Aside from taxes, there’s nothing more certain in life than death. Daniel Defoe knew that. As did Benjamin Franklin. Many are keen to avoid the subject, though.
A new exhibition in Bristol is hoping to change that, attempting to de-stigmatise the issue and encourage more discussion around death and dying.
Death: The Human Experience, which was two years in the making, draws together some 200 items from across the world to show how different nations have lived with life’s great inevitability for centuries.
Coffins, mummies, mourning clothes and grave goods are among the artefacts on display at the Bristol Museum and Art Gallery.
The exhibit explores the science, ethics, attitude and process of death, and features examples of Mexico’s Day of the Dead celebrations (which feature in the new James Bond film’s opening scene) as well as Victorian Britain’s mourning rituals. Mortuary tables and fantasy coffins are also included, with some exhibits behind doors allowing visitors to choose if they see them.
An installation entitled Death: Is It Your Right To Choose? provokes debate around end of life choices at a time when euthanasia is undergoing scrutiny in the UK.
“Around the world, different cultures have expressed their relationship with death in a myriad of fashions, from the visual Mexican Day of the Dead to the audible lament of the Australian Aboriginal death wail,” city councillor and assistant mayor for culture Simon Cook said.
“Yet in recent times we have seen a reluctance to engage with the subject, something I hope this exhibition will help to change. Death: The Human Experience will provide visitors with an opportunity to encounter the death practices and beliefs of many world cultures whilst also being encouraged to reflect upon their own thoughts on death and the dead.”
When someone dies, it’s common to send flowers or make a charitable donation in his or her honor. But a growing number of mourners are turning tocrowdfunding sites specially designed to help cover the deceased’s funeral expenses.
“Most people don’t plan their funerals in advance and that leaves their loved ones figuring out how to cover the costs,” explains Michael Blasco, spokesperson for YouCaring, a two-year-old crowdfunding platform for medical and memorial fundraising.
Funerals Often Exceed $7,000
With the average funeral now topping $7,045, according to the National Funeral Directors Association, families often find that saying goodbye to their loved ones comes with a higher price tag than they anticipated. Enter crowdfunding.
Once the provenance of entrepreneurs and artists (think Kickstarter and Indiegogo), crowdfunding lately has gained traction as a means for fundraising for a range of causes, including funeral expenses. Organizers post their campaigns online and seek funding from backers to meet their goals. The average campaign lasts between 30 and 60 days and the money raised is transferred to organizers via PayPal or WePay accounts.
Raising $10,000 in a Funeral Crowdfunding Campaign
GoFundMe is currently hosting more than 8,000 funeral campaigns. On Indiegogo, over 50 funeral campaigns reached their fundraising goal, including a handful that raised upwards of $10,000 apiece. Funeral fundraising is the fastest-growing category on GiveForward, growing an average of seven percent per month.
“A lot of campaigns start out as medical fundraisers and then transition into funeral and memorial fundraisers [when the person dies],” explains Ariana Vargas, director of business development for GiveForward.
Joshua Starnes created a campaign on Funeral Fund after his friend, fellow film critic Eric Harrison, died of a brain aneurysm at 57 in 2012. Harrison, who was single and childless, didn’t have life insurance and there were no proceeds from his estate to cover funeral expenses. His young nieces were left to come up with the funds for his burial.
“Putting together even a modest funeral would have been impossible for them and [his colleagues] didn’t have enough cash in our group bank account to cover the cost,” says Starnes.
Crowdfunding, Starnes decided, was the best option. Thanks to the generosity of 108 backers, he collected $6,520 during the 30-day campaign — enough to cover the cost of the funeral.
A Kind and Innovative Technique
Crowdfunding consultant Rose Spinelli isn’t surprised that mourners are using this innovative technique to subsidize funeral expenses.
“In the most basic terms, crowdfunding is a community-building mechanism that brings people together around a cause,” says Spinelli, founder of The CrowdFundamentals site. “It can be a wonderful, warm feeling to know that people care and are sharing in the grief.”
But shared grief might not be enough to turn mourners into donors and crowdfunding efforts for older adults can be especially challenging. Many people in their 60s, 70s and 80s believe their cohorts should be prepared for their passing, with savings or prepaid funeral arrangements.
“People are willing to come forward with support when something unexpected happens,” Spinelli says. “When an older person dies, it doesn’t trigger the same reaction.”
Some Donors Get Thank-You Gifts
To boost response rates and honor backers who help with funeral costs, some crowdfunding organizers offer small tokens of appreciation. One Indiegogo campaign offered a handmade remembrance bracelet in exchange for a $25 contribution; another promised backers who pledged $50 that they’d receive a hug.
Blasco encourages posting photographs and favorite anecdotes about the deceased on the campaign page to increase the odds of crowdfunding success. “People respond to stories,” explains Blasco.
But even the most compelling stories are not apt to attract the attention of generous strangers, however. Instead, most contributions will come from relatives and friends.
For example, most who contributed to Starnes’ crowdfunding campaign for Harrison were relatives, former colleagues and patrons of the arts who appreciated the critic’s work. “The funds came from people he had an effect on in his life,” says Starnes.
What a Crowdfunding Campaign Costs
A crowdfunding campaign can also turn into an online memorial, a place for loved ones to share special memories and connect with others in a shared grief.
“The original intent and purpose [of a funeral crowdfunding campaign] is to raise money but, in a dark time, it’s also a place to celebrate a loved one’s life,” says Vargas. “It brings people together from all over the country who can’t make it to the funeral but want to say goodbye.”
In a time of grief, some mourners might not read the fine print in a crowdfunding campaign for a funeral. Fees vary, but crowdfunding sites typically keep three to 10 percent of the money raised.
And if you plan to launch a crowdfunding effort for a funeral or will donate to one, be sure you’re aware of the tax rules.
Quin Christian, an accountant with CrowdfundCPA, says crowdfunding contributions to help cover funeral expenses are likely to be considered gifts and shouldn’t be taxable to organizers.
Be careful, though. Christian warns that a gold-plated coffin, towering tombstone or designer burial suit — or even hosting multiple funeral-related crowdfunding campaigns in a short period of time — could raise IRS red flags.
Donors can’t write off what they give to a crowdfunding campaign as charitable contributions unless the beneficiary is a nonprofit.
But the benefit of using crowdfunding to cover funeral costs usually has nothing to do with the bottom line. “I’m glad we were able to help make sure he [Eric Harrison] had a proper burial,” says Starnes.
There’s an open box of skulls on the floor. A table is covered with pelvis bones. Nearby: a pile of ribs, tied up with a piece of string.
I’m standing in a basement room, underneath the bleachers of the football stadium at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. Looking at floor-to-ceiling shelves filled with cardboard boxes. More than a thousand boxes, and each one contains a human skeleton.
“Pick a box. Any box,” says Dr. Dawnie Steadman, the director of the school’s forensic anthropology program. “What’s your pleasure?”
I scan the rows of boxes. I’m thinking I should pick a female. And so I settle on a box five rows up, just above my head, labeled “Female 57.”
Steadman places it on a table and starts to unpack it. Inside, the bones are tannish brown, not the bleached white I imagined.
She knows how to read these bones, and this one tells a story right away. “So this individual needed to have an autopsy after death,” Steadman explains, “and now I know why.”
She picks up a piece of the skull and points to a place just above the left eye.
I see it: a perfectly rounded hole.
“What we see here,” she says, “is a gunshot wound.”
This moment is why people come from all over the world to study these bones. Female 57 is just one of the 1,200 skeletons here, part of what’s called the Bass Donated Skeletal Collection.
Anthropologists, detectives, demographers — they all come here to learn how to read these bones: How old was this person? Was it a man or a woman? How did they die?
What they learn here can help them identify a missing person, crack an old murder case … or understand how obesity relates to osteoarthritis.
Steadman heads deeper into the stacks.
“There’s no more than one person in each box,” she says, counting off the ages as we walk by: 45, 49, 42. There’s at least one person who lived past 100.
So, how did these bones get here? While they’re still alive, people can sign up to donate their remains to the UT’s body-donation program. When they die, their bodies are sent here to the university.
But before they become skeletons in a box, they have another stop to make: a special fenced-in field across campus. There, the corpses are laid out on the ground and students study them as they decompose. When all that’s left is the skeleton, students clean the bones and send them here.
The donors “give us all sorts of information about themselves,” says Steadman. “They tell us their age, sex … ancestry.”
Everything but their name. To visitors — like me — the bones remain anonymous.
Not Just Old Bones
Because these bones belonged to people who died in the last 35 years, many skeletons bear the marks — and products — of modern medicine.
“Here’s another prosthetic that we commonly see,” says Steadman, pointing to an box open on the floor.
I look closer, and something shiny catches my eye. It’s on the end of a leg bone.
“It’s the ball of the ball and socket joint. They remove that and they replace it with a really nice stainless steel, metal head,” Steadman says. “That’s a hip replacement.”
Pelvises, skulls, vertebrae! Its all so cool. But I can’t stop thinking about Female 57, that first skull with the bullet hole. We head back to her box, still open on the table.
“I can’t believe you pulled out that gunshot wound,” Steadman says, laughing.
She rolls the large piece of the skull over in her hands, looking for more clues.
“This looks to me like it could be either a contact entrance wound or exit wound. I’ll have to keep looking,” she says, sifting through the other bones.
We learn more about this 57-year-old woman. She has a bifurcated rib — meaning she was born with two of her ribs are stuck together. She was about 5 feet 7 — a little taller than I am. I’m dying to know what happened to this woman. Who shot her? Was it a suicide?
But Steadman stops me.
“I’m not gonna say much more because of this … it now may become somewhat identifying.” She trails off.
I get it. We have to protect this women’s identity, and we’re about to learn too many details.
So we pack up the bones. Steadman returns them to the shelf, tucked between a male, 35, and a female, 81.
These bones, they’re silent teachers.
Steadman agrees: “You can absolutely learn something from every single skeleton.”
And here they’ll rest, waiting for the next set of curious hands.
Eighty-five-year-old twins from Brooklyn are setting off on what they say will be their final voyage. Their plan to die at sea has an undeniable romance
The endlessness of the sea offers an eternal alternative. Perhaps if we just pushed off into it, we could escape death itself – as if its amniotic waters might be a return to a universal womb. After all, the sea is where we came from in the first place. There’s a definite romance to saying goodbye to the land, and setting sail for that last adventure.
Van and Carl Vollmer, 85-year-old twins from Brooklyn, certainly think so. The brothers are about to embark on the handsome 158ft, three-masted barquentine, the Peacemaker, on a round-the-world voyage in search of remote islands and sunken galleons, from the Panama Canal to the Great Barrier Reef, the Philippines, and on to the Mediterranean.
In order to get there, the pair – who currently live on a powerboat moored on City Island – have bill-posted Brooklyn’s hipster district of Williamsburg with an enticing proposition: “Brooklyn sea captain seeking crew!” They’re advertising for a 12-strong, able-bodied crew of men and women, including a mechanic, deckhand, cook, nutritionist and an aquaponic gardener to grow vegetables on top of fish tanks – a kind of hip 21st-century version of Ahab’s crew on the Pequod in Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick. They’ll even get suitably retro uniforms of old-fashioned sailor pants with 13 buttons and yellow-and-white striped shirts. I’m guessing they’ll all have beards already.
But instead of a demented captain suicidally spearing a great white whale, the Vollmer twins are instructing their shipmates that when the time comes, they’ll be glad to go over the side. “To swim with the fishes for eternity”, as Van Vollmer says. “We want to spend the rest of our lives on this boat”, Carl adds. “We want to get thrown overboard”. Melville, who lived and died by the New York waterfront, would approve of such wild ambition. Having ended his own life as an ageing customs inspector on the Manhattan wharves looking out longingly to sea, the great writer probably wished he had done the same. Indeed, it’s a scene reminiscent of his last, elegiac seafaring tale, Billy Budd, whose protagonist ends up consigned to the deep: “…roll me over fair! / I am sleepy, and the oozy weeds about me twist.”
But not everyone is happy about the Vollmers’ intentions. At least one crew member, Steven, chosen by the twins as their first mate, is equivocal about this duty. “Van kind of brings it up and he’s like, ‘I want to teach you everything I know so when you dump me into the sea you can take over.’ I’m hoping that’s just some kind of expression. It’s not something I really want to think about.”
Not going gently into the good night but raging against the dying of the light, as Dylan Thomas recommended, has a long maritime tradition. It is an ambition peculiarly suited to the sea – particularly in our fractured archipelago of the British Isles. In Charles Dickens’s David Copperfield, Mr Peggotty, the Yarmouth fisherman, says of his brother-in-law Mr Barkis as he lies dying: “People can’t die, along the coast … except when the tide’s pretty nigh out … He’s going out with the tide. It’s ebb at half-arter three, slack water half-an-hour. If he lives till it turns, he’ll hold his own till past the flood, and go out with the next tide.” Nowadays, anyone hoping to swim with the fishes in eternity without going to the bother of sailing into the blue yonder can opt for burial at sea off the Isle of Wight, in a designated zone.
Meanwhile, the modern Odysseus takes to the ocean liner. Wealthy wanderers of a certain age have sold up on land to live at sea in permanently rented suites. A somewhat ominous-sounding company called Utopia caters to those who intend to spend the rest of their lives on the briny, while US websites discuss the practicalities, pondering, “Is cruise ship retirement cheaper than assisted living?”.
Beatrice Muller thought so. After her husband died on the QE2 as it sailed out of Bombay in 1999, she announced her intention to live on the liner till the end of her days, paying £3,500 a month for the privilege. Unfortunately for Mrs Muller, she outlasted the ship; it went into retirement in 2008. And although the stalwart senior citizen continued to defy the land – “I’ll keep on staying at sea”, she said, aged 89, “I don’t want to go back to housekeeping” – sadly, she seems to have ended up in a retirement home in New Jersey.
As someone who swims in the sea every day, I’ve often considered it as my last resting place; that like Barkis, I might be taken out with the tide. After all, I wouldn’t be using up valuable land space, or contributing to climate change. It sounds almost idyllic. “Full fathom five my father lies”, as Ariel sings in The Tempest, “Of his bones are coral made”, transformed “into something rich and strange”. But then I think of how lonely it might be, nibbled away by crawling slimy things where “the very deep did rot”, as the fated Ancient Mariner saw it. And would I really want to be recycled by lobsters, to end up in the food chain? Perhaps it’s not such a reassuring thought after all.
JJ the dog has a very special job. She’s a therapy dog who spends a lot of her time comforting patients at a hospice in Oregon. Recently, JJ’s mom, nurse Tracy Calhoun, posted a video one of JJ’s therapy sessions to Facebook.
It shows JJ comforting a patient who, sadly, does not receive many visitors. Her time with the pup is very precious. In the video, they spend their time sharing snuggles and listening to a poem by W.B. Yeats.
JJ’s mom translated the pup’s dog thoughts on Facebook:
“She cannot see and often does not wake up, but she did like having her hand on my fur. She was very calm during my visit. We were listening to Yeats, by the way. I was very insistent to have her touch me, more so than usual. We fell asleep later with her hand splayed on my head, both of us snoring.”
Char Barrett walked into a quaint cafe in Seattle with business in mind.
Over the smell of coffee and freshly baked tarts, she was going to advise a client on how best to host a special event at her home, helping coordinate everything from the logistics of the ceremony, to how to dress the guest of honor. People might cry, they might laugh, and all attention would be on the person of the hour—only that person would never see, hear, or enjoy the festivities, because they would be dead.
“People looked at me like I had two heads when I said, ‘Keep the body at home after the person dies,’” says Barrett, a Seattle-based funeral director and certified “death midwife.” “For families who want it, they should have the right to do it.”
Barrett has been practicing home funerals in the area since 2006 through her business, A Sacred Moment. In a home funeral service, the body is either brought back to the family from the place of death or stays at home if the person died there. The family then washes the body, in part to prepare it for viewing and in part as a ritual.
“It’s really the way we used to do it,” says Barrett.
To Barrett and many other professionals who are offering alternatives to the more status-oriented, profit-driven funeral industry, it’s time to rethink how we handle death. From consumer cooperatives that combat price gouging, to putting the power of choice back in the hands of the family, the city of Seattle has become a hub for alternative death care in the last two years, according to Barrett. The subculture of “deathxperts” want not only to empower their clients, but also potentially phase out their jobs altogether—a sort of death of the funeral director as we know it.
A History of Death
For the majority of human history, families handled arrangements for the deceased, from the time immediately after death, to burial or cremation. Until the advent of modern hospitals and health care at the turn of the last century, it was the norm for the old and sick to die at home surrounded by loved ones.
During the Civil War, embalming as a form of preservation found a foothold when Union soldier casualties needed to be transported from the sweltering South to mourning families in the North. Today, its pragmatic purpose is to temporarily stop decomposition for viewing and final goodbyes. However, the overwhelming majority of contemporary consumers don’t realize that, in most cases, it’s not legally required to bury a body, although special circumstances vary from state to state.
So why has probably every American funeral you’ve been to had an embalmed body in attendance?
As 20th century consumerism took hold and people were more likely to die in a hospital than at home, death receded from public consciousness. If a loved one were to die today, you would probably call and pay a funeral home to pick her up from wherever she took her last breath. They would wash her, embalm her, and dress her to your family’s liking. You would briefly visit her one last time at a mortuary or a chapel before she was either buried or burned. In all likelihood, her last bodily contact before disposition would be with a complete stranger.
In 1963, investigative journalist Jessica Mitford published “The American Way of Death,” an exposé of the country’s funeral-industrial complex, showing how it exploited the emotions of the living so it could up-sell unnecessary services and products, such as premium caskets and premier vaults. Federal Trade Commission regulations and consumer protections now prevent families from being swindled.
Today, the funeral industry has become managed in part by aggregate companies. Mortuary giant Service Corporation International owns a large network of individually operated funeral homes and cemeteries, some of which exist on the same property as combination locations. If you imagine a standard funeral parlor and graveyard, you’re probably picturing an SCI-owned operation. Of the approximately 19,400 funeral homes in America, the publicly traded company owns about 2,300 homes, according to the National Funeral Director’s Association. Families and individuals privately own most of the rest.
“The reality is that if you can’t adapt to compete with SCI, you probably shouldn’t be in the market,” says Jeff Jorgenson, owner of Elemental Cremation and Burial, which prides itself in being Seattle’s “only green funeral home.” “But SCI is one of the best competitors you could ever hope for because they’re slow to change and they’re exceptionally resistant to anything progressive.”
Jorgenson started his business in 2012 with a special focus on carbon-neutral cremations and “green” embalming using eco-friendly preservatives. In every aspect of his operation, he works to be as environmentally minded as possible, an objective he sees lacking in most business models.
As SCI spent the 1960s through 1990s acquiring independent funeral homes to maximize profits, another organization was doing the exact opposite by forming a collective to prioritize consumer rights.
People’s Memorial Association is one of the nation’s only nonprofit organizations that pushes consumer freedom for end-of-life arrangements. Located in Seattle, the consumer membership-based group coordinates with 19 different death care providers across the state to offer fixed-price burial, cremation, and memorial services, as well as education and advocacy to encourage death care alternatives. Almost all of the funeral homes are privately owned and have a uniform price structure for PMA members, who contribute a one-time fee of $35. Barrett’s A Sacred Moment is one of PMA’s partners.
“We negotiate contracts with the funeral homes so members walk in knowing exactly what they’re going to pay, and it’s usually a pretty significant discount from the usual prices,” says Nora Menkin, the managing funeral director of the Co-op Funeral Home. PMA founded it in 2007 when SCI decided to cancel arrangements with several of PMA’s partners. Now, PMA-contract homes offer full-service funerals for 65 percent less than the average local price, according to a 2014 price survey conducted by the PMA Education Fund.
“There’s no sales pressure, there’s no up-selling, and we make sure people get what they need,” says Menkin. “It’s about the consumer telling us what they want.”
Jorgenson’s Elemental Cremation and Burial works outside the umbrella of PMA’s service providers, but he still finds allies in Menkin and the Co-op Funeral Home.
“We’re in it to change an industry,” he says. “Just one of our voices out there is useless. There’s a kinder, gentler, less expensive way, and that’s what we’re all doing. It’s helping families in a new, more collaborative way.”
In Jorgenson’s opinion, you don’t even really need a funeral director.
“A funeral director is a wedding planner on a compressed time scale,” he says. “With the exception of the legality of filing a death certificate, a funeral director does the exact same things a wedding planner does: They make sure that the venue is available, that the flowers are ordered, the chaplain is there for the service, and that the guest of honor, be it the bride or the dead person, is there on time.”
In Washington state, some of the only legal requirements are preservation of the body 24 hours after death by way of embalming or refrigeration, obtaining a signed death certificate, and securing a permit for disposition of the deceased.
If the body will be kept at home for longer than 24 hours, preservation can be achieved by putting the body on dry ice for the duration of the viewing. Once the family has had enough time with the person, he or she will be removed for final disposition, which includes burial, cremation, or scientific donation.
“A funeral director that is truly in earnest with the services they’re providing these families would have the courage to say that,” says Barrett. “A family can do this themselves. They don’t need a licensed funeral director, especially in the 41 states where legally a family is able to sign their own death certificate.”
Even families who still want the guidance of a professional shouldn’t feel powerless.
“Too many people go to funeral homes and just want to be told what to do, because they haven’t been through it or they don’t want to think about it. That gives the funeral homes way more power than they really deserve,” says Menkin.
Ideally, a funeral home should educate consumers and encourage them to make informed decisions, she says, ultimately just acting as an agent to carry out their wishes.
For almost every modern funeral home preparation procedure, there is a more sustainable alternative. Dry ice can offset the need for embalming for brief viewing or shipping purposes. In instances where some form of embalming is necessary, such as a violently traumatic death, a mix of essential oils can replace the toxic mix of tinted formaldehyde. Even in the case of burial, biodegradable shrouds can eliminate the need for wood and metal caskets built, in theory, to last forever.
The distinctions apply to cemeteries too, which are divided into several camps as outlined by the Green Burial Council, the industry authority on sustainability. It assigns funeral homes, cemeteries, and suppliers a rating based on strict environmental impact standards, which scrutinize everything from embalming practices to casket material.
There are traditional cemeteries with standard graves, monuments, mausoleums, and often water-intensive grass landscaping. The next step up are hybrid cemeteries, which still may have regular plots, but also offer burial options that don’t require concrete vaults, embalming, or standard caskets. Natural burial grounds, the middle rank, prohibit the use of vaults, traditional embalming techniques, and burial containers that aren’t made from natural or plant-derived materials; landscaping must incorporate native plants to harmonize with the local ecosystem, conserve energy, and minimize waste. Premier green burial occurs on conservation burial grounds, which in addition to meeting all of the above requirements, requires partnership with an established conservation organization and be dedicated to long-term environmental stewardship.
Natural and conservation burial grounds must limit the use and visibility of memorials and headstones so as to preserve the native visual landscape as much as possible. Some properties have switched to GPS-based plot markers—visitors wouldn’t know they’re in the middle of a cemetery unless they were looking for it.
As consumers become more comfortable with taking charge of their dead, there will be more room to introduce new methods of body disposition, such as alkaline hydrolodis, a type of liquid cremation, and body composting. Earlier this year, supporters successfully funded a Kickstarter campaign to start research on the Urban Death Project, which aims to turn decomposing bodies into nutrient-rich soil. According to Jorgenson, sustainable burial practices are still part of a boutique market, though that doesn’t change his bottom line.
“Death is difficult. People don’t really want to experiment with mom,” he says. “But I count myself fortunate to be out there as one of the people that offers these alternatives, should someone want them.”
“The co-op movement is bigger in other countries,” says Menkin, who attended the 2014 International Summit of Funeral Cooperatives in Quebec. “Canada has a large network of funeral cooperatives, but it’s a bit more like a traditional funeral industry, just with a different business model. They’re not about alternative forms of disposition or changing the norm. We’re kind of writing the book on this one.”
Eventually, those conversations may become commonplace.
“Now when I mention home funerals to people, they don’t think anything of it,” says Barrett. To her, the time has come for people to think outside the box—literally.
Jewish hospice chaplains confront the emotional and medical complexities of death and dying every day, but Holocaust survivors present special challenges.
Rabbi E.B. “Bunny” Freedman, director of the Jewish Hospice and Chaplaincy Network, said that chaplains are increasingly being called on to provide spiritual support to survivors and their families.
“There are a lot of complex issues,” said Freedman, who has worked in end of life chaplaincy for 23 years. “One of them is making the decision of unhooking hydration – much more complex for a Holocaust family. The idea of not providing nutrition is crossing a sacred or not understood emotional line.”
Survivor guilt and mixed feelings at the prospect that they may “meet their relatives on the other side” commonly surface, he said.
Rabbi Charles Rudansky, director of Jewish clinical services at Metropolitan Jewish Health System’s hospice in New York, reported similar experiences with Holocaust survivors he had counseled.
“Last time they saw their loved ones was hellish, hellish, hellish, and now they’re crossing that bridge,” said Rudansky.
Some Holocaust survivors are apprehensive at that prospect, he said, while others are “uplifted.” A usually talkative person may fall silent, while a quiet person may suddenly have a lot to say.
“I’ve been called in by Holocaust survivors who only want to speak with me so some human ears will have heard their plight,” said Freedman.
Jan Kellough, a counselor with Sivitz Jewish Hospice and Palliative Care in Pittsburgh, said she encourages, but never pushes, survivors to share their stories. While it can be therapeutic for some survivors to talk about the Holocaust, she said, it is problematic for others.
For some survivors, “there’s an attitude of not wanting to give up, there’s a strong will to fight and survive,” said Kellough.
Children and grandchildren of survivors can also struggle to cope with their loved ones’ terminal illness, said Rudansky.
He said such people tell the hospice staff, “’My grandfather, my father survived Auschwitz. You can’t tell me they can’t survive this!’ They have great difficulty in wrapping their heads around this is different — this is nature.”
That difficulty can be compounded by the fact that children of survivors may not have had much contact with death in their lives, said Rabbi David Rose, a hospice chaplain with the Jewish Social Service Agency in Rockville, Maryland.
Because so many of their family members were wiped out in the Holocaust, children of survivors may be less likely to have experienced the death of a grandparent or aunt or uncle.
“That’s one of the benefits of hospice. We work with them and their families to help them accept their diagnosis,” said Kellough.
Hospice offers families pre-bereavement counseling, 13-months of aftercare and access to preferred clergy.
Special sensitivity is paid to spouses who are also survivors.
“Survivor couples, particularly if they met before the war or just after the war are generally exceptionally protective of each other,” said Rose. “A few different couples come to mind – every time I visited, the partner was sitting right next to their spouse, holding hands the whole visit.”
Freedman underscored that chaplains are trained not to impose their religious ideas on families, but rather to listen to the patient and family’s wishes.
“I tell the people I train that if you’re doing more [than] 30 percent [of the] talking in the early stages of the relationship, then you’re doing it wrong,” said Freedman.
“Seventy percent of communication is coming from your ears, your eyes, your smile — not your talking. Rabbis tend to be loquacious, we’re talkative,” he said. “But when I’m with a family, I am an open book for them to write on.”
Though the work is emotionally demanding, Freedman said, “Helping people through natural death and dying is one of the most rewarding things people can do.”