The Rising Cost of Not Living

by Mona Chalabi

Jerry Burton was a frugal man. So frugal, in fact, that his possession of an organ donor card was motivated by his disdain for waste. While he was still in hospice care, Jerry made it clear to his son and daughter-in-law that they should shop around to get a good deal on his funeral. They did. In total, the transportation of Jerry’s body, the cremation, and the pickleball tournament that he wanted to be held before his service cost $695. Such bargains are a rarity in America’s modern funeral industry.

The median pricetag of a funeral in 2017 was $7,360—a cost that would take the typical US worker five months of labor to cover. Because of these high prices, many families are panicking at the same time that they are grieving. 

The death of Kara Killeen’s father was followed by calculations that provide a depressing tally of the average American’s struggles. Student debt bills meant that Kara and her sister had less money in the bank (and much of her dad’s retirement money had gone toward helping them cover those repayments, as well as the family’s mortgage). Limited care provision under Medicare meant that Kara’s mother had lost her job to look after her sick husband (and since her job had been writing for the local newspaper, there wasn’t exactly an abundance of new vacancies for her to apply for later). And, like many American families today, the Killeens don’t all live in the same city, so there were flights to think about, in addition to the funeral costs.

Fortunately, an aunt was able to cover Kara’s flight back from Scotland to Ohio. Unfortunately, the fact that Kara needed an intermediary in another time zone to book her travel meant that she made it back two days after her father’s death. Once reunited, the family looked at their funeral options; they were shocked at the prices they were hearing. A reception in a local bar where her dad had been a regular customer would cost $3,000, including catering. They could have held it at their family home for free, instead, but that wasn’t really viable: Kara had come back to discover the house where her mother had cared for her dying husband was a messy cross between a hospital and a home. An urn would have cost $275, programs $160, and an obituary $200, according to the latest averages from the National Funeral Directors Association.   

In the end, with her aunt’s financial support, Kara’s family was able to pay for the cheapest option available: Kara’s father was cremated and his remains were returned to the family in a plastic bag, and there was no funeral. The family still faced a bill for $2,000. “His final mark on the world was just to not have enough money,” Kara told me, bitterly. Funerals are supposed to be a chance to grieve, mourn, and begin the process of emotional recovery after a death; but when money is tight, they can feel like a second trauma. 

In the movies at least, funerals are a chance to meet old friends that you didn’t even know that your dearly departed had. To hear stories that you had never heard before. “You expect everyone to be there,” Kara said. We infer much about a life from a funeral. For no service to be held might imply some secret shame. A small gathering might indicate a lack of popularity. Cheap flowers suggest, well, cheapness. Each of these sentences could just as easily apply to another of life’s landmark social gatherings—weddings—except that marriage customs have changed faster than our death customs. 

It is a matter of personal prerogative whether a couple spends their life-savings on a Star Trek-themed extravaganza or just heads to city hall with two strangers pulled off the street to act as witnesses. That choice is more likely to be seen as a question of taste rather than of moral character. But when the social occasion requires people to be present to honor someone who is absent, then the rules change.  

The desire not to skimp (or at least, to be seen not skimping) leads us to make bad decisions according to Joshua Slocum, the executive director of the Funeral Consumers Alliance, a nonprofit watchdog. “It’s a distressed purchase,” he explained. “No one wants to buy a funeral.” Our decisions are clouded, not just by grief but by the fact that there is no requirement for funeral homes to email you a pricelist or post one on their website. “I can’t think of any other business sector that doesn’t allow you to shop around,” Slocum added. So families will simply choose whichever funeral home they used the last time they had to hold a service. 

What those families rarely realize is that their local funeral home, once run as a “mom-and-pop” family business, is now probably owned by a Wall Street firm. Service Corporation International, or SCI, for example, operates 1,477 funeral service locations and 483 cemeteries across the country, and is worth $13.3 billion (for comparison, the countrywide clothing chain Gap Inc. is worth $8 billion). Shareholders expect dividends and they have to come from somewhere: according to Slocum, SCI charges between 40 percent and 75 percent more for its services than independent funeral homes do. 

The price of dying is also high because there are simply too many funeral homes. Slocum gives me the example of Montpelier in Vermont, the smallest state capital (by population) in the country. The city has two fully serviced funeral homes that, between them, handle an average of seventy-six deaths a year. These businesses have to keep prices high if they want to cover their mortgages and pay their staff. 

I asked Slocum why he became involved in funeral consumers’ rights. He replied simply, “I love Mitford.” It was after reading Jessica Mitford’s classic muckraking polemic on the American funeral industry, The American Way of Death (originally published in 1963), that he became fascinated by the industry and wanted to know more. Little of substance has really changed in the business since Mitford’s book was published except for the escalating prices. Back in 1960, the cost of a funeral was around $700—still a considerable amount of money in real terms, amounting to about seven weeks of a typical worker’s wages at that time (as noted above, by the same measure, today’s figure is at least twenty weeks).

Funeral charges have risen for the same reason that prices have always risen: a disconnect between demand and supply. For a combination of reasons—cost, changing mores, and environmental concerns—more consumers now want their remains and those of their relatives to be burned rather than buried, but the US funeral industry is largely stuck in the past. In fairness, this cultural change has come relatively quickly: in 1960, when Mitford was researching her study, just one in twenty-eight people who died in the US were cremated; today, it’s one in two—half of all funerals. Yet mortician schools still place a heavy emphasis on embalming skills, and more than two thirds of states (thirty-six out of fifty) require funeral establishments to maintain an embalming room (or access to an embalming preparation room); and nearly half of states require a funeral director to be a certified embalmer. Those laws directly contribute to higher prices. In a study published last year, two economists at Kenyon College in Ohio, David E. Harrington and Jaret Treber, calculated that embalming regulations in New York State cost consumers an additional $25.8 million each year.

Although American business traditionally hates regulations, regulating how companies handle and dispose of cadavers makes sense—there are too many public health and public safety considerations involved, let alone consumer rights, for this to be otherwise. “Now, death is seen as an emergency: a dead body has this association of being a biohazard,” explained Caitlin Doughty, who started working in deathcare in 2008 and today owns and runs Undertaking LA. This contrasts sharply with the way a decease was handled 150 years ago, in a pre-industrial era. “Death was a domestic task,” she said. “The women would prepare the body, the men would prepare the casket.”

States began to legislate to control funeral directors around the same time they set professional standards to govern doctors and lawyers, in the mid-nineteenth century. The main aim was to protect the vulnerable—in this case, the bereaved—from charlatans. But many state laws about deathcare now appear outdated or nonsensical. Four states prohibit funeral homes from serving food and beverages entirely, and in New Jersey until very recently, homes could only serve water and peppermints (it is unclear whether such rules arose for reasons of decorum or public hygiene). In five states, funeral directors have exclusive rights to sell caskets, in effect a protectionist measure that blocks cheaper competition—such as Amazon’s “Premium Cardboard Coffin for Adult Funeral,” for just $235.

The outlook seems bleak for customers with few choices and facing high costs. But after sixteen years working in funeral consumer rights advocacy, Slocum doesn’t see it quite this way. “There are two sides to issues like this,” he argues, “and in order to make funerals that are affordable, you need to have both oversight of the industry by the government, but you also need consumers that act with agency rather than being helpless victims.”

It is difficult, though, to think of any other purchase that is quite so unavoidable as paying for a funeral, nor one that demands decision-making at a time when emotional distress is a given. One way to feel empowered in the way that Slocum suggests is to lean, if you can, on your community.

Askia Toure and his two sisters, Sakina and Zahira, were able to turn to the Islamic Society of Greater Houston, Texas, when their mother died of uterine cancer in 2015. The society helped Sakina, who was the only sibling that lived close to her mother when she died, to wash and shroud her mother’s body according to Islamic practice. Two days later, their mother was placed in a plot she had pre-chosen. “That’s how we’ve been raised,” Askia said, “to bury each other with dignity as soon as possible for the least amount of pain or debt inflicted on those who are still here.” When families can’t cover the cost, the community that makes up the membership of the Islamic Society pitches in. Even before Askia’s mother died, the society’s members had contributed to cover the medical costs of her final illness, using a crowdsourcing page. 

Crowdfunding for the funerals themselves is now common. Just one site alone, Go Fund Me, boasts that every year it raises $330 million for some 125,000 memorials (a level of contributions that averages out at $2,640, about a third of the typical funeral’s costs). These sites are especially important for families like the Toures because black American households have less wealth than any other racial or ethnic group in the country. When a large, one-off expense like a funeral needs to be paid, the choice facing such families is often brutally simple: ask for help or sell the car.

Even with a community behind you, bargain-hunting is still important. Non-funeral home options are still limited—and, in fact, can often be even more expensive. You can, it is true, order a cardboard casket from Amazon for as little as $235, but then what? Most states have strict laws about where and how you can dispose of a body. Shopping around for professional funeral services is still the better option for most people. “You can find prices that range from $700 to $4,000 for the same basic service,” said Slocum. “The grief will come, but the terror [of financial ruin] doesn’t have to.”

Funerals are hard because they force us to manage a very practical matter that is simultaneously a profoundly emotional one—to make arrangements amid tumultuous feelings. One thing that can help is to have talked to a loved one before she dies about the kind of funeral she’d want. When it was time for the conversation that Jerry Burton wanted about his desire for a cheap send-off, his daughter-in-law, Melody Burton, a marketing and communications manager from Gresham, Oregon, was apprehensive. But it turned out to be a blessing, not a trauma. “You don’t get to talk about things that are so deeply personal like that very often,” she told me. “It was a beautiful time.”

Complete Article HERE!

The woman whose job it is to prepare people to die

She arranges everything, from finding long lost families to organising organ donation

by Abbie Wightwick

 

She’s only 26 but Claire Wretham is employed by a Welsh hospice to help people face death.

She is the youngest person in any of Marie Curie’s nine hospices nationwide in the role.

Watching her own grandmother have  “a beautiful death” inspired her to help others do the same.

“We all deserve a good death that celebrates life. I am helping people feel at peace,” she said.

As full time spiritual care co-ordinator at Marie Curie Hospice, Cardiff and the Vale , Claire answers any questions patients and their families have about life’s greatest mystery.

Marie Curie spiritual care coordinator Claire Wretham with her grandparents Maura and John Brosnan. Maura’s death in 2016 inspired Claire to take up her post.

“My grandmother died at home, a really beautiful death with all her family around her. We were able to facilitate for her the perfect death.

Penarth with everything from tracing lost loved ones to special religious or cultural requests, officiates at funerals and goes to local mosques,synagogues and church groups to talk about death and dying.

In an increasingly secular and diverse society her role at Marie Curie has replaced the traditional one of chaplain, although Claire still uses that term when first meeting patients.

“I introduce myself as chaplain because it really is a modern interpretation of that,” she explained.

“My age is mostly irrelevant. People often comment on the fact I am young but I don’t think it hinders my role.

“People my age group see the world differently and approach things in a different way.

“Part of my role is asking people “what makes you you, how would you describe yourself and how do you find peace?

“As younger people we often have lots of spaces and experiences to express ourselves, but some older people don’t feel the same freedom to express themselves, so I ask “who are you, what makes you you and what makes you comfortable and at peace?.”

A practising Christian, Claire was appointed to the job two years ago and is an “allied health professional”, not a medic, although she knows and can explain what may happen during dying and immediately after.

Her role as spiritual adviser was created in response to research that Marie Curie did in 2015 investigating how to improve access to palliative care for people with dementia, learning disabilities and people with different or no religious beliefs.

Sarah Lloyd-Davies, hospice manager at Marie Curie Hospice, Cardiff and the Vale, explained: Hospice care and chaplaincy services have long been rooted in the Christian tradition, as both developed at a time when Christianity was the majority religion in the UK.

“As the country has grown more diverse there has also been a trend in growing numbers of people identifying as nonreligious.

“The hiring of a spiritual care coordinator to replace the traditional chaplain role at the Marie Curie Hospice Cardiff and Vale reflects the feedback from our local community, which recognises that one person and one approach cannot meet everyone’s spiritual needs.

“In order to make sure our services are truly inclusive and person-centred, we need to focus on connecting with belief-based communities and exploring new ways of providing spiritual care so we can ensure people feel supported in the best way for them at the end of their life.

Whatever background people come from death and dying are still taboo subjects which Claire must help them face.

“A lot of my job is myth busting and explaining to people how it works at the hospice and what they can expect as they come to the end of their life,” the 26 year-old said.

“Questions I would normally ask are whether they have any spiritual or religious needs and whether they have a faith or anything that’s a source of comfort.

“If they are religious I will discuss that with them – for instance if they are Catholic and want the last rites I liaise with their priest, if they are Muslim and want their bed facing Mecca and halal meals my job is to arrange that and liaise with nursing staff about it.”

There is “no formula or prescription” for talking about death so Claire begins with a few questions.

“It’s about asking questions to get people to explore death or go away and think about it.

“The sort of questions I’ll ask are things like – have you got any unfinished business or anything you want to tie up? That can be relationships, writing a will, funeral planning, making amends with estranged family members , and how we can help with that, if we can.”

When patients tell her they are scared of dying she tries to remove some of the mystery around it to reassure.

“If someone is scared of dying a big part of it, from my point of view, is explaining what will happen when they die.

“There are lots of misconceptions about pain relief. They want to know what it will feel like. I explain that they will probably just fall asleep more.

“I explore with them what they think that will be like. There is nothing you can say really, ultimately it’s something people form their own ideas about.

“I may also ask people what they want their legacy to be. Some people think there is nothing after you are dead so I’d ask them how they want to be remembered.”

But she doesn’t push it if people don’t want to talk.

“We live in a culture where it’s normal to talk about things but the idea of a chaplaincy and spiritual support is so alien to some people that they say no, they don’t want to talk to me.”

As she doesn’t have all the answers Claire tries to keep things practical when explaining what happens after death in a hospice.

“I know what a dead body looks like, where you go after death and what the crematorium looks like.

“My main technique is to remove any confusion. I do ask people if they are frightened and how I can help them not feel afraid.

“Most of the time people are worried about “what’s happening next and what about the pain?”

“I think death is so difficult to talk about because we don’t see death often. The majority of deaths happen in hospital. People don’t know what death looks like.

“For us in a hospice a huge part of our role is pulling the curtain on that. Lots of people come in asking really big questions and having misconceptions.”

These include controversy and suspicion surrounding syringe drives to administer pain relief and the mistaken beliefs about how they are used.

“People are horrified by the syringe driver. It’s in a locked box and nurses replenish pain killers. It is controlled pain relief. Some people think it is a death sentence, but it’s not. Sometimes people have a syringe driver for pain relief and then have it removed.”

“On the other hand some people say “can I have the drugs now?”. That’s not legal and not what hospices are about.”

“When we talk to people here about donation it’s usually only corneas because they can’t donate anything else. Some people say “you can take anything but not my eyes, but I have watched eyeball removal and it is really amazing because one cornea can be used to help eight people.”

It is Claire’s job to arrange any donations. She recalled one case when she arranged for a motorbike to collect the brain of a patient with motor neurone disease who had requested it be donated to medical science – something that had to be arranged within 72 hours.

“I spent all day organising brain removal and that afternoon someone came down from London on a motorbike and took it back for donation to medical science.”

Although her job does involve these practical matters it is also a matter of listening to people at what can be the hardest time of their lives.

“My job is varied Once a man came in and said his father had died here 28 years ago. He said he had never visited Wales and now lives in Canada but had flown into Cardiff to see where his father died.

“I showed him around the hospice and talked to him about his grief and about Penarth. He was very tearful, he had flown all the way from Canada to see where his dad died, but he was able to resolve his grief.”

Surrounded by grief and death on a daily basis Claire says it is not morbid but a privilege to help people.

“Death happens to everyone. It’s coming to all of us. We should look to normalise it.”

Complete Article HERE!

Ashes to Ashes and Into Trees

This Bay Area start-up wants to change how we think about death

By Austyn Gaffney

Five miles inland from the rocky coast of Mendocino County sits 20 acres of forest. The trees—redwoods, Douglas firs, tan oaks, madrones—line old logging roads. Ferns and rhododendrons soften the forest floor. On a clear day, from a crest in the wooded parcel, there’s the blue snap of ocean.

It’s near this crest that Sandy Gibson, founder and CEO of Better Place Forests—a company whose mission is to conserve land by turning it into natural cemeteries—showed me his gravesite. Trees marked by orange, pink, or blue ribbons were available for burial plots, but Gibson’s redwood, towering above a dry creek bed, was ribbonless, signifying its purchase. Nearby trees with small copper plaques at their base, reminiscent of US Geological Survey markers, served as people’s tombstones.

Gibson has been yoked to death from an early age: When he was 10, his father died of a stroke, and a year later, cancer took his mother. As a child, he remembers leaving their gravesites before they were even filled in with soil, and later visiting a shiny black tombstone along a busy street in Toronto, Canada. With a voice gentle but earnest, like he’s intimately familiar with the octaves needed to discuss death, Gibson explained on this foggy morning in August how he now finds comfort in seeing a ceremony to its end.

“We’ve been burying our dead for 50,000 years in cemeteries,” Gibson told me. “The earliest things we can find are basically tools in caves and burial sites. The idea of a permanent sacred space for the people that you love is something deeply and innately human.”

Better Place Forests takes cremated ashes, which are, essentially, bacteria-free bone dust, and spreads them in forested properties. When mixed with bacteria-rich soil, the nutrients in the ashes break down and feed a tree’s root system. On a bronze table next to the visitor’s center, forest stewards sift cremated remains with soil. Then, they lead a “spreading ceremony,” ushering loved ones into the forest and up to the base of the selected tree. There, the sifted soil is mixed with more dirt. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, the dead are returned to the earth.

Now 36, Gibson is the epitome of a start-up CEO—gray hairs pepper his temples and his beard. He’s clean-cut but practical—a button-up shirt, slim pants, and walking shoes. For seven years, Gibson and one of his two partners at Better Place Forests, Brad Milne, ran a software company in Toronto. But Gibson was dissatisfied. Software could disappear one day. He latched onto the idea of creating something physically beautiful that might endure a technological collapse. (In the 45 minutes Gibson and I spent touring his Point Arena property, he referred to beauty, on average, once every 60 seconds.)

“I used to think about nothing, about blackness,” Gibson said, turning to face me beside his redwood. “Now there’s certainty. And that certainty is beautiful.”

Depending on traffic, Point Arena lies three to four hours north of San Francisco. A second site, slated to be open for burials in 2020, is two hours south in Santa Cruz. Better Place Forests is purchasing as much land as it can, as fast as it can, with plans to expand into Washington, Oregon, Colorado, and Arizona. Although Gibson claims he started his company in California to be near the redwoods, it probably doesn’t hurt to be close to Silicon Valley. The biggest challenge, though, might be getting investors excited about death.

“It’s a scary topic,” Gibson admitted. “But people love nature. They love protecting nature. You’re changing the discussion from one about death to one about conservation and beauty. That one’s a lot more accessible.”

Along with the promise of closure, Gibson and his team are selling the notion of legacy through conservation. If cemeteries take up space, Gibson wondered how death could do the opposite. How could it give space back? By purchasing a tree, customers invest in the preservation of a natural landscape. Each purchase also triggers an “impact trees” program, which commits to replanting a certain number of trees—between 25 and 400 depending on the price of the purchased tree—in wildfire-affected areas of California.

Before Better Place Forests came to Point Arena, this former logging parcel was full of dense underbrush that made it more susceptible to forest fires. By establishing conservation easements on purchased properties, Better Place Forests promises to pay for the ongoing management of the entrusted land. Furthermore, if the start-up goes under, the land will be protected in perpetuity. But the process is a bit complicated. Negotiations for the easement on the Point Arena property are still incomplete, though as of October approximately 100 spreadings had taken place.

For the past 150 or so years, the United States has developed a far-reaching death industry. Before the Civil War, families mourned and buried their dead at home. But the staggering amount of dead bodies from the war, needing to return home for one final ceremony, led to embalming and undertakers. Business began to boom, introducing more elaborate coffins and making engraved stone markers more common.

The price tag of death spiked, damaging both pocketbooks and the environment. According to Mary Woodsen of Cornell University, in the US alone, conventional burials account for 20 million board feet of wood, 1.6 million tons of reinforced concrete, 17,000 tons of copper and bronze, and 64,500 tons of steel each year. Over 4 million gallons of embalming fluid are used annually, almost one-fifth of which contains formaldehyde, a toxic substance linked to increased cancer risks among funeral-industry workers.

In her 2015 book, Greening Death: Reclaiming Burial Practices and Restoring Our Tie to the Earth, Suzanne Kelly laments the “walled-off city of contaminants” that will flood her own father’s body after he is embalmed, placed in a wooden casket, and then a metal casket, before being encased in a concrete vault inserted into the ground and then buried beneath the dirt. Kelly fears his grave will become a problem, instead of a place of mourning. Mounting awareness of these impacts has led to a growing movement for green burials, which the Green Burial Council defines as “a way of caring for the dead with minimal environmental impact.”

The process of cremation—which accounted for less than 10 percent of US burials in 1980, but today plays a role in over half—isn’t great for the environment either. Along with emitting carbon dioxide and mercury, cremation uses enough natural gas to power a 500-mile car trip, though, according to Kelly, advocates are pushing for renewable forms of energy and crematory filters to limit contaminants. Water cremation, or alkaline hydrolysis, is also on the rise, using a water-based solution, instead of heat, to speed up decomposition. It uses one-fifth the energy of fire cremation and better retains the body’s nutrients.

Today, there are approximately 93 green burial sites across the US. The first cemetery certified by the Green Burial Council was a preserve in South Carolina founded to protect a quarter mile of Ramsey Creek. Opened in 1998, it now encompasses over 60 acres, and over 400 natural burials, both whole body and cremation, have taken place on the site. Management practices on the land are permanently restricted so it remains wild.

Along with better environmental standards, green burials tend to be less expensive than conventional ones. In the past 30 years, funeral costs have risen almost twice as quickly as any other consumer items. According to the National Funeral Directors Association (NFDA), in 2017, funerals with a burial, viewing, and vault cost an average of $8,755. But green cemeteries, like Honey Creek Woodlands in Georgia, advertise natural burial plots for $3,200. For natural burials involving cremation, those costs drop between $1,150 and $2,700, depending on the location.

Though trees in Better Place Forests are hardly cheap. While community trees (in case you’d like your ashes to mingle with those of a bunch of strangers for eternity) start at $950 per spreading; individual trees begin at around $3,000 and can go upwards of $17,000. Each tree includes one to two ceremonial spreadings, and each additional spreading is an additional cost. But if all your relatives agree to be interred beneath the same tree, that spreading fee can be about an eighth of the cost of a conventional burial.

Most natural burial sites, including Better Place Forests, don’t include the cost of cremation, which ranges widely from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars. The number of funerals involving cremation is expected to rise to almost 80 percent of burials by 2040. And although more baby boomers are choosing cremation, they’re not all choosing cemeteries.

It’s a good thing, because we’re running out of space. According to a 2012 study, if all Americans who reach 78 years old (the average life expectancy) chose to be buried in standard plots, by 2042 we’d need 130 square miles of pure grave space, an area about the size of Las Vegas.

The green burial movement subverts the major economic interests of the funeral industry in other ways besides circumventing traditional funeral services. Returning people to the earth in a more natural way doesn’t surround death with sales of land, resources, and facilities. Service Corporation International, the largest multinational funerary business, reported a revenue of over $3 billion in 2018 alone. It’s estimated to comprise at least 15 percent of the death-care industry in North America, operating almost 1,500 funeral service locations and close to 500 cemeteries. Their report to the United States Securities Exchange Commission stated that they were “poised to benefit from the aging of the American population.”

Kathee Pfalmer, a baby boomer from California, had a hard time talking about her eventual passing with her family. She’d brought up various unconventional burial methods with her four children. Would they like mom’s ashes pressed into stones reminiscent of diamonds and made into rings? Or perhaps a nice piece of pottery with her ashes worked into the glaze? Unfortunately, she couldn’t imagine her children saying, “Let’s go pick up mom’s vase.” Then she stumbled across a Facebook ad for Better Place Forests.

When she visited the Point Arena forest in October, she, like Gibson, connected with a redwood tree. Although genetically the same, her tree has two trunks that appear distinct, and the pale stump of a burned tree, left over from a 1906 forest fire, leans against them. Pfalmer says the trio resonated with her because of her eclectic mix of family members, who though not all biologically related, are very loving and supportive of one another. Her decision has shifted the conversation with her children.

“Something about buying this tree and having a place helps me talk to my kids about it,” Pfalmer told me over the phone. “They can imagine my passing without thinking about me dying.”

In a 2017 study by NFDA, over 60 percent of respondents felt it was important to communicate funeral plans, but only 21.4 percent had done so. More than half of all respondents wanted to explore green funerals as a way to reduce their environmental impact. Or perhaps, to become a positive contribution to an environmental web.

“I thought it was a really good way of introducing the finality we all come to,” says Pfalmer, who brought along her 14-year-old granddaughter to pick out her tree. A lifelong gardener, Pfalmer is familiar with the cycle of life and death. She wants the cycle of her life honored in a natural way, and she hopes that for her granddaughter, the experience “might help her feel more at peace with the inevitability of death as part of life.”

Cody Sanders, a Baptist pastor and theologian who specializes in how death care impacts the environment, believes our corpses aren’t dying in a natural way but instead are being withheld from the ecosystem to which they belong. He argues that in death, our corpses can be in tune with the earth’s own cycles of life and continue living through the transformative process of decomposition.

“We’ve done everything we can in the last 150 years or so to deny the earth the life it could receive through our dead bodies,” Sanders writes in a paper for the journal Pastoral Theology.

Sanders suggests that how we treat our dead “mirrors ideologies and theologies that have arisen that suggest humans are not a part of the earth,” and that this “has strong ties to the practices that are contributing to the climate collapse at this point.”

Suzanne Kelly, author of Greening Death, claims sustainable death choices could provide a new tool for engaging in climate anxiety—a more intimate connection to the earth. In her book, she quotes Bob Fertig, a green-friendly funeral director, who says, “The focus on the environmental aspect [of the green burial movement] is wonderful, but I think what sometimes gets lost in that is the potential for closeness with death and the way it makes people feel.” 

In other words, green funerals aren’t just good for the environment. In an age of climate crisis, strengthening the bonds between people and the planet can be good for the human psyche too.

*

Weeks after visiting the Point Arena forest, I called my dad and asked him, “Would you like to be buried beneath a tree?”

My father has had a rare form of stomach cancer for over half a decade. I found out after graduating college while lying on the floor of the apartment I was subletting—not because I was awaiting bad news but because it was midsummer in Kentucky and I had no air conditioning. I thought my father had gone in for a minor surgery, but my mom called, saying they’d found tumors. They’re the kind of tumors that can be stalled but not the kind that go away. He has since retired on disability. He tires often and can suffer stomach pains that send him to the emergency room. He’s taken up meditation and spends time in a condo in Ontario to be closer to family. I often hesitate when he brings up his death. I get tongue-tied in the company of mortality, but now, when referencing another living being, like a tree, I found the discussion flowed more easily.

Of course he’d like to be buried beneath a tree, he said. Since childhood, he’s explored thousands of miles of the outdoors. On his first canoe trip, he was in diapers, and he hitchhiked out to the Canadian Rockies the summer he was 16. He still has the steel-frame, faded red backpack he used to traverse Jasper National Park. We don’t stroll too far from home these days, but we often manage to find our way to a riverbank or some nearby woods. On the phone now, he repeated his desire for cremation, and while he liked the tree idea, he balked at the cost. “Why wouldn’t I just donate what I’d spend reserving a tree to a conservation group?” he asked.

The cynic in me wants to critique Gibson’s model: the continued commodification of the natural world, and of burial sites. The idea that a San Francisco–based start-up is finding capital gains in something as tender-hearted as death. But somehow I keep falling short. Sure it’s just a tree. Sure it’s a lot of money for the ritual of saying goodbye. Aside from the small fact that it’s illegal, I could spread my father’s ashes wherever I like. But the idea of being able to visit his remains while also conserving a natural space? It sounds a little like solace.

“People still need a sense of place. You want to know there’s a place for your family to come,” Gibson told me, echoing Kathee Pfalmer’s wishes for her tree. “You want to know there’s a ceremony that will make it easier for your family to grieve.”

In May, months before I met Gibson in Better Place Forest’s tract of trees, I traveled to the gravesite of my great-grandfather in Nova Scotia with my father and my paternal grandmother. The cemetery was camouflaged along a backroad of birch trees and brambles, but my grandmother recognized the turn-off immediately. She’d visited her father here since he died when she was five years old, and she wanted me to pay my respects at his burial site. There was an intimacy in picking flowers to lay on the graves of our relatives, fenced off between two small fields and curtained with trees. There is a sweetness to these spaces.

Death is part of the ongoing web of life that humans are ecologically tied to by virtue of being mammals on this earth. For Sanders, privileging these alive human bodies “allows us to maintain the destructive fiction that all that is lifeless is inert and without significance or desire. The dead body—lifeless as it may be—is not finished revealing to us our roles and responsibilities for care.” The earth still desires something in relation to our body, Sanders writes—its return to the “aliveness” of the ecological world.

There is a natural order to things that ugly interruptions like cancer, addiction, car wrecks, and other tragedies take away from us. Nature reestablishes that order. It reminds us, especially the nonreligious among us, that there is life after life. Those nutrients in my father’s bones, in my bones, could enrich the soil. I imagine worms eating bits of me, and birds eating bits of worms. I imagine the process of my decomposition spiraling out beyond me. And I admit, it brings me comfort.

Complete Article HERE!

Conversations change around death, dying and funeral planning:

‘It’s not going to bring on your demise any sooner’

By

Conversations around death and dying are changing, and those in the funeral industry say it’s the baby boomer population leading the charge.

“You used to just have four funeral homes and you could choose between one or two things, [and] everybody charged basically the same thing,” says Brandy Rollins, family service manager at Trinity Funeral Homes.

Many people are looking for more options in every aspect of funeral planning from cost, to service options and final dispositions.

You are now able to personalize every aspect of your service to include what is most important to you. There’s also several options when it comes to how to dispose of your body from a traditional burial, from casket and concrete linings placed in the ground to cremation.

There’s also a movement in support of what’s called green burials, which don’t use concrete liners or embalming. Bodies are placed in a biodegradable shroud or casket.

Because there are so many options, Rollins says it is imperative that people have conversations with their loved ones about exactly what they want.

“If you don’t know what is important to the person that you are ultimately responsible for, it’s a burden to decide that,” she says.

Rollins suggests pre-planning your funeral to make it easier on your family.

“It’s a very loving act [and] it’s a very kind act,” Rollins says. “Some would argue it’s the last act of kindness you can provide.”

There’s also a push to get more people talking about their own deaths, not just for pre-planning reasons.

Death Cafes are being held around the world. The creators of the pop-up events state on their website, Death Cafes are meant to “make the most of our finite lives.”

“It’s just an aspect of life,” says Gina Vliet who has hosted Death Cafes in Edmonton.

Vliet is a member The Order of the Good Death, which encourages “staring down your death fears.” She is also an advocate for death positivity.

“Our culture is focused on living and prolonging life,” Vliet says. “I think acknowledging mortality is something people come to very organically.”

Vliet encourages people to get over the “cultural taboo” of not wanting to talk about death and dying. She is an end-of-life planning consultant who helps people plan for the final stage of life .

Vliet says that planning for your death and talking about it gives you more freedom and energy to enjoy life.

“It’s not going to bring on your demise any sooner,” Vliet says.

Both experts agree that talking about your death or the death of a loved one is a very loving act for your family, even though it can sometimes be uncomfortable.

Complete Article HERE!

As a Muslim Mariam lives the ‘five before five’

— and finds meaning and balance as a death doula

Mariam’s serious car accident led her to engage with Muslim attitudes to death.

By Alice Moldovan

“I collided head on with a truck, the car caught on fire. It was a huge emergency operation,” says Mariam Ardati.

It was one of those car accidents “you think nobody could have survived.”

When she crawled out of the wreckage of her car, Mariam was amazed to see that she didn’t have a single scratch on her.

As a body builder, Mariam had considered herself invincible at the time — at the peak of her fitness.

The close brush with death turned her thoughts to what would have happened to her body under Islamic tradition if she had in fact, died.

“I walked away thinking, ‘where would I have been buried? What would have happened to all my things?'”

After recovering from the trauma of the accident, Mariam says she walked into a funeral parlour and said, “teach me, show me what happens when someone dies”.

The experience prompted a spiritual journey to reconnect with the Sunni Muslim faith she had grown up with.

“I was largely self-centred up until that accident happened,” she told RN’s Soul Search, “and it helped me find purpose and meaning.”

For the last 15 years she has helped other people in the Muslim community through the transition from life into death — as a doula.

Mariam supports the dying and their families in the lead up to death, then leads the ritual care for the body of the deceased.

Anyone can take part in death care

Mariam says women have always performed the final rites for other women.

She wants people to know that there is a range of jobs that family members can do to assist after their loved one has passed away.

Supporting the head, washing the body and brushing the hair are all meaningful ways to care for the deceased.

Mariam describes how she bathes a body an odd number of times, starting with three.

“The first wash is done with soapy water. The second is with clean fresh water. And the third is water that’s poured over the body that’s been infused with camphor.”

Then family members will wrap their loved one in a death shroud that has been perfumed with incense.

“This is afforded to every Muslim that passes away,” she says.

Mariam recalls a woman she worked with who didn’t think she could enter the room where her mother’s body was undergoing the ritual washing.

“She stood at the door of the mortuary and said, ‘I don’t think I can do this, this is just too much for me’.”

Mariam reassured her that she could just watch.

Mariam Ardati says becoming a death doula has helped her find purpose and meaning.

The woman saw the water running, saw Mariam stroking her mum’s hair and talking to her, offering prayers.

By the end of the whole process, the woman had taken over.

“I took a step back and watched her — with a lot of tears and a lot of emotion — go through each ritual in its entirety.”

Mariam says seeing a daughter perform these last rites for her mother “as she’s working through her emotions and coming to terms with her grief is such a powerful thing to witness”.

She recalls many women who say, “I’m so grateful for the fact that I was able to honour my mother in that way,” or “I was able to hold my sister one last time”.

The ‘very human touch’ of burial

Muslim burial rituals have a “very human touch”, says Professor Mohamad Abdalla, referring to the practice of men going down into a grave to lower a body in with their hands, sans coffin.

Mohamad is the director of the Centre for Islamic Thought and Education at the University of South Australia.

He explains that the body is positioned with the head facing Mecca, the traditional direction of prayer.

“With the soil of the grave they make a small pillow to lay his or her head,” Mohamad says.

Mohamad says Muslim funeral practices revolve around honouring and caring for the dead.

Three quarters of the way up the grave, small edges are carved out to hold several planks of wood.

“The soil is poured over the planks of wood, not touching the body of the deceased, essentially leaving about half a metre … for the circulation of air for natural decomposition.”

Muslim death ritual requires the body be buried as quickly as possible, which can be difficult in the event of a sudden death.

“It’s an honour to bury the deceased within 24 hours,” Mariam says.

She’s referring to the belief that after death, the soul ascends and is given “the glad tidings of heaven”.

When the two are reunited in burial, the soul shares that news with the body, remaining connected throughout the process.

Organ donation and autopsies can complicate the ritual and throw timing off.

“We do exercise our rights to object to an invasive post-mortem, as do other faiths and communities,” Mariam explains.

“We believe that process is an undignified act.”

However, there are alternatives for Muslims, for instance in the case of an unexplained or suspicious death, explains Mohamad.

“In the classical Islamic civilisation, autopsy was undertaken to understand the human body and blood circulation.”

Beyond autopsy, medical procedures after death are technically allowed, because preservation of life is one of the most important objectives of Islamic law, Mohamad says.

He explains that as long as the donor or their family consents voluntarily, organs are not sold, and the organs are healthy, it is a highly virtuous act.

“But the minority viewpoint says a person has no right to dispose of their body as they wish, because it is a trust from God,” he says.

Much of Mariam’s energy is directed to increasing death literacy in the community — helping people become accustomed to the idea of dying.

She encourages the same open approach at home with her own children, in a “mother-daughter bonding exercise”.

“I have cut my own [death] shroud, and I had my daughter by my side with the measuring tape saying, ‘No mum, that’s too short, we need to make it longer this way’.”

‘Five before five’

Mariam sees her job as an opportunity to serve God through caring for other people.

“When you’re living the life of a Muslim, you’re living between two states,” she explains.

One of those refers to “fearing retribution or the accountability of your sins”, and the other is “believing in the hope and mercy of God”

Mariam says she looks for the balance between the two.

It’s a sense of purpose that leads to an understanding that “your actions have consequences, and that you’re part of a larger social context”.

A Muslim is encouraged “to take advantage of what’s known as the five before five,” she explains.

“Your health before sickness, your life before you’re overcome with death, your free time before you become busy, your youth before your old age and your wealth before you become poor.”

Mariam says Muslims’ relationship with God is “underpinned by the understanding that God is the provider of infinite love, compassion and mercy”.

But for a person to earn that favour, she or he must live a life that’s conducive to those values.

In death, Mariam sees our final transition as a deeply communal responsibility, one that she is humbled to be part of.

She says she’s glad her own encounter with a near-fatal accident showed her that she wasn’t invincible.

Rather, it gave her a sense of purpose and meaning.

“I didn’t find that in the world of the living — I found it in the world of the dead.”

Complete Article HERE!

More people want a green burial, but cemetery law hasn’t caught up

by Alex Brown

Visitors to the White Eagle Memorial Preserve in southern Washington won’t find rows of headstones, manicured lawns or pathways to a loved one’s final resting place. Instead, they stroll through an oak and ponderosa forest set within more than a thousand acres of wilderness.

Twenty acres of the wilderness is set aside as a cemetery. Bodies are placed in shallow graves among the trees, often wrapped in biodegradable shrouds, surrounded with leaves and pine needle mulch, and allowed to decompose naturally, returning nutrients to the soil. Grave markers are natural stones, said Jodie Buller, the cemetery’s manager—”rocks that look like rocks.”

“People drive their loved one out themselves, in the back of a Subaru,” Buller said, summing up White Eagle’s granola ethos.

Conservation cemeteries like White Eagle, which was founded in 2008, are still few and far between—only seven have been officially recognized by the Green Burial Council, the industry’s certification body—but they’re part of a growing movement to handle the dead in eco-friendly ways.

Green burial, the catchall term for these efforts, takes many forms, from no-frills burials in conventional cemeteries to sprawling wilderness conservation operations. Cemetery operators say they’re seeing increasing interest in these less conventional end-of-life options.

“It’s been a slow, , but we are seeing the groundswell happening now,” said Brian Flowers, burial coordinator with Moles Farewell Tributes, which conducts green burials along with more conventional options on sites in Washington state.

While no explicitly prevent green burial—generally defined as burials that happen in eco-friendly containers and without embalming—cemetery operators all over the country say outdated state and local laws have made it difficult for green burial to gain a foothold.

Many followers of Islam and Judaism use similar practices, burying the dead in a shroud or coffin of untreated wood without cremating or embalming. Such techniques are allowed in every jurisdiction, but new cemeteries with an explicit focus on green burial have run into obstacles.

Cemeteries were little-regulated until the late 1800s, experts say, when officials began adding rules primarily for consumer protection. The goal was to prevent scam artists or ill-prepared operators from opening cemeteries that might later be abandoned. But the regulations establishing best practices for conventional cemeteries often inhibit green-burial practices.

“The bottom-line issue in pretty much every state is the statutes don’t contemplate this kind of burial ground,” said Tanya Marsh, a professor at the Wake Forest University School of Law who has written books about laws pertaining to the dead. “It’s probably not that the legislators wanted to make things difficult; it just didn’t occur to them that everybody wasn’t going to set up a cemetery in what they conceived of as a regular cemetery.”

While no organization keeps a comprehensive database of all state and local cemetery laws, operators have no shortage of stories about the obstacles they’ve faced. Some laws, for instance, require paved roads to burial plots. Others mandate fencing around cemeteries—both antithetical to the natural settings required for conservation cemeteries.

Many states mandate that new cemeteries set up a large endowment fund for future maintenance, which green-burial advocates say is a burdensome requirement for places that are intended to be left in their natural state.

Some states require a licensed funeral director to handle transportation, and some laws mandate refrigeration or embalming once a person has been dead more than 24 hours. Green-burial advocates say families should be allowed to take care of arrangements themselves, and these laws are based on misguided fears that the dead carry diseases.

In many places, local officials may not give green cemeteries the zoning permits they need or may pass other regulations to block them. In 2008, for instance, commissioners in Georgia’s Mason-Bibb County adopted an ordinance requiring leak-proof containers for burials after neighbors complained about a proposed green-burial cemetery.

Advocates say their movement is long overdue. According to the California-based Green Burial Council, cemeteries in the United States put more than 4 million gallons of embalming fluid and 64,000 tons of steel into the ground each year, along with 1.6 million tons of concrete.

Consumers are shifting their behavior as well. More than half of the dead in the United States are cremated today, according to a report from the National Funeral Directors Association, up from an industry-estimated rate of just 4% in the 1960s.

That’s at least partially because cremation is less expensive, but some Americans also have expressed a desire to leave a smaller environmental footprint. However, the council estimates that cremation—which involves heating a furnace to close to 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit for up to two hours—produces about the same emissions as driving 500 miles in a car.

Burial also is a land-use issue, as cemeteries must claim ever-increasing acres to accommodate new arrivals. Conservation cemeteries, on the other hand, are designed to preserve and expand existing wilderness areas while using the burials as a funding mechanism for the environmental work.

White Eagle, which has buried about 85 people so far and has reserved another 130 sites, charges a little more than $3,000 for a burial, which helps with continued land acquisition, invasive-species monitoring and forest management to reduce wildfire danger.

A 2019 survey from the funeral directors’ association found that nearly 52% of Americans expressed interest in green-burial options. Most cited environmental reasons, but others mentioned cost.

“Most people know what green burial is,” said Lee Webster, who heads education for the Green Burial Council. “They just don’t know how to make it happen.”

The council currently recognizes 72 cemeteries in the country that conduct green burials, ranging from “hybrid” cemeteries that allow green burials alongside conventional plots to conservation cemeteries that can span vast wilderness areas. While an increasing number of cemeteries are adding green options, operators say they face many hurdles in trying to set up new cemeteries dedicated to the practice.

Heidi Hannapel and Jeff Masten run Landmatters, a consulting firm based in North Carolina that helps those seeking to establish conservation cemeteries. The partners are attempting to set up their own such cemetery in North Carolina, but obstacles have stalled the project.

“We’d have to pave an entire road throughout the property,” Hannapel said. “That completely defeats the purpose of what we’re trying to create. We’d have to establish a large endowment that would have to be held back. There’s no room within existing North Carolina law that allows for what we’re talking about.”

Freddie Johnson, executive director of the Prairie Creek Conservation Cemetery in Florida, said the cemetery does not sell sites in advance, which exempts it from state statutes that would have required more than $250,000 upfront. However, that requirement makes it difficult for customers who can’t pre-plan their burials.

“The whole industry is set up to accommodate modern burial,” Johnson said. “You’re trying to do something simple and better for the environment, and some rules and statutes become hurdles. There needs to be another model available for cemeteries to choose based on natural and conservation burial.”

Few states are looking at changes to their burial policies. Wisconsin legislators are considering a bill to allow alkaline hydrolysis, an eco-friendly form of liquid cremation that uses a pressurized solution to rapidly decompose a body. But green-burial operators say they’ve seen little action on policy related to their cemeteries.

Aside from regulatory hurdles, operators say there’s also much work to be done in educating consumers.

“Everybody assumes you need to be embalmed or you can’t transport unembalmed bodies,” said Kimberley Campbell, who operates Ramsey Creek Preserve, a conservation cemetery in South Carolina. “The idea that you’re going to be spreading disease if you don’t embalm the body is complete codswallop.”

Buller, who manages the preserve in southern Washington, said she would like to see hospital chaplains and hospice workers present green burial as an option when they talk with families about their end-of-life choices.

Meanwhile, the so-called death care industry has begun to offer options with various “shades of green”—such as wicker caskets, urns designed to grow into trees and an organic mixture that reduces the toxicity of cremated remains, allowing for safe mixing into the soil.

In Washington, lawmakers passed a bill earlier this year allowing for human composting. The measure was based on a technology that rapidly converts human bodies into soil. State Sen. Jamie Pedersen, the Democrat who sponsored the bill, said it enjoyed broad support.

The bill passed on an 80-16 vote in the House and a 38-11 vote in the Senate. Among those opposed was the Washington State Catholic Conference, which argued that human composting disrespects the body in a manner against church teaching.

“The Catholic Church strongly recommends that the bodies of the deceased be buried in cemeteries and other sacred places,” the conference said in a news release when Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee signed the bill. “The practice of burying bodies of the deceased shows a greater esteem towards the deceased.”

Pedersen said that he would be open to looking at more changes to state law to accommodate green burial.

“If there are obstacles to responsible practices for the disposal of human remains,” he said, “it makes sense for us to clear those away and leave space for the practice to develop.”

Any movement to change cemetery law would make Washington a rare case, said Marsh, the legal expert.

Some in the green-burial movement blame that on the existing funeral industry, which they believe has outsize political influence, as well as control over many local cemetery commissions. But Jimmy Olson, spokesman for the National Funeral Directors Association, noted that many conventional cemeteries are adopting their own green options.

“With cremation rates now over 50%, I would think they would welcome this with open arms, because they would see this as an option to continue to use their cemeteries,” he said. “This is only going to help them as more and more people choose not to use a cemetery.”

Joshua Slocum, executive director of the Funeral Consumers Alliance, said it’s important for customers to know they can opt for a green burial—and save money—at many conventional cemeteries, simply by declining options that aren’t eco-friendly.

Some green-burial plots are less expensive than conventional ones, but they still cost more than cremation. However, because of the costs for embalming, caskets and vaults, green burials are often more affordable than the full cost of a conventional burial.

The typical U.S. funeral costs more than $8,000, according to the funeral directors’ association, even before the purchase of a cemetery plot. An average burial plot costs from $1,000 to $4,000, according to the life insurance company Lincoln Heritage. Green- operators interviewed for this story charge from $2,000 to $4,500 for plots.

“Everything about death is so commercialized that we have a hard time thinking about anything other than a product that can be purchased,” Slocum said. “No state requires embalming as a condition of being buried. No state law requires a coffin or casket. No state requires a concrete vault.”

Still, he acknowledged that many who choose green burial may prefer not to be put in the ground between plots with vaults, caskets and embalmed bodies. Regulations may need to change to accommodate new cemeteries that don’t fit the traditional mold.

“We need to get over this idea that everything needs to look like an MGM backlot and manicured within an inch of its life,” he said. “I’m hoping that the artificial prissiness that has dominated the American approach can go away.”

Complete Article HERE!

Death Be Not Dull

U.K. restaurateur Oliver Peyton’s newest project, a style-forward funeral home called Exit Here, aims to shake up a very traditional industry.

A stylish new funeral parlor called Exit Here opened in London, promising that memorializing a loved one’s death doesn’t have to be grim experience.

By

Oliver Peyton knows one thing about his death: Thin Lizzy will play at his funeral.

His Spotify playlist is already queued up. Peyton is Irish, and the ‘70s Dublin hard rockers behind “The Boys Are Back in Town” played the first concert he ever attended. He’s thinking that “Dancing in the Moonlight (It’s Caught Me in Its Spotlight),” off 1977’s Bad Reputation, might be the first song to kick things off.

Peyton’s funeral soundtrack doesn’t sound even slightly sepulchral. It also features ’90s groove tracks by Arrested Development, De La Soul, and A Tribe Called Quest, a nod to the first London establishment he ever opened (a hip-hop club). Peyton is nothing if not an entertainer: The longtime restaurateur is a judge on the BBC’s reality chef show, Great British Menu, and he earned an honorary British order of chivalry for his service as a caterer. When it all goes down, Peyton means for his funeral to be something special.

“I want every detail of my funeral to be choreographed,” Peyton says. “I don’t want my family or friends to think, ‘I wonder what Oliver would have liked.’ I think it’s so rude, in a way.”

Six years ago, when his father died, he came to realize that there isn’t enough choice in death. Since Victorian times, Peyton says, Great Britain’s death care industry has been served by a single prevailing model, a traditional means of commemorating life and ritualizing mortality—and it doesn’t suit him. So Peyton launched Exit Here, a funeral parlor, if that’s the word for it, in London’s Chiswick neighborhood.

“After my parents’ deaths, I just kept thinking, there’s no choice. You’re just on a conveyor belt,” Peyton says. “I didn’t achieve the things I know that certainly my father would have wanted. I was too traumatized.”

At first glance, Exit Here looks like a concept cafe, the sort of place where you might expect to order a flat white by day and a craft pour by night. The splashy, neon-backlit script over the entrance could be promoting a brasserie or raw bar (both of which Peyton has experience operating) instead of a funeral home. Nevertheless, Exit Here is a full-service provider of funerals and mortuary services, from traditional wakes to exotic possibilities.

“If you want a party on a beach in Goa, we’ll organize that for you,” Peyton says.

Three of the bespoke caskets available at Exit Here.

Style distinguishes Exit Here from the competition: It’s death, but hipper. The shop stands out for its considerable cheek (and chic). For example, Exit Here offers bright-colored urns shaped like capsules, a punny line called the “Bitter Pill” series. Bespoke caskets include a Día de los Muertos–inspired option and an English willow wicker coffin. Inside, teal and goldenrod hallways, blonde wood floors, and arched doorways (designed by Transit Studio) set Exit Here apart from traditional funeral-home interiors, with their dark woods and drab carpets.

There’s a growing movement to update the funeral business with offerings that reflect a wider range of customer choices. Los Angeles mortician and author Caitlin Doughty, who runs the Undertaking L.A. funeral service, also founded a collective of death care professionals and academics called the Order of the Good Death to help speed the adoption of more inclusive, less environmentally harmful, and more “death positive” practices within the industry. Other efforts, like the nonprofit Death Over Dinner and the Death Cafe initiative, encourage groups to talk openly about their demise, via public dinner events. Exit Here is entering an increasingly vibrant market for style-forward dying.

Since its opening a month ago, Exit Here has hosted four funerals. Peyton won’t talk about them in detail, but he says that the private services have ranged from the traditional to the extravagant. Everyone who has come through his doors has asked for something different. Funeral homes largely serve local neighborhoods and communities, and Exit Here is no different in this regard. Barry Pritchard, Peyton’s partner in the endeavor, is a third-generation funeral director who serves on the board of the U.K.’s National Association of Funeral Directors. All the services associated with a traditional funeral home, from collecting and preparing the body to hosting the reception, are available; the options simply go further.

A wicker coffin might be appropriate for a natural burial in Berkshire, a service provided by Exit Here.

When I ask him what an extravagant funeral might look like, he gives as an example the services for Aretha Franklin. Her televised 2018 funeral featured testimonials by the likes of Reverend Jesse L. Jackson and former President Bill Clinton, performances by Chaka Khan and Ariana Grande, and a procession of more than 100 pink Cadillacs. Peyton asks me whether I would describe the service as tasteful (I would). So why shouldn’t there be a category of funeral that falls somewhere between a faltering recitation of “Danny Boy” and a fantastic spectacle for the Queen of Soul?

Peyton outlines his philosophy on funerals this way: People plan their own birthdays, weddings, holidays, and vacations. Exit Here is for people who would like to plan their final departures as well. Plotting out the details, from the menu to the music, takes a burden off the shoulders of grieving loved ones and gives a person more control over the terms of their final departure. Peyton acknowledges the discomfort that some people might feel at the prospect of a trendy funeral home, but he says that’s ultimately discomfort with death itself. Convention does not ease a loved one’s passing, in the end.

So, what if I want to have a Star Wars-themed funeral? Somebody’s already asked him for a Star Wars casket, he replies, and he’s trying to figure out how to honor that request. Choice is the force behind Exit Here. In an increasingly secularized Britain, more people are searching for rituals that aren’t explicitly religious; other might like some extra flexibility within sacred traditions.

“Having spent most of my adult life in the restaurant business, you think you’re just helping people, and you are—you’re helping people to have a good time,” Peyton says. “But funerals are far more emotional. There’s far more attached to it. People’s grief manifests itself in different ways at different times. Being able to help people through that is a good thing.”

He adds, “It’s still, to me, a hospitality business. People say, ‘Oliver, why are you doing this?’ It’s about taking care of people.”

Costs for services at Exit Here run “a tiny bit above mid-market” for a traditional funeral, according to Peyton. The price point isn’t meant to be exclusionary. For services extending beyond traditional receptions, the prices run the gamut. “If you want a cheap funeral, you’re not going to come to us,” Peyton says, but “we’re definitely not out of reach.”

Death, curated.

Peyton and his partner weren’t expecting to do any funerals before Christmas. But there’s clearly a lively market for Exit Here: About four weeks in, Peyton is already thinking ahead to opening as many as four similar establishments in the future. He says that he is fielding regular queries about franchise opportunities, something he hadn’t predicted (and isn’t considering for now). While Exit Here might look like an effort to disrupt the industry of death, there isn’t any private equity backing the venture. A service is still a service.

Peyton is willing to describe one funeral in detail: his own. It will begin with a lunch, he says. At about 3:00 p.m., when everyone’s thinking about heading home, they’ll bring out the really good wine. From there it’s DJs spinning his favorite music from different periods of his life—Patti Smith, Desmond Dekker, the Ramones—so that people will leave with a lasting memory.

Complete Article HERE!