01/13/18

How death got cool

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The latest death trend is a cross between hygge and Marie Kondo: a sign that dying well has become a defining obsession of our time.

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Last spring, at Green-Wood cemetery in Brooklyn, where the artist Jean-Michel Basquiat is buried, another conceptual artist, Sophie Calle, launched an installation called Here Lie the Secrets of the Visitors of Green-Wood Cemetery. For the next 25 years, anyone passing by will be able to write down their most intimate secrets and bury them in a grave designed by the artist. The cemetery also hosts moonlit tours, cocktail parties, dance performances, and even yoga classes.

Death is hot right now, and upbeat gatherings in cemeteries are just a small part of the trend. One of the chief desires of our time is to turn everything we touch into a reflection of who we are, how we live and how we want others to view us – and death is no exception. Once merely the inevitable, death has become a new bourgeois rite of passage that, much like weddings or births, must now be minutely planned and personalised. Not since the Victorian era’s fetishisation of death, with its all-black attire, elaborate mourning jewellery and seances, has death been so appealingly packaged. Every death must be in some way special and on-trend. Finally, the hipster can die as he lived.

If you fancy an environmentally friendly burial, you can choose to be wrapped in a biodegradable artisanal shroud, decorated to your specifications by the bespoke company Vale for $545. (It’s just $68 for pets.) Or you can be buried, as the celebrated California chef Alice Waters says she wants to be, in a burial pyjama suit seeded with mushrooms that help your body decompose more quickly. A few years ago, artist Jae Rhim Lee delivered a Ted talk while wearing one such suit – a black hooded one-piece threaded with white veins infused with mushroom spores. On stage, Lee cheerfully explained that she is training mushrooms to eat her when she dies by feeding them her hair, nails and dead skin so they recognise her body.

Artist Jae Rhim Lee giving a Ted talk in a special burial suit seeded with pollution-gobbling mushrooms.

For people less concerned about the environment and more worried about the terrifying prospect of dying alone, there are now solutions (or at least partial ones). You can hire a death doula, a trained professional who will assist at the end of life in the same catch-all manner that birth doulas are there during labour. You can request a home funeral, in which your friends and family pay their respects to your corpse in the comfort of your living room, with every detail as carefully planned as a wedding. And before that day arrives, you can discuss the facts of death with like-minded souls at a Death Cafe, a meeting of the global movement started by Jon Underwood in 2011 (who died last summer of acute promyelocytic leukaemia) as a way for people to gather and reflect on mortality.

One of the people pioneering this new way of approaching death is Caitlin Doughty, a young, Los Angeles-based mortician who looks like a lost member of the Addams Family. She has written a bestselling memoir, hosts a YouTube series called Ask a Mortician and has founded a “death acceptance collective” called The Order of the Good Death, whose youthful members promote positive approaches to mortality.

“It’s OK to be openly interested in death practices,” Doughty told me while driving through LA one afternoon last autumn. “It makes you an engaged human who cares about all aspects of life. Ghettoising it as an interest particular to goths, weirdos or people obsessed with murder creates a dearth of honest conversation about death in the western world.”

This growing interest in alternative “death practices” began as a way to skirt the commercialism and uniformity of the funeral industry. And it appeals to a diverse set of people. “This desire for a pine box in the ground brings together hippies and libertarians, stay-off-my-land gun owners, certain religious people, Trump voters who don’t want big business ignoring what they want,” Doughty said. “They might not all have the same back-to-the-earth vision, but it’s the same fight for their fundamental rights. They don’t want a bland corporate infrastructure to dictate what happens to their mortal remains and what represents their life.”

Given that the idea of rethinking death connects with millions of people who are tired of the rampant commercialism and homogeneity of modern life, it was only a matter of time before commercial interests caught on. Just as the Danish concept of hygge was sold – in the form of scented candles and hand-knitted woollen socks – to consumers looking for comfort in troubled times, there is gold, too, in our obsession with a good death.

Pulishers, in particular, have latched on to the trend. Books about death are nothing new, of course, but the pace at which they’re arriving seems to have accelerated. Last year saw the arrival of a stack of literary memoirs about death by authors such as Edwidge Danticat and Robert McCrum. In his memoir, My Father’s Wake, the writer Kevin Toolis explains why the Irish get death right, while Caitlin Doughty’s new book, From Here to Eternity: Travelling the World to Find the Good Death, explores the way cultures across the world, from Indonesia to Bolivia to Japan, approach death.

But perhaps it is not the Irish or the Bolivians who have perfected the art of dying well, but the Swedish. In recent months, thanks to a publisher-led media campaign, you may have come across the concept of döstädning, the Swedish practice of “death cleaning”. Death cleaning applies a simple formula to the process of dealing with our possessions before we die. In Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying, a bestselling guide to tidying up your home, and thus your life, the essential question is whether a given object “sparks joy”. In death cleaning, it is “Will anyone I know be happier if I save this?”

It is easy to see the appeal. Death cleaning addresses many of the aspects of contemporary life that make us most anxious. For those who feel that they have accumulated too much stuff and that all this stuff is getting in the way of their spiritual development, it offers a practical guide to de-cluttering. For those who worry about their privacy or the prospect of relatives discovering their secrets, it offers sensible precautions. For those who fear a long, bewildered, incapacitated old age, it is a way of coping through clear-eyed preparation and understanding.

While Silicon Valley billionaires search for cures for death, the rest of us are just seeking ways of accepting death, ordering a long and messy old age and making peace with our relatives, who are already horrified at the idea of looking after us in our incontinent, incoherent dotage. The fact of living longer doesn’t just give us time to think about death, but also plunges us into chaos, sickness and confusion, and death cleaning seems a valiant attempt to counter this.

Death cleaning is a concept that has had passing mentions in Sweden, but it is not a well-known part of the national culture. In truth, it seems to be more talked about by foreigners who like to imagine Scandinavia as a place where people have life sorted out than it is by Swedes themselves. But even if Swedes rarely talk about döstädning, there is something authentic about the underlying philosophy. The Swedish ambassador to the US, Karin Olofsdotter, recently told the Washington Post that death cleaning is “almost like a biological thing to do”, the natural product of a society that prizes living independently, responsibly and thoughtfully, and whose homes reflect that ideal.

A friend of mine who works as a radio producer in Stockholm said: “My mother is döstädning incarnated. She has been in the mode of frenetic cleaning for couple of years now – she is 65 – [and thinks] throwing stuff out will make it easier for us children when she is no longer with us. She doesn’t want us to be left with difficult decisions about what to do with it and she doesn’t want personal stuff to get in the wrong hands. And ever since I was a teen she has forced me to get rid of stuff – my earliest paintings, old clothes, books I read as a child, memorabilia. Keeps telling me that it’s the best for everyone. I don’t know if it’s typically Swedish, but it is very, very rational and unsentimental.”

The well-funded Swedish welfare state enables elderly Swedes to live independently. “Perhaps this also adds to the sense that they feel they must get their things in order before they die, so that no one else should be responsible for it,” says Michael Booth, author of The Almost Nearly Perfect People, a cultural tour of Scandinavian countries. “Swedes are deeply, deeply responsible people. It is very important for a Swede to do things properly, not to be a burden on others, to take responsibility in this way. Swedes are very ‘proper’.”

According to Booth, the decluttering element of death cleaning “chimes with the general parsimony and minimalism of Lutheranism, which you find traces of throughout many aspects of Scandinavian culture. In Sweden especially, they value the ‘modern’ and ‘new’, and so, if you visit a council dump or recycling centre, you see some fairly eye-popping items discarded – stuff Brits would never throw away.”

Others are more sceptical about the notion that death cleaning is the product of a distinctly Swedish sensibility. “It sounds like a mind-body-spirit thing that could have come from anywhere,” says Robert Ferguson, author of Scandinavians: In Search of the Soul of the North, another book that tries to figure out the roots of our fascination with Scandinavia. “Actually I’m still waiting for the world to discover the joys of kalsarikänni, a Finnish word that means ‘drinking beer on your own at home in your underpants with no intention of going out’.”

The book responsible for spreading the death-cleaning gospel is by Margareta Magnusson, a Swedish artist who describes herself as between “80 and 100”. The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning: How to Free Yourself and Your Family from a Lifetime of Clutter came out in English a few months ago. It is part practical guide to getting your affairs in order, part discourse on accepting the reality of death. Over the course of 38 very short chapters with titles such as If It Was Your Secret, Then Keep It That Way (or How to Death Clean Hidden, Dangerous and Secret Things), Magnusson sets out her pragmatic and upbeat approach to mortality. “Life will become more pleasant and comfortable if we get rid of some of the abundance,” she writes.

“The message was: we just have to accept that one day we will die,” said her literary agent, Susanna Lea. “Either our loved ones will begrudge us, or they will hold on to this wonderful memory and love us for sorting everything out. Which one do you want?”

As soon as Lea sent the book proposal out, publishers eagerly snapped it up. A German editor made an offer after just four hours. A couple of days later, it was sold to a publisher in Sweden, and then Lea took it to the 2016 Frankfurt book fair, the marketplace for international sales, and sold it to the UK, US and Australia. It is now being translated into 23 languages.

“Interestingly enough, the eastern Europeans have been the slowest to buy it,” said Lea. “They said: ‘We just don’t talk about death.’ I thought the Latin countries might not talk about death, but they completely got it.”

Margareta Magnusson, the author of The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning.

The title has been a challenge. Some countries balk at having death in the title of a book that is slim and small, and packaged like a gift book sold at check-out counters. Others struggle with translating the phrase itself. The Swedish just call their edition Döstädning (the subtitle translates as “not a sad story”). However, nettoyage de la mort does not work in French – they are going to call it instead La Vie en Ordre. The Germans get around it by giving it a title that translates as “Frau Magnusson’s Art of Putting Her Life in Order”.

As the book proposal appeared in the year that hygge and the decluttering guru Marie Kondo conquered the world, it’s not surprising that a book that could be pitched as “Marie Kondo does hygge” was a big hit with publishers. But Jamie Byng, head of Magnusson’s UK publisher, Canongate, strenuously rejects the comparison. “We were not looking for another Marie Kondo, fuck no,” he told me. “I was taken by the idea that this elderly Swedish lady had written a book about leaving this world gracefully and with as little mess as possible. There’s something of Swedish zen about it.”

Magnusson lives in an apartment in a large development in the Södermalm neighbourhood of Stockholm, not far from the upmarket raincoat brand Stutterheim (whose motto is “Swedish melancholy at its driest”), and shops that sell elegant, spare Scandinavian furniture. She’s tall and slender, wearing a striped French sailor-style shirt, faded jeans and trainers, with a grey bob and a long, oval-shaped face. Her most striking feature is her large, round, wet blue eyes. She looks healthy and spry and fashionable without trying hard, which fits the image of her as a mellow, slightly kooky but wise Scandinavian grandma who writes things such as: “Maybe Grandfather had ladies’ underwear in his drawer and maybe Grandma had a dildo in hers. But what does that matter now? They are no longer among us; if we liked them it really should be nothing for us to worry about.”

The first thing to note about Magnusson’s home is that it is not in any way minimalist. In her living room there are shelves of hundreds of books, and gentle abstract paintings by Magnusson herself on the walls. There are a surprising number of stuffed toys and masks from Asia (her late husband was Swedish but born in Japan, and the family lived in Singapore and Hong Kong as he moved frequently for work), presumably all of which have passed the making-people-happy test. The flat is packed with objects of sentimental value that have accrued around an elderly person who once lived in a larger home. It’s all cheerful and very, very neat.

Magnusson noted that Sweden used to be a country of big, quality companies that made things you might want to pass on to your children, or at least that lasted a very long time. “Swedish safety matches and Volvo – the safest car. Now, Sweden is just H&M and Ikea, stuff that doesn’t last more than five years if you’re lucky. It must have changed the culture in the country in a way, I think.”

She has a large collage of family photos hanging in her bedroom: a sister and brother, who are both dead, and her husband, who died in his mid-70s. Her book suggests that sorting through photographs is not the place to begin your death-cleaning process – too many memories to get swept up in, and too much sentiment. Better to start with the kitchen. But when it’s time to declutter your photos, she advises, be ruthless. One of her points is that if you don’t know the names of the people in a photo, feed them to a shredder.

Magnusson has a way, when talking about her life, to assume the mode of a literary narrator. Everything she says sounds like a first line to a self-consciously ruminative memoir. “I grew up in Gothenburg on Sweden’s west coast, and was born on New Year’s Eve,” she told me. “I think I was born in a happy way. It was happy, I don’t know. It started happy.”

An ecological coffin under construction.

Her pragmatic nature is such that she seemed almost frustrated explaining simple ideas about death and decluttering to a non-Swede such as me. She plans to be cremated when she dies, which is common in Sweden, and for there to be a memorial plaque her family can visit. “I don’t believe in life after death. When I’m dead, I will be dead,” she said.

“To think that you cannot handle yourself, that you think you don’t know what’s going to happen – that must be terrible. I don’t have that fear. I almost died some years ago.” She had woken up in the middle of the night with some kind of heart trouble. “On the way to the hospital, I was just gone,” she said. “Then I really realised that I didn’t see any light in tunnels. I was so happy when I woke up, but I realised that nothing will happen.”

There’s a tipping point in your life, she said, when you start attending more funerals than weddings. “Maybe in the 50s or 60s it starts to happen: my parents, my mother-in-law, my husband and friends,” she said. By that point, Magnusson’s daughter Jane, who lives just across the road, had come over.

“We had a funeral on Friday. It was actually very pleasant,” said Jane.

“Yes, it was very nice. You meet a lot of friends that you had together,” said Magnusson.

“You get to have a good cry,” Jane said.

“Yeah, you have a good cry,” said Magnusson. “But you have also a good laugh.”

Swedish death cleaning has found a kind of American counterpart in the rise of a pair of young men from Ohio who call themselves the Minimalists. When one of the duo, Joshua Fields Millburn, lost his mother in 2009, he was left wondering what to do with everything she had amassed in her small apartment. In the end, he decided to donate it all to charity. It was something of an epiphany for Millburn, who began throwing out one thing he owned every day for a month. What would go on to become the foundational principle of his brand of minimalism dawned on him: “Our memories are not inside of things; they’re inside of us.” From that moment almost a decade ago, Millburn and his friend Ryan Nicodemus have built a Minimalist empire – books, podcasts, documentaries, speaking tours – based on the idea that accumulating stuff is simply what we do to distract ourselves from our real problems: lack of satisfaction with work, love, life and, ultimately a way to deny the inevitability of death.

Isn’t all decluttering about death? I asked Doughty, the mortician. “It is a little death to give away a keepsake or an item,” she agreed. “For most people to admit that they should be keeping track of stuff and getting rid of things is extremely threatening to their sense of self and idea as mortal.”

For many of us, the main way we try to look at death is by not looking at it. My own parents constantly talk about how they want their dead bodies to be dealt with – my mother has gone from wanting her cremains to be flushed down the toilet to wanting her corpse fed to dogs – and yet the elaborate plans for death are a way around dealing with it. My father won’t even write a will, instead preferring to phone me at odd hours from California to get me to make solemn promises that, after he is gone, I will do or will not do certain things (such as keeping his house in the family, or making sure to invite specific people to his funeral).

This highly developed awareness of their own mortality and careful consideration of how to dispose of their remains, combined with a total lack of planning for what happens in the weeks, months and years after the funeral, sometimes feels like my parents’ way of ensuring that their large personalities will gently haunt me from the afterlife. Or, to put it more politely, it seems like a way to guarantee their presence in my life as long as possible.

Even surrounded by loved ones, you check out alone’ … mortician Caitlin Doughty.

But I also sympathise with them. Both of my parents are 66, and will hopefully be around for some time. Dealing with one’s own legacy is a stark business. It involves accepting that you are the one who cares most – or perhaps the only person who cares at all – about your own legacy. At the same time, it means confronting hard questions about the people you will leave behind. Will your last gift to your loved ones be to leave them a few valuable possessions, or a photo album full of memories, or simply the great favour of not burdening them with having to sort through all the stuff you accumulated over your lifetime?

Doughty says that any parent who is “unwilling to have a basic conversation about death with your desperate kids – that’s a profound unkindness”. At 33, she has a will and a plan for what will happen to her business and the small cabin she owns when she dies. That has brought her comfort, she says. At 40, I don’t have any plans in place for my own death, unless you count drunkenly asking various friends to promise they would take my dog in the event that she becomes an orphan. Perhaps I am more like my parents than I would like to think.

Planning for death is hard, because it means that one must accept that you are the one who cares most, or at all, about your own legacy. To plan for death is to accept both ideas simultaneously. “There might be no one at your bedside. You might not be found for two days and eaten by cats. That’s all in the realm of possibility,” Doughty said. “But even surrounded by loved ones, you check out alone. This is your personal journey to go on.”

The idea of death as a solo journey is redolent of the language of wellness: the way people talk about getting into their fitness or diet or mindfulness routines. This new view of death borrows heavily from another trendy concept: self-care, the idea that looking after oneself is a political act, shoring yourself up to be able to keep fighting and facing the world. Self-care, too, has been co-opted to be about treating yourself to bath products, massages, face masks and yoga retreats – granting yourself an excuse to make it OK to buy stuff. The commercialisation of death is the inevitable sequel to the monetisation of every other part of life.

Death cleaning is possibly more potent than other wellbeing trends in that it taps into deep emotions: fear, guilt, regret. The death industry exploits people’s fears of inadequacy. You can’t just die – at the very least, you’ll need to invest in a house-tidying consultant, a death doula, an environmentally sound bespoke shroud, and a home funeral, to prove just how well you lived.

Complete Article HERE!

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01/4/18

Reconciling science, belief and experience

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Making Rounds With Oscar

By Veenu Sandal

Bibi had always been strong and robust and even when she sustained injuries in dog fights, she would bounce back to her normal spirited self very quickly. Her unexpected, untimely death on the 26th of this month, just a day after Christmas caught everybody unawares. Everybody—except Tutu, one of my gentlest dogs often called the Dalai Lama by many people.  On the 22nd, four days before Bibi died, Tutu had given her the “once-over”, sniffing her from head to tail and he obviously sniffed death because thereafter he detached himself from Bibi and behaved as if she didn’t exist, something he’s done each time he’s sensed death. I’d witnessed Tutu’s verdict but subconsciously in an act of self-denial, chose to ignore it. If one factors in Tutu’s “once-over”, Bibi’s death was not really untimely.

Incidentally, out of all the dogs with me at present, Tutu is the only one who can sense death several days in advance, an ability, gift, prescience, call it what you will,  he seems to have inherited from his parents. Across the world, there are innumerable documented instances of dogs unerringly sensing death not only amongst themselves but amongst humans and other animals too. Cats too have the power to discern the approach of death well in advance.

Geriatrician David Dosa has written a book, Making Rounds With Oscar: The Extraordinary Gift of an Ordinary Cat. Oscar, said to have “predicted” more than 100 deaths, is internationally famous, having featured on Discovery Channel and other prestigious platforms.  According to Wikipedia, “Oscar is a therapy cat living in the Steere House Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in Providence, Rhode Island, U.S. since 2005… Oscar appears able to predict the impending death of terminally ill patients by choosing to nap next to people a few hours before they die. Hypotheses for this ability include that Oscar is picking up on the lack of movement in such patients or that he can smell biochemicals released by dying cells…”

Do animals also know when they themselves are going to die? Jennifer Coates, a house call veterinarian specialising in end-of-life care, wrote a few months ago, “From elephants who grieve for the loss of a herd member to whales who won’t leave their dead babies behind, many species react to death in much the same way that people do. But are animals able to understand that they are going to die themselves? That is a different, more existential question…”

Coates has witnessed several instances when it seems as if a pet has chosen the “right” time to die. She wrote, “I believe my own dog, Duncan, may have had a sense that his end was near…”. Several of my dogs and cats have been aware in advance of their own deaths too. 

Sensing death is not confined to dogs and cats. Karen Briggs, an equine expert who has authored six books, reveals that “… much of the information horses receive about their world is gained through their sense of smell… While we are vision-oriented,… horses rely far more on chemical messages in the air…Many trainers over the centuries have agreed that horses also seem to be able to recognise the smell of death, sometimes reacting suspiciously to a spot where another horse has died, sometimes for months or years after the animal perished…”

In a blog in the Huffington Post, Georgianne Nienaber  has written about horses from a paranormal perspective. “None of it makes much ‘scientific’ or even theological sense, but the special energy of the horse is an undeniable fact. Call it what you will: soul, energy or electrical waves that can be measured by machines, something powerful and healing resides within ‘Suŋkawakaŋ’ the horse…How do we explain stories told by the Dakota 38 Memorial Riders about ghost horses seen in the tree lines along the 330-mile route from the South Dakota Lower Brule Indian Reservation to Mankato, Minnesota during the winter storms of December? The annual ride remembers the hanging of 38 Dakota American Indians by order of Abraham Lincoln in 1862. It is not commemoration, it is remembrance, and the spirit horses watch over the riders on this dangerous journey of witness…”

Birds too can sense death, their own and that of others. My aunt had a very close bond with her pet geese and fed them their first meal of the day with her own hands. That fateful day, they refused to eat and were strangely quiet. Had they all picked up some infection, she wondered. She went back to the house to call the vet and had barely walked through the doorway when she collapsed and died. Her geese had picked up not an infection, but the intimation of death.  

The UK Telegraph carried fascinating findings in the USA on golden-winged warblers—tiny, delicate birds weighing just nine grams, or about as much as a palmful of coins, which showed that yet somehow they knew a massive storm system… was on its way one to two days in advance, and fled. According to ecologist Henry Streby, “When the birds flew off, the storm was still hundreds of miles away, so there would have been few detectable changes in atmospheric pressure, temperature and wind speed. The warblers in our study flew at least 1,500 kilometres total to avoid a severe weather system…” Scientists think that this sixth sense that birds possess has to do with their ability to hear sounds that humans cannot. Birds and some other animals have been shown to hear infrasounds, which are acoustic waves that occur at frequencies below 20 hertz.

With so much evidence about extra-sensory perception and other world connections  in dogs, cats, horses, birds and other animals, how is it that we humans, supposedly the most advanced species, lag so far behind, particularly in sensing death? There are Freudian theories, Jungian therories and the like, categorical scientific findings and theories like “They can see and hear things that humans cannot”.  And yet there are many recorded instances of humans who sensed death. So is it that most times we humans are so immersed in materialistic pursuits that we fail to detect other world signals? Or is it that we subconsciously choose to remain in self denial, like my own self denial when Tutu “declared” that Bibi’s time was up? In Nienaber’s  words, “Science, belief, and experience can be reconciled… A question answered with a question requires meditation and connection with what is unseen and unknown…”

Complete Article HERE!

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01/2/18

Can a Chatbot Help You Prepare For Death?

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They’re being designed to tee up end-of-life conversations, prep documents and provide spiritual counseling

This chatbot is designed to make it easier for people to deal with preparing for death.

By Randy Rieland

Welcome to the conversation no one wants to have.

It’s the talk about death—specifically one’s own death and the difficult decisions surrounding it. There’s the matter of organ donation, albeit that’s one of the easier choices for most people. Beyond that are tough questions about the conditions under which you would want to be kept alive—or not. Or who would be the person to make those decisions if you’re incapable of doing so.

Ideally, this is a discussion had with a family member or close friend, and at a time free of stress or urgency. But that rarely happens. It’s not just because it’s such an unpleasant and personal subject. There’s also often concern about how the other person might respond. Maybe they won’t be very empathetic, or even worse, maybe they’ll be judgmental.

But what if, at least initially, you didn’t have to talk to another human about this?  What if your “end-of-life” conversation was with a machine?

That’s an idea that a team at Northeastern University in Boston is exploring.  They’ve begun a trial in which they’re introducing terminally ill patients to chatbots—computer programs able to converse with humans.

Lead researcher Timothy Bickmore thinks that not only is this a way to get people to address the subject sooner, but it also could help make their last days more bearable.

“Patients tend to be referred to palliative care much too late,” he says. “Something like a third of patients moved to a hospice die within a week.”

Instead, says Bickmore, people with a short life expectancy could use technology with artificial intelligence to help prepare themselves logistically, emotionally, even spiritually for their deaths.

To test that theory, the research team is providing 364 patients expected to live less than a year with tablets loaded with a specially-designed chatbot.  The idea is that at least once a day the person would check in with the program.

It’s not a digital assistant like Alexa or Siri; there’s not a verbal exchange. Instead, after a voice greeting, the chatbot provides a choice of responses on the touchscreen. The interaction is meant to be closely scripted to keep the conversation focused and avoid the communication breakdowns that can occur with even the most intelligent machines. Plus, that protects the patient from revealing too much personal information.

That said, chats can cover a lot of ground. The chatbot can see if the person wants to talk about their symptoms or what he or she is doing to stay physically active. But it presents the option to expand the conversation beyond the person’s physical condition, too, perhaps to discuss “end of life” planning.  The program doesn’t actually generate documents, but it does enable family members or caregivers to see when a patient is ready to talk about it.

Spiritual counseling
There’s also an opportunity to talk about spirituality. That may seem an odd topic to get into with a machine, but Bickmore notes that an earlier pilot study found that just wasn’t the case.

“We designed it to be like an initial conversation a hospital chaplain might have with a patient,” he explains. “We were concerned that we might offend people with a spiritual conversation. But they seemed perfectly comfortable. There were even a few people who said they preferred having this conversation with a non-emotional character, as opposed to divulging these feelings to a human stranger.

“That was a little bit surprising,” he adds. “We actually felt we could have pushed it a little further. We discussed if we should make it possible for the chatbot to pray with them. We didn’t go there, but I think we could have.”

If a person chooses to converse with the chatbot about religion, the discussion can evolve over time since the machine remembers previous responses on the subject. “The program is very adaptive,” Bickmore says. “For instance, if it determines that you’re a spiritual humanist or a Catholic, then all subsequent conversation is tailored around that belief system.”

Included in that counseling role with the latest version of the program is an invitation to learn about meditation—both as a spiritual experience and a potential way to reduce anxiety and pain. If the patient is interested, the chatbot becomes a virtual meditation guide, all to appropriate background music and calming images.

Conversation practice
Haje Jan Kamps has also embraced the idea of using a chatbot to encourage people to deal with the logistics of dying. His impetus, however, was more personal.

A few years ago, when he and his wife lived in the U.K., his mother-in-law suffered a serious stroke in the U.S. She survived, but Haje says that during her treatment and recovery, he spent a lot of time talking to doctors and nurses about how unprepared many Americans seemed to be when it came to the details of death.

“I’d ask them ’Why don’t people plan for this stuff,” he recalls. “And they would look at me and say, ‘Sure, it would be great if they did, but they just don’t.’”

Kamps saw both a great need and an opportunity. He worked with another entrepreneur, Colin Liotta, to create an end-of-life planning chatbot. They named it Emily.

Emily is designed to have two purposes. The first is to actually help people fill out the appropriate paperwork—a formal organ donation statement, a health proxy document naming the person who will make your medical decisions if you can’t, and an “advance healthcare directive” outlining the extent of medical treatment you want to receive if you’re incapacitated. The documents are customized for the state where you live, although the tool currently provides coverage for fewer than 20 states.

The second goal is to encourage people to have the end-of-life discussion with another person.

“The idea is to have this conversation with a robot first,” Kamps says. “You learn the vocabulary. You learn how to structure a conversation about the end of life. And that means that it can become relatively straightforward to have that conversation again with a loved one.” 

For now, Kamps and Liotta see the audience for Emily—currently a free service—as one that might seem counterintuitive. They’re promoting it to people between 25 and 45 years old, a group that wouldn’t appear to be much interested in spending time thinking about death.

But Kamps points out that many in this demographic already are comfortable communicating with chatbots. It’s also an age range, he says, when people start making big life decisions—starting a family, buying a house.

And, to his way of thinking, it only makes sense to start thinking about a will and end-of-life planning at the same time—with the understanding that a person will probably want to consider updating the documents every so often.

“To me, these are core decisions,” he says. “Why wait?”

Complete Article HERE!

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12/28/17

The final act of love: reclaiming the rites of modern death

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As people search for ways to reclaim death from the funeral industry, a home vigil can help with the grieving process

‘‘Death loses its power over us when faced matter of factly.”

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Pete Thorpe was a wiry, strong and vital man. He loved his children, his wife, Fiona Edmeades, and the home they shared in Bondi. At 69, he was a well-known local character who was regarded with great warmth by all who knew him.

In early October he was laid up with stomach flu. It struck and didn’t budge for two days. Everyone expected that he would be back on his feet by the weekend. But on the evening of the third day – a Tuesday – Thorpe died suddenly of a heart attack.

“It was the last thing on earth … ” Edmeades explains, looking out of the window of their flat into the treetops, searching for the language to convey the shock of how her life had ruptured. “He just died.”

In the chaos of the hours that followed that moment, she knew one thing – Thorpe was not going anywhere.

“I knew I wanted to keep him with me,” she says. “Pete was Māori so that is the tradition in his culture – I had attended a couple of tangis so I knew it was possible.”

The tangi is a Māori death rite that involves close and extended family remaining with the dead for three days to mourn and honour them. “I just felt there was no way they could take him away,” she says.

Edmeades’s GP wrote a death certificate for Thorpe that night, which meant his body didn’t have to be taken away to the coroner’s. He could stay in the flat with his family, under New South Wales regulations, for five days.

He remained there until Friday afternoon. He was mourned at home and his funeral, organised by local funeral directors, was held there. Friends visited the flat and cried for him and told him jokes and sang songs and slipped small gifts into his hands. Extended family decorated his coffin in the back garden. Edmeades and their children placed him into it and sealed the lid themselves. They drove him to the crematorium and accompanied his coffin to the furnace door.

Edmeades says having him at home with her, their children and friends, helped her to process his death. It helped her face up to the fact that he was gone, especially because his death had been such a shock.

“As hard as it was to look at Pete and see it wasn’t Pete any more, it is just his body, it was so much less hard than having him disappear – poof,” she says.

“To be able to understand it in your body on a physical level means you can free yourself from the denial. Seeing that lifeless body is how you come to terms with the death and if you can’t come to terms with the death, how can you grieve? It would have been so traumatic if he just disappeared.”

Instead of Thorpe’s body being taken away that night to lie alone in a morgue or funeral home, Edmeades made a bed for him in the sunroom adjacent to their bedroom. It was his favourite room in the house and, with him there, she and her daughter could lie on their bed on that first night and see him.

‘I just felt there was no way they could take him away,’ says Fiona Edmeades of her husband, Pete Thorpe (pictured), who died suddenly.

“I was able to look at him all night and slowly understand the changes and that things had changed. He was still there and I could see him but the change was real, in such an unreal time.

“I would doze and then wake up and there was this wave of feeling utterly lost, but then there was Pete, anchoring me back in the world.”

The family’s story is becoming more common, as people decide to take death, dying and the days after death away from the medical and funeral industries and back into their own hands and homes.

Victoria Spence, an independent funeral celebrant and death doula, has noticed a groundswell of people in Australia over the past decade wanting to reclaim death for the family and the community.

Spence has worked with the dying, their bodies and the people they leave behind since the 90s when her father’s terrible funeral – the celebrant repeatedly got his name wrong – inspired her to train as a counsellor and civil celebrant specialising in end-of-life and after-death care.

She has seen communities transition from the need to whisk the dead away, hide them in a box inside a funeral home and then bury them in the ground like a secret. Instead she empowers the bereaved to bring their dead home from the hospital, wash them, dress them, hold their hands, talk to them, play music, build their coffins and hold their funerals in the community centre, school or living room. Taking death back in this way can set the groundwork for healthy grieving, she says.

“People feel alienated by the medicalisation, professionalisation and corporatisation of dying that has taken place,” she says. “Death has become a cultural blindspot for us and people want that to change.”

It is a sentiment echoed by Prof Ken Hillman, author of A Good Life to the End, who argues that death has become the new taboo – like sex was in the 1970s.

Pete Thorpe’s extended family decorated his coffin in his Bondi back garden.

“We only talk about [death and dying] in hushed tones,” he writes. “The subject of death and dying need to be brought into the open. There will be so many benefits for us as a society and individuals. Death loses its power over us when faced matter of factly.”

But dealing with death matter of factly is not always straightforward.

Often the thing stopping the bereaved from keeping their loved one at home is the lack of preparation and knowledge about what comes next, Spence says. Fear of the changes that take place in a dead body is also a potent deterrent.

“There is an increasing desire but not the knowledge to help people get ready and get the equipment,” she says.

The most important part of equipment for someone wanting to keep a vigil at home is the cool bed, a stainless steel plate that goes underneath the dead body and is usually set at 1C to 5C, keeping the corpse stable by slowing decomposition.

“Our dead change,” Spence says. “The body stiffens, the skin changes, there can be swelling and leakage. The cool beds slow down all of these processes, you get into a state of stasis.”

Once the bed is installed, Spence says, “It is very comforting to hang out with the body for a couple of days. Nothing untoward or scary happens.”

People holding vigils are often surprised at how peaceful and beautiful the dead are, she says.

Fiona Edmeades worried about all of this when Pete Thorpe died. But a close friend knew about the cool beds and the funeral home organised one.

“The cool bed changed everything because it reduced the aspect of the unknown and the fear that comes with it,” she says. ”Here is this amazing device that enables you to do what you want to do. It just feels so natural.”

Over the three days after Thorpe’s death, their home filled with friends and family. At first, some were hesitant to see him but their reticence always gave way.

“Lots of people who hadn’t seen a dead body before came. One child came and asked, ‘Can I touch him?’ and we talked all about it. When you are in it, it is so natural and gentle and beautiful – it is a beautiful way of saying goodbye.”

For her, having Thorpe at home, and a river of people wanting to come and show how much they loved him, made her own grieving easier.

“It helped us to deal with it together as a whole. In those first few days the weight of the grief is so overwhelming. Sharing Pete’s death with the community in this way helped spread the load. It felt like everyone was carrying a bit, as we slowly came to terms with what had happened.”

Complete Article HERE!

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12/27/17

In the 16th Century, the Best Office Decor was a Tiny Rotting Corpse

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Miniature memento moris were all the rage for around 300 years.

A 16th-century memento mori attributed to Hans Leinberger.

by Ella Morton

There are many additions you can make to your office desk in order to remind yourself to stay motivated, seize the day, and make every minute count. A mini zen garden or framed motivational quote, for instance; maybe a page-a-day calendar with a kitten hanging from a branch.

Or a 16th-century statuette of a rotting corpse.

The wooden carving above, sculpted by German artist Hans Leinberger in the 1520s, is a memento mori—a reminder of human mortality designed to keep its owner humble, focused, and untethered to worldly possessions. In 16th-century Europe, these stark odes to humanity’s transience appeared in the form of tomb effigies, full-sized statues, and smaller sculptures perfect for a tabletop.

The predominant image of these artworks was that of the upright corpse, depicted with a torn flesh suit and exposed ribs. The figure sometimes held an object; the corpse in Leinberger’s sculpture clutches a scroll with a Latin inscription that translates to “I am what you will be. I was what you are. For every man is this so.” 

One of the more striking full-sized memento moris of the era is the statue of René de Chalon, a French prince who died at 25 in the 1544 siege of Saint-Dizier. Known as a transi—for its depiction of human transience—the sculpture shows the prince’s desiccated corpse holding his own heart aloft.

The transi of René de Chalon.

Post-Renaissance, portable memento moris continued to be sculpted, with half-human, half-skeleton figures offering a slightly less gruesome way to remember one’s mortality. The half-half statuettes below were created in the early 19th century to encourage “spiritual contemplation.”

Memento mori figures from the early 19th century.

The wooden carving below, which was created in 19th-century Italy, shows a woman’s head with half her skull exposed. Note the baby snake wrapped around her mandible. Note also that despite the facial decay, her ruffled collar and lace cap are perfectly intact.

A 19th-century Italian memento mori.

Those preferring a more subtle, easily concealable reminder of death—one that can be whipped out for contemplation during a train ride, then stashed in a pocket on disembarking—could opt for a pendant-style memento mori like the one below. It dates to either the 18th or 19th century.

Skeleton in coffin pendant, Europe, 1701-1900.

Regardless of their size and level of grisliness, portable memento moris all offered the same message: life is short, you will die, and earthly possessions don’t matter. The fact that this message was contained in an earthly possession is just part of the thrilling paradox that is human existence.

Complete Article HERE!

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12/12/17

The Difficult Business of Dying

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The U.S. funeral industry is the most expensive and corporate in the world. Can Americans find a better way to grieve?

By Jess Bergman

In the six years since my father died, I’ve visited the cemetery where his ashes are interred exactly twice—the second time only because of the Jewish tradition of unveiling, where the initial graveside funeral service is followed within a year by a ceremony to uncover and dedicate the headstone. It’s not that returning would be too difficult. It’s more like the reverse: I fear an inability to perform the sadness and solemnity the pilgrimage seems to require. I miss my dad, but the cemetery, nestled alongside the highways and strip malls of suburban South Jersey, fails to evoke him in any meaningful way. It’s a site associated with him only retroactively, for the worst of all possible reasons. Where I’m supposed to feel his presence, there’s only a void.

FROM HERE TO ETERNITY: TRAVELING THE WORLD TO FIND THE GOOD DEATH by Caitlin Doughty

Los Angeles-based mortician and writer Caitlin Doughty argues that such feelings result from the failures of America’s death industry, which has become “more expensive, more corporate, and more bureaucratic than any other on Earth.” According to the National Funeral Directors’ association, the median cost of traditional funeral with a viewing and burial was $7,181 in 2014; Doughty cites the current average at $8,000 to $10,000. 14 percent of US funeral homes are run by publicly traded firms. Service Corporation International, the largest funeral services provider in the US, operates over 2,000 funeral homes employing more than 24,000 people. The $20-billion industry often pushes grief to the margins by pressuring families to make a series of high-stakes decisions on a very short timeline—most funeral homes come to pick up a body within an hour of being contacted.

In some cases, funeral homes deliberately exploit families for financial gain at a time of profound vulnerability. A 2013 undercover investigation conducted by the Federal Trade Commission revealed that up to one in five American funeral homes engage in “deceptive and manipulative practices.” The offenders violated the 1984 Funeral Rule, which stipulates that funeral homes must provide itemized price lists. The compulsory bundling of products and services is prohibited: They can’t require that you buy a traditional varnished casket when all you want is a cremation; an inexpensive, unfinished wooden box must be made available. And the law bans the aggressive sale of products that are not required by law, like the use of a hearse to transport remains to a cemetery. Though most funeral homes keep dedicated websites, few display their prices online, which makes it challenging to compare costs.

With its focus on profits, the industry has also changed the way we treat dead bodies. As recently as a hundred years ago, “no one would have questioned a wife washing and dressing the body of her husband,” Doughty writes, “or a father carrying his son to the grave in a homemade coffin.” The Civil War is often identified as the point at which practices began to shift. Embalming became more common as soldiers’ bodies were transported from the South to the North. It gained even more popularity after Abraham Lincoln’s funeral train tour, which took his embalmed corpse to 180 cities between Washington D.C. and Springfield, Illinois. Now, the United States is the only country in the world in which chemical conservation of the dead is common practice—a process that can cost anything from $495 to over $1,000. What was once a practical solution with a historically specific context has become a profitable norm, despite, according to the CDC, providing no public health benefit.

In her book From Here to Eternity: Traveling the World to Find the Good Death, Doughty tries to find a better way to die and to grieve, seeking out death rituals from the Western United States to Japan, Spain, Indonesia, and beyond. It sounds a bit like Eat, Pray, Die, but her project is much larger than its premise first implies. She is searching not for personal spiritual enlightenment or the morbid titillation of thana-tourism, but for practical, radical alternatives to our corporatized death industry. Her travels illuminate a host of compelling possibilities for better funerals and a less fraught relationship with our dead. But the book also reveals a larger failure of our culture to allow for mourning and grieving after the last goodbye. If it is hard to navigate the death care industry, it is harder still to work out how to live with grief.

On her travels, Doughty finds many rituals that involve prolonged contact with corpses—prolonged, at least, by American standards. All around the world, she meets people less troubled by the physical reality of dead bodies, whether those bodies are burned to ash, mummified, “decomposting,” or lying under glass in their natural, un-embalmed state. In Japan she visits a corpse hotel where families may rent a suite that looks like an ordinary condo and “just be with the body, free from the performance required at a formal viewing.” And at the Rinkai crematory, Doughty learns about the practice of kotsuage. According to this custom, families are escorted into a room called a shūkotsu-shitsu after a cremation, where they pick up their loved one’s remaining bone fragments and place them gently into an urn.

In North Carolina, Doughty spends time at Western Carolina University’s Forensic Osteology Research Station (FOREST), where corpses donated to science are turned into compost. The bodies are laid to rest in a wooded research facility, blanketed with alfalfa and woodchips, covered in a silver shroud, and in the hot sun to turn into dark, nutrient-rich soil after a period of weeks. The project is still in its experimental phase, but the FOREST researchers hope it will become a green solution with a therapeutic arc. Families will ultimately be invited to collect the soil made from the body of their loved one and with it, cultivate new life.

Doughty finds her most extreme example of dead body positivity in Tana Toraja in Indonesia. For Torajans, the border between the living and the dead is porous. Corpses frequently remain in the home for a period of weeks, months, or even years, and are cared for like any other member of the family—bathed, fed, dressed, and spoken to. After they are finally buried, following elaborate community funerals, bodies are periodically exhumed during what is called the ma’nene’. Families have the opportunity to reunite, and even picnic, with their dead; they can make animal sacrifices they may not have been able to afford at the time of the original burial. What sounds grisly to some is, to the Torajans, both tender and sacred: “Hauling someone out of their grave years after their death is not only respectful,” Doughty writes, “but it provides a meaningful way to stay connected to their dead.”

Doughty’s chatty calm in the presence of dead bodies and her arguments against American squeamishness are admirable. But it feels, at times, like From Here to Eternity’s focus on death comes at the expense of grief. This is not a failure of the project so much as its shape; the nature of Doughty’s inquiry makes grief a secondary concern. It does appear sporadically: In the chapter on the Day of the Dead, she travels to Mexico with her friend Sarah to visit a mummy museum, as well as the altars families erect to honor the people they’ve lost that year. Sarah is still reeling from the decision to obtain a late-term abortion when her fetus was diagnosed with trisomy 13, and Doughty writes about the isolation of Sarah’s grief, her feeling that the inability to move on from the loss had made her “radioactive” to her friends and coworkers. Her loss, and the future she had imagined, is devastatingly rendered. There is a digression, too, on the Western funeral industry’s fixation on “dignity,” by which they really mean silence, composure, and repression—this, too, is a moment of genuine feeling, and Doughty shows that though her tone is often light, she has the capacity to move and enrage.

But just as often, Doughty fails to engage with the realities of mourning. At an open-air cremation she attends in Crestone, Colorado, she professes to witness the “pall of grief [lifting] from the circle.” I don’t doubt the power of this ceremony. But the implication that it was able to dispel sadness—that such a thing is possible, or even desirable, at a funeral—gives me pause. Worse, in the book’s epilogue, she writes, “A sense of purpose helps the mourner grieve. Grieving helps the mourner begin to heal.” This is a neat, linear progression; in other words, it’s exactly what the experience of grief is not.

There is more to death and dying than funerals. From Here to Eternity is in some ways a missed opportunity to explore how the profit motive has distorted our experience of death—not just burial, but all the feeling that comes after a body is buried. In The Last Word, Julia Cooper writes of the difficulty of grieving under late capitalism. The amorphous, endless, and unpredictable nature of grief puts it fundamentally at odds with pressures “to be efficient, to progress, to—most of all—get back to work.” But, she writes, “mourning doesn’t work that way. There is no timeline because the work of grieving is never done. There is nothing efficient or productive about loss, but there it is all the same.” Grieving is the enemy of work, and we’re expected to suppress the former in the interest of the latter.

Minimizing the pain of personal loss, Cooper argues, is in service of “maintaining productivity for the benefit of a capitalist system.” Public displays of grief are shunned in part because they undermine the relentless positivity our economic system feeds on. The isolation of those who are unable to successfully curb their mourning is “a socially enforced strategy of our neoliberal era.” The repression of grief is also materially enforced: The standard paid bereavement leave, where it does exist, is three days. At Facebook, COO and Lean In author Sheryl Sandberg changed the company’s bereavement policy following the sudden death of her husband in 2015; the company now offers employees a comparatively generous 20 days paid leave following the loss of an immediate family member.

In the op-ed Sandberg wrote for The New York Times about her children’s experience of bereavement, she talks about grief in the language of business. The death of a parent is “adversity”; the word “resilience” is used six times, while “grieving” makes one appearance. Sandberg writes of her son and daughter’s loss (and her own) alongside the story of a friend’s child who was bullied at summer camp, with the implication that both experiences can be “overcome” with the same set of therapeutic tools. Sandberg’s approach isn’t insincere; original or not, the idea that “there is no wrong way to grieve” is an important one. But for those who don’t find this way of thinking helpful, our culture offers few other ways to address grief and work.

Caitlin Doughty’s mission to reimagine the death industry—to cast out our shame and fear of the dead—is an important one, for which she makes the case well and with good humor. More humane and meaningful rituals around death would doubtless ease the transition into the new reality that awaits the living after a traumatic loss. For my part, I look forward to one day spreading what I’ve kept of my father’s ashes, at a site less dour than a New Jersey tomb. But reforming our funeral industrial complex is only the beginning of the work ahead of us.

Complete Article HERE!

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12/10/17

SARCO CAPSULE: Check Out This State-Of-The-Art Suicide Machine

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“Sarco does not use any restricted drugs”

By Paul Bois

Once upon a time, people in Western society would invest their time into developing ways to heal people, enrich their lives, and restore their bodies to natural law. Now, we invent sleek new machines for people to commit suicide with.

According to LifeNews, the new “Sarco capsule” from Australia’s top euthanasia activist, offers people a fresh and easy new way to kill themselves without the presence of any doctor.

“The machine will allow anyone who has the access key to end their life by simply pressing a button,” reports LN. “Developed in the Netherlands by Nitschke and an engineer, the machine can be 3D printed and assembled in any location.”

After taking an online mental questionnaire, people are then provided with a four-digit access code to help build the Sarco capsule. Here’s how it works: people wishing to go into the great beyond will lie inside the capsule which will then slowly deplete the oxygen level with the use of liquid nitrogen. Shortly after a few minutes, people pass on to the afterlife to meet their maker.

When the person lies in the capsule, he can activate it and liquid nitrogen will rapidly drop the oxygen level, leading to death in a few minutes.

“Design criteria for the Sarco will be free, made open-source, and placed on the internet,” reports LN.

Nitschke believes that the Sarco capsule will usher in a new era of rational people ending their lives in peaceful ways without the use of doctors or drugs.

“Sarco does not use any restricted drugs, or require any special expertise such as the insertion of an intravenous needle,” says Nitschke. “Anyone who can pass the entry test, can enter the machine and legally end their life.”

No “restricted drugs” or needles? So long as it involves no animal testing or contributes to climate change, progressives will love the Sarco capsule.

Complete Article HERE!

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