12/6/17

You CAN Take It with You When You Go

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By Alison Morris

Let’s say you’re mortal. Now let’s say you’re a book lover. Where’s the intersection between these two things? You guessed it — bookcase coffins. Which (with apologies to you squeamish types) is the theme of today’s post.

In my travels around the web searching for apartment storage solutions, I stumbled upon (and — really — it felt like I’d actually stumbled when I came across these) two different bookcases that double as coffins. This way you can hide your coffin in plain sight if you want to own and take possession of a coffin before you die, which apparently an increasing number of people are choosing to do.

Let me pause for a brief confession here: when I first found these bookcase coffin images, I thought this was going to be a funny post — a “what an odd and offbeat idea, let’s all laugh about it” post. BUT then I read the content of the webpages on which these coffins appeared, and the topic suddenly became both a lot less humorous AND a lot more interesting.

The first two bookcase coffins below come from the website of a Maine group called Last Things: Alternatives at the End of Life. The group and website were created by  Klara Tammany, whose moving essay about her own mother’s burial illustrates the reasons her family and others are choosing to have green burials and rejecting what she sees as impersonal and ecologically damaging funeral and burial practices. Last Things offers support and resources for those looking for more information about alternative burial options. The coffins displayed on their site (including this one) are all handmade by group member/woodworker Chuck Lakin. The first one here is the Bookcase Coffin model.

This second model is what Chuck calls a Multipurpose Coffin. It can be used either as a bookcase OR as an entertainment center, and I personally think it’s 100% convincing as either of those things. (I mean, really — who would know?)

Like Chuck Lakin, New Zealand company Final Furniture Limited is creating coffins mindful of eco-conscious clients. Their nextgen bookshelf/wine rack allows you to raise a glass to your past while, well, facing your future. The photo on the beach at the top of this post shows how the bookcase/winerack looks in its… alternate form. (I feel like I’m writing about a Transformer here.)

While the Last Things and Final Furniture bookcase coffins are probably intended more for people nearing the end of their lives, this next one (via Inhabit), which designer William Warren calls Shelves for Life, is not. As Warren explains, “Shelves For Life is a self-initiated project to further explore ideas of built-in sentimentality within our possessions. The aim is to make stronger emotional relationships with our belongings and encourage lifelong use… They are intended to be used throughout life as storage for personal belongings. On death, the shelves are dismantled and rebuilt as a coffin.”

Maybe I’m being swayed by the fact that we’re about to spend some money on a “real” sofa which feels like an almost-lifelong commitment, but I like the rather anti-IKEA aim of Warren’s experiment with this. (Note, though, that someone has apparently come up with plans to make an IKEA bookcase coffin too.) Disposable is bad. You can store things in it now AND be buried in it later is, um… Good. Mostly. Especially when the design is as elegant as this.

That having been said (and this is the problem), I’m not sure how it would feel to be shelving books in and dusting knick-knacks on my future coffin. Suddenly that bookcase would feel a bit TOO important to me, I think. (God forbid the movers drop THAT one!) And I’m not sure I’d want such a large, visual reminder of my own mortality in my living room. Unless its presence would encourage me to procrastinate less and work more… Hmmm.

In looking around for more info on this topic I came across a thoughtful post on a blog called Pink Slip by one Maureen Rogers, that concludes thusly: “I have just gauged that our old Workbench bookcases are neither deep enough nor sturdy enough to act as coffins. If, when the time comes when Jim and I experience the miracle of death, we’re planning on anything other than cremation and scatter, I would consider one of [Chuck Lakin’s] creations. I’d probably go for the coffee table version. We can always use more storage.”

And, Maureen, you’d always have it too.

Complete Article HERE!

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11/26/17

Families turn to death midwives for help with final passage

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Anna Benton, of Milwaukee, left, Georgette Paxton, of Madison, center, and Jennifer Snow, of Waunakee, look over Heather Ockler, of Monona, who is playing the role of a dying person wrapped in a shroud during a home funeral demonstration. It was part of a death midwife class taught last month by Sharon Stewart, who helped aspiring death midwives practice skills such as washing and shrouding a body. Death midwives, sometimes called death doulas, are increasingly helping families prepare for and navigate the death of loved ones, in addition to or instead of hospice care and funeral homes.

By DAVID WAHLBERG

Before Valli Warren’s husband died last year after a long illness, the Stoughton couple knew they wanted a home funeral and green burial.

But they weren’t sure how to make those things happen. They turned to Sharon Stewart, who delivered ice packs to preserve the body, shared videos about how to wrap it in a shroud and taught pallbearers how to carry it out of the house on a board.

Stewart also helped Warren file paperwork, including a permit letting her transport her husband to Circle Cemetery, near Barneveld, where he was laid to rest without being embalmed or using a casket or vault.

“She walked me through every phase,” Warren said.

Stewart is a death midwife, a new kind of occupation that provides emotional, spiritual and practical support to families before and after death — in addition to, or instead of, hospice care and funeral homes.

The service, which has emerged around the country over the past decade, is analogous to what birth midwives do compared to obstetricians. Some who offer the assistance call themselves death doulas or end-of-life midwives.

‘Back to their roots’

Whatever the title, the providers say they help people “take back” the death process from hospitals and funeral homes. Services include leading family discussions about death planning, sitting vigil with people as they die, helping family and friends wash the body afterward and aiding in tasks such as selecting memorial cards, sending obituaries to newspapers and closing social media accounts. It often involves home funerals or green burials.

“We’re taking families back to their roots, the tradition of when we were born and when we died in our own homes,” said Stewart, a former detective who lives near Brooklyn, south of Madison. “We laid in honor in our parlors, and the community came together to provide care for the family.”

Liz Humphries, a former birth midwife and hospice nurse who recently added an end-of-life doula service to Seasons of Life, her senior care company in Middleton, said, “It’s about reclaiming a really sacred and beautiful human experience.”

Mary Paulauskis, a former hospice nurse from Madison, has added what she calls end-of-life transitions counseling to her business, Mindful Awakenings, through which she teaches meditation.

Paulauskis focuses on helping people think about who and what they want around them as they die. She also coaches loved ones on what to say to a dying person and how to interact — letting them know it’s OK to lie next to the person if they want to, for example.

“It’s creating a space of whatever the patient said they want,” Paulauskis said.

Many people don’t realize that there are several ways to dispose of bodies without embalming, including new, greener types of cremation, said Angie Buchanan, a death midwife in Waukesha who trains death midwives around the country. She informs clients of the options and guides them through their choice.

“We’re the water that runs between the rocks of the medical profession and the funeral industry,” Buchanan said.

Dr. Toby Campbell, chief of UW Health’s palliative care program and a board member of Agrace Hospice and Palliative Care in Fitchburg, said he understands why death midwives are catching on. He said hospice care typically includes two or three visits a week from a nurse or social worker, and an occasional call from a doctor.

“That leaves about 99 percent of the time you and your family are on your own,” Campbell said. “That’s a big space. There are giant gaps between the health care system and death, even including hospice.”

Jim Olson, president-elect of the Wisconsin Funeral Directors Association, said caring for a body after death and managing a funeral are big jobs. Most people will continue to seek help from funeral directors, he said.

Death midwifery is “another alternative for families, which we think is great,” said Olson, who owns Olson Funeral Home and Cremation Service in Sheboygan. “Am I afraid it’s going to affect my business? No, absolutely not.”

There is no licensure or government certification for death midwives. Experienced practitioners, such as Stewart and Buchanan, offer training, as does the New Jersey-based International End of Life Doula Association, which held a session in Madison last year.

Many training programs offer their own certification. The burgeoning field is in a similar situation to massage therapy in the 1990s, before doctors pushed for its regulation, Buchanan said. In Wisconsin, certification for massage therapists started in 2003, with licensure beginning in 2010.

Fees for death midwives vary. Buchanan said she charges $100 for a consultation and up to $2,000 for services covering the whole death process. Stewart has accepted donations of $100 or $200 from some clients, but she doesn’t plan to establish rates until she retires from her day job, at the state public defender’s office, and devotes more time to death midwife duties.

Paulauskis said she plans to charge $25 to $50 for a counseling session and negotiate rates for other services but let people pay what they can. An academic adviser at the UW-Madison School of Social Work, she plans to continue making her living in other ways.

Humphries, who started her end-of-life doula service last month, said she might charge $40 to $100 an hour but offer a sliding-fee scale for people with low incomes.

Humphries is also an organizer of Walking Each Other Home Madison, a group that started in 2014 to help people carry out home funerals and green burials. People can rent the group’s home funeral kit, which includes a body board, ice packs, soap, lotion, diapers, latex gloves and small bags of rice to place over the dead person’s eyes to keep them closed.

‘The personal touch’

Stewart, who has long volunteered at Monroe Clinic’s hospice program, said she saw the need for a more personal death service after her brother died in a car crash at age 19. She was 21.

Police came to the house in the middle of the night, told her mother her son was dead and left. Stewart wanted to see her brother’s body before he was embalmed, but the funeral director wouldn’t let her, she said.

“There had to be a better way,” she said.

Later, as a detective for the Lafayette County Sheriff’s Department in Darlington, Stewart tried to deliver death notifications with more sensitivity. But she wasn’t able to do all she wanted to help grieving families. After a shoulder injury forced her to retire, she discovered death midwifery.

“I thought, ‘This is it. This is the personal touch. This is the attention that families need,’ ” she said.

At a death midwife class she taught last month, Stewart told students to help dying people reconcile with others if they ask, separate arguing family members at the bedside if necessary and encourage loved ones to say goodbye and leave the room if the dying person wants to die alone.

“Your job as a death midwife is to be an advocate for that dying person,” she said.

When Laurie Larson’s husband, Dennis Presser, died suddenly from a heart attack at age 54 four years ago, Stewart helped Larson and her two teenage children navigate the chaos.

Stewart joined Larson when she met with a funeral director to plan the funeral, which took place at the funeral home.

She organized an intimate gathering for family and close friends at the crematorium, with candles, incense and music. As Presser’s body lay inside an open cardboard cremation box, people read poems, told stories and colored the box. Then they placed him in the chamber, and Larson hit the ignition switch.

“I would never have had the energy to create that beautiful ritual,” said Larson, of Madison. “Sharon helped me in so many ways that I never would have thought I needed to be helped.”

Warren’s husband, Spencer, died at 64 from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.

Stewart helped the couple carry out their wishes. His body remained at home for three days, instead of being whisked off to a funeral home. “I had time to be with him; it was very healing,” Warren said.

As family and friends came for the home funeral, volunteers changed ice packs beside his body as he lay on their bed for viewing. Warren drove him to Circle Cemetery, where gatherers sang and played guitar before shoveling dirt over his shrouded body.

“It was the most natural thing I’ve ever experienced,” Warren said.

Complete Article HERE!

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11/24/17

Death doulas: Bringing death, dying and grief out of the shadows and into the light

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By Jennifer Ackerman, Regina Leader-Post

Elizabeth George was “tickled” to see what came after death.

She knew what she wanted her death to be like and she wasn’t afraid.

Diagnosed with colon cancer in 2010, Elizabeth told a friend she wanted three things to happen when she died: A singing circle, for a few select people to be present, and for her body not to be “whisked” off right away.

“Elizabeth really wanted to have a good death,” recalls one of her close friends, Ruth Blaser.

A childhood experience with death may have been what made Elizabeth so particular about her own passing. She lost her mother at age 11.

“She felt like the family response had been extremely unhealthy,” says Emily Wilson-George, one of Elizabeth’s two daughters. “They basically took everything that had belonged to her mother out of the house within the week and never spoke about it. She didn’t want that or anything remotely similar.”

Three days before she died, Elizabeth met with two death doulas. Together, along with friends and family, they ensured her death would go as planned.

A home vigil was organized. Elizabeth’s body was not whisked off to the morgue or a funeral home. Rather, she was moved to her dear friend Joyce Bethune’s house, gently placed on a massage table in a room full of tropical plants and a water fountain — a place where she found peace.

Joyce Bethune, left, and Ruth Blaser stand where they held a home vigil for their good friend Elizabeth George in Regina. George passed away last January from colon cancer.

Elizabeth’s fearless and accepting attitude toward her own mortality is often the exception.

“When you talk to people about how they feel about their own death, it’s a bit of a mood killer,” says Wilson-George. “It’s not really considered an acceptable topic of conversation.”

But an emerging cohort of death doulas in Regina is bringing death, dying and grief out of the shadows and into the light.

“There seems to be more healing when we can be sharing through grief, sharing through death,” says Denise Seguin Horth, one of the death doulas who met with Elizabeth. “So many other cultures embrace death more.”

Seguin Horth trained to become a death doula in 2016, through Beyond Yonder Virtual School for Community Deathcaring in Canada.

During a 14-week online course, participants learn advanced planning, home funerals, post-death body care, end of life financial considerations, grief, celebrant skills, death care rituals and more. A practicum is recommended, but not required.

“I feel that people have been so distanced from death that grief is heavier. It’s almost like a secret … It weighs on you and it just keeps you anchored down,” says Seguin Horth. “When we can talk more about death and talk more about grief openly without the taboo, … it seems to help that energy flow elsewhere so that we can move on.”

Sharon Pulvermacher — who also met with Elizabeth — did her training in 2014. She has been fascinated by death and the stages of grief since Grade 12 when she wrote a paper on death and dying.

Pulvermacher says being a death doula not only gives the dying person and their families a safe space to express themselves, but it’s also an opportunity to share with them their end-of-life options.

She says many people don’t even realize it’s within their rights to take the body of their loved one home for a vigil or home funeral, if that’s what they want to do.

“It’s … giving them a few more ideas, a few more tools, that they can imagine a little bit more largely than what they would do otherwise,” says Pulvermacher.

Defining death doulas

Definitions vary, but the core role of death doulas is to provide comfort and support to the dying and their families. Death doulas do one-on-one sessions, home vigils, simply sit with the dying person in the hospital holding their hand, and more.

“All death doulas have different niches. For me personally, I feel drawn more to accompanying those who are dealing with grief,” says Seguin Horth, who volunteers at Regina Wascana Grace Hospice.

She works with a variety of people — those who may have lost a limb or a pet, recently divorced or, like Elizabeth, someone who is in the last days of their life.

Besides the practical services death doulas offer, such as planning home funerals or helping with living wills, they also act as a sounding board for people to express their fears and musings about death, the afterlife and more.

A death doula brings no emotional or personal baggage that a friend or family member might and allows people the freedom to express themselves fully.

Sharon Pulvermacher is one of a few death doulas in Regina.

Where it began

Phyllis Farley, a key U.S. figure in the birthing centre movement, attended an end-of-life care conference in 1998. At the time, she was a chairwoman at the Maternity Center Association, an organization devoted to providing high-quality maternity care. She realized the same hands-on help and emotional support women receive when giving birth is just as important during death.

“We’re more than willing to, and very happy to in many cases, celebrate the birth of a child. While the potential of connections and the wonderful things they might do is always there, we don’t know that, but yet we celebrate it,” says Charisma Thomson, a professor at the University of Regina whose research centres on the anthropology of death.

But we deal with death differently.

“Here we have an individual at the end of their life, who we should be celebrating because we know what they’ve accomplished,” Thomson says. “Yet it’s that moment when … people just turn their back on them and really kind of silence their voice.”

At 80 years old, Farley founded an organization called Doulas to Accompany and Comfort the Dying. The program taught doulas how to listen and relate to the dying person, as well as do more practical things like helping with a living will.

The field grew and made its way to Regina, where there are about 10 death doulas. Some charge for their services, some don’t. Every death doula is different, and every person who seeks their services is looking for different things.

For Elizabeth’s daughter, the death doulas were invaluable.

“I think that having the death doulas not only provided the ritual that allowed us to process (her death) better, but it relieved a lot of the pressure,” she says. Not having to worry about the practical and procedural aspects of the vigil meant she could focus on being with her mom and getting closure.

But for many, the response to death may be much like when Elizabeth’s mother died — pushing death away.

Thomson traces society’s shift — from direct involvement in what happens to the body after death, to the current very institutionalized process — back to the Civil War in the United States, when embalming became common practice.

“You have Dr. Thomas Holmes during the Civil War starting to use embalming to send the soldiers back home … Once we start to add this clinical aspect to it, people I think believed it was beyond their abilities,” says Thomson.

As embalming became more popular, families sought professionals to do it — taking aftercare out of the hands of the family.

Around the same time, society decided priests were not qualified to declare time of death, and from then on only medical specialists could. Thomson says this shift also pushed death closer to the clinical realm rather than a personal one.

“We view death, or in North America anyway, … as though it is an illness or a disease or something that we can overcome with technology and science,” says Thomson.

And today, death happens in a hospital more often than not. When somebody dies, their body is typically moved to the morgue or the crematorium swiftly, giving family and friends little time with the body.

Bethune remembers a different time when home vigils were common.

“There was time for people to say their goodbyes and the whole process was a natural process,” she says. “I think we’ve just gotten so far away from that.”

She says having death doula services to help with things like home vigils or simply talking people through death is essential.

“It means that we don’t push our grief down into our subconscious, into our bodies. It means that we deal with it, that this is a natural part of life,” says Bethune.

Elizabeth wanted her family to have the time to say goodbye. So instead of denying the inevitable, she met it with playful curiosity.

“I know it sounds strange, but I’m a bit tickled at what’s coming next,’ Elizabeth told Seguin Horth, who describes that approach as beautiful. “She went past the fear.”

Denise Seguin Horth works as a death doula, and is shown standing at Riverside Memorial Park Cemetery. Death doulas support people in the process of dying.

During her meeting with the death doulas, Elizabeth was asked about her belief system and what she wanted her friends, family and the doulas to do when she died. According to Blaser, they also asked her what she imagined death to be like — a bold question friends and family might not feel comfortable asking.

“It was like mom didn’t have any doubts about what the death doulas were about,” says Wilson-George. “I was sitting there being like, who are these people? They’re sitting in on what’s a pretty personal time.” But in the end, she was grateful for their role in her mother’s end of life.

When the time came, Elizabeth’s vigil lasted a full 24 hours.

Someone from Alternatives Funeral & Cremation Services moved Elizabeth to Bethune’s home from the hospice, which she had entered just five days earlier. With no official certification or oversight board, death doulas are restricted from physically transporting a body.

“We sang her out of hospice with a favourite song of hers, and she had a quilt that had been made specially for her, draped over her,” recalls Pulvermacher.

Then they sang her into Bethune’s home where Seguin Horth and Pulvermacher positioned her body on a massage table and placed ice packs around her — looking after the practical and hygienic aspects of the vigil. They also made sure the family knew what to expect in terms of how the body would act in the hours after death.

A few close friends and family stayed the entire time. Others came and went to pay their respects. More songs were sung and memories of Elizabeth shared. Wilson-George remembers the feeling in the room as surprisingly intimate and radiantly positive.

For Blaser, the process with the death doulas helped her prepare.

“When Elizabeth died, I (felt) a sense of peace that we really accompanied her well and that it was her time to go,” she says. “That doesn’t mean that I don’t miss her. I do. But it’s not a wrenching kind of grief.”

For Emily Wilson-George it meant closure. After having seven years to imagine what her mother’s death would be like, Wilson-George went through so many different kinds of dread. The death doulas, along with friends and family helped minimize that fear.

“I think that they way that we managed to honour her death was something she would have approved of,” she says. “The feeling in the room that evening with the death doulas … it was so positive.

“I’m grateful to them for creating the space, for creating the opportunity.”

Complete Article HERE!

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11/20/17

Ashes to Ashes, Stardust to Stardust

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Delivering cremated remains to the stratosphere joins a growing list of new ways to memorialize the dead.

By Marina Koren

Mark Harris says funeral directors talk about it all the time. More and more people are growing tired of traditional funeral services and opting for something a little more creative. “It’s getting more difficult to offer the cookie-cutter send-off,” explains Harris, the author of Grave Matters, which examines how people have started to think, er, outside the box about death.

And so, Harris wasn’t surprised to hear that a new British company is offering to send cremated remains to the stratosphere. High-altitude latex balloons will float to 100,000 feet above the surface of the Earth, where the curvature of the planet appears against the darkness of space, and then release the ashes into the cold, creating a glittering display. “Scatter your loved one’s ashes in space,” Ascension Flights says on its website. “We are all made of stardust.” The stratosphere is not technically space, but for their purposes, it’s close enough.

Ascension Flights, run by funeral directors and a near-space launch firm, will soon offer its high-altitude funerals, with the cheapest package starting at £795, or about $1,040. For more money, customers can choose the launch site and have the scattering photographed and filmed

The near-space funeral is, at first glance, a contrast to “green” burials, which return remains to the soil in biodegradable coffins or urns. In this way, the deceased can meet “the green reaper,” as a Guardian article in 2014 colorfully put it, and contribute to the physical processes of the Earth. Blasting ashes into the stratosphere sure sounds like the opposite of that, but Ascension Flights promises some kind of return to the planet. “As the particles eventually return to Earth, precipitation will form around them, creating raindrops and snowflakes,” its website explains. “Small amounts of nutritious chemicals will stimulate plant growth wherever it lands.”

Harris, who favors going the natural route, said this promise seems considerably less certain than that of green burials, where at least “I wouldn’t have to worry about having my loved one’s ashes raining down from space on some random location like a landfill or a Superfund site or a nuclear power plant,” he said.

Both kinds of memorials are part of the same growing trend in end-of-life affairs, Harris said. People are becoming increasingly interested in how their physical remains, and the remains of their loved ones, will be handled. They want something more personal and more personalized.

These days, people can forgo metal caskets and be buried in bamboo or recycled cardboard instead, or have their remains wrapped in banana leaf, cotton, or wool. A company called Eternal Reefs will fashion an environmentally friendly artificial reef out of cremains—cremated remains—and drop it into the ocean for nearby marine life to populate. Cremains can be pressed into diamonds, incorporated into paint, and ejected as fireworks. The variety of options for the dead reflects the consumer culture of the living, says Phil Olson, a Virginia Tech professor who studies funeral practices, like the home-burial movement. “There are at least seven kinds of Coke, 500 kinds of cigarettes—options, options, options,” Olson said. Consumers want just as many choices in death as in life.

The option to send a loved one’s ashes to actual space has existed for several years already, for a steeper price than Ascension Flights charges. Since 1997, the company Celestis has flown missions into space delivering the cremains of dozens of people, including Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry. The payload is launched inside a capsule to more than 300,000 feet, beyond the boundary of space, and eventually falls back to Earth.

While the concept of commemorating life’s final frontier in the final frontier may seem incredibly high-tech, the emotion behind it is no different than run-of-the-mill funerals on Earth. Funeral services can be, in the end, more for the benefit of those who are left behind than those who’ve passed away. They are about processing grief, and grief is personal. For some, the thought of sending their loved one’s ashes into the stratosphere is, simply, very fitting, and it’s difficult to pin down the exact reasons why.

Olson points to alkaline hydrolysis as an example of the funeral industry misunderstanding its customers. Providers of alkaline hydrolysis, which reduces bodies to skeletons in a liquid solution, believed the appeal of the process came from its eco-friendliness. They later found that the primary reason people gave for choosing hydrolysis was that they perceived it to be gentler than cremation. “For some reason, people see being dissolved in caustic alkaline as being gentler than being incinerated,” Olson said.

Perhaps having more options to memorialize the dead may ease the grieving process in some way, he said, even if it’s not clear exactly how.

“We can speculate all we want for people’s motivations for doing this, but we could be dead wrong,” Olson said of the high-altitude memorial and, when I laughed in response, quickly realized his choice of words. “Sorry, pardon the pun. I didn’t even notice that.”

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11/4/17

Here’s what traditional funerals are like in the Philippines

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Blindfolded bodies and hanging coffins – the unusual funerals of the Philippines

MANILA, PHILIPPINES – OCTOBER 31: A coffin is placed on a tombstone during a funeral at the Navotas public cemetery on October 31, 2011 in Manila, Philippines. The ‘Day of the Dead (Todos Los Santos), ‘All Saints’ Day,’ and ‘All Souls Day’ are feast days celebrated on the first and second of November each year in Latin cultures around the world during which family and friends of the deceased gather around these days at cemeteries to pray and hold vigils for those who have passed. In the Philippines, family members clean the tombs, leave flowers and often spend the night at the tomb eating and celebrating with loved ones.

By

Here in Blighty, we tend to stick to the same tried and tested funeral traditions.

Save for religious elements, funerals in Glasgow aren’t too different from those in Preston; funerals in Wells are largely the same as funerals in Norwich.

This is not the case in the Philippines.

The country is largely Catholic (recent estimates suggest around 80 per cent) with a smaller demographic of Filipino Muslims. But in the more remote areas, tribal traditions, passed down over centuries, dictate some seemingly unconventional funeral customs that are practiced to this day.

From under-floor burials to hanging coffins, cigarette-smoking corpses to in-tree interment, each rite has the same intent: to offer the dead safe passage to the next life.

Blindfolds and cigarettes

Benguet is a landlocked province in the southern tip of the island of Luzon.

When someone dies here, friends and relatives start to convene at the deceased person’s house.

The body is cleaned, and a few of the men are dispatched to collect bamboo, which they then fashion into a chair – and this is where the body is seated.

Once secured in place with more bamboo and strips of cloth, the body is blindfolded so that the deceased does not have to bear witness to the suffering in the world.

A fire is lit to fend off insects and act as a beacon should the deceased’s spirit wander and be unable to find its way home.

This period lasts for eight days and, as you might expect, the body begins to decay.

This holds no fear for the Benguet people – in fact, they make jokes about the smell, and happily offer alcoholic drinks to the body during the mourning feast.

The night before the funeral, elders give a chanted, oral biography of the deceased and as the body is buried, mourners hit bamboo sticks together in the belief it will help the departed find their way to heaven.

The Benguet’s near neighbours, the people of Tinguian, also seat their dead in a prominent position, with a couple of small discrepancies: the Tinguian dress their deceased in their finest clothes then place a cigarette – which is frequently lit – between their lips.

For the llongot people in the mountains the east of Luzon, being seated is integral to burial, rather than the wake.

Corpses are buried sitting up and women have their hands tied to their feet to prevent their ghosts from roaming.

Home is where the heart is

The Apayao – also referred to as the Isnegs or Isnags – inhabit the area around the north of Luzon.

They live mostly along rivers, in large airy homes that sit atop wooden posts, and when they lose relatives, the custom is to bury them under the kitchen area.

It is a unique practice thought to be a sign of love and affection for the deceased.

A natural approach

Not all Filipino tribes keep their dead at home. Further north, the Caviteño have adopted an approach that returns their loved ones to the earth.

As they near the end of life, people of the Cavite venture into the forest and select a favoured tree.

As they ail, their family builds them a small hut in which the dying person will reside for their final days.

They are not alone: relatives and friends work to hollow out the chosen tree trunk as this is where the newly deceased will be buried.

The Cavite people return the deceased to nature as nature provided for them in life: trees are a source of fruit and fire wood that sustain life, so life is given back to the tree.

Closer to heaven

view of Sagada from the rice fields , a colourful village in north of Luzon island in Philippines South east asia

The people in the Sagada region have an interment ritual that is unusual, even among the Filipino tribes.

For more than 2,000 years the people in this mountainous area have hung their coffins from cliffs – coffins that are carved out of hollow logs by the elderly person about to make imminent use of it.

The theory is that by hanging the coffins in this way, the deceased are closer to heaven.

If a person is too frail or ill, the family makes the coffin on their behalf, and after the death the coffin is taken to a cave or hung to reach aspects of the cliff face, placed close to their ancestors.

Some of the coffins are more than a century old, which makes decay inevitable; the coffins eventually fall but this is part of the fulfillment of the rite.

Tourists are advised not to walk under the coffins, and certainly not to disrespect them by touching, but they they hold a unique beauty and can be observed using binoculars from a safe distance.

Ancient superstition

It may be less intensive, but it is customary for Filipinos to adhere to superstitions, or pamahiin sa patay, most of which are rooted in long-held beliefs.

These must be observed during the wake in order to avoid further deaths and bad luck in the family – and as Filipino wakes can last anything from a few days to a few weeks, this is no easy feat.

The Cebuano people have a long list of superstitions around death. They do not sweep the floor, lest the soul of the deceased be banished from the household.

Mirrors are covered, as it is feared the dead will attempt to show themselves in the reflection.

Mourners should avoid crying onto the glass screen of the casket, in case it impedes the spirit from journeying into the afterlife.

And should you sneeze during the wake, make sure someone pinches you – sneezing invites death but a pinch is meant to ward it off.

In the event of an unjust killing, a chick is placed on top of the coffin to bring justice.

While some of these traditions may seem unusual compared with the practices we have developed in the west, family is central to life and death in the Philippines.

The elderly remain at home until the end of life, which means most die surrounded by those they love – something the UK would do well to replicate.

Funerals are a chance for families to reunite, to reconnect and reinforce familial bonds, and often wakes are extended to accommodate overseas relatives.

Togetherness, family, grief and the comfort of ritual: mountains and oceans may separate us, but maybe we aren’t so different after all.

Complete Article HERE!

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11/3/17

How to Give Back to the Earth in Death

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Conservation burials are one step beyond green burials, and may set aside a couple of square miles for wildlife a year.

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When Matthew Holden’s best friend died last year at the age of 31, it prompted him to think hard on what he would want when his own time came. “What would I want to do with my body when I die?” he asks. “How can I do the best for the world?” After some research, Holden, a mathematician who studies conservation at the University of Queensland in Australia, came across conservation burials.

You may have heard of green burials—funerals in which people eschew formaldehyde-based embalming and metal caskets in favor of more environmentally friendly practices that let the body more easily decompose. Such burials appeal to those who cared about the environment in life, and liked the idea of returning to the Earth in death. “Conservation burial is the next step,” Holden says. In addition to making the burial process itself eco-friendly, conservation burials include interment in a cemetery that’s designed to preserve a parcel of land. People may still visit the cemetery, but it’s maintained as a sort of wilderness area, with small or no headstones, instead of the traditional manicured park. “The goal is to protect native habitat, or restore native habitat for threatened or protected species,” Holden says. In an essay released today in the journal Conservation Letters, he shows just how much space and money would go toward threatened plants and animals if every American chose to have a conservation burial.

The mathematician has found that, given the average burial plot size, conservation burials would set aside two square miles a year for wildlife, if every American chose to have one. (The actual number may be larger because conservation cemeteries tend to leave more space between plots.) Funeral revenues run to an estimated $19 billion annually in the United States. Not all of that money is used to purchase and maintain cemetery space, of course, but the idea of putting even a fraction of that toward land that may help endangered animals and plants is appealing. “Just having that amount of money going to conservation is a lot,” Holden says.

There are few conservation cemeteries in the U.S. The website of the Green Burial Council, which independently certifies various green funeral practices, lists only six. And it’s not known, actually, how much conservation cemeteries aid species. Studies suggest that traditional cemeteries can act as mini green sanctuaries—the historic Weissensee Jewish Cemetery in Berlin, for example, has been found to house 48 species of threatened bats, birds, plants, mosses, and bugs. Could greener practices help burial grounds protect even more species? Holden wants to see biologists undertake studies comparing conservation cemeteries with traditional ones.

Matthew Holden

It’s hard to face death, and different people find different practices comforting. For Holden, it’s clear the idea of giving back helps. In addition to providing homes for endangered animals, he hopes conservation cemeteries could offer a park-like space for visitors, and not just the friends and family of the deceased, either. Imagine a walk in the woods that just happens to be a cemetery. So he’s been trying to get the word out, especially after he quizzed his colleagues in the conservation department at the University of Queensland and found none of them had heard of conservation burials.

“After my friend’s passing I was depressed, and part of the healing process for me was to try and generate some good from such an tragic event in my life,” he says. “It is very much about turning a negative into a positive for me.”

Complete Article HERE!

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10/23/17

Sitting Up With the Dead: Lost Appalachian Burial Customs

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By Hope

From the peaks of the Blue Ridge and the Great Smoky Mountains, to the river valleys of the French Broad and Catawba, North Carolina has a long history that is steeped in rich Appalachian traditions. Despite the Hollywood “hillbilly” stereotype, Appalachians carry a sense of pride for their culture, language, and heritage.

Isolated from the outside world, Appalachian regions have long struggled with rough rocky terrain for farming and plagued with poverty. Immigrants from Europe began migrating to the area in the 18th century with a large proportion of the population being Ulster Scots and Scotch-Irish. Many pioneers moved into areas largely separated from civilization by high mountain ridges and our pioneer ancestors were rugged, self-sufficient and brought many traditions from the Celtic Old World that is still a part of Appalachian culture today.

If you grew up Appalachian, you usually had a family relative who was gifted and could foresee approaching death, omens or dreams of things to come.

 
There was always a granny witch to call on when someone was sick and needed special magic for healing. Superstitions about death were common and were considered God’s will. One thing for sure, no matter how hard you fought it, death always won.

Appalachian folks are no stranger to death. For the Dark Horseman visited so frequently, houses were made with two front doors. One door was used for happy visits and the other door, known as the funeral door, would open into the deathwatch room for sitting up with the dead. Prior to the commercialization of the funeral industry, funeral homes and public cemeteries were virtually nonexistent in the early days of the Appalachian settlers.

For Whom the Bell Tolls…

In small Appalachian villages, the local church bell would toll to alert others a death has occurred. Depending on the age of the deceased, the church bell would chime once for every year of their life they had lived on this earth. Family and friends quickly stop what they were doing and gather at the deceased family’s homestead to comfort loved ones. Women in the community would bring food as the immediate family would make funeral preparations for burial. The men would leave their fields to meet together and dig a hole for the grave and the local carpenter would build a coffin based on the deceased loved one’s body measurements.

Due to the rocky terrain, sometimes dynamite was used to clear enough rock for the body to be buried. Coffins used to be made from trunks of trees called “tree coffins”. Over time, pine boxes replaced the tree coffins. They were lined with cloth usually made from cotton, linen or silk and the outside of the coffin was covered in black material. If a person died in the winter, the ground would be too frozen to dig a grave. In this case, the dead would simply be placed in a protected area outdoors until spring.

After the bell tolls, every mirror in the home would be draped with dark cloth and curtains would be closed. It was believed that by covering the mirror, a returning spirit could not use the looking glass as a portal and would cross over into their new life. The swinging hands on the clock were stopped not only to record the time of death, but it was believed that when a person died, time stood still for them.
Preparing the Body

Before the use of embalming, the burial would be the next day since there were no means of preserving the body. To prepare the body, the deceased would be “laid out” and remained in the home until burial. The body would be placed on a cooling board or “laying out” board. Depending on the family, the “laying out” board might be a door taken off the hinges, a table, ironing board or piece of lumber. Many families had a specific board for the purpose of laying out the body that had been passed down from generations.

The “laying out” board would then be placed on two chairs or sawhorses so the body could be stretched out straight. Depending on what position the person was in when they died, sometimes it was necessary to break bones or soak parts of the body in warm water to get the corpse flat on the board. As rigor mortis began to set in, some folks have actually heard bones cracking and breaking which would cause the corpse to move as it began to stiffen. The board would then be covered with a sheet and a rope was used to tie the body down to keep it straight and to prevent it from suddenly jerking upright.

Post-mortem picture of the body placed on a cooling board or “laying out” board.

Scottish traditions used the process of saining which is a practice of blessing and protecting the body. Saining was performed by the oldest woman in the family. The family member would light a candle and wave it over the corpse three times. Three handfuls of salt were put into a wooden bowl and placed on the body’s chest to prevent the corpse from rising unexpectedly.

Once the body was laid out, their arms were folded across the chest and legs brought together and tied near the feet. A handkerchief was tied under the chin and over the head to keep the corpse’s mouth from opening. To prevent discoloration of the skin, a towel was soaked in soda water and placed over the face until time for viewing. Aspirin and water were also used sometimes to prevent the dead from darkening. If the loved one died with their eyes open, weights or coins were placed over the eyes to close them.

Silver coins or 50 cent pieces were used instead of pennies because the copper would turn the skin green. Once the corpse was in place, the body would then be washed with warm soap and water. Then family members would dress the loved one in their best attire which was usually already picked out by the person before they passed. The body of the dead is never left alone until it was time to take the deceased for burial.

Sitting Up With the Dead

After the body has been prepared, the body is placed in the handmade coffin for viewing and placed in the parlor or funeral room. The custom of “sitting up with the dead” is also called a “Wake”. Most times a handmade quilt would be placed over the body along with flowers and herbs. The ritual of sending flowers to a funeral came from this very old tradition. The aroma from the profusion of flowers around the deceased helped mask the odor of decomposition.

Flowers as a form of grave decoration were not widely used in the United States until after the mid-nineteenth century. In the Southern Appalachians, traditional grave decorations included personal effects, toys, and other items such as shells, rocks, and pottery sherds. Bunches of wildflowers and weeds, homemade plant or vegetable wreaths, and crepe paper flowers gradually attained popularity later in the nineteenth century. Placing formal flower arrangements on graves was gradually incorporated into traditional decoration day events in the twentieth century.

The day after the Wake, the body would be loaded into a wagon and taken to the church for the funeral service. Family and friends walked behind the wagon all dressed in black. The church bell would toll until the casket was brought into the church. This would be the last viewing as friends and family walked past the casket to take a final look at the body. Some would place a variety of objects in the coffin such as jewelry, tobacco, pipes, toys, a bible and every once in an alcoholic beverage.

Today, a strong sense of community continues to dominate Appalachian burial customs even though the modern funeral industry has changed the customs slightly. The social dimension has changed completely since caskets are commercially produced and graves are seldom dug by hand. Modern funeral homes have made the task of burial more convenient but the downside is there is less personal involvement. Personalized care for the dead is an important aspect of family and community life in Appalachia. And we can certainly say for sure that the days of conducting the entire procedure necessary to bury a person, all done by caring neighbors, with no charge involved, are no longer practiced.

Complete Article HERE!

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