my understanding is that Taoism can be described as both a religious system and a philosophical system. Is that correct?

Brook Ziporyn: “Taoism” (or “Daosim”) is a blanket term for the philosophy of certain classical texts, mainly from Lao-tzu’s “Tao Te Ching” and the “Zhuangzi” (also known in English as “Chuang-tzu”), but also for a number of religious traditions that adopt some of these texts while also producing many other texts, ideas and practices. This can make it difficult to say what the attitude of Taoism is on any given topic.

What they have in common is the conviction that all definite things, everything we may name and identify and everything we may desire and cherish, including our own bodies and our own lives, emerge from and are rooted in something formless and indefinite: Forms emerge from formlessness, the divided from the undivided, the named from the unnamed, concrete things from vaporous energies, even “beings” from what we’d call “nothing.”

Some forms of religious Taoism seek immortal vitality through a reconnection with this source of life, the inexhaustible energy that gave us birth. Many forms of cultivation, visualization and ritual are developed, with deities both inside and outside one’s own body, to reconnect and integrate with the primal energy in its many forms.

The philosophical Taoism of the “Tao Te Ching” seeks to remain connected to this “mother of the world,” the formless Tao (meaning “Way” or “Course”), that is seemingly the opposite of all we value, but is actually the source of all we value, as manure is to flowers, as the emptiness of a womb is to the fullness of life.

In all these forms of Taoism, there is a stress on “return to the source,” and a contrarian tendency to push in the opposite direction of the usual values and processes, focusing on the reversal and union of apparent opposites. In the “Zhuangzi,” even the definiteness of “source” is too fixed to fully accommodate the scope of universal reversal and transformation; we have instead a celebration of openness to the raucous universal process of change, the transformation of all things into each other.

Yancy: In Taoism, there is the concept of “wu-wei” (“doing nothing”). How does this concept relate to what we, as human beings, should strive for, and how is that term related to an ethical life?

Ziporyn: Wei means “doing” or “making,” but also “for a conscious, deliberate purpose.” Wu-wei thus means non-doing, implying effortlessness, non-striving, non-artificiality, non-coercion, but most centrally eschewal of conscious purpose as controller of our actions.

So in a way the idea of wu-wei implies a global reconsideration of the very premise of your question — the status and desirability of striving as such, or having any definite conscious ideals guide our lives, any definite conscious ethical guide. Wu-wei is what happens without being made to happen by a definite intention, without a plan, without an ulterior motive — the way one does the things one doesn’t have to try to do, what one is doing without noticing it, without conscious motive. Our heart beats, but we do not “do” the beating of our hearts — it just happens. Taoism says “wu-wei er wu bu-wei” — by non-doing, nothing is left undone.

Theistic traditions might suggest that what is not deliberately made or done by us is done by someone else — God — and done by design, for a purpose. Even post-theistic naturalists might still speak of the functions of things in terms of their “purpose” (“the heart pumps in order to circulate the blood and keep the body alive”). But for Taoists, only what is done by a mind with a prior intention can have a purpose, and nature isn’t like that. It does it all without anyone knowing how or why it’s done, and that’s why it works so well.

Yancy: How does Taoism conceive of the soul?

Ziporyn: Taoism has no concept of “the” soul per se; the person has many souls, or many centers of energy, which must be integrated. All are concretizations of a more primal formless continuum of energy of which they are a part, like lumps in pancake batter. These are neither perfectly discontinuous nor perfectly dissolved into oneness.

Ancient Chinese belief regarded the living person as having two souls, the “hun” and the “po,” which parted ways at death. Later religious Taoists conceived of multitudes of gods, many of whom inhabit our own bodies — multiple mini-souls within us and without us, which the practitioner endeavored to connect with and harmonize into an integral whole.

Yancy: The concept of a soul is typically integral to a conceptualization of death. How does Taoism conceive of death?

Ziporyn: In the “Zhuangzi,” there is a story about death, and a special friendship formed by humans in the face of it. Four fellows declare to each other, “Who can see nothingness as his own head, life as his own spine, and death as his own backside? Who knows the single body formed by life and death, existence and nonexistence? I will be his friend!” We go from formlessness to form — this living human body — then again to formlessness. But all three phases constitute a single entity, ever transforming from one part to another, death to life to death. Our existence when alive is only one part of it, the middle bit; the nothingness or formlessness before and after our lives are part of the same indivisible whole. Attunement to this becomes here a basis for a peculiar intimacy and fellowship among humans while they are alive, since their seemingly definite forms are joined in this continuum of formlessness.

The next story in the “Zhuangzi” gives an even deeper description of this oneness and this intimacy. Three friends declare, “‘Who can be together in their very not being together, doing some­thing for one another by doing nothing for one another? Who can climb up upon the heavens, roaming on the mists, twisting and turning round and round without limit, living their lives in mutual forgetfulness, never coming to an end?’ The three of them looked at each other and burst out laughing, feeling complete concord, and thus did they become friends.”

Here there is no more mention of the “one body” shared by all — even the idea of a fixed oneness is gone. We have only limitless transformation. And the intimacy is now an wu-wei kind of intimacy, with no conscious awareness of a goal or object: They commune with each other by forgetting each other, just as they commune with the one indivisible body of transformation by forgetting all about it, and just transforming onward endlessly. Death itself is transformation, but life is also transformation, and the change from life to death and death to life is transformation too.

Yancy: Most of us fear death. The idea of the possible finality of death is frightening. How do we, according to Taoism, best address that fear?

Ziporyn: In that story about the four fellows, one of them suddenly falls ill and faces imminent death. He muses contentedly that after he dies he will continue to be transformed by whatever creates things, even as his body and mind break apart: His left arm perhaps into a rooster, his right arm perhaps into a crossbow pellet, his buttocks into a pair of wheels, his spirit into a horse. How marvelous that will be, he muses, announcing the dawn as a rooster, hunting down game as a pellet, riding along as a horse and carriage. Another friend then falls ill, and his pal praises the greatness of the process of transformation, wondering what he’ll be made into next — a mouse’s liver? A bug’s arm? The dying man says anywhere it sends him would be all right. He compares it to a great smelter. To be a human being for a while is like being metal that has been forged into a famous sword. To insist on only ever being a human in this great furnace of transformation is to be bad metal — good metal is the kind that can be malleable, broken apart and recombined with other things, shaped into anything.

I think the best summary of this attitude to death and life, and the joy in both, is from the same chapter in “Zhuangzi”:

This human form is just something we have stumbled into, but those who have become humans take delight in it nonetheless. Now the human form during its time undergoes ten thousand transformations, never stopping for an instant — so the joys it brings must be beyond calculation! Hence the sage uses it to roam and play in that from which nothing ever escapes, where all things are maintained. Early death, old age, the beginning, the end — this allows him to see each of them as good.

Every change brings its own form of joy, if, through wu-wei, we can free ourselves of the prejudices of our prior values and goals, and let every situation deliver to us its own new form as a new good. Zhuangzi calls it “hiding the world in the world”— roaming and playing and transforming in that from which nothing ever escapes.

Yancy: So, through wu-wei, on my death bed, I should celebrate as death isn’t an ending, but another beginning, another becoming? I also assume that there is no carry over of memory. In other words, in this life, I am a philosopher, male, etc. As I continue to become — a turtle, a part of Proxima Centauri, a tree branch — will I remember having been a philosopher, male?

Ziporyn: I think your assumption is correct about that: There is no expectation of memory, at least for these more radical Taoists like Zhuangzi. This is certainly connected with the general association of wu-wei with a sort of non-knowing. In fact in the climax of the same chapter as we find the death stories just mentioned, we find the virtue of “forgetting” extolled as the highest stage of Taoist cultivation — “a dropping away of my limbs and torso, a chasing off my sensory acuity, dispersing my physical form and ousting my understanding until I am the same as the Transforming Openness. This is what I call just sitting and forgetting.”

And the final death story there describes a certain Mr. Mengsun as having reached the perfect attitude toward life and death. He understands nothing about why he lives or dies. His existence consists only of waiting for the next unknown transformation. “[H]is physical form may meet with shocks but this causes no loss to his mind; what he experiences are morning wakings to ever new homes rather than the death of any previous realities.”

The freshness of the new transformation into ever new forms, and the ability to wholeheartedly embrace the new values that go with them, seems to require an ability to let go of the old completely. I think most of us will agree that such thorough forgetting is a pretty tall order! It seems that it may, ironically enough, require a lifetime of practice.

Yancy: Given the overwhelming political and existential global importance of race at this moment, do you have any reflections on your role as a white scholar of Taoism? In other words, are there racial or cultural issues that are salient for you as a non-Asian scholar of Eastern religious thought?

Brook Ziporyn: A very complex question, probably requiring a whole other interview! But my feeling is that, when dealing with ancient texts written in dead languages, the issue is more linguistic and cultural than racial. This goes for ancient Greek, Hebrew, Sanskrit and Latin texts as well as for ancient Chinese texts, all of which bear a complex historical relation to particular living communities and their languages, but all of which are also susceptible to fiercely contested interpretations both inside and outside those communities.

I think it’s a good thing for both Asian and non-Asian scholars to struggle to attain literacy in the textual inheritances of both the Asian and the non-Asian ancient worlds, which is “another country” to all of us, and to advance as many alternate coherent interpretations of them as possible. These interpretations will in all cases be very much conditioned by our particular current cultural situations, and these differences will certainly be reflected in the results — which is a good thing, I think, as long as we remain aware of it.

Writing about Taoism in English, one is speaking from and to an English-reading world. Doing so in modern Chinese, one is speaking from and to a modern-Chinese-reading world. Working crosswise in either language, as when a culturally native Anglophone like myself writes about Taoism in modern Chinese, or when a native Mandarin speaker writes in English about Taoism, or for that matter in either English or Chinese about ancient Greek philosophy or the Hebrew Bible, the situation will again differ, and the resulting discussion will reflect this as well.

In terms of the dangers of Orientalism, though, what I think must be especially guarded against is making any claim that whatever anyone may conclude about any particular ancient Chinese text can give any special insight into the politics, culture, or behavior of modern Chinese persons, communities or polities. The historical relations between modern and ancient cultural forms are simply too complex to think that the former can give one any right to claim any knowledge about the latter.

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