Doctors today have documented evidence to demonstrate that grieving can, in fact, make children sick. Health issues such as skin problems, cardiovascular disease and even cancer can often track their onset to a painful event translated as grief. Traumatic loss is so abhorrent to the mind that children often have difficulty coping. Children today have […]
Doctors today have documented evidence to demonstrate that grieving can, in fact, make children sick.
Health issues such as skin problems, cardiovascular disease and even cancer can often track their onset to a painful event translated as grief. Traumatic loss is so abhorrent to the mind that children often have difficulty coping.
Children today have numerous opportunities to distract themselves from grieving properly; i.e. video games, computers and television. In my book, The Only Way Out is Through, I share some insight into working through grief. Here are some tips for parents and caregivers to help children deal with grievances in a healthy manner.
Tips for Nurturing Bereaved Children
Grieving children must get plenty of rest, eat a balanced diet and drink plenty of water. Exercise is also very important; however, remember that fatigue is often a characteristic of both loss and depression.
Encourage a grieving child to express and vent shock, anger and fear. This will help the child stay connected to life and can re-establish trust in what has become an unsafe world.
Children should be allowed to participate in the rituals of saying goodbye. This will give them a sense of realty and closure to this unthinkable event.
Parents or caregivers of grief-stricken children should encourage their child to participate in weekly therapeutic groups with other children who have encountered the same kind of loss.
It’s difficult explaining death to a child, especially the loss of a relative. You might have questions about how to begin the conversation, or you might feel uncertain about what to say.
Naturally, you want to protect your child from feeling the same pain you are experiencing, but it is crucial that you speak honestly and openly about the situation.
Helping your child understand grief and loss is best for their emotional health and well-being.
Explaining Death to a Child
Children might not understand that death is permanent. They may ask questions like, “When is Mommy coming back?”
Although it may seem gentler to use phrases such as “passed away” or “went to sleep,” it can be confusing. Try to say terms like “dead” or “died” to help them understand better.
Share basic facts when you feel it is appropriate to help settle a child’s curiosity about death. It’s important to answer questions your child has simply and directly, and it’s OK to admit that you don’t have all of the answers. Try to remain concrete in your explanation by saying something like, “a person’s body stops working when they die.”
Even though older children may understand death better than younger children, it may still be difficult for them to know how it could happen to someone so close to them. That’s when it is essential to explain that death is a natural part of everyone’s life cycle.
Differences in Bereavement by Age
Bereavement differs for everyone, but at specific developmental stages in a child’s life, it can look notably different.
Babies/Toddlers: Although at this age, children might not have the language to say how and what they are feeling or have a complete understanding of death, they can still experience separation and loss. They may pick up on the distressful feelings of those around them.
Preschoolers: Children at this age might find it hard to grasp that death is permanent. They need a lot of reassurance because they are at a stage of magical thinking. They may believe that someone will come back to life again or that they made the person die.
Primary-School Children: At this age, children may still have some confused thoughts about death and may feel that is something temporary. They may also think that the person can still feel things like hunger or cold. They may ask direct questions about where the person is and what happened to them.
Older Children: By this age, children know that death is not temporary. They are more aware of how adults and others are reacting to death, so it’s important to talk honestly about events and feelings. They need regular reassurance that their grief is understood.
Adolescents: Teenagers may react like younger children or have reactions akin to those of an adult. They will probably want to spend more time with friends than with family for support. Their feelings may be overwhelming, and although they can appear to be fine, inside, they may be genuinely hurting or suppressing how they feel.
Emotions That Accompany Grief
There is no one right way to grieve. It’s common for children to express many emotions, just like adults, but they may express them differently.
They may feel shock, guilt, sadness, anger, anxiety, fear, loneliness, and helplessness. All of these feelings are normal. They may feel unpleasant, but they are all elements of the process of grieving.
It’s important to help your child accept how they are feeling and not push them away or deny their feelings. It’s painful to go through bereavement, but helping them connect with their emotions is a good step toward healing.
Ways to Help Kids Cope
Children need to know that they are not alone. Having support from family and friends and being able to talk to them can be very beneficial.
They may also need spiritual support if that helps them grieve better. You may want to seek counseling for your child to help them deal with their emotions and the loss.
Encourage children to read books or poetry when they are grieving. Motivate them to exercise, and make sure they are continuing to eat healthy foods. Allow them to take time to relax.
You and your child may need time away from work and school. Help your child to cope by engaging in social activities.
The most significant thing children can do to deal with death is to be patient with themselves and allow themselves to feel the emotions related to the loss.
Below are some helpful resources to assist with this very difficult matter.
Do Pets Grieve? The loss of a beloved family pet can overwhelm everyone in the household. Your remaining pets can also be deeply affected by the loss of a companion animal. They may show immediate signs of depression or other behavioral changes. Some pets become so despondent, they die soon after their companion of what seems like a broken heart. Although it is not intentional, […]
The loss of a beloved family pet can overwhelm everyone in the household. Your remaining pets can also be deeply affected by the loss of a companion animal. They may show immediate signs of depression or other behavioral changes. Some pets become so despondent, they die soon after their companion of what seems like a broken heart. Although it is not intentional, their needs are often overlooked as you struggle through your own painful feelings of grief. With just a few simple steps you can help your remaining pets understand what happened to their best friend so you can all move through your grief and into healing.
What are the signs of pet grief?
After a pet dies, the hierarchy within the home shifts as the remaining pets adjust to the loss. Some pets will react immediately to the loss of a companion animal while others carry on as if nothing happened. Some pets will suddenly lose interest in food or treats while others will hide or sulk around in a sorrowful way. Many grieving pets will whine, meow, or yowl as they search the house looking for their companion who suddenly disappeared. If the pet that died was more dominant or self-confident the remaining pet can become fearful of things that never bothered them before. If your pets were together for a long time their grief may be more pronounced lasting for days, months, or longer. There are many signs of grief but listed below are a few of the most common behavioral changes.
Signs your pet may be grieving:
– Loss of appetite
– Lethargic or no interest in toys
– Vocalizations – yowling, crying or whining
– Changes in normal sleeping patterns
– Inappropriate elimination or marking
– Destructive behavior
– Sudden fearfulness/anxiety
How to help your pets understand the loss of a companion animal
Our remaining pets are often excluded from the final moments of another pet’s passing. Many become confused about what happened to their companion as they are not able to see the body after death. In the wild, animals inspect the body of their companion which provides closure and an understanding that the life force of the animal is gone. But what happens if you are not able to let them inspect the body? What else can you do?
The best way to help your pet understand what happened is to talk about it. When you communicate openly with your pet, images will flash across your mind as you speak. Those images play like a mini-movie in your head and your pets will be able to intercept those images.
Hearing your voice and watching the images will give them a better sense of the changes that have taken place. Speak slowly and softly as you would to a child of about nine or ten years of age. Another option is to allow the remaining pet to inspect a towel or blanket with the deceased pet’s scent on it. Ideally, try to give your remaining pet the opportunity to sense their companion has died.
Would it help to get another pet?
Every situation is different so decide wisely before bringing a new pet into your home. Some pets are very excited about a new companion while others are not. If the resident pet is older, weaker, or not in the best of health then it may be best to leave well enough alone and not add any new pets to the household. However, a new pet can breathe new life and laughter into a depressed situation and draw some pets out of their grief. Be mindful that a new pet will change the energy within the household and care should be taken to make sure the new pet is a good match for your family. Trust your intuition and if it feels right then it will likely be okay. If it doesn’t feel right, then wait for a better time.
Openly express your feelings
The best way to help your remaining pet is to openly share your feelings. If you are sad and missing your other pet, tell them exactly how you feel. They may not understand all the details about what happened but hearing your words will ease their mind and help them heal faster. Although it is a painful and difficult time, honor your grief and allow yourself to feel all of your emotions. As you move through your grief into healing your pets will likely do so too. They can absorb your emotions like a sponge and will naturally feel more balanced when you do. Watch your pet closely and consult with a trusted veterinarian if their condition continues or worsens.
Embrace every precious moment
When you are ready, celebrate your memories of the pet you lost and remember to make their life more important than their death. Your remaining pet will feel the love in your heart and know that their beloved companion has left this life with dignity and peace.
The 8 steps to help your grieving pet heal faster
1. Spend more time with them and focus on their needs with extra love and TLC
2. Talk openly about the pet you lost and share all of your favorite memories
3. Bring home a new toy, cat tree, or a new, cushy bed
4. Take more walks or engage in playful activities to help them release pent up emotions
5. Do not leave them alone for long periods of time after the loss of a companion pet
6. Tell them you will grieve together and you will move into healing together too
7. Picture the outcome you desire such as all of you being happy, healthy, and living life to the fullest
8. Keep their routine as normal as possible and avoid any trips, changes in diet, or other disruptions to their schedule
Most of us have some strange ideas when it comes to grief.
I was five years old. I had just experienced what I assume was my first case of bullying. I was shocked and confused. I felt sad and angry. I was deeply disappointed.
I had other disappointments before that, and I’ve had many since. More bullying, conflicts, failures, break-ups, rejections, estrangements, losses, and deaths. Each time, I experienced that heavy assault of shock, sadness, confusion, and anger. In some cases, the hurt went deeper, and bored its way into my heart. These deeper wounds came with added upset, anxiety, fear, and even depression.
I was grieving. In each case, something occurred that stunned my heart. I had lost something, or someone.
When we hear the word “grief,” most of us think of death. Grief, however, is the response of our hearts to any loss. Grief is everywhere, but it’s not a popular subject. It’s is one of those things we would rather not talk about.
When something isn›t talked about, a stigma often becomes attached to it. When it comes to grief, myths abound.
Here are five common myths about grief.
Myth #1: Grief is something to be conquered and overcome.
When we view grief as something to be conquered, we’ve labeled it an enemy. Like some unwelcome villain, it lurks in the shadows to trip us up and steal our happiness.
In reality, grief is a natural response to a loss of any kind, real or perceived. Our expectations are shattered. Life has surprised us. We’re hurt and wounded.
Grief is universal. Rather than something to be overcome, it is to be experienced and processed. We don’t conquer it, but move through it to heal and grow.
We have hearts. Grief is natural.
Myth #2: Grief is negative and we should get rid of it as soon as possible.
Because we associate grief with pain, we see it as inherently negative. No one wants it. Everyone flees from it. And if we›re in it, we want to get out of it as quickly as possible.
Painful things happen in life. If we don›t feel that pain, we become callous, bitter, and perhaps abusive. Denying or avoiding grief sets us up for a world of frustration and dysfunction.
Grief is actually positive. It declares that we have hearts. As we learn to process it in healthy ways, we discover our grief reveals what›s important to us.
Myth #3: Grief should be quick and easy.
We have this idea that grief should be over in a few days. If the loss is especially close or painful, perhaps a few weeks is acceptable. Anything more than that, however, and something is wrong. After all, life goes on. Better to buck up and get over it rather than waste away in sadness.
The truth is that grief has no timetable. Grieving isn’t a task to check off a to-do list. It’s a dynamic, somewhat unpredictable process.
Intense feelings surface. We suddenly find ourselves on an emotional roller-coaster full of unforeseen twists, climbs, and falls. This ride isn’t over in 90 seconds either. Grief is more of a marathon than a sprint.
Almost all the grief we experience is relational. Most losses tend to involve another person somehow. These losses hurt, and some can alter our personal worlds forever.
Most of us are grieving on some level. We’re constantly dealing with the results of what has happened to us. Grief is far from quick, and it’s never easy.
Myth #4: There are right ways to grieve.
If we must grieve, we naturally want to standardize the process. We want a recipe — a foolproof handbook for managing loss and hardship. We long for a checklist to measure our progress so that we when the last box is checked we can breathe a sigh of relief and say, “Done with that!”
We’re not robots. Each loss is unique. Circumstances, relationships, and hearts are all one-of-a-kind. Though there are patterns and similarities here and there, every single grief process is an individual adventure.
Though there is no right way to grieve, there are healthy and unhealthy ways of grieving. We learn, heal, adjust, and grow when we take our hearts seriously, practice good self-care, and stay connected to people who are helpful to us. If we instead choose to ignore and stuff our grief, it will leak out in ways we’ll most likely regret. Grief will be expressed, one way or another.
Grief is universal, but every grieving heart is unique.
Myth #5: Strong people don’t grieve.
We tend to confuse strong with stoic. Strength is synonymous with hard and impenetrable.
We’re not made of steel. Our hearts are not bulletproof. Strength doesn’t come from evading reality and ignoring emotions. We grow stronger as we face obstacles with the courageous resolve to do the grief work necessary to heal and grow.
Strong people are authentic and pursue integrity. What you see is what you get. They choose relational honesty over hiding. They grieve from the heart in healthy ways.
We love, and so we grieve.
Grief is natural and universal. It is a normal and healthy response to loss. When it comes, nothing strange or weird is going on. Grieving well, far from being negative, is the way we heal. It’s a process that takes time and effort. Each loss is unique and every person’s grief process is somewhat different. Grieving in healthy ways takes courage and internal strength.
Life is full of loss because it is also full of love. We love, and so we grieve. If you’re grieving today, please take your heart seriously. Look inside and process the hits well. Get around people who are helpful to you. Limit your exposure to critics and fixers. Be patient with yourself.
Many of us are hurting. Let’s grant one other the compassion we all need and long for. Grief is lonely, but the road of loss is well populated. Though we’re all unique, we can still travel together.
In the Victorian era, jewelry made with hair was all the rage. In 1854, the novelist Wilkie Collins wrote that bracelets made of human hair were “in England one of the commonest ornaments of woman’s wear.” Ten years later, Charles Dickens wrote that a man’s watch fob made of hair was the real mark of middle-class respectability.
Victorians on both sides of the Atlantic were particularly mesmerized by the hair of the dead. Victorian literature scholar Deborah Lutz explores “the materiality of death and its artifacts” of the era, finding antecedents in the Christian reliquary tradition, when body parts of saints were considered magical. Protestantism and secularization shifted this fascination toward the sought-after body parts of royals and the very famous (like Napoleon, whose penis is supposedly now in New Jersey). By the middle of the nineteenth century, this long Western tradition had become “increasingly secular, personal, and private.” And concentrated on hair.
Loved ones and relatives could give hair as tokens of love and friendship. Family members or lovers could twine their hair together. After a person’s death, their hair remained; as the Whitman exhibits show, well-preserved hair can last a long time. Hair was a tangible keepsake of a life, and of a body. Perhaps it imparted a sense that you might meet again.
Lutz writes that such relics “work as traces of a life and body completed and disappeared, in this sense something like last words, by they also serve as frames or fragments of the moment of loss.” These present reminders of those who have died speak of a “desire to see death as not permanent, in that material remains might be proof that the loved one still exists somewhere, somehow.” Relic worship also shows a willingness “to dwell in and with the moment of loss itself, to linger over this evidence of death’s presence woven into the texture of life at all turns.”
Romanticism, the Evangelical revival of the 1830s-40s, and Spiritualism’s rise in the 1850s-1860s, all contributed to this “after-death narrative” and the mid-century popularity of “hairwork.”
Lutz reminds us of the passage in Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights (1847) when Heathcliff switches his rival Linton’s hair from the locket around the dead Catherine’s neck and replaces it with his own. “Rather than gathering a memento of Catherine for himself, Heathcliff sees to it that a material fragment of his body will go down into the grave with Catherine’s corpse, to intermingle with her flesh.” The notion of the “good death” merges here with the palpable eroticization of death. Of course, Heathcliff’s plans are foiled by Nelly Dean, who twines Linton’s lock around Heathcliff’s—opening “the possibility of a postmortem storm of jealousy.”
Fiction mirrored the times. After her husband’s death in 1861, Queen Victoria had at least eight pieces of jewelry made that incorporated Prince Albert’s hair. The Victorians “found in relic culture a means to respect the irreducible self.” Such a culture, Lutz says, “sees death, and the body itself, as the beginning of stories, not their end.”
Tears spill down Nora McInerny’s face as she stares at the recording studio’s ceiling.
“That was when the doctors told her the cancer was going to kill her,” the interviewee is saying.
“Wow,” McInerny says, letting the word rest in the air. The pause stretches far beyond a comfortable one. McInerny has a pained look on her face, yet she appears every bit the polished modern woman: her blond hair is curled, her red lipstick is still in place and there is a scarf tied in a perfect knot around her neck. In another studio, she could be working on a show about the latest fashion trends or young women in the workplace.
Instead, she’s hosting a podcast about the horrors that face humanity: cancer, suicide, sexual abuse, mass shootings.
Each week, the podcast digs deep. It allows listeners to think about the pain we live through, how we face it, tackle it, collapse under its weight. It gives permission to grieve, to go on living, to be happy and sad simultaneously. It’s about everything that life can throw at us and the myriad ways in which we must reimagine our lives. As McInerny writes in her newest book, “No Happy Endings: A Memoir,” “death is not the only time we start over
And McInerny is an expert in the subject.
“Terrible, Thanks for Asking” and all that has come after was born out of McInerny’s own grief. She launched it in 2016, as a 33-year-old single mom, just two years after losing her first husband, Aaron Purmort, to brain cancer. Weeks before Aaron died, she also suffered a miscarriage and watched her father die.Aaron’s obituary, which they wrote together, went viral, and people began contacting McInerny. “So many people . . . were reaching out to me, a complete stranger, in the middle of the night to talk about the worst thing that ever happened to them, and it wasn’t because they were all friendless or familyless,” she remembers. “It was just because the people around them were afraid to talk to them or didn’t want to remind them of their tragedy.”
Episodes include guests such as a young man with cerebral palsy; a woman who almost died in a fire that killed her boyfriend; an emergency-room doctor who watched her husband die in the hospital where she works.
Each story is filled with almost-unspeakable pain. And yet, the podcast has been listened to more than 14 million times.
Sitting on her couch recently in Minneapolis, McInerny recalls those early days after losing Aaron. As she talks, she looks at a wall-size photograph of the two of them holding their young son, Aaron’s adoring gaze forever watching over the bustling living room, so full of life.
Just then, McInerny’s husband, Matthew Hart, walks in holding their youngest child, who they affectionately call “baby.” Her 6-year-old, the one who calls Aaron “Dad” and Matthew “Matty-daddy,” runs in dressed like a shark, and she laughs. Two teenagers, Matthew’s kids from his first marriage, coordinate pickup from soccer practice that afternoon. McInerny’s mother shows up and begins chatting with Matthew and playing with the younger kids. And, of course, there’s a family dog.
The chaos and love surrounding McInerny is a perfect representation of her life.
“I do think most families are complicated and built from all of these fragmented other places, but we’d rather not think of it that way,” she says. Her family, in fact, isn’t just her new husband and their kids. It also includes Aaron’s family, especially his mother, whom she communicates with often. McInerny admits in her new book that she and Aaron’s mom initially “couldn’t do the grief together,” but now her family of six spends part of every winter break visiting her. “Aaron’s mother buys all the kids Christmas presents,” she says, “and they all call her May-May.”
The life that surrounds her is full of many positive things. Yet when she cries about Aaron with people outside her inner circle, she says, it can be a bit disconcerting to them. She understands that society believes she should be either happy or sad, but not necessarily both. “I think that most families hold both sad and happy feelings, and I don’t think I would have known that or assumed that before. In fact, I know I wouldn’t have.”
When Aaron was dying, the couple formed a nonprofit organization, Still Kickin, that gives no-strings-attached grants to people who are struggling. One recipient, a domestic violence survivor named Andi, recalls how the grant helped her move and support her family “during a very dark time.” This grant was “a bright light to me amidst so much darkness.”
Even with such demands on her time, McInerny tries not to compromise her home life, going to the gym with her teenagers or snuggling on the couch with her little ones. Her work with grieving people lives alongside an otherwise normal life.
McInerny’s goal is not to sensationalize death and tragedy. “I know how it feels to just be somebody’s sad story. Nobody wants to be a sad story,” McInerny says. Instead, she aims to make a show that is about understanding the complex mix of joy and pain experienced by one person.
This means that if she’s doing a story, for example, about two law enforcement officers whose baby died of SIDS, she doesn’t spend weeks researching the various causes of infant death. Instead, she tries to understand an individual story. So McInerny lets the bereaved family talk with little interruption. The mother speaks through tears as she recalls seeing her husband the moment after tragedy hit. “All I could think of was hold it together,” she says, “because your husband just watched our son die.”
In these interviews, McInerny provides narration and a frame from which to view the story. In another episode, she interviews a Hmong woman named Yer Vu who was widowed, became a refugee and fled to the United States with three young children. “I carried [my youngest son] on my back,” the woman recalls as part of her harrowing tale of escape which also involved fording a river in a war zone. “If there was no God, maybe we would have died,” Yer Vu says.
There is a slight pause, and then the listener hears the voice of McInerny. “Yer Vu credits God,” she narrates, “and I credit Yer Vu. Because that is more motherhood than I have or will ever do in my entire life.”
Her authenticity has brought some unexpected voices to her podcast, such as Nation Hahn, who was drawn to the podcast because he felt she could tell his story in a way that other media had not. His episode, which focuses on how he processed the murder of his wife while being simultaneously thrust into a media spotlight, gave him a platform to tell his whole story. “I admire [McInerny] for her tenacity and willingness to explore tough issues while building community,” Hahn says. “As someone who is still very much experiencing grief years later, ‘Terrible, Thanks for Asking’ offers a path forward, helpful advice, and reminds me that I am not alone in the face of this terrible loss.”
McInerny says her goal is to promote empathy instead of pity. So even though the topics she covers can be quite grim, the show itself is not. She laughs often while talking to guests and usually gets them to laugh, too.
“I don’t want the show to be a relentless bummer,” she says. Still, she believes in the importance of facing difficult subjects head-on. “We do a really good job, especially the U.S., of making sure we avoid everything uncomfortable,” McInerny says. But running from pain is impossible, because “it will catch you eventually. So you might as well be open to the experience and open to witnessing those experiences in other people because someday something terrible is going to happen to you or to someone you love. Actually, that’s a guarantee.”
But why continue to immerse herself in tragedy when she’s already been through so much loss?
“Sometimes, I don’t want to do it,” McInerny concedes, but then there are times when she feels inspired by the stories she hears. Moreover, she wants these conversations about death and loss and hardship to become more commonplace. Notes from listeners explain how she may have an even wider impact than she initially imagined.
“I think you saved my life tonight,” wrote a man named Jim who told her he had been struggling with depression. “You kept me awake tonight, and now I know tomorrow will be better.”
McInerny recognizes that letting in all of this pain is difficult for most people. In fact, she found it really hard to engage in such discussions before she had to face her husband’s cancer and death. She knows that it might be impossible for her to ever really understand what grief feels like for someone who has experienced a different tragedy. “But at the same time,” she says, “very untimely and tragic death does give you some sort of access to each other.”
Maybe this is what makes her so effective at getting people to open up about their lives. Or maybe it’s just that McInerny has that certain touch — the one that helps people tell the entirety of their stories, rather than be reduced to a simple anecdote.
The topics she tackles may be difficult, but, she says, “These are things that everybody has always been trying to connect over since the dawn of time, right? The few things that we all have in common are love and want and death.”
Dayna West knows how to throw a fabulous memorial shindig. She hired Los Angeles celebration-of-life planner Alison Bossert — yes, those now exist — to create what West dubbed “Memorialpalooza” for her father, Howard, in 2016 a few months after his death.
“None of us is going to get out of this alive,” says Bossert, who helms Final Bow Productions. “We can’t control how or when we die, but we can say how we want to be remembered.”
And how Howard was remembered! There was a crowd of more than 300 on the Sony Pictures Studios. A hot-dog cart from the famed L.A. stand Pink’s. Gift bags, the hit being a baseball cap inscribed with “Life’s not fair, get over it” (a beloved Howardism). A constellation of speakers, with Jerry Seinfeld as the closer (Howard was his personal manager). And babka (a tribute to a favorite “Seinfeld” episode).
“My dad never followed rules,” says West, 56, a Bay Area clinical psychologist. So why would his memorial service
Death is a given, but not the time-honored rituals. An increasingly secular, nomadic and casual America is shredding the rules about how to commemorate death, and it’s not just among the wealthy and famous. Somber, embalmed-body funerals, with their $9,000 industry average price tag, are, for many families, a relic. Instead, end-of-life ceremonies are being personalized: golf-course cocktail send-offs, backyard potluck memorials, more Sinatra and Clapton, less “Ave Maria,” more Hawaiian shirts, fewer dark suits. Families want to put the “fun” in funerals
The movement will only accelerate as the nation approaches a historic spike in deaths. Baby boomers, despite strenuous efforts to stall the aging process, are not getting any younger. In 2030, people over 65 will outnumber children, and by 2037, 3.6 million people are projected to die in the United States, according to the Census Bureau, 1 million more than in 2015, which is projected to outpace the growth of the overall population
Just as nuptials have been transformed — who held destination weddings in the ’90s? — and gender-reveal celebrations have become theatrical productions, the death industry has experienced seismic changes over the past couple of decades. Practices began to shift during the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s, when many funeral homes were unable to meet the needs of so many young men dying, and friends often hosted events that resembled parties.
Now, many families are replacing funerals (where the body is present) with memorial services (where the body is not). Religious burial requirements are less a consideration in a country where only 36 percent of Americans say they regularly attend religious services, nearly a third never or rarely attend, and almost a quarter identify as agnostic or atheist, according to the Pew Research Center.
Funeral homes adapt
More than half of all American deaths lead to cremations, compared to 28 percent in 2002, due to expense (they can cost a third the price of a burial), the environment, and family members living far apart with less ability to visit cemetery plots, according to the National Funeral Directors Association. By 2035, the cremation rate is projected to be a staggering 80 percent, the association says. And cremation frees loved ones to stage a memorial anywhere, at any time, and to store or scatter ashes as they please. (Maintenance of cemeteries, if families stop using them, may become a preservation and financial problem
Past funeral association president Mark Musgrove, who runs a network of funeral homes and chapels in Eugene, Ore., says his industry, already marked by consolidation, is adapting to changing demands.
“Services are more life-centered, around the person’s personality, likes and dislikes. They’re unique and not standardized,” he says. “The only way we can survive is to provide the services that families find meaningful.”
Funeral homes have hired event planners, remodeled drab parlors to include dance floors and lounge areas, acquired liquor licenses to replace the traditional vat of industrial-strength coffee. In Oregon, where cremation rates are near 80 percent, Musgrove has organized memorial celebrations at golf courses and Autzen Stadium, home of the Ducks. He sells urns that resemble giant golf balls and styles adorned with the University of Oregon logo. In a cemetery, his firm installed a “Peace Columbarium,” a retrofitted 1970s VW van, brightly painted with “Peace” and “Love,” to house urns.
Change has sparked nascent death-related industries in a culture long besotted with youth. There are death doulas (caring for the terminally ill), death cafes (to discuss life’s last chapter over cake and tea), death celebrants (officiants who lead end-of-life events), living funerals (attended by the honored while still breathing), and end-of-life workshops (for the healthy who think ahead). The Internet allows lives to continue indefinitely in memorial Facebook pages, tribute vlogs on YouTube and instamemorials on Instagram.
Memorials are no longer strictly local events. As with weddings and birthdays, families are choosing favorite vacation idylls as final resting spots. Captain Ken Middleton’s Hawaii Ash Scatterings performs 600 cremains dispersals a year for as many as 80 passengers on cruises that may feature a ukulele player, a conch-shell blower and releases of white doves or monarch butterflies.
“It makes it a celebration of life and not such a morbid affair,” says Middleton. His service is experiencing annual growth of 15 to 20 percent.
From coffins to compost
With increased concern for the environment, people are opting for green funerals, where the body is placed in a biodegradable coffin or shroud.
The industry is literally thinking outside the box.
“My work is letting people connect with the natural cycle as they die,” says Katrina Spade of Recompose in Seattle, who considers herself part of the “alternative death-care movement.” If its legislature grants approval this month, Washington will become the first state in the nation to approve legalized human composting. Her company plans to use wood chips, alfalfa and straw to turn bodies into a cubic yard of top soil in 30 days. That soil could be used to fertilize a garden, or a grove of trees, the body literally returned to the earth.
Spade questions why death should be a one-event moment, rather than an opportunity to create an enduring tradition, a deathday, to honor the deceased: “I want to force my family to choose a ritual that they do every year.”
Death has inspired Etsy-like enterprises that transform a loved one’s ashes into vinyl, “diamonds,” jewelry and tattoos. Ashes to ashes, dust to art.
After Seattle artist Briar Bates died in 2017 at age 42, four dozen friends performed her joyous water ballet in a public wading pool, “a fantastic incarnation of Briar’s spirit,” says friend Carey Christie. “Anything other than denial that you’re going to die is a healthy step in our culture.”
Funeral consultant Elizabeth Meyer wrote the memoir “Good Mourning” and named her website Funeral Guru Liz. Her motto: “Bringing Death to Life.” She notes, “Most people do not plan. What’s changing is more people are talking about it, and the openness of the conversation. Our world will be a better place when people let their wishes be known.”
In 2012, Amy Pickard’s mother “died out of the blue.” She was unprepared but also transformed. Now, she’s “the death girl,” an advocate for the “death-positive movement,” sporting a “Life is a near-death experience” T-shirt, teaching people how to plan by hosting monthly Good to Go parties in Los Angeles and offering a $60 “Departure File,” 50 pages to address almost every need.
“We’re still in the really early days of super-creative funerals. There’s this censorship of death and grief,” Pickard says. “You have the rest of your life to be sad over the person who died. The hope is to celebrate their time on Earth and who they were.” Overshadowing grief?
Some practitioners worry that death has taken a holiday, and grief is too frequently banished in end-of-life celebrations that seem like birthday blowouts.
“Do you think we’re getting too happy with this?” asks Amy Cunningham, director of the Inspired Funeral in Brooklyn. “You can’t pay tribute to someone who has died without acknowledging the death and sadness around it. You still have to dip into reality and not ignore the fact that they’re absent now
But even sadness is being treated differently. In some services, instead of offering hollow platitudes that barely relate to the deceased, “we are getting a new radical honesty where people are openly talking about alcoholism, drug use and the tough times the person experienced,” Cunningham says. Suicide, long hidden, appears more in obituaries; opioid addiction, especially, is addressed in services.
West, who hosted such a memorable send-off for her father, has some plans for her own: “Great food and live music, preferably Latin-inspired,” and “my personal possessions are auctioned off,” the proceeds benefiting a children’s charity. Why can’t a memorial serve as a fundraiser?
An avid traveler, West plans to designate friends to disperse her cremains in multiple locations “that have significance in my life” and leave funds to subsidize those trips — a global, destination ash-scattering.