A dying mother wrote her children letters, leaving a gift of love for years

Before dying of brain cancer at age 56, Jacqueline Zinn wrote letters to each of her children, including daughter Mary Kathryn.

By Steven Petrow

My friend Jacqueline Zinn was diagnosed with glioblastoma, a brain cancer, in 2013; she died 18 months later, at age 56, leaving behind a husband and four kids. Jacquie was a triathlete who knew a thing or two about endurance, and she managed her treatment — surgery, radiation and chemotherapy — with the same skill and organization she had brought to her work as a project manager for a drug company. Once she realized that she had only weeks to live, Jacquie began planning for the next chapter: her death and its aftermath.

And so “every night for weeks she wrote letters to our children,” her husband Doug recalled. Jacquie wrote multiple letters to each child, to be opened at different life milestones. Jacquie wanted to be “present with her kids,” he said, at each of those important moments

for what I jokingly call “The End” is not for faint hearts. War hero John McCain is said to have been disciplined and firm as he planned his funeral over the past year, including the singing of the Irish ballad “Danny Boy.” But few of us have that strength. Recently divorced, I needed to rewrite my will and my medical power of attorney as well as a host of other financial and medical documents. At almost every turn, I found myself crashing head-on into the wall of denial. Just last week, my attorney begged me to acknowledge that I was at least receiving her emails, even if I couldn’t respond to them. “Yes,” I replied, tersely. All this resistance, and I’m not suffering from any terminal condition.

That’s why Jacquie Zinn’s letters to her children seem heroic to me. After all, she did have a terminal diagnosis when she sat down to write what ended up being more than a dozen letters to her children, ranging in age from 11 to 21, and she knew her time was short. I first heard about the letters at her memorial service in 2013. This past spring, working on a book about death and dying, I reached out to her second-born son, Jerry, who was writing about the loss of his mother, to ask if he’d be willing to share his letters from her. He’d already gotten two — one soon after her death and one when he graduated from college — and after some hesitation, he said okay. Now 24, Jerry will get the final letter when he marries.

“The letters my mother left me are among the most precious gifts I possess,” he told me. “She diligently took the time, the very limited time, as her life was coming to an end to sit down and think about her children’s futures.”

So one day, in perfect cursive penmanship and blue ink after her oncologist told her she had only weeks left, Jacquie wrote her first letter to Jerry, then age 19, to be opened after she died. Here is a portion of it:

“Dear Jerry, my budding film-maker,

“I know you have a lot of emotions running through you, as I did when my father died, but I was much older than you at the time, so I really can’t begin to truly comprehend what you are feeling. I am so incredibly sorry that I had to die while you are so young and I assume it sucks for you. Perhaps you can use some of these emotions and feelings in your upcoming work(s), assuming you continue to pursue film.

“Let me assure you that I did absolutely everything I could to stay alive for as long as possible. I know you realize that having been with me at many of my treatments or tests. Plus the acupuncture, tons of praying I also did. But for some reason I just didn’t make it as one of the chosen ones to be cured. But because of what I did I’m sure I lived much longer than if I hadn’t been in good shape to begin with.

“I am incredibly proud of you for everything you have done in your relatively short life. I will be watching over you every day to see what new and exciting things you will accomplish — regardless of what occupations(s) you pursue over your lifetime.

“Do your best to support Dad and your siblings, especially during this first year as it will be the hardest for everyone. I remember that from when my father died. Time will certainly help, but it takes a long time to focus on the happy memories while the sad thoughts are more immediate and closer at hand.

“I had many fantastic years on earth, more than a lot of people, hence, I have no complaints. I survived a melanoma, car accident in the mountains of West Virginia with Uncle Jerry, car accident in Durham. So I have already lived many lives and I was extremely grateful for each and every moment. Try and live your life that way and you will be a happy and fulfilled human being.

“I love more than you will ever know, my dearest Jerry.

“Love, Mom.”

On the day Jerry graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 2016, Doug handed over letter No. 2, written with the same pen, on the same type of note paper.

“My sweet dear Jerry,

“Well — this is it — a big milestone in your life — college graduation! Congratulations. I am so incredibly proud of you no matter what your major or minors. I know you made it worthwhile and got just exactly what you wanted to out of the experience. I know you learned an incredible amount about subjects and probably an even greater amount about people.”

Jerry said that at various times during college he had considered dropping out, but “knowing that I would never receive that letter if I did not graduate was a very strong influence in keeping me in school. The letter was a motivation for which I will be forever grateful.” Knowing Jacquie as I did, I’m certain that was part of her master plan.

In the second letter, Jacquie signs off with these words: “I am watching over you all the time, or at least I hope I can do that! Congratulations, again. Enjoy this fabulous day and all the celebrations around. Big Hugs and Kisses! Much Love, Mom.”

What a gift, an eternal gift, I thought as I read and reread the two letters. More than anything, I silently bowed in amazement, understanding how Jacquie had faced her own version of “The End.” Doug reminded me that she’d written her letters while in a wheelchair, paralyzed on one side.

With Jacquie’s example in mind, I finally sat down and read the pile of documents my lawyer had sent to me, realizing that my denial served no purpose. To my surprise, I found comfort in taking care of that necessary business — once done. I’d like to think that was something Jacquie felt, too, as she sent her missives into the future.

Complete Article HERE!

The Death of the ‘Standard Funeral’

Funeral customs are changing dramatically, leaving families with more decisions to make at just the moment they may be least prepared to make them. Making decisions ahead of time honors “ancient wisdom.”

A funeral procession from the early 1900s.

By Steve Willis

Yogi Berra once quipped, “The future ain’t what it used to be.” If there is a time that I see church parishioners facing Yogi’s confused logic, it is when dealing with decision making for a funeral and burial of a loved one. American culture is going through a tumultuous season of cultural change. The last time that people want to deal with more change is during the loss and grief of a loved one’s death. But the reality is that the American funeral experience has changed and is continuing to change dramatically.

When I performed my first funeral in 1993, there was a certain set of expectations for what would happen when someone died. It almost always went like this. Three days after the person died there would be a funeral, or rarer then, a memorial service (a worship service without the body of the deceased). The evening before the funeral there would be a visitation at the funeral home to view the body and share condolences with the family. Usually at 11 a.m. or at 2 p.m. the funeral would take place at the church. Then the family, followed by friends, would drive in procession with headlights on to the cemetery for a brief committal service. After the committal the family returned to the church for a meal and time to visit. On occasion I have been invited to drop by the family home afterwards when all had been finished and there was nothing left to do but sip bourbon and visit.

Yes, this is a very Presbyterian, and a very Southern Presbyterian funeral experience. We value brevity when it comes to funeral worship services, and we value lingering when it comes to visiting afterwards. Of course, there are many variations on a theme played out in different religious traditions, and all of them have their strengths and weaknesses. I admire the African-American Baptist tradition, which has been able to resist many of the negative consumeristic trends involved with funerals, but I do not possess the proclamatory wind to preside for several hours over a funeral service.

Things have certainly changed from when a traditional schedule was the expected norm. There are many reasons for the changes that now often require families to design their own funeral rituals. One of the most significant is that in 1970 only 5% of the American population was cremated after death. Last year 55% chose cremation. The cost of burial with embalming of the body, metal casket and metal vault can run about $11,000, and of course this has been a motivating factor for choosing cremation.

Not too long ago I performed a funeral for the beloved family doctor of his remote rural village. He had made all the arrangements well in advance of his death. Ben was buried in a simple pine box that he had made himself and was interred on a hill at the back of his farm. He had a friend who had prepared his body after death and kept the body refrigerated until his family could see it. The doctor was a keen environmental steward of his farm as well as his community, and he did not wish to add the mixture of formaldehyde, methanol and humectants to the soil of his farm. This makes me wonder what really is traditional after all, because the doctor’s method would have been common place before industrialization and the Civil War. (Check out this website for different state requirements for a funeral at home.)

Ben was on to something. Think about what you would like your funeral to be. Talk to others about it. Don’t get scared off by our American cultural reluctance to have a conversation about death. Do you want to be cremated or embalmed? There are other options now to cremation than burning the body; it can also be done with water. Do you want a religious service to mark the occasion? What will be most helpful for your surviving family? I think that religious services can be deeply moving and genuinely helpful for people. But I should think that. I am a pastor. I know that this is not true for everyone. The point is to think about this beforehand and share with your family what is important to you and make plans for it.

Let me put in a word for funeral home directors. It has been my good fortune to be friends with a couple of them and a golf partner with one of them. I have often heard terribly negative caricatures of funeral home directors, most of the time from people whose only experience has been attending a few funerals. My experience has shown them to be people who pursue their work as a calling. I have watched them at times provide funeral services for poor families with disregard to the business end of their work. If you are interested in learning what a funeral director’s life is like, then read Thomas Lynch’s The Undertaking: Life Studies from the Dismal TradeHe is an American Book Award winner writer and a funeral home director in his small town of Milford, Michigan.

Lynch gives us, who live in what is often a death-denying culture, this sober reminder.

This is the central fact of my business – that there is nothing, once you are dead, that can be done to you or for you or with you or about you that will do you any good or any harm; that any damage or decency we do accrues to the living, to whom your death happens, if it really happens to anyone. The living have to live with it. You don’t. Theirs is the grief or gladness your death brings. Theirs is the loss or gain of it. Theirs is the pain and pleasure of memory.

The practical wisdom of these words reminds us that when the time finally comes for you or for me as it will for us all, water cremation, fire cremation, embalming, metal vaults, pine boxes, columnbariums, floral wreaths, funeral homilies, favorite hymns, presented flags and headstones will not matter to us. But some of these things will matter and give meaning to those who survive us.

I realize I’m not making any of this process easier. That’s my point. It’s not easy. And the ever-growing options only make for more complicated decisions. But reflecting upon death and dying and thinking about what our end will be like for others make us better human beings. And that is nothing new at all. That is ancient wisdom. 

Complete Article HERE!

Stories of the Land:

Returning to the Earth

Caroline Yongue had taken on the task of creating a conservation burial ground in Mills River, but the land was an impenetrable mass of weeds: hundreds of young Bradford pear trees, poison ivy growing high and dense, kudzu and bittersweet choking trees. You couldn’t walk through it.

She says, “There was kind of a freak-out for me, like, ‘Holy crap, what am I going to do with this?’”

But Caroline has a way with fear. It was one reason why her Buddhist teacher asked her to start doing death care. “She saw in me that I had a willingness to step past my fear,” Caroline says. “That when it arose, I saw it as an opportunity to go beyond. I didn’t let it stop me.”

Over 20 years ago, her teacher asked her to figure out how to take care of a dead body, without embalming, to be cared for by friends and family. “I thought it was an unusual question,” Caroline says, “but I trusted her that she knew my practice, so I said okay.”

At the time, Caroline says, “I had never seen death!”

She went through the process for the first time with an ailing kitten. “I talked to him about what was happening and I held him as he was dying.” Afterward, she laid out his tiny body, allowing time for the spirit to pass from the body.

When Ruby, the mother of a friend, was dying, Caroline asked if she would be willing to help her train and Ruby agreed. “I interviewed her about her death and dying, what she wanted, what were her spiritual practices, what did she believe was going to happen with her body after death,” Caroline says. “We provided all those things for Ruby as she was dying and at her death.”

But to go there, she had to step through fear. She says, “There was a voice in the back of my head going, ‘What are you doing? You don’t know what you’re doing! You can’t do this. You’re a fraud, blah blah blah blah.’ But I just kept doing it. I learned. And I continue to learn.”

Restoring the land

Caroline began serving as a death doula and death midwife. She started the Center for End of Life Transitions, facilitating home funerals and teaching people how to prepare for death. And she was interested in starting a conservation burial ground.

The time felt right in 2007, when she was newly married. She found 30 acres in Black Mountain. But things didn’t go according to plan, as the economy tanked. Caroline went through a serious illness and a divorce. She let the idea go.

Then, in 2014, a friend reached out. Her church in Mills River — Unity Center of the Blue Ridge — owned some extra land and they were interested in starting a green burial ground. Caroline decided to sell her home in West Asheville and then gave the money to her Buddhist group, which purchased the land to start Carolina Memorial Sanctuary.

That’s how she found herself in charge of 11 acres of vigorous weeds.

“One of the good things and the bad things about me is I can envision,” Caroline says. “I can manifest things just by thinking about it and envisioning it. So I just trusted the process. There were certainly times when I was like, ‘What the bleep am I doing?’ Part of this is my Buddhist practice. I just go, ‘Well, you just do the next thing.’”


One of her goals was to ensure the lasting conservation of the land. But, when Kieran Roe and Tom Fanslow from Conserving Carolina — a local land trust — first came out for a visit, they told Caroline that the land didn’t have much going for it, ecologically. There is a creek on the property that flows into the French Broad River and a wetland that had been partially filled in. So, it had potential, but it would take a lot of work to bring it back as a healthy natural habitat.

Caroline went for it. First, the sanctuary hired a contractor to clear out undesirable trees. For a year, Caroline and her small staff just watched what came back. The next step was to start removing invasives.

The land is a work-in-progress, with Caroline pointing out where an archway will go, a white oak, a composting toilet, graveled paths, a garage. In August, as she walked with her dog, Jasper, the meadow was full of Joe Pye Weed, with globes of purple blossoms swaying well above her head. Goldenrod, ironweed and butterfly weed were blooming, with monarch and swallowtail butterflies flitting over the flowers.

Recently, Conserving Carolina helped the sanctuary secure grants for an ambitious restoration project—to reclaim the wetland, reshape eroding stream banks and remove invasives, including kudzu and bamboo. Soon, the land trust and the sanctuary will finalize a conservation easement to ensure that the land will be protected forever. Carolina Memorial Sanctuary also donates a portion of the sale of burial sites to support Conserving Carolina.

Taking death back

In these natural surroundings, people give their loved ones back to the earth — both people and pets. And the meadow, woodland, wetland and stream create a place where people want to come back and reflect.

The sanctuary offers sites to scatter ashes or bury a body, in harmony with nature. Bodies are buried without embalming fluid, in a shroud or coffin that will break down underground. Graves are dug only three feet deep so that plants can benefit from the nutrients. Ashes are amended in order to keep the soil chemistry balanced.

Each rite of passage is different, Caroline says. They’ve had Christian, Jewish, Buddhist and Wiccan ceremonies. “I have to get out of the way, because I don’t know what their experience needs to be,” she says. “You’ve always got to be stepping back, stepping out of me so that what is greater can show itself.”

People may help carry in their loved one’s body or cover it with earth, in some cases having helped to prepare the body. Caroline says, “The other option, that the body’s gone and you might be able to see it at a funeral home embalmed and it doesn’t look like your mother and you don’t want to touch it and you don’t want to emote and you’re in a hurry — it’s so unnatural. Now being able to do this, by the time people finish covering the grave, they’re laughing, they’re not crying anymore. They’re just so joyous, they’re chatting, they’re telling stories about the person.”

Through all of her death care work, she says, “I think the idea is helping people take death back into their own hands and not be afraid of it. It’s part of life. And there’s a great healing that happens.”

She tells a story of one man whose husband died suddenly. When he contacted Caroline, the body had already been taken away, but she let him know that they could bring it back to their home. Before the burial, she helped the man and his friends prepare the body.

“I just facilitated the home funeral where I just directed his gay friends to bathe and dress this man,” she says. “We just stood back and provided support and they did it. It was one of the most beautiful home funerals I’ve ever done because these men were taking care of this man. And the man whose husband died said that because he was able to still participate — even though he died suddenly — it was so transforming to him.”

Complete Article HERE!

Some believe funeral preplanning brings death to their doorsteps

It’s quite the opposite

To help relieve their families, an increasing number of people are planning their own funerals, designating their funeral preferences, and sometimes paying for them in advance. They see funeral planning as an extension of will and estate planning.

Funeral Planning Tips

Thinking ahead can help you make informed and thoughtful decisions about funeral arrangements. It allows you to choose the specific items you want and need, and compare the prices offered by several funeral providers. It also spares your survivors the stress of making these decisions under the pressure of time and strong emotions. You can make arrangements directly with a funeral establishment.

An important consideration when planning a funeral pre-need is where the remains will be buried, entombed, or scattered. In the short time between the death and burial of a loved one, many family members find themselves rushing to buy a cemetery plot or grave — often without careful thought or a personal visit to the site. That’s why it’s in the family’s best interest to buy cemetery plots before you need them.

You may wish to make decisions about your arrangements in advance, but not pay for them in advance. Keep in mind that over time, prices may go up and businesses may close or change ownership. However, in some areas with increased competition, prices may go down over time. It’s a good idea to review and revise your decisions every few years, and to make sure your family is aware of your wishes.

Put your preferences in writing, give copies to family members and your attorney, and keep a copy in a handy place. Don’t designate your preferences in your will, because a will often is not found or read until after the funeral. And avoid putting the only copy of your preferences in a safe deposit box. That’s because your family may have to make arrangements on a weekend or holiday, before the box can be opened.


Millions of Americans have entered into contracts to arrange their funerals and prepay some or all of the expenses involved. Laws of individual states govern the prepayment of funeral goods and services; various states have laws to help ensure that these advance payments are available to pay for the funeral products and services when they’re needed. But protections vary widely from state to state, and some state laws offer little or no effective protection. Some state laws require the funeral home or cemetery to place a percentage of the prepayment in a state-regulated trust or to purchase a life insurance policy with the death benefits assigned to the funeral home or cemetery.

If you’re thinking about prepaying for funeral goods and services, it’s important to consider these issues before putting down any money:

  • What are you are paying for? Are you buying only merchandise, like a casket and vault, or are you purchasing funeral services as well?
  • What happens to the money you’ve prepaid? States have different requirements for handling funds paid for prearranged funeral services.
  • What happens to the interest income on money that is prepaid and put into a trust account?
  • Are you protected if the firm you dealt with goes out of business?
  • Can you cancel the contract and get a full refund if you change your mind?
  • What happens if you move to a different area or die while away from home? Some prepaid funeral plans can be transferred, but often at an added cost.

Be sure to tell your family about the plans you’ve made; let them know where the documents are filed. If your family isn’t aware that you’ve made plans, your wishes may not be carried out. And if family members don’t know that you’ve prepaid the funeral costs, they could end up paying for the same arrangements. You may wish to consult an attorney on the best way to ensure that your wishes are followed.

Funeral Terms and Contact Information

This article provides a glossary of terms you will encounter when planning a funeral, and offers a list of resources for more information.

Glossary of Funeral Terms

Alternative Container: An unfinished wood box or other non-metal receptacle without ornamentation, often made of fiberboard, pressed wood, or composition materials, and generally lower in cost than caskets.

Casket/Coffin: A box or chest for burying remains.

Cemetery Property: A grave, crypt, or niche.

Cemetery Services: Opening and closing graves, crypts or niches; setting grave liners and vaults; setting markers; and long-term maintenance of cemetery grounds and facilities.

Columbarium: A structure with niches (small spaces) for placing cremated remains in urns or other approved containers. It may be outdoors or part of a mausoleum.

Cremation: Exposing remains and the container encasing them to extreme heat and flame and processing the resulting bone fragments to a uniform size and consistency.

Crypt: A space in a mausoleum or other building to hold cremated or whole remains.

Disposition: The placement of cremated or whole remains in their final resting place.

Endowment Care Fund: Money collected from cemetery property purchasers and placed in trust for the maintenance and upkeep of the cemetery.

Entombment: Burial in a mausoleum.

Funeral Ceremony: A service commemorating the deceased, with the body present.

Funeral Services: Services provided by a funeral director and staff, which may include consulting with the family on funeral planning; transportation, shelter, refrigeration and embalming of remains; preparing and filing notices; obtaining authorizations and permits; and coordinating with the cemetery, crematory or other third parties.

Grave: A space in the ground in a cemetery for the burial of remains.

Grave Liner or Outer Container: A concrete cover that fits over a casket in a grave. Some liners cover tops and sides of the casket. Others, referred to as vaults, completely enclose the casket. Grave liners minimize ground settling.

Graveside Service: A service to commemorate the deceased held at the cemetery before burial.

Interment: Burial in the ground, inurnment or entombment.

Inurnment: The placing of cremated remains in an urn.

Mausoleum: A building in which remains are buried or entombed.

Memorial Service: A ceremony commemorating the deceased, without the body present.

Niche: A space in a columbarium, mausoleum or niche wall to hold an urn.

Urn: A container to hold cremated remains. It can be placed in a columbarium or mausoleum, or buried in the ground.

Vault: A grave liner that completely encloses a casket.

For More Information about Funerals, Funeral Providers, and Where to File a Complaint

Most states have a licensing board that regulates the funeral industry. You may contact the board in your state for information or help. If you want additional information about making funeral arrangements and the options available, you may want to contact interested business, professional and consumer groups. Some of the biggest are:

  • AARP
    AARP is a membership organization for people 50 years of age and older. Funeral-related information also is available in the Grief & Loss section.
  • Cremation Association of North America
    CANA is an association of crematories, cemeteries, and funeral homes that offer cremation.
  • Funeral Consumers Alliance
    FCA is a nonprofit educational organization that supports increased funeral consumer protection. Their website has free pamphlets on funeral planning, plus a directory of local volunteer funeral planning groups.
  • Funeral Ethics Organization
    FEO, an independent nonprofit educational organization, promotes ethical dealings in death- related transactions and provides mediation assistance to resolve consumer complaints.
  • Green Burial Council
    GBC, an independent, nonprofit that encourages environmentally sustainable death care practices as a means of acquiring, restoring, and stewarding natural areas, assists consumers in identifying “green” cemetery, funeral, and cremation services.
  • International Cemetery, Cremation and Funeral Association
    ICCFA is a nonprofit association of cemeteries, funeral homes, crematories, and monument retailers that offers informal mediation of consumer complaints through its Cemetery Consumer Service Council. Its website provides information and advice in its Consumer Resource Guide.
  • International Order of the Golden Rule
    OGR is an international association of about 1,300 independent funeral homes.
  • Jewish Funeral Directors of America
    JFDA is an international association of funeral homes serving the Jewish community.
  • National Funeral Directors Association
    NFDA is an educational and professional association of funeral directors, which provides consumer information and sponsors the NFDA Help Line, which is designed to help consumers resolve complaints about NFDA members.
  • National Funeral Directors and Morticians Association
    NFDMA is a national association primarily of African-American funeral providers.
  • Selected Independent Funeral Homes
    SIFH is an international association of funeral firms that have agreed to comply with its Code of Good Funeral Practices.

Resolving Problems

If you have a problem concerning funeral matters, it’s best to try to resolve it first with the funeral director. If you are dissatisfied with the funeral services you receive, the Funeral Consumers Alliance offers advice on how best to resolve a problem. In addition, the FEO, the NFDA Help Line, and the ICCFA Cemetery Consumer Service Council may be able to provide informal mediation of a complaint. You also can contact your state Attorney General’s office or local consumer protection agencies.

In addition, you can file a complaint with the FTC online or call 1-877-FTC-HELP (382-4357); TDD: 1-866-653-4261. Although the Commission cannot resolve individual problems for consumers, it can act against a company if it sees a pattern of possible law violations.

Complete Article HERE!

Cancer, Death and Finding the Words to Say Goodbye

BY Khevin Barnes

Cancer has a way of forcing us to consider the inevitable notion of our own death, and whether you want to think about that or not, I want to suggest that it need not be dramatic or discomforting if we choose to simply observe the phenomenon as something both mysterious and certain.

When a lifelong friend told me she had terminal, inoperable cancer I searched long and hard for the genuine and unpretentious words to say, knowing I had only one shot at getting it right. I’ll call her by her first name, Laura.

I hired Laura to work for me in an entertainment agency I started in California back in 1978. We were both in our late 20s. She was talented and fun and did a great comedy routine as “Mae West.” We lost touch over the years, but she reappeared again when my wife was diagnosed with advanced ovarian cancer, since they had both been good friends. She checked in often as I did my best to be a supportive and loving caregiver for my wife who, despite our best efforts, died at the age of 47 in 1997.

Those of us with a cancer diagnosis, no matter the stage or grade, know all too well that people die from our disease. The end of a life is something we experience with increased frequency as we get older, and also as we come to know more and more people like us with varying degrees of cancer. Of course, many of us live long and fulfilling lives.

I want to share some of the actual words Laura and I exchanged by letter in her final days with some short excerpts, not simply to show the remarkable courage and insight she expressed, but to act as a visible example of how a conversation with a dying friend might evolve. I recall the distress I felt at having to say goodbye in my letter, knowing it would be the last exchange I’d have with her.

I wanted very badly to avoid being trite or patronizing, but most of all, I wanted to be open and honest and to find the words to express the sadness I felt to lose her, along with the joy of living my life while knowing her. Laura wrote:

“I found out today that my cancer has now grown significantly in my liver, along with other areas. At this point my oncologist said that he did not know of any other options for me as far as treatment, and I most likely have three months to live. He has taken me off the chemo I was on and has now written an order for Hospice. I am sorry to give you this news.”

I sat with this news for a day before writing back to her:

“I received the news that your cancer has advanced beyond the treatable stage and I’m writing to tell you that I love you and that no matter where you are in the universe, you are now and always will be in my thoughts, memories and in my heart. I know from my past experience with my wife, that many who know and love you are muted by grief and there is a great difficulty to find words for such things.”

I reminded her of a few incidents from our past working as entertainers – things we had laughed over long ago. I spoke briefly about our philosophical views of death and dying.

“My own cancer experience, along with my wife’s, has forever altered how I view life and death, and though I feel a tremendous sadness that you may soon be in another place where perhaps we can no longer be in touch, those feelings are tempered by my unshakable belief that life – just as it is – is absolute perfection. I know from our conversations that in having a complete trust in life’s ultimate plan and purpose as we both do, there is a comfort we feel in this mystery that lies ahead for you and me and all of us. Of course, it’s those we leave behind who suffer – perhaps the most – but life, at least from my perspective, is always about growth, even though it hurts like hell at times.

And finally, though we both had accepted that there was no turning back, I wanted her to know that she would not be forgotten.

“Being human, I have that familiar ferocious desire to hold on to all we love. I know I can’t hold on to you my friend, but I can always keep you close to my heart. There is a place there just for you. And I will never let that go. I promise.”

Stephen Murphy-Shigematsu is a psychologist in the Stanford University School of Medicine. He said, “Saying goodbye is learning what to hold onto and what to let go of. I firmly believe that by embracing our mortality with full awareness we can learn to experience life in a deeper and more passionate way. But the internal work of saying goodbye means finding a way to acknowledge that people come and go in our lives, leaving permanent imprints in our character; we inherit traits from everybody who crosses our paths or touches our hearts.”

Laura died five weeks after we exchanged our letters. Others in my life will die, too. And then one day of course, it will be my turn. And the only thing I know with any certainty is that these goodbyes are sure to repeat time and time again, until one day, that last goodbye will be the one reserved for me.

Complete Article ↪HERE↩!

Natural Burials Are Rising, and That’s Good for the Planet

Natural burials offer a greener alternative to traditional cemeteries, but Big Funeral is fighting back.


Even in death, Americans just can’t stop themselves from destroying the planet, according to new research.

Right now there are around 22,500 active cemeteries in the United States. These sanitized spaces, with bunches of flowers lain among neat rows of gravestones on manicured lawns, are so closely associated with the American idea of mourning that it’s difficult to imagine an alternative.

Yet the practice is deeply unsustainable. Every year, in laying their dead to rest, Americans bury approximately 73,000 kilometers of hardwood boards, 58,500 tons of steel, 1.5 million tons of concrete, and 3.1 million liters of formaldehyde. A typical four-hectare cemetery contains enough wood to construct 40 homes and sufficient volumes of embalming fluid to fill a backyard swimming pool. As the Baby Boomers start to die, these environmental impacts are only going to grow.

“People hate to think about it. They think, ‘I’m going to be embalmed, put in a vault, and have a nice, dry, quiet existence for my body,’ but that’s a total farce,” says Chris Coutts, an associate professor in the Department of Urban and Regional Planning at Florida State University. “The bodies quickly start to rot, and those fluids, if they’re in the body, find a way out of the vault and into the soil, and they can create a plume. It’s a concern if it migrates into water tables. The whole point of embalming fluid is that it doesn’t degrade, so it’s going to be around a long time.”

Coutts is the lead author of a new paper examining the benefits of a greener alternative to the traditional rituals of death: natural burial. While higher-density family vaults can reduce your environmental footprint compared to an individual burial, it’s still a high-impact way of shuffling off your mortal coil. Even cremation, which has doubled in popularity since 2000, leaves an environmental smudge on the Earth, thanks to its high energy consumption and the ensuing air pollution.

Increasingly, Coutts et al. have found, people are rejecting the lawn-park cemetery model, and instead choosing to commit their bodies to a wilder resting place. In most cases, this means eschewing traditional American funerary rites altogether and burying the body without chemicals in a biodegradable casket or a simple shroud. At its best, natural burial allows your death to leave almost no physical damage on the natural world, while helping to protect and conserve threatened landscapes for those still living.

One example is the 142-hectare Glendale Memorial Nature Preserve in Florida, a family farm located in an area full of endangered native longleaf pine and wiregrass. The plan for the cemetery called for 80 percent of the land to be restored and conserved as natural habitat, with around 28 hectares set aside for natural burials. Add-on items include coffins constructed from old bookshelves, while the conserved habitat is also available for recreational activities including hiking and camping. Telling ghost stories remains optional.

John and Bill Wilkerson, the brothers who run the business, say that the income they’ve generated from the burials has allowed them to resist the financial pressure to sell the land to developers—a proposition that was adamantly opposed by their late parents.

The lawn-park cemetery in America might feel like an inescapable ritual, but the idea is relatively recent, arising in the 19th century, as urban elites grew increasingly affluent. Rural cemeteries like Mount Auburn in Boston or Laurel Hill in Philadelphia were not only useful for memorializing the supposed importance of the deceased bourgeoisie, but also for providing their surviving relatives a pleasant getaway from increasingly crowded cities.

The practice of embalming grew popular around the time of the American Civil War, Coutts adds. “They needed to preserve and ship the bodies back to wherever they were going to be buried, and embalming became prevalent. It’s the common expected practice, but it’s really just people going through the motions: It’s what we’ve always done, it’s what we continue to do, but that’s changing,” he says.

This resource-intensive method of burial is far from universal across the globe. Muslim communities practice natural burial as a “basic religious obligation,” according to Coutts and his fellow authors, while in countries such as Australia, grave sites can be reused for new inhabitants after a certain amount of time has elapsed. In the Peruvian Amazon, before the arrival of Christian missionaries, bodies were lain among the buttress roots of large trees. Some Tibetans practice sky burials, placing the corpse on a mountain and allowing it to decompose gradually.

The first natural burial site in the U.S. was established in 1998 in South Carolina. There are now 162 natural-burial providers in the U.S., of which 99 are hybrid cemeteries, offering both natural and traditional burial. A further 54 offer exclusively natural burial, while nine are active conservation burial sites.

Yet America’s lucrative death-care industry is fighting back, determined to protect a billion-dollar market by perpetuating the idea that a resource-intensive funeral is the only guarantor of lasting peace. Indeed, hybrid burial sites are mostly a way for the sector to cash in on the growing popularity of natural burial, a form of greenwashing that offers little in the way of concrete benefits, says Joe Sehee, who founded the Green Burial Council, which certifies natural burial sites, in 2005.

“There were people who just didn’t like the idea [of natural burial],” Sehee says, “people within the industry, particularly people who liked the merchandise-based model of death care: chemical, casket, and vault companies.”

Perhaps more sinister than this greenwashing are the attempts by the funeral industry to lobby for new regulations that will protect its economic position. There are very few federal laws around the handling of the dead, with states and local governments generally left in control. Around half of U.S. states regulate the amount of time that a body can remain un-embalmed, yet no states require a body to be buried in a coffin. Only a handful of states forbid bodies being buried outside of established cemeteries.

This loose legal framework bodes well for natural burial, and badly for Big Funeral. Correspondingly, the mainstream funeral industry has lobbied state governments to pass legislation protecting its share of the market, such as mandating embalming, only permitting burial in established cemeteries, and requiring the involvement of a licensed funeral director to perform tasks that could ordinarily have been performed by the next-of-kin. Restricting citizens’ freedom to access natural burial is bad for the environment, and could deter those who might have chosen this wilder option because it was cheaper than a traditional plot.

Coutts himself, after years of studying the benefits of a natural burial, sounds almost excited by the contribution he will be able to make to conservation from beyond the grave. “I’ve often just dreamed about walking out into the desert with a bottle of water and just sitting under a tree and waiting for it to come,” he says. “But that would be a luxury and it’s probably not feasible. I have it in my will that I want my body to be buried naturally in a conservation burial ground.”

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Make an Eco-Conscious Final Exit

“The Green Reaper” talks about her latest book

By Katie O’Reilly

You’re probably aware that your carbon footprint doesn’t end when you do, but did you know that we could build a new Golden Gate Bridge every year using the metals that leach into the ground from traditional caskets? Take into account all the concrete we bury and we could construct a new two-lane highway beneath it. Factor in the annual carbon emissions that result from cremation and you could drive to the moon and back. This all is according to Elizabeth Fournier, the one-woman operation behind Boring, Oregon’s Cornerstone Funeral Services. It’s located in a rehabbed goat farm and is also the first green funeral home in the Portland metropolitan area. Fournier, in fact, is more commonly known as the “Green Reaper.”

After all, she’s long been helping Oregonians bury their loved ones in ways that involve no metal caskets, concrete linings, or carcinogenic embalming fluids (the noxious chemicals that are released into the earth when the casket eventually biodegrades and the body decomposes). This often means lowering unembalmed bodies into their own backyards in Green Burial Council–certified biodegradable cedar caskets, or even no caskets at all. Fournier (pictured, right), an upbeat and big-hearted mortician who’s prone to statements like “All Grandma’s juicy goodness will go back into the permaculture of the land,” says her nickname was coined by a neighbor who saw her standing in yet another yard with a shovel, excavating a new plot. “It’s a lighthearted way of saying, ‘Yes, you’re the death lady, but you’re the eco death lady.’”

When the Green Reaper was eight, her mother and grandparents died. Not only did young Fournier spend a lot of time in funeral homes, but she also found herself drawn to the tranquility of cemeteries, and even kept a mock graveyard on her dresser. She also devoured National Geographic stories about various cultures’ death rituals and performed funerals for her friends’ pets. Fournier, who soon after going into the funeral industry observed that its progression has aligned with the regression of the planet, wrote about her passion for green death in 2017’s The Green Reaper: Memoirs of an Eco-Mortician. Following its release, she received countless calls and emails from readers who wanted to extend their environmentalism into their after-lives but weren’t sure how to legally go about not turning into toxic waste. “I got a lot of people asking, Can you just put all this information in one place?” Fournier says.

Similar to how Caitlin Doughty of “Ask a Mortician” fame has cracked open the secrets of the funeral industry in hopes of boosting western cultures’ acceptance of death and grieving, Fournier wrote The Green Burial Guidebook: Everything You Need to Plan an Affordable, Environmentally Friendly Burial (the paperback version of which came out in May from New World Library) as a resource to catalog all the natural burial choices available in North America, and to empower readers to make more environmentally friendly final choices—which also, she says, tend to be more cost-effective and psychologically satisfying. A true memoirist, Fournier draws on many of her own experiences to guide readers through everything from green burial planning and funeral basics to sea burials and body-composting options. And The Green Burial Guidebook exudes warmth and compassion—readers who are grieving or faced with their own mortality will likely find comfort in its pages.

After devouring The Green Burial Guidebook in one sitting, Sierra called up the Green Reaper to  discuss climate-conscious changes within the funeral industry and greener ways to go about dying.

Sierra: Who did you write this book for?

Elizabeth Fournier: My intended audience was people who’ve never heard of natural burial and want to know what the heck is going on, as well as people who keep hearing about it and think it’s a trend. I wanted to clarify that up until 150 years ago, in fact, most burials were inherently green—when someone died they were bathed, prepared, and placed in a wooden box. This changed dramatically during the Civil War. Suddenly, bodies had to be transported over long distances in large quantities, and so we started embalming to preserve them, which became common practice. Now, we have a very eco-conscious, DIY culture, and a lot of people are saying, Oh my God, death and dying is so expensive! I wrote this book to show that it doesn’t have to be, and to give people the tools to handle loved ones’ deaths themselves.

So, you’re a funeral director telling people they don’t necessarily need to have or pay for a traditional funeral. . . . Have you experienced any pushback from your own industry?

Not a lot, although there are certainly some people who find the whole green death concept a little outrageous, don’t see the profit-making angle, and think this is just a trend that’ll go away. And that’s discouraging, because our role as morticians is to provide options for people who are going through a horrible time. And of course, this isn’t a trend. What was just a trend is the traditional funeral industry. It’s experienced a lot of growth with the last 50 years, but before that—and especially before the Civil War—burial was far more natural.

There are presently more than 150 green burial sites in America, compared with just a handful a decade ago. Why do you think green burial is on the rise in the U.S.?

A lot of it has to do with today’s generation of end-of-life decision-makers. Baby Boomers, who were born between 1946 and 1964, started recycling and launched Earth Day and put a lot of ecological concerns on the world’s radar. They’ve walked the walk during life, and a lot of them are thinking that a green death wouldn’t be that bad. Baby Boomers are making choices for their parents too.

And again, there’s the issue of rising costs of death—the average American funeral now costs $8,000, and people are saying, How do we afford that?! So, cremation has become more popular. But while that helps you avoid the consequences of embalming fluid, we’ve now learned that cremation’s carbon footprint isn’t so fantastic. So, let’s push further.

You write about being a kid who obsessively read about different cultures’ death rituals in National Geographic, and your book is peppered with insights about various internment practices and beliefs across the globe. Did any other cultures inspire you to become a funeral director who specializes in green death?

So many of them! In parts of the Philippines, for instance, they just make plain caskets out of a single piece of wood and hang them from cliffs; other Asian cultures leave bodies out for the vultures, and in places like India, many just do a funeral pyre. And then there are Viking funerals and other types of at-sea burials. All this stuff is pretty darn non-resource-intensive. And then take Sweden, where promession is legal. That’s when they actually cryogenically freeze-dry you in liquid nitrogen and put you on a vibrating table, which causes your body to disintegrate into particles, making you into a dry powder that can be interred in a biodegradable casket. Italians are using biodegradable seed pods to turn the dead into trees—their remains provide nutrients to a sapling planted above it, creating eco burial forests, rather than burial grounds.

But here in America, things are a bit more challenging—we still have reverence for the human body and human remains, so this idea of putting people in the soil, or watering plants with your remains, is very European. But, we’re getting there—there’s Jae Rhim Lee at Stanford, who developed the mushroom burial suit, a garment sewn with mushrooms whose spores help to detoxify and decompose the body, and Washington State University’s Urban Death Project, where you’re laid in a structure with chips to biodegrade, or as they say, recompose, and it works fantastically well. But, this all has to become palatable to the average person to talk about. Greenies are in the lead here.

“In parts of the Philippines they just make plain caskets out of a single piece of wood and hang them from cliffs; other Asian cultures leave bodies out for the vultures, and in places like India, many just do a funeral pyre. And then there are Viking funerals and other types of at-sea burials. All this stuff is pretty darn non-resource-intensive.”

Your book takes a very warm, open, and never morbid approach to the subject of death. Can you talk about societal comfort levels with death and how they affect the green burial movement?

We used to keep loved ones’ bodies in our homes for a while, but nowadays, funeral directors come and take them—our ethos is to just call the undertaker so we don’t have to think about or deal with any of the messy parts of death. But now people are realizing, partially thanks to the wonderful interwebs, that we have choices, and I think we’re slowly becoming more comfortable with death. A younger generation of funeral directors—the old man with the clammy hands is far from the norm nowadays—is trying to embrace more modern practices. Celebrations of life are becoming more popular, and I love the concept of the living funeral—if you know you’re gonna pass soon, rather than having a party when you’re dead, have it when you’re alive and can still enjoy being honored and listening to all the good things people say about you. People truly are embracing more choices. And when you consider Mother Nature and the drive to honor Earth as this gorgeous, loving place, you can engage in dialogue with people who’ve perhaps never talked much about death before.

What if someone wants to embrace green burial, but she lives somewhere like Manhattan and so can’t expect her loved ones to bury her in the backyard?

There’s certainly no perfect way to do it; it’s about shades of green. Consider that every state now has at least one cemetery that allows for natural burial, up from just a dozen nationwide a decade ago. It’s legal everywhere now; you just have to be diligent about calling the county and finding the often small cemeteries that don’t require a concrete grave liner. And plenty of companies are offering green burial caskets that use a basic liner, such as a wicker basket. But the movement goes beyond burial itself. Maybe you want to make sure your loved ones know you want local and organic food served at your reception and no cut flowers. Maybe you want to have guests carpool to your service, or you want to be buried in the sheets from your bed. There are all sorts of ways to approach green death. Like, on one hand you’re making a horrible choice if you insist on going into a mausoleum, but if it’s what best helps your family cope, then fantastic. Let’s find you some other ways to be part of the solution.

What’s next for you?

I’m working with someone right now to secure a place in Portland, Oregon, for an official green burial cemetery. I have to keep it under wraps right now but will be revealing more later in the year. It’s been a really fun process—we’re working to get community muralists to paint the wall behind it, and to find passionate underwriters, and to make this a really comfortable, beautiful place that will truly honor the people interred there. It’s been great to meet and talk to all the fantastic people who’ve come out of the woodwork to talk about how doing something good for the planet can really help grieving loved ones heal.

Complete Article HERE!