Goodbye and Good Journey

Buddhist funeral traditions around the world help both the dead and their loved ones let go and move on.

Funeral ceremony at Jigenji Soto Zen temple in Yamanashi, Japan.

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Final Ordination

At the heart of a Zen funeral is ordination. In the ceremony, the deceased is ritually ordained in the same way that living monks and nuns are. This is done because total dedication to spiritual life, of the kind undertaken by monastics, is seen as the natural endpoint of life, even if that wasn’t the case when the person was alive. Ordination is also seen as increasing the probability of a favorable rebirth.

To begin the funeral ceremony, a vigil is maintained by relatives for a day and a night while Zen priests chant from scripture and an altar is prepared in the household. Attending mourners offer okoden, or “condolence money,” to the family of the deceased. The centerpiece of the altar is a portrait of the deceased, alongside candles and offerings of flowers and fruit.

The dead’s ordination is the same as a living nun’s or monk’s. The precept master asks the body three times if the deceased will observe and embody the five precepts. Where a living monk or nun would offer their vow, the corpse’s silence is interpreted as acceptance.

The deceased is then given a Buddhist name and presented with a lineage chart connecting them with enlightened masters stretching all the way back to the Buddha himself. The family of the newly ordained is provided with their own tablet with the deceased’s Buddhist name on it, and the tablets are either kept in the local temple or displayed in the family’s household altar afterward.

Some Zen funerals also feature a shout which is meant to sever the deceased’s bond to the earthly plane. Those who have attended such ceremonies say this also provides a moment of catharsis for the mourners. The funeral concludes with the cremation of the deceased’s body.

What, then, are Zen funerals like for those who are already ordained? The funeral of a monk or nun can take different forms, both long (involving a procession including the deceased’s robes and lineage papers) or very short. The funeral for the founder of the Soto Zen, Dogen, is famously said to have consisted of just a short moment of chanting by his most senior disciple.

Sharing Merit with the Dead

White cloth, a symbol of virtue, marks a Theravadan funeral in the Sri Lankan tradition. Fringed palm fronds and white banners, often with a picture of the deceased, mark the way to the home of the deceased. A white banner declares in large writing: “All conditioned things have the nature of decay.” In the house, mourners in white are greeted by relatives of the dead, the men dressed in sarongs of white cloth and white shirts, the women in white saris. Having been washed by family members, the body of the dead is also attired in white.

The wake, during which the deceased’s family greets and feeds the guests, lasts for several days, which allows those traveling to reach the funeral house. Guests sometimes bring gifts of food for the family.

The funeral ceremony truly begins with the arrival of the monks. They enter the front room of the funeral house, where their feet are washed by a male member of the household. The monastics are guided to chairs draped in white cloth and the deceased’s family kneels before them in respect.

Then the coffin is brought to the front room, or remains in a tent in the front yard if there isn’t room in the house, and a salutation chant to the Buddha is offered, followed by the chants of the three refuges and the five precepts. Parcels of white cloth are presented to the monks, and the mourners chant, “We offer the ‘cloth of the dead’ to the community of monks.” This gift of cloth has a practical origin. Monks in Sri Lanka, as elsewhere in Theravadan societies, rely on the community to feed and clothe them. Payment for presiding over the ceremony comes in the form of white cloth.

In this merit-sharing culture, the Theravadan funeral also features a bowl filled with water by the deceased’s family until it overflows, representing giving merit to the dead so their rebirth will be a promising one. As the water is being poured, the monks chant: “Just as rivers full of water fill the ocean full / Even so does what is given here benefit the dead.”

After a sermon based on Pali scripture is delivered by the senior monk, the mourners chant “Sadhu!” three times, an expression of gratitude connected to the attainment of arahatship. Speeches by family and neighbors follow and then the coffin is conveyed to the burial ground or crematorium under a white umbrella.

Two important dates continue the remembrance ceremonies after the day of the funeral: Mataka-bana, when a monk returns a week later to deliver a sermon to the family and other mourners, and Thun masa-dana, an alms-giving three months after the funeral to support the monastics who officiate at funerals and other ceremonies in the community.

Guiding the Dead Through the Bardo

A Tibetan thangka painting of the pure land of the primordial buddha Amitabha, known as Amida in Japanese.

The Tibetan approach to death and dying is guided by the teachings of the Bardo Thodol, popularly known in the West as The Tibetan Book of the Dead. This text describes what happens to us in the bardo, an intermediate period or gap between death and rebirth. During this time, it is possible to advise and help the deceased so they can achieve enlightenment or at least a favorable rebirth.

In Tibetan Buddhism, there are a number of meditations and rituals that can be performed after someone dies or during their dying process. These include reading them the Book of the Dead over a forty-nine-day period to guide them through the various stages of the bardo journey, and powa practice, in which an accomplished master can help the dying person transfer their consciousness directly into an enlightened state.

The sukhavati ceremony is traditionally performed shortly after a person’s death. In this ceremony, their loved ones, friends, and fellow practitioners, guided by a Buddhist teacher, pray they will be reborn in Sukhavati, the Western Paradise or Land of Ultimate Bliss. This is the enlightened pure land of the primordial buddha Amitabha in which they are free of all karma, defilements, and suffering.

In this ceremony, the congregation generates loving-kindness and compassion toward the deceased, who may be suffering confusion and fear in the bardo. They urge the deceased to let completely go of their previous identity and karma and ask the buddhas and bodhisattvas to guide them to the pure land. Here is a prayer that is typically recited in Sukhavati ceremonies in the Kagyu school of Tibetan Buddhism:

Wonderful Buddha of Limitless Light [Amitabha], to his right the Lord of Great Compassion and to his left the Bodhisattva of Great Power, surrounded by an infinite retinue of buddhas and bodhisattvas.
The joy and happiness is limitless and wonderful in this pure land called Dewachen [Sukhavati].
As soon as this life has passed away, without the diversion of other births,
May [name of the deceased] be born there and thus behold the face of Amitabha.
All buddhas and bodhisattvas of the ten directions, please grant your blessing that the wish expressed in this prayer be accomplished without hindrance.

In some versions of this ceremony, a photograph of the deceased is burned at the climax of the ritual so the deceased does not hold on to their former identity. As the photograph becomes ash, the prayers conclude and in the silence, the teacher intones the single syllable HUM, the mantra of great compassion. All pray their loved one will take the excellent opportunity of the bardo state to enter Sukhavati, the paradise that is freedom from karma and suffering.

Taking Refuge in Amida Buddha

The funeral rituals of Jodo Shinshu Buddhism, as practiced in the Buddhist Churches of America, remind practitioners that through taking refuge in Amida Buddha, the central figure in Pure Land Buddhism, one can transcend time and space, and join together in the pure land as buddhas before returning to samsara to help others. In this way, death is understood to be a beginning rather than an end, and funeral rites offer comfort, solemnity, and the opportunity to express gratitude to the surviving family and friends.

After a person’s death, the minister is contacted by the family and the Makuragyo (literally “pillow service,” or bedside service) is performed. The home altar is decorated with white cloth and flowers, as is the body. The minister will chant one of the gathas from the Larger Sutra of Immeasurable Life, such as Juseige or Sanbutsuge.

Often, relatives live too far away for the body to remain long enough for them to travel to the funeral, so a cremation is done and the funeral takes place with a photo and urn. The funeral service itself begins with the ringing of the calling bell, reminding listeners of the impermanence of all things, an important remembrance in times of death.

Next, the presentation of the Buddhist name occurs. If the dying person has not already received a Buddhist name, the chanting of Kisamboge, by Shan-tao, helps to confirm the person; for those who have already received their name, the chanting is considered a rededication.

Then there is a chanting of Shoshinge, by Shinran, during which guests come up to burn incense, symbolic of the purification of one’s heart and mind to receive the truths of the Buddha. After this, there is an opportunity for eulogies by friends and family, followed by a dharma teaching and the recitation of Rennyo’s “White Ashes” from the minister, which concludes with the line: “By so understanding the meaning of death, we shall come to fully appreciate the meaning of this life, which is unrepeatable and thus to be treasured above all else.”

Traditionally, the service ends with some words of acknowledgment and a meal afterward, held at the temple or a nearby restaurant.

Complete Article HERE!

Why Some Scientists Think Consciousness Persists After Death

We should not assume that people who are near death do not know what we are saying

A very significant change that happened in the last century or so has been the ability of science professionals to see what happens when people are thinking, especially under traumatic conditions.

It was not a good moment for materialist theories. Here is one finding (there are many others): Death is a process, usually, not simply an event.

Consciousness can persists after clinical death. A more accurate way of putting things might be that the brain is able to host consciousness for a short period after clinical death. Some notes on recent findings:

The short answer is, probably, yes:

Recent studies have shown that animals experience a surge in brain activity in the minutes after death. And people in the first phase of death may still experience some form of consciousness, [Sam] Parnia said. Substantial anecdotal evidence reveals that people whose hearts stopped and then restarted were able to describe accurate, verified accounts of what was going on around them, he added.

“They’ll describe watching doctors and nurses working; they’ll describe having awareness of full conversations, of visual things that were going on, that would otherwise not be known to them,” he explained. According to Parnia, these recollections were then verified by medical and nursing staff who were present at the time and were stunned to hear that their patients, who were technically dead, could remember all those details.

Mindy Weisberger, “Are ‘Flatliners’ really conscious after death?” at LiveScience (October 4, 2017)

Death is probably, in most cases, a process rather than a single event:

Time of death is considered when a person has gone into cardiac arrest. This is the cessation of the electrical impulse that drive the heartbeat. As a result, the heart locks up. The moment the heart stops is considered time of death. But does death overtake our mind immediately afterward or does it slowly creep in?

Some scientists have studied near death experiences (NDEs) to try to gain insights into how death overcomes the brain. What they’ve found is remarkable, a surge of electricity enters the brain moments before brain death. One 2013 study out of the University of Michigan, which examined electrical signals inside the heads of rats, found they entered a hyper-alert state just before death.

Philip Perry, “After death, you’re aware that you’ve died, say scientists” at BigThink (October 24, 2017)

Despite claims, current science does not do a very good job of explaining human experience just before death:

Researchers have also explained near-death experiences via cerebral anoxia, a lack of oxygen to the brain. One researcher found air pilots who experienced unconsciousness during rapid acceleration described near-death experience-like features, such as tunnel vision. Lack of oxygen may also trigger temporal lobe seizures which causes hallucinations. These may be similar to a near-death experience.

But the most widespread explanation for near-death experiences is the dying brain hypothesis. This theory proposes that near-death experiences are hallucinations caused by activity in the brain as cells begin to die. As these occur during times of crisis, this would explain the stories survivors recount. The problem with this theory, though plausible, is that it fails to explain the full range of features that may occur during near-death experiences, such as why people have out-of-body experiences.

Neal Dagnall and Ken Drinkwater, “Are near-death experiences hallucinations? Experts explain the science behind this puzzling phenomenon” at The Conversation (December 4, 2018)

Such explanations are a classic case of adapting a materialist hypothesis to fit whatever has happened. They don’t explain, for example, terminal lucidity, where many people suddenly gain clarity about life.

Research medic Sam Parnia found, for example, that, of 2000 patients with cardiac arrest,

Some died during the process. But of those who survived, up to 40 percent had a perception of having some form of awareness during the time when they were in a state of cardiac arrest. Yet they weren’t able to specify more details.

Cathy Cassata, “We May Still Be Conscious After We Die” at Healthline (September 24, 2018) The paper requires a subscription.

So we should not assume that people who are on the way out cannot understand us. Maybe they can — and would like to hear that they are still loved and will be missed.

Complete Article HERE!

Planning your funeral doesn’t have to be scary

— Says the author of ‘It’s Your Funeral: Plan the Celebration of a Lifetime Before it’s Too Late’

‘It’s Your Funeral! Plan the Celebration of a Lifetime — Before it’s Too Late’ is by Kathy Benjamin, Quirk Books, 176 pages, $14.40.
‘It’s Your Funeral! Plan the Celebration of a Lifetime — Before it’s Too Late’ is by Kathy Benjamin

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The pandemic has forced many to rethink and readjust their present with their future. Some have left jobs that provided steady paychecks and a predictable complacency for unknown, yet meaningful passion projects. Others are are taking more control of their destinies as they see fit. Unwilling to settle in life anymore. So why would you settle in death?

That’s the question Kathy Benjamin, author of “It’s Your Funeral! Plan the Celebration of a Lifetime — Before it’s Too Late,” asks. Amid the book’s 176 pages, Benjamin exposes readers to death in a light, humorous, and practical way, akin to a soothing bath, rather than a brisk cold shower.

The Austin-based writer’s niche is death (her last book centered on bizarre funeral traditions and practices). Having panic attacks as a teen, Benjamin said enduring them felt like she was dying. It was then that she started wrestling with the idea of death.

“I feel like I’m actually dying all the time, so maybe I should learn about the history of death and all that,” she said. “If I’m going to be so scared of it, I should learn about it because then I’d kind of have some control over it.”

It’s that control that Benjamin wants to give to readers of this book. She introduces readers to concepts and steps one should contemplate now, in order to make sure the last big gathering centered on you is as memorable as you and your loved ones wish. Poring over the book, one finds interesting final resting options such as body donation that goes beyond being a medical cadaver, “infinity burial suits” that lets one look like a ninja at burial, but also helps nourish plants as decomposition begins; and quirky clubs and businesses that allow one to make death unique (as in hiring mourners to fill out your grieving space and time, and designing your own coffin).

Kathy Benjamin knows death can be scary, but she's determined to show that planning your own funeral doesn't have to be.
Kathy Benjamin knows death can be scary, but she’s determined to show that planning your own funeral doesn’t have to be.

Now before you think this is all a bit macabre, Benjamin’s book also serves as a personal log so you can start planning your big event. Amid the pages, she offers prompts and pages where you can jot down thoughts and ideas on fashioning your own funeral. If you want to have a theme? Put it down in the book. You want to start working on your eulogy/obituary/epitaph, will, or your “final” playlist? Benjamin gives you space in her book to do so. It’s like a demise workbook where you can place your best photos to be used for the funeral and your passwords to your digital life, for your loved ones to have access to that space once you’re gone. If all the details are in the book, a loved one just has to pick it up and use it as a reference to make sure your day of mourning is one you envisioned.

As Benjamin writes: “Think about death in a manner that will motivate you to live the best, most fulfilling life possible. By preparing for death in a spiritual and physical way, you are ensuring that you will succeed right to the end.”

“Everyone’s going to die, if you’re willing to be OK with thinking about that, and in a fun way, then the book is for you,” she said.

We talked with Benjamin to learn more about the details of death and thinking “outside the coffin” for posterity’s sake. The following interview has been condensed and edited.

Q: How much time did it take you to find all this data about death? You share what was in the late Tony Curtis’ casket.

Kathy Benjamin: I have shelves of books that range from textbooks to pop culture books about death, and it’s something that a lot more people than you think are interested in so when you start doing online research you might just find a list of, here’s what people have in their coffin and then from there, you’re like: ‘OK, let’s check if this is true.’ Let’s go back and check newspaper articles and more legitimate websites and things and those details are out there. People want to know. I think of it as when you see someone post on Facebook — somebody in my family died. I know for me, and based on what people reply, the first thing is: What did they die of? We want these details around death. It’s just something people are really interested in. The information is out there and if you go looking for it, you can find it.

Q: Was the timing for the release of the book on point or a little off, given the pandemic?

KB: That was unbelievable timing, either good or bad, how you want to look at it. I ended up researching and writing during that whole early wave in the summer (2020) and into the second wave, and it was very weird. It was very weird to wake up, and the first thing I would do every morning for months was check how many people were dead and where the hot spots were, and then write … just a lot of compartmentalization. My idea was because people who were confronting death so much, maybe it would open up a lot of people’s minds who wouldn’t normally be open to reading this kind of book, they’d be like: ‘OK, I’ve faced my mortality in the past year. So actually, maybe, I should think about it.’

Q: Is there anything considered too “out there” or taboo for a funeral?

KB: I always think that funerals really are for the people who are still alive to deal with their grief, so I wouldn’t do anything that’s going to offend loved ones. I can’t think of what it might be, but if there’s a real disagreement on what is OK, then maybe take the people who are going to be crying and keep them in mind. But really, it’s your party. Plan what you want. There are so many options out there. Some people, they still think cremation isn’t acceptable. Because death is so personal, there’s always going to be people who think something is too far, even things that seem normal for your culture or for your generation.

Q: You mention some interesting mourning/funeral businesses, but many seem to be in other countries. Do we have anything cool in the U.S. as far as death goes that maybe other places don’t have?

KB: One thing we have more than anywhere in the world is body farms. We have a couple and just one or two in the entire rest of the world. The biggest in the world is at the University of Tennessee. For people who don’t know, body farms are where you can donate your body as if you would to science, but instead of doing organ transplants or whatever with it, they put you in the trunk of a car or they put you in a pond or they just lay you out and then they see what happens to you as you decompose. Law enforcement recruits come in and study you to learn how to solve crimes based on what happens to bodies that are left in different situations. I think they get about 100 bodies a year. I always tell people about body farms because if you’re into “true crime” and don’t care what happens to you and you’re not grossed out by it, then do it because it’s really cool and it’s helpful.

Q: You mention mummification and traditional Viking send offs, what about the burning of a shrouded body on a pyre? Have you heard about that? It was the way hunters were sent into the afterlife on the TV series “Supernatural.”

KB: I haven’t heard of anyone doing it in America but obviously that’s a big pop culture thing. For Hindus, that’s the way it happens in India … you go to the Ganges, and they have places specifically where you pay for the wood and they make a pyre and that’s how people go out. I doubt there’s a cemetery or a park that would allow you to do it in the U.S., but on private land, you’re pretty much allowed to do whatever. I would definitely check on regulations. You would have to get the pyre quite hot to burn the body to ash, like hotter than you think to make sure you don’t get a barbecued grandpa.

Q: In your research, have you come across anything that completely surprised you because it’s so unheard of?

KB: There’s been things like funerary cannibalism, which is where you eat loved ones after they’ve died. But once you’ve read the reasons why different tribes around the world have done it, you’re like ‘OK, I can see why that meant something, why it was meant to be emotional and beautiful.’ Things like sky burial in Tibet, they have a Buddhist monk chop up the body and lay it out for the vultures to come get. Part of it ties back to Buddhist tradition but also it’s Tibet, you can’t dig holes there in the mountains. So, there’s a logical reason for it. When you look at these things that originally seem gross or weird, once you learn the reasons behind them it all comes back in the end to trying to do something respectful for the dead, and trying to give the living that closure.

Q: What are your plans for your funeral?

KB: I definitely want to be cremated. I don’t know if I want people to necessarily come together for a funeral for me but like I have a playlist, and even before the book I had a whole document on the computer of what I wanted. I want all the people to know about the playlist and then they can kind of sit and think about how awesome I am while the sad songs play, and then there’s different places that I would want my ashes scattered.

Complete Article HERE!

Four things you might not know about your digital afterlife

What happens to your data after you die?

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1 Your digital footprint will one day become your digital remains

If a complete stranger were granted access to every scrap of recorded information about you that exists in the world, would they be able to stand up at your funeral and deliver a personal, moving eulogy that captured the essence of you? Thanks to the modern digital world, the likely answer is yes.

If you’re not active on social media, you might think that you’d be leaving behind very little in the way of a meaningful or personally telling digital legacy. Social media, however, are merely the tip of the little toe when it comes to our digital footprints. Anyone who has access to your devices and accounts after you die – including all the material you never intended to share – could tell quite a lot about you.

Formerly ephemeral communications are now comprehensively stored in searchable, time- and date-stamped emails and message threads. Once untrackable movements are logged by our smartphones, smartwatches, and facial recognition technologies in public spaces. Internet of Things (IoT) devices like video doorbells and virtual assistants are filling our homes.

And our internal desires, thoughts, and feelings can be discerned by innumerable others through our search histories, websites we’ve visited, and the documents and photos we store in cloud accounts and our data-storage devices.

Little wonder that the algorithms seem to know us better than we know ourselves – in this hyperconnected and electronically surveilled world, we are constantly feeding them our data.

A 2019 survey found that 1 in 4 people in the UK want all of these data to be removed from the internet when they die, but no legal or practical mechanisms exist for this to occur. There is no magical switch that is thrown, no virtual worms that traverse the internet nibbling away all traces of us when we die.

Physical death does not equal digital death. Our personal data is simply too voluminous, spread too far and wide throughout the digital world, and too under the control of innumerable third parties to simply call it back home to ‘bury’ it.

2 Social media are becoming digital cemeteries

Dedicated digital cemeteries do exist, the oldest being The World Wide Cemetery, founded in 1995, where people can still visit online graves and leave virtual flowers and tributes. Memorial gardens are dotted around the virtual world Second Life.

Many funeral homes now offer online condolence books, and some physical cemeteries even feature graves with digital components such as video screens or QR codes affixed to traditional headstones. Scores of digital legacy companies appear regularly, often going out of business shortly thereafter.

None of these digital cemeteries can hold a memorial candle, though, to the platforms that never intended to become online places of rest in the first place: sites like Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.

Facebook has been memorialising profiles in one form or another since the Virginia Tech massacre in 2007, after which users pleaded with the site not to delete profiles that had become memorials for the lost.

Scholars at the Oxford Internet Institute have estimated that the number of deceased users on Facebook could be as high as 4.9 billion by 2100. The dead are also mounting up on Instagram, which also memorialises profiles, and Twitter may follow suit. In November 2019, Twitter cancelled an imminent inactive-account cull in response to an outcry from bereaved people who feared the loss of their deceased loved ones’ Twitter feeds.

Social media companies may be actively trying to work out what to do about the data of the deceased on their servers, but dead people’s information is all over the internet, across all sorts of websites and apps. Many – perhaps even most – of the entities that manage our data are not planning well for the end from the beginning, so information can stick around online for an indeterminate period of time.

We should never assume, however, that online is forever. Disappearance of online data is inevitable through deliberate culls, accidental data loss, and companies going bust.

3 People are struggling to make plans for their digital legacies

It’s not only organisations that are flummoxed by what to do about digital legacies. It’s us, the people who are accumulating them. Less than half of adults in the UK have made a traditional will, and far fewer have considered what will happen to their digital one.

In the Digital Legacy Association’s 2017 Digital Death Survey, 83 per cent of respondents had made no plans at all for their digital legacies. A handful of people – 15.2 per cent – had made their wishes known for their Facebook accounts using the Legacy Contact feature. Legacy Contact allows you to appoint a trusted person to manage your memorialised account after you die, and you can also stipulate if you want the account deleted.

Whether instructions left on Legacy Contact or any other online platform would hold up in UK courts, however, is another matter. As in many realms of modern life, this is an area where laws and regulations are not keeping pace with technology. GDPR and the UK’s Data Protection Act 2018 don’t comment on what should happen to the digitally stored information of the dead, who are no longer entitled to data protection.

Service providers are understandably reluctant to hand over account contents or access to next of kin, especially when that’s likely to compromise other (living) people’s privacy.

Laws governing wills and probate don’t help much either when it comes to digital material. To bequeath something to someone in the UK it has to be tangible or valuable, and your social media profiles might not be judged to be either. In addition, you can’t pass on what you don’t actually own in the first place.

You do not own your social media profiles. Even if you’d like to, you cannot pass on an iTunes or Kindle library, since you have only purchased a license to watch, listen or read while you’re alive. The vast majority of your online accounts and their contents are non-transferable: one account, one user.

It may be a while before coherent, enforceable systems are instituted to govern what should happen to the data of the deceased. Until then, the companies to whom we entrust our data when we’re alive largely decide what happens to it upon death and who can access it.

In this legal and regulatory void, we can only make arrangements as best we can. For sentimental and practical material that might be valuable to our loved ones, we need to leave behind instructions for how to access it or – even better – back it up in secure but accessible formats that are not under the control of online service providers. In the not-too-distant future, digital estate planning may be a career all its own, or at least a necessary component of an existing profession.

4 It is impossible to predict how digital legacies will be meaningful to the bereaved

Our expectations that ‘normal’ grief will follow predictable, orderly stages is encouraged by our algorithmic environment. If you type ‘stages of…’ into a search engine, that engine will likely suggestion completion with ‘grief’. If you type ‘grief’, the engine will likely suggest ‘stages of’.

Despite what you and the algorithms might think, however, bereavement is actually incredibly, spectacularly idiosyncratic. Just as every relationship we have in life is unique, each bereavement is particular too. Despite dominating the popular discourse for the latter half of the 20th Century, Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’ famous grief stages – which were actually based upon qualitative research done with dying people, not bereaved people – boast little empirical support.

Across cultures and millennia, people have continued bonds with their dead in various ways, and we cannot predict what digital artifacts will be important in helping a bereaved person feel a thread of connection to those gone before.

For every person that relies upon a memorialised Facebook profile in their grief, there will be another that wishes it would just disappear. A preserved Twitter profile might be an absolute lifeline to friends, but the family might want it removed, perhaps imagining it’s not important to anyone. There is no rule book for what should and should not be important to someone in grief.

An astonishing and unpredictable variety of digital artifacts have been reported to me as being sentimentally significant to bereaved people. The digital recording of her husband’s heartbeat, stored in iTunes on a widow’s phone. The way that a woman’s brother organised and named his files on his laptop, giving her a window into how he thought and reasoned. A spam email from a woman’s deceased friend whose account was hacked – even though she knew it came from a hacker, she didn’t want to erase it, because it was his name in her inbox. A mother’s search history on her laptop, revealing to her daughter what she was thinking about in the last days of her life.

And finally, Google Street View, haunted by those who are no longer at that address. There is dad, watering the front lawn. There is a fondly remembered pet, peeking out the window of the house. There is grandma, sitting on the porch where she always did, waiting for the school bus to bring her grandchildren home. Even Google Earth is full of ghosts.

Complete Article HERE!

How COVID has transformed the death care industry for ‘last responders’

by Kat Eschner

More than 3.35 million people died last year in the United States—far more than the death trade was easily able to handle. Over 70% of those deaths were attributable to COVID-19, a recent analysis found. Others were related to the disruption of the pandemic and some to simple chance. In hotspots around the country, funeral homes, cemeteries, and crematoria were under unprecedented stress as a system designed to accommodate a predictable number of deaths (around 2.8 million in a more normal year like 2019) confronted the challenges of caring for many more.

In New York, an early hotspot, “the adjectives that come to mind were ‘overwhelming’ and ‘intense,’” said Mike Lanotte, executive director of the New York State Funeral Directors Association. In more normal times, Lanotte said, New York State sees about 400 deaths per day. That’s the number that the funeral homes, crematoria, and cemeteries in the state are set up to handle. Occasionally, something like an unusually bad flu season causes a local spike in the number of deaths, but the system in New York State and elsewhere has proved fairly resilient over time.

During those first months in New York and New Jersey, that wasn’t the case. Lanotte said his members—and their colleagues in the neighboring state—were snowed under by demand. “It probably lasted through the early part of summer 2020 before it really started to come down to a point where the system could really catch up,” he said.

New York’s outbreak, with its refrigeration trucks to store bodies, became the face of the early pandemic for many Americans and conjured up memories of 9/11, the last time local death care infrastructure was so overwhelmed by a disaster. But deaths spiked in spots all over the country throughout 2020, pushing death care professionals to their limits.

People who work with the dead aren’t often discussed. “You need their help when you need it,” said Barbara Kemmis, executive director of the Cremation Association of North America, “but my funeral and cemetery director and crematory owner [members] are never listed in any of the ‘Thank you, first responders’ things that are out there.” People in the business understand their role, she said, but the last year on the front lines has been a difficult one.

COVID-19 cases are spiking again across the country now, with a more dangerous new variant and low vaccination rates wreaking havoc. The pandemic is far from over for America. But better knowledge of how to treat and contain the disease, combined with vaccination, means those in the death trade aren’t facing anything like the nationwide deluge of last year. As they begin to take stock, industry leaders and advocates say their profession has been irrevocably changed by the pandemic.

Fast technological change, an increase in cremations, and just the sheer scale of death they had to handle have all contributed to an epidemic of burnout and many people leaving the business. At the same time, revenues last year—usually driven by funerals of the kind that weren’t possible under COVID-19 restrictions—were down, said Steve Spann, president of John A. Gupton College, which serves the mortuary business. “All funeral homes, I think, will determine that they took a pretty decent hit financially,” he said, pegging that impact in the 20% to 30% reduction range.

In the short term, that means there just aren’t enough people in the business. In the medium term, that might mean further consolidation in the already highly consolidated death business, and the loss of funeral homes that serve specific communities, such as the Black community. In the long term, it’s hard to say. But one thing is for certain: The death business will never return to the way it was in 2019.

‘Last responders’

Alabama funeral director Randy Anderson got his first call to pick up the body of someone who had died from COVID-19—a “decedent” in funeral argot—on or around March 27, 2020. That person died in a nursing home, one of the early locations where the disease spread like wildfire.

“That began the multitude of deaths that we would have, about 25% of the deaths that we handled in 2020,” he said. In total, the two funeral homes he owns, Radney Funeral Home and Langley Funeral Home, handled more than 100 COVID-19 deaths in 2020, representing an increase of 60 to 70 calls to pick up bodies over 2019, he said.

That same recent analysis of excess death—the term for numbers of the dead that go beyond the expected—showed extra deaths occurring all over the country, although the impact was distributed in time and space. Writing in the scientific journal JAMA Network, the study authors identify Alabama as the state that endured the fifth-highest number of per capita excess deaths in 2020, after Mississippi, New Jersey, New York, and Arizona.

After the H1N1 pandemic, Anderson followed CDC instructions and continuously maintained a high enough level of supplies to embalm 100 bodies, along with PPE. When COVID-19 hit, he was in a position to share supplies with local health care providers and protect his own team.

But all the supplies in the world couldn’t prepare him and his staff for what they would face. “That veterans’ nursing home, we were there probably five or six times a week during the heat of the crisis,” Anderson said. They also made numerous trips to the morgues of local hospitals and to people’s homes.

“We were working 12- to 14-hour days from about April to about October, November,” he said. The toll of all that work was physical, but—as for others on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic—it was also psychological.

Those in death care have a twinned role, said Lanotte. They are public health practitioners who ensure that when patients leave the medical system as a dead body, they are put to rest. In that role, they work with local health officials. But they are also the first point of care for people grieving the loss of a loved one.

Last year, when daily deaths surged, the public health role had to take the front seat, he said. But their other role remained. While coping with the demands of the pandemic and learning, along with the rest of us, about social distancing and other measures, funeral directors and other death care professionals sought to include grieving families in their loved ones’ final disposition.

That took innovation. Kemmis lost her grandmother last year. She and her mother couldn’t travel to the graveside service because of the pandemic, but they were still able to participate thanks to one funeral director. “She was standing at the graveside, holding up her cell phone,” Kemmis said. She and her mother watched on Facebook Live.

To Kemmis, that’s a sign of how far “last responders” will go for those left behind. “She didn’t have to do that. She didn’t charge us to do that. And I didn’t even know to ask for that.”

Rushing to catch up

Kemmis’s experience is one example of a broader trend of death care professionals trying new techniques to connect loved ones with the deceased. While Zoom funerals and Facebook memorials were new for many consumers, they represent an even bigger change in the slow-moving, traditional funeral industry.

“Death care is an old profession. They have a lot of old practices,” said Poul Lemasters, a former embalmer who is now general counsel for the International Cemetery, Cremation, and Funeral Association. “I know a lot of people who even still have fax machines.”

When the pandemic began, he said, death care practitioners found themselves navigating everything from regulatory issues around digital correspondence to dramatic technology shifts in their own workplaces. That embracing of technology “advanced funeral service by a decade or more,” said Kemmis.

Mortuary education is rushing to catch up. While in-person funeral attendance around the country is more possible now than it was a year ago, said Spann, “a good portion [of families] still want livestreaming.” John A. Gupton College was beginning to offer digital marketing instruction, he said, but COVID-19 has accelerated that part of the curriculum.

In the past, “almost everything that a consumer would do with the funeral director would be done face-to-face in the funeral home,” said Lanotte. In some parts of the country, that state of affairs was entrenched in law, further complicating the transition to a new way of doing things.

In New York State, for instance, cemeteries, crematoria, and funeral homes were legally not allowed to accept digital signatures on their documents. That meant grieving families had to provide a physical signature and send the documents by FedEx or other means—a process further complicated if they were quarantined by COVID-19 themselves, writes Joe Mahoney of CNHI. This particular law was recently changed. But it’s part of a larger dynamic in the death care industry whose fading has been hastened by the pandemic.

There was a time when funeral homes and artfully embalmed and displayed bodies were at the center of death care for nearly all Americans. That’s not true anymore, said Tanya Marsh, a professor of law at Wake Forest University who studies the funeral and cemetery trades. Cultural attitudes toward death and final disposition are slowly but surely shifting, she said, a trend exemplified by the increased adoption of cremation.

For the past few decades, the national cremation rate has grown by 1% to 2% per year. In 2016, that rate rose above 50% for the first time. “Cremation has been a game changer,” said Marsh. It allows for different approaches to final disposition and mourning because cremated remains don’t require a specialist to handle them, as an embalmed body does.

Although many predicted a spike in cremations during the pandemic, the national cremation rate went up only by a predictable 1.5% in 2020, according to numbers from the Cremation Association of North America. In some areas, however, the cremation rate increased far more. In the first six months of 2020, for instance, the cremation rate in New Jersey went up by more than 3%. These regional increases may endure, Marsh noted. “The question is going to be, Do people associate [cremation] with COVID?”

If they do, that could negatively impact the increase of cremation rates. But Marsh isn’t sure. “There’s a really strong social normalizing aspect of funeral practices,” she said. If people had a loved one cremated for the first time out of necessity but found it to be a positive experience, she added, it’s likely they will seek out cremation for future final dispositions.

The practice has a lot going for it. It’s generally less expensive than a full burial, for one thing, and it gives families time to gather and say goodbye in their own way. It allows for very different options than the big funeral many of us see on television. But for funeral homes, it represents generally lower revenues and a changing role. “They have to change their identity from being embalmers to event planners,” said Kemmis. “That’s what the trends are pointing to. And that’s hard.”

Tomorrow’s death care

A changing role, combined with the other stresses and changes of the pandemic, is having a huge impact on the death trade. Some are leaving it, while those who remain are dealing with the trauma of being on the front lines. After things settled down in his area, Anderson brought in a PTSD counselor to meet with his staff. “We view what we do a little differently now,” he said.

Like many in the profession, Anderson himself caught COVID-19. He was out of work for three months and hospitalized for a week. Seeing the ravages of the disease firsthand made the prospect of his own illness more alarming. “I had buried people that died with [COVID-19],” he said.

Kris Busini, who was an executive assistant for two funeral home owners in Connecticut through the worst of the pandemic, also caught COVID-19, along with almost everyone else at his funeral home. “We were terrified,” he said. The only one on his team who didn’t catch COVID-19 was their embalmer, a young man who worked long days in the funeral home’s morgue, away from other staff.

Busini was drawn to the death care industry because of the care involved, for both those grieving and the deceased. “There’s a tenderness to it that I really appreciated,” he said. He left, in part, because of the stresses of the pandemic.

The exodus from the death care profession will likely drive further consolidation, Kemmis said. After the past year, some members of the profession who were contemplating retirement or leaving their practice are choosing to sell to conglomerates, she noted.

Lemasters handles some of those transactions as part of his consulting firm and has seen a spike in the past few months. “This has pushed a lot of people to say, ‘I don’t want to do this anymore,’” he noted.

But the trend may be slow and unpredictable. Death on the scale of what has happened during this pandemic altered the future value of the death trade, because in some places, the boomer generation whose death peak was anticipated to be more than a decade from now happened early.

“Between now and 2025-ish, we might actually see a decline in deaths in some areas,” Kemmis said. That short-term decrease may change the valuation of funeral homes, crematoria, and cemeteries—at least for now. But it may also create time to train up new embalmers, crematorium operators, funeral directors, and others in a vast profession, Kemmis said. The death professionals of tomorrow will graduate into an industry that’s been fundamentally altered by the pandemic, in a country only beginning to grapple with its implications.

Marsh expects to see further early retirements and industry exoduses over the next three to five years. “There’s a ton of burnout,” she said.

Some seeds of what’s coming next are beginning to unfurl. The professional associations that death care professionals rely on are starting to host in-person meetings and conferences, the first since before the pandemic. For those who have stayed in the profession, it’s an opportunity to regroup and examine the recent past. During a recent gathering of about 180 members of the death trade hosted by his organization, Lemasters said, “there was absolutely a sharing of stories.” There’s a new feeling of comradery, he said.

As death care professionals reckon with the past year and a half, the industry is also trying to plan for the future. “That’s a full death care industry conversation,” said Lenotte. Part of that conversation is preparing for the next pandemic. Anderson recently presented on that topic at a state convention. “The first thing is just take care of your staff,” he said.

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An increasingly popular way to be buried

— Become part of an artificial reef

Family members watch as a concrete “reef ball” — made in part with the cremated remains of their loved one — is lowered into the water off the coast of Ocean City, Md. The memorials help replenish reefs.

By Kathryn Fink

When Rob Shepherd’s wife, Beth, died of brain cancer at age 66, he knew she had wanted to be cremated. He didn’t know that six years later, he’d be waving goodbye to her remains from a boat in the Atlantic Ocean. Her ashes, now mixed in a concrete ball, were headed to the ocean floor to help form a reef.

Rob, a 69-year-old retiree in St. Louis, had been storing Beth’s cremated remains in their original plastic bag on a living room bookshelf; an urn, to him, felt too permanent. He had been planning to return her to Maryland, her childhood home — and he says it was “a gift from heaven” when he discovered a nonprofit called Eternal Reefs. Since its founding in 1998, Eternal Reefs has worked with families to create concrete “reef balls” that incorporate cremated remains, or “cremains,” and small personal items. Part memorial, part conservation method, they’re deposited to the ocean floor to replenish reef systems. The balls weigh between 600 and 4,000 pounds, and require a crane to be transported.

“I put in our two wedding rings and her favorite pair of earrings, because I know she wouldn’t want to be without her earrings,” Shepherd said in Ocean City, Md., in May, on the day Beth’s remains were placed into the sea. Her reef memorial cost $3,995 — not including the price of cremation, which is $350 on average. The median cost of a funeral with a viewing and cremation was $5,150 in 2019, according to the National Funeral Directors Association.

To avoid dealing with the Transportation Security Administration — which requires specific types of containers for traveling with cremains in carry-on luggage and can prohibit their entry onto planes — Shepherd had driven Beth’s remains from St. Louis. Later that day, he watched a crane lower her memorial ball into the Atlantic — permanently becoming a part of Russell’s Reef, an artificial reef site off the coast of Ocean City. He and the other families memorializing loved ones aboard the boat clapped.

Eternal Reefs grew out of the intersection of “deathcare” — an array of products and services related to death and memorialization — and the environmental movement. Now, against the backdrop of the pandemic, the green burial industry is proliferating. A 2021 survey conducted by the trade magazine American Funeral Director found that 51 percent of respondents have attended a green burial, and 84 percent would consider one for themselves. The green approach aims to reduce the environmental impact of burial and, in some cases, uses remains to repair the destruction humans have inflicted on the earth. These options can take many forms, including coffins made of mushrooms, water-based cremation (in which water and chemicals break down the body) and biodegradable pods that use remains to grow a sapling.

Like the rest of the funeral industry, green burial is regulated. A final disposition — the legal term for what happens to your body after death — is a complicated issue. Many emerging technologies require state legalization, including a new green burial approach of composting human remains. In December, a funeral home outside Seattle became the first to legally perform the process, known as “natural organic reduction.” Several other states are currently weighing its legality.

Since Eternal Reefs’ inception, it has deployed more than 2,500 reef memorials in 30 permitted locations, including off the coasts of Florida, New Jersey and Texas. CEO George Frankel says the demand for reef memorials has grown steadily — but in the past year, information requests and advance burial plans have skyrocketed. He attributes that uptick to the pandemic. “One of the problems we’ve always had as a culture in this country is that we don’t talk about death very easily or very comfortably,” he told me. “The covid virus has forced everybody to look at their own mortality in a whole different way.”

Still, plenty of people decided to pursue this option long before the pandemic. Linda Froncak, who was memorialized in her home of Ocean City the same weekend as Beth Shepherd, made preparations for her burial in the early years of Eternal Reefs. Originally from Minnesota, Froncak died of a heart attack two years ago at age 64, which is how 22 Minnesotans ended up flying halfway across the country to the coast of Maryland, sporting custom T-shirts in her honor that said “Reefer Madness” on them.

The funeral industry, which has long hinged on tradition, is seemingly at odds with the advent of green burial. However, funeral homes vary widely in their willingness to embrace new options. Crystal van Orsdel Marchant, a fourth-generation family employee at Van Orsdel Funeral & Cremation Services in Florida, told me that her fellow millennials are all for facilitating green burial, but the industry has always been resistant to change. She points to the 1970s as an illustration: Her family’s funeral home, like most others, held out on offering cremation services even as interest grew. They eventually bought a crematory after her father told his father repeatedly that they needed one.

Five decades later, cremation has surpassed the casketed burial rate in the United States, according to the National Funeral Directors Association — and Van Orsdel Funeral & Cremation Services now offers eco-friendly burial options, including willow caskets and biodegradable urns. Van Orsdel Marchant says the funeral home may also eventually replace its fleet of hearses with electric vehicles.

Some funeral home owners told me they’ve seen only the occasional request for green burial options. Whether low interest is a symptom or a cause, though, depends on whom you ask. “Funeral homes are reluctant to change because they’re saying, well, nobody’s asking for this,” says Darren Crouch, co-founder and president of green funeral goods supplier Passages International, whose products include biodegradable urns. “If Toyota came out with a Prius 20 years ago and they didn’t put it in the front of their lot, Prius would probably not be a thing right now. We’re trying to educate funeral directors that there is significant demand.”

As for Rob Shepherd, memorializing his wife via reef ball was more than an environmental decision, and more than an homage to her love of Ocean City. It was an unusual, yet heartening, way to process loss — especially for his grandchildren in attendance, who were too young to get to know Beth when she was alive. “We all took turns stirring,” Shepherd said of the process of mixing her ashes with concrete. “We decorated around the top with some of the trinkets and flowers. And we drew pictures with sidewalk chalk on the side — hearts, and goodbyes, and ‘Miss you.’ ”

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An urn that doubles as a planter

— It’s the latest in L.A.’s death positivity movement

Inspired by universal stories of loss, woodworker C.C. Boyce crafts custom-made wood urns for cremation remains that can be used as planters.

By Lisa Boone

When Los Angeles woodworker C.C. Boyce selects locally sourced pieces of California sycamore and speckled maple at Angel City Lumber in Boyle Heights, the artisan has powerful inspiration for her custom-made planters: the deceased.

“I never intended to get into the death care industry,” Boyce says of the planters she designs and builds in her downtown Los Angeles studio. But these are not like the planters you find at plant stores and nurseries. Her planters are, in fact, urns filled with cremated remains and topped with a living plant.

She is turning urns into vessels for life, inspired by universal stories of loss.

“It has been such a rewarding experience,” she continues. “Especially during the pandemic. It felt good to know that I was helping people. We all felt that hopelessness while sheltering in place. It emphasized that you never know what someone is going through.”

Urns have been around for thousands of years, but the funeral industry has been slow to update them for the 21st century home.

Often, Boyce says, clients will reach out to her because they are struggling to find an urn “good enough” for their loved one. A person’s essence is eternal, after all, which explains why so many of us want to keep a part of our loved ones close after they have died.

Artisan C.C. Boyce demonstrates where cremation remains are placed in the bottom of a “Planturn” — a custom-made wood urn to hold cremation remains.

Their singularity is also what makes it so hard for us to process their absence, which is why so many urns end up gathering dust on bookshelves and inside closets. In some instances, Boyce’s clients have waited so long to find an appropriate resting place for their loved one, they can’t remember where they placed the ashes.

“I had a man message me that his wife died three years ago and he had given up trying to find something for her because everything was ugly, mass-produced and not her style,” Boyce says. “Another man said his design-savvy partner would be so angry with him if he put him in something ugly. I hear a lot of stories like that.”

Her untraditional designs are a part of the emerging death positivity movement, a largely women-driven attempt to shatter taboos and discomfort regarding death. You can see it everywhere when it comes to death services: in death doulas, green burials, diamonds created from ashes, death cafes and human composting known as natural organic reduction.

Urns, in particular, have been long overdue for a makeover.

People don’t like the fact that urns look like urns because they remind us of the morbid caricature of death, says Jill Schock, a Los Angeles death doula who works primarily with terminally ill cancer patients.

“The shape of the traditional urn is so embedded in our psychology,” says Schock. “We all have unconscious anxiety about death. When people see a traditional urn in your living room, they immediately know what it is and it makes them uncomfortable.”

She estimates that more than half of her clients, and Baby Boomers in particular, choose cremation over more traditional and costlier burials.

Enter Boyce’s Planturn, a modern, minimal and decorative cremation urn ($250-$600) composed of two pieces of wood and topped with a living plant. While many urns are vase-shaped, Boyce’s urns are geometric and created with woods sourced from fallen trees and coated in an eco-friendly finish.

The urns come in three sizes to accommodate pets and humans along with a muslin bag to hold the cremains and are topped with a plant holder. Boyce recommends succulents, cactuses and air plants because they don’t mind being crowded and don’t need a lot of water.

The top and the bottom of the urn are secured by strong hidden rare-earth magnets to create a seamless piece, often from two types of wood or cork. Sometimes people share stories with her, and sometimes they don’t. “They often have a lot going on,” Boyce says. “Grief affects people differently, and I try to respect that.” Over the last year, she has made urns for pets, parents and grandparents, a 19-year-old woman, a 2-year-old who died of leukemia, and an infant. “Those are heart-wrenching,” she says. “I use speckled maple for infants because it represents innocence.”

Boyce, 47, grew up in Wisconsin, the daughter of an engineer who installed a family wood shop in the basement. When she was 5, she attended her first funeral, an event she remembers vividly.

“They laid out my great-grandmother’s body at the wake, and everyone paid their respects,” she recalls. “I remember being curious and unafraid. They put a rosary in her hands, and I remember playing with it. The funeral director got miffed, and my mom told him to allow it because she was my great-grandmother. My mom was the one who made it so that death was not taboo, that it was something that should be acknowledged and talked about. A lot of people are uncomfortable with death. I’m not.”

Thirteen years later, during her freshman year of college, she experienced a series of losses so staggering, she worried her college professors didn’t believe her when she said she missed multiple classes to attend funerals. “I lost five people close to me in one year. Young, old, expected, tragic. An accidental overdose. A murder. A 4-year-old cousin was killed in a car accident.”

Last year, she lost her mother to COVID-19, and had two pets die.

A closer look at the Planturns: Boyce recommends airplants and succulents to top them off.

The interweaving of death and craftsmanship clearly inspires her work.

“Experiencing so much loss has taught me to hold on to empathy,” she says. “I never really lose sight of what people are going through. Sometimes people don’t take pet empathy seriously, but I do. I’m always willing to listen. And I always think about the people who died as I make each urn. Sometimes I try to match the wood to the pet’s fur.”

Her clients are grateful to have something so personal that reminds them of the ones they lost.

Julie Maigret, a Los Angeles interior designer who purchased a Planturn for two departed dogs and a cat, says no one has ever guessed that the planter in her living room is an urn. “I tend to it like a little garden,” she says. “I have something beautiful that reminds me of my pets. I placed a tiny trailing plant in the urn not realizing it is called red stem tears. There is nothing out there like what C.C. is making and that’s symbolic of the being that you lost. That’s very powerful.”

Juggling restaurant work and custom woodworking jobs since 2015, Boyce made her first Planturn in 2018 as a custom request for a friend’s father. Thinking it was a one-off, she was taken aback when she received an avalanche of positive responses after sharing the planter-urn on her Instagram account.

Boyce’s first thought on reading the comments was: “Am I on to something?”

For a year, she researched cremation, urns and the death care industry as she built prototypes in a variety of shapes and sizes. In 2019, she launched a successful Kickstarter campaign to help buy the equipment she needed to make the urns in an efficient manner. When she was laid off from her restaurant job in March 2020 due to the pandemic, it was the impetus she needed to pivot to making Planturns full time.

“I thought, ‘We’re in a pandemic, and I make cremation urns. Houseplant sales have skyrocketed. It’s now or never. I didn’t think I could quit my job until the urns were more successful. But as it turned out, I had to make the urns successful because I lost my job.”

As someone who deals with death regularly, Schock has seen how customized urns like these can help people process death.

“I know that people who have lost someone enjoy being around their remains,” she says. “This is the reason why people visit a cemetery or have an urn: They want to be close to their loved ones. It’s important to have the urn out and smile and think there’s my loved one, pet or child.”

That is Boyce’s mission.

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