A Virtual Memorial for Those We’ve Lost

The special project “What Loss Looks Like” presents personal artifacts belonging to those who have left us and explores what they mean to those left behind.

Readers submitted photos of items that reminded them of loved ones who died in the past year.

By Jaspal Riyait

As the art director of the Well desk, I’ve spent the last year looking for images to reflect the devastation of the pandemic and the grief it has wrought. As the crisis has stretched on, I’ve thought of all the people who have lost loved ones to Covid-19 — not to mention those who have lost loved ones, period — and how they were cut off from the usual ways of gathering and grieving. Watching the numbers rise every day, it was easy to lose sight of the people behind the statistics. I wanted to find a way to humanize the death toll and re-establish the visibility of those who had died.

To help our readers honor the lives of those lost during the pandemic, we decided to ask them to submit photographs of objects that remind them of their loved ones. The responses were overwhelming, capturing love, heartache and remembrance. We heard from children, spouses, siblings, grandchildren and friends — people who had lost loved ones not only to Covid-19 but from all manner of causes. What united them was their inability to mourn together, in person.

Dani Blum, Well’s senior news assistant, spent hours speaking with each individual by phone. “It’s the hardest reporting I’ve ever done, but I feel really honored to be able to tell these stories,” she said. “What struck me the most about listening to all of these stories was how much joy there was in remembering the people who died, even amid so much tragedy. Many of these conversations would start in tears and end with people laughing as they told me a joke the person they lost would tell, or their favorite happy memory with them.”

The photographs and personal stories, published digitally as an interactive feature, was designed by Umi Syam and titled “What Loss Looks Like.” Among the stories we uncovered: A ceremonial wedding lasso acts as a symbol of the unbreakable bond between a mother and father, both lost to Covid-19 and mourned by their children. A ceramic zebra figurine reminds one woman of her best friend, who died after they said a final goodbye. A gold bracelet that belonged to a father never leaves his daughter’s wrist because she is desperate for any connection to his memory.

For those who are left behind, these items are tangible daily reminders of those who have departed. These possessions hold a space and tell a story. Spend time with them and you begin to feel the weight of their importance, the impact and memory of what they represent.

Museums have long showcased artifacts as a connection to the past. So has The New York Times, which published a photo essay in 2015 of objects collected from the World Trade Center and surrounding area on 9/11. As we launched this project, we heard from several artists who, in their own work, explored the connection between objects and loss.

Shortly after Hurricane Sandy, Elisabeth Smolarz, an artist in Queens, began working on “The Encyclopedia of Things,” which examines loss and trauma through personal objects. Kija Lucas, a San Francisco-based artist, has been photographing artifacts for the past seven years, displaying her work in her project “The Museum of Sentimental Taxonomy.”

Saved: Objects of the Dead” is a 12-year project by the artist Jody Servon and the poet Lorene Delany-Ullman, in which photographs of personal objects from deceased loved ones are paired with prose to explore the human experience of life, death and memory. And the authors Bill Shapiro and Naomi Wax spent years interviewing hundreds of people and asking them about the most meaningful single object in their lives, gathering their stories in the book “What We Keep.”

As the pandemic continues to grip the nation, the Well desk will continue to wrestle with the large-scale grief that it leaves in its wake. Other features on this topic include resources for those who are grieving, the grief that’s associated with smaller losses, and how grief affects physical and psychological health. As for “What Loss Looks Like,” we are keeping the callout open, inviting more readers to submit objects of importance, to expand and grow this virtual memorial and provide a communal grieving space.

Complete Article HERE!

Last Responders Comfort Others, While Managing Their Own Grief

by Lindsay Wilson

When Tom Belford’s mother died in May, her family was faced with the impossible task of limiting her funeral to 10 people. Belford, who is the owner and funeral director of John. A Gentleman Mortuaries and Crematory, recalled the difficult months leading up to his mother’s death.

“From March until May nobody was allowed in the building, and she was on the second floor. So we couldn’t go up to the window or anything,” he said.

The end of a life is a difficult time under any circumstances, but COVID-19 has made grieving even more difficult.

“COVID is taking people suddenly, and it’s affecting the families that have suffered, that go through a death at a time where maybe they shouldn’t,” Belford said.

Belford said in many cases families are losing people who are in their 50s and 60s due to complications from the virus.

“We’re here to help them make that first step back to a normal life after suffering a loss,” he said.

Chapel, 1010 N. 72nd St location (Real Yellow Pages)

John. A Gentleman has seen a steady number of virus-related deaths since the beginning of the pandemic, from March or April through today. Though numbers in Omaha aren’t what New York City or cities in California are seeing, deaths have risen from this time last year, according to last responders such as Belford.

Though the increase in business has been a change, the way Belford and his staff handle virus-related deaths has stayed the same.

“We practice something called universal precautions. We treat everyone as if they had COVID.”

These precautions, which include personal protective equipment used for both funeral directors and the deceased they are working with, have kept Belford’s staff safe since the beginning of the pandemic.

“We don’t treat anybody differently because they had COVID,” he said.

While the practices in caring for the deceased haven’t changed, funeral services have changed, in some cases dramatically, due to the virus.

“The biggest changes we see in the services is the social distancing,” Belford said. “For a while, the services were limited.”

Casket selection, 7010 N. 72nd St location (Real Yellow Pages)

Many churches and chapels continue to limit the capacity of funerals for everyone’s safety. In response to this, John. A. Gentleman has broadened its focus to include videocasting of services for loved ones who are unable to make it to the service.

“Before this started, we had one or two cameras for filming services,” Belford said. “We have six or seven now.”

Recorded services are helpful to many family members, but one important aspect of support is still missing.

“The families,” Belford explained, “they can’t socialize and get the support from their friends. And that’s probably the biggest disappointment families will see. Our interactions are the same. The care we give them is the same. But the care they get from their friends is different.”

Limiting social contact in a time of grief also directly curtails the level of support families would normally receive at the funeral and beyond. John A. Gentleman had to pause its bereavement programs due to the virus, though they recently started back up.

Many families are postponing memorial services for their deceased loved ones until after the virus is under better control. In March and April, some families planned to postpone services until summertime. But then those were pushed back, too. Some families are now pushing memorial services to summer 2021.

“Everybody’s pushing things back,” Belford said. “Hopefully the shots will come in and everybody will get vaccinated.”

Fortunately, Belford and his staff are currently on a waitlist for vaccinations and hope to receive their first shots in the next couple of weeks. In the meantime, Belford is more careful to protect himself and his family from the virus than the average person.

“I wouldn’t say I’m freaked out, but I would say that I’m cautious.” Belford said. “I’m very cautious about where I go and what I do. I have a big bottle of sanitizer in my car.”

Note of thanks, photo from John A. Gentleman

Being a funeral director is a tradition that has passed down for three generations in Belford’s family. While the virus has changed the way he conducts his services, one tradition that remains is the mortuary’s memorial plantings at Lauritzen Gardens, which Belford said is part of the service for every funeral. But even that has been altered slightly. The dedications are now posted online.

The coronavirus has rendered many aspects of life a moving target, and for last responders, more changes are likely to come. However, Tom Belford is prepared to continue to adapt to support families even as his own family mourns their loss. “No matter what happens to people, we’re here to help them,” he said.

Complete Article HERE!

Human Composting for a Greener Afterlife

By Gemma Alexander

No matter how sustainably you lived, modern funeral practices ensure that you make one last giant carbon footprint when you die. The biodegradable pine box of past generations is no longer an option. In most places, regulations require the use of toxic, persistent chemicals for embalming and burial; cremation produces as much CO2 as a flight from London to Rome. Until recently, natural burial choices were mostly limited to environmentally friendly uses for cremated ashes. Now there is a new option for a greener afterlife – natural organic reduction (NOR) – better known as composting.

NOR

If the idea of human composting brings to mind images of bug-filled waste piles behind a barn, or worse, scenes from a crime thriller, rest easy that natural organic reduction is a clean process. It is equally respectful of the deceased and the planet that sustained them in life. The chemistry of NOR is the same as all composting, and the proof of concept is agricultural (farms dispose of the bodies of large livestock through composting).

But NOR facilities compost human remains individually in hyperbaric oxygen chambers. These honeycomb-like cells (called “cradles”) control the temperature and oxygen level inside, slowly rotating a clean, efficient mixture of organic materials (including straw and wood chips) tested by the University of Washington. When composting is complete, the compost is screened to remove any nonorganic materials like dental fillings and pacemakers. The final result is indistinguishable from garden topsoil. Families can choose to collect the soil for their own use, but most choose to donate it. From funeral to garden, the entire process takes about six weeks.

Health and Safety

NOR composting takes place inside a controlled environment. So many of the problems that can be associated with composting – like odors or incomplete decomposition – are avoided. Under the authority of the Puget Sound Clean Air Agency, Recompose’s permit requires air filters and no visible emissions or detectable odors from the facility. Independent review by a third party is required every three months.

Washington state requires the resulting soil to receive third-party testing for pathogens like fecal coliform and salmonella. It must be tested for heavy metals like arsenic, lead, and mercury as well. The state also prohibits people with tuberculosis or prion infections from undergoing NOR.

The History

Katrina Spade was a graduate student in architecture 10 years ago when she began researching funerary options and found no practical, ecological alternatives. She wrote her master’s thesis on composting as an urban form of natural burial. But she didn’t give up on the idea after graduation. Instead, she worked with Western Carolina University and the University of Washington to produce feasibility studies. Then she helped push to change laws in Washington state to permit NOR. ESSB 5001 took effect on May 1, 2020, in Washington state, making it the first state in the U.S. to allow composting of human remains. Finally, in December of 2020, the first bodies were “laid in” at Recompose, Spade’s composting facility located in the suburbs of Seattle.

The Options

Recompose in Washington state, with 10 composting vessels, remains the largest active operation. They are currently only accepting prepaid clients through their “Precompose” plan. Herland Forest, a nonprofit natural burial cemetery in the Cascade mountains, has extremely limited capacity, with only a single composting cradle in operation. A third facility, Return Home, plans to begin operation in the Seattle area in April 2021. All three companies can accept bodies from out-of-state. But the carbon impact of transportation may significantly reduce the environmental benefit of composting relative to cremation.

Even with only three options available in the U.S., NOR pricing varies a lot. Ranging from $3,000 to $5,500, the three companies each offer somewhat different services. Herland, with its solar-powered cradle, may be the most ecological. They also have the lowest prices, but they cannot provide funeral services. Recompose has the highest price, but provides an all-inclusive service. As with cremated ashes, families can choose to collect the resulting soil. For those who do not, Herland can use the soil to plant a tree in their permaculture forest; Return Home offers to donate soil to “regional park departments, land trusts and the like for ecosystem restoration,” and Recompose donates soil to the ecological restoration project at Bells Mountain near Vancouver, Washington.

This variability is typical of the funeral industry. In King County, where both Recompose and Return Home are located, a 2020 price survey found cremation prices ranged from $525 to $4,165 while burial prices ranged from $1,390 to $11,100.

In February of this year, California introduced legislation to legalize NOR. As they decide whether to pass it, California, and the rest of the country, will be watching Washington’s NOR facilities closely. With their success, NOR could be normalized as a standard death care option for environmentally minded families within a few years.

Complete Article HERE!

Death-oriented doc finds poetry amid pandemic

New Orleans’ famed jazz funerals a casualty of COVID-19

The documentary Death Is Our Business looks at how the pandemic altered jazz-funeral traditions in New Orleans.

By: David Zurawik

As we reached the one year mark this month of life under COVID-19, there has been no shortage of articles about how the virus has changed us. One of the most striking and still underappreciated ways it has done so is in our thinking as a society about death.

Prior to the pandemic, we were not a people who thought a lot about dying. I believe one of the primary reasons for that is that our popular culture, at least when it came to television, has generally avoided it.

One of the primary reasons for that: The commercial networks believed death was bad for business. I know that because multiple network executives have told me so over the years as if it were a truth handed down from a mountaintop on stone tablets, even though no one could supply research supporting that claim.

Death and destruction caused by COVID-19 have changed that situation dramatically, and I believe we are better for it. Existentialism says an awareness of death leads to a fuller and more authentic life. But you don’t have to be an existentialist to appreciate the way thinking about death can at least lead to a more thoughtful and focused life, driven by the awareness that our time on earth is limited.

I have written these past 12 months about several death-oriented, life-enriching shows, ranging from the Netflix series After Life, starring Ricky Gervais as a middle-aged journalist whose wife dies young, to Elizabeth Is Missing, a PBS movie starring Glenda Jackson as a woman with early-stage Alzheimer’s disease trying to solve the disappearance of her only friend. Both rattled around in my brain long after the final credits played. And now comes a Frontline documentary, Death Is Our Business (PBS, tonight, 9 p.m.), which has had the same kind of effect on my psyche. Images from it danced through my dreams earlier this week and I have been thinking continually about some of its themes.

The documentary by filmmaker Jacqueline Olive (Always in Season) looks at the way in which COVID-19 has changed centuries-old Black funeral practices and rituals in New Orleans. That includes horse-and-carriage processions, jazz musicians and the second line of dancers. The power of the film is found in both the poetry of its imagery and the deep, cultural context and analysis it offers of the African-influenced rituals that have branded New Orleans internationally and provided its Black citizens with a wealth of tradition on which to draw at times of sorrow and loss.

The film opens with a series of images carefully edited to the words sounded in voice-over by New Orleans psychiatrist Dr. Denese Shervington.

“New Orleans is this very complex combination of suffering and joy,” Dr. Shervington says.

On the word “suffering,” the screen fills with stark images of workers in masks handing out bags of clothing and food. On “joy,” images of young musicians dancing in sync on the street as they play their drums overtake the screen.

“Katrina forced us to think a lot about what it means to heal,” Dr. Shervington continues. “I think we’re having a similar experience with COVID and this pandemic. How do individuals come back from extreme loss, loss of family members, loss of what was normal? How do you find your way back?”

Dr. Shervington’s words immediately contextualize this community’s response to COVID-19 within the history of Hurricane Katrina, an event of disproportionate suffering by Black citizens in New Orleans. She also introduces the notions of resilience and healing in asking how to rebound from events like that.

In the film, jazz trombonist Delfeayo Marsalis, a member of the famed musical family of New Orleans, offers a concrete way one of the funeral rituals of the city helps survivors come back from the loss of a loved one.

“The idea of the jazz funeral is actually to help the family,” he says in the film. “And the journey from the church to the burying ground is a process where you can not only reflect and think, but you have people who are there to support you.”

Olive says the jazz funeral has served multiple functions in Black life.

“One, it’s a way of transitioning the soul of the dead,” she says in an interview. “So, you have this sombre moment and then that turns into almost a street-festival celebration. That’s a way of cutting the body loose so it can transition to the other side.”

It also helps those left behind “to be able to deal with their grief collectively,” she says.

“They have people whose shoulders they can literally lean on,” she explains. “You see in the footage, folks hugging each other and supporting each other physically. But it also means people are sharing food and sharing space and stories about their loved ones.”

Marsalis felt the loss of that ritual at a personal level when his father Ellis, the patriarch of the family and an internationally celebrated jazz figure, died at the age of 85 last year as the pandemic worsened.

“He was buried April 4th,” Marsalis says in the film. “We had about 10 people there,” he adds, because of limits on how many mourners were allowed at a funeral at that time to stop spread of the virus.

It’s a much different look than prior to the pandemic.

“There would have been a second line and a jazz procession,” says Jasminne Navarre, director of client services for the D.W. Rhodes Funeral Home.

Louis Charbonnet III, CEO of Charbonnet, Labat-Glampion Funeral Home has similar sentiments: “We’re a jazz-funeral town, and it’s hard to tell people you can’t have a jazz funeral. But we have to.”

Even though the pandemic denied the Marsalis family the kind of grand New Orleans send-off residents wanted to give the pianist, there is a poignant moment in the film where Olive brilliantly creates a cinematic memorial for him.

She starts with the image and sound of Delfeayo Marsalis and two other musicians standing in a cemetery amid tombstones playing a slow, particularly mournful version of A Closer Walk With Thee. The music plays underneath the reciting of an excerpt of a poem written by Reynold Verret, president of Xavier University of Louisiana, in the wake of Marsalis’s death.

“Last night, Ellis Marsalis went away,” Verret says. “No second line. No coming home of acolytes, the many musician daughters and sons. None may return to ring the bell, to celebrate, to mourn. In solitude, we remember.”

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Olive brings the music, images and words together in a perfectly distilled cinematic brew that makes your heart ache at the loss of this musical giant’s life. This moment alone would make the film worth going out of the way to see.

“There would have been literally at least 15,000 people lined up for the Ellis Marsalis funeral,” Olive says.

The film goes well beyond memorializing Marsalis or any one New Orleans figure, though.

“When I finished filming, I really came to understand that this film is a memorial to all those folks who died during the pandemic in which their lives weren’t acknowledged in the way they often deserved,” Olive says.

Death Is Our Business is a tribute, too, to the power of the rich Black funeral traditions of New Orleans and the funeral directors who, like jazz musicians, have been improvising the last year to keep bits of music, dance and celebration into their services, as difficult as that has been in the face of COVID-19.

Complete Article HERE!

Should Everyone Have An End-Of-Life Doula?

By Anna Lyons and Louise Winter

On a crisp January morning, we carried Camilla’s purple coffin, covered in blooming yellow flowers, into the Art Deco chapel of a London crematorium as Leonard Cohen sang “Dance Me to the End of Love”. Her family and friends watched from their homes in New York City via a livestream link. They’d recorded voice notes in advance, which we’d uploaded to the music system. Camilla’s coffin rested on the marble catafalque, as their pre-recorded words of love, gratitude and admiration were played. As the curtains closed around her coffin, a recording of Camilla’s niece reading “Phenomenal Woman” by Maya Angelou echoed around the empty crematorium chapel.

Camilla lived a creative, vibrant and full life, surrounded by a wide circle of like-minded people. She died alone on a Covid-19 ward in a central London hospital. In the saddest and loneliest of circumstances, Camilla’s family and friends found a way to come together to say goodbye to the person who had been a huge force in all their lives.an end-of-life doula and a progressive funeral director. Anna supports people who are living with life-limiting illness, their family and friends, helping people to live as good a life as possible right up until the very end. In her doula role, Anna also works with people who are grieving. Louise supports people to put together funerals that honour, heal and inspire. Our joint mission is to normalise death and dying as part of life and living. Over the last year, our work, both together and separately, has changed immeasurably.

Many of us won’t have any idea that, worldwide, in an average year, around 151,600 people die every single day. That’s almost two people every second. Annually, in the UK alone, more than 500,000 people die. However, the Covid-19 pandemic has meant that death and dying have infiltrated and impacted our lives in ways we’ve never experienced before. As a society, we’ve been faced with the shock of horrifying death tolls on a daily basis. We’ve been unable to be at the hospital deathbed of someone we love, or if we were allowed, we’ve had to say goodbye through multiple layers of PPE. Some of us have attended restricted funerals, unable to engage with the rituals and traditions associated with loss

Where do we turn when someone dies? In normal times, we’d seek solace in the presence of others, we’d allow ourselves to be supported by the people around us. They would bear witness to our losses, keeping us close and secure in the knowledge they were near. Devastatingly, Covid-19 has changed all of this. We couldn’t reach out. We couldn’t physically be there. We couldn’t hold someone’s hand as they lay dying in hospital or give a friend or colleague a much-needed hug after a funeral service. Human touch and connection were replaced by a phone, an iPad or a laptop screen – a cold, hard, reflective surface with its ability to “connect” reliant on an intermittent internet connection. With the absence of human connection, of closeness, of the comforting arms of someone we love, how and where did we find consolation and care? How could we find ways to come together while staying apart?

We are privileged that our jobs have allowed us to witness a myriad of inspiring and beautiful ways people have found to do just that. The humanity of NHS staff has astounded us time and again. One nurse stayed with a young woman who was dying alone in hospital long after his shift was over, reading aloud the text messages she was receiving from family and friends. We saw a frightened young woman transferred from the hospital where she was receiving cancer treatment to hospice so she could be surrounded by those who loved her at the end. Her family played her favourite music and soothed her with stories from her childhood in a peaceful room overlooking the hospice gardens. And a newly married man, with his entire life ahead of him, died unexpectedly in a tragic accident. Hospital staff, despite restrictive regulations, rushed to find extra PPE so his new wife could be there to kiss him for the final time.

We watched a fractured community come together to share flowers from their gardens when florists were closed and funeral flowers were unavailable. A simple request via the neighbourhood WhatsApp group resulted in a widow’s doorstep overflowing with blooms for her partner’s coffin. We witnessed how the rules of social distancing have necessitated some radical creative thinking and we worked with a celebrant who designed a long multi-coloured ribbon that everyone at the funeral could touch and hold to feel connected, while still remaining physically distant.

We were asked to help facilitate a worldwide Zoom by a group of friends when one of them died by suicide. They wore his favourite colours, shared photos of the fun they’d had together and raised a glass of champagne in his honour. Separated by a virus, united in grief, connected via technology.

Who would have thought just 18 months ago that today we’d be watching the people we love dying over FaceTime and attending their funerals via video link? Yet the unimaginable has become our everyday reality. And it’s within the reality of the unimaginable that we’ve seen the infinite beauty and endless possibility of the human spirit shine. We’ve learned we can bear the unimaginable. We are bearing the unimaginable. Through kindness, creativity and determination, we’ve found hope in our heartbreak, discovered that our vulnerabilities are also our strengths, and realised that our resilience is born from finding fragments of optimism and wonder in the most unlikely of places

Now, the promise of spring sits in the cool end-of-winter air. Gone are the dark afternoons; the frost and biting wind are slowly disappearing, allowing these March days to tenderly unfurl, reaching expectantly into the longer evening light. They bring with them a degree of anticipation, hope and new life. There is life. There is hope. There’s always hope.

‘We All Know How This Ends: Lessons about Life and Living from Working with Death and Dying’ by Anna Lyons and Louise Winter is available now.

Complete Article HERE!

Dying a conscious death

Your dead body might be bad for the environment

By

As a young and seemingly invincible college student, one presumably does not put much thought into their inevitable death. However, if you are eco-conscious, perhaps it is time to start planning ahead.

The need to preserve one’s lifeless beauty for just a little bit longer has grave consequences for the earth. When a person dies, it is common for their body to be pumped with an embalming fluid that contains a mixture of toxic chemicals in order to postpone their inevitable decomposition. They are then placed in a casket that is likely made up of inorganic hardwood, copper, bronze, and steel. Their toxic body encased in a casket of unsustainable materials will eventually be lowered into the ground in a concrete crypt.

Green burials are a sustainable alternative to this contemporary western burial method. They may also be called “natural burials,” and the process does not involve any inhibition of decomposition. Instead, the body in its natural state is placed into the soil so that it can be recycled into the earth and help to nourish the land, as most decomposing life does. The body is wrapped in a biodegradable shroud or casket and then buried shallow enough to decay in a way that is similar to composting.

Craig Benson, an environmental science and management lecturer, said that the funeral and cemetery industry already appears to be responding to increasing requests for green burials.

“I would like to see more conservation burial options like the Prairie Creek Conservation Cemetery near Gainesville, Florida,” Benson said. “This is where old restoration ecologists, like me, could make a last ditch effort– pun intended– at creating a contiguous savanna habitat and providing lots of underground munchies for the microfauna and microflora. Why have a feast at your funeral when you can be one!”

In the United States, cremation has recently become the most popular choice for those who pass away. While the ashes of our loved ones harbor sentimental value, this way of honoring the dead is unfortunately still harmful to the environment. Cremation leads to release of harmful toxins into the atmosphere, including carbon monoxide, fine soot, sulfur dioxide, heavy metals, and mercury emissions.

When asked about the environmental impact of cremation, Jennifer Kalt, the director of Humboldt Baykeeper, gave insight on the atmospheric consequences of the practice.

“I noticed that the Los Angeles Air Quality Board recently lifted the limits on cremations temporarily due to the number of COVID-19 deaths,” Kalt said. “I’ve read that cremation is a significant source of mercury pollution. Once it’s released into the atmosphere, it gets re-deposited by rain and fog. All that does make me wonder why people think cremation is a better option. My understanding of the green burial concept is that it prohibits embalming, but human bodies still have contaminants that we store up over lifetimes.”

There are a few local options for those who choose to give their body back to the earth. Cemeteries in Loleta, Fortuna, and Blue Lake all offer natural burial options. However, Blue Lake Cemetery is the only place that does not require the body to be contained in a concrete crypt.

Environmental conflict resolution lecturer Natalie Arroyo said that, in her personal opinion, green burials seem like a great end-of-life option for those who would like to practice sustainability even after they die. However, it is important to note that how humans deal with death is wholly intertwined with their cultural, religious, and personal values.

“I would say as a community member and lecturer who has read and heard a little bit about this, that green burials seem like an excellent alternative with environmental benefits,” Arroyo said. “But they may not fit with people’s religious and cultural values, and they may not suit every circumstance. For example, my own father died far away from home, and his body was cremated due to the low cost and need to transport the remains easily over a long distance.”

Complete Article HERE!

How the world sends off its dead

And what that says about us

Tower of Silence in Yazd, Iran.

by

A great way to get under the skin of a living culture, especially a little-known one, is to learn about their thoughts, beliefs and rituals around death. Conversations about reincarnation, reunions with departed spirits, and the manner in which they send-off their loved ones might surprise you and lead to fascinating discoveries. While most rituals are rooted in ancient philosophies, modern science and technology is helping to develop sustainable options that can turn our lifeless barks into useful nuggets.

Whisperings of death are all around us. Statements of grief and love take form in flower bouquets and roadside memorials where a person might have lost their life in an instance. The names of loved ones are inscribed on park benches. They live on in academic scholarships, wings of hospitals, places of worship and most of all, in our memories. Their photographs are hung in our homes, shops and offices. While these may be familiar to us, in far-flung lands, other practices are thriving.

Wandering the lanes of the Old Quarter in Hanoi, Vietnam, my friend and I came upon Hang Ma street with shops selling things made from paper. The stalls were festooned with rather unique paper replicas of houses, cars, motorcycles, washing machines, refrigerators, clothes, cell-phones, shoes, wallets, eye-glasses and wads of cash. These, it turns out, are bought by relatives of the deceased and burned on Wandering Soul’s Day. People believe that on this day the gates to the afterlife are opened for spirits to come back to the earth, and their ancestors can accept and enjoy the offerings. From their vantage point, death is by no means a final departure and the next world bears a strong resemblance to the present one.

Gifts for the departed.

Driving through the countryside in Kyrgyzstan, the captivatingly beautiful hills reared up all around me and my guide Kuban. We stopped to explore curious clusters that looked like giant birdcages. Kuban explained that these airy domes housed tombs. Influenced by Islam and nomadic traditions, the Kyrgyz have uniquely adapted their grave coverings to look like yurts, with views of the open skies that are close to their hearts. While the Soviet occupation saw many mosques razed to the ground, the graves were left alone, and they continue to tell the story of the people held deep within their wombs.

High up in the folds of the Himalayas, several Tibetan Vajrayana Buddhists still opt for sky burials. In accordance with their beliefs, after a person’s passing, while the spirit is in transition, the body is a mere empty vessel to be given back to nature. In an extreme act of compassion, the naked body, often chopped into pieces, is left out in the open as food for scavenging vultures and predators. When full, they spare small creatures such as the mice, marmots, weasels and hares.

The respected priests, the Lamas, encourage people to confront death openly, and to feel the impermanence of life. Many a ritual object in the monasteries is made from human bones. The harsh, treeless landscape has also had a role to play in eliciting this practice, with the lack of wood for pyres or coffins and the earth being too hard to dig graves.

A sky burial site.

In Ladakh and the villages of the hinterland, if a baby dies before its teeth are cut, the dbon-po (astrologer) might recommend putting it in a small coffin and walling it up within the house to retain its g-yang, or good fortune and hoping its soul will re-enter the mother’s womb.

According to the ancient Zoroastrian faith, dead bodies must not defile the earth, water or air. Traditionally, they are cleansed in accordance with rituals and left in the ‘towers of silence’ to be consumed by vultures. The practice continues in a handful of places such as Yazd, Iran. In Mumbai and Hyderabad, the lack of vultures (many died from eating cow carcasses that contained the drug diclofenac) has made the community pivot to solar concentrators, where intense sunlight desiccates corpses as it passes through a fresnel lens.

In Longyearbyen, Svalbard, the northernmost town on the planet, it has been illegal to die since 1950. As the temperatures dip down to –43°C, there is constant permafrost in the ground. The archipelago belongs to Norwegians, who are mainly Christians, but they can’t bury their dead here, as the permafrost will preserve the bodies forever. Anyone expecting to die must fly to the mainland.

Over time, several polar explorers, whalers and scientists have lost their lives in Antarctica, where they might remain hidden forever, or make a macabre appearance as an iceberg calves and melts in the ocean. Similarly, as Everest melts, bodies of trekkers and Sherpas keep emerging from the ice.

On a trek through Mantadia Rainforest in Madagascar, as we looked out for creatures such as lemurs, indris and sifakas, our guide Eric Michel chatted with us about life on the island, describing the famadihana or ‘turning of the bones’ tradition. “We (Malagasy) believe that our dead ancestors influence our fortunes and fertility from the afterlife. Every 5-7 years, when enough money has been saved, our family plans a famadihana where the entire village comes together. Alcohol is passed around freely, food is served, and the festivities start. We make an opening in the family tomb to let out the bad smell, then begin pulling out one body after another. They’re re-wrapped in fresh fabric, even the crumbled ones. The band starts to play, people begin to dance, sing, and commune with the dead, rocking them, talking to them, filling them in on the latest news, introducing them to new family members, perhaps showing them a new bridge or house, and asking for specific blessings before placing them back. People are even more powerful once they die, so we must respect them.”

A famadihana in session.

Also believing in an afterlife, the San Bushmen of the Kalahari Desert add bows and arrows, pots and fabrics to the graves of their dead, whose bodies are anointed in ochre and fat and buried in foetal position, facing east. The spot is topped with a stone cairn to keep it from being dug up by any animals.

Death rites are not always achingly solemn. In Barbados, a driver commemorates his grandmother, who passed four years ago, by hanging her smiling picture on a badge on his rear-view mirror. In Ethiopia’s remote Omo Valley, the sudden loud gunshots turned out to be part of a funeral procession with a touch of gangsta-verve. Guns and bullets are a luxury, swapped with precious cows and goats, and so firing them is a way of lavishing honour on the departed. In Spanta, Romania, people believe that death leads to a better life, and so it must be celebrated. The notion is reflected in the Cimitriul Vesel, the ‘merry cemetery, dense with colourful paintings on tombs illustrating the dead person’s life that are often topped with light-hearted epitaphs.

Our death is our swansong, and the manner in which we go also reflects who we are. The religious rites that are handed down to us over generations have a consolatory feel, but many of these were established millennia ago, when there were far fewer humans, rivers were pure and thick forests covered our planet. These traditions now need to be revisited. Our awareness of environmental issues has been heightened. Let’s look outside our windows today and think afresh. By 2050, there will be 10 billion humans. Does cutting down trees for pyres and coffins, putting masses of carbon in the air and choking our waters with ashes sound right?

Shedding our reticence and donating our bodies to science and allowing our organs as hearts, livers, eyes to be used by others upon our passing is modern-day compassion. Preserving, not depleting our planet is the new mantra. Fresh ideas abound. The US-based company Eternal Reefs compresses human remains into a sphere that is attached to a reef in the ocean providing habitat for sea life. Resomation is a technique where alkaline hydrolysis breaks down and liquifies the body with no carbon emission. Capsula Mundi, an Italian company, makes organic pods into which bodies are placed and put in the earth. Seeds or saplings are planted just above, and they become nourishment for the growing tree. A simple version of this practice requires a spot, a sack and a sapling. If we can allocate land and turn our bodies into forests, it could be our most considerate legacy for future generations. A human and a tree growing into each other. What better consolation.

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