In the Victorian era, jewelry made with hair was all the rage. In 1854, the novelist Wilkie Collins wrote that bracelets made of human hair were “in England one of the commonest ornaments of woman’s wear.” Ten years later, Charles Dickens wrote that a man’s watch fob made of hair was the real mark of middle-class respectability.
Victorians on both sides of the Atlantic were particularly mesmerized by the hair of the dead. Victorian literature scholar Deborah Lutz explores “the materiality of death and its artifacts” of the era, finding antecedents in the Christian reliquary tradition, when body parts of saints were considered magical. Protestantism and secularization shifted this fascination toward the sought-after body parts of royals and the very famous (like Napoleon, whose penis is supposedly now in New Jersey). By the middle of the nineteenth century, this long Western tradition had become “increasingly secular, personal, and private.” And concentrated on hair.
Loved ones and relatives could give hair as tokens of love and friendship. Family members or lovers could twine their hair together. After a person’s death, their hair remained; as the Whitman exhibits show, well-preserved hair can last a long time. Hair was a tangible keepsake of a life, and of a body. Perhaps it imparted a sense that you might meet again.
Lutz writes that such relics “work as traces of a life and body completed and disappeared, in this sense something like last words, by they also serve as frames or fragments of the moment of loss.” These present reminders of those who have died speak of a “desire to see death as not permanent, in that material remains might be proof that the loved one still exists somewhere, somehow.” Relic worship also shows a willingness “to dwell in and with the moment of loss itself, to linger over this evidence of death’s presence woven into the texture of life at all turns.”
Romanticism, the Evangelical revival of the 1830s-40s, and Spiritualism’s rise in the 1850s-1860s, all contributed to this “after-death narrative” and the mid-century popularity of “hairwork.”
Lutz reminds us of the passage in Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights (1847) when Heathcliff switches his rival Linton’s hair from the locket around the dead Catherine’s neck and replaces it with his own. “Rather than gathering a memento of Catherine for himself, Heathcliff sees to it that a material fragment of his body will go down into the grave with Catherine’s corpse, to intermingle with her flesh.” The notion of the “good death” merges here with the palpable eroticization of death. Of course, Heathcliff’s plans are foiled by Nelly Dean, who twines Linton’s lock around Heathcliff’s—opening “the possibility of a postmortem storm of jealousy.”
Fiction mirrored the times. After her husband’s death in 1861, Queen Victoria had at least eight pieces of jewelry made that incorporated Prince Albert’s hair. The Victorians “found in relic culture a means to respect the irreducible self.” Such a culture, Lutz says, “sees death, and the body itself, as the beginning of stories, not their end.”
Dayna West knows how to throw a fabulous memorial shindig. She hired Los Angeles celebration-of-life planner Alison Bossert — yes, those now exist — to create what West dubbed “Memorialpalooza” for her father, Howard, in 2016 a few months after his death.
“None of us is going to get out of this alive,” says Bossert, who helms Final Bow Productions. “We can’t control how or when we die, but we can say how we want to be remembered.”
And how Howard was remembered! There was a crowd of more than 300 on the Sony Pictures Studios. A hot-dog cart from the famed L.A. stand Pink’s. Gift bags, the hit being a baseball cap inscribed with “Life’s not fair, get over it” (a beloved Howardism). A constellation of speakers, with Jerry Seinfeld as the closer (Howard was his personal manager). And babka (a tribute to a favorite “Seinfeld” episode).
“My dad never followed rules,” says West, 56, a Bay Area clinical psychologist. So why would his memorial service
Death is a given, but not the time-honored rituals. An increasingly secular, nomadic and casual America is shredding the rules about how to commemorate death, and it’s not just among the wealthy and famous. Somber, embalmed-body funerals, with their $9,000 industry average price tag, are, for many families, a relic. Instead, end-of-life ceremonies are being personalized: golf-course cocktail send-offs, backyard potluck memorials, more Sinatra and Clapton, less “Ave Maria,” more Hawaiian shirts, fewer dark suits. Families want to put the “fun” in funerals
The movement will only accelerate as the nation approaches a historic spike in deaths. Baby boomers, despite strenuous efforts to stall the aging process, are not getting any younger. In 2030, people over 65 will outnumber children, and by 2037, 3.6 million people are projected to die in the United States, according to the Census Bureau, 1 million more than in 2015, which is projected to outpace the growth of the overall population
Just as nuptials have been transformed — who held destination weddings in the ’90s? — and gender-reveal celebrations have become theatrical productions, the death industry has experienced seismic changes over the past couple of decades. Practices began to shift during the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s, when many funeral homes were unable to meet the needs of so many young men dying, and friends often hosted events that resembled parties.
Now, many families are replacing funerals (where the body is present) with memorial services (where the body is not). Religious burial requirements are less a consideration in a country where only 36 percent of Americans say they regularly attend religious services, nearly a third never or rarely attend, and almost a quarter identify as agnostic or atheist, according to the Pew Research Center.
Funeral homes adapt
More than half of all American deaths lead to cremations, compared to 28 percent in 2002, due to expense (they can cost a third the price of a burial), the environment, and family members living far apart with less ability to visit cemetery plots, according to the National Funeral Directors Association. By 2035, the cremation rate is projected to be a staggering 80 percent, the association says. And cremation frees loved ones to stage a memorial anywhere, at any time, and to store or scatter ashes as they please. (Maintenance of cemeteries, if families stop using them, may become a preservation and financial problem
Past funeral association president Mark Musgrove, who runs a network of funeral homes and chapels in Eugene, Ore., says his industry, already marked by consolidation, is adapting to changing demands.
“Services are more life-centered, around the person’s personality, likes and dislikes. They’re unique and not standardized,” he says. “The only way we can survive is to provide the services that families find meaningful.”
Funeral homes have hired event planners, remodeled drab parlors to include dance floors and lounge areas, acquired liquor licenses to replace the traditional vat of industrial-strength coffee. In Oregon, where cremation rates are near 80 percent, Musgrove has organized memorial celebrations at golf courses and Autzen Stadium, home of the Ducks. He sells urns that resemble giant golf balls and styles adorned with the University of Oregon logo. In a cemetery, his firm installed a “Peace Columbarium,” a retrofitted 1970s VW van, brightly painted with “Peace” and “Love,” to house urns.
Change has sparked nascent death-related industries in a culture long besotted with youth. There are death doulas (caring for the terminally ill), death cafes (to discuss life’s last chapter over cake and tea), death celebrants (officiants who lead end-of-life events), living funerals (attended by the honored while still breathing), and end-of-life workshops (for the healthy who think ahead). The Internet allows lives to continue indefinitely in memorial Facebook pages, tribute vlogs on YouTube and instamemorials on Instagram.
Memorials are no longer strictly local events. As with weddings and birthdays, families are choosing favorite vacation idylls as final resting spots. Captain Ken Middleton’s Hawaii Ash Scatterings performs 600 cremains dispersals a year for as many as 80 passengers on cruises that may feature a ukulele player, a conch-shell blower and releases of white doves or monarch butterflies.
“It makes it a celebration of life and not such a morbid affair,” says Middleton. His service is experiencing annual growth of 15 to 20 percent.
From coffins to compost
With increased concern for the environment, people are opting for green funerals, where the body is placed in a biodegradable coffin or shroud.
The industry is literally thinking outside the box.
“My work is letting people connect with the natural cycle as they die,” says Katrina Spade of Recompose in Seattle, who considers herself part of the “alternative death-care movement.” If its legislature grants approval this month, Washington will become the first state in the nation to approve legalized human composting. Her company plans to use wood chips, alfalfa and straw to turn bodies into a cubic yard of top soil in 30 days. That soil could be used to fertilize a garden, or a grove of trees, the body literally returned to the earth.
Spade questions why death should be a one-event moment, rather than an opportunity to create an enduring tradition, a deathday, to honor the deceased: “I want to force my family to choose a ritual that they do every year.”
Death has inspired Etsy-like enterprises that transform a loved one’s ashes into vinyl, “diamonds,” jewelry and tattoos. Ashes to ashes, dust to art.
After Seattle artist Briar Bates died in 2017 at age 42, four dozen friends performed her joyous water ballet in a public wading pool, “a fantastic incarnation of Briar’s spirit,” says friend Carey Christie. “Anything other than denial that you’re going to die is a healthy step in our culture.”
Funeral consultant Elizabeth Meyer wrote the memoir “Good Mourning” and named her website Funeral Guru Liz. Her motto: “Bringing Death to Life.” She notes, “Most people do not plan. What’s changing is more people are talking about it, and the openness of the conversation. Our world will be a better place when people let their wishes be known.”
In 2012, Amy Pickard’s mother “died out of the blue.” She was unprepared but also transformed. Now, she’s “the death girl,” an advocate for the “death-positive movement,” sporting a “Life is a near-death experience” T-shirt, teaching people how to plan by hosting monthly Good to Go parties in Los Angeles and offering a $60 “Departure File,” 50 pages to address almost every need.
“We’re still in the really early days of super-creative funerals. There’s this censorship of death and grief,” Pickard says. “You have the rest of your life to be sad over the person who died. The hope is to celebrate their time on Earth and who they were.” Overshadowing grief?
Some practitioners worry that death has taken a holiday, and grief is too frequently banished in end-of-life celebrations that seem like birthday blowouts.
“Do you think we’re getting too happy with this?” asks Amy Cunningham, director of the Inspired Funeral in Brooklyn. “You can’t pay tribute to someone who has died without acknowledging the death and sadness around it. You still have to dip into reality and not ignore the fact that they’re absent now
But even sadness is being treated differently. In some services, instead of offering hollow platitudes that barely relate to the deceased, “we are getting a new radical honesty where people are openly talking about alcoholism, drug use and the tough times the person experienced,” Cunningham says. Suicide, long hidden, appears more in obituaries; opioid addiction, especially, is addressed in services.
West, who hosted such a memorable send-off for her father, has some plans for her own: “Great food and live music, preferably Latin-inspired,” and “my personal possessions are auctioned off,” the proceeds benefiting a children’s charity. Why can’t a memorial serve as a fundraiser?
An avid traveler, West plans to designate friends to disperse her cremains in multiple locations “that have significance in my life” and leave funds to subsidize those trips — a global, destination ash-scattering.
Fifty years ago, a physician was admitted to the hospital with stomach cancer. He wrote down in his own medical chart that he did not want CPR or to be connected to a breathing machine. His wishes were disregarded — he underwent CPR numerous times and was connected to a breathing machine until he died. Back then, not only were people treated in ways they did not want, many patients were also arbitrarily denied potentially lifesaving therapies.
Doctors decided who deserved to live or not: In one New York hospital, doctors put purple stickers on the charts of patients they determined would not receive CPR or other similar measures without the patients’ or their families’ knowledge. Decisions about life and death were subjective and opaque.
End of life care has considerably improved since then. Patient preferences now help direct physicians and nurses about what type of care they would want to receive. But 50 years into the future, we will look back on today and conclude that medicine was sorely lacking when it came to how we handle death.
Many in medicine, as well as patients and caregivers, continue to equate more procedures, more chemotherapy, and more intensive care with better care. Studies in patients with cancer and heart disease, the two greatest killers of mankind, show that patients receiving palliative care, which is an approach that focuses on quality rather than quantity of life, can actually live longer. While the goal of palliative care is to help people with a serious illness live as well as possible — physically, emotionally and spiritually — rather than as long as possible, some people receiving palliative care might also live longer since they avoid the complications associated with procedures, medications, and hospitalization
In addition, while medical advances have moved forward at blinding pace, the ethical discourse surrounding many technologies has not kept up. Take, for example, cardiac devices such as pacemakers and mechanical pumps that can be placed in the heart. Many patients with terminal illnesses who want to deactivate these devices find resistance from the health system, since some continue to equate deactivating them with euthanasia. We need to continue to make sure that even as technological advances blossom, patients remain at the center, and physicians continue to honor their wishes.
And while the palliative care specialty has greatly improved end-of-life care, too often, palliative care has been used as a way to avoid the culture change needed by all medical specialties to better handle death. Despite its many benefits, many patients and physicians are scared of “palliative care” because of its strong association with the end of life. Some have been compelled to change the title of their practices to “supportive care.” To many patients, the very name “palliative” implies that they will be abandoned, making them very reluctant to accept their services. The fact is that palliative care can, and should, be delivered to patients with serious illness alongside conventional care.
But the issues go beyond the name — one recent study showed that palliative care-led meetings with families of patients in intensive care units led to an increase in post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms among family members. Palliative care specialists are often consulted in tense situations when patients are critically ill, and they often have no prior relationship with patients or their families, who might be unprepared to have serious discussions with them. That’s why most of these difficult conversations should be delivered by the doctors and surgeons primarily responsible for treating the patients. One study estimated that by 2030, the ratio between palliative care specialists and eligible patients will be 1 to 26,000. Palliative care specialists cannot be entirely responsible for end-of-life care by themselves.
To emerge on the right side of history, the entire culture of medicine needs to be turned around. End-of-life care is not just palliative care’s business. It is everyone’s business, from emergency room doctors to primary care physicians. Physicians need to abandon outdated ideas that their role as healers is incompatible with helping patients die comfortably and on their own terms. Helping patients die well is as important as helping them live to the fullest.
A funeral is an important yet highly emotional event that every family has to experience in their lifetime. It is imperative for all members of the family to make sure that just like any other important day of rituals, this day too has a properly defined procedure which most individuals and families choose to follow.
Saying Goodbye to a loved one can be really tough but that doesn’t mean that this ritual has to be executed in a dull manner. Flowers are the most important part of every funeral proceeding. Not only are they a sweet element to convey your remembrance for the person who has left for their heavenly abode, but they are an omen of hope and affection that you hold for your loved one.
This post will provide you with vital funeral etiquettes that you must keep in mind before executing a funeral with your family.
The Less, the Better
Different cultures from all over the world follow a different set of practices when it comes to funeral rituals. While some religions mandatorily use flowers as an important part of their funeral rituals, other cultures either restraint the use of flowers or take decisions as per their own wishes. The first step towards choosing flowers for a ritual is to make sure that you keep it less cluttered. There is no point in choosing a mix of flowers without knowing their significance.
What does each flower stand for?
When you proceed to get flowers for placing in the casket, you must pay attention to the meaning that each type of flower portrays. Below is a list of the most common flowers that individuals prefer for a funeral and what they stand for:
Camelia is a flower which represents Gratitude and Respect when placed over the funeral casket of the person who has passed away. Choosing Camelia is a way of thanking the person for their contributions in their entire lifetime.
There are different colors of roses that you can choose for the funeral, each one of them representing a different level of Love and Affection. While a light pink rose signifies innocence and love, red roses stand for the remembrance of a dearly loved one.
Daffodils and Daisies
An omen of eternal hope and possibilities, daffodils are known to send across hope and positive vibes to the person who has just departed for their heavenly journey. Daisies, on the other hand, signify the presence of good wishes and innocence.
Just as the name says, Forget-me-nots depict the remembrance that you will hold in your heart forever for the person who has passed on.
White Lilies are known to be used as funeral flowers across different religions and cultures as a symbol of perpetual peace and admiration for the one who is long gone.
It is important to note here that there are a few cultures of the world which restraint or don’t follow the practice of using flowers for a funeral. Placing funeral flowers is a practice which is not preferred to be followed when it comes to Jewish and Islam Cultures. The Indian culture, on the other hand, places a strong emphasis on the usage of flowers, preferably roses which are laid upon the funeral bed.
Different types of funeral flower Arrangements
Depending upon the length of your casket and the wishes of the family, these are the different kinds of flower arrangements that you must know about, before proceeding for the funeral arrangements.
A wreath is a circular shaped floral arrangement which is covered by a bunch of flowers and leaves woven together and held tightly. A wreath is usually made up of different combinations of flowers along with leaves.
Freshly Cut flowers
If you wish to bid Adieu in the simplest and the most beautiful way possible, then you can choose to pay homage with a bunch of raw flowers which can be combined together and placed near the casket.
Floral Casket Tops
This arrangement permits you to adorn the topmost part of your casket with flowers that you choose to put.
Inside the Casket
Placing flowers inside the casket gives your beloved one a floral bed to lay themselves on for the rest of eternity. This arrangement usually requires the accumulation of flower petals or soft flowers which are laid inside the casket.
My wife’s brother Rich died the last week in February. They were very close. Shortly after he passed, in the emergency room of a hospital in Washington state, his body came home. There it was wrapped in a Stewart tartan blanket (his family name) and placed on a table in a window alcove facing Mount Baker. He remained there for the next three days clad in a favorite red plaid Pendleton shirt, jeans, moccasins and a much-worn woolen cap, On the second day, his wife, Sharon, put binoculars around his neck, a reminder of his many hours watching the snow geese, hawks, trumpeter swans and bald eagles surrounding his beloved farm.
Sharon was connecting to a movement that had arisen in the 1990s for families to take back responsibility from hired professionals for the caring and mourning of loved ones in the privacy of their homes. It turns out to be an old American tradition.
Before the Civil War, funerals were a family affair. With help from their church and community, family members would wash, display the body and dig the grave for their dead. But, as Civil War historian Drew Gilpin Faust writes in her book “This Republic of Suffering,” the huge numbers of young men dying in the war far from home overwhelmed the personal home funeral. Instead, there was embalming, mass-marketed coffins and transporting bodies long distances. President Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, followed by the public display of his embalmed body, became a major moment in the national marketing of this new death trade.
By the 20th century, undertakers were elevated to a professional class of funeral directors, bodies were seen as a risk to public health and the false narrative spread that families no longer had the right to care for their own. The practice of dying at home and family caring for the dead remained common only in rural areas.
Like most of us, Rich and Sharon hadn’t planned their funeral. Unlike us, they had talked and read about death, and attended a class on alternatives to standard funerals. These included arrangements for green burials, where bodies in the ground decompose in compostable caskets. Sharon also had talked with a friend who, with the help of a local home funeral group, had kept her husband’s body at home for three days for visits and prayers.
Rich’s death had been unexpected. A retired ophthalmologist, he had recently been diagnosed with prostate cancer and had his first chemotherapy treatment the week before. He developed sepsis, which can happen after chemo, and died the following day. He was 77.
At the hospital’s ER, Sharon explained to two chaplains who sat with her that she wanted to bring Rich home. They put her in touch with A Sacred Moment, a local funeral home that is part of a national network reviving and supporting family-managed funerals.
A “very kind” man, as Sharon put it, from the group took the body to the house in a van. He gave Sharon information on keeping it cold with packs of dry ice and instructions to replace them every 12 to 18 hours. Sharon and her daughter washed and clothed the body.
Rich had passed away at 11 a.m. and by 1 p.m. his body was home.
For the next three days family and friends came by to see Rich. Some talked to him; one shared the beat of an ancient drum; some read poems. Sharon thought that many friends wouldn’t have attended a funeral parlor for a restrained viewing in a limited time. Here they could arrive individually or as family, whenever they wanted, stay as long or little as they could, bring photos or food or prayers or babies or guitars.
Our son Daniel arrived in the middle of the night to sit alone with the uncle who helped raise him.
Sharon found it all incredibly comforting. Rich’s men’s support group of 30 years gathered for a morning of stories of kayaking in Alaska and tales of salmon fishing, hiking and climbing in the North Cascades. The second morning the couple’s Buddhist Sangha meditation group chanted, prayed together and held Sharon as they wept.
Many of the visitors seemed shocked that this was possible, that a body could be brought home for people to mourn however they wanted.
For family, it provided a last chance to talk with Rich, to be with him in a place he loved. Sharon remarked that so many people worried that they “never had a chance to say goodbye.” Now they could, and they didn’t have to look back and regret not saying the right thing.
In their own unplanned way, people could grieve.
At times there was a crowd, at others a solitary friend. A family member lit a vaporizer full of essential oils. Others placed flowers on his body. A table nearby had his notes written when he couldn’t talk because of mouth sores from the chemo and a guest book that soon filled with photos and letters and mementos.
Not everyone showed up — there were no solemn strangers in dark suits timing the starched formalities of yet another ceremony. Rich’s death was wrapped in the life that continued around it. Often there were kids playing, dogs wrestling, women cooking.
At 2 p.m. of the third day, the kindly man from A Sacred Moment returned to take the body. As they carried it out, Sharon played on the piano “It Had To Be You,” which she and Rich had often sung together. This time, she sang it with her daughter, Jo.
Washington state does not allow bodies to be buried outside a cemetery, so he was cremated and his ashes were scattered in his garden. A memorial service will be held when the tulips bloom in early spring.
From joining coffin clubs to downloading apps like WeCroak, here’s how a growing number of people are living their best life by embracing death.
by Stephanie Booth
Taking a dirt nap. Biting the big one. Gone — forever.
Given the gloom and painful finality with which we speak about death, it’s no wonder that 56.4 percent of Americans are “afraid” or “very afraid” of the people they love dying, according to a Chapman University study.
The cultural mindset is that it’s something terrible to be avoided — even though it happens to all of us.
But in recent years, people from all walks of life have begun to publicly push back against that oxymoronic idea.
It’s called the death positive movement, and the goal isn’t to make death obsolete. This way of thinking simply argues that “cultural censorship” of death isn’t doing us any favors. In fact, it’s cutting into the valuable time we have while we’re still alive.
What does that look like, exactly?
This rebranding of death includes end-of-life doulas, death cafes (casual get-togethers where people chat about dying), funeral homes that let you dress your loved one’s body for their cremation or be present for it.
There’s even the WeCroak app, which delivers five death-relevant quotes to your phone each day. (“Don’t forget,” a screen reminder will gently nudge, “you’re going to die.”)
Yet despite its name, the death positive movement isn’t a yellow smiley face–substitute for grief.
Instead, “it’s a way of moving toward neutral acceptance of death and embracing values which make us more conscious of our day-to-day living,” explained Robert Neimeyer, PhD, director of the Portland Institute for Loss and Transition, which offers training and certification in grief therapy.
Death as a positive mindset
Although it’s hard to imagine, what with our 24-hour news cycle that feeds on fatalities, death hasn’t always been such a terrifying prospect.
Well, at least early death was more commonplace.
Back in 1880, the average American was only expected to live to see their 39th birthday. But “as medicine has advanced, so has death become more remote,” explained Ralph White.
White is the co-founder of the the New York Open Center, an inspired learning center that launched the Art of Dying Institute. This is an initiative with a mission to reshape the understanding of death.
Studies show that 80 percent of Americans would prefer to take their last breath at home, yet only 20 percent do. Sixty percent die in hospitals, while 20 percent live their last days in nursing homes.
“Doctors are trained to experience the death of their patients as failure, so everything is done to prolong life,” White said. “Many people use up their life savings in the last six months of their lives on ultimately futile medical interventions.”
When the institute was founded four years ago, attendees often had a professional motivation. They were hospice nurses, for instance, or cancer doctors, social workers, or chaplains. Today, participants are often just curious individuals.
“We consider this a reflection of American culture’s growing openness to addressing death and dying more candidly,” White said.
“The common thread is that they’re all willing to engage with the profound questions around dying: How do we best prepare? How can we make the experience less frightening to ourselves and others? What might we expect if consciousness continues after death? What are the most effective and compassionate ways of working with the dying and their families?”
“The death of another can often crack us open and reveal aspects of ourselves that we don’t always want to see, acknowledge, or feel,” added Tisha Ford, manager of institutes and long-term trainings for the NY Open Center.
“The more we deny death’s existence, the easier it is to keep those parts of ourselves neatly tucked away.”
Death as a community builder
In 2010, Katie Williams, a former palliative care nurse, was attending a meeting for lifelong learners in her hometown of Rotorua, New Zealand, when the leader asked if anyone had new ideas for clubs. Williams did. She suggested she could build her own coffin.
“It was a shot from somewhere and totally not a considered idea,” said Williams, now 80. “There was no forward planning and little skill background.”
Williams called up friends between the ages of 70 and 90 with carpentry or design skills she thought could be useful. With the help of a local funeral director, they began building and decorating coffins in William’s garage.
“Most found the idea appealing and the creativity exciting,” said Williams. “It was an incredible social time, and many found the friendships they made very valuable.”
Nine years later, although they’ve since moved to a larger facility, Williams and her Coffin Club members still meet every Wednesday afternoon.
Children and grandchildren often come too.
“We think it’s important that the young family members come [to] help them to normalize the fact that people die,” explained Williams. “There’s been so much ‘head in the sand’ thinking involved with death and dying.”
Younger adults have shown up to make coffins for terminally ill parents or grandparents. So have families or close friends experiencing a death.
“There’s lots of crying, laughing, love and sadness, but it has been very therapeutic as all ages are involved,” said Williams.
There are now multiple Coffin Clubs across New Zealand, as well as other parts of the world, including the United States. But it’s less about the final product and more about the company, Williams pointed out.
“It gives [people] the opportunity to voice concerns, get advice, tell stories and mingle in a free, open way,” said Williams. “To many who come, it’s an outing each week that they cherish.”
Death as a life changer
Janie Rakow, an end-of-life doula, hasn’t just changed her life because of death. She helps others do the same.
A corporate accountant for 20 years, Rakow still vividly remembers being mid-workout at a gym when planes struck the World Trade Towers on September 11, 2001.
“I remember saying to myself, ‘Life can change in one second,’” said the Paramus, New Jersey, resident. “That day, I wanted to change my life.”
Rakow quit her job and started volunteering at a local hospice, offering emotional and spiritual support to patients and their families. The experience profoundly changed her.
“People say, ‘Oh my gosh, it must be so depressing,’ but it’s just the opposite,” Rakow said.
During a person’s last days of life, end-of-life doulas fill a gap that hospice workers simply don’t have the time for. Besides assisting with physical needs, doulas help clients explore meaning in their life and create a lasting legacy. That can mean compiling favorite recipes into a book for family members, writing letters to an unborn grandchild, or helping to clear the air with a loved one.
Sometimes, it’s simply sitting down and asking, “So, what was your life like?”
“We’ve all touched other people’s lives,” said Rakow. “Just by talking to someone, we can uncover the little threads that run through and connect.”
Doulas can also help create a “vigil plan” — a blueprint of what the dying person would like their death to look like, whether at home or in hospice. It can include what music to play, readings to be shared aloud, even what a dying space may look like.
End-of-life doulas explain signs of the dying process to family and friends, and afterward the doulas stick around to help them process the range of emotions they’re feeling.
If you’re thinking it’s not so far removed from what a birth doula does, you’d be correct.
“It’s a big misconception that death is so scary,” said Rakow. “99 percent of the deaths I’ve witnessed are calm and peaceful. It can be a beautiful experience. People need to be open to that.”
Thich Nhat Hanh has done more than perhaps any Buddhist alive today to articulate and disseminate the core Buddhist teachings of mindfulness, kindness, and compassion to a broad global audience. The Vietnamese monk, who has written more than 100 books, is second only to the Dalai Lama in fame and influence.
Nhat Hanh made his name doing human rights and reconciliation work during the Vietnam War, which led Martin Luther King Jr. to nominate him for a Nobel Prize.
In 2014, Nhat Hanh, who is now 92 years old, had a stroke at Plum Village, the monastery and retreat center in southwest France he founded in 1982 that was also his home base. Though he was unable to speak after the stroke, he continued to lead the community, using his left arm and facial expressions to communicate.
In October 2018, Nhat Hanh stunned his disciples by informing them that he would like to return home to Vietnam to pass his final days at the Tu Hieu root temple in Hue, where he became a monk in 1942 at age 16.
As Time’s Liam Fitzpatrick wrote, Nhat Hanh was exiled from Vietnam for his antiwar activism from 1966 until he was finally invited back in 2005. But his return to his homeland is less about political reconciliation than something much deeper. And it contains lessons for all of us about how to die peacefully and how to let go of the people we love.
When I heard that Nhat Hanh had returned to Vietnam, I wanted to learn more about the decision. So I called up Brother Phap Dung, a senior disciple and monk who is helping to run Plum Village in Nhat Hanh’s absence. (I spoke to Phap Dung in 2016 right after Donald Trump won the presidential election, about how we can use mindfulness in times of conflict.)
Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Tell me about your teacher’s decision to go to Vietnam and how you interpret the meaning of it.
He’s definitely coming back to his roots.
He has come back to the place where he grew up as a monk. The message is to remember we don’t come from nowhere. We have roots. We have ancestors. We are part of a lineage or stream.
It’s a beautiful message, to see ourselves as a stream, as a lineage, and it is the deepest teaching in Buddhism: non-self. We are empty of a separate self, and yet at the same time, we are full of our ancestors.
He has emphasized this Vietnamese tradition of ancestral worship as a practice in our community. Worship here means to remember. For him to return to Vietnam is to point out that we are a stream that runs way back to the time of the Buddha in India, beyond even Vietnam and China.
So he is reconnecting to the stream that came before him. And that suggests the larger community he has built is connected to that stream too. The stream will continue flowing after him.
It’s like the circle that he often draws with the calligraphy brush. He’s returned to Vietnam after 50 years of being in the West. When he first left to call for peace during the Vietnam War was the start of the circle; slowly, he traveled to other countries to do the teaching, making the rounds. And then slowly he returned to Asia, to Indonesia, Hong Kong, China. Eventually, Vietnam opened up to allow him to return three other times. This return now is kind of like a closing of the circle.
It’s also like the light of the candle being transferred, to the next candle, to many other candles, for us to continue to live and practice and to continue his work. For me, it feels like that, like the light is lit in each one of us.
And as one of his senior monks, do you feel like you are passing the candle too?
Before I met Thay in 1992, I was not aware, I was running busy and doing my architectural, ambitious things in the US. But he taught me to really enjoy living in the present moment, that it is something that we can train in.
Now as I practice, I am keeping the candlelight illuminated, and I can also share the practice with others. Now I’m teaching and caring for the monks, nuns, and lay friends who come to our community just as our teacher did.
So he is 92 and his health is fragile, but he is not bedridden. What is he up to in Vietnam?
The first thing he did when he got there was to go to the stupa [shrine], light a candle, and touch the earth. Paying respect like that — it’s like plugging in. You can get so much energy when you can remember your teacher.
He’s not sitting around waiting. He is doing his best to enjoy the rest of his life. He is eating regularly. He even can now drink tea and invite his students to enjoy a cup with him. And his actions are very deliberate.
Once, the attendants took him out to visit before the lunar new year to enjoy the flower market. On their way back, he directed the entourage to change course and to go to a few particular temples. At first, everyone was confused, until they found out that these temples had an affiliation to our community. He remembered the exact location of these temples and the direction to get there. The attendants realized that he wanted to visit the temple of a monk who had lived a long time in Plum Village, France; and another one where he studied as a young monk. It’s very clear that although he’s physically limited, and in a wheelchair, he is still living his life, doing what his body and health allows.
Anytime he’s healthy enough, he shows up for sangha gatherings and community gatherings. Even though he doesn’t have to do anything. For him, there is no such thing as retirement.
But you are also in this process of letting him go, right?
Of course, letting go is one of our main practices. It goes along with recognizing the impermanent nature of things, of the world, and of our loved ones.
This transition period is his last and deepest teaching to our community. He is showing us how to make the transition gracefully, even after the stroke and being limited physically. He still enjoys his day every chance he gets.
My practice is not to wait for the moment when he takes his last breath. Each day I practice to let him go, by letting him be with me, within me, and with each of my conscious breaths. He is alive in my breath, in my awareness.
Breathing in, I breathe with my teacher within me; breathing out, I see him smiling with me. When we make a step with gentleness, we let him walk with us, and we allow him to continue within our steps. Letting go is also the practice of letting in, letting your teacher be alive in you, and to see that he is more than just a physical body now in Vietnam.
What have you learned about dying from your teacher?
There is dying in the sense of letting this body go, letting go of feelings, emotions, these things we call our identity, and practicing to let those go.
The trouble is, we don’t let ourselves die day by day. Instead, we carry ideas about each other and ourselves. Sometimes it’s good, but sometimes it’s detrimental to our growth. We brand ourselves and imprison ourselves to an idea.
Letting go is a practice not only when you reach 90. It’s one of the highest practices. This can move you toward equanimity, a state of freedom, a form of peace. Waking up each day as a rebirth, now that is a practice.
In the historical dimension, we practice to accept that we will get to a point where the body will be limited and we will be sick. There is birth, old age, sickness, and death. How will we deal with it?
What are some of the most important teachings from Buddhism about dying?
We are aware that one day we are all going to deteriorate and die — our neurons, our arms, our flesh and bones. But if our practice and our awareness is strong enough, we can see beyond the dying body and pay attention also to the spiritual body. We continue through the spirit of our speech, our thinking, and our actions. These three aspects of body, speech, and mind continues.
In Buddhism, we call this the nature of no birth and no death. It is the other dimension of the ultimate. It’s not something idealized, or clean. The body has to do what it does, and the mind as well.
But in the ultimate dimension, there is continuation. We can cultivate this awareness of this nature of no birth and no death, this way of living in the ultimate dimension; then slowly our fear of death will lessen.
This awareness also helps us be more mindful in our daily life, to cherish every moment and everyone in our life.
One of the most powerful teachings that he shared with us before he got sick was about not building a stupa [shrine for his remains] for him and putting his ashes in an urn for us to pray to. He strongly commanded us not to do this. I will paraphrase his message:
“Please do not build a stupa for me. Please do not put my ashes in a vase, lock me inside, and limit who I am. I know this will be difficult for some of you. If you must build a stupa though, please make sure that you put a sign on it that says, ‘I am not in here.’ In addition, you can also put another sign that says, ‘I am not out there either,’ and a third sign that says, ‘If I am anywhere, it is in your mindful breathing and in your peaceful steps.’”