Doing Death Differently: Embracing the Home Funeral


Death in modern society is often done one way — but it doesn’t have to be that way


On home funerals, and doing death differently

Not quite a year ago, I did the hardest thing in the world: I watched my beloved partner and best friend die. Benjamin had been struggling with illness for 18 months at that point. It had been 9 months since we’d received word that the problem was cancer, and six months since we’d heard there was nothing more the doctors could do.

On the morning of May 2, 2017, I lay next to him in bed and told him I was starting to worry he was leaving us. He nodded his head slowly and said he agreed. Laboriously, drifting in and out of consciousness, he was able to express his final thoughts.

“As I see it,” he said, “there is nothing left to be done.” Less than two hours later, he was gone.

Looking back, the story I most want to tell about this time is not the story of his dying. It’s the story of what happened after he died. For in the moments, hours and days after he took his last breath, we—his family, friends and I—took an unconventional path. Unconventional, but in no way new. We took a path that is ancient and rich and deeply felt, that is simple and real and human. We did everything ourselves, at home.

A Return to the Old Ways

The story starts a few years ago, on Facebook of all places. I was scrolling through my feed when I saw an acquaintance had posted about her mother’s death—including pictures of her body, wrapped in a gauzy shroud. I was transfixed.

This friend and her sister had been with her mother while she died at home, and had cared for her body themselves—washing and anointing her, and then dressing her in her favorite clothes. She said they had been instructed in the process by someone called a “death midwife.”

That,” I thought. “That is what I want to do for my loved ones, when the time comes.” I filed away the words “death midwife” and “home funeral” and mostly forgot about it.

Until the day Benjamin went in for his liver transplant, and instead was told the cancer had spread. That it was inoperable and terminal. The first thing I did after we left the hospital was Google death midwives near Malibu, which was where we were living at the time. Up came an organization called Sacred Crossings. Its founder, Olivia Bareham, quickly became an invaluable guide.

Among the things she taught me:

  • It is legal in almost every state to keep your loved one’s body at home after they die.
  • In most traditional cultures, a body is kept at rest and is not moved for three days before burial or cremation.
  • It is simple to keep a body at home, and in most cases requires nothing but a little dry ice that can be acquired from a grocery or drug store.
  • It’s not gross and the body doesn’t smell, and you’d be surprised how natural it all feels.

After going through it myself, I can also say that it is a profound gift to be able to lie next to your loved one’s body, to hold their hand, or to simply look at them, for hours or days after they die. It signals to the subconscious parts of you that the death has really happened. It is healing and whole-making, and to me has come to feel like an essential part of the grieving process. 

The bedside vigil

The Three-Day Vigil

We relocated from Malibu to Napa three months before Benjamin died. Olivia helped us find a local death doula who helped us make preparations with the cemetery where Benjamin would be cremated. I never spoke to the funeral director; everything was arranged for us by the doula. As a result, I could focus all of my attention on being with Benjamin in his last days and hours.

The day he died, I didn’t have to talk to a single stranger. I didn’t have to leave his side until I, myself, was ready. Undertaking a ritual as old as the world, his closest women friends and I washed his body. We anointed it with frankincense and lavender oils. We dressed him in his favorite clothes.

I slept in the room with his body all three nights we kept him at home. I spent a lot of time lying next to him, crying. So did his family members and dear friends. Even his twin 9-year-old boys came and sat by his bedside, starting what will no doubt be a lifelong process of integrating the impossible fact that Papa is really gone.

The Home Funeral

We had a gathering at our home the third night, where 60 people came to say goodbye. Benjamin’s body was in a candle-lit bedroom, and friends could choose to visit it or not. (Most did, including many children.) The doula provided us with a cardboard cremation box, which our friends and family members decorated with beautiful wishes for Benjamin. We told stories and ate food and cried together. His friends sang songs and read poems. We shared his death in community, in our home.

One friend told me that night, “My relationship to death has completely changed, just being here tonight.” Several others have approached me since, to express similar sentiments.

The decision to do death in one’s home is huge, and so obvious once you remember how humans have been doing it since the dawn of time.

Caring for our loved ones’ bodies in death is our birthright. It is not a job we need to outsource. Unless we want to—and that’s fine, too. There is no right or wrong here. What I didn’t know before this experience is that each of us has a choice, and I want everyone else to know that, too.

The Cremation

After three days, my heart was quietly ready for his body to move on. This peace could not have crept in, had he been taken from me moments after he died. I could see, as a dear friend put it, that he was beginning to “melt back into the earth.” The rhythm of life was telling us the time had come.

The next morning, family and close friends gathered early and prayed over Benjamin’s body. We lifted him up and laid him gently in the decorated box, covering his body with a soft blanket and fresh flowers. His brothers carried him down the stairs, and slid the box into the back of his beloved truck.

We drove to the funeral home, where our death doula was waiting with the funeral director. When I popped open the back window of the camper shell and revealed not only Benjamin’s casket, but also his twin boys, their mom and myself riding in the truck bed, the funeral director shook his head.

“This is highly unusual,” he said. We all laughed.

“We are a highly unusual bunch,” I agreed. (I will be forever grateful to that funeral director for keeping such an open mind.)

We had what’s called a “viewing cremation,” which is available but not advertised at many mortuaries. This means the family members get to roll the body into the cremation oven, close the door and press the buttons that begin the incineration process. (A deep bow to author Mirabai Starr, and her gorgeous memoir Caravan of No Despair, for teaching me that viewing cremations are possible.) There were a dozen family members standing around as Benjamin’s Grammy, his boys and I all pressed the button together.

We never left him. From the moment he died until the moment his body returned to ashes, his loved ones were by his side.


A Better Goodbye

All of this does not “make everything better.” I still mourn for Benjamin every single day. I still cry and feel angry and even hopeless sometimes. But I feel entirely peaceful about the way we celebrated his exit. We did it in a way that was deeply true. True to myself, true to Benjamin, true to his clan of family and friends.

Our midwife Olivia says that people die how they lived. What if the converse is also true—that we can only embrace life to the degree that we embrace death? If that’s the case, what does it mean if we push death away, ask someone else to take care of it for us, and categorize it as ugly, vulgar and terrifying?

It’s my belief that the time has come to do death a different way. It’s time to learn how to be with it—and, as a result, to love it. And we do this by embracing death, by changing how we celebrate it, by relinquishing the taboos, and by bringing dying out into the open. We do it, I believe, by returning to the old ways. By keeping the celebration of death close to our hearts, and—if it feels right—in our very homes.

When we do, we are not only embracing death. We are embracing life. We are becoming more fully human by learning to say goodbye differently. By loving each other in death, we are loving life—all the way to the very end.

Complete Article HERE!


Grieving Santa Rosa family reclaims old ways, brings son’s body home to say good-bye



When Carl Hamilton got the news that every parent dreads, his fatherly instinct kicked in. His son Chris was lying alone at the Sonoma County Coroner’s Office, the victim of a middle-of-the-night car crash. Against all modern convention, Hamilton decided he would not send his firstborn to a mortuary. Instead, he claimed the young man’s body and drove him home.

For three days and two nights Chris Hamilton lay in a simple hand-assembled wooden box in his parents’ Santa Rosa living room. Friends and family gathered beside him, experiencing their grief within the same modest tract house where Chris, a Giants and Green Bay Packers fan and Le Cordon Bleau-trained cook, had grown up.

They talked, shared stories, brought mementos and totems and shed tears. Carl Hamilton and other family members slept in the living room to be near their Chris, named for the storybook character Christopher Robin. In his 35 years, he had grown into a burly man of 6-foot 2 with a big smile, a wicked sense of humor and a compassionate heart.

The Hamiltons opted for an old-fashioned wake or home viewing, where a family spends intimate mourning time with their loved one. These kinds of funerals were once a common practice in American homes, often with women in the community assisting in “laying out the dead.” But with the increasing popularity of embalming and the professionalization of the funeral industry, family death rituals began to change.

At a time when most people “make arrangements” with a mortuary to deal with remains, the Hamiltons dialed back to the old ways in caring for Chris themselves. They oversaw every step, from making his box in the family garage and adorning it with art and messages, to transporting him to the crematorium where they sang songs and held their own service before bidding him good-bye and pushing his box into the flames. Virtually the entire family — three generations — participated.

“I wanted to slow things down. I hate funerals, the ones I’ve been to. I wanted my son home,” said Hamilton, a longtime director in community theater and currently a drama teacher at Cardinal Newman High School.

Soothe broken heart

It was, he reflected, like another production but one that, in its way, helped soothe his broken heart.

Just as women began reclaiming childbirth from strictly clinical hospital settings to home births, natural childbirth and birthing centers, an increasing number of people like the Hamiltons are reclaiming death rituals in ways that are more personal. It’s spawning a niche of services and products for home funerals and green burials, from shrouds to body oils to biodegradable boxes and urns. Increasing numbers of people are craving more control of the mourning experience, and see it a more normal way of dealing with the remains of a loved one, and a healthier way of experiencing their grief.

“I think we’re still just at the tip of the wave,” said Jerrigrace Lyons, who in the 1990s founded a group called now called Final Passages, to educate people about how to do their own home funeral and to provide support. The Sebastopol advocate is now a part of a larger organization, the National Home Funeral Alliance, which has grown to include members throughout the U.S., Canada, New Zealand and Great Britain.

“Death is a very emotional experience, a very powerful rite of passage and people want support at that time, and they should have it,” said Lyons, who sees her role as akin to the doulas who provide lay support during childbirth.

Most people who opt for a home funeral have had time to think about and take conscious steps as they or a loved one is dying. But for the Hamiltons, there was no time to weigh the pros and cons, come up with a plan or poll everyone in the family.

A missed plane

Fate in the form of a missed plane flight put Chris Hamilton on the road that led to his death.

The week he died he was supposed to be in Italy on vacation with his mother, Frances Hamilton, and his sister, Isla. But at the airport he walked away from the gate and didn’t make it back in time to get on the plane. That was Monday. He was hoping to catch another flight as early as Wednesday. But in the wee hours of the morning that day, Oct. 25, he was driving north on Highway 101 near the Highway 12 exit in his VW Golf when he slammed at 50 miles per hour into a tractor trailer that had been abandoned in the roadway. There were no skid marks, so investigators believe he must not have even seen it ahead. He died instantly; his small dog Davy survived.

“They found his phone in his back pocket so they didn’t find any distracted driving. No drugs or alcohol was suspected,” the father said.

Hamilton, 62, had actually driven past the accident on his way to work, not knowing it was his son. But he felt uneasy since Chris, who had been living with him and his wife Jamie Smith for the last couple of years, hadn’t come home that night or responded to a text. He even drove to his ex-wife’s home hoping Chris would be there. No one answered the door.

Jamie, who had helped raise Chris since he was four years old, was notified after daybreak by coroner’s officers who came to the door and left her with a list of mortuaries and directions to pick one. They said they would deal with everything else. Jamie was unable to reach her husband by phone in the chaos amid the Tubbs fire that was still smoldering. He had just been relocated to a temporary campus site after parts of the Newman campus burned. Deputies left a message with the school to notify Hamilton that he needed to go home for an unspecified emergency.

Jamie had “that awful conversation” with her husband as he pulled into the garage shouting “What’s wrong?!”

The couple wanted to see their son immediately, but were told he was not viewable. Hamilton spent hours contemplating what to do. He had read stories about people who had home funerals. By early afternoon he announced he wanted to bring Chris home.

Jamie said her sister tried hard to persuade her “that it would be a mistake we would regret, but Carl was steadfast.”

Jamie had her own reservations. Would people think they were weird?

Son Dylan Hamilton, 22, a filmmaker in Santa Fe, assured her that the Hamiltons, a theatrical family, are a little weird.

“This is who we are,” he said. “We do things a little differently. We’re a little off kilter and it’s important we keep doing things that way. This was the perfect thing.”

To his grandmother Pat Hamilton, 87, a home viewing was perfectly normal. She remembers when she was 16 and her grandma was laid out in the living room.

“We were close to her. We could see her. She wasn’t alive anymore but she was grandma.”

Jamie immediately got online and found Grace, a pioneer in the revival of home funerals, who helped them through the process.

Help with paperwork

Home funerals are legal in all 50 states. Grace navigated them through getting a death certificate, the application process and permit for the disposition of human remains that is required to transport a body.

The coroner took a week to release the body pending an autopsy. In that time the Hamilton’s put together their plan.

The decided they wanted an old-fashioned wooden box that they could decorate themselves, and then use to cremate Chris.

“A coffin connotes to me, this big, shiny massive thing with rails. It just seems so impersonal to me and not at all like who Chris was or what we are as a family, Jamie said. “We’re way more down-to-earth than that. I couldn’t imagine putting my kid in some weird steel container and giving him to somebody.”

She found a company online that sold simple Wisconsin pine boxes with rope handles, something meaningful to Chris who enjoyed visiting his grandparents in Wisconsin. Other natural caskets are available in materials like willow, seagrass and bamboo.

She paid almost $800 for the box and almost as much to have the 100-pound package rush shipped. It arrived in a kit on Monday. Family and friends were invited to come over and help with the assembly and decoration. Chris’s younger brother Darius Hamilton-Smith, 27, a lighting and set designer in Los Angeles, headed up the effort.

It was a sunny day and a buddleia in the yard was filled with butterflies, something that almost never happens. The family reached for humor in their sadness.

The Hamiltons shared a love for the quirky movie “Little Miss Sunshine,” in which a dysfunctional family steals the body of their dead grandfather from a hospital and drives off with him in their VW van so they won’t miss a beauty pageant. Jamie mod-podged a picture of the scene onto the coffin and wrote, “We didn’t leave you behind.”

Darius bought a “blank” from a local shop that makes custom baseball bats and turned it himself, giving the bat a trial run with a few hits before placing it with his baseball-loving brother in the box.

The elder Hamilton said he felt it was an important part of the ritual that he pick up his son himself, and he still feels the weight of his 250-pound body as it was lifted into the box. The coroner was adamant that the body was not in a condition for viewing. But Carl wanted to touch his son. Grace peeked in the bag and found a hand that was unharmed and that became something for people to touch during the wake.

Grace offered up her Toyota van to drive Chris home for the last time. He was laid out on the kitchen table, his blue body bag covered in a beautiful piece of fabric the Hamiltons had saved from a Shakespeare Festival.

“It felt really good,” said Jamie, “just holding his hand.” Grace showed them how to pack the unembalmed remains in dry ice. The room was adorned with photos and mementos, from t-shirts to Chris’s favorite Gummy candy to a logo plate from the old BMW his grandfather had given him and that he adored.

Many farewells

Some 50 friends and family members came by over a three-day period to draw or write on the box or leave a gift. Someone brought a hummingbird, a Native American symbol of peace, love and happiness. His sister, Isla Hamilton, wrote him a letter, sealed it and placed it in the box. Jamie’s sister sewed a pocket from lavish fabric and tucked a letter inside. Another sister made a “flower arrangement” out of wooden cooking utensils in salute to his work as a cook. Carl added a knife that a Navy SEAL friend had presented to him years before in recognition of his courage, and that he had given Chris when he left home to move to Colorado.

For those days, time was suspended and their home became a safe and intimate container for their grief.

”We agreed we would just let each other do what we needed to do and we ended up crying and bawling and hugging each other,” Jamie said. “Sometimes we just found ourselves standing and holding his hand for a half hour.”

The family stayed together throughout each step in the ritual. They took him together to the crematory at Santa Rosa Memorial Park and held their own little service.

“This wonderful friend of ours brought this beautiful glass mason jar. In it was dirt, leaves, rocks and all kinds of things. Then she wrote out this piece of what everything meant,” Jamie said. “It seemed so perfect. As we stood in front of the big shiny oven with his casket, Carl read it and I handed each piece to Frances, (Chris’s biological mother,) who put each piece in the box. It was beautiful.”

They sang songs — “The House at Pooh Corner” by Kenny Loggins and “Learning to Fly” by Tom Petty.

“We all said something,” Carl said. “We put the lid back on the box and we all pushed him in.”

Chose an urn

While they waited for his cremains they played catch outside with an antique glove that Carl had given his son one Christmas. Then they drove to Funeria, an art gallery in Graton that features unusual and handmade urns. They picked a piece by Seattle sculptor Tony Hopping, a primitive human-like form made from wood salvaged from the Russian River. It spins on a potter’s wheel.

“The moment I saw it, the joy and energy of Chris jumped at me. Each morning I will spin his ashes to get the day started with a smile,” Carl wrote on his Facebook page, where he continues to pour his feelings, his grief and his memories of his son, with art, photos and poetry.

At the crematory they stood vigil as a kind man with flames tattooed on his arms, carefully removed the ashes, sifted them and handed them back to the family. They held a joyous celebration of Chris’s life at the Bennett Valley Grange a week later.

As hard as it was, the Hamiltons nearly five months later remain united in their belief that mourning at home with Chris was the best choice for them.

“Going through all those steps ourselves was therapeutic, and very helpful in the grieving process,” Chris’s brother Darius said. “It wasn’t like Chris was out of sight and out of mind. And instead of just sitting around and doing nothing, there was always something to do.”

Carl said he took comfort in reclaiming the old ritual of spending time at home with a lost loved one, as well as inventing new rituals that felt right for his family.

“There were lessons learned by going through those rituals,” he said. “In taking time and talking with people and really listening, you get to the bare guts.”

Complete Article HERE!


Inside the Bangkok temple where dogs are given human funeral ceremonies to speed their rebirth


Thailand’s bereaved pet owners who take their dearly departed dogs to Wat Krathum Suea Pla, a temple on the outskirts of Bangkok, where ceremonies and rituals are believed to speed the animals’ reincarnation and boost their karma

Beckham died of old age last night, but he’s on his way to a new life. Or so the pet’s owners hope.

By Tibor Krausz

The Suwans, a family of five, have brought the earthly remains of their dead pet to Wat Krathum Suea Pla, a Buddhist temple on the outskirts of Bangkok. They’ve come to administer the last rites to their late canine companion to boost his karmic prospects.

“Beckham was like one of my own children to me,” says Saythan Suwan, 43, a mother of two. She rescued the dog from the streets in 2004 and named him after English footballer David Beckham, who is hugely popular in Thailand.

A member of the Suwan family places new monk’s robes on Beckham during the service. The robes are donated to the monks on Beckham’s behalf.

The stray pup became a loyal member of the Suwan household. He guarded the premises, played with the children and shared a bed with grandma, who died recently at age 84. When Beckham took his last breath, the Suwans bathed his body, sat in vigil, and the following morning took him to the Buddhist sanctuary to be cremated.

“We want to do the best for him so he can be in the best place in his next life,” explains Saythan, a saleswoman. “If Beckham is reborn, I hope he gets reborn as a member of our family again. We hope he will come back to us as a puppy.”

To help ensure this happens, the Bangkok family have paid for a private ceremony at the temple on their dead dog’s behalf.

In the predominantly Buddhist country, where age-old superstitions still hold sway, most locals believe that by performing meritorious deeds, such as giving alms to monks, they can earn valuable karmic points for deceased loved ones, thereby hastening their rebirth in an auspicious new incarnation. And for an increasing number of Thais, like the Suwans, these deceased loved ones include pets.

The Suwans are gathered mournfully in a small chapel, where Beckham lies draped in lily-white funerary shrouds on a bier among colourful garlands and bouquets of flowers. One by one they sprinkle the dead canine with marigold petals and take turns pouring scented water over him from a small decanter.

“If I’ve wronged you, please forgive me. If you’ve wronged me, I forgive you,” a funeral assistant intones on account of the dead dog, during a service with stylised rituals that closely follow those of human funerals.

A monk places votive offerings on a dog during a pet funeral.

Sitting cross-legged on antique wooden chairs inlaid with mother-of-pearl, four monks chant plaintively for Beckham’s benefit. In return, the family offer the monks new robes and provisions in their dog’s name.

Beckhamis then taken outside to a small crematorium custom-made for pets, where the Suwans place roses fashioned from wood shavings on his corpse in a final tribute.

“We will scatter his ashes in the [Bangkok’s] Chao Phraya River,” explains Anyamanee, one of Saythan’s daughters. “We scattered my grandmother’s ashes there. She and Beckham were always together in life,” she adds. “We want them to be together in death, too.”

Outside, another dog is waiting to receive the same treatment. Lying peacefully on a metal table is Nimbus, a 10-year-old husky. He looks as if he is asleep. The night before, he began pacing agitatedly and died soon afterwards, explain his tearful owners, a Thai-Chinese man and woman.

“He seemed to be in pain and then he passed away,” the man, who identifies himself only by his nickname, Chok (“Luck”), says between sobs. “We believe he will come back to us – maybe in another form.”

Presently it’s Boozo the poodle’s turn. He’s just died of renal failure. He is placed in a small fuchsia coffin where he’s wreathed in flowers. “He brought us so much joy and so much luck,” Payao Tang-on, 63, says. “We won the lottery because of him.”

She now wants to get the dead pet on the spiritual highway to rebirth. “If we had buried him, his body would have taken a long time to decompose,” Payao says. “This way his spirit can get into a new body faster. He may even be reborn as a person.”

According to Phrakru Soponpihankij, the temple’s abbot, only a few animal species – including elephants, horses, dogs and cats – can be directly reborn as human beings. “But usually, even loyal companion animals can’t earn enough merit on their own in this life for that, so people have to do it for them,” he adds. “Monks are intermediaries between this life and the next. They can help animals gain more merit.”

A Thai family prepare to scatter their Shih Tzu’s ashes into the Chao Phraya River in Bangkok.

Next up for a treatment of monk-assisted extra karmic merit is Luke, a small mixed-breed dog with fluffy, off-white fur, who died of bone cancer. “He was as good a pet as you could ask for,” says his owner, a retired American executive who came with his Thai wife to bid tearful farewell to the dog. “We want to send him off to something better,” he adds. “I’m not sure I believe in the Buddhist concept of reincarnation, but you never know.”

Within three hours on this Saturday morning, four dogs and a cat are cremated in quick succession at Wat Krathum Suea Pla. On some days, says Worratap Janpinid, who operates the crematorium, as many as 20 dead pets are brought here for funeral services – mostly dogs and cats, but there have been rabbits, monkeys, birds, tortoises, goldfish and even monitor lizards.

“I’ve cremated thousands of pets,” Worratap says. A wiry man in his 20s, he is covered in magic tattoos all the way up to his shaven pate, and wears unwieldy signet rings with protective amulets on several fingers to ward off misfortune and death. “Many people who come here have good hearts,” he says.

One bereaved dog owner drove his dead companion 1,000km to the Bangkok temple from the southern Thai province of Satun for a proper pet funeral. The sanctuary lies in a warren of winding streets in an industrial area that was once marshland. It’s one of the few Buddhist temples in Thailand that assist pet owners in administering proper funerary ceremonies for their animals.

Teerawat Saehan, the owner of Pet Funeral Thailand, that specialises in elaborate funerals for pets at Wat Krathum Suea Pla, in Bangkok.

Many other temples dispose of the bodies of pets and stray animals, but they do so with little ceremony. Routinely, the carcasses of beloved pets are burned in incinerators, often without their owners’ knowledge. This practice appalled Teerawat Saehan, the proprietor of a pet grooming salon who was invited by a customer to a dog’s funeral. “It looked as if pets were treated like rubbish,” he recalls.

So a few years ago Teerawat set up Pet Funeral Thailand, a small company that specialises in elaborate cremation ceremonies for pets. “We started replicating human funerals for pets,” says Teerawat, 37, an amiable man who also sports magic tattoos. “People come to us because we do things properly.”

Business is booming. Each month the company hosts 300 to 400 pet funerals, which cost anywhere between 1,500 baht (US$48) and 400,000 baht. The price depends on variables such as the length of the service and the number of monks present. The most expensive pet funerals are overseen by as many as 60 monks and feature special funeral processions, including motorcades. At some of these funerals, the flower arrangements alone can cost 100,000 baht.

But it isn’t these lavish affairs that impress Teerawat. He’s more moved by acts of generosity by poor people. Not long ago, a hard-up family’s two dogs died in a house fire that sent all their possessions up in smoke. With the little money they had left, they paid for a proper funeral service for their dogs.

In a similar show of kindness, when a street dog called Daam (“Black”) died, vendors at a food market where the dog had lived on scraps all chipped in for her funeral. They even brought food for her so she wouldn’t go hungry in the afterlife.

Lolling indolently at the side of the pet crematorium is a stray black mutt, also called Daam. She was dumped last year at the temple with a broken foot and has become something of a resident mascot at cremations. She seems oblivious to the mournful goings-on around her.

Perhaps, Teerawat muses, Daam is here to atone for bad deeds she had committed in her past life. “It’s sad to see dogs suffer and die,” says the businessman, who owns two Rottweilers. “But there’s hope for them in the next life.”

Complete Article HERE!


10 People Whose Hearts Were Buried Separately From the Rest of Them


Richard the Lionheart

BY Bess Lovejoy

Though it may seem bizarre today, having your heart buried apart from the rest of your body wasn’t uncommon for European aristocracy of the Middle Ages and beyond. The practice arose in part during the Crusades, when high-ranking warriors had a tendency to die in “heathen” places that weren’t seen as desirable burial locations. But transporting a whole body back to Europe made things pretty stinky, so corpses were stripped of flesh and ferried back to Europe as skeletons, with the inner organs (including the heart) removed and buried where the Crusaders had died. By the 12th century, members of the English and French aristocracy also frequently had their hearts buried separately from the rest of them.

Heart burial became less practical and more symbolic by the 17th century, partly as a religious practice associated with the Jesuits and other Counter Reformation groups. (Some scholars think the heart’s powerful symbolism became particularly important while the Catholic Church was undergoing a moment of crisis.) In Western Europe, it became common for powerful individuals, such as kings and queens, to ask that their hearts be buried in a spot they’d favored during life. In more recent years, Romantic poets and other artists also picked up the practice, which has yet to be entirely abandoned.


Richard I, a.k.a. “Richard the Lion-Heart,” ruled as King of England 1189-99 but spent most of his reign fighting abroad, which is how he earned his reputation for military prowess. (He also may or may not have eaten the heart of a lion.) He died after being struck by a crossbow while campaigning in Chalus, France, and while most of his body was buried at Fontevraud Abbey, his heart was interred in a lead box at the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Rouen, France. The organ was rediscovered during excavations in the 1830s, and in 2012, forensic scientists examined it—now mostly reduced to a grayish-brown powder—to learn more about Richard’s precise cause of death (some think a poisoned arrow dealt the fatal blow). The crumbling heart was too decayed to tell them much about how Richard had died, but the scientists did learn about medieval burial rituals, noting the use of vegetables and spices “directly inspired by the ones used for the embalming of Christ.”


Robert the Bruce, King of Scots 1306-29, asked for his heart to be buried in Jerusalem. But it didn’t get all the way there—the knight he entrusted it to, Sir James Douglas, was killed in battle with the Moors while wearing the heart in a silver case around his neck. Other knights recovered the heart from the battlefield, and brought it back to Melrose Abbey in Scotland for burial. Archeologists rediscovered what they believed to be the heart in 1920 and reburied it in a modern container; it was exhumed again in 1996, and reburied beneath the abbey’s lawn in 1998.



St. Laurence O’Toole, the second archbishop of Dublin and one of that city’s patron saints, died in 1180 in France. His heart was sent back to Dublin’s Christ Church Cathedral, where it rested inside a heart-shaped wooden box within an iron cage—at least until 2012, when it was stolen. The dean of Christ Church Cathedral has speculated that the heart might have been taken by some kind of religious fanatic, since it has little economic value, and much more valuable gold and silver objects were ignored. (Weirdly, the thief, or thieves, also lit candles on one of the altars before fleeing.) The item has yet to be recovered.


The prince-bishops of Würzburg (part of modern Germany) practiced a three-part burial: their corpses were usually sent to Würzburg cathedral, their intestines to the castle church at Marienberg, and their hearts, embalmed in glass jars, to what is now Ebrach Abbey. The practice was common by the 15th century, though it may go back as far as the 12th. Their funerals at the Marienberg castle also featured what may be one of history’s worst jobs: a servant was required to hold the heads of the corpses upright during the funeral, which featured the body seated upright and impaled on a pole. The funerals lasted for several days. There were more than 80 prince-bishops; a German cardiologist who made a special study of heart burial says “about 30” of their hearts found their resting places in the abbey.


According to legend, after Anne Boleyn’s beheading in 1536, her heart was removed from her body and taken to a rural church in Erwarton, Suffolk, where the queen is said to have spent some happy days during her youth. In 1837, excavations at the church uncovered a small, heart-shaped lead casket inside a wall. The only thing inside was a handful of dust (it’s not clear whether it was actually the heart), but the casket was reburied in a vault beneath the organ, where a plaque today marks the spot.


Twenty-two hearts from various popes—from Sixtus V in 1583 to Leo XIII in 1903—are kept in marble urns at Santi Vincenzo e Anastasio a Trevi in Rome. Traditionally, the hearts were removed with the rest of the organs as part of the postmortem preservation process, and kept as relics just in case the pope became a saint.


Romantic composer Frédéric Chopin died in Paris in 1849, and most of him is buried in that city’s Pere Lachaise, but he asked for his heart to be buried in his native Poland. His sister carried it back to their home country, where it is preserved in alcohol (some say cognac) within a crystal urn inside a pillar at the Church of the Holy Cross in Warsaw. In 2014, scientists conducted a late-night examination of the heart to make sure the alcohol hadn’t evaporated, although their secrecy frustrated scientists who hope to one day examine the organ for clues about what killed the composer.



The English poet and novelist Thomas Hardy wanted to be buried in his hometown of Stinsford, Dorset, but friends insisted that a burial in Westminster Abbey was the only appropriate choice for someone of Hardy’s literary prominence. But when town officials found out that Hardy’s body was destined for the abbey, they threw a fit, and so a compromise was reached—most of Hardy went to Westminster, but his heart was buried in Stinsford churchyard (where it has its own grave marker). A persistent, but unproven, story has it that a cat ate part of the heart when the doctor who was removing it got distracted; a gruesome addendum says the animal was killed and buried alongside the organ.


When the poet Percy Shelley died sailing the Mediterranean in 1822, local quarantine regulations dictated that his body had to be cremated on the beach. But his heart allegedly refused to burn, and a friend, the adventurer Edward Trelawny, supposedly plucked it out of the flames. After a custody battle among Shelley’s friends, the heart was given to Percy’s wife Mary, who kept it until she died. Her children found it in a silk bag inside her desk, and it is now said to be buried with her at the family vault in Bournemouth, England.


The powerful House of Habsburg practiced heart burial for centuries, with many of the organs buried in copper urns in Vienna’s Augustiner Church. In 2011, Otto von Habsburg, the last heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire (which was dissolved in 1918), had his heart buried in the Benedictine Abbey in Pannonhalma, Hungary. The rest of him was buried in Vienna. The erstwhile crown prince said he wanted his heart buried in Hungary as a gesture of affection for the country—one half of his former empire.

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Saving the Earth By Dying


The environmental toll of conventional burials is stark, with a typical 10-acre cemetery containing enough coffin wood to build more than 40 houses and enough embalming fluid to fill a swimming pool.


The deathcare industry is changing, and with it are the ways we dispose of our bodies.

Situated just south of San Francisco, the small town of Colma, Calif., has become famous, or perhaps infamous, for its motto: “It’s Great to Be Alive in Colma.” Which is ironic, given that the town’s population of dead people far outnumbers its living residents by nearly 1,000 to one

Among the living is Joe Stinson, 72, a funeral director and owner of Colma Cremation and Funeral Services. Over the course of his decades-long career caring for the dead, he’s seen a lot of changes the industry. The latest? A growing movement toward eco-friendly burials.

“Green burials are changing how we, as a society, look at burying our dead,” says Stinson, who believes that just as our own deaths are imminent, so too is the widespread adoption of environmentally friendly deathcare options.

In the past few years, a wave of eco-friendly startups have focused on how humans can continue to be good stewards of the earth even in our afterlife. At its core, a green, or natural, burial minimizes environmental impact by reducing carbon emissions and making sure no harmful substances leach into the ground. This can include biodegradable caskets, like those made from handwoven willow or seagrass, or simple cotton shrouds. And the use of the toxin formaldehyde to preserve a corpse is a definite no-no. After an unpreserved body is lowered into the ground, it eventually decomposes, mixing and nourishing the earth around it.

According to the Green Burial Council, which provides eco-certifications for burial practitioners and products, the number of GBC-approved providers in North America has grown from one in 2006 to more than 300 today. (To be sure, that number is certainly higher, as deathcare providers don’t have to be GBC-certified to offer green and eco-friendly options.)

The arguments for a more environmentally conscious burial are mounting, literally, as the concrete, steel and wood we bury along with our dead piles up. (According to one estimate, there’s 115 million tons of casket steel underground in North America, or enough to build almost all the high rises in Tokyo.) What’s more, the formaldehyde used in embalming is a known carcinogenic, putting funeral directors at a higher risk for cancer. Then there’s the pollutants — from embalming fluid to the toxic chemicals used in casket varnishes and sealants — that can seep into the groundwater. As for cremation, that takes an environmental toll too, as the burning of fossil fuels emits harmful carbon dioxide into the air.

“This, by no means, should be at the top of our environmental priority list, but it is something that can be easily dealt with,” says Phil Olson, assistant professor at Virginia Tech who specializes in death studies. “What we need to be worried about is the crap we put in the ground with the body. We need to talk about the environmental impact of forestry and all the energy it takes to manufacture the metals in coffins.”

Sustainable caskets can be made out of willow, seagrass, bamboo and other biodegradable materials.

Most green deathcare providers are hybrid operations, offering both conventional and natural burial options, but there are a few in the U.S. that specialize solely in green funerals and burials. One such operation is Fernwood Cemetery, located in Marin County, Calif., about an hour’s drive north of Stinson’s funeral home in Colma. On any given day at the bucolic cemetery, which sits above the rolling hills above Sausalito, you’ll find people walking their dogs, riding bikes or just lounging about. The only clue that it’s a burial ground is the occasional boulder engraved with someone’s name.

“We had some people coming through who were lost and asked what park we were in,” jokes Cindy Barath, the funeral director for Fernwood.

As for costs, well, that depends on where you live — or, rather, where you die.

Anyone in the cemetery business will say that death is like buying a house; it’s all about location. And in cities such as San Francisco, where there is more space devoted to housing and mixed-use buildings, creating an affordable option for a green burial is still a ways off. Fernwood, for example, charges between $10,000 to $15,000 for a full funeral, with a large chunk of that money going toward buying a plot of land. Compare that to the national average for a traditional funeral and burial, which is about $8,500.

Still, the costs for a green burial can be significantly less than a traditional internment, since you’re not paying for body preservation, an expensive casket made of steel or exotic wood, or a concrete grave vault. And some in the green-burial movement are working toward a model where a separate plot for each grave isn’t even necessary.

In Seattle, Recompose — formerly known as the Urban Death Project — is designing a three-story human-compost facility that turns dead bodies into reusable soil. The ambitious project, started in 2014, is still years from completion. If it succeeds, though, the company plans to replicate the model all over the world.

“Things in this industry happen slowly,” says Olson, referring to the snail’s pace of getting conventional cemeteries onboard with green burials.

In this regard, both Olson and Stinson point to cremation, which was introduced in the U.S. in the late 19th century. But it wasn’t until almost a hundred years later that cremations became more popular than burials.

Stinson, for one, is ready for the sea change he believes will eventually sweep the entire industry. Noticing the uptick in people requesting greener options, he’s begun offering more eco-friendly options, such as caskets made of seagrass and biodegradable urns.

For years, Stinson says, burials have always been fairly black and white: Either you’re cremated, or you’re put into the ground.

Looks like now we’re finally seeing shades of green.

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A Burial at Gethsemani


Abbey of Gethsemani

By Gregory K. Hillis

It was a surprise to enter the Abbey of Gethsemani’s church and see a body lying on a bier. Br. Harold was dressed in a white cowl and his face bore no signs of being made up by a mortician. He did not look like he was sleeping. He looked like what he was: dead.

He was not alone. The community had kept vigil with Br. Harold all night, each monk taking turns at the bier, praying the psalms with him one last time, prayers he knew so well from decades of saying the Divine Office.

As the funeral Mass began, Br. Harold’s bier was carried directly in front of the altar. There was no casket and his face was not covered. He simply lay there, a monk among his brother monks, albeit a now silent and unmoving participant in the Eucharistic feast.

After the Mass, his bier was carried out the doors of the church to the cemetery, filled with hundreds of identical white crosses. Here are buried monks from more than 160 years of monastic life at the Abbey. Among them is Thomas Merton, known in the community as Fr. Louis, buried beside Dom James Fox, the abbot with whom he so often clashed.

Along with the monks and members of Br. Harold’s family, I processed to a freshly dug grave. Although I’ve come to know quite a few of the monks of the abbey, I didn’t know Br. Harold. He was already in the infirmary with Alzheimer’s when I moved to Kentucky. I learned, though, that I missed out on a beautiful and simple man who breathed God in deeply, particularly when looking at a flower in bloom.

To allow Br. Harold’s brother monks, family members, and friends to be near the graveside, I found a spot on an outlook near the church that stood above his final resting place. Cistercians dig their graves very deep and they bury their dead without caskets. From my perch I could see that a pillow had been placed in the grave, on which had been placed a flower. There was also a ladder leading into the grave.

After graveside prayers, one of the monks descended the ladder while others lifted Br. Harold from the bier. The sheet he was on had six long straps attached by which he was lowered into the ground. As his brothers lowered Br. Harold down, the monk standing in the grave gingerly held Br. Harold’s head.

There was love and gentleness in the way the monk did this. I was reminded of the care with which my wife and I would put each of our newborn sons into the crib, doing all we could to make sure that his sleep wasn’t disturbed. When Br. Harold reached the bottom of the grave, I could see his brother monk almost tuck him in for his rest. He carefully laid Br. Harold’s head on the pillow, placed a white shroud over his face, and then ascended out of the grave, pulling up the ladder behind him.

From my vantage point I could see Br. Harold at the bottom of the grave, and then, shovel by shovel, being covered in dirt. Truth be told, it was disconcerting to see a human body—not a body in a casket, but simply a body—be buried. But never before had the words Christians recite on Ash Wednesday—remember you are dust—been as real to me as they were at that moment.

More importantly, I had never experienced death as something beautiful before this funeral. What I witnessed was the care and love of a community for one of their brothers, a care that extended to the very depths of the grave.

On Ash Wednesday we are reminded once again of our mortality; some of us need this reminder more than others. However, there’s something about my experience at Br. Harold’s funeral that leads me to contemplate my mortality not as something to be feared, but as an invitation to give more completely of myself to those in my community—to my wife, to my sons, to my students and colleagues, to those in my parish, and to those in my neighborhood and city.

Br. Harold lived a life of prayer and devotion in the context of a community, staking his own existence to the existences of others. In his life, he gave himself to his community. In his illness and death, the monks in the community gave themselves to him. At his funeral I learned that to confront our mortality is to come face to face with the reality of how deeply and truly we need one another. 

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The Greenest Things to Do With Your Body After You Die


By Amelia Martyn-Hemphill

“When I first laid eyes on it I was like, ‘Oh my God, I have to have that,'” said Amy Cunningham, 58, as she ran her hand over a biodegradable, wicker coffin. It resembled a large, woven picnic basket lined with white muslin. “It was like seeing a beautiful dress on Saks Fifth Avenue,” she added with a radiant smile.  

Cunningham is not a typical funeral director. She’s a fashionably dressed mother of two who used to write for women’s magazines. Swapping editorials for embalming was a lengthy training process. But now, her team at Greenwood Heights Funeral and Cremation Services in New York is part of the latest green revolution: environmentally friendly eco-burial. 

Every year, cemeteries across the U.S. bury over 100,000 tons of steel and approximately 1,500,000 tons of concrete from coffins and re-enforced vaults, according to the Casket and Funeral Association of America. Cremation releases carbon emissions and mercury from dental fillings into the atmosphere. Embalming with formaldehyde has been linked to higher risks of cancer and respiratory problems in mortuary workers. With the death rate set to rise as the baby boomer population ages, the traditional funeral industry is becoming more and more of a strain on the environment.

The green burial movement is championing sustainability and a more natural approach to death. Forgoing the embalming process, they advocate biodegradable coffins made of untreated wood, cardboard, or wicker. Shallower graves expose the body to the layers of soil most richly populated with decomposing organisms. Burials take place in protected, natural burial grounds outside urban areas, with graves marked by GPS or simple carved stones. It’s a move back to the more ancient burial traditions practiced until the Civil War (and still favored by Jewish and Muslim communities).

“It seemed somewhat perverse to me that someone can come into the world in a natural way and go out poisoning it,” said Herby Reynaud, a 42-year-old software developer, who stumbled across the idea of green burial after the death of his mother, Marie, last year. He felt that the practice aligned better with both his environmental principles and their Haitian background, he said. When he visited Sleepy Hollow Green Cemetery and National Park for the first time, a herd of deer was grazing on what was to be his deceased mother’s burial plot. It felt like a good sign.

On the day of the funeral, around thirty friends and family crowded around in the September sunshine to celebrate Marie’s life with readings, songs and stories. They filled the rugged grave by hand. The children planted flower seeds. “My cousin said it was artisanal–crafted,” said Reynaud, “and I think that’s what a green burial allows for–you can create something that’s specific to your experience.” Explaining the unconventional service to his conservative, Catholic family ended up being part of the charm. “Everything was a conversation piece which allowed us to weave a story and give the service meaning and context and richness and texture,” he said. “Everyone appreciated it. I appreciated it. It was definitely something different.”

Green burial is all about reconnecting death and nature, explained Cunningham. She pushed up the sleeves of her earth-colored cardigan and flipped through a catalog of green-burial products. Besides woven caskets, there are soluble salt urns and seed-filled scattering tubes. There’s even the option to transform the remains of a loved one into a hand-crafted piece of amber jewelry. Products can be adorned with photographs, drawings or hand-written messages. It’s less rigid and more personal, Cunningham said. Taking part in the burial process is also encouraged. Families can dig or fill graves and plant memorial trees. “Having these kinds of alternative burials helps families feel they are doing something innovative and creative,” explained Cunningham, who had just returned from the latest green burial convention in Tampa. “It’s an experience, it’s not the conventional funeral and families look back on it as something uplifting.”

“I think people recognize that something’s not quite right with traditional funerals,” said Joe Sehee, a former Jesuit lay minister who founded the Green Burial Council in 2002. They regulate practice and educate the public on the green options available. “There’s a paradigm shift which is about to take place in this field. We’re in a really interesting period because people have the ability to really change things and that doesn’t happen very often,” he said.

“Consumers know what they don’t want. They know they don’t want the funeral they saw their grandmother have: very formal, very stuffy, very clinical,” explained Darren Crouch, president of Passages International, a green funeral product service. The use of biodegradable materials also substantially lowers funeral costs. “The products we produce are soft, warm and have rounded edges so they have a very different feel to traditional funeral products, which tend to be cold and heavy marble or metal.”

“Consumers don’t want the funeral their grandmothers had: very formal, very stuffy, very clinical.”

Cunningham steers families looking to “green up” cremation toward innovative organizations such as Eternity Reefs, based on the Florida coast. They work to enhance ocean ecosystems by mixing the ashes of the deceased into environmentally friendly reef ball formations. Dropped onto the ocean floor, they encourage the growth of coral and sea life. “We have numerous examples of people scheduling dive expeditions and boating excursions to visit their loved one’s reef,” said George Frankel, the CEO of Eternal Reefs. “In fact, we know of entire families who learned to dive so they can participate.”

Injecting some imagination into the burial process has produced some scientific innovations. Harvard-educated artist and environmental researcher Jae Rhim Lee is cultivating a breed of “infinity mushroom.” The sci-fi sounding fungi can decompose bodies, absorb toxins, and deliver natural compost back into the soil. She gave a TED talk in the U.K. dressed in a prototype of what she has named “the mushroom death suit,” a shroud infused with the mushroom spores. It looks like a pair of “ninja pajamas,” according to Lee. But as well as speeding the breakdown of the dead body, the mushrooms will also absorb accumulated pollutants such as preservatives, pesticides, and heavy metals. “I imagine the infinity mushroom as a symbol of a new way of thinking about death,” said Lee, as she entreated the audience to take responsibility for their impact on the planet. “By trying to preserve our bodies, we deny death, poison the living and further harm the environment.”

But attempting to spark an environmental paradigm shift doesn’t come without controversy. One green burial practice generating debate is Alkaline Hydrolysis, or “Resomation.” It’s being touted as the more eco-friendly version of cremation. Currently legal in only seven states, it involves dissolving the body in acid under high pressure. After reducing the corpse to a syrupy, brown mixture, most of the liquid is then drained off and the remains collected. The idea of loved ones being “flushed” into the sewage system has raised eyebrows and ethical concerns in the US. European markets, on the other hand haven’t been deterred, praising the environmental benefits and the lower costs of the procedure.

“Everyone has their own personal preference,” said Cunningham. “Some people really don’t like the idea of the body disappearing into the soil and they’re fighting it in every single way. But why use a lot of energy to make the body’s own energy potential inert?”

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