They say writing is cathartic, but writing about my parents dying almost killed me

Writing about her parents being killed when she was 14 forced Erin Vincent to relive the trauma for over six years. It brought her to the brink of suicide

‘Suddenly it all made sense. By writing my book I had unwittingly re-traumatised myself and have spent the last 10 years trying to find my way back.’


[B]efore writing a memoir about my parents dying in a road accident when I was 14 I went around saying, “So my parents died, what’s the big deal?” I wholeheartedly believed that I had come away unscathed. When the topic of parents came up in conversation I would say, “Oh, my parents are retired; they live up the coast.” I figured I wasn’t lying as they had retired, from life, and if you believe in life after death, which I do and don’t, depending on the day, they were living up from the coast, all coasts.

So, how did I go from death denier to published memoir writer? Quite by accident.

I had just turned 30 and was starting to remember things from before my parents’ accident. We hear so much about people repressing traumatic memories but we humans also tend to repress good ones if they serve to remind us of all that we’ve lost. So in fear of losing the memories again I started writing them down and turning them into stories for myself. I figured that if I lost them a second time I could just go back to what I had written.

As I recalled days at the beach, my father’s weird hobbies, and my mother dancing around the house to her Neil Diamond records, I started to feel compelled to also write about what life was like after they were gone. So I steeled myself and wrote about wearing a hot pink dress to my mother’s funeral. I wrote about the constant fear that my three-year-old brother would die if I took my eyes off him for just one moment when we were out in the world. I wrote about the night of my parents’ accident and being told my mother was dead.

After several weeks of this it occurred to me that I was writing the kind of stories I wished I’d had when I was in the midst of grief and thought I was losing my mind as I struggled to get up each day each day and go to school, and once there, try not to run from the classroom screaming. So, on I wrote.

After reading a few of my stories my husband suggested I write a book. This was the era of Angela’s Ashes and Running With Scissors and he jokingly said, “Hey, when it comes to sad stories two dead parents trumps them all.” He was wrong of course but thought it would urge me on.

I resisted for a long time but then wondered if I could write a raw and honest book about my own grief that might actually be of use to some people; maybe help them feel less alone than I did when I read grief books with covers photos of lavender fields and sunsets that told me grief came in five (only five?!) stages and that grief was like the rain. Grief is nothing like the fucking rain, I thought. If anything, grief is like being lost at sea in a raging hurricane.

So to dispel those myths I decided to write a memoir about my experience and honestly believed I could “knock it out” in six months. How hard could it be? I’d been a journalist writing about other people, so writing about myself, a subject I knew well, would be a cinch.

How wrong I was – about the writing, and about myself.

About a year into the writing I wondered why I was so tired all the time; why after writing for an hour or two all I would want to do was sleep. I thought I was just being lazy so I pushed myself harder.

Determined to remember as many details as possible I decided to bombard my senses. I bought CDs of the music from my childhood and items with familiar smells such as Play Doh, my dad’s Old Spice, Brut, my sister’s Charlie perfume, the 4711 cologne my mother used to wear, the brand of glue I used in grade school. And there I sat at my desk writing, sniffing and listening to Barry Manilow, Whitney Houston, The Police, Blondie, Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass, Neil Diamond.

Not long after this I became itchy, literally. Large red hives started appearing all over my body. Convinced I was having some kind of allergic reaction I proceeded to change soap, laundry detergent, shampoo, and I stopped smelling the perfumes and aftershaves, but nothing worked. Then came the debilitating stomach pains, diarrhoea, and vomiting, which led me to hospital for a colonoscopy, which found nothing. I became listless, was crying on a daily basis, my hair became limp, my nails brittle, and eventually I had trouble getting out of bed. And yet, not once did I attribute any of this to what I was writing.

And then one night I decided I couldn’t go on and that my husband’s life would be more joyous without his sick, miserable wife. I had it all planned. I was going to write a note that said something along the lines of, “Babe, do not enter. Just call the police. I love you.” This was going to be taped to the bathroom door before I locked it, sliced my wrists and laid in a warm bath and drifted away. But then I thought about grief, something that was on my mind daily. Could I put him through that? I tried to reason with myself, “But once the grief is gone, he can live a happy life”. But still … grief. Could I, of all people, cause the person I loved most in the world to experience what I had? No, I couldn’t. So the note was never written. Instead I put the razor away, collapsed on to our bed in a sobbing heap and wondered how I would go on. Somehow I did. And I kept writing, in shorter spurts now that my energy was so low.

As I sat at my desk one afternoon, staring out the window because I was too tired to do anything else, my teary-eyed husband, handed me a printout and said, “I think this might be you.” It was a “depression checklist” that he’d found whilst doing some research for a photo series he was working on. And then it all made sense. I was depressed. How did I not see it?

We talked about me ceasing the writing but I explained that I couldn’t. I had come this far and it would all be for nothing if I didn’t finish. So we came up with a plan. I would only write for one hour a day and would go and see a psychologist to see if she could help me get through it. I also went on antidepressants which eventually lead to a host of physical and mental health issues that I am still recovering from. (This last year I went through hell trying to ween off the drug Cymbalta)

So with a loving husband, psychologist, and pharmaceutical drugs in tow, I wrote and eventually finished my memoir. It would be a couple of years before I sold it to a publisher and had to go through the whole experience again during the editing process. By the time I was done I had relived the night of my parents’ accident on a daily basis for six years. I thought I was numbing myself but I have since discovered that I was actually rewiring my brain.

Studies have shown that replaying traumatic events over and over again is equivalent to living them, in your brain and your body. Your brain reads the information as though the event is happening in that instant. I recently read Dr. Bessel van der Kolk’s book The Body Keeps the Score in which he says, “Flashbacks and reliving are in some ways worse than the trauma itself … a traumatic event has a beginning and an end” but a flashback can happen anywhere, anytime and for an indeterminable length of time.

Suddenly it all made sense. By writing my book I had unwittingly re-traumatised myself and have spent the last 10 years trying to find my way back.

It’s funny, the main thing people say to me when discussing my book is how cathartic the writing must have been. I know they want me to say that it was, but I refuse to perpetuate the lie that writing about your pain is freeing when that is not always the case.

And now when people tell me they plan to write a memoir I want to caution them about the possible costs of such an endeavour. And yet, I want to be supportive, I don’t want to be the person who tries to kill a writer’s dreams.

Writing a book isn’t easy but dredging up your past and writing about it can be self-inflicted torture.

But who am I to tell you not to embark on that memoir? All I can say is: you’ve been warned.

Complete Article HERE!

We’ve been burying people all wrong

Could eco-friendly funerals save the planet?

By Mary Pilon

[A]bout 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.”

End-of-life activists ponder how to die in a death-averse culture

Why, you may ask, take on this unpleasant, frightening subject? Why stare into the sun?

— Irvin D. Yalom, Staring at the Sun: Overcoming the Terror of Death

THE SACRED ART OF DYING: Third Messenger co-founders Said Osio, left, and Greg Lathrop promote community events such as the popular Death Cafe, a community forum that invites participants to engage in conversation about death and dying.

“Are you willing to pretend something for a minute?” asks Greg Lathrop, a local end-of-life activist. “So, let’s pretend this. March 27 will be your last day here. In this game, we know that you’re going to die March 27th. Now, how’s your life? See, it’s a simple perspective shift. Perspective is just a choice. You shift the perspective just that much, and it opens a door. We’re getting somewhere. Now it’s like, ‘I hate my job,’ or ‘I’m in debt up to my eyeballs.’ What would it look like, in these last three months, to live the best three months of your life? It gives us an opportunity. It’s more than a bucket list. What’s your life’s purpose — why are you even here?”

Lathrop, a registered nurse, holds a certification as a Sacred Passage doula — caring for people who are in the process of dying — and is co-founder of Asheville’s Third Messenger, a community of Asheville death-issues activists who have created a forum for conversations about death at the so-called Death Cafe. Lathrop is also part of a growing  national community that works in “the death trade” — people dedicated, he notes, to broaching the conversation of death and dying within a culture that prefers to speak about virtually any other subject.

Lathrop first began that conversation on the heels of his own significant loss. Synchronistically, the death of Lathrop’s wife and the passing of Third Messenger co-founder Said Osio’s daughter propelled the two men to join forces in end-of-life activism. To Asheville locals and tourists alike, Third Messenger’s work may be most visible in what has become a landmark Biltmore Avenue structure.

Ministered to for years by Earl Lee “Happy” Gray (before his passing in October 2016), the “Before I Die” wall poses passers-by one simple question: What have you left undone? Not surprisingly, responses range from the mundane to the profound, reflecting our culture’s divisive relationship with the end of life. Yet the wall serves as a catalyst, the beginning of what Third Messenger views as a critical and much-needed conversation. “We cultivate the sacred art of being with dying — we use art to engage the conversation,” says Lathrop.

It is precisely this lack of familiarity with death that engenders the paralyzing fear of the unknown and creates what author and end-of-life activist Stephen Jenkinson, who spoke at Asheville’s Masonic Temple Nov. 6, refers to as a “death-phobic culture.”

Dr. Aditi Seth-Brown, hospice and palliative care physician at CarePartners, agrees: “Many years ago, there were so many intergenerational families and communities, so death was something that young children were around and saw — life happened around death.” As a result of an unfortunate marriage of families living farther apart and a highly individualistic culture, Sethi-Brown now frequently encounters many individuals who have virtually no experience with the process she views as an inextricable part of life.

“People come to us, and oftentimes this is their very first experience with death, and there’s so much fear of the unknown,” says Sethi-Brown, who is also is a local musician, whose work includes playing for people transitioning and at Third Messenger events. “Sometimes, family members come to us and say, ‘We don’t want our loved one to know that they’re dying.’ We don’t practice it. There are some traditions around the world that actually have practices around death, meditations around death — just like if you’re birthing, you go to birth classes, read birth books, but [there’s] nothing to prepare you for death.”

CALLING FORTH THE BEYOND: Hospice and palliative care physician and musician Dr. Aditi Sethi-Brown often provides musical accompaniment for those transitioning.

Shining light upon the shadows

“I was 9. That’s the start of it, in my memory.” says Asheville resident Julie Loveless. Beginning in early childhood, Loveless found herself plagued by an inexplicable and inescapable fear of death. One night in particular, Loveless says, “We were at my grandmother’s house. My parents were there, my grandmother, my aunt, and it was time for me to go to bed. I was terrified, because I knew I wasn’t going to wake up the next morning. So I was coming up with all of these tactics to stay up. I had a fever, I had diarrhea, my stomach hurt, I was throwing up, I fell down the stairs — anything I could do to stay up and be the center of attention.” It was as though she needed to be seen in her terror, Loveless says, validated in her very existence. “I needed somebody to know I was alive.”

Loveless’ childhood fear of death is far from uncommon. Recent studies show that children as young as 5 express substantial “death anxiety.” The results of one such study indicated that a mature relationship to dying (understanding death as an inevitable biological event) correlated with a decreased fear of death.

Is it any surprise, when many children are now inoculated from the natural rhythms of life, that they fear, rather than revere, that great unknown? The reality is that “we don’t even have a language for dying,” says Lathrop.

Trish Rux, hospice and palliative care nurse and Sacred Passage doula, agrees. In contrast to her upbringing, she says, the majority of individuals she meets have rarely contemplated death. “I was raised without a death phobia,” Rux says. “I remember my father bringing me to a friend’s funeral when I was pretty young and my not really understanding about the casket, and his explaining it to me. He was just a very practical person. Just knowing that death is a part of life — it was an accepted thing.”

In stark contrast, Rux now regularly witnesses individuals who, in their final days, have scarcely given a thought to the inevitability of their own mortality. “Curiously, I’ve had people that in are in their late 80s, and they’ve not thought about their death. It’s incredible to me — they haven’t thought about what they want, who they want to see. It’s sad for me, and it’s pretty common.”

MINDFUL LIVING: “All of our time is running out,” says Julie Loveless. “It does make things less scary when you’re faced with what’s considered the scariest thing a human can be faced with.”

Dancing with death

Loveless was 30 when she first received a diagnosis of breast cancer and 37 when it returned with a vengeance. After having been in remission from the cancer for seven years, a persistent lymphedema sent her back to the oncologist for a standard biopsy. “I’ve never seen it happen that fast,” Loveless says. “He walked in, did the core needle biopsy and left. I got my clothes back on and am sitting down, and he immediately walked back in and said, ‘It looks like disease.’ The way he was talking about it, he made it clear it had metastasized. I don’t think he said the word, ever — it was just understood.”

Yet Loveless is no longer afraid to fall asleep. Now faced with the stark reality of her worst childhood fears, she finds herself liberated rather than imprisoned. “When I go back to the last time I remember having that really potent fear of death that was crippling, like pulling over to the side of the road and having to breathe into a paper bag, to now — it’s night and day. Before, when something would go wrong and I’d look into the mirror and see a new mark on my skin, I’d think ‘Oh, that might be skin cancer.’ Or, ‘I have a headache — I might have an aneurysm.’ To have those thoughts in my head all the time, to think that way and then to be like ‘Oh my God, I might have cancer — oh wait, I do have cancer.’ I have the worst thing you can have. Nothing else is scary.”

Freed from the fear of dying, Loveless now finds herself preoccupied with living. “[I] wake up in the morning and [think], ‘This may be my last day — how am I going to spend it?’ [Or], this might be my last minute — do I want to spend it brushing my teeth and sitting on the toilet and looking at Facebook? Or, do I want to go make a really yummy smoothie, or do I want to go outside and look at the leaves? So, if you’re thinking that way all the time, you have no idea that it’s even happening until the end of the day and you realize — ‘I didn’t waste my day today.’”

Lathrop questions whether we cheat ourselves of the chance for a more meaningful life if we spend our days running from the inevitability of death. His answer: “Death is my guru. It becomes a real teacher for how to live.” And Sethi-Brown agrees: “The reality is you don’t know when your time is. Don’t be afraid of having the conversation. The fear of the conversation, the discomfort around it — go there, explore that — and you’ll see, it will change your life.”

Complete Article HERE!

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

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.”


[P]ete 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!

In the 16th Century, the Best Office Decor was a Tiny Rotting Corpse

Miniature memento moris were all the rage for around 300 years.

A 16th-century memento mori attributed to Hans Leinberger.

by Ella Morton

[T]here are many additions you can make to your office desk in order to remind yourself to stay motivated, seize the day, and make every minute count. A mini zen garden or framed motivational quote, for instance; maybe a page-a-day calendar with a kitten hanging from a branch.

Or a 16th-century statuette of a rotting corpse.

The wooden carving above, sculpted by German artist Hans Leinberger in the 1520s, is a memento mori—a reminder of human mortality designed to keep its owner humble, focused, and untethered to worldly possessions. In 16th-century Europe, these stark odes to humanity’s transience appeared in the form of tomb effigies, full-sized statues, and smaller sculptures perfect for a tabletop.

The predominant image of these artworks was that of the upright corpse, depicted with a torn flesh suit and exposed ribs. The figure sometimes held an object; the corpse in Leinberger’s sculpture clutches a scroll with a Latin inscription that translates to “I am what you will be. I was what you are. For every man is this so.” 

One of the more striking full-sized memento moris of the era is the statue of René de Chalon, a French prince who died at 25 in the 1544 siege of Saint-Dizier. Known as a transi—for its depiction of human transience—the sculpture shows the prince’s desiccated corpse holding his own heart aloft.

The transi of René de Chalon.

Post-Renaissance, portable memento moris continued to be sculpted, with half-human, half-skeleton figures offering a slightly less gruesome way to remember one’s mortality. The half-half statuettes below were created in the early 19th century to encourage “spiritual contemplation.”

Memento mori figures from the early 19th century.

The wooden carving below, which was created in 19th-century Italy, shows a woman’s head with half her skull exposed. Note the baby snake wrapped around her mandible. Note also that despite the facial decay, her ruffled collar and lace cap are perfectly intact.

A 19th-century Italian memento mori.

Those preferring a more subtle, easily concealable reminder of death—one that can be whipped out for contemplation during a train ride, then stashed in a pocket on disembarking—could opt for a pendant-style memento mori like the one below. It dates to either the 18th or 19th century.

Skeleton in coffin pendant, Europe, 1701-1900.

Regardless of their size and level of grisliness, portable memento moris all offered the same message: life is short, you will die, and earthly possessions don’t matter. The fact that this message was contained in an earthly possession is just part of the thrilling paradox that is human existence.

Complete Article HERE!

Why you should make end-of-life care decisions now

By Kristen McConnell

[M]odern medicine has developed the God-like power to stabilize the vital signs that spiral out of control as a person approaches death, and to then keep that person alive despite their inability to breathe, eat or drink. It wields this power liberally.

But the American healthcare system never taught the public that preventing a natural death often results in a wholly unnatural life.

As an ICU nurse, I am haunted by memories of patients who were stabilized in intensive care so that their catastrophic injuries or diseases did not kill them, but who were left unable to communicate or do anything but receive medical care.

I think of a young woman whose family was so torn apart over whether to take her off life support after a hemorrhagic stroke left her comatose that by the time she died of a complication, weeks later, nobody came to be by her side.

When she was first admitted to the hospital, her family crowded her room. But when she didn’t get better, they drifted away. She stayed, her flesh peachy after weeks of tube feeding, though speckled with the tiny bruises of blood-thinning heparin shots.

She died of a perforated bowel leaking fecal matter into her abdomen and causing sepsis. Her family had declined emergency surgery over the telephone, giving permission for her to die. At the very end, there was only a nurse, dialing up morphine as the patient’s organs failed.

I can only imagine the immense suffering her family endured, and I know that every time they were asked for a decision regarding her care, they tried to make the right one.

But I wonder: If what was left of the girl in the hospital wasn’t enough to come say goodbye to, if she was too far gone to hold hands with as she drew her last breaths, why was she still there?

I also think of an elderly patient with a history of strokes and dementia who was brought to the emergency department after another large stroke. He was already completely immobile, dependent on care and unable to communicate. His breathing was inadequate and his heart went into a dangerous rhythm — dangerous if the goal is to stay alive. He was intubated and taken to the ICU.

The poor man was awake. He would occasionally squeeze a hand when asked to, but he never responded to questions. Because there was no fear of him pulling out his breathing tube, he was on minimal sedation, getting drugs only when he breathed rapidly or started “bugging out his eyes,” as one nurse put it. Aside from a list of diagnoses and meds, there was little information in his history, and no family contacts.

When asked directly by the ICU, the patient’s case manager and his general physician both refused to serve as his proxy and would not participate in a conversation about whether the patient would rather switch from life-sustaining measures to “comfort care,” which would have meant removing the plastic tube from his trachea and allowing him to die naturally, with supportive care and medicine to make him comfortable. So we kept him alive.

When I am face to face with a patient like this — someone who will never again be able to communicate, and who has been placed on the treadmill of continuous medical care — I feel the same type of shame as when I walk by a cold, crippled homeless person on the sidewalk. The wrongness is just as obvious.

When I stick a needle into his arm, or a catheter into his urethra, it feels as though I am kicking a homeless person. The incapacitated ill are profoundly disenfranchised, and the manipulation of their bodies is extraordinarily invasive and consequential.

It’s a moral crisis hiding in plain sight, yet the people involved claim to be mere cogs in the machine. When I asked an ICU attending physician why families aren’t given data and clear explanations of probable outcomes rather than best-case scenarios and “only time will tell” conversations, he said, “palliative care people can do that. In the ICU, we don’t really have time.” Another physician mentioned the “inertia of the system.”

It falls to the general public — the patients — to take the initiative in reforming the excesses of modern medical care.

You can determine your fate by completing an advance directive. This is a legal document in which you can explain what measures should be undertaken if you are unable to communicate; name a healthcare proxy who can communicate your wishes to medical providers; and lay out how you envision the end of your life.

Medicare began reimbursing physicians for advanced care planning in 2016. And many states have adopted POLST programs — Physician Orders for Life Sustaining Treatment — in which medical orders can be written in advance. Still, two-thirds of Americans do not have any type of advance directive in place.

These documents are critically important. If you don’t want to be kept alive on life support, you can indicate as much in your advance directive. If you want the longest life possible no matter what, you can affirm this wish. Either way, families and care providers should know. It will help move our medical system toward a more humane approach to end-of-life care.

Complete Article HERE!

What Jewish law says about suicide and assisted dying

Jewish law recognises patient choice as decisive in some situations where assisted dying may be an option.


[I]n November, Victoria became the first Australian state to legalise voluntary assisted dying. From mid-2019, competent, terminally ill adults who are stricken with an incurable and progressive physical or mental disease and unable to gain relief from their suffering will be able to access a substance that will let them end their lives.

The law reflects the contemporary secular approach to biomedical law and ethics, in which individual autonomy trumps the principle of the value of human life.

In line with this approach, competent terminally ill adults who find themselves trapped by disease from which they feel that their only deliverance is death may choose to end their lives in accordance with the law.

By contrast, Jewish law (halakhah) is obligation-based, and the preservation of human life is a cardinal commandment. Both suicide and self-endangerment are forbidden (Genesis 9:5; Deuteronomy 4:15). Maimonides explains that our bodies are Divine property and any deliberate attempt to destroy them is prohibited.

A similar view is attributed to Socrates in the Phaedo. He states that, in general, suicide is forbidden since it infringes on the property rights of the gods.

‘Soft autonomy’ and assisted dying

Jewish law recognises patient choice as decisive in some situations. This is not so much a value as a solution to a particularly difficult case involving a clash between two competing values.

Famed Jewish law scholar and rabbi Moshe Feinstein used this type of “soft autonomy” in a case in which a patient wanted to risk an assured but low-quality short-term lifespan for the possibility of gaining long-term life expectancy.

In permitting the patient to choose the highly risky operation, Rabbi Feinstein held that if rational people in general would be prepared to choose the operation, it would constitute a legitimate option – and ownership of the body would be transferred to the patient.

In another decision, he ruled that a competent, terminally ill adult ought not to be pressured into accepting artificial nutrition, even though failure to do so would precipitate his death. Here, Rabbi Feinstein took the terminal patient’s wishes into account. He laid down the principle of non-traumatisation of the terminally ill.

‘Soft autonomy’ and suicide

This soft autonomy model is also applicable to suicide.

In general, suicide is forbidden under Jewish law. Sanctions include non-observance of mourning rites and separate burial. However, there are situations in which a person may choose to take their own life because of a conflict between legitimate halakhic values.

The biblical account of King Saul’s suicide is interpreted to mean that one may take their own life to prevent the desecration of the Divine name by having a king of Israel fall into enemy hands.

Another view is that suicide may be committed to avoid physical or mental suffering. With regard to the permissibility of suicide during the Holocaust, Rabbi Ephraim Oschry permitted suicide to avoid the agony of witnessing the destruction of one’s family and community – but added that the decision should not be publicised.

The lesson to be learned from this is that any relaxation of the prohibition on suicide in cases of extreme suffering should be accompanied by a public education program. This program would be designed to both strengthen the value of life and deepen society’s understanding of its fundamentally sacred nature.

Complete Article HERE!