Archaeologists in southern Siberia have unearthed a remarkable find – the mummified remains of a woman, carefully adorned in silk and buried with riches. Miraculously, her resting place was unscathed after being underwater for many years.
The team spotted the grave on the bank of the Yenisei River upstream of a giant dam – in a region that had been periodically underwater for decades.
She’s been nicknamed “sleeping beauty”, and was probably buried sometime in around the first century CE, archaeologists from St Petersburg’s Institute for the History of Material Culture believe.
Her burial place is near the Sayano-Shushenskaya Dam, which powers a hydroelectric power plant, and had been underwater for a great deal of time since the 1980s, when the reservoir began to be filled.
But her burial was unusual – she was laid to rest in a stone coffin – which is how her remains managed to survive being flooded.
“The mummy of a young woman was found inside a grave at the burial ground Terezin on the shore of a water reservoir. The lower part of the body is well-preserved,” explained archaeologist Marina Kilunovskaya of the Institute to Russian news agency TASS.
“It is not a classical mummy, though. The grave remained tightly sealed under the stone cover all along. The body underwent natural mummification.”
The waters recede every May and June, which allows archaeologists a short period of time to access the archaeological sites that were covered by the reservoir. They opened the tomb in May this year.
Inside, the burial was exceptionally well preserved. Soft tissues, skin, clothing and even grave goods were all found intact.
And the clothing and grave goods hint that the lady was a nomadic Hun, young and highly regarded by her people, possibly a noble.
“On the mummy are what we believe to be silk clothes, a beaded belt with a jet buckle, apparently with a pattern,” the Institute’s deputy director, Natalya Solovieva, told The Siberian Times.
“Near the head was found a round wooden box covered with birch-bark in which lay a Chinese mirror in a felt case.”
There were also two vessels buried with her, one of which was a typical Hun vase, both containing a funeral meal, and on her chest was a pouch of pine nuts. Ceramic utensils in the grave were typical of Hun burial practices, the archaeologists said.
Accidental mummification is not uncommon.
Ötzi the Iceman‘s body dehydrated, mummified by the ice of the glacier in which it resided for 5,000 years. The Gebelein mummies were naturally mummified by the heat, salinity and dryness of the Egyptian desert.
Further work will need to be undertaken to determine exactly how the Sleeping Beauty was so well preserved. It’s also expected that analysis of her body and grave goods will reveal a lot about her culture, and her own life in particular.
The artefacts and body have been removed from the grave, and restoration experts have already started work to preserve them for posterity.
[W]e all love to fantasise that when we pass away people will be lining the roads mourning – the world absolutely devastated, unable to go on without you. No? Just me?
In reality, it’s not quite such an extreme display of mourning, but at least you can always rely on your close family to at least shed a few tears, right? Well, not always, it seems.
The children of one Minnesota woman, who died at 80 last week, have said she will ‘not be missed’ and that the world is ‘a better place without her. Savage.
Most of the obituary reads as any other would, explaining that the woman, Kathleen, was born on 19 March 1938, and that she got married to someone called Dennis in 1957. However, things take a bit of a strange – and absolutely fascinating – turn halfway through.
The obituary read: “Kathleen Dehmlow (Schunk) was born on March 19, 1938 to Joseph and Gertrude Schunk of Wabasso.
“She married Dennis Dehmlow at St. Anne’s in Wabasso in 1957 and had two children Gin and Jay.”
So far, so nice, right?
“In 1962 she became pregnant by her husband’s brother Lyle Dehmlow and moved to California.”
Oh, hello… Now it’s getting juicy.
“She abandoned her children, Gina and Jay, who were then raised by her parents in Clements, Mr. and Mrs. Joseph Schunk.
“She passed away on May 31, 2018 in Springfield and will now face judgment.”
And for a final sting, it concluded: “She will not be missed by Gina and Jay and they understand that this world is a better place without her.”
Redwood Falls Gazette, where the paid obituary was originally published, has since pulled it from its website.
However, a photo of the published piece had already gone viral – with many people on social media weighing in on the drama.
“So… what’s Dennis’ story?” one person wrote, with someone else saying: “Raised by her parents? I realize this was the 60s but Dennis gets to also abandon his kids because his wife left him?”
Another person asked: “What about Lyle’s kid? Did she have it? Did Lyle’s baby write another obituary?”
Someone else suggested: “I can think of a person who could really shed some light here… @DrPhil care to weigh in?”
Some others criticised Jay and Gina for the harsh obituary, saying that everyone deserves death with dignity.
But either way, it’s certainly a good lesson in how you probably shouldn’t piss off those who will one day end up writing your obituary…
[F]orget long-faced funeral celebrants and bodies in their Sunday best – the ‘death positive movement’ is shaking up the way we die.
My grandma was 93 years and nine days when she died in April. She’d had a long and good life but her final years were severely compromised. By the end, she could neither walk nor feed herself, she could barely hear and most of the time she did not know who we were. Her world had shrunk to the size of her room. Then it shrunk some more, to the size of her bed. Was she happy? I don’t know. But I can’t imagine that this was the ending that she had in mind.
Dying used to be a typically brief process. Up until our most recent history, if you survived childhood illness, childbirth, plagues and famine, you generally got sick and then you died – often just days or weeks later. In the absence of today’s scans, tests, and life-prolonging drugs, by the time a person was really feeling poorly, their disease was advanced and they succumbed quickly. People died at home, families cared for the body, death was common.
Thanks to advances in modern science and economic growth, we are living longer than ever. In New Zealand, a female born in 1906 could expect to live till 66. Fast forward 100 years and a baby girl born in 2016 gained another 27 years, with a life expectancy of nearly 93. Now, for the majority of us the end comes after a long medical struggle (cancer and cardiovascular disease are our two biggest causes of death) or the combined debilities of very old age.
With a long life can come a long death, and over time we have unwittingly turned aging and dying into a medical experience. Our final stages have become largely obscured – even to ourselves – as we delegate death to the ‘professionals’. Today, it’s not uncommon for a recently deceased person to be collected from hospital or a rest home, taken to a funeral parlour where they are embalmed, washed, dressed and covered in make-up and kept there until the service, which might be conducted by a funeral celebrant who has never met the person they are speaking about.
The entire process is outsourced, sanitised and distant. As a result, we have become increasingly unfamiliar with death and consequently more frightened of it – particularly in Pākehā culture.
But a quiet revolution is taking place, according to many in the death industry. They’re calling it the ‘death positive movement’, and adherents say it’s about encouraging people to speak openly and frankly about death and dying, pursuing a “good death”, and pushing for more diversity in end of life care options.
Tea, cake and death talk
American mortician Caitlin Doughty, self-described “funeral industry rabble-rouser” and the person responsible for the phrase “death positive”, has found herself the face of the movement. In 2011 she founded the LA-based The Order of the Good Death, which describes itself as a group of funeral industry professionals, academics, and artists exploring ways to prepare a death phobic culture for their inevitable mortality.
A smell-of-death researcher, an end-of-life activist, a conservation burial pioneer and a grave garment designer are among some of The Order’s members. Doughty also runs Undertaking LA, a progressive funeral service whose emphasis is on placing the dying person and their family back in control of the dying process, including educating families on how to care for the dead at home.
She’s published a couple of books – a bestselling memoir Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: And Other Lessons from the Crematory, and From Here to Eternity: Traveling the World to Find the Good Death – while continuing to host her wildly popular ‘Ask a Mortician‘ YouTube series. Much of her time is now taken up with travelling the world speaking about the history of death culture and rituals, and working to address the death anxiety of modern secular culture.
Closer to home, Graham Southwell runs a monthly Death Café in the Waitakere suburb of Titirangi. Billed as an evening to drink tea, eat cake and talk death, Southwell says the aim is to raise awareness and get people to talk about death and dying. “It is like the last taboo. There is a great lack of understanding, a lack of knowledge, but also a huge fear around it. So when people can hear about good deaths, and some of the experiences people have had, I think it can be really helpful.”
The first Death Café (which is a not-for-profit social franchise, meaning anyone who signs up to the Death Cafe guide and principles, can host one) was held in London in 2011. They’re now popping up all over the world; currently there are 65 Death Cafés listed for New Zealand. Southwell, who has trained as a psychotherapist, has been running the Titirangi Death Café, together with celebrant Kerry-Ann Stanton, for the last three years.
He says their job is to act as facilitators and guide the group’s conversation in whichever direction they wish to go. Topics might include the meaning of life, grief, near death experiences and advanced care directives (a document detailing actions you want to be taken for your health if you are no longer able to make decisions because of illness or incapacity). “The idea is that if we start talking about death and dying it helps people to live more consciously, because it just puts everything in perspective.”
When asked whether he thinks New Zealanders are any good at dealing with death, Southwell, who is from the UK, mentions the tangi, the traditional Māori ceremony to mourn the dead. Usually held over three days, the body lies on a marae while people come to pay their respects. It is an occasion full of ritual and emotion, of oratory, song and storytelling. “They seem to have a very good way of dealing with death, that is rich and about celebrating someone’s life and I like that.”
Every Wednesday morning on Rotorua’s north side of town, a crew of senior citizens gather together to catch up, connect, and construct their own coffins. They’ve been meeting like this since 2010, when former palliative care nurse Katie Williams launched the inaugural Kiwi Coffin Club in her garage, with no tools, no volunteers and no clue how to build a coffin. But after roping in some handy local men who helped with the carpentry, the club took off. Now there are around 200 members at clubs throughout the country.
If coffin construction isn’t your thing, for $350 you can purchase a ready-made one and go to town decorating it. But if you’re thinking of purple sparkles, or pictures of Elvis, or turning your coffin into a racing car with wheels fixed to the side, then I’m sorry to say someone’s beaten you to it. Of course, it’s not just the coffins people come for; it’s also for the safe and supportive space where death and loss can be discussed. The Rotorua club, who describe themselves as “Makers of Fine, Affordable Underground Furniture” also construct baby coffins for their local hospital and memory boxes, which they donate for free.
Death doula, deathwalker, death midwife, end-of-life midwife, soul midwife, companion to the dying. These are all names for the same role; someone who supports the dying and the grieving. And while it’s hardly a new concept – for thousands of years people have done this for one another – there is now an industry springing up to meet the demands of our increasingly secular and death-anxious population.
While death doulas can make a living from their work in the UK and the USA, here in New Zealand, those who are drawn to the role seem to be doing it on a volunteer basis. Strictly a non-medical role, a death doula might help to create a death plan, advocate on a person’s behalf, and provide spiritual, psychological and social support. They may also provide logistical support; helping with services, planning home funerals and guiding mourners in their rights and responsibilities in caring for someone who has died.
Carol Wales, who prefers to describe herself as a companion to the dying, has supported a number of people in their final weeks of life through her work as a volunteer at Auckland’s Amitabha Buddhist Hospice. Her role can be varied. She will visit the person in their home, take them out if they’re feeling up to it and offer massage and aromatherapy. “Some people want to talk about their life and what it means to them. That it does mean something. There might be issues with family members, siblings arguing about money, possessions. It can be very difficult for the person who’s dying to be in their process, because it is a process. Families can be protective, they can be in denial. One of the skills, I believe, is navigating all of that. Being on the periphery when you need to be, and being close to the person when you need to be. It’s like a dance.”
‘Nobody’s got out alive yet’
It’s a beautiful, still Wednesday morning at Dove House hospice in the Auckland suburb of Glendowie. A low-slung modest building, it’s hard to imagine that for some, this is where they come to spend their final days. Designed to support patients with life-threatening illnesses, and their families and caregivers, Dove House is based on a holistic model with a focus on empowering people to understand their own process and look for alternative ways of feeling better. It offers patients and their families counselling, support groups and workshops, as well as body therapies including aromatherapy, massage and reflexology.
Dove House’s doctor and medical counsellor Dr Graeme Kidd says while they do see extremely sick people at the end of their life, they also have a large number of patients who, despite being diagnosed with a terminal illness, may go on to live for a number of years. And while we’ve made huge scientific improvements in understanding diseases like cancer, Kidd, a GP for 40 years, thinks one of the key things missing in the medical model is humanity.
“A patient will finish their treatment and say ‘What do I do now?’ And the doctor will say, ‘Just get on with your life, be grateful you’ve got to a good place.’ And the patient’s thinking, ‘I was getting on with my life when this all happened, but now I’ve got this neon sign saying ‘I have cancer’. A common experience is being frightened of the diagnosis and feeling a victim of the illness, you feel diminished by what you’re living with. So it’s trying to reframe that; ‘You’ve had your treatments and you’re doing really well and how do we now get the rest of the show on the road?’ That there’s still a life to be lived.”
Kidd thinks we are getting better at death. “We’re certainly having some incredible experiences with families where it feels like the death is a positive experience, and people come out of it feeling almost proud of what they experienced. And to me, to experience death sets you up for your own process. Nobody’s got out alive yet and it’s a certainty that we’re all going there.”
Family involvement and personalisation
My grandma was very explicit about how she wanted to be farewelled; a cremation, specific locations to scatter her ashes, a small family-only gathering. No-one was to make a fuss. Her memorial service was two weeks after she passed, so that family coming from overseas could be there. It was a perfect autumn day, she would have approved. The service was held in a restaurant we knew she liked and there, we ate and drank and talked and laughed and remembered. Songs were sung, anybody who wished to say something could, and did. It was not in any way a sombre affair and collectively, as a family, we felt in control of the entire process. The only people that spoke of her knew her, had known her, our whole lives.
Chris Foote, owner of the Natural Funeral Company, says she is seeing many more of these types of services, like my grandmother’s, where the family opts to run it themselves, instead of using a celebrant. “People don’t like the idea that someone speaks about their person and doesn’t know them.” There’s a shift away from formality and tradition with many of their clients explicitly stating they don’t want religion and prayer to play any part in the service. Instead, “it’s just a whole bunch of people getting together and talking about that person and playing music.”
Increased family involvement is extending beyond the service, too. More families are wanting to assist with the washing, dressing and placing of the body in the casket, which Foote says they encourage. “We used to be community based around our care of the dead, we’ve gone away from that experience, and now we’re simply coming back to it.” She’s also witnessed an increase in families choosing to have the body at home until burial or cremation. In around a third of the deaths they deal with, she and her colleagues will make daily visits to a private residence to care for the body and keep it cool.
The Natural Funeral Company, as the name might suggest, specialises in natural organic body care. They do not embalm, a process involving the use of chemicals to preserve the body and forestall decomposition, instead they use essential oils, homemade restorative creams, minimal make-up and then ice bottles to keep the body cool. Most bodies can last around a week, although there are instances where things need to move reasonably quickly, and the odd occasion where they will recommend embalming. Says Foote: “Part of the reason that I don’t like to embalm is because I think we should see that natural process of the decay of the body. I think it’s quite a beautiful process actually.”
Self-expression in death, as in life, has become one of the hallmarks of our time. Where once our funerals followed the same format, now there is almost nothing that can’t be customised to reflect our personalities. There are legal requirements for paperwork to be completed, deaths to be notified and bodies disposed of, as for the rest it’s your party and you can do what you like.
Fran Mitchell, co-founder of funeral home State of Grace, says the funerals they are involved with are all about best representing the person who has died; from coffins and venues to music and clothing. They are being held in all kinds of places; boat clubs, community halls, RSA’s, vineyards and people’s homes. “Wherever people had an association with, and not only in a church or a chapel where that person may never have gone.” The range of coffins on offer at State of Grace is staggering. From the Departure Lounge range, which includes floral designs and coastal sunsets, through to handwoven willow caskets, cardboard caskets, and simple calico shrouds. For the budget conscious, they can rent a coffin – and given the average New Zealand funeral costs around $10,000 that’s likely most of us.
Among their most popular coffins is a plain casket upon which families can write notes, draw pictures and fix photographs to. “It’s a really nice way to get the children and grandchildren involved. It can be quite therapeutic really.” Their range of urns is equally impressive; ceramic, wooden and hand painted.
As for coffin dress code? There isn’t one. Gone is the Sunday best, now people are putting their loved ones in whatever they think they’d be most comfortable in; pyjamas, no shoes, there aren’t any rules. They have had some people opt to wear nothing at all. Depart in the manner they arrived, you might say.
Mitchell is optimistic about the future of death. “I think things are changing for the better. People are talking about death more and accepting it as a part of life. Celebrating a life well lived instead of mourning a death.”
Body disposal: Mushroom death suits and sky burials
There are four options for body disposal in New Zealand. Cremation (70 per cent opt for this), burial, burial at sea and donating your body to medical science. But many are looking to alternative options. Recently, there’s been a growing demand for natural burials, which sees the body placed in a biodegradable casket or shroud and then into a shallow plot to allow for speedy decomposition (the body cannot be embalmed). The plot is then overplanted with native trees, a living memorial to those buried there. Currently, only a handful of councils in New Zealand offer natural burial sites.
Overseas, the death positive moment is actively endorsing more eco-friendly methods – some of which are still in development.
There’s liquid cremation (which involves dissolving the body, currently only legal in Australia and in eight US states), promession (freeze-drying the body, not yet legalised) and sky burial (a Tibetan funeral practice involving exposure of a dismembered corpse to scavenging vultures – very environmentally friendly). Finally, there’s the Mushroom Death Suit, an outfit embroidered with thread that has been infused with mushroom spores, which grow and digest the body as it decomposes following burial.
[H]ow would you react if you saw people dumping 800,000 gallons of formaldehyde, a carcinogenic substance, into the earth every year?
Then witness them cutting down four million acres of forests annually? I suspect the environmentalists who fight underground oil pipes would be raising holy hell about formaldehyde and rampant destruction of trees. Yet this is what it takes to bury the U.S. dead every year. So why are environmentalists so silent?
Now, a film called “Echo Death Takeover: Changing the Funeral Industry” has been produced by The Order of Good Death, founded by funeral owner Catlin Doughty who advocates green funerals.
Some readers may wonder why I’m writing about death when I’m trained to keep people alive. But pollution of many types is currently causing serious respiratory and other health problems. Moreover, for years I’ve questioned why religious people, who say their souls go to heaven, would go to such extremes to protect their dead body by embalming, select expensive wooden caskets and then even protect the casket. And although I’m not a religious authority, don’t they always say at funerals, “Ashes to ashes and dust to dust?”
So, what to do about the current burial procedure? Formaldehyde was discovered by a chemist, August Wilhelm von Hofmann, in 1867 and it quickly replaced arsenic as the prime way to embalm bodies. Now we know that formaldehyde is a hazardous substance, highly toxic to humans. It is linked to cancer and irritates the eyes, nose and throat.
Some readers would reply, “But what about cremation? Is this more eco –friendly?” Unfortunately, where there’s fire there’s smoke. Cremation also produces harmful substances such as carbon dioxide, hydrochloric acid, sulphur dioxide, dioxin, mercury from amalgam dental fillings and carcinogens.
If the body is embalmed, smoke also contains vaporized formaldehyde which remains in the atmosphere. That is, until it bonds with water. Then we are rained on with formaldehyde. So be sure to take a good raincoat and hat if attending a rainy funeral. Besides, cremation requires heat that could be used for other purposes.
So, what is a green funeral? It’s a process called alkaline hydrolysis, also called flameless cremation or water cremation. The body is placed in a pressurized steel container filled with 95 per cent water and five per cent potassium. For the next three hours the body undergoes chemical decomposition, reducing it to soft bone fragments. This mixture of amino acids, peptides, sugar and salt can then be used for fertilizer.
Water cremation is not an illogical proposition for the next century. It’s now legal for human disposal in four U.S. states and in 14 for pets.
Are there negatives to water cremation? I imagine some would be disgusted at the dissolving of a loved one in a warm alkaline bath. But, surely, it’s less psychologically shocking than having Grandpa inserted into a fiery inferno.
Another alternative is to wrap the body in a biodegradable shroud made of cotton or unbleached bamboo, place it in a biodegradable casket in a shallow grave and let bacteria break down all these ingredients.
So, what’s going to happen? I hope that good sense will one day finally prevail and the days of spending thousands of dollars on today’s burial rites will finally end.
Shakespeare, in his play “Hamlet,” describes the scenario of life and death so well. He wrote: “Worms are the emperor of all diets. We fatten up all creatures to feed ourselves and we fatten ourselves for the maggots when we are dead. A man may fish with the worm that hath eat of a king and eat of the fish that hath fed of that worm.”
This is not a pleasant thought or the best bedtime reading. But regardless of how expensive the casket is the worms finally win. So, isn’t there a better way to protect the planet and return all the minerals and other elements to the earth?
So, what is my wish on death? My family knows I want a simple bench along the waterfront in Toronto where people can relax and enjoy the view. My ashes beneath can help the trees grow.
[H]awaii recently joined the growing number of states and countries where doctor-assisted dying is legal. In these jurisdictions, help to die is rarely extended to those who don’t have a terminal illness. Yet, increasingly, very old people, without a terminal illness, who feel that they have lived too long, are arguing that they also have a right to such assistance.
Media coverage of David Goodall, the 104-year-old Australian scientist who travelled to Switzerland for assisted dying, demonstrates the level of public interest in ethical dilemmas at the extremities of life. Goodall wanted to die because he no longer enjoyed life. Shortly before his death, he told reporters that he spends most of his day just sitting. “What’s the use of that?” he asked.
Research shows that life can be a constant struggle for the very old, with social connections hard to sustain and health increasingly fragile. Studies looking specifically at the motivation for assisted dying among the very old show that many feel a deep sense of loneliness, tiredness, an inability to express their individuality by taking part in activities that are important to them, and a hatred of dependency.
Of the jurisdictions where assisted dying is legal, some make suffering the determinant (Canada, for example). Others require a prognosis of six months (California, for example). Mainly, though, the focus is on people who have a terminal illness because it is seen as less of an ethical problem to hasten the death of someone who is already dying than someone who is simply tired of life.
Why give precedence to physical suffering?
Assisted dying for people with psychological or existential reasons for wanting to end their life is unlikely to be supported by doctors because it is not objectively verifiable and also potentially remediable. In the Netherlands, despite the legal power to offer assistance where there is no life-limiting illness, doctors are seldom convinced of the unbearable nature of non-physical suffering, and so will rarely administer a lethal dose in such cases.
Although doctors may look to a physical diagnosis to give them confidence in their decision to hasten a patient’s death, physical symptoms are often not mentioned by the people they are assisting. Instead, the most common reason given by those who have received help to die is loss of autonomy. Other common reasons are to avoid burdening others and not being able to enjoy one’s life – the exact same reason given by Goodall. This suggests that requests from people with terminal illness, and from those who are just very old and ready to go, are not as different as both the law – and doctors’ interpretation of the law – claim them to be.
It seems that the general public does not draw a clear distinction either. Most of the media coverage of Goodall’s journey to Switzerland was sympathetic, to the dismay of opponents of assisted dying.
Media reports about ageing celebrities endorsing assisted dying in cases of both terminal illness and very old age, blur the distinction still further.
One of the reasons for this categorical confusion is that, at root, this debate is about what a good death looks like, and this doesn’t rely on prognosis; it relies on personality. And, it’s worth remembering, the personalities of the very old are as diverse as those of the very young.
David Goodall died listening to Beethoven’s Ode to Joy.
Discussion of assisted suicide often focuses on concerns that some older people may be exposed to coercion by carers or family members. But older people also play another role in this debate. They make up the rank and file activists of the global right-to-die movement. In this conflict of rights, protectionist impulses conflict with these older activists’ demands to die on their own terms and at a time of their own choosing.
In light of the unprecedented ageing of the world’s population and increasing longevity, it is important to think about what a good death looks like in deep old age. In an era when more jurisdictions are passing laws to permit doctor-assisted dying, the choreographed death of a 104-year-old, who died listening to Ode to Joy after enjoying a last fish supper, starts to look like a socially approved good death.
[S]cientists are expecting a spike in deaths in the coming years. As life expectancies increased, the number of people dying fell – but those deaths were merely delayed.
With people living longer, and often spending more time in ill-health, the Dying Matters Coalition wants to encourage people to talk about their wishes towards the end of their life, including where they want to die.
“Talking about dying makes it more likely that you, or your loved one, will die as you might have wished. And it will make it easier for your loved ones if they know you have had a ‘good death’,” the group of end-of-life-care charities said.
Where to die?
Surveys repeatedly find most people want to die at home. But in reality the most common place to die is in hospital.
Almost half of the deaths in England last year were in hospital, less than a quarter at home, with most of the remainder in a care home or hospice.
What happens to human remains?
Dying wishes don’t just extend to where you die but to what happens to your body after death too.
Cremation overtook burial in the UK in the late-1960s as the most popular way to dispose of human remains, and more than doubled in popularity between 1960 and 1990.
Since then it has remained fairly stable at about three-quarters of the deceased being cremated, although it has been creeping up gradually year on year – in 2017 it hit 77%.
Although cremation is thought to be more environmentally friendly, it is not without its own costs. The process requires energy. And burning bodies releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.
There are hundreds of “green” burial grounds in Britain where coffins must be biodegradable and no embalming fluid or headstone markers are permitted. Instead, loved ones of the deceased often plant trees as a memorial.
The Association of Natural Burial Grounds says: “Many people nowadays are conscious of our impact on the environment and wish to be as careful in death as they have been during their lives to be as environmentally friendly as possible.”
At natural burial grounds, bodies are generally buried in shallow graves to help them degrade quickly and release less methane – a greenhouse gas.
Some people want to go further than this.
A form of “water cremation” is currently available in parts of the US and Canada, and could come to the UK.
In December 2017, water providers membership body Water UK intervened and said it feared “liquefied remains of the dead going into the water system”.
Cremation by fire or burial remain the two options for most people, but those that want to do something a bit different could opt to have their ashes turned into a diamond or vinyl record, displayed in paperweight, exploded in a firework or shot into space.
The cost of death
Traditional cremation is cheaper than burial, particularly as space is short, driving up the cost of grave plots. But the cost of funerals in general has been rising.
Insurance firm SunLife, which produces an annual report on the cost of funerals, says prices have risen 70% in a decade.
It put this down to lack of space and the rising cost of land as well as fuel prices and cuts to local authority budgets leading to reduced subsidies for burials and crematoria.
A survey of 45 counties, conducted by the Society of Local Council Clerks, found half of respondents’ local council run cemeteries would be full in 10 years and half of Church of England graveyards surveyed had already been formally closed to new burials.
The same problem faces Islamic burial sites.
Mohamed Omer, of the Gardens of Peace cemetery in north-east London, says the problem is compounded by a growing population and by the fact that Muslims do not cremate their dead.
The Jewish community also do not traditionally practise cremation. David Leibling, chairman of the Joint Jewish Burial Society, says all of the four largest Jewish burial organisations have acquired extra space in recent years.
However, he says it’s not such a problem for the community since synagogue members pay for their burial plots through their membership. This means the organisation can predict how many people it is going to have to bury.
“As we serve defined membership we can make accurate estimates of the space we need,” he says.
What about our digital legacy?
There are growing concerns over what will happen to people’s social media profiles after they die.
The Digital Legacy Association is working with lawyers to produce guidelines on creating a digital will, setting out people’s wishes for what happens to social media profiles – and “digital assets” such as music libraries – after death.
Three-quarters of respondents to the DLA’s annual survey say it’s important to them to be able to view a loved one’s social media profile after their death.
But almost no-one responding to the survey had used a function to nominate a digital next of kin, such as Facebook’s legacy contact or Google’s inactive account manager functions.
Both Facebook and Instagram allow family and friends to request the deceased’s account is turned into a memorial page, while Twitter says loved ones can request the deactivation of a “deceased or incapacitated person’s account”.
[T]he building that houses Milward Funeral Directors in Lexington, Kentucky has been around for 193 years. It’s a three-story maze that starts with a light-soaked, stone-floored entrance hallway. The hallway is home to an awfully regal cage of tiny, yellow-breasted finches, and they greet you as you walk in through the funeral home’s front doors. Even when they’re out of sight, you can hear their occasional, lively chirps, particularly if you’re in any of the nearby pastel-hued rooms on the first floor. Say, the powder blue chapel, the pink viewing room, the green family meeting room, or the front office where office associate Elaine Kincaid has found a way to answer the ever-ringing phone with a pressing sense of compassion.
By contrast, it’s nearly pin-drop-silent in the upstairs casket showroom, where, if you were preparing to bury a loved one, you would arrive to find a selection of 30-plus casket models in every variation of wood and steel. Should you be cremating your loved one, there’s an adjoining hall where you could select an urn, each one of them unique in presentation and name — “White Orchid” for the porcelain vase and “Solitude” for the simple, gold rectangle. You could also turn loved ones’ cremated remains into jewelry, a keychain, a bench or, in the words of Miranda Robinson, Milward’s youngest mortician, “pretty much anything you want.”
Like Milward funeral home, Miranda Robinson is polished and professional. Yet, at 30-years old, she both embodies and defies the stereotypes often associated with morticians. Yes, she has a fascination with death and dying. Yes, she loves the skeletal system, owns a black cat, and displays a ouija board on her apartment’s living room table — but she’s anything but morose. In fact, her bubbly Kentucky drawl is often interrupted by a burst of up-swinging giggles, even while discussing death. She used to be a cabaret performer and closely follows RuPaul’s Drag Race. Her most-used word is “lovely” and her retro-feminine personal aesthetic matches that same description.
At around 5 feet, 4 inches tall with an obvious flair for vintage, Miranda pays almost as much attention to her own presentation as she does to those on her embalming table. Robinson clips in hair extensions that she curls every morning. Her arms, which remain covered while at work, are decorated with tattoos. One of them is of a bottle of embalming fluid.
Still, at first blush you’d never guess that Robinson works with the dead on a daily basis. And, perhaps, you’d never guess how many women her age are actively entering the field, either. Frustrated by nursing school and looking for a change, Robinson shifted gears from aiding the living to preserving the dead, and enrolled in mortuary school in Cincinnati, Ohio. In doing so she joined the ranks of young women now outnumbering men in the mortuary education system. In fact, the National Funeral Directors Association reports that, “While funeral service has traditionally been a male-domination profession…today, 60% of mortuary science students in the United States are women.”
Once a male-dominated industry, after-life and funeral care is now becoming not only a budding, female-centric space but also one ripe for disruption. And no one knows this better than Miranda. “Even in mortuary school, I was taught that [funeral service] was still a different, difficult field for women.” She explains, “Women, so I’ve heard, were expected to wear skirts and heels still, so it seemed, before I got into the funeral home, that [the] funeral service [industry] hadn’t come a long way for women… but now that I’m here, I feel like I’ve made my mark and I’m really seeing women in funeral service emerge.” They’re emerging and they’re excelling, bringing with them calm, care, and attention to detail that may have long been lacking.
While embalming, Miranda says she feels like “both an artist and a scientist,” because her work combines aspects of both. Made prevalent during the Civil War, when bodies of fallen soldiers were shipped back home for viewings and funerals, embalming is a technique used to preserve the deceased by replacing a portion of their blood with chemicals (including formaldehyde). The body is also made up to look as it did in life — lipstick and all. But, while this method may long be favored in the United States, a new wave of green burial options seeks to challenge the traditional funeral industry. In fact, for the second year running, cremation is now more popular than burials, and the National Funeral Directors Association only expects this trend to continue.
That’s because green burials, alternative and eco-friendly practices are popularizing. Some of these green practices, like home funerals and vigils, pre-date the popularization of embalming, while others like bio-urn cremation (when the body’s cremated remains are buried and grow with the seeds of a plant) or aquamation (a proposed way of breaking down a body using water rather than fire) are brand new. Whether the increased options in funeral care signify an impending end of the traditional funeral industry that Miranda is a part of is a matter that may only be answered in time. For now, what it does mean is that this freshly energized attention to death care is bringing light to a space that, despite touching every single life on Earth, has largely been kept in the shadows.
Ultimately, it is not the method of end-of or after-life care that concerns women like Miranda, but rather the instinct to talk about death in a meaningful way, early and often. Miranda loves her job because what she does helps bring peace to grieving families. She explains, “The most beautiful thing about my job, is taking the loved one into my care from a removal, especially when family is gathered, just that intensity of how much they love that person. It’s an absolute honor to be in the worst possible moment in someone’s life. To be there and for them to look at me and just me to try to at least give them some answers, to try to give them some peace in that moment.”
And while it may seem strange to light up while talking about death, it’s a conversation everyone will someday need to have, regardless of personal preference or spiritual beliefs. Miranda has this conversation every day — at work, at home, with her 1,859 instagram followers — and in doing so helps to de-stigmatize a topic that’s long been off-limits.
As a mortician, Miranda believes that viewing the body is of the utmost importance. As she puts it, “I think it’s important to see the body because you face the reality of what’s actually happened.” But, it’s the trend toward personalization, transparency and increased discussion around death and dying that continues to be a universal priority for many women working in both alternative and traditional funerals.
For Miranda, part of this conversation means addressing the details of her own funeral. And, of course, she can’t imagine anything more fitting than a traditional embalming. Ever the enigma, while her choice to embalm may be traditional, her last look will be anything but. Robinson would like a “glitter casket” with a leopard interior. Dark brown extensions will be clipped and curled, her lips will be painted in the bright red pigment Ruby Woo by Mac. Years from now, when that day comes, Miranda may very well lay on the table that she works alongside every single day at Milward Funeral Directors, in the storied embalming room that she considers sacred. Perhaps somewhere beneath her in the entry hall, the finches will be singing.