Providing comfort and a connection as the end draws near

In 2008, Sister Rose Mary Dougherty created a Companioning the Dying training program. She started with a few basic principles. One was to help caretakers learn to become better listeners. “It’s sitting with a loving alertness,” she says.

By Debra Bruno

In the United States, there’s probably no better way to spoil cocktail party chatter than by introducing the subject of death, dying or the end of life.

Yet, in the same way that the birth process went from a doctor-run event to a movement in which women took charge of their own pregnancies and deliveries, there is growing interest in thinking about the dying process. In part, that’s because the large population bulge of boomers is reaching a point where the end seems not that far away. But also, many people have had the experience of sitting at the bedside of a dying person without the slightest clue what to do.

The growing interest in the topic is seen in death cafesdeath doulas, the “death positive” movement, hospice work and even the End-of-Life University . There are special decks of cards that allow families to work through end-of-life decisions.

And increasingly, classes, seminars, and programs are available that try to help people understand how to comfort those in the last stages of life.

Sister Rose Mary Dougherty, 79, a member of the religious order School Sisters of Notre Dame, calls this companioning the dying and she decided to make it a focus when, years ago, she found herself sitting at the bedside of a dying priest who was a friend. Next to her sat another friend, also a priest.

She watched as the two priests sometimes prayed and sometimes were quiet, together, doing nothing at all. At one point, the priest sitting next to her turned and said: “I don’t know what a priest should do anymore. I don’t know what I’m to do here, but I can be here. Maybe that’s my final vocation.”

That’s when it hit her: Even people trained in comforting feel a sense of helplessness when a friend or family member is dying. But she also resolved to do something about it.

So in 2008, Dougherty created a nine-month Companioning the Dyingtraining program, based in Baltimore. Today, the program provides instruction for hospice workers, caregivers, volunteers and family members on how be with someone in their final months or days.

Companioning the Dying concentrates on something that nearly everyone will have to face at some point in their lives. In the past, it was common for elderly family members to live with their adult children as they aged. Their last days were spent at home, surrounded by loved ones.

Society is different now, at least in many places in the ­industrialized West, where a youth-focused society has pushed end-of-life concerns mostly out of sight. As a result, people can feel unprepared — even panicked — when they have to deal with end-of-life issues.

“We’ve lost the place of dying,” says Jan Booth, a hospice nurse who also helps out with the Companioning the Dying program. “How do we bring aging and illness and dying into some kind of context that doesn’t change the grief that’s inherent, but changes our capacity to be with it?”

Dougherty started with a few basic principles. One was to help caretakers learn to become better listeners. “It’s sitting with a loving alertness,” she says.

Dougherty, now emeritus program director of Companioning the Dying, lives in her order’s residence in Baltimore. Her voice is weakened by Parkinson’s disease, yet her piercing blue eyes demonstrate the same alert presence that she teaches.

Companioning the Dying has something of the feel of group therapy — with readings, exercises and discussions — in which participants can talk freely and without judgment about anything they might have experienced with the dying, Peter Fitz, 75, says. He wanted to get involved in hospice volunteer work and did the program three years ago.

“Every death, and every person, is different,” says Fitz, a retired English professor. “The crucial part is to find out, with the individual not only on any given day or a particular hour or minute,” where they are. The task, then, is “emptying out your suggestions for people and learning to listen in a different way.”

Those “suggestions” can often end up being the worst thing people can do, says Sallie Tisdale, author of “Advice for Future Corpses (and Those Who Love Them).” People often say things such as “Are you sure the doctor knows what he’s doing?” and “God always has a plan,” she says. “Please don’t say those things.”

She suggests something similar to the Companioning program. “People ask me how to prepare. I say, stand at the doorway and take a self-inventory. Try to drop your own agenda. If the person says, I want to eat ice cream and watch a Yankees game,” just accept that, and do that for them she says.

Lourdes Salazar, a caretaker by profession who also volunteers for her church, St. Camillus in Silver Spring, says that one exercise her Companioning the Dying group did was to choose a day and behave as if it is your last day on Earth. She went out to lunch with her son and told him what she was doing. “I never realized how wonderful it would be to have a lunch with you on my last day,” she told him.

One of the main advantages of Companioning the Dying say participants, is the way it helps them all appreciate their own lives. “When you change your concept about the meaning of death, your life changes,” Salazar says.

Even a nurse who has spent most of her career working with terminally ill children and their families has found that the experience of the course helped her when she was faced with five nearly consecutive deaths in her own family. Janet Will says she thought she was experienced in handling difficult situations. But having the Companioning program allowed her to focus on her own grief and avoid the role of the professional.

“The people who love you the most don’t want to see you grieving any more,” Will says. “Where do you go with that?”

Xaverian Brother Michael McCarthy says that his group ended up being a “tremendously rich melting pot” of people from all walks of life. The group covered details such as what is involved in the dying process, but it also offered time to reflect on being compassionate with oneself even as you help someone else.

It’s not about taking a person’s blood pressure, he says. “You’re going to be present, and if you’re not present with yourself, then your presence isn’t going to be as meaningful” to the dying person.

Peter Fitz remembers visiting a man at a hospice in Baltimore. Fitz didn’t know him. The man was in a “highly agitated” state and couldn’t speak. Fritz asked him if he could nod his head. “Can I take your hand?” he asked. The man nodded yes. The two held hands until the man finally fell asleep.

“In a funny way, he gave me comfort, too,” Fitz says. “It’s an experience that in some important way we shared.”

Complete Article HERE!

‘I was widowed at 23, young people need to talk about death’

Amy Molloy and husband, Eoghan

By Amy Molloy

‘They say you’ve got three months to live.” These were the words I spoke to my then-fiancé when I was 23 years old after learning that his cancer – malignant melanoma that spread to his liver, lungs, pancreas and brain – was likely to be fatal.

At the time, my only experience of “the end” was watching my parents disappear into a room where my grandparents were lying, and of seeing an empty rabbit hut at the end of our garden after the loss of a pet.

When I was 17 years old my father was paralysed from Hodgkins Lymphoma but, after a stem cell transplant, he defeated the odds and made a miraculous recovery. So, I had faith in the power of modern medicine over mortality.

However, not this time.

I was practically still a child when a doctor ushered me into a private room, whilst my soon-to-be husband, Eoghan, was in a chemotherapy session, and revealed his prognosis. I asked if I could be the one to tell him, and they readily agreed.

Perhaps, even doctors will do anything to avoid saying the T-word. Terminal.

In the next three months, I had a crash course in end-of-life conversation: the jargon, the euphemisms and the social awkwardness.

I froze with fear when I walked into the chemo ward and heard another patient ask my partner, “Have you ever thought about euthanasia?” But, in a way, that was better than the wall of silence.

After my husband died three weeks after our wedding day, even my closest friends evaporated or became stiff in my company. In the next few months, as I rebelled against my grief – drinking too much and becoming promiscuous – nobody dared challenge me or raise the topics I ached to discuss.

What on earth are you doing?

Do you really think this is helping you?

How does it feel to marry a man who is dying?

…Do you want to die too?

Do you know what to say when a friend’s loved one dies? Have you thought about the day your own parent, partner or best friend may no longer be visible? How would you discuss it, in a way that would be supportive, constructive, and even light-hearted?

If you don’t know the answer, you’re not alone.

A new study from the Royal College of Physicians in the UK has urged medical professionals to improve their bedside manner when it comes to discussing death, after identifying that “timely, honest conversations” about patients’ futures are not happening. However it’s not only doctors who need to become more comfortable with these conversations.

It’s been suggested that millennials are the generation most fearful of death, unlike our grandparents, raised through world wars, who learnt that life can be short. As medicine advances and life expectancy increases, we prefer to think of death as our “future self’s problem”.

But is postponing the inevitable increasing our terror of it?

As psychologists report a rise in young people presenting with anxiety linked to death, it’s time for honest, open, educational conversations about loss of life, and how it can look. Its not enough to be aware of Facebook’s ‘death policy’, warn experts.

“Death is still a certainty even if people are living longer,” says clinical psychologist Renee Mill from Sydney’s Anxiety Solutions CBT.

“When treating anxiety, exposure is what works and avoidance increases the problem. Talking about death or visiting a dying person will decrease your fear of death and make it easier to accept that it is a part of life. Every funeral we attend, no matter how hard, actually helps to reduce anxiety in this way too.”

And, it’s never too early to think about the end. Planning in life is important,” says Mill. “We plan our careers, we save, we want to buy property – end-of-life is another part we need to plan. It means we get our wishes fulfilled and gives guidance to our loved ones who otherwise have to pick up the pieces.”

In a good way, change is happening. Since 2017, the multimedia project We’re All Going to Die has encouraged people to embrace their immortality and use it to empower their lives, through educational films and festivals.

The award-winning podcast, GriefCast, hosted by comedian Cariad Lloyd whose father died when she was a teenager, sees entertainers speak with startling honesty – and surprising humour – about death, from the logistics of palliative care and funeral plans to the long-term effects of bereavement.

When we can talk openly about death, we may also increase our chances of reducing suicides. To help people to help each other, Lifeline offer an online course in QPR – the equivalent of CPR for people experiencing a suicidal crisis.

As part of the training – which only takes an hour and costs $10 – people are urged not to tiptoe around the conversations. Instead, be direct: “Do you feel like you want to die?”

In our social circles, we need to discuss worst-case-scenarios. Do you have a will? Do you have death insurance? Are you an organ donor? As an Australian immigrant living 16,000 kilometres from my parents, I always have enough money in my bank account for an emergency flight home. Because, nobody lives forever.

It’s confronting but it’s necessary

During my book tour, I cried on stage for the first time whilst discussing my journey from a 23-year-old widow to a 34-year-old wife and mother of two. Because, for the first time in a decade, I have reached a place where I can talk about my experience of death – and really be heard.

I shared the reason I light a candle in my bedroom every evening and say a prayer: help me to act from a place of love, not fear.

“If my dad’s cancer comes back, on that day I will light that candle,” I said, “If my husband, who is here with my newborn, dies and I am widowed again then I will light that candle to remind myself to act from a place of love.”

We need to talk about death to be active participants in the full spectrum of life: so we can decide who to be when a doctor pulls us into a private room, when we answer the phone to bad news, when we say goodbye for the last time.

We are so scared of death, we don’t discuss what an honour it is to watch someone die; to be present – really present – when someone takes their last breath, to lean in and breathe them in, to put your head on their chest as their heart stops beating and kiss their skin as it transforms.

I hope you all have that experience one day.

We are not meant to say that, but we should.

Complete Article HERE!

At Death’s Door, Shedding Light On How To Live

By Judith Graham

Nothing so alters a person as learning you have a terminal illness.

Ronni Bennett, who writes a popular blog about aging, discovered that recently when she heard that cancer had metastasized to her lungs and her peritoneum (a membrane that lines the cavity of the abdomen).

There is no cure for your condition, Bennett was told by doctors, who estimated she might have six to eight months of good health before symptoms began to appear.

Right then and there, this 77-year-old resolved to start doing things differently — something many people might be inclined to do in a similar situation.

No more extended exercise routines every morning, a try-to-stay-healthy activity that Bennett had forced herself to adopt but disliked intensely.

No more watching her diet, which had allowed her to shed 40 pounds several years ago and keep the weight off, with considerable effort.

No more worrying about whether memory lapses were normal or an early sign of dementia — an irrelevant issue now.

No more pretending that the cliche “we’re all terminal” (since death awaits all of us) is especially insightful. This abstraction has nothing to do with the reality of knowing, in your gut, that your own death is imminent, Bennett realized.

“It colors everything,” she told me in a long and wide-ranging conversation recently. “I’ve always lived tentatively, but I’m not anymore because the worst has happened — I’ve been told I’m going to die.”

No more listening to medical advice from friends and acquaintances, however well-intentioned. Bennett has complete trust in her medical team at Oregon Health & Science University, which has treated her since diagnosing pancreatic cancer last year. She’s done with responding politely to people who think they know better, she said.

And no more worrying, even for a minute, what anyone thinks of her. As Bennett wrote in a recent blog post, “All kinds of things . . . fall away at just about the exact moment the doctor says, ‘There is no treatment.’ ”

Four or five times a day, a wave of crushing fear washes through her, Bennett told me. She breathes deeply and lets it pass. And no, psychotherapy isn’t something she wants to consider.

Instead, she’ll feel whatever it is she needs to feel — and learn from it. This is how she wants to approach death, Bennett said: alert, aware, lucid. “Dying is the last great adventure we have — the last bit of life — and I want to experience it as it happens,” she said.

Writing is, for Bennett, a necessity, the thing she wants to do more than anything during this last stage of her life. For decades, it’s been her way of understanding the world — and herself.

In a notebook, Bennett has been jotting down thoughts and feelings as they come to her. Some she already has shared in a series of blog posts about her illness. Some she’s saving for the future.

There are questions she hasn’t figured out how to answer yet.

“Can I still watch trashy TV shows?”

“How do I choose what books to read, given that my time is finite?

“What do I think about rationale suicide?” (Physician-assisted death is an option in Oregon, where Bennett lives.)

Along with her “I’m done with that” list, Bennett has a list of what she wants to embrace:

Ice cream and cheese, her favorite foods. Walks in the park near her home. Get-togethers with her public affairs discussion group. A romp with kittens or puppies licking her and making her laugh. A sense of normalcy, for as long as possible. “What I want is my life, very close to what it is,” she explained. And deep conversations with friends. “What has been most helpful and touched me most are the friends who are willing to let me talk about this,” she said.

On her blog, she has invited readers to “ask any questions at all” and made it clear she welcomes frank communication.

“I’m new to this — this dying thing — and there’s no instruction book. I’m kind of fascinated by what you do with yourself during this period, and questions help me figure out what I think,” she told me.

Recently, a reader asked Bennett if she was angry about her cancer. No, Bennett answered. “Early on, I read about some cancer patients who get hung up on ‘why me?’ My response was ‘why not me?’ Most of my family died of cancer and, 40 percent of all Americans will have some form of cancer during their lives.”

Dozens of readers have responded with shock, sadness and gratitude for Bennett’s honesty about subjects that usually aren’t discussed in public.

“Because she’s writing about her own experiences in detail and telling people how she feels, people are opening up and relaying their experiences — things that maybe they’ve never said to anyone before,” Millie Garfield, 93, a devoted reader and friend of Bennett’s, told me in a phone conversation.

Garfield’s parents never talked about illness and death the way Bennett is doing. “I didn’t have this close communication with them, and they never opened up to me about all the things Ronni is talking about,” she said.

For the last year, Bennett and her former husband, Alex Bennett, have broadcast video conversations every few weeks over YouTube. (He lives across the country in New York City.) “What you’ve written will be valuable as a document of somebody’s life and how to leave it,” he told her recently as they talked about her condition with poignancy and laughter.

Other people may have very different perspectives as they take stock of their lives upon learning they have a terminal illness. Some may not want to share their innermost thoughts and feelings; others may do so willingly or if they feel other people really want to listen.

During the past 15 years, Bennett chose to live her life out loud through her blog. For the moment, she’s as committed as ever to doing that.

“There’s very little about dying from the point of view of someone who’s living that experience,” she said. “This is one of the very big deals of aging and, absolutely, I’ll keep writing about this as long as I want to or can.”

Complete Article HERE!

Why we shouldn’t fear dying alone, or monothanatophobia


The sunrise burns off the morning mist over the remains of trenches in the Newfoundland Memorial Park at Beaumont Hamel on November 09, 2018 in Albert, France.

by Deirdre Pike

Despite growing up in a death-denying culture, place and time in Canada, pretty long past the days where dead bodies were openly displayed and waked at a family home instead of a funeral home, I have come as far as my 57th year (starting this week) with an openness to conversations about death and dying not normally heard among my peers.

There are many experiences that may have contributed to this. Perhaps being born in November, the Month of the Dead, just two days after Remembrance Day, had an impact. Being named after Ireland’s Deirdre of the Sorrows (not intentionally, my mom assures me) who is said to have died by suicide, perhaps by having her head smashed on a rock by the passing royal chariot (nice touch), may have played a part in my ability to banter about death more freely than others.

Becoming a Catholic, when I was 15, introduced me to ways of ritualizing death and praying for the dead just in time to help me cope with the deaths of seven of my high school peers in three separate car accidents and my stepbrother’s death by suicide a year later.

I also credit my love of excellent rock music for giving me a healthy outlook on death. Take Pink Floyd, for instance.

“And I am not frightened of dying, any time will do, I don’t mind. Why should I be frightened of dying? There’s no reason for it, you’ve gotta go sometime.”

Lying in bed (just like Brian Wilson did) as a teenager, falling asleep, high, with giant headphones blasting these lyrics into my brain, coupled with Trooper’s, “We’re here for a good time, not a long time,” has pretty much described my approach to death, and therefore life, or my approach to life, and therefore death.

It’s that approach, 14 years of parish ministry and more that I have been bringing to what’s called a “Social Innovation Lab.” In this case, the laboratory includes 25 or so palliative care clinicians, social activists, consumers, policy and system leaders, health care leaders and change agents from across Canada to concentrate for six solid days on one question: “How can we change the culture of our health system so the palliative approach, which creates a truly person-centred system, becomes the norm across the whole system?”

This “Palliative Care and Complexity Science Laboratory” is what brought me to be sitting in a circle of a dozen or so residents from a local seniors’ apartment building with three palliative care doctors, discussing monothanatophobia — the fear of dying alone. Although the word itself was brand new to me and all of the people who accepted our invitation to come and discuss it, the concept wasn’t.

We chose our topic after reading about the man who died alone in Hamilton’s social housing recently and went undiscovered for a couple of days before a woman below found some of his remains leaking into her apartment. Nobody wants that to be the story of their last days alive — or dead — on Earth.

There is strong evidence to show why we need to be more intentional about building community now and in the days ahead. Data about living situations from the 2016 Canadian census show for the first time that the number of one-person households has surpassed all other types of living situations. More than a quarter of all households were people living alone.

Applying the principles of palliative care means having conversations about living, not dying. It’s more than making sure community exists to support people in their final days of life. It’s also making sure people are connected while they’re living in a way that respects privacy yet decreases social isolation so no one dies alone.

One great read I recommend on the topic of death and dying is “Talking About Death Won’t Kill You,” by Dr. Kathy Kortes-Miller.

With an essential chapter for anyone on social media called, “Posting, Tweeting and Texting: Dying in a Digital World,” I urge you to make this a holiday gift to your family so you can “out” the conversation of death and dying to make it, as Kortes-Miller says, a logical extension of our living.”

Complete Article HERE!

Death’s a party

At monthly mortuary gatherings, Grass Valley duo the Posy-Filled Pockets encourage mortals to look forward to their last breath

By

I’m uncomfortable with death. A staunch atheist who grew up Christian, I used to believe heaven or hell awaited me on the other side. It took years of anxiety attacks and therapy to come to terms with mortality, with there being nothing afterward, and I find peace by not thinking about it.

But tonight, the whole point is to think about it. The mortician warns us that at any moment, someone’s dead body could interrupt the show. Even mine.

Tim Lilyquist coolly gives the omen to the 25 or so seated at the Chapel of Angels Mortuary in Grass Valley. His death-positivity group Posy-Filled Pockets is just beginning its October presentation. The projector screen reads: “Death. Everyone’s doing it.”

It’s not like we’ll see a literal dead body (though if we hear commotion in the back, Lilyquist says it could be because of that). A fresh corpse would remind us that, even though we’re all here to laugh, learn and contemplate our unexistence, death strikes at any time. Tonight’s topic of discussion: the afterlife.

Lilyquist and founder Rachel James open the night by defining death positivity, which boils down to allowing death to be a part of everyday conversation, even if it’s scary.

“Death is something our culture is extremely weird about,” James told SN&R. “We don’t talk about it, we don’t plan for it, and anyone interested in it is considered morbid or weird when it is the only personal experience besides birth really that we all have.”

Four speakers gave talks that were funny, morbid and informative. One made a case that seances, mummies and telephones were ways humans tried to call up the dead. Another theorized that water is a parasite that infects and animates our otherwise lifeless bodies. She used The Stuff as a metaphor. In the ‘80s B-horror movie, railroad workers discover a tasty, yogurt-like substance growing out of the ground, which they package and sell like hotcakes. It turns out, it’s alive and mass-consumes its consumers. To add to the strangeness, she offered everyone water before she started. Sneaky!

In the modest church space, it felt somewhere between awkward youth group night, lo-fi Ted Talk and a giggling gathering of goths. But it’s more than that. At the front of the show, James told the crowd that the talks are meant to lure you into the workshops—the less peculiar part of the project—where they help people with more pragmatic issues related to death, including how to create a living will, who to call first when a loved one passes, and eco-alternatives to embalming. You know, stuff we should be planning for, but our culture’s aversion to death gets in the way.

Posy-Filled Pockets cofounder Tim Lilyquist found his calling as a mortician.

Several recent studies confirm this. One in 2017 by caring.com showed that only four out of 10 Americans have a trust or living will. A 2013 survey by the Institute of Medicine showed that 90 percent of Americans thought it was important to have end-of-life discussions with their loved ones, but only 30 percent did. And a 2013 Pew Research Center report showed that 47 percent of Americans have experienced a death in their lives.

If listening to macabre presentations softens people enough to start planning for death in a responsible way, then James says she feels like she’s succeeded.

Though Posy-Filled Pockets started in 2016, it went on hiatus that year when James found out that her father was diagnosed with Stage 4 esophageal cancer. His death, and her similar diagnosis a year earlier, made much of what she advocates become crystal clear.

DEADx Talks

Death positivity is now a national movement. One of its most prominent figures is Caitlin Doughty, a mortician who wrote a morbidly funny memoir titled Smoke Gets In Your Eyes, and founded the death acceptance organization called Order of the Good Death, which shares death-positive content online and hosts similar gatherings to Posy-Filled Pockets.

James was one of the first people to join the Order. At the time, she was the editor-in-chief of Atlas Obscura, an offbeat travel site with her own personal focus often being on death-related destinations, like an abandoned brothel in Lassen County that is rumored to be haunted.

“I’ve always been drawn to [death], and I think for most of us who are in the death industry, it’s because we experienced death in early age or had an experience that left us with a lot of questions,” James says.

In 2015, James’ surprise breast cancer diagnosis led her to move back to

Cofounder Rachel James, one of the first to join the Order of the Good Death, was a travel writer and editor for an obscure travel magazine called Atlas Obscura.

Grass Valley, her hometown. She put writing on hold and got a double mastectomy while in her second trimester with her now 3-year-old son.

She’s in remission now. The experience was shocking, but James says it showed her death wasn’t an abstract concept.

“I had never thought about a [living will], or anything like that,” James says. “How can I be so involved in this topic and still not have thought about the practicalities of it for myself? It kind of got me more serious about the topic.”

Later that year, she met Lilyquist. As a kid, he imagined himself as a homicide detective, but with no real interest in law enforcement and a dead-pan sense of humor, it transmuted into death industry work, which he’s happy doing. He says he enjoys the questions folks have regarding his career choice, like what happens in the cremation process.

“Once I started working at the mortuary, I saw how widespread it was that people considered death a taboo subject,” Lilyquist explains. “Especially the topic of grief. It definitely helped expose me to a greater variety of how it’s affecting people.”

James insisted that he co-host a death-themed monthly event that was distinctly Grass Valley. The initial Posy-Filled Pockets was a success, something James wasn’t sure about at first, since the Nevada County small town is no Los Angeles or San Francisco, where similar Death Salons are sometimes held at convention centers.

Lo-fi elements are part of its charm. Many of the speakers aren’t professionals, including Courtney Williams, who’s spoken twice at Posy-Filled Pockets. Once about how “fashion kills” (about people wearing dresses dyed with arsenic, for instance) and a second time about her ex-husband’s suicide.

“People are normally uncomfortable in mortuaries,” Williams says. “You think it’s probably an awkward conversation so maybe people won’t be raising their hands and laughing about stuff. People were really engaging with the information, which was surprising to me.”

In 2019, Posy-Filled Pockets have several themed events and workshops lined up, a new website, new speakers and a podcast in the works. Lilyquist and James are resurrecting their efforts to get people talking about death.

But after watching Posy-Filled Pocket’s presentation, I realized that death-positivity isn’t just about thinking about the end; It’s about cracking jokes, finding weird stories to spin and studying all the oddball edges of this scary seemingly straight-forward topic, and having fun with something we are told is in no ways fun.

It is pretty strange that we all eventually cease to exist one day, and why not celebrate that? My dog, who’s blissfully unaware of death, will never know the joy of laughing at her mortality.

Complete Article HERE!

How death disappeared from Halloween

Americans tend to avoid opportunities to engage with their own mortality

“Trick-or-treating was a way of buying kids off,” says author Lisa Morton.

By Vittoria Elliott and Kevin McDonald

Halloween in America is awfully cute these days — both in the sense that children’s costumes have reached unimaginable heights of adorability and that the holiday has lost its darkness — and that’s rather awful.

Sexy avocado costumes obscure the holiday’s historical roots and the role it once played in allowing people to engage with mortality. What was once a spiritual practice, like so much else, has become largely commercial. While there is nothing better than a baby dressed as a Gryffindor, Halloween is supposed to be about death, a subject Americans aren’t particularly good at addressing. And nowhere is that more evident than in the way we celebrate (or don’t celebrate) Halloween.

Halloween has its origins in the first millennium A.D. in the Celtic Irish holiday Samhain. According to Lisa Morton, author of “Trick or Treat: A History of Halloween,” Samhain was a New Year’s celebration held in the fall, a sort of seasonal acknowledgment of the annual change from a season of life to one of death. The Celts used Samhain celebrations to settle debts, thin their herds of livestock and appease the spirits: the kinds of preparations one might make if they are genuinely unsure whether they will survive the winter.

But in America today, that kind of acknowledgment of imminent mortality rarely occurs, according to Anita Hannig, an anthropologist and professor at Brandeis University. “When we recognize our mortality, we make preparations for it,” she says, mentioning a Romanian acquaintance who had bought their grandmother a coffin for her birthday. “But in the U.S., that kind of engagement is seen as almost frivolous.”

But what could be less frivolous than talking about a wholly universal experience?

“Every other culture has a time set aside during the year where the dead visit,” said Sarah Chavez, executive director of the Order of the Good Death, a group of funeral industry professionals, academics and artists devoted to preparing a “death phobic culture for their inevitable mortality.” Part of the power of these rituals is to make death into a known quantity, something to be accepted, even embraced, rather than feared.

When Roman Christian missionaries began to convert the Celtic peoples, local holidays were not banished, but rather co-opted. All Saints’ Day, formerly celebrated in mid-May, was moved to Nov. 1 as a way to tame the wild Celtic tradition of Samhain. All Saints’ Day is a celebration of all the dead who have attained heaven in the Catholic tradition, a death-centric celebration if there ever was one.

But the rowdiness of Samhain proved difficult to dislodge, according to Morton, so the Catholic Church tacked on All Souls’ day on Nov. 2, to offer prayers for those who were stuck in purgatory. This three-day celebration began on the evening of Oct. 31, eventually becoming All Hallows’ Evening in reference to the holy days to follow.

When the Spanish colonized what is now Mexico, they used the same strategy, taking indigenous rituals and co-opting them into the church, creating what we know today as Día de los Muertos. In both instances, the holidays retained their focus on the ritualistic recognition of mortality and honoring the dead, with the church as arbiter of the afterlife.

Halloween arrived in the United States in the 1840s, brought by Irish and Scottish immigrants fleeing famine. Popular activities included fortunetelling, speaking with the dead and other forms of divination. (To get a sense of how uncomfortable many Americans are with the dead, try this at your next Halloween party and see what kinds of looks you get.)

Catholic-infused Halloween and Samhain shared several similarities with Día de los Muertos. They were both feast days, filled with candles and a reverence for the dead. The traditional sugar skulls, or calaveras, are similar to Halloween’s “soul cakes,” sweet treats people would offer in exchange for prayers for dead relatives languishing in purgatory.

The calavera tradition remains in the modern form of Día de los Muertos, but in the United States, soul cakes have all but vanished. We now have trick-or-treating, a tradition borne purely out of concerns for the living. In the early part of the 20th century, destructive young pranksters would take full advantage of Halloween, vandalizing and destroying property.

“It was costing cities a lot of money,” says Morton. Instead of banning the holiday altogether, neighborhoods banded together to host parties and give out snacks. “Trick-or-treating was a way of buying kids off.”

Similar to how Halloween has drifted from death ritual to doorbell ringing, modern American engagements with death have changed from up close to a culture of avoidance.

In a lot of ways, Halloween in the United States “mirrors our experience with death directly,” says Chavez.

“We used to take care of our dead in our homes — people used to die at home. We took care of our loved ones, dug their graves. We were there through the entire process. We have no idea what death looks like anymore,” she says. And that ignorance breeds fear, uncertainty and avoidance.

Today, about 80 percent of people die in a hospital or a nursing home. Hannig calls these “institutional deaths,” and they’re just one part of how modern death has been sanitized and sequestered away from the world of the living.

“The responsibilities of death have been outsourced,” she says, adding that hospitals and the mortuary industry allow ordinary people to avoid engagement with the messiness and gruesomeness of death.

“When someone dies in a hospital, oftentimes the body will be whisked away almost immediately and family and friends won’t see it again until after it’s been embalmed.”

And it’s not just dying that modern America is losing touch with; it’s death rituals as well. As the United States becomes increasingly secular, religion’s role in making meaning out of death has shrunk. According to Hannig’s research, memorial services are becoming less and less common, and a collective honoring of the dead — something like All Souls’ Day — is practically nonexistent.

Hannig pointed out that in many other cultures, death is a community affair and something people prepare for together. In certain Buddhist communities in Nepal, for instance, when someone dies they will be surrounded by their loved ones and valued possessions to make sure they don’t have any longed-for attachment tying them to life. It’s a way for both parties — the dying and the living — to accept and let go.

Instead, modern Halloween focuses on the creepy and the capitalistic. “We consume death in a commercialized, entertainment way,” says Chavez. By making death fantastical, we make it feel almost impossible, and therefore less threatening. “We know that a zombie movie isn’t realistic. It’s all a way that we can reassure ourselves that we are safe and it won’t happen to us.”

But haunted attractions, horror films and safety from zombies haven’t made us less afraid of death. If anything, by continuing to keep death at a distance, we transform it into an unknown: possibly the scariest thing of all.

Dia de los Muertos (Day Of The Dead) 2018

More than 500 years ago, when the Spanish Conquistadors landed in what is now Mexico, they encountered natives practicing a ritual that seemed to mock death.

It was a ritual the indigenous people had been practicing at least 3,000 years. A ritual the Spaniards would try unsuccessfully to eradicate.

A ritual known today as Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead.

The ritual is celebrated in Mexico and certain parts of the United States. Although the ritual has since been merged with Catholic theology, it still maintains the basic principles of the Aztec ritual, such as the use of skulls.

Today, people don wooden skull masks called calacas and dance in honor of their deceased relatives. The wooden skulls are also placed on altars that are dedicated to the dead. Sugar skulls, made with the names of the dead person on the forehead, are eaten by a relative or friend, according to Mary J. Adrade, who has written three books on the ritual.

The Aztecs and other Meso-American civilizations kept skulls as trophies and displayed them during the ritual. The skulls were used to symbolize death and rebirth.

The skulls were used to honor the dead, whom the Aztecs and other Meso-American civilizations believed came back to visit during the monthlong ritual.

Unlike the Spaniards, who viewed death as the end of life, the natives viewed it as the continuation of life. Instead of fearing death, they embraced it. To them, life was a dream and only in death did they become truly awake.

“The pre-Hispanic people honored duality as being dynamic,” said Christina Gonzalez, senior lecturer on Hispanic issues at Arizona State University. “They didn’t separate death from pain, wealth from poverty like they did in Western cultures.”

However, the Spaniards considered the ritual to be sacrilegious. They perceived the indigenous people to be barbaric and pagan.

In their attempts to convert them to Catholicism, the Spaniards tried to kill the ritual.

But like the old Aztec spirits, the ritual refused to die.

To make the ritual more Christian, the Spaniards moved it so it coincided with All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day (Nov. 1 and 2), which is when it is celebrated today.

Previously it fell on the ninth month of the Aztec Solar Calendar, approximately the beginning of August, and was celebrated for the entire month. Festivities were presided over by the goddess Mictecacihuatl. The goddess, known as “Lady of the Dead,” was believed to have died at birth, Andrade said.

Today, Day of the Dead is celebrated in Mexico and in certain parts of the United States and Central America.

“It’s celebrated different depending on where you go,” Gonzalez said.

In rural Mexico, people visit the cemetery where their loved ones are buried. They decorate gravesites with marigold flowers and candles. They bring toys for dead children and bottles of tequila to adults. They sit on picnic blankets next to gravesites and eat the favorite food of their loved ones.

In Guadalupe, the ritual is celebrated much like it is in rural Mexico.

“Here the people spend the day in the cemetery,” said Esther Cota, the parish secretary at the Our Lady of Guadalupe Church. “The graves are decorated real pretty by the people.”

For more information visit HERE!