The funeral as we know it is becoming a relic

— just in time for a death boom

By Karen Heller

Dayna West knows how to throw a fabulous memorial shindig. She hired Los Angeles celebration-of-life planner Alison Bossert — yes, those now exist — to create what West dubbed “Memorialpalooza” for her father, Howard, in 2016 a few months after his death.

“None of us is going to get out of this alive,” says Bossert, who helms Final Bow Productions. “We can’t control how or when we die, but we can say how we want to be remembered.”

And how Howard was remembered! There was a crowd of more than 300 on the Sony Pictures Studios. A hot-dog cart from the famed L.A. stand Pink’s. Gift bags, the hit being a baseball cap inscribed with “Life’s not fair, get over it” (a beloved Howardism). A constellation of speakers, with Jerry Seinfeld as the closer (Howard was his personal manager). And babka (a tribute to a favorite “Seinfeld” episode).

“My dad never followed rules,” says West, 56, a Bay Area clinical psychologist. So why would his memorial service

Death is a given, but not the time-honored rituals. An increasingly secular, nomadic and casual America is shredding the rules about how to commemorate death, and it’s not just among the wealthy and famous. Somber, embalmed-body funerals, with their $9,000 industry average price tag, are, for many families, a relic. Instead, end-of-life ceremonies are being personalized: golf-course cocktail send-offs, backyard potluck memorials, more Sinatra and Clapton, less “Ave Maria,” more Hawaiian shirts, fewer dark suits. Families want to put the “fun” in funerals

The movement will only accelerate as the nation approaches a historic spike in deaths. Baby boomers, despite strenuous efforts to stall the aging process, are not getting any younger. In 2030, people over 65 will outnumber children, and by 2037, 3.6 million people are projected to die in the United States, according to the Census Bureau, 1 million more than in 2015, which is projected to outpace the growth of the overall population

Just as nuptials have been transformed — who held destination weddings in the ’90s? — and gender-reveal celebrations have become theatrical productions, the death industry has experienced seismic changes over the past couple of decades. Practices began to shift during the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s, when many funeral homes were unable to meet the needs of so many young men dying, and friends often hosted events that resembled parties.

Now, many families are replacing funerals (where the body is present) with memorial services (where the body is not). Religious burial requirements are less a consideration in a country where only 36 percent of Americans say they regularly attend religious services, nearly a third never or rarely attend, and almost a quarter identify as agnostic or atheist, according to the Pew Research Center.

Funeral homes adapt
More than half of all American deaths lead to cremations, compared to 28 percent in 2002, due to expense (they can cost a third the price of a burial), the environment, and family members living far apart with less ability to visit cemetery plots, according to the National Funeral Directors Association. By 2035, the cremation rate is projected to be a staggering 80 percent, the association says. And cremation frees loved ones to stage a memorial anywhere, at any time, and to store or scatter ashes as they please. (Maintenance of cemeteries, if families stop using them, may become a preservation and financial problem

Past funeral association president Mark Musgrove, who runs a network of funeral homes and chapels in Eugene, Ore., says his industry, already marked by consolidation, is adapting to changing demands.

“Services are more life-centered, around the person’s personality, likes and dislikes. They’re unique and not standardized,” he says. “The only way we can survive is to provide the services that families find meaningful.”

Funeral homes have hired event planners, remodeled drab parlors to include dance floors and lounge areas, acquired liquor licenses to replace the traditional vat of industrial-strength coffee. In Oregon, where cremation rates are near 80 percent, Musgrove has organized memorial celebrations at golf courses and Autzen Stadium, home of the Ducks. He sells urns that resemble giant golf balls and styles adorned with the University of Oregon logo. In a cemetery, his firm installed a “Peace Columbarium,” a retrofitted 1970s VW van, brightly painted with “Peace” and “Love,” to house urns.

Change has sparked nascent death-related industries in a culture long besotted with youth. There are death doulas (caring for the terminally ill), death cafes (to discuss life’s last chapter over cake and tea), death celebrants (officiants who lead end-of-life events), living funerals (attended by the honored while still breathing), and end-of-life workshops (for the healthy who think ahead). The Internet allows lives to continue indefinitely in memorial Facebook pages, tribute vlogs on YouTube and instamemorials on Instagram.

Memorials are no longer strictly local events. As with weddings and birthdays, families are choosing favorite vacation idylls as final resting spots. Captain Ken Middleton’s Hawaii Ash Scatterings performs 600 cremains dispersals a year for as many as 80 passengers on cruises that may feature a ukulele player, a conch-shell blower and releases of white doves or monarch butterflies.

“It makes it a celebration of life and not such a morbid affair,” says Middleton. His service is experiencing annual growth of 15 to 20 percent.

From coffins to compost
With increased concern for the environment, people are opting for green funerals, where the body is placed in a biodegradable coffin or shroud.

The industry is literally thinking outside the box.

“My work is letting people connect with the natural cycle as they die,” says Katrina Spade of Recompose in Seattle, who considers herself part of the “alternative death-care movement.” If its legislature grants approval this month, Washington will become the first state in the nation to approve legalized human composting. Her company plans to use wood chips, alfalfa and straw to turn bodies into a cubic yard of top soil in 30 days. That soil could be used to fertilize a garden, or a grove of trees, the body literally returned to the earth.

Spade questions why death should be a one-event moment, rather than an opportunity to create an enduring tradition, a deathday, to honor the deceased: “I want to force my family to choose a ritual that they do every year.”

Death has inspired Etsy-like enterprises that transform a loved one’s ashes into vinyl, “diamonds,” jewelry and tattoos. Ashes to ashes, dust to art.

After Seattle artist Briar Bates died in 2017 at age 42, four dozen friends performed her joyous water ballet in a public wading pool, “a fantastic incarnation of Briar’s spirit,” says friend Carey Christie. “Anything other than denial that you’re going to die is a healthy step in our culture.”

Funeral consultant Elizabeth Meyer wrote the memoir “Good Mourning” and named her website Funeral Guru Liz. Her motto: “Bringing Death to Life.” She notes, “Most people do not plan. What’s changing is more people are talking about it, and the openness of the conversation. Our world will be a better place when people let their wishes be known.”

In 2012, Amy Pickard’s mother “died out of the blue.” She was unprepared but also transformed. Now, she’s “the death girl,” an advocate for the “death-positive movement,” sporting a “Life is a near-death experience” T-shirt, teaching people how to plan by hosting monthly Good to Go parties in Los Angeles and offering a $60 “Departure File,” 50 pages to address almost every need.

“We’re still in the really early days of super-creative funerals. There’s this censorship of death and grief,” Pickard says. “You have the rest of your life to be sad over the person who died. The hope is to celebrate their time on Earth and who they were.”

Overshadowing grief?
Some practitioners worry that death has taken a holiday, and grief is too frequently banished in end-of-life celebrations that seem like birthday blowouts.

“Do you think we’re getting too happy with this?” asks Amy Cunningham, director of the Inspired Funeral in Brooklyn. “You can’t pay tribute to someone who has died without acknowledging the death and sadness around it. You still have to dip into reality and not ignore the fact that they’re absent now

But even sadness is being treated differently. In some services, instead of offering hollow platitudes that barely relate to the deceased, “we are getting a new radical honesty where people are openly talking about alcoholism, drug use and the tough times the person experienced,” Cunningham says. Suicide, long hidden, appears more in obituaries; opioid addiction, especially, is addressed in services.

West, who hosted such a memorable send-off for her father, has some plans for her own: “Great food and live music, preferably Latin-inspired,” and “my personal possessions are auctioned off,” the proceeds benefiting a children’s charity. Why can’t a memorial serve as a fundraiser?

An avid traveler, West plans to designate friends to disperse her cremains in multiple locations “that have significance in my life” and leave funds to subsidize those trips — a global, destination ash-scattering.

Complete Article ↪HERE↩!

Woven coffins and affordable funerals as community-run funeral service breathes new life into the death trade

Funeral director Ashleigh Martin with woven casket available at Tender Funerals.

By Sarah Moss

Creative and emotionally healthy funerals are making waves in communities that value personal choices, resourcefulness and good old wholesome naturalness, but for reasons of expense they also appeal to blue collar workers.

A rejuvenated fire station in Port Kembla, cradled between the Illawarra region’s industrial centre and the sea, is home to Tender Funerals: the first not-for-profit funeral service in Australia.

Ashleigh Martin is a part-time director at the parlour.

“We’re about empowering families to make the choices they need to make to have a beautiful funeral,” she said.

“There’s definitely a need in our community for people to be able to have affordable funerals that are authentic.”

Since its inception in 2016, the community-run organisation has guided over 300 families and loved ones through their losses.

The parlour offers a multitude of services that assist people to have memorable personalised ceremonies, the latest trend in the industry is bio-degradable woven wicker coffins, handmade in the Byron Shire.

The funeral parlour in Port Kembla has up-cycled an old firestation turning it into a morgue and reception area, open to the public.

Dignity in death

The not-for-profit is changing the way communities look at death and dying, empowering families to make the choices they need to make, to have a beautiful funeral.

Founder Jenny Briscoe-Hough previously worked in the death industry for

Tender Funerals is the brainchild of director and general manager Jenny Briscoe-Hough.

many years and conceived a new business model by combining funerals with music and art.

The model looks at affordability and encourages people to “own” the experience, to take back their power in the face of death.

“We empower and guide people to have a meaningful, beautiful, send off,” Ms Martin said.

Malika Elizabeth is a local musician whose involvement with the establishment extends to directing and singing in the organisation’s community choir, and acting occasionally as a celebrant.

“She’s a visionary when it comes to community and bringing people together,” Ms Elizabeth said.

“She’s created a space for people just to be with each other, to be with their emotions, and to join together in commonality.”

The hand-woven willow coffins produced in the Byron region are, “sustainably raised from a renewable resource and then hand woven without glues or metals”.

Grassroots ethos

Unlike wooden or cardboard caskets, the woven caskets offered at Tender Funerals are perfect for hand-decorating with ribbons and other personalised items.

“They [clients] just want something unique and different that they can personalise as well by putting flowers on it or weaving through it,” Ms Martin said.

“We know if it is getting buried that it will break down quickly and won’t leach any harmful chemicals into the earth.”

After working in traditional for-profit homes, Ms Martin said that at Tender Funerals it is not about upselling to grieving families.

“It’s very much about thinking about what we can do differently and what we can do to give meaningful tokens back to our families,” she said.

Textile artist Ms Elliot works with cloth and thread assisting people experiencing grief to create vibrant engaging artefacts.

Art for health’s sake

The grassroots ethos is intertwined through every detail of the business, from the handmade and decorated wicker caskets to a fortnightly community sewing circle run by the group.

Tender’s artist-in-residence Michell Elliot illuminates the cyclical nature of life and death with those in grief using muslin and donated funeral flowers.

The colourful cloth she creates is then used as shrouds for bodies, encouraging creative expression to farewell loved ones.

“I think that if clients choose to shroud somebody with one of our tender cloths that it’s done with love, and I think that’s a really beautiful thing,” Ms Martin said.

Ms Elliot also assists in providing a safe space program at the parlour for people to come together, grieve, share stories and sew.

The parlour facilitates a safe meditative space created through the arts for people to connect with their emotions to heal.

“When people feel that maybe they don’t want to see their loved ones being prepared for burial, or they don’t know what to do, how to feel, just sitting and sewing quietly allows those feelings to come, to be processed and to shift and move,” Ms Elliot said.

Music, art and funerals naturally go together

The organisation is also home to an in-house choir.

On Thursday evenings at the old fire station, people come together to sing songs of life, songs of death and songs of love.

Tender Choir facilitators Malika Elizabeth and Jodi Phillis (pictured) believe that bringing sacred ceremony into funerals, that are not necessarily religious, is a good idea.

Choir directors Jodi Phillis and Malika Elizabeth have sung at grave sides, in memorial services and during intimate preparation times.

They said they feel honoured to be at every funeral they attend.

“These elements go together naturally with us because we are musical people, but I think in a community like Port Kembla, where people just aren’t aware that this stuff can actually be available to them, it might be something people just don’t think of,” Ms Phillis said.

“That they can have live music to celebrate the life of the loved one they lost.

According to Ms Phillis the business model adopted by Tender Funerals relies on two fundamental aspects.

“One, to bring the sacred power of music and art into the community, especially for people who aren’t religious but still want to celebrate the life of the deceased,” she said.

“The other really strong element is supporting the arts.”

Selecting the soundtrack for a particular event can be a collaborative experience.

“Generally, families will have an idea of what music will be best for their loved one, but sometimes we make suggestions,” Ms Phillis said.

“It’s kind of whatever works really.”

Malika Elizabeth in consultation with some of the choir members in rehearsal.

“We all have the feeling that music is a spiritual thing,” Ms Phillis said.

“It comes out of us, it’s linked with the heavens, it’s what fills in the gap in the air.

“If anything is going to reach our loved one, it’s going to be music.”

At this point in time Tender’s business model is focussed on the Port Kembla premises, but having survived two years of operations, their success indicates a community movement towards an organic, not-for-profit model, with plans to expand.

Complete Article HERE!

Etiquette and FAQ for choosing flowers for a funeral

A funeral is an important yet highly emotional event that every family has to experience in their lifetime. It is imperative for all members of the family to make sure that just like any other important day of rituals, this day too has a properly defined procedure which most individuals and families choose to follow.

Saying Goodbye to a loved one can be really tough but that doesn’t mean that this ritual has to be executed in a dull manner. Flowers are the most important part of every funeral proceeding. Not only are they a sweet element to convey your remembrance for the person who has left for their heavenly abode, but they are an omen of hope and affection that you hold for your loved one.

This post will provide you with vital funeral etiquettes that you must keep in mind before executing a funeral with your family.

The Less, the Better

Different cultures from all over the world follow a different set of practices when it comes to funeral rituals. While some religions mandatorily use flowers as an important part of their funeral rituals, other cultures either restraint the use of flowers or take decisions as per their own wishes. The first step towards choosing flowers for a ritual is to make sure that you keep it less cluttered. There is no point in choosing a mix of flowers without knowing their significance.

What does each flower stand for?

When you proceed to get flowers for placing in the casket, you must pay attention to the meaning that each type of flower portrays. Below is a list of the most common flowers that individuals prefer for a funeral and what they stand for:

Camelia

Camelia is a flower which represents Gratitude and Respect when placed over the funeral casket of the person who has passed away. Choosing Camelia is a way of thanking the person for their contributions in their entire lifetime.

Roses

There are different colors of roses that you can choose for the funeral, each one of them representing a different level of Love and Affection. While a light pink rose signifies innocence and love, red roses stand for the remembrance of a dearly loved one.

Daffodils and Daisies

An omen of eternal hope and possibilities, daffodils are known to send across hope and positive vibes to the person who has just departed for their heavenly journey. Daisies, on the other hand, signify the presence of good wishes and innocence.

Forget-me-nots

Just as the name says, Forget-me-nots depict the remembrance that you will hold in your heart forever for the person who has passed on.

Lilies

White Lilies are known to be used as funeral flowers across different religions and cultures as a symbol of perpetual peace and admiration for the one who is long gone.

Cultural Differences

It is important to note here that there are a few cultures of the world which restraint or don’t follow the practice of using flowers for a funeral. Placing funeral flowers is a practice which is not preferred to be followed when it comes to Jewish and Islam Cultures. The Indian culture, on the other hand, places a strong emphasis on the usage of flowers, preferably roses which are laid upon the funeral bed.

Different types of funeral flower Arrangements

Depending upon the length of your casket and the wishes of the family, these are the different kinds of flower arrangements that you must know about, before proceeding for the funeral arrangements.

Wreaths

A wreath is a circular shaped floral arrangement which is covered by a bunch of flowers and leaves woven together and held tightly. A wreath is usually made up of different combinations of flowers along with leaves.

Freshly Cut flowers

If you wish to bid Adieu in the simplest and the most beautiful way possible, then you can choose to pay homage with a bunch of raw flowers which can be combined together and placed near the casket.

Floral Casket Tops

This arrangement permits you to adorn the topmost part of your casket with flowers that you choose to put.

Inside the Casket

Placing flowers inside the casket gives your beloved one a floral bed to lay themselves on for the rest of eternity. This arrangement usually requires the accumulation of flower petals or soft flowers which are laid inside the casket.

Complete Article HERE!

When my brother-in-law died, we skipped the funeral parlor and took him home.

By Gary Wasserman

My wife’s brother Rich died the last week in February. They were very close. Shortly after he passed, in the emergency room of a hospital in Washington state, his body came home. There it was wrapped in a Stewart tartan blanket (his family name) and placed on a table in a window alcove facing Mount Baker. He remained there for the next three days clad in a favorite red plaid Pendleton shirt, jeans, moccasins and a much-worn woolen cap, On the second day, his wife, Sharon, put binoculars around his neck, a reminder of his many hours watching the snow geese, hawks, trumpeter swans and bald eagles surrounding his beloved farm.

Sharon was connecting to a movement that had arisen in the 1990s for families to take back responsibility from hired professionals for the caring and mourning of loved ones in the privacy of their homes. It turns out to be an old American tradition.

Before the Civil War, funerals were a family affair. With help from their church and community, family members would wash, display the body and dig the grave for their dead. But, as Civil War historian Drew Gilpin Faust writes in her book “This Republic of Suffering,” the huge numbers of young men dying in the war far from home overwhelmed the personal home funeral. Instead, there was embalming, mass-marketed coffins and transporting bodies long distances. President Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, followed by the public display of his embalmed body, became a major moment in the national marketing of this new death trade.

By the 20th century, undertakers were elevated to a professional class of funeral directors, bodies were seen as a risk to public health and the false narrative spread that families no longer had the right to care for their own. The practice of dying at home and family caring for the dead remained common only in rural areas.

Like most of us, Rich and Sharon hadn’t planned their funeral. Unlike us, they had talked and read about death, and attended a class on alternatives to standard funerals. These included arrangements for green burials, where bodies in the ground decompose in compostable caskets. Sharon also had talked with a friend who, with the help of a local home funeral group, had kept her husband’s body at home for three days for visits and prayers.

Rich’s death had been unexpected. A retired ophthalmologist, he had recently been diagnosed with prostate cancer and had his first chemotherapy treatment the week before. He developed sepsis, which can happen after chemo, and died the following day. He was 77.

Sepsis is fast-moving and deadly. Here are the symptoms to recognize

At the hospital’s ER, Sharon explained to two chaplains who sat with her that she wanted to bring Rich home. They put her in touch with A Sacred Moment, a local funeral home that is part of a national network reviving and supporting family-managed funerals.

A “very kind” man, as Sharon put it, from the group took the body to the house in a van. He gave Sharon information on keeping it cold with packs of dry ice and instructions to replace them every 12 to 18 hours. Sharon and her daughter washed and clothed the body.

Rich had passed away at 11 a.m. and by 1 p.m. his body was home.

For the next three days family and friends came by to see Rich. Some talked to him; one shared the beat of an ancient drum; some read poems. Sharon thought that many friends wouldn’t have attended a funeral parlor for a restrained viewing in a limited time. Here they could arrive individually or as family, whenever they wanted, stay as long or little as they could, bring photos or food or prayers or babies or guitars.

Our son Daniel arrived in the middle of the night to sit alone with the uncle who helped raise him.

Sharon found it all incredibly comforting. Rich’s men’s support group of 30 years gathered for a morning of stories of kayaking in Alaska and tales of salmon fishing, hiking and climbing in the North Cascades. The second morning the couple’s Buddhist Sangha meditation group chanted, prayed together and held Sharon as they wept.

Many of the visitors seemed shocked that this was possible, that a body could be brought home for people to mourn however they wanted.

For family, it provided a last chance to talk with Rich, to be with him in a place he loved. Sharon remarked that so many people worried that they “never had a chance to say goodbye.” Now they could, and they didn’t have to look back and regret not saying the right thing.

In their own unplanned way, people could grieve.

At times there was a crowd, at others a solitary friend. A family member lit a vaporizer full of essential oils. Others placed flowers on his body. A table nearby had his notes written when he couldn’t talk because of mouth sores from the chemo and a guest book that soon filled with photos and letters and mementos.

Not everyone showed up — there were no solemn strangers in dark suits timing the starched formalities of yet another ceremony. Rich’s death was wrapped in the life that continued around it. Often there were kids playing, dogs wrestling, women cooking.

At 2 p.m. of the third day, the kindly man from A Sacred Moment returned to take the body. As they carried it out, Sharon played on the piano “It Had To Be You,” which she and Rich had often sung together. This time, she sang it with her daughter, Jo.

Washington state does not allow bodies to be buried outside a cemetery, so he was cremated and his ashes were scattered in his garden. A memorial service will be held when the tulips bloom in early spring.

Complete Article HERE!

Shaina Garfield redesigns death with eco-friendly macramé coffin

LEAVES from Shaina Garfield on Vimeo.

By kieron marchese 

soon after shaina garfield realised her vision for an eco-friendly coffinshe noticed that what she had actually made was a coffin for herself. after being diagnosed with chronic lyme disease four years ago, the prospect of death caused a preoccupation that would eventually inspire her work as an industrial designer. as she tackled the prospect of dying, she discovered an interesting contradiction between something that essentially brings people closer to earth, and the harmful impact death practices have on the planet. after a closer look, traditional burials, embalming and cremation, all involved the pollution of nasty chemicals and toxins.

shaina garfield spoke at design indaba 2019, a three-day conference bringing together the world’s leading creatives to share their work

speaking at design indaba 2019 shaina notes that we’ve become so far removed from nature as a result of human exceptionalism – the belief that humans are the most important entities in the universe. so she came up with ‘LEAVES’, a textile coffin built from sustainable materials, that hopes to bring us closer to the planet that we live on.

LEAVES is a textile coffin built from sustainable materials

composed of a netting that wraps around the deceased, LEAVES works to make the burial process a much greener ritual. the design uses rope which has been treated with a dye and embedded with spores, encouraging fungus growth that speeds up decomposition and eats any toxins in the body. a tree is then planted on the burial site, making the most of this nutrient rich soil. instead of cemeteries, shaina imagines luscious areas where nature is representative of the greater purpose our bodies can have.

as much as it lessons the impact humans make on the planet, LEAVES also promotes positive discussions around death. drawing from funeral practices around the world, shaina considered ways in which her designs could help to support people with their grief. she imagines those mourning the death of someone coming together to tie the knots necessary to make the coffin, a meditative experience that intends to help with emotional healing.

those mourning the death of someone can come together to tie the knots necessary to make the coffin

shaina describes herself as an advocate celebrating people and the earth‘, and it’s this relationship that forms the basis of her work. in a powerful description she exposes the reality that at death we are actively disconnected from nature. we choose at all costs to ‘keep ourselves in a domestic dream‘ and in the process, our consideration for the planet is nil. the natural resources it takes to make coffins, the toxins that are emitted into the air during cremation, and the chemicals seeping out of graveyards because of embalming, are all cause to believe that our attitudes towards death and the planet we live on are wrong.

the design uses rope which has been treated with a dye and embedded with spores
fungus growth that speeds up decomposition and eats any toxins in the body
shaina describes herself as an ‘advocate celebrating people and the earth‘
shaina imagines luscious areas where nature is representative of the greater purpose our bodies can have.

Complete Article HERE!

Sitting Up With the Dead:

Lost Appalachian Burial Customs

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.

Family members “Sitting Up” with the dead in the parlor or funeral room.

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.

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How can we deal with death better?

From DIY funeral services to death doulas, B.C. is on the leading edge of a trend that wants to make death a part of life, and a better experience for everyone. Meet the women leading the trend.

 

By Denise Ryan

There may be no table more full of life than the corner booth at Paul’s Omelettery on Granville Street, where a group of women are talking over breakfast about death.

Three of the women are licensed funeral directors, two specialize in end-of-life planning, one is a celebrant, another an apprentice death doula — someone who assists families before and after death, the way a midwife does with a birth.

They call themselves the D’Posse.

The name is a playful nod to the word “death,” but their aim is thoughtful and resolute: to transform the way we commemorate and bury our dead, to bring death back to life.

Glenn Hodges, manager of Vancouver’s Mountain View Cemetery, has dubbed them “the disruptors” — part of what he says is a growing number of end-of-life workers, many of them women, who are quietly, respectfully, and often joyfully, working to take death out of the hands of the corporate monopolies, and give it back to families.

Although many funeral homes in B.C. still bear the names of the families that originally established them, many of these are owned by Service Corporation International, a conglomerate headquartered in Texas. SCI owns 45 funeral homes in B.C., about a third of the funeral service providers in the province. (SCI, which trades on the New York Stock Exchange, has repeatedly tangled with consumer advocates over everything from its pricing to sales techniques.)

Funeral director Ngaio Davis spent 20 years working for a number of providers in the corporate funeral industry before breaking away to start Koru Cremation, Burial and Ceremony (korucremation.com), which she runs out of a cheerful space on Kent Avenue in Vancouver.

Like the other women at this monthly breakfast, Davis says she was drawn to the funeral industry because she wanted meaningful work. “I wanted to do something that felt worthwhile,” says Davis.

Coming face to face with death never made Davis uneasy — but the funeral industry did.

“There are a lot of wonderful, compassionate people in the corporate funeral homes,” says Davis. What bothered her, she says, was the focus on profit: “What’s the bottom line?”

Davis says one funeral home she worked for stipulated that commissioned sales staff be in every meeting with grief-stricken clients to have the “face time” to push extras. At another job interview, she was grilled on what her average sales “per call” were — this was not the work she wanted to be doing.

Lisa Hartley is a ‘celebrant’ who officiates at weddings as well as funerals.

‘What can I help you do?’

Despite decades of scrutiny, the North American funeral industry has changed little since Jessica Mitford’s 1963 expose, The American Way of Death, in which she called the funeral industry a “huge, macabre, and expensive practical joke on the American public.”

A big part of that macabre joke is the cost.

The average traditional funeral in Canada costs $10,000, according to Stephen Garrett of the Memorial Society of B.C., and GoFundMe counts funerals among its fastest-growing fundraising categories.

“From a basic cremation at about $1,200, costs range up to $15,000 or $20,000 — which is fine if it’s in line with your budget. But that’s where we get into problems with funeral homes pushing that on people,” said Garrett.

In addition to basics, such as registration of death, transportation, sheltering and disposition of the remains, costs — and funeral home profits — skyrocket once the bells and whistles are added: the expensive casket, which may be incinerated days later, embalming (not a legal necessity in B.C.), makeup, hairdressing, flowers, grief counselling, memorial, and follow-up house calls to sell products, such as future burial services, to survivors.

Five years ago, Davis decided to do something different.

Davis says her approach to death is informed by her Maori heritage. “Maori practices around death and dying are very strong. You are with your dead. You don’t just let them be taken away and be controlled by others. The family is the one who is crafting and planning what happens, and what will be the final ceremony.”

At Koru, the reception room is simply decorated with none of the trappings of a traditional funeral home: no sombre music, heavy curtains, or staff in dark suits.

Clients can plan as elaborate or as simple a funeral, ceremony and cremation or burial as they wish. Koru also specializes in green burials — biodegradable casket or a simple shroud, and no embalming — and will facilitate DIY, family-led or “home funerals.”

“This week, I’m looking after a family that wants to take their father and husband back home to his condo in North Vancouver. They want to have him there, they want to give him a sponge bath, dress him, and let him spend his last night there with his wife,” Davis explains.

Davis will transport the man and bring a special table so he can be laid out in his own home. “We will move him onto the table so it’s more comfortable for them to bathe him and dress him,” said Davis.

The next day, Davis will return with the casket, which will be placed in the condo’s common room because it won’t fit in the elevator.

“They are lining the casket with sheep wool that one of the kids brought from Scotland, and then we will go to the cemetery,” said Davis.

“His wife knows what she wants. They’ve been married for 60-plus years — they want those last moments together.”

At Paul’s Omelettery, over the warm clatter of breakfast dishes, cups and spoons, Lisa Hartley, a celebrant who officiates at weddings as well as funerals, recalls meeting Davis when her father-in-law died unexpectedly in his West End apartment.

His death had come quickly and the family was unprepared.

“We didn’t know what to do. Someone said, ‘Call Ngaio,’” says Hartley. “Her first question to us was, ‘What can I help you do?’”

They didn’t have to go to a funeral home, something Hartley was uncomfortable with.

“Ngaio came over to the apartment, and sat on the sunny balcony with her checklist, and we went through all the options.”

The family chose to keep Hartley’s father-in-law at home for a short period, and her husband decided he wanted to participate in the washing of his father’s body. “I never expected him to do something like that,” says Hartley. “But it really helped him.”

While the family gathered in the apartment, Davis completed the preparations.

“When she had him ready, she wrapped his body in a beautiful red velvet cloth, but she came to us first and said, ‘Peter is ready to go now.’”

Hartley was deeply moved by the experience, and now works closely with Davis and other alternative providers as a funeral celebrant. “My special interest is in sustainability in death care,” says Hartley. That means being more hands-on, in DIY and home funerals.

Hartley’s ceremony design process includes in-depth meetings with the client and family and friends to talk about the person. “It’s quite beautiful, and it’s often the start of the healing process. People get to tell stories about the person that has died. I recently had one person who said, ‘I feel better already,’” says Hartley.

Jennifer Mallmes is a death doula who founded the End-of-Life Doula program at Douglas College.

When death is expected, a death doula can help the family prepare for what Jennifer Mallmes, founder of the End-of-Life Doula program at Douglas College, calls “a gold-star death.”

“Planning really does help with the death and bereavement process, even when people don’t want to die,” said Mallmes. “Barring sudden or unexpected deaths, you can have some choice in how you go. Who do you want around? Who do you not want around?”

A death doula will help individuals and families faced with an illness or a diagnosis that a death is coming plan home care or hospice care, work with funeral services. They can also help with making what life is left fulfilling: “We can help with a life review, ask what are the things I still want to do? We might look at services to help them accomplish those things.”

Death isn’t just a business, it’s a way of life

Garrett said that although the funeral business is slow to change, Baby Boomers are pushing the trend toward the “reclamation” of death and dying.

“The Boomers demographic changed the world they lived in — they questioned authority, lived through the Summer of Love, built the environmental movement,” says Garrett. “We’re on our way out, and that’s going to change things, if only because of the large numbers.”

About 34,000 to 35,000 people a year die in B.C. “That death rate in the next 10 to 12 years is going to head north of 45,000,” says Garrett. “We’ve got 916,000 Baby Boomers living in British Columbia with only one way off the planet.”

Glen Hodges is the manager at Mountain View Cemetery in Vancouver.

Although Statistics Canada doesn’t keep numbers on the kinds of funerals people hold, Glen Hodges says he has seen changes in people’s attitude toward death. Part of that has been the renaissance of the city’s only cemetery.

Mountain View shut down briefly after running out of grave space in 1986, but a new master plan created more space. Mountain View built columbaria (condos for cremains) to house niches for cremated remains, and reclaimed unused graves from families — a complex and provincially regulated process that applied to plots purchased at least 50 years ago and never used by family members in that time.

Hodges says the city has also been working to re-establish the cemetery as a place for the living.

“A cemetery is not just a utilitarian place for disposal of the dead and keeping of public records,” said Hodges. “(It is also) a sacred place to remember and commemorate, and it has a larger role within the community.”

That includes family oriented community events, such as its annual All Souls Night, which draws up to 2,000 people.

“We invite people to wander into the cemetery to light candles and leave mementos for their loved ones and be in a contemplative atmosphere filled with candles and music and in a place that is safe for them to speak of the dead and talk with others.”

Mountain View doesn’t require grave liners, so green burials are possible, as well as reburials, an option that allows families to open the grave and reposition any remains still there so a new casket can be added.

Hodges regularly hosts free workshops hosted by D’Posse members Reena Lazar and Michelle Pante of Willow EOL (end of life).

The workshops, says Pante, are designed to help people figure out how embracing their mortality can change the way they live. “Our lives are limited, they are precious and finite, so we ask how does that fact affect how we live?” said Lazar.

The workshops help people explore their thoughts and feelings about death and guide them through the process of creating what Pante calls “heart wills,” or love letters for the family and friends who will survive them.

Their clientele ranges through all age groups, says Pante, although many are healthy and in the Boomer demographic.

Boomers may be fuelling the trend toward a more compassionate, affordable, personalized experience after their final exits, but for Davis and her growing network, death isn’t just a business — it’s a way of life.

Many find their way to Koru after a negative experience elsewhere, says Davis — whether it was sales pressure that shamed them into overspending, a service that didn’t reflect their loved one’s personality, or a makeup job that made them look like a stranger.

“Here was this very important moment in their lives, and they were robbed of it. It could be a special time, or it could be something you never want to go through again. So I’m just doing my little bit to change that.”

Stephen Garrett, seen here at Mountain View Cemetery in Vancouver, is the executive-director of the Memorial Society of British Columbia.

The Planner

Stephen Garrett, executive director of the Memorial Society of B.C., a non-profit society serving 240,000 members, believes that much of the expense and discomfort families inherit when a loved one dies can be avoided with good planning. To help people making final arrangements, Garrett has designed the “All Ready To Go Binder” to help with the death planning process.

“When my sons were 21 and 23, I invited them over for beer and pizza. I had the death binder in the middle of the table,” said Garrett. “They were a bit shocked — they didn’t want to think about me being dead and I didn’t want to think about it either — but as a responsible parent, this was my gift to them.”

The mood changed as he went through his wishes and let them know that he would be throwing in a family holiday: an all-expenses-paid trip to India, where he wants his ashes to be sprinkled in the Ganges River. Making a plan that’s personal, that includes opportunity for meaning, is part of what can make the process fun, said Garrett.

The binder is available on the society’s website for a nominal fee, and Garrett would like to see every family in B.C. have one.

The All Ready to Go Binder is a place for everything from your last will and testament, to advanced care directives, funeral arrangement forms, and other details such as people to call, copies of personal identification, and celebration-of-life plans.

The purpose of the Memorial Society is to help families prepare for and plan affordable services by partnering with ethical providers. The Memorial Society of B.C. offers lifetime membership for a one-time $50 fee. Members receive discounted prices of 15 to 30 per cent with participating funeral providers and access to support, advocacy and planning.

By The Numbers

$7,181: Average Cost of a traditional funeral (includes viewing, burial, embalming, transport of body)

28.6%: Percentage increase in average traditional funeral costs between 2004-2014

87%: Percentage increase in average traditional funeral costs between 1980-1989

90%: Cremation rate in B.C., up from 60% in 1986

Source: B.C. Memorial Society

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