Linda Jane McCurrach is an end-of-life doula – a non-medical, holistic companion who guides and helps people to have a gentle and tranquil death.
By Maria Croce
Midwives are associated with helping to bring new life into the world. But there’s another type who are there at the end, when people are dying.
Linda Jane McCurrach is a “soul midwife” or end-of-life doula – a non-medical, holistic companion who guides and supports the dying to help them have a gentle and tranquil death.
She describes the people she supports as friends and says it’s about helping them have a “good” death. But she admits some people initially find it difficult to grasp the idea that there can be a positive side to something so finite.
Linda Jane added: “People don’t even want to think about having a good death because they can’t imagine dying.
“But in eastern culture, they believe that only by looking at our death can we live fully.”
She sees some parallels between conventional midwives who bring new life into the world and her role for the souls who are leaving.
She said: “I couldn’t imagine my mum not having someone there. I thought, ‘What would it be like for someone to be on their own?’ It really struck home that I can help people going through this alone.”
Linda Jane has now launched a charity called No One Dies Alone Ayrshire.
For those who are alone, it aims to provide companions in the last 48 hours of life. It also offers respite for those with families.
Companions will offer support at home, in care homes, in hospital and hospices and will enable people to die according to their wishes.
The charity has started its work in East Ayrshire with plans to expand into the rest of the county.
Linda Jane, 48, has five children – Jordan, 23, Lewis, 22, Kai, 17, Nathan, 15 and Freya, eight – and lives near Newmilns in Ayrshire.
Having had difficult experiences and relationship break-ups, she said death puts everything else into perspective.
She added: “You have a greater sense of what’s important.”
The hardest part of her role is when people open up to her in their final days.
She said: “It can be hard to then move back into a normal life. But I surround myself with the right people who help me with that.”
She remembers the first time she sat with someone who was dying.
Linda Jane said: “I was concerned with doing everything right. It wasn’t until the end I realised it’s not really about the stuff you know and the things you can do, it’s about being there.
“Death is individual. It’s not scary. But if the person is feeling a bit scared, you can be a loving presence to help them get through.”
She said the dying want to know what’s happening to them.
Linda Jane added: “People want to know the process. It’s not commonly spoken about.”
She also helps them make peace with the world.
“Ultimately, death is the major letting go in our lives,” she said. “We have to let go of everything and it starts with letting go of the past.
“Sometimes they need to get things off their chest or make amends with family members and things weighing heavily with them.
“And everybody wants to know where they’re going to go afterwards. Having a visualisation of somewhere they would like to go really helps with that, for instance a meadow full of bluebells.”
Although she’s less scared of dying herself now, Linda Jane said she wouldn’t want to leave her children yet.
She added: “I think hopefully by the time I die, I’ll be ready. I know death can be positive and beautiful.”
Complete Article ↪HERE↩!
By Trish Rodriguez*
I have to confess that I am a Katy Butler fan. When I started the journey to become an End of Life Doula, her Knocking on Heaven’s Door was one of the first books that I read. I didn’t so much read the book as devoured it, often catching a sob in my throat as I read her deeply personal account of the horror show that became her fathers final years. I admired the courage and honesty of the parts of the book that were memoir, and the research on the current culture of American healthcare with respect to death. I agreed that our way of dying in the good ol’ USA has come to leave something to be desired.
In her newest work The Art of Dying Well – A Practical Guide to a Good End of Life, Katy picks up the narrative in a new and accessible way. She divides the process of moving toward the end into seven unique segments defined not so much by age but by ability and functionality. At the beginning of each of these chapters she has a list of statements and suggests that if many of these apply to you now, this might be where you find yourself. I found this approach fresh and, best of all, non-threatening. This might be just the way to start a conversation with a unwilling family member.
In the first segment, aptly titled Resilience, we learn that in this stage of well being we can still dramatically impact our health, longevity, and ultimately the quality of our death. By building reserves (aka altering what we eat and whether we’re active enough), finding allies in preventative medicine, and increasing our circle of friends and acquaintances, we are still in the drivers seat with regard to how things will go for us as our situation changes. This perspective gives lots of practical advice for those who may think there is plenty of time.
With each ongoing chapter comes an inevitable decline – not according to any decade of life or disease process – but according to naturally decreasing functionality. I like that she is careful to follow this definition, as people age as they darn well please, and I personally know 90 year olds who are still more capable than I am. This lets you find your home page, so to speak, without feeling like a failure or self fulfilling a prophecy to act your age. Every chapter offers practical advice; about healthcare, money, housing, and all those pesky details like advanced directives and wills. In nearly every chapter there are personal accounts of folks who managed things well, or not so well, and lots of food for thought.
There was a great deal of material that wasn’t new to me, but I work with dying people. In my every day life, I am always shocked at how hard working, responsible people don’t bother with a will or advanced directive… because? They aren’t going to die? Or they’re not going to die tomorrow? This book may be just the ticket to get you going, or to give to that parent who is dragging their feet about preparing for anything. With a helpful glossary and pages and pages of useful references included, this will certainly be a ‘go to’ book in my personal library and in my practice.
* Special correspondent, Trish Rodriguez, is an End of Life Doula and hospice vigil volunteer in Anacortes, WA.
From joining coffin clubs to downloading apps like WeCroak, here’s how a growing number of people are living their best life by embracing death.
by Stephanie Booth
Taking a dirt nap. Biting the big one. Gone — forever.
Given the gloom and painful finality with which we speak about death, it’s no wonder that 56.4 percent of Americans are “afraid” or “very afraid” of the people they love dying, according to a Chapman University study.
The cultural mindset is that it’s something terrible to be avoided — even though it happens to all of us.
But in recent years, people from all walks of life have begun to publicly push back against that oxymoronic idea.
It’s called the death positive movement, and the goal isn’t to make death obsolete. This way of thinking simply argues that “cultural censorship” of death isn’t doing us any favors. In fact, it’s cutting into the valuable time we have while we’re still alive.
What does that look like, exactly?
This rebranding of death includes end-of-life doulas, death cafes (casual get-togethers where people chat about dying), funeral homes that let you dress your loved one’s body for their cremation or be present for it.
There’s even the WeCroak app, which delivers five death-relevant quotes to your phone each day. (“Don’t forget,” a screen reminder will gently nudge, “you’re going to die.”)
Yet despite its name, the death positive movement isn’t a yellow smiley face–substitute for grief.
Instead, “it’s a way of moving toward neutral acceptance of death and embracing values which make us more conscious of our day-to-day living,” explained Robert Neimeyer, PhD, director of the Portland Institute for Loss and Transition, which offers training and certification in grief therapy.
Death as a positive mindset
Although it’s hard to imagine, what with our 24-hour news cycle that feeds on fatalities, death hasn’t always been such a terrifying prospect.
Well, at least early death was more commonplace.
Back in 1880, the average American was only expected to live to see their 39th birthday. But “as medicine has advanced, so has death become more remote,” explained Ralph White.
White is the co-founder of the the New York Open Center, an inspired learning center that launched the Art of Dying Institute. This is an initiative with a mission to reshape the understanding of death.
Studies show that 80 percent of Americans would prefer to take their last breath at home, yet only 20 percent do. Sixty percent die in hospitals, while 20 percent live their last days in nursing homes.
“Doctors are trained to experience the death of their patients as failure, so everything is done to prolong life,” White said. “Many people use up their life savings in the last six months of their lives on ultimately futile medical interventions.”
When the institute was founded four years ago, attendees often had a professional motivation. They were hospice nurses, for instance, or cancer doctors, social workers, or chaplains. Today, participants are often just curious individuals.
“We consider this a reflection of American culture’s growing openness to addressing death and dying more candidly,” White said.
“The common thread is that they’re all willing to engage with the profound questions around dying: How do we best prepare? How can we make the experience less frightening to ourselves and others? What might we expect if consciousness continues after death? What are the most effective and compassionate ways of working with the dying and their families?”
“The death of another can often crack us open and reveal aspects of ourselves that we don’t always want to see, acknowledge, or feel,” added Tisha Ford, manager of institutes and long-term trainings for the NY Open Center.
“The more we deny death’s existence, the easier it is to keep those parts of ourselves neatly tucked away.”
Death as a community builder
In 2010, Katie Williams, a former palliative care nurse, was attending a meeting for lifelong learners in her hometown of Rotorua, New Zealand, when the leader asked if anyone had new ideas for clubs. Williams did. She suggested she could build her own coffin.
“It was a shot from somewhere and totally not a considered idea,” said Williams, now 80. “There was no forward planning and little skill background.”
And yet, her Coffin Club generated massive interest.
Williams called up friends between the ages of 70 and 90 with carpentry or design skills she thought could be useful. With the help of a local funeral director, they began building and decorating coffins in William’s garage.
“Most found the idea appealing and the creativity exciting,” said Williams. “It was an incredible social time, and many found the friendships they made very valuable.”
Nine years later, although they’ve since moved to a larger facility, Williams and her Coffin Club members still meet every Wednesday afternoon.
Children and grandchildren often come too.
“We think it’s important that the young family members come [to] help them to normalize the fact that people die,” explained Williams. “There’s been so much ‘head in the sand’ thinking involved with death and dying.”
Younger adults have shown up to make coffins for terminally ill parents or grandparents. So have families or close friends experiencing a death.
“There’s lots of crying, laughing, love and sadness, but it has been very therapeutic as all ages are involved,” said Williams.
There are now multiple Coffin Clubs across New Zealand, as well as other parts of the world, including the United States. But it’s less about the final product and more about the company, Williams pointed out.
“It gives [people] the opportunity to voice concerns, get advice, tell stories and mingle in a free, open way,” said Williams. “To many who come, it’s an outing each week that they cherish.”
Death as a life changer
Janie Rakow, an end-of-life doula, hasn’t just changed her life because of death. She helps others do the same.
A corporate accountant for 20 years, Rakow still vividly remembers being mid-workout at a gym when planes struck the World Trade Towers on September 11, 2001.
“I remember saying to myself, ‘Life can change in one second,’” said the Paramus, New Jersey, resident. “That day, I wanted to change my life.”
Rakow quit her job and started volunteering at a local hospice, offering emotional and spiritual support to patients and their families. The experience profoundly changed her.
“People say, ‘Oh my gosh, it must be so depressing,’ but it’s just the opposite,” Rakow said.
Rakow trained to become an end-of-life doula and co-founded the International End of Life Doula Association (INELDA) in 2015. Since then, the group has trained over 2,000 people. A recent program in Portland, Oregon, sold out.
During a person’s last days of life, end-of-life doulas fill a gap that hospice workers simply don’t have the time for. Besides assisting with physical needs, doulas help clients explore meaning in their life and create a lasting legacy. That can mean compiling favorite recipes into a book for family members, writing letters to an unborn grandchild, or helping to clear the air with a loved one.
Sometimes, it’s simply sitting down and asking, “So, what was your life like?”
“We’ve all touched other people’s lives,” said Rakow. “Just by talking to someone, we can uncover the little threads that run through and connect.”
Doulas can also help create a “vigil plan” — a blueprint of what the dying person would like their death to look like, whether at home or in hospice. It can include what music to play, readings to be shared aloud, even what a dying space may look like.
End-of-life doulas explain signs of the dying process to family and friends, and afterward the doulas stick around to help them process the range of emotions they’re feeling.
If you’re thinking it’s not so far removed from what a birth doula does, you’d be correct.
“It’s a big misconception that death is so scary,” said Rakow. “99 percent of the deaths I’ve witnessed are calm and peaceful. It can be a beautiful experience. People need to be open to that.”
Complete Article ↪HERE↩!
My dad died nine years ago after he suffered a long, debilitating illness. It was an outcome we knew was inevitable when he was diagnosed 10 years prior, but that didn’t make it any less difficult to see him slowly lose all of the functions that are necessary for one to live a fruitful life. At the end, I spend two weeks at his bedside, in his home, alongside my family, and there were times where — despite the visits from the wonderful and dedicated hospice nurses, and despite knowing this was ahead of us — the emotional toll we experienced as we honored his directive to finish his life at home without invasive life saving measures was overwhelming.
I know I’m not alone here. That every day, people are dealing with the overwhelming feelings and decisions that accompany the death of a loved one. It’s something we will all experience at some point in our lives, yet it’s a topic we’d rather avoid, that we’d rather not think about or deal with until we absolutely have to.
A couple of months ago I listened to a podcast that examined our stigmas and stereotypes surrounding death, and I was introduced to the concept of a “death doula.” We are generally familiar with the concept of a doula at birth — someone who is not your doctor or midwife or nurse or partner or family member — but is there to provide physical and emotional support for the mother before, during, and after the birth. A death, or end of life doula, provides physical and emotional support for those who are dying, and their families, throughout the death process. It makes so much sense! Of course this needs to be a thing! And indeed it is, right here in our community. Not long after this initial introduction to the concept, I stumbled across the Instagram profile for Threshold End of Life Doula Services, a relatively new service started by Melanie Sheckels, a local hospice nurse.
Sheckels has been a nurse for almost eight years, many of those years with cardiac patients, and has been present for deaths not only professionally, but more recently in her personal life. Her mother passed away just over a year ago, and her nursing experience gave her insight into how to counsel and advocate for her mother throughout the process. “She and I had many in depth conversations about what quality of life meant to her, and she asked me to advocate for her if she was not able to do so for herself. She had an end stage lung disease, and it was very difficult for her to talk and breathe, so she asked the doctor to just ask me to make decisions for her. Those decisions really supported her comfort and her dignity, and it created a lot of peace and healing for us both. So when I look back at that experience, I can see so many ways that could’ve been a really traumatic experience, and I was able to make it a really good one relative to the situation.”
Not all dying people and their families have the benefit of a close friend or family member with a working knowledge of what the dying process looks like, so Sheckels felt that she could use her experience to provide such a service for those families in our community.
“To be perfectly honest, a lot of my experiences around the dying and their families during the end, professionally, have been rather traumatic. Hospital deaths aren’t often pretty. Obviously we do our best, but it’s a cold sterile environment, it’s unfamiliar, and almost nothing that’s happening is within the control of the person who is doing the dying. It’s hard to maintain comfort let alone anything meaningful, ceremonial. I really noticed that all of these experiences had given me this insight and skill for being able to be present for people in a way that really improved their experience.”
So, what does it look like to be an end of life doula? Sheckels emphasizes that it’s really different for every person, every family, but that it ranges from talking through those practical issues such as advanced directives and what different medical interventions look like, to being sort of a life coach. She tries to help each person identify their priorities, and look to those priorities to determine what quality of life looks like for them. Often people have unrealistic expectations of the medical industry, that their loved one is just one intervention away, when this is often not the case. “There’s this idea that if we can then we should. This idea that death is something that has to be fought off. These things put a lot of pressure on the person that is dying.” Sometimes their experience becomes a “prolonged experience of life as a dying person.”
Sheckels helps the person create a care plan called The Best Last Three Months that addresses the emotional, spiritual, physical, and mental domains of life. “We identify what they really need to feel a sense of completion in that area. If you were to pass tomorrow, what would be the hardest thing for you to let go of? Sometimes those things are not really achievable, so we try to tease out what the significance is of that thing and find a meaningful and realistic way to do it.”
Legacy planning is also a part of the discussion. She helps people work through those big questions: “did I matter, how did I matter, and will the people that I’m leaving behind be okay without me?” For the family, she helps them work through planning vigil during active dying, and how she can help facilitate that. It may mean having a doula present for days, 24 hours at a time. Sheckels works with another end of life doula to help accommodate these more intense situations. She can also be a resource for lessening caregiver burnout by listening and allowing that person to express their emotions or staying with their loved one so they can get out and about.
The concept of an end of life doula has really emerged with the past 10 years, and while there is not yet a certification for the practice, there are various organizations that offer training. Sheckels trained with the Conscious Dying Institute. She explained that many of these organizations are working to develop a certification exam and create an industry standard, and they are also connecting with the National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization to blend their work with hospice work, much like a birth doula works alongside midwives and doctors.
Beyond the personal care of families, it’s clear that Sheckels hopes to educate the community about the dying process. As she states, “A lot of people aren’t ready to approach death in a straightforward manner.” It goes back to fear and avoidance. “We take our fear and denial and put it in a closet and don’t look at it.” Through her work, she hopes to bring that fear and denial out into the open to work through it in an honest way.
I’ve often marveled at those who work with the dying and their grieving families, and I wonder about their well-being — their ability to care for themselves and separate from those intense emotions from time to time. Sheckels eloquently shares her strategy for self-care. “To walk people to and from the gate of mortality, I have to be able to navigate that terrain for myself. I have to regularly undertake personal work to maintain the ability to be present in the moment, to connect deeply with myself and others, and to embrace the impermanence of all living things, up to and including myself. That looks like meditation, journaling, therapy, connecting with nature, and completing my own end of life care planning.”
Complete Article ↪HERE↩!
After her 52-year-old husband died of the flu in 2014, Susan Capurso from Long Island, New York was left feeling helpless, angry and unsupported.
“We weren’t prepared at all,” says Capurso, who had been married for 25 years. “We didn’t have hospice, as my husband’s illness was not a long-term one. At the end, there was no one standing next to me saying ‘this is what is happening now. He’s going to pass within hours and this is what to expect.’ I’m detail-oriented, I wanted to know.”
Interested in offering non-medical, holistic and emotional support to the dying and their families, Capurso began to research the work of an end-of-life doula. Traditionally, a doula is a layperson who aids a woman in childbirth and newborn aftercare alongside medical staff. In the same way, end-of-life doulas are supportive to hospice; they do not take the place of it.
To further her interest in this growing field, Capurso began volunteering for a hospice and enrolled in the certificate-bearing Doulagivers training school of New York City (DoulaGivers.com), a school started by Suzanne O’Brien, formerly a hospice and oncology nurse.
O’Brien was inspired when, on a trip to Zimbabwe in 2012, she saw how local people were trained to sit with a person who was dying and “guide” them through their journey. While the country lacks basic needs and medicinal care, “they did have neighbors sitting with a family member who is dying — holding that space for them,” says O’Brien. “The power of presence might be the most powerful medicine we have, but we’ve lost that in our health care system. We’re all in this together. We should support each other however we can.”
On O’Brien’s course, “training is individualized,” says Capurso. “Weekends are spent with [O’Brien] and everything else is done online through a series of live webinars and modules.”
The three-pronged curriculum covers end of life phases from diagnosis to stabilization, transition and disease process. Elder care assistance and advanced directive (when a patient determines their end of life wishes while they are still able to do so) is also covered.
“This covers the important papers you really need to button up, such as health care proxy, living will, do not resuscitate,” says Capurso.
Practical help is also part of a doula’s workload.
“We come into homes, prepping meals for the week, doing laundry and going through each room to ensure it’s safe,” says Capurso.
Beyond these basics, Capurso extends her healing work to include the creation of a legacy book with patients.
“It’s something we work on together. We go through your life, adding personal stories, photographs and memories,” says Capurso. “It’s not just something you’re leaving for family and friends, it really is therapeutic — bringing light, love and closure.”
Helping patients to compose letters to loved ones and assisting families with writing memorials and eulogies are also customary tasks.
Having your “funeral” before you die is another trend that doulas can help with.
“Why not have a memorial before you go?” says Capurso. “Let’s laugh, say our goodbyes and be happy. It doesn’t have to be scary. A celebration with the dying person there shapes the person’s life and offers closure.”
Carrying out a dying person’s wishes is also a top priority for Capurso.
“I can help find a way for the last days to meet a dying person’s desires. Maybe starting to contact family members to come in for a final visit, asking them to write a memory down on a card and placing it in to a basket, incorporating nice music, candles or aromatherapy,” says Capurso.
This line of work is especially well-suited for hospice volunteers who want to do deeper work, as well as healers, reiki practitioners, massage therapists and acupuncturists. It’s also beneficial to have a genuine interest in educating the community on the resources available for them.
“You don’t go looking for this career, it calls out to you,” she says.
The demand for such caregivers is overwhelming. By 2020, an estimated 117 million Americans will need some caregiver assistance.
“Doulas fit in to the personal companion model, which is a billion-dollar industry serving our elder population,” says Deanna Cochran, RN. Cochran is the founder and CEO of Quality of Life Care, LLC, in San Marcos, Texas, an end-of-life training and certification agency. She’s also the first chair of the End of Life Doula Council within the National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization.
“The dying have specific needs and fears that need addressing,” she says. “As we evolve, the field is ripe for training people to be skillful at this — it’s a movement that’s growing. There’s plenty of room for every single hospice in this country to have at least one part-time doula. Within the next 10 to 15 years, opportunities will also become prevalent at nursing homes and assisted living centers.”
Fortunately, training is more prevalent now.
“There are over 10 certification programs, ranging in price from $700 to $2,500,” says Cochran, who offers a fast-track, 16-week program. “You can learn the skills, but you need to do the work by volunteering through hospice, nursing homes, hospitals. There’s an art to it.”
Complete Article ↪HERE↩!
From DIY funeral services to death doulas, B.C. is on the leading edge of a trend that wants to make death a part of life, and a better experience for everyone. Meet the women leading the trend.
By Denise Ryan
There may be no table more full of life than the corner booth at Paul’s Omelettery on Granville Street, where a group of women are talking over breakfast about death.
Three of the women are licensed funeral directors, two specialize in end-of-life planning, one is a celebrant, another an apprentice death doula — someone who assists families before and after death, the way a midwife does with a birth.
They call themselves the D’Posse.
The name is a playful nod to the word “death,” but their aim is thoughtful and resolute: to transform the way we commemorate and bury our dead, to bring death back to life.
Glenn Hodges, manager of Vancouver’s Mountain View Cemetery, has dubbed them “the disruptors” — part of what he says is a growing number of end-of-life workers, many of them women, who are quietly, respectfully, and often joyfully, working to take death out of the hands of the corporate monopolies, and give it back to families.
Although many funeral homes in B.C. still bear the names of the families that originally established them, many of these are owned by Service Corporation International, a conglomerate headquartered in Texas. SCI owns 45 funeral homes in B.C., about a third of the funeral service providers in the province. (SCI, which trades on the New York Stock Exchange, has repeatedly tangled with consumer advocates over everything from its pricing to sales techniques.)
Funeral director Ngaio Davis spent 20 years working for a number of providers in the corporate funeral industry before breaking away to start Koru Cremation, Burial and Ceremony (korucremation.com), which she runs out of a cheerful space on Kent Avenue in Vancouver.
Like the other women at this monthly breakfast, Davis says she was drawn to the funeral industry because she wanted meaningful work. “I wanted to do something that felt worthwhile,” says Davis.
Coming face to face with death never made Davis uneasy — but the funeral industry did.
“There are a lot of wonderful, compassionate people in the corporate funeral homes,” says Davis. What bothered her, she says, was the focus on profit: “What’s the bottom line?”
Davis says one funeral home she worked for stipulated that commissioned sales staff be in every meeting with grief-stricken clients to have the “face time” to push extras. At another job interview, she was grilled on what her average sales “per call” were — this was not the work she wanted to be doing.
‘What can I help you do?’
Despite decades of scrutiny, the North American funeral industry has changed little since Jessica Mitford’s 1963 expose, The American Way of Death, in which she called the funeral industry a “huge, macabre, and expensive practical joke on the American public.”
A big part of that macabre joke is the cost.
The average traditional funeral in Canada costs $10,000, according to Stephen Garrett of the Memorial Society of B.C., and GoFundMe counts funerals among its fastest-growing fundraising categories.
“From a basic cremation at about $1,200, costs range up to $15,000 or $20,000 — which is fine if it’s in line with your budget. But that’s where we get into problems with funeral homes pushing that on people,” said Garrett.
In addition to basics, such as registration of death, transportation, sheltering and disposition of the remains, costs — and funeral home profits — skyrocket once the bells and whistles are added: the expensive casket, which may be incinerated days later, embalming (not a legal necessity in B.C.), makeup, hairdressing, flowers, grief counselling, memorial, and follow-up house calls to sell products, such as future burial services, to survivors.
Five years ago, Davis decided to do something different.
Davis says her approach to death is informed by her Maori heritage. “Maori practices around death and dying are very strong. You are with your dead. You don’t just let them be taken away and be controlled by others. The family is the one who is crafting and planning what happens, and what will be the final ceremony.”
At Koru, the reception room is simply decorated with none of the trappings of a traditional funeral home: no sombre music, heavy curtains, or staff in dark suits.
Clients can plan as elaborate or as simple a funeral, ceremony and cremation or burial as they wish. Koru also specializes in green burials — biodegradable casket or a simple shroud, and no embalming — and will facilitate DIY, family-led or “home funerals.”
“This week, I’m looking after a family that wants to take their father and husband back home to his condo in North Vancouver. They want to have him there, they want to give him a sponge bath, dress him, and let him spend his last night there with his wife,” Davis explains.
Davis will transport the man and bring a special table so he can be laid out in his own home. “We will move him onto the table so it’s more comfortable for them to bathe him and dress him,” said Davis.
The next day, Davis will return with the casket, which will be placed in the condo’s common room because it won’t fit in the elevator.
“They are lining the casket with sheep wool that one of the kids brought from Scotland, and then we will go to the cemetery,” said Davis.
“His wife knows what she wants. They’ve been married for 60-plus years — they want those last moments together.”
At Paul’s Omelettery, over the warm clatter of breakfast dishes, cups and spoons, Lisa Hartley, a celebrant who officiates at weddings as well as funerals, recalls meeting Davis when her father-in-law died unexpectedly in his West End apartment.
His death had come quickly and the family was unprepared.
“We didn’t know what to do. Someone said, ‘Call Ngaio,’” says Hartley. “Her first question to us was, ‘What can I help you do?’”
They didn’t have to go to a funeral home, something Hartley was uncomfortable with.
“Ngaio came over to the apartment, and sat on the sunny balcony with her checklist, and we went through all the options.”
The family chose to keep Hartley’s father-in-law at home for a short period, and her husband decided he wanted to participate in the washing of his father’s body. “I never expected him to do something like that,” says Hartley. “But it really helped him.”
While the family gathered in the apartment, Davis completed the preparations.
“When she had him ready, she wrapped his body in a beautiful red velvet cloth, but she came to us first and said, ‘Peter is ready to go now.’”
Hartley was deeply moved by the experience, and now works closely with Davis and other alternative providers as a funeral celebrant. “My special interest is in sustainability in death care,” says Hartley. That means being more hands-on, in DIY and home funerals.
Hartley’s ceremony design process includes in-depth meetings with the client and family and friends to talk about the person. “It’s quite beautiful, and it’s often the start of the healing process. People get to tell stories about the person that has died. I recently had one person who said, ‘I feel better already,’” says Hartley.
When death is expected, a death doula can help the family prepare for what Jennifer Mallmes, founder of the End-of-Life Doula program at Douglas College, calls “a gold-star death.”
“Planning really does help with the death and bereavement process, even when people don’t want to die,” said Mallmes. “Barring sudden or unexpected deaths, you can have some choice in how you go. Who do you want around? Who do you not want around?”
A death doula will help individuals and families faced with an illness or a diagnosis that a death is coming plan home care or hospice care, work with funeral services. They can also help with making what life is left fulfilling: “We can help with a life review, ask what are the things I still want to do? We might look at services to help them accomplish those things.”
Death isn’t just a business, it’s a way of life
Garrett said that although the funeral business is slow to change, Baby Boomers are pushing the trend toward the “reclamation” of death and dying.
“The Boomers demographic changed the world they lived in — they questioned authority, lived through the Summer of Love, built the environmental movement,” says Garrett. “We’re on our way out, and that’s going to change things, if only because of the large numbers.”
About 34,000 to 35,000 people a year die in B.C. “That death rate in the next 10 to 12 years is going to head north of 45,000,” says Garrett. “We’ve got 916,000 Baby Boomers living in British Columbia with only one way off the planet.”
Although Statistics Canada doesn’t keep numbers on the kinds of funerals people hold, Glen Hodges says he has seen changes in people’s attitude toward death. Part of that has been the renaissance of the city’s only cemetery.
Mountain View shut down briefly after running out of grave space in 1986, but a new master plan created more space. Mountain View built columbaria (condos for cremains) to house niches for cremated remains, and reclaimed unused graves from families — a complex and provincially regulated process that applied to plots purchased at least 50 years ago and never used by family members in that time.
Hodges says the city has also been working to re-establish the cemetery as a place for the living.
“A cemetery is not just a utilitarian place for disposal of the dead and keeping of public records,” said Hodges. “(It is also) a sacred place to remember and commemorate, and it has a larger role within the community.”
That includes family oriented community events, such as its annual All Souls Night, which draws up to 2,000 people.
“We invite people to wander into the cemetery to light candles and leave mementos for their loved ones and be in a contemplative atmosphere filled with candles and music and in a place that is safe for them to speak of the dead and talk with others.”
Mountain View doesn’t require grave liners, so green burials are possible, as well as reburials, an option that allows families to open the grave and reposition any remains still there so a new casket can be added.
Hodges regularly hosts free workshops hosted by D’Posse members Reena Lazar and Michelle Pante of Willow EOL (end of life).
The workshops, says Pante, are designed to help people figure out how embracing their mortality can change the way they live. “Our lives are limited, they are precious and finite, so we ask how does that fact affect how we live?” said Lazar.
The workshops help people explore their thoughts and feelings about death and guide them through the process of creating what Pante calls “heart wills,” or love letters for the family and friends who will survive them.
Their clientele ranges through all age groups, says Pante, although many are healthy and in the Boomer demographic.
Boomers may be fuelling the trend toward a more compassionate, affordable, personalized experience after their final exits, but for Davis and her growing network, death isn’t just a business — it’s a way of life.
Many find their way to Koru after a negative experience elsewhere, says Davis — whether it was sales pressure that shamed them into overspending, a service that didn’t reflect their loved one’s personality, or a makeup job that made them look like a stranger.
“Here was this very important moment in their lives, and they were robbed of it. It could be a special time, or it could be something you never want to go through again. So I’m just doing my little bit to change that.”
Stephen Garrett, executive director of the Memorial Society of B.C., a non-profit society serving 240,000 members, believes that much of the expense and discomfort families inherit when a loved one dies can be avoided with good planning. To help people making final arrangements, Garrett has designed the “All Ready To Go Binder” to help with the death planning process.
“When my sons were 21 and 23, I invited them over for beer and pizza. I had the death binder in the middle of the table,” said Garrett. “They were a bit shocked — they didn’t want to think about me being dead and I didn’t want to think about it either — but as a responsible parent, this was my gift to them.”
The mood changed as he went through his wishes and let them know that he would be throwing in a family holiday: an all-expenses-paid trip to India, where he wants his ashes to be sprinkled in the Ganges River. Making a plan that’s personal, that includes opportunity for meaning, is part of what can make the process fun, said Garrett.
The binder is available on the society’s website for a nominal fee, and Garrett would like to see every family in B.C. have one.
The All Ready to Go Binder is a place for everything from your last will and testament, to advanced care directives, funeral arrangement forms, and other details such as people to call, copies of personal identification, and celebration-of-life plans.
The purpose of the Memorial Society is to help families prepare for and plan affordable services by partnering with ethical providers. The Memorial Society of B.C. offers lifetime membership for a one-time $50 fee. Members receive discounted prices of 15 to 30 per cent with participating funeral providers and access to support, advocacy and planning.
By The Numbers
$7,181: Average Cost of a traditional funeral (includes viewing, burial, embalming, transport of body)
28.6%: Percentage increase in average traditional funeral costs between 2004-2014
87%: Percentage increase in average traditional funeral costs between 1980-1989
90%: Cremation rate in B.C., up from 60% in 1986
Source: B.C. Memorial Society
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Tackling the tough questions over a cup of tea or coffee
We’re all dying, every one of us.
But we learn early on that despite the fact our lives are universally finite, most people don’t want to talk about it.
We’ll talk sex, we’ll talk drugs, we’ll even talk money—but not death.
That could be changing with the proliferation of so-called Death Cafes, informal get-togethers in cities across America, Europe and Asia, where people eat a little something, drink some coffee maybe and talk about, well, the inevitable.
The mission is to revamp typically depressing and urgent end-of-life discussions to more leisurely “Everything-I-Wanted-To-Know-About-Death-But-Was-Afraid-To-Ask.”
The conversation ranges, and depends on the group of people who’ve gathered: anything from how much a funeral costs to the details of a “green” funeral (think: corpse as compost) to tips on how to talk to your family members about your own funeral.
There’s a range of people who attend, too, from someone who had a death in the family and wants to be better prepared next time, to health care providers who want a different perspective on dealing with death. They range in age from 20-somethings to 90-somethings.
The object: to turn death from a feared end to something that is part of life.
“Death Cafés change the way you live in the most profound and wonderful way,” says Kim Mooney, 67, who runs monthly meetings in Longmont, Colorado.
Mooney even held a few events in a mortuary. “I like to say it’s the only time you will walk in and walk out of one, so you might as well take advantage of it.”
Death café hosts tend to have a sense of humor.
Death on twitter
If you want to confirm the popularity of the death positive movement, just go on social media. There’s The Death Café Facebook group, which lists times and dates of meeting and has more than 50,000 likes and followers.
Or you could follow Death Café on Twitter.
Advocates say the meetings allow people a low-pressure way to express fears about the Great Unknown; to chat about the way other cultures handle death; and to share practical information, such as learning the nuts and bolts of filling out end-of-life forms.
Talking with strangers, hosts say, is often an easier way to broach the topic before launching a conversation about death with loved ones.
Lizzy Miles is a hospice social worker who hosted America’s first café in 2012 in Westerville, Ohio. She baked cookies in the shape of tombstones with grey icing and “Death Café” where the epitaph normally goes.
She is one of more than a 100 Death Café hosts in this country. She’s still hosting—and still making treats—for nearly a dozen people who show up each month.
“No one ever comes to a Death Café already uncomfortable talking about death,” she says. “If you are, you’re not going to come. We have a lot of sandwich generation people, who are taking care of their parents.”
Miles is so committed she even traveled to a Death Café in Hong Kong—“on my own dime!”—to see what it was like.
“It was amazing, people were speaking English and Mandarin and Cantonese,” she says. “And I thought ‘Oh my gosh, all these different languages. This is pretty cool but almost exactly the same.’”
Dos and don’ts
Anyone can be a host, but there are guidelines. The Death Café website has a set of guidelines and Miles herself was a co-author on an article that included a list of dos and don’ts in the Omega Journal of Death and Dying:
Do: Allow a space for folks to share their ideas respectfully and openly.
Do: Offer the opportunity for everyone to speak but allow those who want to remain silent to do so.
Don’t: Charge an admission fee.
Don’t: Sell death-related products.
Don’t: Turn the group into grief support.
Miles and others believe that confronting our mortality will prompt us to the make the sorts of life changes that some folks do only when confronted with a fatal disease. Why wait?
Shellie Balogh, a 61-year-old hospice nurse attended one of Miles’ cafés in Ohio.
“It wasn’t what I expected; it was more upbeat,” she says. “It’s a fun thing to do if I have a free Saturday. You go and meet people you may never see again and just have this conversation, opening up this forbidden area of discussion.”
A midwife for dying
Suzanne O’Brien hosts a New York City group that meets at a public library on the Upper West side. She’s a nurse turned death doula.
Death doulas—part of this burgeoning “death-positive” movement—provide the same sort of bedside care, comfort and companionship that birth doulas offer to pregnant women but at the other end of the life cycle.
O’Brien said monthly conversations tend to fit into five buckets, sometimes all five covered in one 90-minute session:
The physical: How do I make sure I’m comfortable during my dying hours. What do I want to happen to my body?
The financial: What forms do I need to fill out? Or how much money do I want to spend on a funeral versus, say, end-of-life care?
The emotional: How do we deal with potential regrets or forgiveness?
The mental: Reasoning and acceptance
The spiritual: How do beliefs about death inform the way we live.
One woman wanted to know how to donate her body to a medical school anatomy class. She also wanted to make sure her family would not be given the leftovers when the students are done picking her apart, something she had heard can happen.
She told the group: “I’d rather just be flushed.”
Banishing the secrecy
The idea of a group of a random community members chatting about death over refreshments was the brainchild of Swiss sociologist Bernard Crettaz. He launched a “Café Mortel” in 2004 in the lakeside town of Neuchâtel, Switzerland. A dozen mortal members attended.
The point, as he once told a reporter for the Independent, a British newspaper, was to remove death talk from its “tyrannical secrecy.”
The first cafe outside of Switzerland was held by John Underwood, who hosted in his London basement in 2011. He’s given credit for helping the movement go global; he died last year, at the age of 44, from undiagnosed leukemia.
Today, there are death-with-food meetings in about 55 countries—including the U.K., Italy, Hong Kong, Finland, the Netherlands and New Zealand.
Becoming a regular
Those who are regulars say that while the subject matter is death, the meetings are not sad. Hosts emphasize that they are not grief support groups, more death-curious groups.
Jane Geller, a retired schoolteacher in New York City attends the Upper West Side meeting nearly every month.
“It’s a misnomer to think it’s depressing,” she said. “Death Cafés are really about life.”
Shatzi Weisberger, an 88-year-old retired nurse from New York City is a regular, too.
“I was always especially interested in how we come into this world and how we leave it. When I got into my eighties, I got personally interested for my own edification.”
Last fall, she hosted her own “FUN-eral” (pronounced Funn-eral) in the common room of her apartment building. More than 100 attendees came to the event. It sounded like a macrabe-themed birthday but she said it was a death, not a birth, party. And a way to attend her own funeral.
She said she has planned her own green burial. “I’m going to be wrapped in a shroud and buried in the woods upstate and my body will deteriorate and something will grow. I don’t know if it will be grass or flowers or a tree so I feel my dying is bringing life into the world. That’s not depressing at all.”
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