01/5/18

The Greenest Things to Do With Your Body After You Die

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By Amelia Martyn-Hemphill

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Complete Article HERE!

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12/30/17

We’ve been burying people all wrong

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Could eco-friendly funerals save the planet?

By Mary Pilon

About 15 years ago, Cynthia Beal, a 30-year veteran of the natural-food movement and then-owner of the Red Barn Natural Grocery in Eugene, Oregon, sat down to work on a science fiction novel.

As she wrote, she began to contemplate life — and death — in the 2040s, a date that still felt far off in some Terminator time, but she worried was sneaking up on her and her fellow citizens.

“I was trying to solve the problem of what would happen to people’s bodies,” Beal, 60, told me recently, looking over the grounds of Oak Hill Cemetery in Eugene. “As I started to look to the future, I saw there was an issue that need to be addressed. And I thought, ‘My god, this is really interesting.’”

Today, Beal is among those on a crusade to shift the way we die toward a process that could curb global warming. She’s become fixated on the the patterns of a funeral industry that she believes are devastating for the planet. In 2003, Beal sold her grocery store to her brother, and a year later she founded the Natural Burial Company.

“I’ve always been a bit of a crusader in my own small way, trying to help things improve wherever I am,” Beal said, adding that the natural burial market had “all the hallmarks of action that appeal” to her. No one could tell her how to do it or how to make products, because it wasn’t really being done yet. In her first couple of years in the funeral business, Beal canvassed the globe trying to find manufacturers of eco-friendly pods — a kind of sarcophagus made out of recycled paper products — and caskets, while studying the way we die. That curiosity led her to the United Kingdom in 2007, which is something of a haven for natural burials. The nation has a damp and chilly climate that’s similar to Oregon’s, but a much larger population. She studied the U.K.’s burial laws and practices, and after conferring with British casket and ecopod makers, she brought the first commercial biodegradable coffins to Oregon, where she displayed them in a downtown Portland gallery open to the public in an attempt to de-creepify the casket selection process.

Later, with the help of Dr. Jay Noller, head of Oregon State University’s Crop and Soil Science Department, she co-founded Oregon State University’s Sustainable Cemetery Studies Lab (and created the aptly-titled curriculum, Digging Deeper). In 2014, she purchased two cemeteries in town, including Oak Hill’s 11 tree-lined acres which contain almost 2,000 bodies dating back to the 1850s. One quilt of tombs rests under a canopy of oak trees, while newer burial plots make their way down the hill and offer a panorama of mountains, trees, and Fern Ridge Lake. Her goal was to make Oak Hill accessible to students studying the environmental implications of funeral practices of yore, and create a space for buried bodies to decompose, or recycle, naturally.

Forensic camp attendees examine samples at Oak Hill Cemetery.

With her long raven hair pulled back into a ponytail and in black jeans and tank top, Beal looked the part of hip undertaker as she strolled around the cemetery with a middle-aged couple. “Have you considered a wicker casket?” she asked. They shook their heads and said they hadn’t realized it was even an option.

It’s more difficult than one might think to get people to consider their burials the same way they think about purchasing other goods and services that “give back,” as they do when buying organic Newman’s Own Popcorn, even though funeral arrangements are a consumer choice that may continue to help the planet long after the buyer is gone. But Beal’s efforts on what may be the ultimate “back-to-land” movement aren’t isolated, and scientists at Oregon State are also pushing conversations about how post-mortem bodies affect the earth.

“This is a blind spot,” said Dr. Noller, who added that when it comes to even basic research, scientists studying dirt are behind their colleagues who study the more poetic aspects of environment, like the sky and water. “People see air pollution,” he said. “But soil, even though it’s obviously important, it can be difficult for our species to recognize that. People really think, ‘It’s dirt to me.’”

Until a few decades ago, the U.S. funeral industry favored large metal or wooden carriers for bodies, even though they don’t break down into the earth over time. (Critics also argue that those products are costly to consumers and put profits ahead of grieving and logic.) But when these industrial caskets became popular, the concern was less with practicality or environmental externalities and more with status. It wasn’t until the 1960s that many of those practices were scrutinized, notably in Jessica Mitford’s expose, “The American Way of Death,” which led to increased regulation of the funeral industry.

Beyond burial containers, the millions of Americans who die in hospitals with not-necessarily-earth-friendly chemicals in their bodies are also a concern (not to mention the chemicals that bodies are embalmed with). And burying bodies six feet underground may not be the best choice for topsoil either; Beal and others place caskets more in the 30-inch-below range. “We have these boxes of toxic waste that have been buried underground for years,” Beal said. “It’s more complicated than people think and we’re just starting to do the research.” By using Oak Hill and expanding science, Beal and Dr. Noller are hoping for more information about how those chemicals are impacting tree root systems, topsoil, vapor, circulation, and how alternatives like natural burial could help. That, in turn, could carry implications for urban planners, insurers, and communities, particularly as cemeteries that were once rural inch closer to developments and water sources. “It might be one of the reasons we’re seeing rivers with arsenic in them,” he said.

Rest Lawn Memorial Park in Oregon accepts natural burials anywhere on its grounds, keeping in tradition with the pioneers who were buried there more than a century ago.

Clients who make that connection are generally the first to come to natural burial. “At some point, people realize they’re not going to live forever,” said David Noble, Beal’s mentor and Executive Director of the non-profit River View Cemetery in Portland. “Maybe they were environmentally friendly as a liver and realize that when they’re going to die, being soaked with embalming fluid and thrown into a concrete vault in a metal casket isn’t coinciding with their life.”

When Noble started out in the cemetery industry in the late 1970s, he said River View did about 500 casket burials a year. Today, it does only 140 burials, 40 of which are natural, as tastes have shifted more toward cremation.

“It’s a different world today,” Noble said, “But we’re still very much a death-denying society.”

At Oak Hill, Beal’s middle-aged client couple politely nodded as she explained wills, ecopods, and the options to have wildflowers or oak trees planted alongside their remains. She joked with them about how her business plan uses “the homeowner association model” — she does regular grounds maintenance to make people sure that when they buy a spot, it will stay consistently tranquil. “But the homeowners are, well, dead.”

After her potential clients went on their way, Beal led me into a nearby showroom where she told me that she avoids being a pushy salesperson, particularly considering the taboos and emotions around death. The earliest adopters are not those closest to death, she said. “I get a lot of questions from the people who haven’t even thought [much] about it yet.”

This section of Oak Hill Cemetery is used exclusively for natural burials. The grass is mowed just twice a year in order to maintain the hill’s pastoral quality.

To her left, a large willow-woven casket rested in a corner and an array of acorn-shaped fiber urns were perched on a shelf. She adjusted some palm-sized clay jars, intended to hold a small handful of ashes. Her customers have spanned all walks of life, Beal told me. “Many of my natural-material coffins have been sold into the Midwest and Southern Bible Belt states. A number of her customers grew up in Europe, “where woven coffins were common.” She still displays at trade shows and plans to open a pop-up gallery in Eugene to display her own designs at some point in the near future. “It changes when people feel like they’re buying a work of art, or supporting an artist,” she said.

For Gary LeClair and his wife Janice Friend, a longtime interest in natural burials turned to action while doing routine estate planning. LeClair, 72, a retired physician in Springfield, Oregon, said he had some heart problems that got him thinking about how best to leave the couple’s affairs in order for their three children. Throughout his life and career, he said he championed right to die legislation and environmental causes, and as the pair began to look at cemeteries and funeral homes, he was disappointed by the options. Neither he nor his wife want to be cremated, concurrent with her Jewish faith, but the idea of a durable, stainless steel, waterproof coffin for $15,000, he said, “seemed obscene to me, a total denial of the fact you’re going to be dead.”

LeClair said that he has “been interested in ashes to ashes, dust to dust for years,” and in addition to purchasing two plots at Oak Hill, LeClair and his wife purchased two biodegradable coffins made from African wood. “They’re out in my shop now,” he said. “I’m sure people think that’s a little weird.” They also wanted a site where loved ones could visit, so the couple ordered a bench with a customized engraving. To avoid embalming, he hopes to have a service at home and be transported immediately to Oak Hill.

“The simplicity of natural burial appeals to me,” LeClair said. “I want to let the others focus on their grief without having to be distracted by, ‘Oh, Dad would have wanted the purple-lined casket or the plain wood box.’ It’s stupid. When you’re dead, you’re dead. Focus on the people who are left. My wife and I are emotional people, but we’re logical. We plan to be the same way in death as we were in life.”

Even with people like LeClair and Friend planning for natural burials, Beal has found the funeral business is slow to shift, in part because people make end of life decisions in advance. “How is an industry going to change its infrastructure when you have decades of pre-ordered cars?” she mused. “You have to fill the orders for the 1987 model now. It would be like all of us driving Pintos today.” Things are moving more slowly than she’d anticipated, but they are still moving.

In the next year, Beal wants to expand her offerings to allow friends and families to do services at home, like the one LeClair wants. She’s trying to get more cemeteries educated on natural burials, and expand her casket and urn offerings with U.S.-based artists. “I’m in this for the long haul,” she said. “I imagine in another ten years this movement will step into its own. Several years ago, the Baby Boomer generation hit sixty. We may be living longer, but we’re still going to stop living eventually. And there will be a lot more of us doing that than there ever has been. We will not see a return to full body burials using metal caskets in concrete vaults in the U.S.; I believe those days are over. My market is coming. It’s as inevitable as death and taxes.”

And the science fiction novel, she said, “is still a work in progress.”

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12/28/17

The final act of love: reclaiming the rites of modern death

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As people search for ways to reclaim death from the funeral industry, a home vigil can help with the grieving process

‘‘Death loses its power over us when faced matter of factly.”

By

Pete Thorpe was a wiry, strong and vital man. He loved his children, his wife, Fiona Edmeades, and the home they shared in Bondi. At 69, he was a well-known local character who was regarded with great warmth by all who knew him.

In early October he was laid up with stomach flu. It struck and didn’t budge for two days. Everyone expected that he would be back on his feet by the weekend. But on the evening of the third day – a Tuesday – Thorpe died suddenly of a heart attack.

“It was the last thing on earth … ” Edmeades explains, looking out of the window of their flat into the treetops, searching for the language to convey the shock of how her life had ruptured. “He just died.”

In the chaos of the hours that followed that moment, she knew one thing – Thorpe was not going anywhere.

“I knew I wanted to keep him with me,” she says. “Pete was Māori so that is the tradition in his culture – I had attended a couple of tangis so I knew it was possible.”

The tangi is a Māori death rite that involves close and extended family remaining with the dead for three days to mourn and honour them. “I just felt there was no way they could take him away,” she says.

Edmeades’s GP wrote a death certificate for Thorpe that night, which meant his body didn’t have to be taken away to the coroner’s. He could stay in the flat with his family, under New South Wales regulations, for five days.

He remained there until Friday afternoon. He was mourned at home and his funeral, organised by local funeral directors, was held there. Friends visited the flat and cried for him and told him jokes and sang songs and slipped small gifts into his hands. Extended family decorated his coffin in the back garden. Edmeades and their children placed him into it and sealed the lid themselves. They drove him to the crematorium and accompanied his coffin to the furnace door.

Edmeades says having him at home with her, their children and friends, helped her to process his death. It helped her face up to the fact that he was gone, especially because his death had been such a shock.

“As hard as it was to look at Pete and see it wasn’t Pete any more, it is just his body, it was so much less hard than having him disappear – poof,” she says.

“To be able to understand it in your body on a physical level means you can free yourself from the denial. Seeing that lifeless body is how you come to terms with the death and if you can’t come to terms with the death, how can you grieve? It would have been so traumatic if he just disappeared.”

Instead of Thorpe’s body being taken away that night to lie alone in a morgue or funeral home, Edmeades made a bed for him in the sunroom adjacent to their bedroom. It was his favourite room in the house and, with him there, she and her daughter could lie on their bed on that first night and see him.

‘I just felt there was no way they could take him away,’ says Fiona Edmeades of her husband, Pete Thorpe (pictured), who died suddenly.

“I was able to look at him all night and slowly understand the changes and that things had changed. He was still there and I could see him but the change was real, in such an unreal time.

“I would doze and then wake up and there was this wave of feeling utterly lost, but then there was Pete, anchoring me back in the world.”

The family’s story is becoming more common, as people decide to take death, dying and the days after death away from the medical and funeral industries and back into their own hands and homes.

Victoria Spence, an independent funeral celebrant and death doula, has noticed a groundswell of people in Australia over the past decade wanting to reclaim death for the family and the community.

Spence has worked with the dying, their bodies and the people they leave behind since the 90s when her father’s terrible funeral – the celebrant repeatedly got his name wrong – inspired her to train as a counsellor and civil celebrant specialising in end-of-life and after-death care.

She has seen communities transition from the need to whisk the dead away, hide them in a box inside a funeral home and then bury them in the ground like a secret. Instead she empowers the bereaved to bring their dead home from the hospital, wash them, dress them, hold their hands, talk to them, play music, build their coffins and hold their funerals in the community centre, school or living room. Taking death back in this way can set the groundwork for healthy grieving, she says.

“People feel alienated by the medicalisation, professionalisation and corporatisation of dying that has taken place,” she says. “Death has become a cultural blindspot for us and people want that to change.”

It is a sentiment echoed by Prof Ken Hillman, author of A Good Life to the End, who argues that death has become the new taboo – like sex was in the 1970s.

Pete Thorpe’s extended family decorated his coffin in his Bondi back garden.

“We only talk about [death and dying] in hushed tones,” he writes. “The subject of death and dying need to be brought into the open. There will be so many benefits for us as a society and individuals. Death loses its power over us when faced matter of factly.”

But dealing with death matter of factly is not always straightforward.

Often the thing stopping the bereaved from keeping their loved one at home is the lack of preparation and knowledge about what comes next, Spence says. Fear of the changes that take place in a dead body is also a potent deterrent.

“There is an increasing desire but not the knowledge to help people get ready and get the equipment,” she says.

The most important part of equipment for someone wanting to keep a vigil at home is the cool bed, a stainless steel plate that goes underneath the dead body and is usually set at 1C to 5C, keeping the corpse stable by slowing decomposition.

“Our dead change,” Spence says. “The body stiffens, the skin changes, there can be swelling and leakage. The cool beds slow down all of these processes, you get into a state of stasis.”

Once the bed is installed, Spence says, “It is very comforting to hang out with the body for a couple of days. Nothing untoward or scary happens.”

People holding vigils are often surprised at how peaceful and beautiful the dead are, she says.

Fiona Edmeades worried about all of this when Pete Thorpe died. But a close friend knew about the cool beds and the funeral home organised one.

“The cool bed changed everything because it reduced the aspect of the unknown and the fear that comes with it,” she says. ”Here is this amazing device that enables you to do what you want to do. It just feels so natural.”

Over the three days after Thorpe’s death, their home filled with friends and family. At first, some were hesitant to see him but their reticence always gave way.

“Lots of people who hadn’t seen a dead body before came. One child came and asked, ‘Can I touch him?’ and we talked all about it. When you are in it, it is so natural and gentle and beautiful – it is a beautiful way of saying goodbye.”

For her, having Thorpe at home, and a river of people wanting to come and show how much they loved him, made her own grieving easier.

“It helped us to deal with it together as a whole. In those first few days the weight of the grief is so overwhelming. Sharing Pete’s death with the community in this way helped spread the load. It felt like everyone was carrying a bit, as we slowly came to terms with what had happened.”

Complete Article HERE!

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12/12/17

The Difficult Business of Dying

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The U.S. funeral industry is the most expensive and corporate in the world. Can Americans find a better way to grieve?

By Jess Bergman

In the six years since my father died, I’ve visited the cemetery where his ashes are interred exactly twice—the second time only because of the Jewish tradition of unveiling, where the initial graveside funeral service is followed within a year by a ceremony to uncover and dedicate the headstone. It’s not that returning would be too difficult. It’s more like the reverse: I fear an inability to perform the sadness and solemnity the pilgrimage seems to require. I miss my dad, but the cemetery, nestled alongside the highways and strip malls of suburban South Jersey, fails to evoke him in any meaningful way. It’s a site associated with him only retroactively, for the worst of all possible reasons. Where I’m supposed to feel his presence, there’s only a void.

FROM HERE TO ETERNITY: TRAVELING THE WORLD TO FIND THE GOOD DEATH by Caitlin Doughty

Los Angeles-based mortician and writer Caitlin Doughty argues that such feelings result from the failures of America’s death industry, which has become “more expensive, more corporate, and more bureaucratic than any other on Earth.” According to the National Funeral Directors’ association, the median cost of traditional funeral with a viewing and burial was $7,181 in 2014; Doughty cites the current average at $8,000 to $10,000. 14 percent of US funeral homes are run by publicly traded firms. Service Corporation International, the largest funeral services provider in the US, operates over 2,000 funeral homes employing more than 24,000 people. The $20-billion industry often pushes grief to the margins by pressuring families to make a series of high-stakes decisions on a very short timeline—most funeral homes come to pick up a body within an hour of being contacted.

In some cases, funeral homes deliberately exploit families for financial gain at a time of profound vulnerability. A 2013 undercover investigation conducted by the Federal Trade Commission revealed that up to one in five American funeral homes engage in “deceptive and manipulative practices.” The offenders violated the 1984 Funeral Rule, which stipulates that funeral homes must provide itemized price lists. The compulsory bundling of products and services is prohibited: They can’t require that you buy a traditional varnished casket when all you want is a cremation; an inexpensive, unfinished wooden box must be made available. And the law bans the aggressive sale of products that are not required by law, like the use of a hearse to transport remains to a cemetery. Though most funeral homes keep dedicated websites, few display their prices online, which makes it challenging to compare costs.

With its focus on profits, the industry has also changed the way we treat dead bodies. As recently as a hundred years ago, “no one would have questioned a wife washing and dressing the body of her husband,” Doughty writes, “or a father carrying his son to the grave in a homemade coffin.” The Civil War is often identified as the point at which practices began to shift. Embalming became more common as soldiers’ bodies were transported from the South to the North. It gained even more popularity after Abraham Lincoln’s funeral train tour, which took his embalmed corpse to 180 cities between Washington D.C. and Springfield, Illinois. Now, the United States is the only country in the world in which chemical conservation of the dead is common practice—a process that can cost anything from $495 to over $1,000. What was once a practical solution with a historically specific context has become a profitable norm, despite, according to the CDC, providing no public health benefit.

In her book From Here to Eternity: Traveling the World to Find the Good Death, Doughty tries to find a better way to die and to grieve, seeking out death rituals from the Western United States to Japan, Spain, Indonesia, and beyond. It sounds a bit like Eat, Pray, Die, but her project is much larger than its premise first implies. She is searching not for personal spiritual enlightenment or the morbid titillation of thana-tourism, but for practical, radical alternatives to our corporatized death industry. Her travels illuminate a host of compelling possibilities for better funerals and a less fraught relationship with our dead. But the book also reveals a larger failure of our culture to allow for mourning and grieving after the last goodbye. If it is hard to navigate the death care industry, it is harder still to work out how to live with grief.

On her travels, Doughty finds many rituals that involve prolonged contact with corpses—prolonged, at least, by American standards. All around the world, she meets people less troubled by the physical reality of dead bodies, whether those bodies are burned to ash, mummified, “decomposting,” or lying under glass in their natural, un-embalmed state. In Japan she visits a corpse hotel where families may rent a suite that looks like an ordinary condo and “just be with the body, free from the performance required at a formal viewing.” And at the Rinkai crematory, Doughty learns about the practice of kotsuage. According to this custom, families are escorted into a room called a shūkotsu-shitsu after a cremation, where they pick up their loved one’s remaining bone fragments and place them gently into an urn.

In North Carolina, Doughty spends time at Western Carolina University’s Forensic Osteology Research Station (FOREST), where corpses donated to science are turned into compost. The bodies are laid to rest in a wooded research facility, blanketed with alfalfa and woodchips, covered in a silver shroud, and in the hot sun to turn into dark, nutrient-rich soil after a period of weeks. The project is still in its experimental phase, but the FOREST researchers hope it will become a green solution with a therapeutic arc. Families will ultimately be invited to collect the soil made from the body of their loved one and with it, cultivate new life.

Doughty finds her most extreme example of dead body positivity in Tana Toraja in Indonesia. For Torajans, the border between the living and the dead is porous. Corpses frequently remain in the home for a period of weeks, months, or even years, and are cared for like any other member of the family—bathed, fed, dressed, and spoken to. After they are finally buried, following elaborate community funerals, bodies are periodically exhumed during what is called the ma’nene’. Families have the opportunity to reunite, and even picnic, with their dead; they can make animal sacrifices they may not have been able to afford at the time of the original burial. What sounds grisly to some is, to the Torajans, both tender and sacred: “Hauling someone out of their grave years after their death is not only respectful,” Doughty writes, “but it provides a meaningful way to stay connected to their dead.”

Doughty’s chatty calm in the presence of dead bodies and her arguments against American squeamishness are admirable. But it feels, at times, like From Here to Eternity’s focus on death comes at the expense of grief. This is not a failure of the project so much as its shape; the nature of Doughty’s inquiry makes grief a secondary concern. It does appear sporadically: In the chapter on the Day of the Dead, she travels to Mexico with her friend Sarah to visit a mummy museum, as well as the altars families erect to honor the people they’ve lost that year. Sarah is still reeling from the decision to obtain a late-term abortion when her fetus was diagnosed with trisomy 13, and Doughty writes about the isolation of Sarah’s grief, her feeling that the inability to move on from the loss had made her “radioactive” to her friends and coworkers. Her loss, and the future she had imagined, is devastatingly rendered. There is a digression, too, on the Western funeral industry’s fixation on “dignity,” by which they really mean silence, composure, and repression—this, too, is a moment of genuine feeling, and Doughty shows that though her tone is often light, she has the capacity to move and enrage.

But just as often, Doughty fails to engage with the realities of mourning. At an open-air cremation she attends in Crestone, Colorado, she professes to witness the “pall of grief [lifting] from the circle.” I don’t doubt the power of this ceremony. But the implication that it was able to dispel sadness—that such a thing is possible, or even desirable, at a funeral—gives me pause. Worse, in the book’s epilogue, she writes, “A sense of purpose helps the mourner grieve. Grieving helps the mourner begin to heal.” This is a neat, linear progression; in other words, it’s exactly what the experience of grief is not.

There is more to death and dying than funerals. From Here to Eternity is in some ways a missed opportunity to explore how the profit motive has distorted our experience of death—not just burial, but all the feeling that comes after a body is buried. In The Last Word, Julia Cooper writes of the difficulty of grieving under late capitalism. The amorphous, endless, and unpredictable nature of grief puts it fundamentally at odds with pressures “to be efficient, to progress, to—most of all—get back to work.” But, she writes, “mourning doesn’t work that way. There is no timeline because the work of grieving is never done. There is nothing efficient or productive about loss, but there it is all the same.” Grieving is the enemy of work, and we’re expected to suppress the former in the interest of the latter.

Minimizing the pain of personal loss, Cooper argues, is in service of “maintaining productivity for the benefit of a capitalist system.” Public displays of grief are shunned in part because they undermine the relentless positivity our economic system feeds on. The isolation of those who are unable to successfully curb their mourning is “a socially enforced strategy of our neoliberal era.” The repression of grief is also materially enforced: The standard paid bereavement leave, where it does exist, is three days. At Facebook, COO and Lean In author Sheryl Sandberg changed the company’s bereavement policy following the sudden death of her husband in 2015; the company now offers employees a comparatively generous 20 days paid leave following the loss of an immediate family member.

In the op-ed Sandberg wrote for The New York Times about her children’s experience of bereavement, she talks about grief in the language of business. The death of a parent is “adversity”; the word “resilience” is used six times, while “grieving” makes one appearance. Sandberg writes of her son and daughter’s loss (and her own) alongside the story of a friend’s child who was bullied at summer camp, with the implication that both experiences can be “overcome” with the same set of therapeutic tools. Sandberg’s approach isn’t insincere; original or not, the idea that “there is no wrong way to grieve” is an important one. But for those who don’t find this way of thinking helpful, our culture offers few other ways to address grief and work.

Caitlin Doughty’s mission to reimagine the death industry—to cast out our shame and fear of the dead—is an important one, for which she makes the case well and with good humor. More humane and meaningful rituals around death would doubtless ease the transition into the new reality that awaits the living after a traumatic loss. For my part, I look forward to one day spreading what I’ve kept of my father’s ashes, at a site less dour than a New Jersey tomb. But reforming our funeral industrial complex is only the beginning of the work ahead of us.

Complete Article HERE!

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12/9/17

Four Tasks Between Death and Burial

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After death, there are four main tasks that need to happen before the burial. These can be achieved with the help of a funeral home or with the help of loved ones facilitating a home funeral. Learn what needs to take place between death and burial and the role of a funeral home versus a home funeral during the process.

When preparing for death, many people know that there are options for how a person is treated as they are dying. Documents may be completed, hopefully well in advance of the dying process, to express those personal wishes. Documents may include a Living Will, Health Care Power of Attorney, or 5-Wishes. Few know that there are options for after-death care. There are 3 options for the disposition of the body between death and interment or cremation:

Option 1: Hire a funeral home to carry out all aspects of after-death care, including transportation, refrigeration, initiation of death certificate, obituary, cremation and/or transportation to place of burial, and coordination of set up at cemetery for the graveside service.

Option 2: Hire a funeral home to carry out some of the above mentioned aspects of after-death care and take care of other details utilizing family and friends.

Option 3: Have family and friends direct the details of after-death care. This process is call a Home Funeral.

Four Main Tasks

Regardless of which option you choose for after-death care, four main tasks will need to take place between death and burial:

  1. Transportation From Place of Death: The body may need to be moved from the place of death (such as a hospital/nursing facility or home) to the place of after death care (either a home or a funeral home).
  2. Care of the Body: The body will need to be cared for until the time of burial. This care may include bathing, dressing, refrigeration or dry ice application, and perhaps wrapping in a shroud before cremation or burial.
  3. File Death Certificate: A death certificate will need to be filed. This includes gathering the information to complete the certificate, signature from attending physician, and filing with the county registrar.
  4. Transportation To Burial Site: The body will need to be transported from the place of care to Carolina Memorial Sanctuary when it’s time for the burial.

Between Death & Burial: Four Tasks

Before we go over the four steps that take place between death and burial, it’s important to understand the difference between a funeral home and a home funeral. If you’re not clear on the differences, read this page first.

The four tasks between death and burial are pretty detailed, so we’ve created the following graphic to help show your options. Scroll down to see a written explanation of the four main tasks.

Task 1: Transportation From Place of Death

Death can occur anywhere but will often occur at home, in a hospital, or in a hospice center. For unexpected deaths, the body is often brought to a hospital to be examined by the medical examiner. Depending on whether you’re opting for a home funeral or the assistance of a funeral home, the body will need to be transported to the place of care.

Funeral Home

If you hire the assistance of a funeral home, they will come to the place of death and pick up the body and take it to the funeral home for care.

Home Funeral

If you are having a home funeral, you can pick up the body from a hospital, hospice center or morgue and bring it home yourself. You also have the option of hiring a funeral home to pick up the body and transport it to the home for you. If you choose to pick up the body yourself, CEOLT is happy to act as a liaison to help that transition go smoothly.

Task 2: Care of the Body

Until the time of burial, the body will need to be cared for and kept cool. Again, this can be done at home or at a funeral home.

Funeral Home

Once a funeral home has picked up the body and brought it to their facility, they will then clean and dress and/or shroud the body. Afterward, the body will be placed in refrigeration to keep it cool until the day of burial, at which point the body will be transported to the burial site.

Home Funeral

For home funerals, once the body has been transported to the house, the body is first cleaned and then dressed and/or shrouded, and then placed in a room where the body can rest and where friends and family can visit if they choose. To keep the body cool, dry ice is usually employed. Certain traditions and spiritual faiths observe the practice of allowing the body to lie in state for multiple days. Using proper care, a body can be kept in the home for multiple days without issue until the time of burial. There are exceptions to this and having the support of an experienced person from CEOLT or going through the home funeral course will help to address the circumstances that could arise. Caroline Yongue, our Director, has been assisting families with home funerals for over 20 years, and has rarely encountered a situation where a home funeral wasn’t possible.

Task 3: File Death Certificate

While the body is being cared for and waiting for burial, a death certificate will need to be filed.

Funeral Home

If going the route of a funeral home, they will file the death certificate for you. You will need to provide personal information of the deceased.

Home Funeral

If doing a home funeral, an individual who is assisting will need to file the death certificate.  This includes gathering the personal information for the deceased, obtaining the signature and cause of death from the attending physician and filing the death certificate with the County Registrar (in the county where death happened).

Task 4: Transportation To Burial Site

The final task to carry out will be to transport the body to the burial site just prior to the time of burial. The date of burial will need to be coordinated with Carolina Memorial Sanctuary in advance so that we can prepare the grave and prepare for the service.

Funeral Home

On the date of the burial, the funeral home will transport the body to Carolina Memorial Sanctuary usually 30-60 minutes before the service is scheduled to begin. They will either release the body to Carolina Memorial Sanctuary or transport the body to the gravesite, depending on the circumstances.

Home Funeral

Just like with the first transportation, from the place of death to the place of care, getting the body from the home to the Carolina Memorial Sanctuary can be done by friends/family assisting with the home funeral or a funeral home can be hired for this service. Carolina Memorial Sanctuary will consult with you and recruit the help of volunteers if additional hands are needed to transport the body from the vehicle to the gravesite.

Final Thoughts: Saying Goodbye Before the Body Is Taken Away

We want to end by sharing some final thoughts on saying goodbye to your loved ones. Contrary to popular belief, the body does not have to be whisked away the moment death occurs. When death occurs at home, most people believe that they are obligated to immediately call 911 or a funeral home so they can quickly transport the body away. Or if a loved one has died at a hospital or hospice center, there may even be pressure from the staff to have the body removed. If you have decided to use a funeral home and the body will not be coming back home, you have the right to ask to spend time with the body of your loved one and say goodbye before the body is transported away from your home/the hospital/hospice center. The opportunity and time to say goodbye can be very healing and beneficial and help with closure and grieving. If a loved one dies at home, you can let the funeral home know that you would like some time with your loved one before they come to pick them up. It doesn’t even have to be the same day (this is known as a “delayed pickup”). If a loved one dies at a hospital or hospice center, let the staff know that you would like time with your loved one. They will often allow a number of hours for this to  take place. You even have the option of having the funeral home bring the body to the home for goodbyes, and then have them transport the body to the funeral home for care and refrigeration before burial. Last – you always have the option of going to the funeral home and having your goodbyes there. The time after death is the last time some people have to see their loved ones and say goodbye – so be sure to ask for what you want and what you need and know that you can take your time.

Complete Article HERE!

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12/6/17

You CAN Take It with You When You Go

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By Alison Morris

Let’s say you’re mortal. Now let’s say you’re a book lover. Where’s the intersection between these two things? You guessed it — bookcase coffins. Which (with apologies to you squeamish types) is the theme of today’s post.

In my travels around the web searching for apartment storage solutions, I stumbled upon (and — really — it felt like I’d actually stumbled when I came across these) two different bookcases that double as coffins. This way you can hide your coffin in plain sight if you want to own and take possession of a coffin before you die, which apparently an increasing number of people are choosing to do.

Let me pause for a brief confession here: when I first found these bookcase coffin images, I thought this was going to be a funny post — a “what an odd and offbeat idea, let’s all laugh about it” post. BUT then I read the content of the webpages on which these coffins appeared, and the topic suddenly became both a lot less humorous AND a lot more interesting.

The first two bookcase coffins below come from the website of a Maine group called Last Things: Alternatives at the End of Life. The group and website were created by  Klara Tammany, whose moving essay about her own mother’s burial illustrates the reasons her family and others are choosing to have green burials and rejecting what she sees as impersonal and ecologically damaging funeral and burial practices. Last Things offers support and resources for those looking for more information about alternative burial options. The coffins displayed on their site (including this one) are all handmade by group member/woodworker Chuck Lakin. The first one here is the Bookcase Coffin model.

This second model is what Chuck calls a Multipurpose Coffin. It can be used either as a bookcase OR as an entertainment center, and I personally think it’s 100% convincing as either of those things. (I mean, really — who would know?)

Like Chuck Lakin, New Zealand company Final Furniture Limited is creating coffins mindful of eco-conscious clients. Their nextgen bookshelf/wine rack allows you to raise a glass to your past while, well, facing your future. The photo on the beach at the top of this post shows how the bookcase/winerack looks in its… alternate form. (I feel like I’m writing about a Transformer here.)

While the Last Things and Final Furniture bookcase coffins are probably intended more for people nearing the end of their lives, this next one (via Inhabit), which designer William Warren calls Shelves for Life, is not. As Warren explains, “Shelves For Life is a self-initiated project to further explore ideas of built-in sentimentality within our possessions. The aim is to make stronger emotional relationships with our belongings and encourage lifelong use… They are intended to be used throughout life as storage for personal belongings. On death, the shelves are dismantled and rebuilt as a coffin.”

Maybe I’m being swayed by the fact that we’re about to spend some money on a “real” sofa which feels like an almost-lifelong commitment, but I like the rather anti-IKEA aim of Warren’s experiment with this. (Note, though, that someone has apparently come up with plans to make an IKEA bookcase coffin too.) Disposable is bad. You can store things in it now AND be buried in it later is, um… Good. Mostly. Especially when the design is as elegant as this.

That having been said (and this is the problem), I’m not sure how it would feel to be shelving books in and dusting knick-knacks on my future coffin. Suddenly that bookcase would feel a bit TOO important to me, I think. (God forbid the movers drop THAT one!) And I’m not sure I’d want such a large, visual reminder of my own mortality in my living room. Unless its presence would encourage me to procrastinate less and work more… Hmmm.

In looking around for more info on this topic I came across a thoughtful post on a blog called Pink Slip by one Maureen Rogers, that concludes thusly: “I have just gauged that our old Workbench bookcases are neither deep enough nor sturdy enough to act as coffins. If, when the time comes when Jim and I experience the miracle of death, we’re planning on anything other than cremation and scatter, I would consider one of [Chuck Lakin’s] creations. I’d probably go for the coffee table version. We can always use more storage.”

And, Maureen, you’d always have it too.

Complete Article HERE!

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11/20/17

Ashes to Ashes, Stardust to Stardust

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Delivering cremated remains to the stratosphere joins a growing list of new ways to memorialize the dead.

By Marina Koren

Mark Harris says funeral directors talk about it all the time. More and more people are growing tired of traditional funeral services and opting for something a little more creative. “It’s getting more difficult to offer the cookie-cutter send-off,” explains Harris, the author of Grave Matters, which examines how people have started to think, er, outside the box about death.

And so, Harris wasn’t surprised to hear that a new British company is offering to send cremated remains to the stratosphere. High-altitude latex balloons will float to 100,000 feet above the surface of the Earth, where the curvature of the planet appears against the darkness of space, and then release the ashes into the cold, creating a glittering display. “Scatter your loved one’s ashes in space,” Ascension Flights says on its website. “We are all made of stardust.” The stratosphere is not technically space, but for their purposes, it’s close enough.

Ascension Flights, run by funeral directors and a near-space launch firm, will soon offer its high-altitude funerals, with the cheapest package starting at £795, or about $1,040. For more money, customers can choose the launch site and have the scattering photographed and filmed

The near-space funeral is, at first glance, a contrast to “green” burials, which return remains to the soil in biodegradable coffins or urns. In this way, the deceased can meet “the green reaper,” as a Guardian article in 2014 colorfully put it, and contribute to the physical processes of the Earth. Blasting ashes into the stratosphere sure sounds like the opposite of that, but Ascension Flights promises some kind of return to the planet. “As the particles eventually return to Earth, precipitation will form around them, creating raindrops and snowflakes,” its website explains. “Small amounts of nutritious chemicals will stimulate plant growth wherever it lands.”

Harris, who favors going the natural route, said this promise seems considerably less certain than that of green burials, where at least “I wouldn’t have to worry about having my loved one’s ashes raining down from space on some random location like a landfill or a Superfund site or a nuclear power plant,” he said.

Both kinds of memorials are part of the same growing trend in end-of-life affairs, Harris said. People are becoming increasingly interested in how their physical remains, and the remains of their loved ones, will be handled. They want something more personal and more personalized.

These days, people can forgo metal caskets and be buried in bamboo or recycled cardboard instead, or have their remains wrapped in banana leaf, cotton, or wool. A company called Eternal Reefs will fashion an environmentally friendly artificial reef out of cremains—cremated remains—and drop it into the ocean for nearby marine life to populate. Cremains can be pressed into diamonds, incorporated into paint, and ejected as fireworks. The variety of options for the dead reflects the consumer culture of the living, says Phil Olson, a Virginia Tech professor who studies funeral practices, like the home-burial movement. “There are at least seven kinds of Coke, 500 kinds of cigarettes—options, options, options,” Olson said. Consumers want just as many choices in death as in life.

The option to send a loved one’s ashes to actual space has existed for several years already, for a steeper price than Ascension Flights charges. Since 1997, the company Celestis has flown missions into space delivering the cremains of dozens of people, including Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry. The payload is launched inside a capsule to more than 300,000 feet, beyond the boundary of space, and eventually falls back to Earth.

While the concept of commemorating life’s final frontier in the final frontier may seem incredibly high-tech, the emotion behind it is no different than run-of-the-mill funerals on Earth. Funeral services can be, in the end, more for the benefit of those who are left behind than those who’ve passed away. They are about processing grief, and grief is personal. For some, the thought of sending their loved one’s ashes into the stratosphere is, simply, very fitting, and it’s difficult to pin down the exact reasons why.

Olson points to alkaline hydrolysis as an example of the funeral industry misunderstanding its customers. Providers of alkaline hydrolysis, which reduces bodies to skeletons in a liquid solution, believed the appeal of the process came from its eco-friendliness. They later found that the primary reason people gave for choosing hydrolysis was that they perceived it to be gentler than cremation. “For some reason, people see being dissolved in caustic alkaline as being gentler than being incinerated,” Olson said.

Perhaps having more options to memorialize the dead may ease the grieving process in some way, he said, even if it’s not clear exactly how.

“We can speculate all we want for people’s motivations for doing this, but we could be dead wrong,” Olson said of the high-altitude memorial and, when I laughed in response, quickly realized his choice of words. “Sorry, pardon the pun. I didn’t even notice that.”

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