11/16/17

The fear that dare not speak its name:

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How language plays a role in the assisted dying debate

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Arguments in the “euthanasia debate” (as it is colloquially referred to in Australia) hinge in part on the language used to describe “death”.

The inevitability and permanence of death make it a taboo fraught with fears (such as fear of losing loved ones, fear of the afterlife, fear of what happens to the body after death).

When it comes to fear, politicians are slick verbal smugglers, sneaking messages under our noses. Conservative pollsters found “global warming” was scary so they gave us “climate change”. Richard Nixon knew white voters afraid of minorities would respond well to “law and order”.

Those involved in the “euthanasia debate” draw on similar tactics. Are we talking about “assisted dying” – as the name of the bill suggests – or are we talking about “assisted suicide”? Does it even matter?

Debating a ‘good death’ in the Victorian parliament

Three terms loomed large a few weeks ago in the debate in parliament: “euthanasia”, “assisted dying” and “assisted suicide”.

Those who supported the Voluntary Assisted Dying (VAD) Bill tended to use the phrase “assisted dying” throughout the debate. A preliminary token count (factoring out references to the name of the bill) shows 678 references to “assisted dying” from October 17-19. The lion’s share of these were made by the bill’s proponents.

Conversely, those who opposed the bill favoured the terms “euthanasia” and “assisted suicide”. There were 264 references to “euthanasia” and 205 to “assisted suicide” across the three days. These terms were most often used by the bill’s opponents.

In fact, the bill’s opponents took issue with its euphemistic tone. Deputy Premier James Merlino argued in the debate that “language is important” and pointed out the reticence of the bill’s proponents to use “confronting words” like “euthanasia” or “suicide”.

Also during the debate, opponents made multiple references to comedian/actor Liz Carr and her show Assisted Suicide: The Musical.

Liberal MP Robert Clark highlighted one particular scene in Carr’s play in which societies engaging in euthanasia seek the most “palatable term” for what they do. These societies acknowledge, in Clark’s words, “to call it by its true name would be a big setback for their cause”.

Why do these words matter to politicians? Should they matter to us?

To name the tiger or to not name the tiger?

Cultures avoid naming the things they fear the most.

The Batek, a nomadic group inhabiting peninsular Malaysia’s tropical forests, fear and revere tigers. Consequently, hunters often use avoidance terms like “animal of the forest” or the mocking “smelly paws” to discuss them.

Modern English speakers linguistically dance around the concept of death with the same care and mocking humour as the Batek do the tiger. Among other things, we frame death in terms of “rest” (“rest in peace”), “loss” (for example, “my condolences on your loss”) and “a journey” for “the departed” (“pass away” originally referred to the soul’s “departure” from the body for the “journey” to heaven or hell).

We can also, with an irreverent nod to dark humour and idiomatic expression, “buy the farm”, “push up daisies” or “kick the bucket”. These seemingly frivolous statements can often have dark origins. For instance, “kick the bucket” is likely either a reference to suicide by hanging or an old way of killing of pigs (in both cases, the living thing is tied to a beam, and a bucket kicked from under them).

Such dark humour perhaps enables us to cope with death by downgrading its significance.

Returning to the current debate, opponents of Victoria’s VAD bill most commonly use the terms “euthanasia” and “assisted suicide”. They are sometimes used interchangeably, but also separately, as they have differing meanings (the former entails more direct involvement of a doctor or another person).

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) traces the earliest uses of “euthanasia” to the mid-17th century, deriving from the Greek eu- “good or well” and thanatos “death”. It is worth noting in light of the current debate that this eu- also appears in “euphemism” – loosely, “good speaking”.

Euthanasia originally had this general sense of “good death” until the 18th and 19th centuries when it came to signify the “means” or “actions” to bring on a good death.

Words associated with taboo topics often taken on negative connotations, and euthanasia is no exception. We see similar processes at work with “coffin”, which once meant a “small basket” in French, and was originally a reference to the container in which we place our dead.

Opponents of the VAD bill also draw on the negative connotations of “assisted suicide”. Suicides are, of course, highly stigmatised. Moreover, the use of “suicide” conjures up a series of other negative words containing the element –cide (from the Latin “slayer of”), including “homicide” and “fratricide”.

Many of these –cide words are first noted in English in the 15th century but “suicide” (from the Latin suī “of oneself”) did not appear until the 18th century. Before this, the act was known, among other things, as “self-destruction”, “self-homicide”, “self-murder” and “self-slaughter”. The OED notes the first appearance of “assisted suicide” in 1976.

Proponents of the VAD bill favour “assisted dying”, which, of course, is in the name of the bill itself. The OED shows the first appearance of “assisted dying” in 1988 in the British magazine The Contemporary Review. It appears in an article referencing Sigmund Freud’s request that his life end early rather than suffer unduly from his inoperable cancer.

The term “dying” is arguably the more neutral of the two terms (though how accurately it represents the act will relate to one’s philosophical or religious viewpoint).

While we are squeamish about the concept of death, we may be coming to terms with the use of the word “death” itself. Linguists Keith Allan and Kate Burridge studied obituaries and “In Memoriam” notices in the early 2000s, and found only a single of these contained the verb “die” or the noun “death”.

However, last year PhD scholar Pawel Migut studied online obituaries and found “died” to be the most common reference to the process in 12 US states (“passed away” seemingly remains the most common euphemism across the US on the whole).

Naming the tiger or slick political strategy?

Politicians’ choices to use “euthanasia” and “assisted suicide” or “assisted dying” have demonstrable political impact, as evidenced by a 2013 Gallup poll.

This poll found that 70% of Americans supported ending “a patient’s life by some painless means” when they were suffering from an incurable disease. However, support dropped to 51% when Americans were asked whether they supported a request to “assist the patient to commit suicide.”

So then, it is worth noting that the selection of “assisted dying” or “assisted suicide” might reflect our pollies’ attitudes. But it just as equally may be an effective political act, playing to our fears of death, and those words we use to name, or either to not name, our cultural tiger.

Complete Article HERE!

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11/4/17

Here’s what traditional funerals are like in the Philippines

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Blindfolded bodies and hanging coffins – the unusual funerals of the Philippines

MANILA, PHILIPPINES – OCTOBER 31: A coffin is placed on a tombstone during a funeral at the Navotas public cemetery on October 31, 2011 in Manila, Philippines. The ‘Day of the Dead (Todos Los Santos), ‘All Saints’ Day,’ and ‘All Souls Day’ are feast days celebrated on the first and second of November each year in Latin cultures around the world during which family and friends of the deceased gather around these days at cemeteries to pray and hold vigils for those who have passed. In the Philippines, family members clean the tombs, leave flowers and often spend the night at the tomb eating and celebrating with loved ones.

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Here in Blighty, we tend to stick to the same tried and tested funeral traditions.

Save for religious elements, funerals in Glasgow aren’t too different from those in Preston; funerals in Wells are largely the same as funerals in Norwich.

This is not the case in the Philippines.

The country is largely Catholic (recent estimates suggest around 80 per cent) with a smaller demographic of Filipino Muslims. But in the more remote areas, tribal traditions, passed down over centuries, dictate some seemingly unconventional funeral customs that are practiced to this day.

From under-floor burials to hanging coffins, cigarette-smoking corpses to in-tree interment, each rite has the same intent: to offer the dead safe passage to the next life.

Blindfolds and cigarettes

Benguet is a landlocked province in the southern tip of the island of Luzon.

When someone dies here, friends and relatives start to convene at the deceased person’s house.

The body is cleaned, and a few of the men are dispatched to collect bamboo, which they then fashion into a chair – and this is where the body is seated.

Once secured in place with more bamboo and strips of cloth, the body is blindfolded so that the deceased does not have to bear witness to the suffering in the world.

A fire is lit to fend off insects and act as a beacon should the deceased’s spirit wander and be unable to find its way home.

This period lasts for eight days and, as you might expect, the body begins to decay.

This holds no fear for the Benguet people – in fact, they make jokes about the smell, and happily offer alcoholic drinks to the body during the mourning feast.

The night before the funeral, elders give a chanted, oral biography of the deceased and as the body is buried, mourners hit bamboo sticks together in the belief it will help the departed find their way to heaven.

The Benguet’s near neighbours, the people of Tinguian, also seat their dead in a prominent position, with a couple of small discrepancies: the Tinguian dress their deceased in their finest clothes then place a cigarette – which is frequently lit – between their lips.

For the llongot people in the mountains the east of Luzon, being seated is integral to burial, rather than the wake.

Corpses are buried sitting up and women have their hands tied to their feet to prevent their ghosts from roaming.

Home is where the heart is

The Apayao – also referred to as the Isnegs or Isnags – inhabit the area around the north of Luzon.

They live mostly along rivers, in large airy homes that sit atop wooden posts, and when they lose relatives, the custom is to bury them under the kitchen area.

It is a unique practice thought to be a sign of love and affection for the deceased.

A natural approach

Not all Filipino tribes keep their dead at home. Further north, the Caviteño have adopted an approach that returns their loved ones to the earth.

As they near the end of life, people of the Cavite venture into the forest and select a favoured tree.

As they ail, their family builds them a small hut in which the dying person will reside for their final days.

They are not alone: relatives and friends work to hollow out the chosen tree trunk as this is where the newly deceased will be buried.

The Cavite people return the deceased to nature as nature provided for them in life: trees are a source of fruit and fire wood that sustain life, so life is given back to the tree.

Closer to heaven

view of Sagada from the rice fields , a colourful village in north of Luzon island in Philippines South east asia

The people in the Sagada region have an interment ritual that is unusual, even among the Filipino tribes.

For more than 2,000 years the people in this mountainous area have hung their coffins from cliffs – coffins that are carved out of hollow logs by the elderly person about to make imminent use of it.

The theory is that by hanging the coffins in this way, the deceased are closer to heaven.

If a person is too frail or ill, the family makes the coffin on their behalf, and after the death the coffin is taken to a cave or hung to reach aspects of the cliff face, placed close to their ancestors.

Some of the coffins are more than a century old, which makes decay inevitable; the coffins eventually fall but this is part of the fulfillment of the rite.

Tourists are advised not to walk under the coffins, and certainly not to disrespect them by touching, but they they hold a unique beauty and can be observed using binoculars from a safe distance.

Ancient superstition

It may be less intensive, but it is customary for Filipinos to adhere to superstitions, or pamahiin sa patay, most of which are rooted in long-held beliefs.

These must be observed during the wake in order to avoid further deaths and bad luck in the family – and as Filipino wakes can last anything from a few days to a few weeks, this is no easy feat.

The Cebuano people have a long list of superstitions around death. They do not sweep the floor, lest the soul of the deceased be banished from the household.

Mirrors are covered, as it is feared the dead will attempt to show themselves in the reflection.

Mourners should avoid crying onto the glass screen of the casket, in case it impedes the spirit from journeying into the afterlife.

And should you sneeze during the wake, make sure someone pinches you – sneezing invites death but a pinch is meant to ward it off.

In the event of an unjust killing, a chick is placed on top of the coffin to bring justice.

While some of these traditions may seem unusual compared with the practices we have developed in the west, family is central to life and death in the Philippines.

The elderly remain at home until the end of life, which means most die surrounded by those they love – something the UK would do well to replicate.

Funerals are a chance for families to reunite, to reconnect and reinforce familial bonds, and often wakes are extended to accommodate overseas relatives.

Togetherness, family, grief and the comfort of ritual: mountains and oceans may separate us, but maybe we aren’t so different after all.

Complete Article HERE!

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11/3/17

How to Give Back to the Earth in Death

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Conservation burials are one step beyond green burials, and may set aside a couple of square miles for wildlife a year.

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When Matthew Holden’s best friend died last year at the age of 31, it prompted him to think hard on what he would want when his own time came. “What would I want to do with my body when I die?” he asks. “How can I do the best for the world?” After some research, Holden, a mathematician who studies conservation at the University of Queensland in Australia, came across conservation burials.

You may have heard of green burials—funerals in which people eschew formaldehyde-based embalming and metal caskets in favor of more environmentally friendly practices that let the body more easily decompose. Such burials appeal to those who cared about the environment in life, and liked the idea of returning to the Earth in death. “Conservation burial is the next step,” Holden says. In addition to making the burial process itself eco-friendly, conservation burials include interment in a cemetery that’s designed to preserve a parcel of land. People may still visit the cemetery, but it’s maintained as a sort of wilderness area, with small or no headstones, instead of the traditional manicured park. “The goal is to protect native habitat, or restore native habitat for threatened or protected species,” Holden says. In an essay released today in the journal Conservation Letters, he shows just how much space and money would go toward threatened plants and animals if every American chose to have a conservation burial.

The mathematician has found that, given the average burial plot size, conservation burials would set aside two square miles a year for wildlife, if every American chose to have one. (The actual number may be larger because conservation cemeteries tend to leave more space between plots.) Funeral revenues run to an estimated $19 billion annually in the United States. Not all of that money is used to purchase and maintain cemetery space, of course, but the idea of putting even a fraction of that toward land that may help endangered animals and plants is appealing. “Just having that amount of money going to conservation is a lot,” Holden says.

There are few conservation cemeteries in the U.S. The website of the Green Burial Council, which independently certifies various green funeral practices, lists only six. And it’s not known, actually, how much conservation cemeteries aid species. Studies suggest that traditional cemeteries can act as mini green sanctuaries—the historic Weissensee Jewish Cemetery in Berlin, for example, has been found to house 48 species of threatened bats, birds, plants, mosses, and bugs. Could greener practices help burial grounds protect even more species? Holden wants to see biologists undertake studies comparing conservation cemeteries with traditional ones.

Matthew Holden

It’s hard to face death, and different people find different practices comforting. For Holden, it’s clear the idea of giving back helps. In addition to providing homes for endangered animals, he hopes conservation cemeteries could offer a park-like space for visitors, and not just the friends and family of the deceased, either. Imagine a walk in the woods that just happens to be a cemetery. So he’s been trying to get the word out, especially after he quizzed his colleagues in the conservation department at the University of Queensland and found none of them had heard of conservation burials.

“After my friend’s passing I was depressed, and part of the healing process for me was to try and generate some good from such an tragic event in my life,” he says. “It is very much about turning a negative into a positive for me.”

Complete Article HERE!

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10/23/17

Sitting Up With the Dead: Lost Appalachian Burial Customs

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By Hope

From the peaks of the Blue Ridge and the Great Smoky Mountains, to the river valleys of the French Broad and Catawba, North Carolina has a long history that is steeped in rich Appalachian traditions. Despite the Hollywood “hillbilly” stereotype, Appalachians carry a sense of pride for their culture, language, and heritage.

Isolated from the outside world, Appalachian regions have long struggled with rough rocky terrain for farming and plagued with poverty. Immigrants from Europe began migrating to the area in the 18th century with a large proportion of the population being Ulster Scots and Scotch-Irish. Many pioneers moved into areas largely separated from civilization by high mountain ridges and our pioneer ancestors were rugged, self-sufficient and brought many traditions from the Celtic Old World that is still a part of Appalachian culture today.

If you grew up Appalachian, you usually had a family relative who was gifted and could foresee approaching death, omens or dreams of things to come.

 
There was always a granny witch to call on when someone was sick and needed special magic for healing. Superstitions about death were common and were considered God’s will. One thing for sure, no matter how hard you fought it, death always won.

Appalachian folks are no stranger to death. For the Dark Horseman visited so frequently, houses were made with two front doors. One door was used for happy visits and the other door, known as the funeral door, would open into the deathwatch room for sitting up with the dead. Prior to the commercialization of the funeral industry, funeral homes and public cemeteries were virtually nonexistent in the early days of the Appalachian settlers.

For Whom the Bell Tolls…

In small Appalachian villages, the local church bell would toll to alert others a death has occurred. Depending on the age of the deceased, the church bell would chime once for every year of their life they had lived on this earth. Family and friends quickly stop what they were doing and gather at the deceased family’s homestead to comfort loved ones. Women in the community would bring food as the immediate family would make funeral preparations for burial. The men would leave their fields to meet together and dig a hole for the grave and the local carpenter would build a coffin based on the deceased loved one’s body measurements.

Due to the rocky terrain, sometimes dynamite was used to clear enough rock for the body to be buried. Coffins used to be made from trunks of trees called “tree coffins”. Over time, pine boxes replaced the tree coffins. They were lined with cloth usually made from cotton, linen or silk and the outside of the coffin was covered in black material. If a person died in the winter, the ground would be too frozen to dig a grave. In this case, the dead would simply be placed in a protected area outdoors until spring.

After the bell tolls, every mirror in the home would be draped with dark cloth and curtains would be closed. It was believed that by covering the mirror, a returning spirit could not use the looking glass as a portal and would cross over into their new life. The swinging hands on the clock were stopped not only to record the time of death, but it was believed that when a person died, time stood still for them.
Preparing the Body

Before the use of embalming, the burial would be the next day since there were no means of preserving the body. To prepare the body, the deceased would be “laid out” and remained in the home until burial. The body would be placed on a cooling board or “laying out” board. Depending on the family, the “laying out” board might be a door taken off the hinges, a table, ironing board or piece of lumber. Many families had a specific board for the purpose of laying out the body that had been passed down from generations.

The “laying out” board would then be placed on two chairs or sawhorses so the body could be stretched out straight. Depending on what position the person was in when they died, sometimes it was necessary to break bones or soak parts of the body in warm water to get the corpse flat on the board. As rigor mortis began to set in, some folks have actually heard bones cracking and breaking which would cause the corpse to move as it began to stiffen. The board would then be covered with a sheet and a rope was used to tie the body down to keep it straight and to prevent it from suddenly jerking upright.

Post-mortem picture of the body placed on a cooling board or “laying out” board.

Scottish traditions used the process of saining which is a practice of blessing and protecting the body. Saining was performed by the oldest woman in the family. The family member would light a candle and wave it over the corpse three times. Three handfuls of salt were put into a wooden bowl and placed on the body’s chest to prevent the corpse from rising unexpectedly.

Once the body was laid out, their arms were folded across the chest and legs brought together and tied near the feet. A handkerchief was tied under the chin and over the head to keep the corpse’s mouth from opening. To prevent discoloration of the skin, a towel was soaked in soda water and placed over the face until time for viewing. Aspirin and water were also used sometimes to prevent the dead from darkening. If the loved one died with their eyes open, weights or coins were placed over the eyes to close them.

Silver coins or 50 cent pieces were used instead of pennies because the copper would turn the skin green. Once the corpse was in place, the body would then be washed with warm soap and water. Then family members would dress the loved one in their best attire which was usually already picked out by the person before they passed. The body of the dead is never left alone until it was time to take the deceased for burial.

Sitting Up With the Dead

After the body has been prepared, the body is placed in the handmade coffin for viewing and placed in the parlor or funeral room. The custom of “sitting up with the dead” is also called a “Wake”. Most times a handmade quilt would be placed over the body along with flowers and herbs. The ritual of sending flowers to a funeral came from this very old tradition. The aroma from the profusion of flowers around the deceased helped mask the odor of decomposition.

Flowers as a form of grave decoration were not widely used in the United States until after the mid-nineteenth century. In the Southern Appalachians, traditional grave decorations included personal effects, toys, and other items such as shells, rocks, and pottery sherds. Bunches of wildflowers and weeds, homemade plant or vegetable wreaths, and crepe paper flowers gradually attained popularity later in the nineteenth century. Placing formal flower arrangements on graves was gradually incorporated into traditional decoration day events in the twentieth century.

The day after the Wake, the body would be loaded into a wagon and taken to the church for the funeral service. Family and friends walked behind the wagon all dressed in black. The church bell would toll until the casket was brought into the church. This would be the last viewing as friends and family walked past the casket to take a final look at the body. Some would place a variety of objects in the coffin such as jewelry, tobacco, pipes, toys, a bible and every once in an alcoholic beverage.

Today, a strong sense of community continues to dominate Appalachian burial customs even though the modern funeral industry has changed the customs slightly. The social dimension has changed completely since caskets are commercially produced and graves are seldom dug by hand. Modern funeral homes have made the task of burial more convenient but the downside is there is less personal involvement. Personalized care for the dead is an important aspect of family and community life in Appalachia. And we can certainly say for sure that the days of conducting the entire procedure necessary to bury a person, all done by caring neighbors, with no charge involved, are no longer practiced.

Complete Article HERE!

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10/21/17

It’s Now Legal to Liquefy a Dead Body in California

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By Yasmin Tayag

On Sunday, California Governor Jerry Brown passed AB 967, an innocuously named bill for a not-so-innocuous law. The bill, proposed by assembly member Todd Gloria, a San Diego democrat, will make it legal for Californians to liquefy their corpses after death in a bath of caustic juice.

The process, referred to as water cremation (or aquamation, resomation, bio-cremation, or flameless cremation), has been proposed as a much more environmentally friendly way to dispose of a body after death. The bill is sponsored by Qico, Inc., a “sustainable cremation” company that specializes in this form of corpse disposal, and it will go into effect by at least July 1, 2020.

“A lot of people view water creation as a more respectful option and we’re glad a lot of people will be able to have it,” Jack Ingraham, the CEO of Qico, tells Inverse. “We think this is a trend for the future. I think within 10 years to 20 years, cremation will be thought of as a water-based process, and the entire flame process will be replaced.”

Unfortunately, no actual liquid is returned to the survivors, only the remaining calcium, or the bones. “These are crushed into the ashes returned to the family,” Ingraham says, who adds that the process also results in about 20-30 percent more “ashes” being returned to the family. So while you can’t drink Uncle Frank, you will get more of his ashes.

These days, the only mainstream options available are burial or cremation, both of which aren’t especially green; coffins take up a lot of valuable space and are made of slowly biodegrading wood, and cremation requires reaching temperatures of up to 1800 degrees Fahrenheit, which isn’t exactly energy efficient. Then there’s the option of sending a dead body to space in a rocket, which is not green, for obvious reasons.

Aquamation, in contrast, dissolves a body, DNA and all, in a vat of liquid into a relatively unharmful solution of slightly alkaline water that can be neutralized and returned to the Earth. California is the latest state to make the procedure legal, joining 14 others.

The chemical process behind aquamation is called alkaline hydrolysis, which involves sticking a body into a solution of potassium hydroxide and water that’s heated to about 200 degrees Fahrenheit, a slightly lower temperature than boiling and waiting for it to dissolve.

Potassium hydroxide, often referred to as potash or lye, is a common chemical used in manufacturing soft soap and biodiesel. Its defining quality is that it’s chemically alkaline, which means that it’s packed with oxygen-hydrogen pairs known as hydroxide groups. In strong enough concentrations, hydroxides can dissolve organic solids into liquids; it’s essentially the same process that happens when you pour Drano into a sink clogged with fat or hair.

In aquamation, raising the temperature and pressure helps the process move along faster. Usually, it takes about four hours to dissolve a skeleton. By the end of the process, the only solid thing that’s left is a pile of soft bones (potassium hydroxide won’t eat through calcium phosphate) that gets crushed into a sterile powder for family members of the deceased to take home.

As for the flesh, blood, and guts? Everything else gets dissolved into a green-brown liquid that’s slightly less basic than it was at the start of the process. What starts as a solution with a very strongly alkaline pH of 14 (the most basic possible) ends up somewhere around pH 11. Truly neutral water has a pH of about 7, so technicians sometimes add an acidic substance, like vinegar, to balance out all the excess hydroxides floating around.

It’s “what happens in a natural burial in the ground, just in a faster time frame,” Ingraham says.

The process is already a popular way to dispose of a dead pet’s body; not only is it less energy-intensive than other methods, but it also kills potentially life-threatening pathogens, like viruses, bacteria, and prions that cause transmissible spongiform encephalopathy (the type that cause mad cow disease), which aren’t always inactivated by heat.

The thought of liquefying a body is pretty weird, but California is not the first state to make it legal: Oregon, Minnesota, Maryland, Maine, Kansas, Illinois, Florida, Colorado, Georgia, Wyoming, Idaho, and Nevada have already joined the ranks of the corpse dissolution supporters. It’s something we’d better get used to in the long run. The world is running out of space, both for living and dead bodies, so it’s in our best interest to figure out what to do with all of our future corpses. Besides, if humans aren’t going to do anything good for the Earth while we’re alive, we might as well find a way to do so in death.

What’s next for aquamation in California? Ingraham says his two-year-old company expects to have their technology ready by 2019 and to be in agreement with state regulators by then as well. Meanwhile, he’s hopeful that demand will grow for this new technology that he expects will cost a little more than traditional cremation but ultimately will be set by funeral homes.

While you can’t scatter traditional ashes at Venice Beach because they’re relatively toxic — they’re ashes, after all — you won’t have those restrictions with the result of a water cremation, Ingraham says.

“When people hear about it they tend to prefer it,” he says, noting that the white “ashes” from water-based cremation can be scattered in more places.

Complete Article HERE!

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10/13/17

Caitlin Doughty Talks Exploring the World to Find a Better Death in From Here to Eternity

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By Bridey Heing

The question of what happens when we die—in a literal rather than philosophical sense—haunts many of us. But few have made it the focus of their life’s work like Caitlin Doughty. An advocate for shifting the conversation about the “right” way to care for deceased bodies, Doughty owns a Los Angeles funeral home and organizes events where people discuss death with a range of approaches. Her latest book, From Here to Eternity, explores death culture around the world, illuminating the many ways to hold a funerals.

Doughty describes herself as having always been interested in death, but it was after studying Medieval History that she wanted to learn in a more hands-on setting. “When I graduated from college,” she says in an interview with Paste, “I decided that I wanted to see what real dead bodies look like and how they were being taken care of and disposed of.” She found an opportunity when she got a job at a crematory, where she immediately felt a connection to the work. “It’s hard to describe to people, but really from the second that I started working at the crematory, it was like, ‘Oh, this is what I’m supposed to be doing.’”

Doughty immediately recognized that the knowledge gap between the funeral industry and the general public is significant; she says no one quite knows what happens with a body after death. So not only did she want to learn more about the American way of death, but she wanted to talk about it with others. Her first book, Smoke Gets in Your Eyes, chronicled her journey into the funeral industry. And if she needed any indication that people were willing to listen, the fact that the book was a bestseller suggests that there is a desire to learn more about what takes place behind the scenes.

Doughty received a similar response a few years earlier when she founded the Order of the Good Death, an organization dedicated to expanding our understanding of and comfort with death. The organization established a space where everyone from academics to creatives could discuss death. “I was trying to create a community around death, and over the years it has become a resource. It’s hopefully a place where the culture of silence around death can, even just for a moment, be broken.”

Breaking the culture of silence around death is the heart of From Here to Eternity. Each chapter focuses on one or two cultures that handle death in unique ways. In Indonesia, Doughty watched as mummies were taken out of special house-slash-tombs to be feted. In Japan, she visited hotels where families spent time with loved ones’ corpses before cremation. In Colorado, she witnessed an open-air pyre where the community came together to honor the dead. In Bolivia, she made offerings to skulls called natitas, which were dressed up and paraded in the streets during the annual festival in their honor.

Doughty’s mission with her new book is to start a conversation about death in other cultures in a way that says something about U.S. funeral culture, and she wants to communicate the significance of rituals other than our own to combat a lack of cultural relativism.

“I see over and over again people talk about American death tradition, like embalming and burial in a big vault underground, and not liking that at all,” Doughty says. “But at the same time, whenever they heard about something that goes on overseas, they’d go, ‘Ugh, that’s so disrespectful and morbid.”
From Here to Eternity humanizes rituals that might otherwise seem unfathomable. “Even the things that are so out there by our standards feels so normal when you’re there. I wanted to get across that just because it’s not what you do doesn’t mean it’s weird or morbid or should be disparaged.”

Doughty’s text about the way families interact with their deceased loved ones is incredibly moving. But she doesn’t lose sight of her own role as an outsider observing a deeply intimate ritual, and she even talks about the ways in which death tourism has become an issue in countries with well known ways of handling their dead.

“You go into it thinking, ‘I have the best intentions, I’ve spent my life researching these things.’ But the family doesn’t know that,” she says. Doughty relied on local contacts and close friends, who could make sure she didn’t overstep while families were grieving. “The places I chose to go were places I had some in, whether that was a local guide or a person I know who travels all the time to these places.”

While the book has an international focus, the message is clearly one of a domestic nature. The shadow of how the United States handles death is always present, and Doughty dips in and out of her travel narratives to contrast what she sees with what she experiences in her own work. She also questions the very foundations on which the United States has built its funeral industry, including supposed health concerns that have led to profit-driven models of post-death care that many funeral homes require.

Doughty ultimately wants to change the way we talk about and experience death for a simple reason: she regularly hears about how frustrated Americans have been with their own experiences grieving loved ones. “This is my country and my own industry that I work in and own a funeral home in, and it doesn’t seem to be working for a lot of people,” she says. “If I didn’t hear that again and again, I wouldn’t keep doing this work.”

Doughty doesn’t advocate anywhere in the book for one system over another, but she does reveal that the U.S. system as it exists is deeply flawed. Her goal is to explore better ways to handle death, and in this, From Here to Eternity succeeds.

Complete Article HERE!

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10/10/17

Being a Funeral Director Made Me Realize the Death Industry Is Too Exclusive

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By Caleb Wilde

It was nearly six in the morning when I heard the sounds of hovering helicopters a couple hundred yards away from my house. At the time, my wife, Nicki, and I lived in a small half of a double on the farthest fringe of the Borough of Parkesburg. While the occasional helicopter could be heard in the Parkesburg proper, our little house on Upper Valley Road was sandwiched by the sounds of the trains that ran on the tracks a hundred feet from our small backyard and the speeding cars on Upper Valley a mere 20 feet from our front door.

I peeked my head outside the window but couldn’t see the machines that were producing the sounds I could so clearly hear. The idea that something must be very wrong entered my mind. I turned on the television, and sure enough, the Philadelphia station I turned on had a breaking news update. The rhythmic and practiced voice of the news anchor read the prompter with all the outward concern he could exercise: “Two young boys and their aunt and uncle died in a fiery car crash outside of Parkesburg, Chester County, late last night.”

Parkesburg is an hour outside of Philadelphia. We’re the small town of 3,500 that claims Philadelphia as our closest “big city” while Philadelphia has no idea we even exist, except when something horrific happens. This morning, Parkesburg had made the news. Today, Philadelphia reporters descended upon Parkesburg to fill their 6 a.m. quota.

There have been a few times when Facebook has informed me of a death before the family has called us at the Wilde Funeral Home, where I work with my father and grandfather. But this was the first time I had turned on the television and watched aerial footage of a disaster that was soon to be passed onto me. When I got to the funeral home later that morning, I learned we were the ones entrusted to handle the services for all four of the deceased. The two adults (the aunt and uncle of the boys, who were babysitting them at that time) were to be cremated, while the boys, 8 and 10 years of age, were to be embalmed and viewed, depending on the condition of their bodies.

The following day — after the coroner performed her duty — I drove our van to remove the two adults first (our removal van comfortably fits two in the supine position). After I dropped them off at the funeral home, I jumped back in the van to pick up the bodies of the two boys. When I go on these tragic calls, I’ll usually either sit in silence or find some upbeat music on the radio to distract me from the void. It can be anything — Pop music. Oldies. Katy Perry.

After driving the bodies home, it was my duty to unzip the body bags for the two boys to see if their faces could be made presentable for a public viewing. The smell of burnt human flesh is somewhat distinct. It sticks to your hair, to your clothing, and when I opened those bags, what I saw will forever stick in my mind. You’ve seen the Hollywood versions of burn victims, and it’s all horrible, but the visuals we see on the TV screen don’t do justice to these tragic deaths. All deaths have a type of presence, but tragic deaths have a presence that fills a room. I don’t know if I believe in ghosts, but I do believe that the dead have some kind of aura.

I had to look at the boys’ faces to determine whether or not we could have a viewing, hoping to find a visage that could — through hours of work — be presentable to the family. Unfortunately, I didn’t find what I was looking for and had to inform their stricken parents that a public viewing was outside of our ability, which — in a way — produces a small sense of guilt in me. Whether the pressure is from an inward or an outward expectation, there’s always this nagging feeling that we should be able to restore any form of disfigurement, that embalmers should possess some Harry Potter magic in our prep room and magically wave our trocar (a large needle-like instrument we use during embalming), and then “poof” we have beautiful corpses. But there is no magic trocar. And there are no mystical chants.

The family was broken in more ways than one. They were fighting about who would officiate the service. One part of the family wanted a nonreligious service while the other side wanted a Christian service. Threats were made. Words were spoken that should never be spoken, and we had to involve the police. The day before the service a police officer came to the funeral home to go over the plan of action if the funeral became volatile.

As we were going over the funeral procession route with the officer, I collapsed and momentarily lost consciousness; the policeman called the ambulance, and I was taken to the hospital’s emergency room with what would later be generically diagnosed as physical exhaustion.

On my way to the hospital, not knowing what was happening to me, I had a moment of unshackled clarity: Was this what I wanted to do? Is this who I wanted to be?

* * *

Months before I found myself in the back of that ambulance, watching the strobe lights bounce off nearby houses and road signs, I found myself struggling with depression and compassion fatigue. My doctor had prescribed me antidepressants to combat the day-to-day experience of depression, but there wasn’t anything for rejuvenating my burnout.

The first couple years of working at the funeral home, I felt like a duck swimming in deep water. From the outside, I was calm, confident, and natural, but underneath, I was kicking furiously against the darkness. Although I knew what I was getting into when I joined the funeral business, it wasn’t my closeness to death that was destroying me; it was how I viewed it. If someone had suggested to me then that there’s beauty in death, that there’s goodness in death, that death could inspire a healthy spirituality, I would have thought them both morose and naïve.

Even though I had grown up around death — funeral director was the family profession on both my mother’s and father’s side — I was just as susceptible as anyone to what I call the “death negative narrative” that so many of us have come to believe. On a practical level, I had seen too many tragic, traumatic, and horrific deaths portrayed on TV, the internet, and at work. And beyond the normalization of extremes via the media, the death-negative narrative is wired into our very biology. Humans are a most advanced death-defying machine.

We have highly evolved systems to fight against the onslaught of death, foremost of which is a brain that sets us above all our competition. And that brain has kept us alive and given us the chance to evolve through its fight-or-flight mechanisms. Death is our oldest evolutionary enemy, and we are so advanced at fighting it that for about 50 to 90 years, most of us win. Still, fearing death is part of our biology; it numbs our minds whenever we try to think about it, and even the most rational among us struggles to find clarity when confronted with the death-negative narrative.

Another thing that made me susceptible to the death-negative narrative is that even though I had seen thousands of dead bodies, I had never seen someone die. Many have had the privilege of holding the hand of a loved one as he or she passed, but many others of us haven’t, in part because the dying process has been isolated in nursing homes and hospitals. In times past and in many other cultures outside the United States, death and dying happen in home and community, with family and friends acting as death doulas, leading the dying through their final life stage. Today, though, doctors and nurses have replaced family and friends, an unintended consequence of the advancement of medical science. We fear death because we don’t know it, we don’t see it, and we don’t touch it.

* * *

Dressing a loved one, caring for him or her after the person has passed away is a great example of what a good death, a positive narrative, looks like. Part of what contributes and perpetuates the death-negative culture we find ourselves in is that death care has become an industry that has told people, This is beyond your capabilities to handle. Death is scary, messy, gross, sad. Let us take care of it for you.

When the funeral industry professionalized death care and did away with the “community undertaker,” it implicitly and legally made death amateurs of everyone else. With doctors having authority over dying, and funeral directors gaining authority over death, it created a culture of death virgins, people who have little experience and know-how when it comes to the end stage of life. The funeral industry is partially to blame for creating the “death professional”; after all, the industry has worked hard to secure our position by creating laws and educational requirements to make us at least seem like the exclusive practitioners of death care.

But it wasn’t just capitalist undertakers who created this professional and amateur divide. Part of the reason the funeral industry buried the community undertaker was because death doesn’t jibe with the modern American vision and those Americans who embrace it. Death questions our delusion of self-mastery. So let’s just ignore it. Or better yet, let’s find someone else to handle it.

Americans found a “win-win” situation by giving their dying and dead over to a willing nursing home industry, hospital care that stays death like an overdue pregnancy, and a funeral industry that happily disposes of our dead. We’ve created multiple groups of professionals to handle our dead, and we pay loads of money for the service.

Funeral directors are one of those groups. We perform the magical disappearing act when we take your body, embalm it, dress it, casket it, and give you back a sleeping corpse unscathed by the deterioration of decomposition. Cremation is no different. The body is whisked away and comes back in a small little box, with little to no family participation. This magic is modern and means people never get to touch death or care for their dead.

The axiom is simple, although forgotten, or ignored: the more we practice death care, the less we fear death itself; the closer we become to our dead, the less we fear death. In much of the history of our world, people have been much closer to death than they are now.

But sometimes, families transcend the narrative for just a little, and instead of being an audience to the funeral process, they take the active role, pulling away the magic and making death visible once again. They take death into their hands and decide they are the professionals. In fact, many Amish still dress and casket their loved ones. The funeral director will embalm the deceased and then the Amish family will take the body into their care. Some families will wash the deceased, then they’ll gently clothe the deceased and place the body into the plain wooden casket. Many Mormons, Muslims, and Jews all do the same. This is one of the luxuries of a close-knit community. And when the family of Tommy Ricci, a friend of my grandfather, called to let us know Tommy had died, it was a luxury I wanted to offer them, too.

My grandfather agreed. “Why don’t you ask them,” he said.

We rolled the stretcher through the front door, walked it over to the bed where Tommy lay. My grandfather invited anyone who wanted to to help lend a hand, and in a couple of seconds a good dozen people surrounded Tommy’s bed; we grabbed the bed’s mattress sheet, cocooned his body with it, and passed his body over to the stretcher. After we had strapped him on the stretcher, my grandfather confirmed the time we’d meet with them tomorrow for the funeral arrangements, instructed them to bring the clothing they wanted Tommy to wear for the viewing, and then left the conversation open for my question.

I cleared my throat, not sure how they’d respond to what I was about to ask them. I said, “Would you guys be interested in dressing Tommy for his funeral?”

Tears stared running down the face of Tommy’s wife. His sisters started, too.

Amid the tears, they responded, “Could we?” And with my yes, Tommy’s wife embraced me and started sobbing on my shoulder. By the time she was done hugging me, I had joked that she’d have to pay to have her snot dry-cleaned off my suit.

The next day, Christmas Eve, the Riccis were at our front door, clothing in hand. They made the funeral arrangements with Pop-Pop, and when they were finished, I guided them to the dressing room while explaining how the process of dressing a dead body worked. “Grief brain” is like being drunk. It’s hard to be “in the moment” as nearly 80 to 90 percent of your brain energy is being redirected to grasping the new normal of life after loss. I wasn’t sure if Tommy’s family’s grief brain would keep them from being able to do the task at hand. Maybe they’d burst into tears and storm out of the dressing room. Maybe they wouldn’t be able to stomach seeing the incision near his collarbone from the embalming.

They walked into the dressing room with stoic faces, bent on not being encumbered by the obvious emotional weight of the whole thing. We laid out the clothing and cut Tommy’s undershirt, dress shirt, and sport coat down the back. We used the body lifter to put his underwear, pants, and socks on. Then we tucked in the shirt, laced the belt through his pants. One of the sisters combed his hair and styled it. They all talked to him, just like I do when I’m with bodies.

Are your pants too tight? I’ll loosen that belt.

Let me get your hair just how you liked it. You could be a pompous thing with this hair of yours.

I know you hated dressing up, but you have a big day coming, gonna see a lot of people.

On the day of the service, all of Tommy’s family and over two hundred other people showed up to the church. It was a few days after Christmas, and the church was still dressed in its Advent outfitting. Wreaths and candles filled the air with holiday scents, and the cheer that seeps into this special time of year was still detectable.

Because life is this beautiful, complex, and messy web of giving ourselves away to others, and allowing others to give themselves to us, shouldn’t our dying process be supported by those who created our web of life? Shouldn’t our death be supported, not by a single funeral home or funeral director, but by these life connections that have been created by us and those that have created us? Funeral directors hold incredible value — and we’ve always existed in one form or another — because death is hard, but I believe bereaved families are robbing themselves and our loved ones by capitulating dying and death over to the “experts.”

Tommy’s family taught me that anyone can — and should — be a part of the death-care process. And I’m sorry our sometimes-capitalist intentions have made people “amateurs.” I’m sorry that we’ve helped exacerbate the fear of death by monopolizing death care, but I think together, in the messiness of life and death, we can find a way to grow closer to our dying and our dead.

Complete Article HERE!

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