In the Victorian era, jewelry made with hair was all the rage. In 1854, the novelist Wilkie Collins wrote that bracelets made of human hair were “in England one of the commonest ornaments of woman’s wear.” Ten years later, Charles Dickens wrote that a man’s watch fob made of hair was the real mark of middle-class respectability.
Victorians on both sides of the Atlantic were particularly mesmerized by the hair of the dead. Victorian literature scholar Deborah Lutz explores “the materiality of death and its artifacts” of the era, finding antecedents in the Christian reliquary tradition, when body parts of saints were considered magical. Protestantism and secularization shifted this fascination toward the sought-after body parts of royals and the very famous (like Napoleon, whose penis is supposedly now in New Jersey). By the middle of the nineteenth century, this long Western tradition had become “increasingly secular, personal, and private.” And concentrated on hair.
Loved ones and relatives could give hair as tokens of love and friendship. Family members or lovers could twine their hair together. After a person’s death, their hair remained; as the Whitman exhibits show, well-preserved hair can last a long time. Hair was a tangible keepsake of a life, and of a body. Perhaps it imparted a sense that you might meet again.
Lutz writes that such relics “work as traces of a life and body completed and disappeared, in this sense something like last words, by they also serve as frames or fragments of the moment of loss.” These present reminders of those who have died speak of a “desire to see death as not permanent, in that material remains might be proof that the loved one still exists somewhere, somehow.” Relic worship also shows a willingness “to dwell in and with the moment of loss itself, to linger over this evidence of death’s presence woven into the texture of life at all turns.”
Romanticism, the Evangelical revival of the 1830s-40s, and Spiritualism’s rise in the 1850s-1860s, all contributed to this “after-death narrative” and the mid-century popularity of “hairwork.”
Lutz reminds us of the passage in Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights (1847) when Heathcliff switches his rival Linton’s hair from the locket around the dead Catherine’s neck and replaces it with his own. “Rather than gathering a memento of Catherine for himself, Heathcliff sees to it that a material fragment of his body will go down into the grave with Catherine’s corpse, to intermingle with her flesh.” The notion of the “good death” merges here with the palpable eroticization of death. Of course, Heathcliff’s plans are foiled by Nelly Dean, who twines Linton’s lock around Heathcliff’s—opening “the possibility of a postmortem storm of jealousy.”
Fiction mirrored the times. After her husband’s death in 1861, Queen Victoria had at least eight pieces of jewelry made that incorporated Prince Albert’s hair. The Victorians “found in relic culture a means to respect the irreducible self.” Such a culture, Lutz says, “sees death, and the body itself, as the beginning of stories, not their end.”
An intensive care doctor has written an honest book about her experiences.
NONE OF US want to end up in intensive care. But if we do, we should hope we end up with a doctor like Aoife Abbey.
The UK-based Irish doctor has written a book about what it is like being an intensive care doctor, exploring the emotional moments she has experienced. It’s a book that might just change how you think about death – and how you talk to your family about it.
After reading the book, Seven Signs of Life, you’ll want to sit down with your nearest and dearest to discuss what might happen to you should end up needing intensive care. Talking about death or serious illness is a taboo that still persists, but Dublin-born Abbey – who is in her mid-thirties – wants us to confront it.
“I appreciate people need to talk about death more because what I often say is, people come into intensive care, they don’t know they’re going to be there – it’s a surprise to everybody, they’ve had an accident or something,” she explains. “And you say to their family ‘what do you think they would have wanted?’ And the answer is ‘God, I don’t know. We haven’t talked about it.’ Why would you?”
This avoidance can lead to big questions being unanswered. “How would the patient feel about risking being alive and not being able to talk, how would they feel about organ donation? There’s lots of things people don’t discuss, and I think we need to discuss them more,” says Abbey, who graduated from the University of Warwick in 2011.
She advises people to have those difficult conversations with loved ones. “But what I would say is that it can often be difficult to imagine yourself in situations, so people might say ‘oh I would hate to have dementia. I’d rather just drop off.’,” she cautions. “When actually they don’t know that it’s true, because they’re not in that situation. So I think we have to be careful when we have conversations about life and death and what you’d like, in that we’re having general conversations and that we’re still not trying to pigeonhole people into certain decisions.”
Because often people will say ‘I would hate to live this way’ but actually then find an amount of joy and contentment living that way in the end because they have no other option. It is a difficult conversation.
“I guess in Ireland there’s always that thing of people say ‘don’t tempt fate’,” she says. Abbey and her family have had to deal with serious illness themselves. Her brother, Aaron, was a disability rights campaigner and died in October 2018. He was in and out of hospital a lot while the siblings were growing up.
“I’ve certainly had encounters where people have been frightened for me to tell their loved one that they are dying. And not just because they were worried that it would upset them emotionally, which is a very valid worry and I would worry the same thing,” says Abbey.
Because they would feel like that would mean they would die quicker. That crops up quite a lot, people say don’t tell them, because they’ll just give up.
‘It’s routine… until it isn’t’
The book was inspired by anonymous columns Abbey wrote for the British Medical Association, and the stories of the patients in the book are anonymised and amalgamated.
“I always loved intensive care and I loved it because there’s a lot of science there, you get to be specific, you get to care about the numbers,” says Abbey. “You have a lot of facilities, you know the nursing to patient ratio is one to one or one to two, you have all the numbers in front of you, everything is quite scientific.”
At the same time, this is juxtaposed against “the massive uncertainty of not knowing what somebody’s outcome is going to be”.
The level of pressure and responsibility builds the longer you work in intensive care.
There’s always an opportunity to ask for help. You learn as you go along and that’s how we do it, so it was never the case where I had to walk into an ICU and make loads of decisions.
She says that like everything in medicine, “all of this stuff is routine until it isn’t”. Indeed, in the book she details times when things did not go to plan. “If you intubate 100 patients and 99 of them are perfect, easy … it’s the one that’s difficult that’s the issue. So most things are routine, there’s always the potential for it not to be.”
When it comes to errors, the onus is on the doctor to make sure they learn from it.
“There’s nothing that makes you learn more than making a mistake,” she says. “You’re unlikely to ever do it again.”
The main thing is there is a culture, and it’s the right culture, where we don’t blame people when they make mistakes. And we’re supposed to recognise it’s a systems failure, and there’s lots of different explanations for why things go wrong, and it’s rarely one person’s issue; one person’s fault. But at the same time you have to figure out ways as a doctor to still accept and be OK with the fact also that you did make a mistake.
She includes in the book an incident where she missed something on a chest x-ray. It must have been nerve-wracking to write about when she first included it in a Secret Doctor blog post.
“It is still in numbers their most read blog. So it’s … I’m not going to say vindicated but there’s a need for that kind of discussion and people clearly had an interest or it struck a chord with them.”
She has never worked with the HSE, and describes the NHS as something that’s very much woven into national identity in the UK. “You have this service that’s free at the point of care, and people are very proud of it. It’s a very emotive topic,” she says, noting that “it doesn’t matter how angry the media is with the NHS at a given point, patients that I see behave the same. Most of them they are grateful, they’re frightened, they’re scared – they are just people, they are separate from political issues.”
Speaking of political issues, the big one for NHS workers and Irish emigrants like Abbey is Brexit. “If I wasn’t from Ireland I would have a huge amount of uncertainty and I’d be very worried,” she says. “You don’t really know what’s going on. You take so much for granted.”
But it’s not something that she lets take over her work. “I think you just learn to be very focused on what you’re doing. You have to let things in in the moment or else you’re not human, and you can’t engage with someone who’s being very emotional with you with a wall in front of you, because it’s not human and it’s not very nice for them either.”
She has learned to talk to her colleagues and friends about things that affect her, and not keep it bottled up. This is her eighth year in training, and in August 2020 she’ll be able to pursue a consultant job.
In the book she details very tender and emotional moments, such as when a dying man asks her to lift his head up so he can talk to her properly. It’s those intimate moments that leave an impact on her.
“There’s things you get exposed to but I guess in the moment it’s so much about what that person is feeling, you do feel a little bit humbled by the fact that you’re able to give them anything,” she says.
Because they’re going through something that is horrible. And you put it aside until you get home, or until you close the door of the room.
Seven Signs of Life is out now, published by Penguin Random House.
Tears spill down Nora McInerny’s face as she stares at the recording studio’s ceiling.
“That was when the doctors told her the cancer was going to kill her,” the interviewee is saying.
“Wow,” McInerny says, letting the word rest in the air. The pause stretches far beyond a comfortable one. McInerny has a pained look on her face, yet she appears every bit the polished modern woman: her blond hair is curled, her red lipstick is still in place and there is a scarf tied in a perfect knot around her neck. In another studio, she could be working on a show about the latest fashion trends or young women in the workplace.
Instead, she’s hosting a podcast about the horrors that face humanity: cancer, suicide, sexual abuse, mass shootings.
Each week, the podcast digs deep. It allows listeners to think about the pain we live through, how we face it, tackle it, collapse under its weight. It gives permission to grieve, to go on living, to be happy and sad simultaneously. It’s about everything that life can throw at us and the myriad ways in which we must reimagine our lives. As McInerny writes in her newest book, “No Happy Endings: A Memoir,” “death is not the only time we start over
And McInerny is an expert in the subject.
“Terrible, Thanks for Asking” and all that has come after was born out of McInerny’s own grief. She launched it in 2016, as a 33-year-old single mom, just two years after losing her first husband, Aaron Purmort, to brain cancer. Weeks before Aaron died, she also suffered a miscarriage and watched her father die.Aaron’s obituary, which they wrote together, went viral, and people began contacting McInerny. “So many people . . . were reaching out to me, a complete stranger, in the middle of the night to talk about the worst thing that ever happened to them, and it wasn’t because they were all friendless or familyless,” she remembers. “It was just because the people around them were afraid to talk to them or didn’t want to remind them of their tragedy.”
Episodes include guests such as a young man with cerebral palsy; a woman who almost died in a fire that killed her boyfriend; an emergency-room doctor who watched her husband die in the hospital where she works.
Each story is filled with almost-unspeakable pain. And yet, the podcast has been listened to more than 14 million times.
Sitting on her couch recently in Minneapolis, McInerny recalls those early days after losing Aaron. As she talks, she looks at a wall-size photograph of the two of them holding their young son, Aaron’s adoring gaze forever watching over the bustling living room, so full of life.
Just then, McInerny’s husband, Matthew Hart, walks in holding their youngest child, who they affectionately call “baby.” Her 6-year-old, the one who calls Aaron “Dad” and Matthew “Matty-daddy,” runs in dressed like a shark, and she laughs. Two teenagers, Matthew’s kids from his first marriage, coordinate pickup from soccer practice that afternoon. McInerny’s mother shows up and begins chatting with Matthew and playing with the younger kids. And, of course, there’s a family dog.
The chaos and love surrounding McInerny is a perfect representation of her life.
“I do think most families are complicated and built from all of these fragmented other places, but we’d rather not think of it that way,” she says. Her family, in fact, isn’t just her new husband and their kids. It also includes Aaron’s family, especially his mother, whom she communicates with often. McInerny admits in her new book that she and Aaron’s mom initially “couldn’t do the grief together,” but now her family of six spends part of every winter break visiting her. “Aaron’s mother buys all the kids Christmas presents,” she says, “and they all call her May-May.”
The life that surrounds her is full of many positive things. Yet when she cries about Aaron with people outside her inner circle, she says, it can be a bit disconcerting to them. She understands that society believes she should be either happy or sad, but not necessarily both. “I think that most families hold both sad and happy feelings, and I don’t think I would have known that or assumed that before. In fact, I know I wouldn’t have.”
When Aaron was dying, the couple formed a nonprofit organization, Still Kickin, that gives no-strings-attached grants to people who are struggling. One recipient, a domestic violence survivor named Andi, recalls how the grant helped her move and support her family “during a very dark time.” This grant was “a bright light to me amidst so much darkness.”
Even with such demands on her time, McInerny tries not to compromise her home life, going to the gym with her teenagers or snuggling on the couch with her little ones. Her work with grieving people lives alongside an otherwise normal life.
McInerny’s goal is not to sensationalize death and tragedy. “I know how it feels to just be somebody’s sad story. Nobody wants to be a sad story,” McInerny says. Instead, she aims to make a show that is about understanding the complex mix of joy and pain experienced by one person.
This means that if she’s doing a story, for example, about two law enforcement officers whose baby died of SIDS, she doesn’t spend weeks researching the various causes of infant death. Instead, she tries to understand an individual story. So McInerny lets the bereaved family talk with little interruption. The mother speaks through tears as she recalls seeing her husband the moment after tragedy hit. “All I could think of was hold it together,” she says, “because your husband just watched our son die.”
In these interviews, McInerny provides narration and a frame from which to view the story. In another episode, she interviews a Hmong woman named Yer Vu who was widowed, became a refugee and fled to the United States with three young children. “I carried [my youngest son] on my back,” the woman recalls as part of her harrowing tale of escape which also involved fording a river in a war zone. “If there was no God, maybe we would have died,” Yer Vu says.
There is a slight pause, and then the listener hears the voice of McInerny. “Yer Vu credits God,” she narrates, “and I credit Yer Vu. Because that is more motherhood than I have or will ever do in my entire life.”
Her authenticity has brought some unexpected voices to her podcast, such as Nation Hahn, who was drawn to the podcast because he felt she could tell his story in a way that other media had not. His episode, which focuses on how he processed the murder of his wife while being simultaneously thrust into a media spotlight, gave him a platform to tell his whole story. “I admire [McInerny] for her tenacity and willingness to explore tough issues while building community,” Hahn says. “As someone who is still very much experiencing grief years later, ‘Terrible, Thanks for Asking’ offers a path forward, helpful advice, and reminds me that I am not alone in the face of this terrible loss.”
McInerny says her goal is to promote empathy instead of pity. So even though the topics she covers can be quite grim, the show itself is not. She laughs often while talking to guests and usually gets them to laugh, too.
“I don’t want the show to be a relentless bummer,” she says. Still, she believes in the importance of facing difficult subjects head-on. “We do a really good job, especially the U.S., of making sure we avoid everything uncomfortable,” McInerny says. But running from pain is impossible, because “it will catch you eventually. So you might as well be open to the experience and open to witnessing those experiences in other people because someday something terrible is going to happen to you or to someone you love. Actually, that’s a guarantee.”
But why continue to immerse herself in tragedy when she’s already been through so much loss?
“Sometimes, I don’t want to do it,” McInerny concedes, but then there are times when she feels inspired by the stories she hears. Moreover, she wants these conversations about death and loss and hardship to become more commonplace. Notes from listeners explain how she may have an even wider impact than she initially imagined.
“I think you saved my life tonight,” wrote a man named Jim who told her he had been struggling with depression. “You kept me awake tonight, and now I know tomorrow will be better.”
McInerny recognizes that letting in all of this pain is difficult for most people. In fact, she found it really hard to engage in such discussions before she had to face her husband’s cancer and death. She knows that it might be impossible for her to ever really understand what grief feels like for someone who has experienced a different tragedy. “But at the same time,” she says, “very untimely and tragic death does give you some sort of access to each other.”
Maybe this is what makes her so effective at getting people to open up about their lives. Or maybe it’s just that McInerny has that certain touch — the one that helps people tell the entirety of their stories, rather than be reduced to a simple anecdote.
The topics she tackles may be difficult, but, she says, “These are things that everybody has always been trying to connect over since the dawn of time, right? The few things that we all have in common are love and want and death.”
My mother used to be addicted to the thrift store. She went every week for no purpose other than to browse for deals. Of course she found deals, being the shrewd and careful shopper that she is — gold earrings, fine china sets, silverware, high-quality linens, kitchen appliances, to name a few. The problem was that these deals came home. They filled the house, packing shelves and occupying counter space, to the point of feeling cramped.
Several years ago, I said to my mother in frustration, “It would be a nightmare to have to deal with all this stuff if you died tomorrow.” She looked at me, stunned. Up until then, I suspect she’d assumed that everyone appreciated her junk-treasures as much as she did. What ensued, mercifully, was a house purge. Mom removed much of her stuff and ceased her weekly pilgrimages to the thrift store, avoiding temptation.
That conversation revealed to me the importance of discussing the long-term intentions for one’s belongings. If I hadn’t said anything, I suspect it would have been decades before my 50-something-year-old mother realized what a burden her stuff would be on the family someday — and just think of all the additional things she could’ve accumulated in that time. It makes me shiver.
Enter “Swedish Death Cleaning.” (I’m not joking. This is for real.)
The first time I heard the term, I thought it meant some kind of hardcore Scandinavian house-cleaning routine (they take a lot of things seriously there), where you scour your home from top to bottom to the point of physical collapse, as in “working yourself to the bone.” Well, I was wrong.
The first time I heard the term, I thought it meant some kind of hardcore Scandinavian house-cleaning routine (they take a lot of things seriously there), where you scour your home from top to bottom to the point of physical collapse, as in “working yourself to the bone.” Well, I was wrong.
In Swedish, the word is “dostadning” and it refers to the act of slowly and steadily decluttering as the years go by, ideally beginning in your fifties (or at any point in life) and going until the day you kick the bucket. The ultimate purpose of death cleaning is to minimize the amount of stuff, especially meaningless clutter, that you leave behind for others to deal with.
Magnusson says that the first secret to effective death cleaning is to speak about it always. Tell others what you’re doing so they can hold you accountable. Yee writes: “If you vocalise it, it will come. Or something like that.” Pass on your belongings in order to spread the happy memories.
The second key point is not to fear death cleaning:
“Death cleaning isn’t the story of death and its slow, ungainly inevitability. But rather the story of life, your life, the good memories and the bad. ‘The good ones you keep,’ Magnusson says. ‘The bad you expunge.'”
Finally, Magnusson encourages those engaging in Swedish death cleaning to reward their efforts with life-enhancing pleasures and activities, such as going to watch a movie, spending time in the garden, or eating an enjoyable meal. (Need I say no shopping?)
Who can possibly resist a decluttering philosophy with the name of ‘Swedish death cleaning’? Watch your friends’ eyebrows skyrocket when you pull this one out as an excuse for not wanting to go out next weekend. “Sorry, but I must engage in my Swedish death cleaning routine…”
George and Shirley Brickenden, who are 95 and 94, respectively, decided they didn’t want to wait any longer for death to arrive. They’d been married for 73 years and their bodies weren’t faring so well. Shirley had a heart attack in 2016 and nearly died; she now had rheumatoid arthritis and was in constant pain. George was found passed out, unconscious, on his birthday and his heart was also failing.
Under Canadian law, both of them qualify for what’s known as physician-assisted death. They’re older than 18, Canadian citizens, mentally competent, suffering from a “serious and incurable disease, illness or disability,” and in an “‘advanced state of irreversible decline,’ with enduring and intolerable suffering.” Furthermore, there was no coercion involved. They checked off all the boxes.
And both of them decided to end their lives together, in peace, at the same time last week.
Shortly before 7 p.m., Mrs. Brickenden turned to her husband. “Are you ready?”
“Ready when you are,” he replied.
They walked into their bedroom and lay down together, holding hands. The two doctors, one for each patient, inserted intravenous lines into their arms.
Angela rubbed her mom’s feet. [Pamela] rubbed her dad’s. “They smiled, they looked at each other,” Pamela said. Then Mr. Brickenden looked at his children, standing at the end of the bed.
“I love you all,” he said.
This is exactly why the law was passed. Forcing people to live in pain is a form of torture. The Brickendens were able to get their lives in order, say goodbye one last time to their children, and end life hand in hand with the person they love most. If you were to imagine your own perfect death, it would probably look something like that.
And yet there are many religious groups that oppose letting people make that decision because it’s thwarting God’s plan for their lives. They’re so “pro-life,” they would rather see people suffer than die on their own terms. In some cases, like when a dying patient ends up at a Catholic hospital that doesn’t allow the procedure, the result is even more cruelty.
In Canada, however, this is now a legal procedure with sensible hurdles in place to prevent people from abusing it. It was made for situations like these. There may be certain situations where the moral thing to do isn’t always obvious, but this isn’t one of them.
As age and overwhelming infirmities overtook them, on a beautiful spring day, after 73 years of marriage, they toasted each other with family and good champagne, held hands and left this life gently and together, on their own terms. This was their final act of love, hoping their act will pave the way for others who are suffering. They were fully at peace with this decision and had the support of their four devoted children who have always known this was how they wanted it to be when the time came. We are all forever grateful for the compassionate assistance of Dying with Dignity. They have blessed this earth together for 73 years and it’s time for them to bless the stars.
In the United States, death with dignity is only legal in six states and Washington, D.C. That leaves a lot of places where people who are ready to end life are forced to prolong it against their will. That needs to change.
Dayna West knows how to throw a fabulous memorial shindig. She hired Los Angeles celebration-of-life planner Alison Bossert — yes, those now exist — to create what West dubbed “Memorialpalooza” for her father, Howard, in 2016 a few months after his death.
“None of us is going to get out of this alive,” says Bossert, who helms Final Bow Productions. “We can’t control how or when we die, but we can say how we want to be remembered.”
And how Howard was remembered! There was a crowd of more than 300 on the Sony Pictures Studios. A hot-dog cart from the famed L.A. stand Pink’s. Gift bags, the hit being a baseball cap inscribed with “Life’s not fair, get over it” (a beloved Howardism). A constellation of speakers, with Jerry Seinfeld as the closer (Howard was his personal manager). And babka (a tribute to a favorite “Seinfeld” episode).
“My dad never followed rules,” says West, 56, a Bay Area clinical psychologist. So why would his memorial service
Death is a given, but not the time-honored rituals. An increasingly secular, nomadic and casual America is shredding the rules about how to commemorate death, and it’s not just among the wealthy and famous. Somber, embalmed-body funerals, with their $9,000 industry average price tag, are, for many families, a relic. Instead, end-of-life ceremonies are being personalized: golf-course cocktail send-offs, backyard potluck memorials, more Sinatra and Clapton, less “Ave Maria,” more Hawaiian shirts, fewer dark suits. Families want to put the “fun” in funerals
The movement will only accelerate as the nation approaches a historic spike in deaths. Baby boomers, despite strenuous efforts to stall the aging process, are not getting any younger. In 2030, people over 65 will outnumber children, and by 2037, 3.6 million people are projected to die in the United States, according to the Census Bureau, 1 million more than in 2015, which is projected to outpace the growth of the overall population
Just as nuptials have been transformed — who held destination weddings in the ’90s? — and gender-reveal celebrations have become theatrical productions, the death industry has experienced seismic changes over the past couple of decades. Practices began to shift during the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s, when many funeral homes were unable to meet the needs of so many young men dying, and friends often hosted events that resembled parties.
Now, many families are replacing funerals (where the body is present) with memorial services (where the body is not). Religious burial requirements are less a consideration in a country where only 36 percent of Americans say they regularly attend religious services, nearly a third never or rarely attend, and almost a quarter identify as agnostic or atheist, according to the Pew Research Center.
Funeral homes adapt
More than half of all American deaths lead to cremations, compared to 28 percent in 2002, due to expense (they can cost a third the price of a burial), the environment, and family members living far apart with less ability to visit cemetery plots, according to the National Funeral Directors Association. By 2035, the cremation rate is projected to be a staggering 80 percent, the association says. And cremation frees loved ones to stage a memorial anywhere, at any time, and to store or scatter ashes as they please. (Maintenance of cemeteries, if families stop using them, may become a preservation and financial problem
Past funeral association president Mark Musgrove, who runs a network of funeral homes and chapels in Eugene, Ore., says his industry, already marked by consolidation, is adapting to changing demands.
“Services are more life-centered, around the person’s personality, likes and dislikes. They’re unique and not standardized,” he says. “The only way we can survive is to provide the services that families find meaningful.”
Funeral homes have hired event planners, remodeled drab parlors to include dance floors and lounge areas, acquired liquor licenses to replace the traditional vat of industrial-strength coffee. In Oregon, where cremation rates are near 80 percent, Musgrove has organized memorial celebrations at golf courses and Autzen Stadium, home of the Ducks. He sells urns that resemble giant golf balls and styles adorned with the University of Oregon logo. In a cemetery, his firm installed a “Peace Columbarium,” a retrofitted 1970s VW van, brightly painted with “Peace” and “Love,” to house urns.
Change has sparked nascent death-related industries in a culture long besotted with youth. There are death doulas (caring for the terminally ill), death cafes (to discuss life’s last chapter over cake and tea), death celebrants (officiants who lead end-of-life events), living funerals (attended by the honored while still breathing), and end-of-life workshops (for the healthy who think ahead). The Internet allows lives to continue indefinitely in memorial Facebook pages, tribute vlogs on YouTube and instamemorials on Instagram.
Memorials are no longer strictly local events. As with weddings and birthdays, families are choosing favorite vacation idylls as final resting spots. Captain Ken Middleton’s Hawaii Ash Scatterings performs 600 cremains dispersals a year for as many as 80 passengers on cruises that may feature a ukulele player, a conch-shell blower and releases of white doves or monarch butterflies.
“It makes it a celebration of life and not such a morbid affair,” says Middleton. His service is experiencing annual growth of 15 to 20 percent.
From coffins to compost
With increased concern for the environment, people are opting for green funerals, where the body is placed in a biodegradable coffin or shroud.
The industry is literally thinking outside the box.
“My work is letting people connect with the natural cycle as they die,” says Katrina Spade of Recompose in Seattle, who considers herself part of the “alternative death-care movement.” If its legislature grants approval this month, Washington will become the first state in the nation to approve legalized human composting. Her company plans to use wood chips, alfalfa and straw to turn bodies into a cubic yard of top soil in 30 days. That soil could be used to fertilize a garden, or a grove of trees, the body literally returned to the earth.
Spade questions why death should be a one-event moment, rather than an opportunity to create an enduring tradition, a deathday, to honor the deceased: “I want to force my family to choose a ritual that they do every year.”
Death has inspired Etsy-like enterprises that transform a loved one’s ashes into vinyl, “diamonds,” jewelry and tattoos. Ashes to ashes, dust to art.
After Seattle artist Briar Bates died in 2017 at age 42, four dozen friends performed her joyous water ballet in a public wading pool, “a fantastic incarnation of Briar’s spirit,” says friend Carey Christie. “Anything other than denial that you’re going to die is a healthy step in our culture.”
Funeral consultant Elizabeth Meyer wrote the memoir “Good Mourning” and named her website Funeral Guru Liz. Her motto: “Bringing Death to Life.” She notes, “Most people do not plan. What’s changing is more people are talking about it, and the openness of the conversation. Our world will be a better place when people let their wishes be known.”
In 2012, Amy Pickard’s mother “died out of the blue.” She was unprepared but also transformed. Now, she’s “the death girl,” an advocate for the “death-positive movement,” sporting a “Life is a near-death experience” T-shirt, teaching people how to plan by hosting monthly Good to Go parties in Los Angeles and offering a $60 “Departure File,” 50 pages to address almost every need.
“We’re still in the really early days of super-creative funerals. There’s this censorship of death and grief,” Pickard says. “You have the rest of your life to be sad over the person who died. The hope is to celebrate their time on Earth and who they were.” Overshadowing grief?
Some practitioners worry that death has taken a holiday, and grief is too frequently banished in end-of-life celebrations that seem like birthday blowouts.
“Do you think we’re getting too happy with this?” asks Amy Cunningham, director of the Inspired Funeral in Brooklyn. “You can’t pay tribute to someone who has died without acknowledging the death and sadness around it. You still have to dip into reality and not ignore the fact that they’re absent now
But even sadness is being treated differently. In some services, instead of offering hollow platitudes that barely relate to the deceased, “we are getting a new radical honesty where people are openly talking about alcoholism, drug use and the tough times the person experienced,” Cunningham says. Suicide, long hidden, appears more in obituaries; opioid addiction, especially, is addressed in services.
West, who hosted such a memorable send-off for her father, has some plans for her own: “Great food and live music, preferably Latin-inspired,” and “my personal possessions are auctioned off,” the proceeds benefiting a children’s charity. Why can’t a memorial serve as a fundraiser?
An avid traveler, West plans to designate friends to disperse her cremains in multiple locations “that have significance in my life” and leave funds to subsidize those trips — a global, destination ash-scattering.
As an internal medicine physician practicing in a busy urban hospital setting, I care for people of all ages who have never considered their own mortality. Far too often, this results in an experience at the end of life that doesn’t embody the goals and values of the life they have lived. They suffer, and so do the people they love. It’s led me to question, why is this?
For the vast majority of human history, we have been thoughtful and intentional about death. Without the benefits of modern medicine, we cared for our family members at home when they became ill. When people died, they were laid out in the parlor of the home, surrounded by family, and ancient death rituals were performed. Death was an expected occurrence that was accepted and planned for. Our cultural understanding, at least in the West, began to deteriorate about a century ago as death became increasingly medicalized.
Despite our culture’s propensity to share just about everything, the idea of death remains a cultural taboo, keeping us from personal reflection, discussion with those we love, and planning ahead.
Why death is left out of the wellness conversation.
There are only two things we really know for sure: We are born, and we will die. As a culture, we invest in nutrition, exercise, and spiritual well-being as a means to live well—but a critical part of living well is dying well. A recognition of our own mortality can allow us to live an even more fulfilled life. We become better people who feel more grateful for our experiences every day.
While historically many people pondered death and the idea of an afterlife through the lens of religion, the growing number of Americans turning away from organized religion and seeking a hybrid spiritual identity invites us to actively explore other cultures’ practices around death, both past and present. Almost every philosophical and spiritual tradition encourages thinking regularly about death to not only reduce our fears but ultimately, to live a more authentic, meaningful, and even joyful life.
How to bring end-of-life discussions into the wellness movement.
No matter your spiritual or religious beliefs, here are six steps to take action toward living more comfortably with death:
1. Take time for personal reflection about what matters most to you.
Make it count, and make it a regular practice. I like using my birthday as an annual reminder to step back and reflect.
2. Recognize which relationships matter most to you.
Think about the one or two people in your life who you would want to speak for you if you were unable to speak for yourself, AND ask them to serve as your health care proxy.
3. Have a conversation about your values and priorities.
I like the card game Go Wish to help with this conversation. Go Wish has 35 cards with simple prompts about what might matter most if you are seriously ill or at the end of your life. The goal: to facilitate a conversation and prioritize what’s important so those who have to make decisions for you will know your wishes.
4. Document your wishes.
Do this in the form of an advanced health care directive or living will, and make sure your health care proxy has a copy.
5. Discuss your wishes with your health care provider.
You don’t need to wait for them to bring it up. You can start the conversation about your end-of-life preferences with your health care provider at your next visit.
6. Revisit your wishes annually.
As new circumstances arise or your health condition changes, review your wishes annually with your loved ones.
End-of-life wellness looks different for everyone. The goal is to identify what is most important to you, regularly check back in with yourself, and create a network of people who support your values. Give one of these steps a try today, and see how it goes. You might be surprised that by making choices about how you want to live and die, you feel inspired to live life to the fullest.