05/11/17

The Life of a Death Midwife

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Helping people through the dying process

By Claire Fordham

Olivia Bareham

Olivia Bareham wants to change people’s perception about death. “I want to break the taboo where we are excited about birth but dread death,” the death midwife said. “What if they were both explosive, incredible events?”

Part of a death midwife’s job is to sit with the dying at the end of their life. “To be able to bear witness to their dying process,” said Bareham. “The midwife is also looking beyond the last breath. We hold the space, not just for dying but for the funeral, burial or cremation rituals and even beyond that, to help the family and friends grieve.”

It’s hard to accept a terminal diagnosis.

“Some people can’t believe they are dying,” Bareham said. “It is unbelievable. It’s unbelievable that we’re even here. Once you play with the idea of the unbelievable-ness of everything, it’s not so unbelievable that you’re dying.”

Bareham believes a funeral or celebration of life service and properly grieving are important parts of the process.

“It’s declaring that the lost loved one counted and mattered and meant something to those left behind,” she said. “If you miss that, it’s sad, but perhaps it’s even more sad for the family and friends who have lost an opportunity to lean into their own mortality.”


Loved ones decorate a simple casket for a home funeral. Wooden caskets are also available. This cardboard one holds up to 200 lbs. weight.

Bareham has this advice for the living and dying: “Build a relationship with death. Befriend death. Be open to every little nuance of what it means to be alive — which includes pain, sorrow and loss — so you’re not thrown off by a catastrophe. Write your healthcare directive and death care directive because you never know when the end will come. And make peace with anyone with whom you have had conflict.”

All passings are different and not everyone gets a terminal diagnosis where they have time to plan their final moments. Having helped more than 200 people in and around Malibu as they die, or arranged their home funeral, Bareham has an idea how she’d like her own death to be.


Learning to lay a body in honor on a Death Midwife course. One of the attendees plays the body here.

“Some people want to be left alone at the moment of death. I wouldn’t mind having people in the room with me, but I wouldn’t want them touching me and close to the bed. Having a dear friend who totally gets me sitting vigil and holding the space is an anchoring that makes the dying feel safe.”

Just as there’s a popular movement toward natural childbirth, Bareham prefers the idea of a natural death. She isn’t saying don’t ever take morphine to help ease any pain, but suggests not taking so much that you aren’t aware of what’s going on. She may not want someone holding her hand or stroking her head at the end, “or telling me it’s OK to go,” she said, but is happy to do that for others, if that’s what they want.

For Bareham, a good death would be where she is aware of what is happening, where she is prepared and feels a sense of completion and fulfillment of the life lived — “so my dying is just another breath. I am ready and excited for what’s next.”

Bareham advises against waiting until you know you’re dying to forgive people who have hurt you or ask forgiveness of those you might have hurt. “It happens so quickly, and then you’re lost and scrambling. Try to stay in a state of consciousness that if death came, if a massive earthquake hit right now, you’d have a level of excitement,” she said.

People from all walks of life complete Bareham’s death midwifery course. “More young people in their 20s are doing it because they feel something is missing in our culture regarding death,” she described. “Some have been volunteering at a hospice, or are social workers. Others are intrigued with the idea that after the last breath, you can keep the body at home for three days and arrange a home funeral. Or they’ve had a horrible experience of death and are looking for healing.”

Bareham, who is fighting fit and looking forward to a long life, doesn’t find her career depressing.

“Death is just another chapter in life’s journey,” she said

Complete Article HERE!

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03/28/17

Is there really life after death?

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Brain activity is recorded 10 MINUTES after patient dies in an ‘unexplained’ case

Scientists from from the University of Western Ontario in Canada studied the extraordinary case of a patient continuing to release delta wave bursts after they were declared dead. We normally get these delta waves during a deep sleep

By Phoebe Weston

Life may continue even after death – just in sleep mode.

Doctors have found scientific evidence that people’s brains can continue to work after they are clinically dead.

A patient showed persistent brain activity for ten minutes after their heart stopped and experienced brain waves we normally get during deep sleep.

Doctors in a Canadian intensive care unit described the case as extraordinary and unexplained.

Researchers from the University of Western Ontario in Canada assessed electric impulses in the brain in relation to the beating of someone’s heart after life-sustaining therapy was removed.

Brain inactivity preceded the heart stopping in three of the four cases.

However, in one of the cases, the patient’s brain continued to work after their heart stopped.

‘In one patient, single delta wave bursts persisted following the cessation of both the cardiac rhythm and arterial blood pressure (ABP),’ the researchers said

There was significant differences in electrical activity in the brain between the 30-minute period before and the 5-minute period after the heart stopped.

‘It is difficult to posit a physiological basis for this EEG [brain] activity given that it occurs after a prolonged loss of circulation’, according to the paper which was published in the National Centre for Biotechnology Information.

Across the four patients recordings of their brain were very different – suggesting we all experience death in unique ways.

The experiment raises difficult questions about when someone is dead and therefore when it is medically and ethically correct to use them for organ donation.

As many as a fifth of people who survive cardiac arrests report having had an other-worldly experience while being ‘clinically’ dead.

However, scientists say it’s far too early to be talking about what this could mean for the post-death experience – especially considering it was only seen in one patient, according to Science Alert.

In 2013, a similar phenomenon was investigated on experiments on rats whose hearts had stopped.

In one of the cases, single delta wave bursts persisted after the heart had stopped and the patient was clinically dead. The experiment raises difficult questions about when someone is dead and therefore when it is medically and ethically correct to use them for organ donation

The research, which was published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences revealed rats had a burst of brain activity one minute after decapitation.

The pattern of activity was similar to that seen when the animals were fully conscious – except signals were up to eight times stronger.

The researchers said that the discovery that the brain is highly active in the seconds after the heart stops suggests that the phenomenon has a physical, rather than spiritual nature.

It has been argued that the dying brain is incapable of such complex activity and so near-death experiences must have their origins in the soul.

It suggests something happens at the brink of death that pushes the conscious brain to a high level of arousal, potentially triggering the visions and sensations associated with near-death experiences (NDEs).

As many as a fifth of people who survive cardiac arrests report having had an other-worldly experience while being ‘clinically’ dead.

Typically NDEs involve travelling through a tunnel towards an intense light, being separated from the body, encountering long-departed loved ones or angels and undergoing some kind of judgment of ‘life review.

Some emerge from NDEs as transformed individuals with a completely altered outlook on life, or a new belief in religion.

But many scientists believe near-death-experiences are nothing more than hallucinations induced by the effect of the brain shutting down.

Complete Article HERE!

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03/18/17

For first time, chimpanzee observed performing funeral rites for dead as mother cleans the body of ‘Thomas’

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By Sarah Knapton

A chimpanzee has been filmed using tools to apparently clean the corpse of its adopted offspring, the first hint that animals other than humans may have mortuary practices.

The female, Noel, was seen at the Chimfunshi Wildlife Orphanage Trust in Zambia using a stem of grass to remove debris from the teeth of a nine-year-old male, Thomas, which she had looked after since the death of its mother four years earlier.

She was one of a number of chimps that surrounded the body for around 20 minutes, gently touching and sniffing Thomas despite offers of food to lure them away. Noel stayed on its own to clean the teeth of its adopted son, even when the others had left.

Dr. Edwin van Leeuwen, of St. Andrews University, lead author of the study, published in the journal Scientific Reports, said: “Noel approached Thomas’s body, sat down close to his head, turned her upper body sideways to select a hard piece of grass, put the grass in her mouth, and opened Thomas’ mouth with both of her hands.

Chimpanzees gather around the body of Thomas, a nine-year-old who died of pneumonia.

“Then she wrapped her fingers around Thomas’s chin and jaw, and used her thumbs to explore his teeth. After three seconds, she took the grass out of her mouth with her right hand, while maintaining focused grip on Thomas’s mouth with her left hand, and started to meticulously poke the grass in the same dental area as where her thumbs had been.

“This behaviour has never been reported in chimpanzees or any other non-human animal species. Chimpanzees may form long-lasting social bonds and like humans, may handle corpses in a socially meaningful way.”

Nina, Noel’s adolescent daughter, stayed at its mother’s side and observed the cleaning efforts.

The researchers say Noel might have been trying to understand how Thomas had died. She was seen tasting the debris she picked from his teeth. A post mortem found Thomas had most likely died from a combination of a viral and bacterial lung infection.

Complete Article HERE!

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03/15/17

A Man’s Primer on Funeral Etiquette

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“How we treat the dead says an awful lot about how we live. For the strong and able to serve the helpless dead, to honor frail remains, reaches deep inside us to something basic to humanity.” -Paul Gregory Alms

By Brett & Kate McKay

Funeral etiquette. Unless you’re preparing to attend a funeral, it’s a subject that almost never crosses your mind. As a younger person, funerals tend to be few and far between. It’s possible to make it into your 20s without ever attending one. The sporadic nature of funerals, and the general absence of discussion of the subject in our culture, makes it hard to learn what’s expected in terms of proper behavior. You just muddle through each funeral, hoping you’re doing the right thing, and then muddle through it again the next time.

But being a gentleman of tact, respect, and sensitivity is never more important than at the occasion of someone’s death. Instead of adding distractions and stress to the already grievously burdened, be a source of great comfort. People are at their most fragile, and your job as a man of honor is to be supportive and dignified.

Condolence Visits

If you are a family member or close friend of the family of the deceased, pay a visit to their home to express your sympathy and offer your help.

Before a wake, bring over a platter of cold cuts and rolls; the family will be hungry afterwards and not want to cook. Or bring over some pastries that they can eat on the morning of the funeral. You can also offer to watch the kiddos while they run some errands. It seems like the women folk often take on these responsibilities, but there’s no reason that the modern man can’t also lend a hand.

During your visits, it’s appropriate to offer your sympathy and share your fond memories of the deceased. There’s no need to stay too long; if it seems that you’re actually getting in the way, then drop off what you brought, chat for a few minutes and leave. Of course, if they’re alone and clearly need a listening ear, then stay longer.

If you don’t feel close enough to the deceased’s family to come to their home, wait until the wake to offer your personal condolences.

Flowers

Sending flowers is a traditional way to express your condolences. You can send flowers to the funeral home, to the church, or to the deceased’s family’s home. The card attached to the flowers should read, “With Deepest Sympathy” along with your name. If you’re sending them to the church itself for use in the service, include “For the funeral of ____” on the address. Some families ask for donations in lieu of flowers, and you should honor this request.

When it comes to sending flowers and different faith traditions, there are some considerations to be aware of:

  • Some Protestant churches use only one flower arrangement-offered by the family-in the service.
  • Do not send flowers to an Orthodox Jewish service. The policy amongst Reform and Conservative Jews varies.
  • For a Catholic family, consider getting the family a mass card in lieu of flowers. You don’t have to be Catholic to get a mass card. You make a donation to the Church, and in turn, the Church promises to say prayers or a mass on behalf of the soul of the deceased. The mass card says when the mass will take place, and you can give the card to the deceased family. For fellow Catholics, purchasing a mass card is a gesture of faith, compassion, and solidarity. For non-Catholics, sending a mass card shows your understanding, respect, and thoughtfulness.

The Wake

A wake takes place before the actual funeral service and is usually held in the evening. If you cannot make it to the funeral, it is a good opportunity to come and support the deceased’s family. The wake may be held in someone’s home or at the funeral parlor. When you arrive, first offer your sympathy to the grieving family. This is the reason for the wake, really. It gives the family an opportunity to hear from family and loved ones when they’re prepared to deal with it and in the grieving mindset. They get it all over in a night instead of having people offering their condolences at work, at the gym, and at the grocery store-over and over, in places where they’d rather not have the emotion come rushing back and hit them like a ton of bricks.

Unless you’re close to the family, be sure to clearly introduce yourself to them and tell them how you know the deceased. Don’t leave them awkwardly trying to place who you are.

Don’t worry about not knowing what to say or being emotional. Neither eloquence nor stoicism is expected.

If the casket is present, take a moment to stand by it, saying a prayer or thinking of the deceased’s life. Then you may mingle with the other guests. You don’t have to stay too long-just long enough to make your presence felt and pay your respects. Be sure to sign the register with your name and address before you head out, as the family may wish to look it over later and/or send you a note of thanks.

The Funeral

Should You Come?

Unless the death notice that appears in the paper says that the funeral is private, or you hear that it is such, any of the deceased’s acquaintances, friends, co-workers, and family can attend the funeral.

If you’re the divorced husband of the deceased, you should almost always come. The same for the passing of an ex-girlfriend with whom you had a long or meaningful relationship. Unless the acrimony between you and your former love (or her family) approaches the level of the Hatfields and McCoys, and your presence would cause them further grief, or you hear specifically from the family that you are not welcome, attending the funeral is entirely appropriate. In times of grief, old differences are forgotten and all that matters is that you were once an important person in the deceased’s life. Be warm and supportive and don’t bring up any bad blood.

“Always go to the funeral” is an excellent motto for a man to adopt. Yes, going to funerals isn’t fun. They can be boring, somber, inconvenient and emotional affairs. You may feel awkward. But fun is the yardstick that boys use to make decisions. When you become a man, you do things because they’re right and good, and because your desire to serve others supersedes your own comfort.

It may be tempting to rationalize that the person is dead and won’t know if you’re there or not. But funerals are not for the dead, they are for the living. One of the few comforts available to the grieving is to see a full church, the pews packed with people who also care for and remember the deceased. There is power in that show of humanity. The family knows that attending a funeral is inconvenient, and that’s why they’ll never forget that you came anyway.

If you absolutely cannot come to the funeral, be sure to write the family of the deceased a sympathy note which includes your regret on not being able to make it.

Where to Sit

There’s kind of a progressive seating pattern with funerals; family sits in the first pews, followed by close friends, with acquaintances and co-workers farther back.

Dress Code

When we think of funerals, the first image that often leaps to mind is that of people dressed in black. While black is still the traditional color for funerals, this standard has loosened up in modern times to include other dark, conservative clothing. Still, the best way to go is donning a black suit, white shirt, conservative tie, and well-shined black shoes.

I know there are contingents of men who generally don’t see the point in dressing up and believe that real men dress however they want. But this is one time where no matter how rebellious you fancy yourself, you need to sack up and put on your best duds. Death is life’s most solemn occasion, and the inability to put aside comfort and personal preference to show your utmost respect for the end of a life is inexcusable.

Being a Pallbearer

Being a pallbearer is a traditionally male job. The family will typically choose six men to attend the casket (sometimes “honorary pallbearers” -who have a strictly symbolic role-are also chosen). The invitation to be a pallbearer is a great honor and one you cannot refuse except for the most serious of reasons. It’s like the somber flip side of being asked to be a groomsmen.

The job of the pallbearer was once a functional one; they were charged with carrying the coffin from the church to the cemetery. Now the role is almost entirely symbolic. The casket is typically set on a rolling cart, and you just put your hand on it as it rolls, only lifting it up when it is time to load and unload it from the hearse.

If you are chosen to be a pallbearer, come to funeral about 30 minutes early and find the funeral director. He or she will gives you instructions on what will be expected of you-where to gather, when to come into the church, and in which row to sit.

You should be dressed well at a funeral anyway, but if you are asked to be a pallbearer, make an extra effort to look presentable and respectful.

Perhaps the most famous historical pallbearer story involves Southern Civil War General Joseph E. Johnston. Johnston had surrendered to General Sherman at the end of the war and had been so impressed with that man’s magnanimity that he would not allow an unkind thing to be said about his former enemy for the rest of his life. When Sherman died, Johnston was asked to be a pallbearer in the General’s funeral. As is common for a public figure, Sherman’s funeral procession proceeded through the streets of New York City. Johnston walked alongside the casket with his hat in his hand. The freezing temperatures and rain caused fellow mourners to advise Johnston to return his hat to his head. Johnston replied, “If I were in his place and he standing here in mine, he would not put on his hat.” He soon came down with pneumonia and died several week’s later.

Be sure to check out this excellent article on the symbolic importance of being a pallbearer.

Additional Considerations

It should go without saying, but for the love of TR, turn off your cell phone during the funeral. Don’t be texting and checking your Blackberry during the service. This is the very last time this person will ask for your undivided attention. Also, having your Lil Wayne ringtone go off during the eulogy will brand you a cad for life.

Be civil, don’t come in late, don’t leave early. If you come with kids, and they cause a fuss, take em’ outside.

Driving in the Funeral Procession

Funeral processions are one of the few remaining outward signs of death in this society.

After the funeral, everyone will get in their cars and proceed as a group to the cemetery. The cars will follow behind the hearse. Turn on your headlights and emergency blinkers and closely follow the car in front of you. The procession will drive slower than the speed limit. If the procession starts through a light while it’s green and it turns red by the time you get to it, keep on going. State laws allow funeral processions to drive through red lights and stop signs.

As a normal driver, when you come upon a funeral procession, do your best to let them pass and stay together. Don’t try to cut into the procession. If safe, pull to the side of the road and let the line keep going. In the old days, men got out of their cars and doffed their hats while the procession passed. Probably too dangerous on our modern thoroughfares, but a nice thought.

Post Funeral Luncheon

Many families host a luncheon at their home after the graveside service. It’s a time to be a little more light hearted than is expected at the wake or funeral and share a laugh as you reminisce about the deceased.

Follow-Up

Perhaps the most important part of “funeral etiquette” is not to let your consideration for those in mourning be a one day affair. After all the hoopla of funeral planning is over, the grief and reality of the loss of a loved one will really set in for the family and friends of the deceased.

So don’t forget about them in the weeks and months after the funeral. Stop by and give them a call. Invite them out for social gatherings. They may say no for some time, but they’ll eventually reach the point where they’re ready to go back out, and they’ll be grateful that you kept thinking of them.

Call your friend or family member on the anniversary of their loved one’s death. They’ll appreciate that you still remember and continue to acknowledge their passing.

Complete Article HERE!

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03/12/17

Mysterious ‘crouched’ burials in remote Siberia hint to the practice of ritualistic sacrifices

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Fours individuals had been buried at a medieval site in a crouched position.

By

Many questions about the burials remain unanswered

During the excavation of a medieval archaeological site in a remote region of Siberia, archaeologists claim to have found the remains of four individuals buried in a crouched position. Such a strange burial had never been seen before in the region, and potentially denotes the practice of ritualistic sacrifices.

The discovery, reported by the Siberian Times, was made at the Yur-Yakha III site, which dates back to the 11th century and is located in the Yamal region in Northwestern Siberia. An analysis of the skeletal remains has indicated that three women and one man had been buried there.

Two of the women appeared to have been in their late teens or early twenties when they died. The man was thought to have been older, in his forties or fifties. All bear signs of having suffered from diseases.

“It’s hard to name all of their conditions, but for example we have found evidence for shoulder dislocation, teeth anomalies, sinusitis, post-partum trauma of the sacrum…”, lead archaeologist Andrei Plekhanov explained.

“It’s hard to say if this was normal for the period. The medical expert Evgenia Svyatova, who examined the skeletons said that the disorders were quite typical for that time, yet for four burials, it is a very large number of diseases”.

All appeared to be malnourished, an unsurprising discovery considering the harsh conditions they would have lived in.

Fire and mysterious rites

But despite having collected these important information, the team remains puzzled by the mysterious burials. They have yet to find convincing evidence to determine why the deceased had been laid to rest crouching.

The male remains suggest his body had been partially burnt after death

And the mystery deepened as the researchers conducted more investigations at the site. Their analyses have shown that the man’s body was set on fire after death – another ritual that was never documented previously in the medieval necropolises of the region.

“We can be sure that he did not die in the fire. His dead body was set on fire but not a very strong one. His bones remained almost intact, the fire damaged mostly soft tissues. At the moment, we do not know why they were buried this way, nor the significance of this,” Plekhanov, who works with the Arctic Research Centre of the Yamalo-Nenets autonomous region, said.

The team has hypothesised that the unique nature of these burials point to ritualistic sacrifices but it is also possible that these were just funerary rites specific to a particular local cultural group and that they simply had not been identified before.

Many artefacts, such as this one used to remove snow were found buried with the deceased

More excavation work is now scheduled to take place to learn more about the burials. The archaeologists will also focus on analysing the many objects that were recovered with the remains.

One of the women was buried with bronze bracelet bearing the image of a bear as well as a knife with a bronze handle, a tanning scraper, bronze and silver pendants, a ring and a ‘yangach’ – an object for removing snow from clothes. Fragments of pottery were also recovered. All these artefacts, recovered from the deceased in their afterlife, could provide new clues about the burial rituals of the region, in the Middle Ages.

Complete Article HERE!

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02/12/17

Broken pebbles offer clues to Paleolithic funeral rituals

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Pebbles were refitted during analysis.

Humans may have ritualistically “killed” objects to remove their symbolic power, some 5,000 years earlier than previously thought, a new international study of marine pebble tools from an Upper Paleolithic burial site in Italy suggests.

Researchers at Université de Montréal, Arizona State University and University of Genoa examined 29 pebble fragments recovered in the Caverna delle Arene Candide on the Mediterranean Sea in Liguria. In their study, published online Jan. 18 in the Cambridge Archeological Journal, they concluded that some 12,000 years ago the flat, oblong pebbles were brought up from the beach, used as spatulas to apply ochre paste to decorate the dead, then broken and discarded.

The intent could have been to “kill” the tools, thereby “discharging them of their symbolic power” as objects that had come into contact with the deceased, said the study’s co-author Julien Riel-Salvatore, an associate professor of anthropology at UdeM who directed the excavations at the site that yielded the pebbles.

The Arene Candide is a hockey-rink-sized cave containing a necropolis of some 20 adults and children. It is located about 90 metres above the sea in a steep cliff overlooking a limestone quarry. First excavated extensively in the 1940s, the cave is considered a reference site for the Neolithic and Paleolithic periods in the western Mediterranean. Until now, however, no one had looked at the broken pebbles.

Possible use of the pebbles: retoucher or hammer.

“If our interpretation is correct, we’ve pushed back the earliest evidence of intentional fragmentation of objects in a ritual context by up to 5,000 years,” said the study’s lead author Claudine Gravel-Miguel, a PhD candidate at Arizona State’s School of Human Evolution and Social Change, in Tempe. “The next oldest evidence dates to the Neolithic period in Central Europe, about 8,000 years ago. Ours date to somewhere between 11,000 and 13,000 years ago, when people in Liguria were still hunter-gatherers.”

No matching pieces to the broken pebbles were found, prompting the researchers to hypothesize that the missing halves were kept as talismans or souvenirs. “They might have signified a link to the deceased, in the same way that people today might share pieces of a friendship trinket, or place an object in the grave of a loved one,” Riel-Salvatore said. “It’s the same kind of emotional connection.”

Between 2008 and 2013, the researchers painstakingly excavated in the Arene Candide cave immediately east of the original excavation using small trowels and dental tools, then carried out microscopic analysis of the pebbles they found there. They also scoured nearby beaches in search of similar-looking pebbles, and broke them to see if they compared to the others, trying to determine whether they had been deliberately broken.

Claudine Gravel-Miguel is with anthropologist Vitale Stefano Sparacello at the Arene Candide site in 2011.

“This demonstrates the underappreciated interpretive potential of broken pieces,” the new study concludes. “Research programs on Paleolithic interments should not limit themselves to the burials themselves, but also explicitly target material recovered from nearby deposits, since, as we have shown here, artifacts as simple as broken rocks can sometimes help us uncover new practices in prehistoric funerary canons.”

 

The findings could have implications for research at other Paleolithic sites where ochre-painted pebbles have been found, such as the Azilian sites in the Pyrenee mountains of northern Spain and southern France. Broken pebbles recovered during excavations often go unexamined, so it might be worth going back and taking a second look, said Riel-Salvatore.

“Historically, archeologists haven’t really looked at these objects – if they see them at a site, they usually go ‘Oh, there’s an ordinary pebble,’ and then discard it with the rest of the sediment,” he said. “We need to start paying attention to these things that are often just labeled as rocks. Something that looks like it might be natural might actually have important artifactual meaning.”

Complete Article HERE!

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02/4/17

More funeral homes offer green burials

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Gloria and Reggie Weiss of Spring Township page through information about pre-arranging a green burial.

By Jeff McGaw

Reggie and Gloria Weiss love fat, vine-ripened tomatoes; healthy, homegrown asparagus; and good, wormy soil.

They prefer dirt-covered garden gloves to jewelry, mulch their food scraps, conserve water and are partial to a good natural fertilizer – especially, Gloria said, the kind goats make.With reverence for the environment, and appreciation for these simple things in life, the Weisses have made a decision to keep things simple in death.

The Spring Township couple have pre-arranged a green or natural burial.They are among a growing number of Americans who, out of what the National Funeral Directors Association calls “a deepening eco-consciousness,” have abandoned the modern American way of death in which the departed, nattily-clad and chemically preserved, are placed in expensive hardwood or shimmering steel coffins; lowered into one-ton reinforced concrete burial vaults; and, after the clods fall, are memorialized with massive granite or marble headstones.

More adults interested

Natural, or green, burials honor the rituals that are important to people, but without glitzy, synthetic trappings associated with modern funerals.

They are a way of caring for the dead with minimal environmental impact, according to the Green Burial Council based in Ojai, Calif.A 2015 study by the Funeral and Memorial Information Council showed 64 percent of adults 40 and older said they would be interested in green funeral options, compared with 43 percent in 2010.The funeral and burial industry is starting to take notice.Last summer, Gethsemane, a Catholic cemetery in Muhlenberg Township, became the first cemetery in Berks to offer a dedicated green burial section. That means no metal. No embalming fluid. No burial vault. No ashes.About an hour northeast of Reading, Green Meadow at Fountain Hill, in Salisbury Township, became Lehigh County’s first green cemetery when, in 2011, it dedicated a half acre of its 13 total acres to green burials.An hour west or Reading, Paxtang Cemetery in Paxtang Borough near Harrisburg reserved 12 of its 34 acres for green burials, and even had it zoned conservation to prevent future development.An hour southeast of Reading, West Laurel Hill Cemetery in Lower Merion Township was a regional pioneer in the green movement when it set aside an acre for green burials in 2008.

Earth-friendly caskets

Kuhn Funeral Home in West Reading, and Milkins Giles in Muhlenberg Township, stock caskets made of woven bamboo along with their traditional casket of steel and wood. Most funeral homes can easily attain and offer eco-friendly caskets to families, and families can purchase them directly from manufacturers.

Don Byrne, a native of Annville, Lebanon County, lives in Chatham, N.C., where he owns and operates Piedmont Pine Coffins. Using only non-power hand tools, Byrne makes each coffin with tongue-and-groove planks and dove-tail corners. Though his coffins are not used exclusively for green burials, he said the green movement has contributed to his workload.”They find that the simplicity of a pine matches something in the life or personality of their loved one,” Byrne said.His coffins, each requiring about 25 hours of labor, sell for about $1,800. Piedmont Pine Coffins is one of about 400 Green Burial Council-certified product makers, 399 more than existed in 2005.

Embalming

Modern-day funeral and burial practices, which have their origins in the American Civil War, veered well away from the biblical notion of ashes to ashes and dust to dust.

Battlefield surgeons and others began embalming dead soldiers during the Civil War as a way to preserve the bodies during transport from battlegrounds to their homes hundreds of miles away. The practice was also useful in combating a gruesome phenomenon known as exploding casket syndrome, caused by a buildup of gases inside the coffin during decomposition. Some 40,000 Civil War soldiers were embalmed of the estimated nearly 650,000 who were killed.The funeral of Abraham Lincoln helped popularize the practice of embalming and set the tone for elaborate farewells, historians say.On April 19, 1865, four days after his death, Abraham Lincoln’s body began a 1,654-mile odyssey that took him from the White House and the Capitol in Washington to his final resting place in Springfield, Ill. The trip included stops in several towns and cities, including Harrisburg, Philadelphia, New York, Buffalo, Cleveland, Indianapolis and Chicago. At each major stop, the coffin was moved to a central viewing place and then opened so that mourners could pay their final respects.

Down with the dead

In addition to embalming chemicals, a lot of wood, steel and concrete goes down with the dead.

“For all its verdant landscaping, the typical cemetery functions less like a bucolic resting ground for the dead than a landfill for the materials that infuse and encase them,” wrote Bethlehem-based environmental journalist Mark Harris, author of a book called “Grave Matters” and a leading advocate of green burial practices.A one-acre section of cemetery, with about 1,250 people buried, will contain 3,750 gallons of formaldehyde-based preservative, 187,500 board feet of wood for coffins and 2.5 million pounds of concrete. If steel coffins are used, and they are used often, that would roughly equal 162,500 pounds of steel, more if heavier gauge steel is selected.There are 2,728 cemeteries in Pennsylvania. The Charles Evans Cemetery, one of the most historic cemeteries in Berks County, measures about 120 acres, and more than 70,000 people are interred there. Gethsemane Cemetery in Muhlenberg has about 70 acres, and 32,000 are buried there.Arlington National Cemetery, arguably the nation’s most revered cemetery, is 625 acres.The funeral industry is estimated to be worth $20 billion with about 2.4 million funerals held each year, according to Sara J. Marsden, editor-in-chief for U.S. Funerals Online.The National Funeral Directors Association published the median cost of an adult funeral, with viewing and a burial at $8,508 nationally. According to www.funeral.com, the cost of a traditional funeral, which includes basic fees, transfer of body, embalming or refrigeration, body preparation, viewing and visitation, graveside service and the casket or coffin, ranges from $7,000 to $10,000.”There’s a desire in many areas of our lives to lessen our impact on the globe,” said Jessica Koth of the National Funeral Directors Association.

‘A natural evolution’

“There are electric cars, organic and locally grown food and recycling,” she said. “Green burials are sort of the natural evolution of our lives becoming green.”

In a green burial, the body is shrouded in natural fiber. Caskets, if they are used at all, are made of everything from simple pine to woven bamboo or wicker, sea grass, wool or cardboard. The dead are typically lowered by hand into a grave, where the forces of nature are allowed to exert themselves without obstruction from chemicals, unnatural fibers or man-made barriers of concrete, plastic or steel.The Green Burial Council certifies funeral homes, cemeteries and funeral products as green based on various eco-friendly practices. To be certified, for example, funeral homes must offer three types of biodegradable caskets made from material that is easily harvested and quickly regrown. Cemeteries must disallow burial of embalmed bodies, concrete and metal in their green areas. Coffin makers, among others, must get raw material harvested in responsible ways, to name just a few of the requirements.The Weisses said they aren’t out to make a statement or to prove a point, but given their green lifestyle, a green burial seems appropriate.Working with Kuhn Funeral Home on their plans, they chose simple, wooden caskets similar to those used in Jewish burials.”I don’t need all that contrivance,” Gloria said. “I don’t need all that fancy stuff. But some people do, and that’s fine.”

Back to the future

Green or natural burials are nothing new.

“This isn’t a trend,” said Jim Olsen, a spokesman for the National Funeral Directors Association. “This is what (society) has always done.”Timothy Kolasa, executive director of Gethsemane Cemetery, agrees: “It’s just really getting back to basics.””Some people are looking for a more simplified option,” he said. “Cremation has been that option for many years.”Kolasa added that the cemetery had been considering the move since 2012. No plots have yet been filled, but some have been pre-arranged.Paxtang Cemetery near Harrisburg opened in August, 2014, according to owner Alesia Skinner. An ardent supporter of the environment and green burials, Skinner opened The Woods Edge.Sylvia Crum, Skinner’s mom, loved the idea.”She was a country girl at heart,” Skinner said of her mom. “She came from a farm, and it was one of her happiest places. She was a very whole-earthy kind of a person. She loved nature.”Crum died of pancreatic cancer in August 2014 and became the first person to be buried at The Woods Edge.Tragically, Patrick B. Ytsma, 53, of Bethlehem, an avid bicyclist and architect, was struck by a car and killed while biking. He became the first person interred at Green Meadow in Salisbury Township. Friends, many of whom rode their bikes to his funeral on Dec. 10, 2011, said he would have wanted it that way.

Gravesite charges

Green burials can cost between $1,000 to $4,000, depending on the cemetery, according to CostHelper Inc., a Silicon Valley, Calif.-based provider of consumer information.

The Ramsey Creek Preserve in South Carolina, considered by some as the epicenter of green burials in the U.S., charges $2,500 to $3,500 for a gravesite.Natural burial plots at Gethsemane are larger, measuring 5 feet by 10 feet, than normal plots, and slightly more expensive, Kolasa said. “A cemetery’s only asset is land,” he said.Plots at Gethsemane range usually between $500 and $2,500, depending on location. The Weisses chose their little section of eternity near a hilltop and away from the car path.Casket costs can vary. A company called Final Footprint sells green caskets made with materials such as banana leaf, rattan, sea grass, wood and organic fibers for less than $1,000. They are made in the U.S., Poland and Indonesia, and are certified as fair trade. For $4.95, Piedmont Pine Coffins will sell you plans so you can build your own coffin with material that will cost you less than $200.

Movement inches along

Despite its passionate disciples, the movement is inching along in Berks County.

Green burials “will certainly gain in popularity down the road,” said Kyle Blankenbiller, funeral director and manager of Auman Funeral Homes, with two locations in the Reading area.”There’s not a real need right now,” said Joseph D. Giles of Milkins Giles Funeral Home in Muhlenberg Township. “I have no idea what it will look like in the future,” he said.But Olsen, a longtime funeral director from Sheboygan, Wis., who speaks nationally on behalf of the National Funeral Directors Association, said there might be a very good reason for funeral directors to get on board.Soaring cremation rates are burning up profits as families who cremate tend to buy fewer services from funeral homes.”I’ve lowered my cremation rate by offering this,” Olsen said. “I’ve found that by sitting down and listening to the families I serve I’ve actually captured a new portion of business.”Harris believes the pendulum is swinging back toward natural burial faster than some might admit.”This boomer generation is leaning green,” he said. “It’s the greening of society. They launched the first Earth Day, and now the leading edge of the boomer generation is slouching into retirement. They will bring those same green values to bear on end-of-life decisions.”Millennials, he added, are “definitely going green.”And while environmentalists aren’t exactly beating down his doors, Michael Kuhn, who worked with the Weisses, said, “It’s very appealing to some people.”Searching for the right words to describe the trend, Kuhn unwittingly stumbled into what might be the best description of all: “It’s kind of a grass roots movement.”

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