The iPhone at the Deathbed

Families are photographing death at home. These photos may feel jarring on Facebook, but the practice itself has a long history.

A kiss after dying: the late Robert Alexander and his youngest sister

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After Robert Alexander died at 51 during heart surgery in June 2018, after he was taken from the hospital to the facility that would recover the tissue and bone he had donated, he was brought to his uncle’s farm in Hinton, Okla., where his six siblings, his mother and other family members and friends had gathered to give him a home funeral.

They laid him out on a sturdy folding banquet table and dressed him in well-worn bluejeans, a Harley Davidson bandanna, a long-sleeved Affliction T-shirt and his black leather vest painted with the American flag. On the wall behind him, they hung a blanket emblazoned with a flaming skull.

A mechanic, Mr. Alexander had loved motorcycles, though his health and finances had kept him from being a regular rider. After he was properly adorned, and “looking pretty badass,” as his sister Tawnya Musser said, his siblings and their mother gathered around him, and a brother-in-law took a family photo using his smartphone.

“We couldn’t think of a time when all of us had been together with Mom,” Ms. Musser, 34, said. “So we had the conversation. Did Mom want a photo with all seven of her children and was it morbid that one of them was dead?”

There ended up being several photographs. They are startling and beautiful. Mr. Alexander looks peaceful and regal. The siblings have shared them among themselves, but the images don’t live on social media, as many contemporary death photos do.

In a collision of technology and culture, of new habits and very old ones, we are beginning to photograph our dead again.

For families like Mr. Alexander’s who are choosing home funerals and following natural death practices — D.I.Y. affairs that eschew the services of conventional funeral parlors — photography is an extension and celebration of that choice.

Family members are sitting with kin in hospice, or taking them home from hospitals, and continuing to care for them after they die, often washing their bodies and then adorning them, as Mr. Alexander’s family did, with favorite clothes, flowers, cards, books and other totems. They are sending their dead off as their grandparents used to, and recording the event and its aftermath with their smartphones.

“You can die in a way that has beauty attached,” said Amy Cunningham, 64, a funeral director in Brooklyn who specializes in “green” burials, without embalming or metal coffins, and assists families who are caring for their dead at home.

“The photograph seals the emotion,” Ms. Cunningham said. “And with cellular phones ever-present, we’re going to be recording all kinds of things we never did previously. Death is just one of them. Though when you’re Facebook posting and the images are wedged between the latest Trump atrocity and cats who look like Hitler it can be jarring.”

So, too, is the now common experience of seeing emoji applied to tragic events. Do you choose the weeping smiley face or just hit “like”?

The End of the Timeline

When Louise Rafkin posted a photo of her mother, Rhoda Rafkin, on Facebook the night of her death at 98 in September with her golden retriever at her side, it rattled some family members and friends.

Ms. Rafkin, 61, an author and martial arts teacher in Oakland, Calif., who is also a contributor to The New York Times, described how she and others had carried Rhoda outside to the garden she had loved. They transported her on an improvised stretcher, a surfboard borrowed from neighbors, and with help from their college-age sons.

Rhoda was dressed in a blue caftan and strewn with sunflowers, roses and gladioli. They tucked her into a sheet, lit candles and sat with her until it was dark. It is a lovely image, shot at the magic hour, as filmmakers like to say of the time just before dusk, but it shocks nonetheless.

“I was crazy about my mom and I wasn’t fazed by her being dead,” Ms. Rafkin said, noting that Rhoda, an educator, had been in hospice for more than six months. “I’ve been through the AIDS epidemic. I’m used to death. There are ways you can make this meaningful. Although I’m not religious, I am a deep believer in ritual and how that can heal and provide context.”

The Facebook post was a way to announce Rhoda’s death, Ms. Rafkin said, adding, “I’m pretty sure my mother would have disapproved, and that’s a tad unsettling. ‘No folderol,’ she said about the whole process.”

Some family members had mixed reactions. “I think what she did in the garden was beautiful,” said Ashley Peterson, 31, of Ms. Rafkin, who is her aunt. “But I felt like posting the photos could make people uncomfortable and leave an image in their minds they did not want to see. ”

Susan Sontag wrote that photography has its own ethics: It tells us what we are allowed to see and what’s taboo. (In the age of TikTok, these rules have evolved beyond all imagining.) If we are more familiar with the deaths of strangers, their violent ends captured by photojournalists, maybe that’s because the deaths of our intimates have been at a remove for so long.

There have been exceptions, of course, like the harrowing images that emerged during the AIDS epidemic from photographers like Therese Frare and artists like David Wojnarowicz, whose tender portraits of his friend and mentor Peter Hujar are holy-seeming and sacramental.

“In one sense it’s surprising because we’ve been so disconnected from death in the last century or so,” said Bess Lovejoy, the author of “Rest in Pieces: The Curious Fates of Famous Corpses,” published in 2013, of the resurgence of home death photography. Ms. Lovejoy is also a member of the Order of the Good Death, an organization of funeral professionals, artists and scholars that prepare a culture generally in denial about death.

“But we are returning to the older ways,” she went on, “a movement backward that some say began in the ’70s, with the back-to-nature movement and midwifery and natural births. The natural death movement is part of that. And these photos are unsurprising, too, because we carry our smartphones all the time, and it’s almost like if there isn’t a photo it didn’t happen. Now everyone is a photographer.”

A post-mortem portrait of a baby from the mid-19th century.

Modern photography was born in 1839, when Louis Daguerre refined a process for capturing an image on silver-plated copper. For decades, one of the most common uses of this new technology was the post-mortem photo: an artfully composed image, taken by a professional photographer, of dead family members in all manner of poses. Dead children in the laps of their parents, often with their eyes painted open; dead adults dressed in their finest clothes; even dead parents holding their living children; or entire families, wiped out by diseases like cholera, typhoid or diphtheria, nestled together in bed.

These were prized mementos, most often the only photograph that was ever taken of the subject, said Stanley B. Burns, 81, the quirky ophthalmologist behind the Burns Archive, a collection of post-mortem and medical photos, among other intriguing photographic genres, stored in a chockablock townhouse in Midtown Manhattan.

The photos in Dr. Burns’s “Sleeping Beauty” books (there are three) are both ghoulish and gorgeous. Dr. Burns pointed out that the subjects tended to look pretty good, because the plagues that felled them did so quickly.

The images have been inspiration and provided material for collectors and Victoriana enthusiasts like Joanna Ebenstein, 48, a writer and curator who was a founder of the idiosyncratic Morbid Anatomy Museum, now closed, in Brooklyn. “Post-mortem photographs can be seen as a Western form of ancestor veneration,” said Ms. Ebenstein, a practice that began to decline when death was outsourced to the clinical environments of hospitals and funeral homes, “and it became taboo to talk about.”

(In 1910, Ladies’ Home Journal rebranded the parlor, where Americans had been laying out their dead for nearly a century, as “the living room” and the nascent funeral industry took the word “parlor” for its activities.)

But what really curtailed post-mortem photography and the elaborate mourning rituals behind it, according to Dr. Burns, was World War I. “There was so much death,” he said. “If everyone is mourning, you lose your fighting spirit. It’s not patriotic.”

“What’s happening now is that people are taking back that process,” Dr. Burns continued. “But the impulse to photograph is the same as it was for the Victorians. They want to show they have seen their person through to the end. ‘I’ve done this work, I’ve loved her to the end.’ It’s your last bond, and you want to document that.”

Finis-tagram

As the funeral industry slowly evolves from Big Casket to include a cadre of overwhelmingly female and digitally native professionals with all manner of titles (end of life teachers, death doulas and others), they are displaying their work, with humor and photographs, on social media.

Their message: Get comfortable with death, it doesn’t have to be so scary, and here are photos to prove it.

They share images of the dead attended by family members in their beds, or shrouded in natural fabrics cinched with rope at a grave site. They perform death themselves, as Melissa Unfred, 41, a natural mortician based in Austin, Texas, sometimes does, lying in shallow graves strewn with flowers and turf. Ms. Unfred, who sells “Cremate the Patriarchy” T-shirts on Etsy, is the Mod Mortician of Twitter and Instagram, one of many evangelists for the so-called Death Positive movement.

Caitlin Doughty, 35, a funeral director who describes herself as a mortician activist and funeral industry rabble rouser, recently re-enacted a Victorian-style post-mortem photo shoot with a tintype photographer at the Merchant House Museum in Manhattan, and shared it on YouTube.

Ms. Doughty is the founder of the Order of the Good Death and the author of “Will My Cat Eat My Eyeballs?” published last September, “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes and Other Lessons from the Crematory” and other jauntily titled books designed to demystify death. With her Bettie Page crop, she is an avatar of the goth-inflected sub-tribe of death professionals.

“It’s not like no one never took a photo of Mom in the coffin,” Ms. Doughty said. “I have pictures of my grandparents in their caskets fully embalmed. But the sense of ownership has changed. It’s not, ‘Mom is handed to the funeral parlor and they do something behind the scenes and sell the body back to you.’ Sure, you could take photos but it’s like a statue in a museum. The product of someone else’s art. My sense of why we are seeing more and more photos of these natural bodies is because the families have prepared them themselves, they’ve done a job together and they are proud of their work.”

Ms. Doughty advises families on home death rituals and best practices, like how to keep the dead cool with packs of dry ice. “One family texted me photos as they worked, though not to say, ‘How are we doing?’ but, ‘Look how beautiful.’ I think people have this fear that Mom is going to be this otherworldly creepy thing, and then when that doesn’t happen, they want to capture it.”

Ms. Cunningham, the funeral director in Brooklyn, recalled addressing a group of Unitarians in Albany a few years ago, and saying that she wasn’t sure she would want to be viewed, post-mortem, by her friends and family. That she would prefer to be looking her best. A nonagenarian yelled out, quite sharply, as she remembered, “‘You’ll get over that!’”

“And that got me thinking,” Ms. Cunningham said. “Wouldn’t it be wonderful to die unfettered and free from worrying about how I look?”

Remembrance Portraits

Cancer patients and others with terminal illnesses have long used photos and videos to bear witness to their suffering and make visible that which is considered off limits — on blogs, Twitter and now TikTok — and have encouraged family members and friends to do so on their behalf when they are no longer able to, pushing visual and emotional boundaries well beyond what may be considered comfortable.

As in the Victorian era, post-mortem photographs of children have a terrible urgency and mission. Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep is an organization of volunteer photographers who make “remembrance portraits” of babies, often of the child in their parent’s arms, to assist in the grieving process.

Oliver Wasow, a photographer, recalled the agonizing images a friend shared last summer of her son’s death to cancer at age 8 on Instagram and Facebook, documenting her child’s devastating decline, and then her own grief.

It was shattering to see — “You couldn’t ‘like” the photos,” Mr. Wasow said — but he recognized the value it had for his friend. Some people, he noted, say the difference between analog photography and digital photography is that digital photography is a kind of activity, versus analog photographs, which are documents.

“When you throw in social media, it becomes a record of a process rather than a record of a person. Yet the purpose remains the same whether it’s the 19th century or the 21st,” Mr. Wasow said. “It’s about documenting the transition from a physical body to a memory.”

There are gentler ways to memorialize the process of dying than a portrait of a face with the life drained from it. Lashanna Williams, 40, a massage therapist and death doula in Seattle, has been making portraits of her dying clients, with their permission, to share with family members if they ask for them.

She captures the area between a forefinger and thumb, or the calluses of someone’s hands. Wrinkles, she likes to say, are containers for memories and lived experience. She may take a photo of the crepey skin on an arm, or a scar, and sometimes she layers those images with photo collages made from leaves or flowers. The images are both abstract and intimate.

The aesthetic and language of modern post-mortem photography is not all fabric shrouds and flower petals, however. Monica Torres, 42, is a desairologist (the term for hair and makeup stylists who work on the dead) and embalmer in Phoenix with a sassy Twitter handle, @Coldhandshosts. Her specialty is trauma, and she relies on conventional methods to make decedents look like themselves again.

“I cannot create a positive, lasting memory for families without the chemicals and tools that I use,” Ms. Torres said. The families of her clients often ask her to take photos, or gather at a coffin for a selfie, she added.

An educator, she also shares her work in vivid photos on her website. “Now that the death-positive movement is in full effect,” she said, “families are beginning to show interest, and documenting their journey through grief is a powerful tool to use toward acceptance. We want to empower families with education about what it is we actually do and how our dark art is valuable.”

Bam Truesdale, 37, a hair and makeup stylist in Charlotte, N.C., has been preparing decedents for funeral parlors for 10 years. When his mother, Cynthia Cummings, died at 61 in 2016, he worked on her, too. As is his habit with all the people he prepares, he put earphones in his mother’s ears, and played her gospel music, though he worked in silence.

After Mr. Truesdale had made his mother up and done her hair, pinning a white feather and rhinestone fascinator to her curls, he smoothed her dress, adjusted her stockings and picked her up, placing her gently in her coffin.

He captured the entire process with his Android phone, though when he paused to kiss her face all over, as he used to do when she was alive, the colleague he’d brought from work to help him if he faltered took the phone from him and snapped those photos herself. Afterward, he uploaded the images to a Google drive and did not look at them again until the last week of January.

“I started feeling emotional that day,” he said, “and something in my head told me, I think it was her, that I had never shared her like she asked me to.” When Ms. Cummings was dying, she made Mr. Truesdale promise that he would make sure no one would forget her. Mr. Truesdale said, “I was going back and forth, ‘Maybe I should? Maybe I shouldn’t? People are going to think I’m weird.'”

It was evening when Mr. Truesdale posted his dead mother’s photos on Facebook. He awoke the next morning to find his phone lit up with thousands of comments and notifications. Many people asked if he could make the post public, so he did. By the end of the day, 25,000 people had “liked” the post, and it had been shared more than 15,000 times.

Among the more than 4,000 comments, the most common were that Ms. Cummings looked beautiful, and that Mr. Truesdale had done a wonderful job caring for her. Strangers wrote that they wished they could have had a similar experience with their own family members.

His three siblings thanked him, too. “They didn’t know they wanted to see the pictures,” he said. “But they did.”

Complete Article HERE!

The Emotional Wallop of My Friend’s Green Burial

What I learned about the realities of this new, but old, practice

By Janet Siroto

My friend Carla saw almost everything in life as a creative challenge — a moment to brainstorm and make a statement.

If there was a potluck brunch, no way was she picking up a dozen bagels. Instead, she’d find a recipe for pear-ginger coffee cake, go buy some fresh yeast and get baking.

Any home-improvement project triggered a deep dive into materials, colors and a discussion of what kind of light bulb would cast the right glow.

So when she was telling me about some fabric she’d found — “It’s moss green velvet and looks like the forest floor in a fairytale,” Carla said — the enthusiasm was familiar, but the circumstances very surprising.

Carla had heard about the concept of a green burial and had gone all in. Even though she was in her 60s and in good health, the idea spoke to her; her love of nature, her love of doing things a little bit more individualistically. The fabric she was describing would be her burial shroud.

Getting Back to Basics

A green burial is an “everything old is new again” practice: After death, no chemicals are used to preserve the body. No heavily shellacked coffin is placed in the earth. Rather, one’s burial is done as naturally as possible so the body can return to and nourish the very earth beneath our feet. Everything that goes into the soil must be biodegradable — and the velvet Carla found fit that bill.

This closer-to-nature concept is in sync with society’s growing concern for the planet. Before the advent of the modern burial, when loved ones died, their bodies were wrapped in a shroud and put in the ground. But by the time we reached the early- to mid-1900s, a very different, non-eco-friendly tradition had taken over.

According to Scientific American, “funerals [in the U.S.] are responsible each year for the felling of 30 million board feet of casket wood, 90,000 tons of steel, 1.6 million tons of concrete for burial vaults, and 800,000 gallons of embalming fluid. Even cremation is an environmental horror story, with the incineration process emitting many a noxious substance, including dioxin, hydrochloric acid, sulfur dioxide, and climate-changing carbon dioxide.”

About 50 years ago, our collective consciousness and conscience about burial began to change. “American sensibilities about environment shifted, with Rachel Carson in the ’60s and the launch of Earth Day and the formation of the EPA in 1970,” says David Charles Sloane, an urban planning professor at the University of Southern California and author of Is the Cemetery Dead? “We’ve become a much more aware society about environmental impact.

That awareness enveloped end of life, and the idea of a good death and green burial began to be entwined and gain interest. Last year, a study found that 54% of Americans were actively considering this option, and 72% of cemeteries reported an increased demand (many are responding with green zones on their premises).

Another reason why green burials are catching on: the lower price. Joyce Foley, who owns Cedar Brook Burial Ground in Limington, Maine, where Carla chose her plot, says green burials typically cost $3,000 at the very most, versus $5,000 and up for traditional burials.

Being There: At a Green Burial

But no matter how much one may read about green burial in principle or how many statistics one might absorb, little can prepare you for the actual experience. So, back to my friend Carla.

Picking the green velvet was just one facet of her creative expression. She also hunted for a natural headstone. Many green cemeteries offer local stones, but Carla wanted something special — and somewhere, somehow found a petrified tree stump that could be engraved with her name and the dates of her life when the time came. (Foley, the burial ground’s director, approved of the choice given how well it harmonized with nature.) Because the stump was so heavy, it stayed in the back of Carla’s car for at least a year, as she researched who could engrave it.

As blithe as Carla seemed about the prospect of her green burial, things took a serious turn a few years later. Her increasing fatigue led to tests, more tests, and a diagnosis of a rare blood cancer. A bone-marrow “perfect match” was found, but alas, after the procedure, graft versus host disease destroyed the hope of recovery. In her final days, Carla would say, “I hope you’ll come picnic by my spot in Maine. I’ll be helping the trees grow. The cycle of life.”

Just shy of her 70th birthday, she died in a hospice not far from her home in Cambridge, Mass., and plans were quickly made for her burial. My family — myself, my husband and our two college-age sons — joined about 10 other dear friends that day. We drove into, and then walked across, what looked very much like every nature preserve I’d ever visited. Trees everywhere. Quiet. Bird song. Rustling leaves. A gray-blue winter sky.

There were none of the manicured lawns and stately tombstones in regimented rows as you’d see at most cemeteries. We assembled at the gravesite, which had been hand-dug prior to our arrival, and barely noticed the other plots nearby, so subtle were the markers. A bunch of dried flowers or perhaps a small pile of stones revealed them to us.

The bottom of Carla’s grave had been covered with boughs to make it a soft resting place. A hearse pulled up and the driver asked my husband, sons and a couple of other men to assist. And then came the shock of seeing a plain wood board pulled from the back of the long car with my friend’s shrouded body on top of it.

I may have gasped a bit, as this was so unexpected and so far from the “avert your eyes” nature of death and burial I had grown up knowing. For a moment, I felt like a child recoiling from a scary movie.

My friend’s shrouded dead body was right there in front of all of us. We could see Carla’s silhouette — her long, slender body; her aquiline nose. There was no coffin to shield us from the truth that her incandescent spirit had left this world and only her remains were now here. It was quite an emotional wallop.

How often are any of us in the presence of a corpse, let alone one about to be put into the soil? How often do we have this kind of unmediated, unmedicalized contact with someone who has departed this realm?

Before Carla was lowered into the ground, a few of us placed a hand on the contour of her shoulder (yes, you could make it out) and said our goodbyes. The board with her body was then lowered via straps into the grave by the men in the group. Some people tossed in loose flowers. Carla’s friend Louie had brought his guitar and sang her favorite song, “Here Comes the Sun.”

Carla’s daughter said, “This is exactly what she wanted. It’s all so beautiful.”

The Simple Truth

It’s been a couple of years since that day, and I have visited only once, when I was heading to Maine for a wedding. I spent a bit of time by Carla’s gravesite and that stump tombstone and thought about the gift of her friendship and how much I wished she were still here.

The green burial was one of the gifts of her friendship. She showed those closest to her a path of possibility, different from the mainstream.

My family and I still talk about the raw beauty of the burial, of how we felt so close to Carla and so intimately involved with her transition to whatever may be ahead. My husband and sons still talk about the visceral experience of transporting and then lowering her body — feeling its weight — so Carla could become one with the earth and “feed a tree,” as she said.

It was a jarring experience in the moment, to be sure — but one I will always remember. It connected me to Carla at the end of our time together and also to the most elemental way of saying goodbye to the dead, as our ancestors had done for generations. It brought a simplicity and meaning to one of life’s hardest passages.

Complete Article HERE!

Why ceremony matters

By Lois Heckman

Creating ceremonies is what I do, and every once in a while it’s good to stop and remember why. To my way of thinking, there are three really big transitions in life: birth, death and marriage. Every culture and religion, all around the world, has different ways to honor these milestones. Momentous occasions are honored and celebrated in diverse ways, almost always involve ceremony; rites of passage.

Elizabeth Gilbert wrote: “Ceremony is essential to humans: It’s a circle that we draw around important events to separate the momentous from the ordinary. And ritual is a sort of magical safety harness that guides us from one stage of our lives into the next, making sure we don’t stumble or lose ourselves along the way.”

That really nails it. I probably don’t have to even say anymore. But naturally I will!

Besides those three big ones, other life changing transitions include coming of age, sexual identity, and any major disruption in relationships— especially divorce. All are deserving of recognition, in small or big ways. We also have ceremonies for graduation or receiving awards and even retirement.

Each tradition has its own way to express the meaning, with specific rituals, readings or actions. And let’s remember that cultures and traditions evolve, changing with the times, or struggling to do so.

Perhaps you have heard of one of the most unusual coming-of-age ceremonies. It takes place in a remote island in the South Pacific, where boys risk their lives jumping head-first from a 90-foot tall wooden tower with nothing but vines wrapped around their ankles. Yes, ceremony can take many forms.

While I specialize in honoring weddings (what I think of as the No. 3 spot in the all-important life changes challenge) I also officiate funerals, baby welcomings and occasionally other types of events. I recently performed a lovely renewal of vows, and I have also created interesting anniversary celebrations, blessing of animals, and community events. I even create secular confirmation programs and ceremonies.

A funeral or memorial service is another important milestone. Sometimes people choose to do something a few weeks or more after the person has died. It can be somewhat more uplifting, and also allows people time to make plans to travel. These are often called a “celebration of life” rather than a funeral. But some traditions do not allow for this. Devout Jews and Muslims are required to bury almost immediately after the death. However, this still wouldn’t preclude a celebration of the person at a later date, after the burial.

I know there are times when families skip a formal ceremony for the dead. The reasons for this are varied. Sometimes it is a discomfort with religion, especially if the deceased had given up on her or his faith, or the family has a mixture of beliefs and they are unsure how to handle that.

There could be costs that make it prohibitive or seem wasteful to the survivors.

There might be family dysfunction and no one wants to come together, especially if it feels like you are honoring someone who was not a good person. We know how people always say nice things about the dead, even if they don’t deserve it. These are tricky issues, but if you loved the person who has died, even without a formal ceremony, it is worthwhile to take some special time to honor that loss. As we often hear (and rightly so) — a funeral is for the living

Weddings are entirely different. Even elopements deserve to be properly honored. A wedding is a joyful time and the ceremony is meant to move everyone through this transition. The wedding ceremony honors the partner’s separate lives, their past, and the journey that led them to one another, then marks the moment of commitment, and takes them into their future as they walk down the aisle, beginning a new path, side by side.

Even for couples who have been together for years, it is still important. Getting married is meaningful at any time or stage in one’s life. There are so many good reasons to marry, including legal rights and science has shown that a healthy marriage promotes better and longer lives. And let’s remember if the couple getting married has children, it is also an important moment for them.

Big changes have always deserved recognition, and I believe they always will. I hope everyone realizes the importance of taking the time to do just that, in whatever way works for you. And of course, I’m happy to help if you need me.

Complete Article HERE!

How to Be Eco-Friendly When You’re Dead

Standard burial and cremation take tons of energy and resources. So what’s the most environmentally sound way to deal with a dead person?

By

When Phil Olson was 20, he earned money in the family business by draining the blood from corpses. Using a long metal instrument, he sucked the fluid out of the organs, and pumped the empty space and the arteries full of three gallons of toxic embalming fluid. This process drains the corpse of nutrients and prevents it from being eaten by bacteria, at least until it’s put into the ground. Feebly encased in a few pounds of metal and wood, it wasn’t long until all the fluid and guts just leaked back out.

Most of the bodies Olson prepared in his family’s funeral home would then be buried in traditional cemeteries, below a lawn of grass that must be mowed, watered, sprayed with pesticides, and used for nothing else, theoretically until the end of time.

Cemeteries “are kind of like landfills for dead bodies,” says Olson. Today, as a philosopher at Virginia Tech, his work looks at the alternatives to traditional funeral practices. He has a lot to think about: The environmentally friendly funeral industry is booming, as people begin to consider the impacts their bodies might have once they’re dead. Each year, a million pounds of metal, wood, and concrete are put in the ground to shield dead bodies from the dirt that surrounds them. A single cremation requires about two SUV tanks worth of fuel. As people become increasingly concerned with the environment, many of them are starting to seek out ways to minimize the impact their body has once they’re done using it.

There all kinds of green practices and products available these days on the so-called “death care” market. So many, in fact, that in 2005 Joe Sehee founded the Green Burial Council—a non-profit that keeps tabs on the green funeral industry, offering certifications for products and cemeteries. Sehee saw a need to prevent meaningless greenwashing in the green burial world. “It is a social movement. It’s also a business opportunity,” he said. So what’s the most environmentally friendly way to dispose of a body? It all depends on your preferences.

For those who still want to be be buried, a greener approach may include switching out the standard embalming fluids made of a combination of formaldehyde and rubbing alcohol, with ones made of essential oils. And instead of a heavy wood and metal box that will take years to degrade and leave behind toxic residue, there are now Green Burial Council-certified biodegradable cedar caskets.

Others are choosing to forgo the casket completely and opt for what’s called a “natural burial,” involving only a burlap sack buried in the woods. If you don’t have a forest handy, in some cities bodies may soon be placed in an industrial sized compost bin, and turned over to create fertile soil.

That’s the idea behind the Urban Death Project, which envisions a three-story downtown cemetery for bodies: a stylized pit of sorts, filled with carbon-rich material. Microbes decompose the bodies into a compost. It is a green practice, but not simply a utilitarian one: Urban Death Project bills itself as “a space for contemplation of our place in the natural world.” Bodies are “folded back into the communities where they have lived,” the website explains.

For those who might have opted for cremation rather than burial, there are green alternatives to that as well. Currently on the market is a method called “green cremation” that uses a pressurized metal chamber and bath of chemicals. The technique started out as a way to dispose of lab animals at Albany Medical College, and it is now legal for use on humans in just eight states.

In this method, also known as alkaline hydrolysis, bodies are dissolved into a liquid that is safe to flush into the sewage system. Overall, the process uses 90 percent less energy than traditional cremation—though it will skyrocket a funeral home’s water bills. “It uses a ton, a ton, of water,” says Olson. According to an alkaline hydrolysis system manufacturer, about 300 gallons per human body. Olson thinks recycled “grey water” could be used to cut down on the water waste. But he wonders: “Will families say, ‘I don’t want grandma dissolved in dirty dishwater’?”

Olson says that it’s not necessarily the green-ness of this new cremation that appeals to people. It’s how gentle it seems. “Burning grandma in fire seems to be violent,” he says. “In contrast, green cremation is ‘putting grandma in a warm bath.’”

And that perception is generally far more important to people than the eco-friendliness of the process. Even projects that put the environment front-and-center emphasize the feeling of a pleasant exit, and a lasting connection to the Earth.

So what does Sehee look for in a truly green burial? Something that works to actively conserve rural land. The council awards three leaves—the highest rating available—to burial plots that not only eschew embalming fluid and vaults, but double as conservation spaces. A three-leaved process does away with nearly every environmental concern related to burial and cremation and works to keep land free of development and pesticide.

Ultimately, which eco-friendly exit you choose is mostly about personal comfort. And if the choices seem daunting, it’s worth remembering: Even the most energy-intensive acts of burial pale in comparison to the carbon footprint you’re leaving right now.

Complete Article HERE!

Flipflops and tank tops, sockless in sandals…

and dying in Mexico

by Russ Hilderley

USA AND CANADIAN expats face a small mountain of paperwork should someone close to them die in Mexico. An even higher mountain of forms, certified translations, lists of possessions, is forced on loved ones left behind, should the deceased not have any type of ” Last Will and Testament.”

In 2019, 50,000 Canadians were living in Mexico. 182 died. 75% were from natural causes which likely does not include “seasoned” expats sidestepping sidewalk “cenotes”, tripping over abandonned building materials or struck by vehicular traffic while navigating uneven walkways and driveway indentations.

It would seem pedestrians are trampling on private sidewalks originally built by the abutting landholders, but never maintained by them. Uneven heights, slopes, broken curbs and the like can reak havoc on retirees who fly here and walk everywhere thereafter.

Two and a half million Canadians visited Mexico as tourists last year. A significant percentage are in the autumn years of their lives. They may be in Yucatan for six weeks or six months, to escape the colder climate “up north”! Snowbirds(as Canadians and residents from the northern U.S. are called) have an inherent duty to their families “back home”! All expats and tourists alike would be well advised to make it easier to cope, upon the death of a loved one. Important and critical personal information about the deceased must be available to the Mexican authorities from day one. Regardless of your country of origin, the burden is essentially the same.

The whole procedure following the death of an expat residing or visiting Mexico can be daunting for next of kin. The deceased’s identity must be thoroughly established in accordance with Mexican laws.

If the name on the birth certificate is even slightly different from their passport, the transition from one name to another MUST be explained and vertified accordingly. It is particularly cumbersome, should the deceased be a woman. Her birth name could be different through one or more marriages. In each step,the documentation will require translation to “Español” by a registered and authorized translator. The same rules apply to ALL documentation required. “The Last Will”, the identification of all possessions with current valuation held in Mexico by the deceased and the name(s) of next of kin who should be notified, must all be translated in to Spanish .

Expats are urged to maintain a special file back home, or here in Yucatan or Mexico. A designated family member or friend should be aware of this file and where it is stored. The”paperwork” could already be translated and certified. The “executor” of the expat’s estate should be identified with all neccessary contact information tucked away with the deceased passport .

Representatives from the Canadian Consulate in Cancun and similarly designated personnel from the USA Consulate in Merida, appeared before an overflow crowd of over 150 expats at Flamingos Restaurant on the Malecon in Progreso, last Tuesday January 14th,2020.

A funeral home in the Yucatan, is a primary step, to walk you through the process. Cremated remains can be exported within a day or two. A casket requires one or more weeks . The Funeral Director can not forward any valuables such as rings and other jewellry, computers etc..These must be claimed by the contact identified in the Will, or otherwise verifiable family.

Expats living in Yucatan as “Temporary or Permanent” residents should have the LONGFORM marriage certificate which is normally not issued but available in the State or Province where the marriage was performed. This document and your birth certificate should be carried with you as you travel.

Most travellers are optimistic and excited about spending their vacations and retirement without giving much thought to the consequences if they die abroad. Sure,they may have medical and life insurance but forget all the details and information required to repatriate their remains.

To use the now famous phrase quoting reknowned Woody Allen,when asked what would happen to his fortune when he dies, he replied: “If I can’t take it with me, I’m not going” !

We all wish it was that simple!

Complete Article HERE!

Startups Are Dying To Give You A Better Death

By Anes Alic

“Ashes to ashes, dust to dust,” no longer.

This phrase, generally used during burial ceremonies, suggests that every life will one day come to an end. Today, the flurry of startups businesses seeking to change timeless traditions is challenging even this. Now, one can obtain eternal life by becoming compost witnessing rebirth as a tree.

Traditional funerals, in the form of cremation, embalming and burial, are now giving way to new alternatives with the emergence of new funeral startups that aim to disrupt the overpriced services sector by offering something cheaper and better.

The market they are targeting is sizable. With nearly 2.6 million deaths every year in the United States, a new class of entrepreneur sees plenty of opportunity to innovate.

Considering the fact that 41.4 million Americans live below the poverty line and that 40 percent of US citizens cannot afford an unexpected expense of just $400, it is clear that a majority of Americans would be unable to absorb the average cost of a funeral, which sits at around $8000.

Due to the nature of the business (that everyone is bound to use the service at some point) it was long believed that nothing could jeopardize the funeral industry. Yet, due to the high cost and availability of cheaper alternatives, it seems that all sectors of the industry have been reporting losses over the past decade.

Currently, the coffins and caskets market is worth some $550 million, but that belies an annual decline rate of 3.6% over the last five years. That rate is expected to accelerate to about 4.1% in the next five years. Skilled embalmers have been particularly hard hit, with employment in that profession declining 28% in less than 10 years.

Back in 2015, cremation surpassed traditional burial rates across the country for the first time, largely because of consumer attempts to reduce costs associated with funerals.

However, for environmentally conscious Millennials, even cremation is out of the question because the process emits some 270,000 tons of carbon dioxide each year. That is equivalent to the CO2 from 22,000 homes, or the emissions of 50,000 cars.

Millennials, as tech-savvy and environmentally conscious consumers, are driving the popularization of “green burials”, which are both affordable and involve fewer synthetic chemicals.

Green burials cost an average of $2,000, which includes a plot and environmentally friendly casket. For those who desire even more eco- and wallet-friendly solutions, there is an option to ditch the tombstone and chose a GPS marker instead.

Composting is also on the rise as a unique way for one to give back to the planet more directly. The process involves sealing a body into a container with wood chips, alfalfa and hay and adding heat to stimulate microbial munching.

There are still a few legal issues to be resolved around the compost funeral, but the world’s first funeral home dedicated to composting human beings is set to open in 2021 in the state of Washington, the first state to legalize such services last year.

An even newer trend is the “tree burial” during which ashes are placed in the soil with a seed to plant a tree that won’t affect the tree’s natural DNA.

There are also green burial options that aren’t wallet-friendly, and far surpass the traditional funeral costs. One such option is the space burial in which ashes are launched into space via a rocket.

And how about Cryonics? At a cost of a minimum of tens of thousands of dollars, a handful of companies are willing to preserve a body in the hope that one day the technology will exist to bring the deceased back to life.

The funeral industry though it was immortal. It’s not. Today’s consumers, even beyond the grave, want options and startups are more than willing to give them those options.

Complete Article HERE!

The Rising Cost of Not Living

by Mona Chalabi

Jerry Burton was a frugal man. So frugal, in fact, that his possession of an organ donor card was motivated by his disdain for waste. While he was still in hospice care, Jerry made it clear to his son and daughter-in-law that they should shop around to get a good deal on his funeral. They did. In total, the transportation of Jerry’s body, the cremation, and the pickleball tournament that he wanted to be held before his service cost $695. Such bargains are a rarity in America’s modern funeral industry.

The median pricetag of a funeral in 2017 was $7,360—a cost that would take the typical US worker five months of labor to cover. Because of these high prices, many families are panicking at the same time that they are grieving. 

The death of Kara Killeen’s father was followed by calculations that provide a depressing tally of the average American’s struggles. Student debt bills meant that Kara and her sister had less money in the bank (and much of her dad’s retirement money had gone toward helping them cover those repayments, as well as the family’s mortgage). Limited care provision under Medicare meant that Kara’s mother had lost her job to look after her sick husband (and since her job had been writing for the local newspaper, there wasn’t exactly an abundance of new vacancies for her to apply for later). And, like many American families today, the Killeens don’t all live in the same city, so there were flights to think about, in addition to the funeral costs.

Fortunately, an aunt was able to cover Kara’s flight back from Scotland to Ohio. Unfortunately, the fact that Kara needed an intermediary in another time zone to book her travel meant that she made it back two days after her father’s death. Once reunited, the family looked at their funeral options; they were shocked at the prices they were hearing. A reception in a local bar where her dad had been a regular customer would cost $3,000, including catering. They could have held it at their family home for free, instead, but that wasn’t really viable: Kara had come back to discover the house where her mother had cared for her dying husband was a messy cross between a hospital and a home. An urn would have cost $275, programs $160, and an obituary $200, according to the latest averages from the National Funeral Directors Association.   

In the end, with her aunt’s financial support, Kara’s family was able to pay for the cheapest option available: Kara’s father was cremated and his remains were returned to the family in a plastic bag, and there was no funeral. The family still faced a bill for $2,000. “His final mark on the world was just to not have enough money,” Kara told me, bitterly. Funerals are supposed to be a chance to grieve, mourn, and begin the process of emotional recovery after a death; but when money is tight, they can feel like a second trauma. 

In the movies at least, funerals are a chance to meet old friends that you didn’t even know that your dearly departed had. To hear stories that you had never heard before. “You expect everyone to be there,” Kara said. We infer much about a life from a funeral. For no service to be held might imply some secret shame. A small gathering might indicate a lack of popularity. Cheap flowers suggest, well, cheapness. Each of these sentences could just as easily apply to another of life’s landmark social gatherings—weddings—except that marriage customs have changed faster than our death customs. 

It is a matter of personal prerogative whether a couple spends their life-savings on a Star Trek-themed extravaganza or just heads to city hall with two strangers pulled off the street to act as witnesses. That choice is more likely to be seen as a question of taste rather than of moral character. But when the social occasion requires people to be present to honor someone who is absent, then the rules change.  

The desire not to skimp (or at least, to be seen not skimping) leads us to make bad decisions according to Joshua Slocum, the executive director of the Funeral Consumers Alliance, a nonprofit watchdog. “It’s a distressed purchase,” he explained. “No one wants to buy a funeral.” Our decisions are clouded, not just by grief but by the fact that there is no requirement for funeral homes to email you a pricelist or post one on their website. “I can’t think of any other business sector that doesn’t allow you to shop around,” Slocum added. So families will simply choose whichever funeral home they used the last time they had to hold a service. 

What those families rarely realize is that their local funeral home, once run as a “mom-and-pop” family business, is now probably owned by a Wall Street firm. Service Corporation International, or SCI, for example, operates 1,477 funeral service locations and 483 cemeteries across the country, and is worth $13.3 billion (for comparison, the countrywide clothing chain Gap Inc. is worth $8 billion). Shareholders expect dividends and they have to come from somewhere: according to Slocum, SCI charges between 40 percent and 75 percent more for its services than independent funeral homes do. 

The price of dying is also high because there are simply too many funeral homes. Slocum gives me the example of Montpelier in Vermont, the smallest state capital (by population) in the country. The city has two fully serviced funeral homes that, between them, handle an average of seventy-six deaths a year. These businesses have to keep prices high if they want to cover their mortgages and pay their staff. 

I asked Slocum why he became involved in funeral consumers’ rights. He replied simply, “I love Mitford.” It was after reading Jessica Mitford’s classic muckraking polemic on the American funeral industry, The American Way of Death (originally published in 1963), that he became fascinated by the industry and wanted to know more. Little of substance has really changed in the business since Mitford’s book was published except for the escalating prices. Back in 1960, the cost of a funeral was around $700—still a considerable amount of money in real terms, amounting to about seven weeks of a typical worker’s wages at that time (as noted above, by the same measure, today’s figure is at least twenty weeks).

Funeral charges have risen for the same reason that prices have always risen: a disconnect between demand and supply. For a combination of reasons—cost, changing mores, and environmental concerns—more consumers now want their remains and those of their relatives to be burned rather than buried, but the US funeral industry is largely stuck in the past. In fairness, this cultural change has come relatively quickly: in 1960, when Mitford was researching her study, just one in twenty-eight people who died in the US were cremated; today, it’s one in two—half of all funerals. Yet mortician schools still place a heavy emphasis on embalming skills, and more than two thirds of states (thirty-six out of fifty) require funeral establishments to maintain an embalming room (or access to an embalming preparation room); and nearly half of states require a funeral director to be a certified embalmer. Those laws directly contribute to higher prices. In a study published last year, two economists at Kenyon College in Ohio, David E. Harrington and Jaret Treber, calculated that embalming regulations in New York State cost consumers an additional $25.8 million each year.

Although American business traditionally hates regulations, regulating how companies handle and dispose of cadavers makes sense—there are too many public health and public safety considerations involved, let alone consumer rights, for this to be otherwise. “Now, death is seen as an emergency: a dead body has this association of being a biohazard,” explained Caitlin Doughty, who started working in deathcare in 2008 and today owns and runs Undertaking LA. This contrasts sharply with the way a decease was handled 150 years ago, in a pre-industrial era. “Death was a domestic task,” she said. “The women would prepare the body, the men would prepare the casket.”

States began to legislate to control funeral directors around the same time they set professional standards to govern doctors and lawyers, in the mid-nineteenth century. The main aim was to protect the vulnerable—in this case, the bereaved—from charlatans. But many state laws about deathcare now appear outdated or nonsensical. Four states prohibit funeral homes from serving food and beverages entirely, and in New Jersey until very recently, homes could only serve water and peppermints (it is unclear whether such rules arose for reasons of decorum or public hygiene). In five states, funeral directors have exclusive rights to sell caskets, in effect a protectionist measure that blocks cheaper competition—such as Amazon’s “Premium Cardboard Coffin for Adult Funeral,” for just $235.

The outlook seems bleak for customers with few choices and facing high costs. But after sixteen years working in funeral consumer rights advocacy, Slocum doesn’t see it quite this way. “There are two sides to issues like this,” he argues, “and in order to make funerals that are affordable, you need to have both oversight of the industry by the government, but you also need consumers that act with agency rather than being helpless victims.”

It is difficult, though, to think of any other purchase that is quite so unavoidable as paying for a funeral, nor one that demands decision-making at a time when emotional distress is a given. One way to feel empowered in the way that Slocum suggests is to lean, if you can, on your community.

Askia Toure and his two sisters, Sakina and Zahira, were able to turn to the Islamic Society of Greater Houston, Texas, when their mother died of uterine cancer in 2015. The society helped Sakina, who was the only sibling that lived close to her mother when she died, to wash and shroud her mother’s body according to Islamic practice. Two days later, their mother was placed in a plot she had pre-chosen. “That’s how we’ve been raised,” Askia said, “to bury each other with dignity as soon as possible for the least amount of pain or debt inflicted on those who are still here.” When families can’t cover the cost, the community that makes up the membership of the Islamic Society pitches in. Even before Askia’s mother died, the society’s members had contributed to cover the medical costs of her final illness, using a crowdsourcing page. 

Crowdfunding for the funerals themselves is now common. Just one site alone, Go Fund Me, boasts that every year it raises $330 million for some 125,000 memorials (a level of contributions that averages out at $2,640, about a third of the typical funeral’s costs). These sites are especially important for families like the Toures because black American households have less wealth than any other racial or ethnic group in the country. When a large, one-off expense like a funeral needs to be paid, the choice facing such families is often brutally simple: ask for help or sell the car.

Even with a community behind you, bargain-hunting is still important. Non-funeral home options are still limited—and, in fact, can often be even more expensive. You can, it is true, order a cardboard casket from Amazon for as little as $235, but then what? Most states have strict laws about where and how you can dispose of a body. Shopping around for professional funeral services is still the better option for most people. “You can find prices that range from $700 to $4,000 for the same basic service,” said Slocum. “The grief will come, but the terror [of financial ruin] doesn’t have to.”

Funerals are hard because they force us to manage a very practical matter that is simultaneously a profoundly emotional one—to make arrangements amid tumultuous feelings. One thing that can help is to have talked to a loved one before she dies about the kind of funeral she’d want. When it was time for the conversation that Jerry Burton wanted about his desire for a cheap send-off, his daughter-in-law, Melody Burton, a marketing and communications manager from Gresham, Oregon, was apprehensive. But it turned out to be a blessing, not a trauma. “You don’t get to talk about things that are so deeply personal like that very often,” she told me. “It was a beautiful time.”

Complete Article HERE!