Grief Massage Therapy Sessions Help Clients Cope

Grief might live in the heart, but it affects the body, too, contributing to pain and tightness.


Massage therapists Leslie Freeman and Annie Murphy created Bereavement Massage Therapy to help clients who were going through the grieving process.

“As we thought about ourselves and our past clients who had suffered losses, and shared their experiences with us, we remembered the stiffness of muscles, holding patterns in joints, their feelings of being at loose ends, a lack of grounding and vitality,” Freeman explained.

Freeman practices the technique at her Sarasota, Florida, office.


This type of session is part of a growing trend that recognizes massage therapy as an effective means of addressing stress and sadness, and helping clients find peace on the other side of the session.

Massage Consoles

Research reported in Science Daily found that receiving massage therapy for eight weeks after a loved one’s death helped them cope.

“Eighteen people, aged from 34-78, who had lost a relative to cancer took part in the study. They all said the massages provided consolation, helping them to balance the need to grieve and the need to adapt to life after the loss of their relative,” the article noted.

According to Freeman, Bereavement Massage Therapy is a distinct method that combines various modalities to address grief, and is not to be confused with end-of-life massage therapy.

Where the intent of end-of-life massage is to ease the transition of the dying from one realm to another, Bereavement Massage Therapy focuses on reconnecting the grieving client to their body.

To do this, the technique uses flat-hand vibration, gentle rocking and comfort holds to loosen and calm disconnected areas. Bereavement Massage Therapy also incorporates such techniques as reflexology, polarity, Swedish massage and craniosacral techniques.

“When a loved one dies, it’s like you crash and you have all these pieces,” said client Mirta LeCuona. “You don’t have an integrated body. With [Bereavement Massage Therapy], it’s like you start to put your body together. It’s like a wave around you that puts you back together.”

Freeman stresses that Bereavement Massage Therapy does not eliminate the grieving process or fix all pain issues. “Grief is a journey that each person has to take in their own time,” she explained.

Nor is it intended to fix pain issues, although pain relief can be a side effect as the client’s muscles relax.

Instead, Bereavement Massage Therapy is used to give the client a sense of balance during a time of upheaval. People who have received sessions report a sense of feeling lighter as a result.

“Afterward, I felt very calm and at ease, as if a weight had been lifted off of me,” said client Deb Fillion.

Before the session, the intake is key. “Our intake form is a little bit different than the average intake form that asks clients about injuries or illnesses or medications taken and that sort of thing,” said Freeman.

“We ask about appetite, sleep patterns, anything that the client wishes to tell us. We want to get an idea of what’s going on with them during the illness or loss and afterward.”

Putting the Pieces Back Together

It was while working with hospice patients that Freeman, who has a background as a certified nursing assistant, felt inspired to create Bereavement Massage Therapy.

She found the experience of working with the terminally ill extremely rewarding, but acknowledged that her deep inner reservoir of empathy presented an obstacle for that type of work. With 17 years of massage experience, and the hunch that her empathic energy was leading her elsewhere, she decided to meditate on a path forward. As she sifted through her memories of loss and its physical effects, she received a message.

“I clearly heard these words, ‘Work with those who are left behind. You were,’” she recalled. “And I had this vision of putting humpty dumpty back together again.”

With this vision in mind, Freeman sought out a collaborator. She approached Murphy, telling her, “‘I want to tell you about this idea I have and I’m looking for someone to help me put it together. So take your time thinking about it.’ And she took about three minutes and said ‘I’ll take this journey with you.’”


Bereavement Massage Therapy uses a combination of established massage modalities—reflexology, hand-and-foot massage, Trager work, craniosacral techniques, polarity and more—to create groundedness, lightness of being and balance.

Using the same sequence of these modalities for each of the three sessions is a key component of Bereavement Massage Therapy.

“Usually, with massage therapy, pretty much every session is different,” Freeman said. “One time it might be to fix a shoulder, the next time it might be to just de-stress.

“Doing something in the same sequence, in the same way, was very different for me, but it gives a comfort zone for the person who’s already torn apart emotionally. They know what to expect and they find solace in routine,” she added.

Freeman also takes the client’s breathing into account.

“It’s easy to hold your breath for a long period of time when you’re anxious, or to breathe too fast,” Freeman said. “So we work the lung areas [via reflexology] on the feet and the hands, and the heart areas too, to bring those areas back into balance.”

Communication without Counseling

By venturing to help clients in such a tender emotional state, there is a danger of crossing the boundary between massage therapy and talk therapy. Freeman clarified that Bereavement Massage Therapy is not counseling.

“There is very little talking by the therapist in a Bereavement Massage Therapy session. It’s only to ensure that the client is comfortable,” she said.

Clients are always welcome to speak during a session, but clients who expect counseling should contact their care providers, such as hospice, a family physician, clergy, funeral director, or veterinarian, in the case of pet loss; or to find licensed mental health care providers or local support groups.

Freeman keeps business cards on hand to easily refer clients to mental health professionals.

Touch for the Spirit

LeCuona had just taken possession of her late husband’s ashes and was about to go into a Bereavement Massage Session.

“I thought to myself, ‘Where do I put [the] ashes?’ This was the first time I was in custody of him, leaving the car. I called Leslie and I said ‘Leslie, I have a problem.’ I asked, ‘If you don’t mind, can I take the ashes of my husband into the room?’

“She said ‘Of course.’ That means it was not only me, it was my husband. Leslie allowed me to do this. It was very important.”

LeCuona sums the experience up nicely. “[Bereavement Massage Therapy] is very emotional. You have to be very centered to do this. This type of massage is not for your body. It’s for your spirit … for me, I felt I was saved. It was my shelter.”

Freeman said nurturing touch is up there with life’s necessities.

“People have needs,” she said. “We need water, oxygen, food. And we need human touch.”

Complete Article HERE!

Native American Burials: Trees and Scaffolds Illustrated


by Fritz Zimmerman

We may now pass to what may be called aerial sepulture proper, the most common examples of which are tree and scaffold burial, quite extensively practiced even at the present time. From what can be learned the choice of this mode depends greatly on the facilities present, where timber abounds, trees being used, if absent, scaffolds being employed.

From William J. Cleveland, of the Spotted Tail Agency, Nebraska, has been received a most interesting account of the mortuary customs of the Brulé or Teton Sioux, who belong to the Lakota alliance. They are called Sicaugu, in the Indian tongue Seechaugas, or the “burned thigh” people. The narrative is given in its entirety, not only on account of its careful attention to details, but from its known truthfulness of description. It relates to tree and scaffold burial.

Dakota Scaffold Burial.

Though some few of this tribe now lay their dead in rude boxes, either burying them when implements for digging can be had, or, when they have no means of making a grave, placing them on top of the ground on some hill or other slight elevation, yet this is done in imitation of the whites, and their general custom, as a people, probably does not differ in any essential way from that of their forefathers for many generations in the past. In disposing of the dead, they wrap the body tightly in blankets or robes (sometimes both) wind it all over with thongs made of the hide of some animal and place it reclining on the back at full length, either in the branches of some tree or on a scaffold made for the purpose. These scaffolds are about eight feet high and made by planting four forked sticks firmly in the ground, one at each corner and then placing others across on top, so as to form a floor on which the body is securely fastened. Sometimes more than one body is placed on the same scaffold, though generally a separate one is made for each occasion. These Indians being in all things most superstitious, attach a kind of sacredness to these scaffolds and all the materials used or about the dead. This superstition is in itself sufficient to prevent any of their own people from disturbing the dead, and for one of another nation to in any wise meddle with them is considered an offense not too severely punished by death.

The same feeling also prevents them from ever using old scaffolds or any of the wood which has been used about them, even for firewood, though the necessity may be very great, for fear some evil consequences will follow. It is also the custom, though not universally followed, when bodies have been for two years on the scaffolds to take them down and bury them under ground.

All the work about winding up the dead, building the scaffold, and placing the dead upon it is done by women only, who, after having finished their labor, return and bring the men, to show them where the body is placed, that they may be able to find it in future. Valuables of all kinds, such as weapons, ornaments, pipes, in short, whatever the deceased valued most highly while living, and locks of hair cut from the heads of the mourners at his death, are always bound up with the body. In case the dead was a man of importance, or if the family could afford it, even though he were not, one or several horses (generally, in the former case, those which the departed thought most of) are shot and placed under the scaffold. The idea in this is that the spirit of the horse will accompany and be of use to his spirit in the “happy hunting grounds,” or, as these people express it, “the spirit land.

When an Indian dies, and in some cases even before death occurs, the friends and relatives assemble at the lodge and begin crying over the departed or departing one. This consists in uttering the most heartrending, almost hideous wails and lamentations, in which all join until exhausted. Then the mourning ceases for a time until some one starts it again, when all join in as before and keep it up until unable to cry longer. This is kept up until the body is removed. This crying is done almost wholly by women, who gather in large numbers on such occasions, and among them a few who are professional mourners. These are generally old women and go whenever a person is expected to die, to take the leading part in the lamentations, knowing that they will be well paid at the distribution of goods which follows. As soon as death takes place, the body is dressed by the women in the best garments and blankets obtainable, new ones if they can be afforded. The crowd gathered near continue wailing piteously, and from time to time cut locks of hair from their own heads with knives, and throw them on the dead body. Those who wish to show their grief most strongly, cut themselves in various places, generally in the legs and arms, with their knives or pieces of flint, more commonly the latter, causing the blood to flow freely over their persons. This custom is followed to a less degree by the men.

A body is seldom kept longer than one day as, besides the desire to get the dead out of sight, the fear that the disease which caused the death will communicate itself to others of the family causes them to hasten the disposition of it as soon as they are certain that death has actually taken place

Until the body is laid away the mourners eat nothing. After that is done, connected with which there seems to be no particular ceremony, the few women who attend to it return to the lodge and a distribution is made among them and others, not only of the remaining property of the deceased, but of all the possessions, even to the lodge itself of the family to which he belonged. This custom in some cases has been carried so far as to leave the rest of the family not only absolutely destitute but actually naked. After continuing in this condition for a time, they gradually reach the common level again by receiving gifts from various sources.

The received custom requires of women, near relatives of the dead, a strict observance of the ten days following the death, as follows: They are to rise at a very early hour and work unusually hard all day, joining in no feast, dance, game, or other diversion, eat but little, and retire late, that they may be deprived of the usual amount of sleep as of food. During this they never paint themselves, but at various times go to the top of some hill and bewail the dead in loud cries and lamentations for hours together. After the ten days have expired they paint themselves again and engage in the usual amusements of the people as before. The men are expected to mourn and fast for one day and then go on the war-path against some other tribe, or on some long journey alone. If he prefers, he can mourn and fast for two or more days and remain at home.

The custom of placing food at the scaffold also prevails to some extent. If but little is placed there it is understood to be for the spirit of the dead, and no one is allowed to touch it. If much is provided, it is done with the intention that those of the same sex and age as the deceased shall meet there and consume it. If the dead be a little girl, the young girls meet and eat what is provided; if it be a man, then men assemble for the same purpose. The relatives never mention the name of the dead.

Offering Food to the Dead.

Still another custom, though at the present day by no means generally followed, is still observed to some extent among them. This is called wanagee yuhapee, or “keeping the ghost.” A little of the hair from the head of the deceased being preserved is bound up in calico and articles of value until the roll is about two feet long and ten inches or more in diameter, when it is placed in a case made of hide handsomely ornamented with various designs in different colored paints. When the family is poor, however, they may substitute for this case blue or scarlet blanket or cloth. The roll is then swung lengthwise between two supports made of sticks, placed thus × in front of a lodge which has been set apart for the purpose. In this lodge are gathered presents of all kinds, which are given out when a sufficient quantity is obtained. It is often a year and sometimes several years before this distribution is made. During all this time the roll containing the hair of the deceased is left undisturbed in front of the lodge. The gifts as they are brought in are piled in the back part of the lodge, and are not to be touched until given out. No one but men and boys are admitted to the lodge unless it be a wife of the deceased, who may go in if necessary very early in the morning. The men sit inside, as they choose, to smoke, eat, and converse. As they smoke they empty the ashes from their pipes in the center of the lodge, and they, too, are left undisturbed until after the distribution. When they eat, a portion is always placed first under the roll outside for the spirit of the deceased. No one is allowed to take this unless a large quantity is so placed, in which case it may be eaten by any persons actually in need of food, even though strangers to the dead. When the proper time comes the friends of the deceased and all to whom presents are to be given are called together to the lodge and the things are given out by the man in charge. Generally this is some near relative of the departed. The roll is now undone and small locks of the hair distributed with the other presents, which ends the ceremony.

Sometimes this “keeping the ghost” is done several times, and it is then looked upon as a repetition of the burial or putting away of the dead. During all the time before the distribution of the hair, the lodge, as well as the roll, is looked upon as in a manner sacred, but after that ceremony it becomes common again and may be used for any ordinary purpose. No relative or near friend of the dead wishes to retain anything in his possession that belonged to him while living, or to see, hear, or own anything which will remind him of the departed. Indeed, the leading idea in all their burial customs in the laying away with the dead their most valuable possessions, the giving to others what is left of his and the family property, the refusal to mention his name, &c., is to put out of mind as soon and as effectual as possible the memory of the departed.

From what has been said, however, it will be seen that they believe each person to have a spirit which continues to live after the death of the body. They have no idea of a future life in the body, but believe that after death their spirits will meet and recognize the spirits of their departed friends in the spirit land. They deem it essential to their happiness here, however, to destroy as far as practicable their recollection of the dead. They frequently speak of death as a sleep, and of the dead as asleep or having gone to sleep at such a time. These customs are gradually losing their hold upon them, and are much less generally and strictly observed than formerly.

Depositing the Corpse.

A. Delano,66 mentions as follows an example of tree-burial which he noticed in Nebraska.

During the afternoon we passed a Sioux burying-ground, if I may be allowed to use an Irishism. In a hackberry tree, elevated about twenty feet from the ground, a kind of rack was made of broken tent poles, and the body (for there was but one) was placed upon it, wrapped in his blanket, and a tanned buffalo skin, with his tin cup, moccasins, and various things which he had used in life, were placed upon his body, for his use in the land of spirits.


Complete Article HERE!

Death: why children should be taught about it in school

Children become aware of death from an early age.


Have you ever thought about how you’d like your funeral to be? Or what dying might feel like? Or what should happen to your body?

If you’re anything like the majority of people living in the Western world, chances are you haven’t given much thought to how you’d like to die. Or even spoken much about the topic in general.

Although we all know it’s going to happen, dying remains one of those things people still don’t want to discuss. And in a culture that embraces and celebrates youth, very few in the West want to face up to their mortality or risk being seen as macabre or morbid.

But with an ageing population and the UK’s NHS struggling to cope with demand, people need to start planning for their own end of life care earlier. Perhaps, then, the UK should follow Australia’s thinking and start getting dying on the agenda early – by teaching kids about it in school.

The Australian Medical Association Queensland has proposed that death should be built into the school curriculum. If this proposal is accepted, Australia will lead many developed Western nations in tackling the public discomfort and avoidance of death.

Death education

In the UK, 70% of people wish to die at home, but 50% actually die in hospital. In Australia, only about 10% of people die at home – most die in hospital – despite the fact that the majority of Australians say they would prefer to die at home.

How people, especially the young, understand death is often heavily influenced by films and TV where it is often scarier than the reality. To try and address this issue and get people talking about death before it’s too late, Australian doctors are keen to see the subject taught in classrooms. They argue that death would be less traumatic and people would be able to make more informed decisions if palliative care and euthanasia were spoken about more openly.

In practical terms, schools could easily build death into existing subjects. In biology, for example, the processes of death and dying could be covered from a practical perspective, while in citizenship, students could learn how to draw up a will and look at the legal and ethical debates over what mental and physical capacity means.

Death denial

A variety of organisations and lobbying groups are already making headway in getting people to talk more openly about death. The death cafe movement has encouraged people to talk about death and dying over tea and cake in 56 countries. The Order of the Good Death, led by mortician, author and founder Caitlin Doughty, takes an online approach to promote the idea of making death part of life. Meanwhile, the annual UK Dying Matters Awareness Week provides a programme of events supporting the vision that dying does matter and needs to be talked about.

Children begin to grasp death’s finality around the age of four.

Such movements are making important inroads into challenging the public wisdom that “death is taboo”. But there remains a significant proportion of people who do not want to talk about death. It is this cultural trend that embodies what death scholars refer to as “death denial”.

A key problem with death denial is that individual wishes for end of life care are not considered until late on. And the result is that people struggle to achieve a good death, and often don’t have their wishes considered.

Dying talk

Educating the young about death and dying, then, offers the opportunity to challenge the unwanted consequences of not talking – which, according to the Dying Matters coalition, includes the family not knowing how to best help or support their dying loved one, the dying person feeling frightened and distressed, and the issue of people dying without a will – leaving the family unsure about funeral wishes.

New efforts need to be made to demystify death and dying. And there’s more to it than simply getting people to talk about death – although this is a positive step. Directly educating the younger generation is an important shift towards empowering people to understand the interplay between law, medicine and ethical issues surrounding death and dying.

By creating transparency through education, death, dying and the disposal of the dead can all become part of the everyday. And by normalising death within schools, it may well be that students can help their families to fear less and make more informed decisions about the end of their lives.

Complete Article HERE!

Not Taught in Med School: Interpreting Dreams of Dying People

A hospice doctor’s TEDx Talk about his research on end-of-life dreams

By Emily Gurnon

When Dr. Christopher Kerr was a young physician, he visited a patient he calls Tom, who was very ill. Outside the room, Kerr told a nurse they could try antibiotics — that Tom had more time.

“Nope, he’s dying,” the nurse replied, without even looking up.

How did she know? Kerr asked.

“Because he’s seen his deceased mother,” the nurse said.

Kerr, chief medical officer at Hospice Buffalo in New York, discovered he needed to learn more about what end-of-life experiences meant.

He then led a research team from the Palliative Care Institute in Cheektowaga, N.Y. in a long-term study on dreams and visions in the dying. Based on extensive interviews with people who were dying, they examined what their dreams and visions consisted of, whether they perceived them as positive or negative and whether the dreams might serve as a predictor of when death would come.

In October 2015, after the results were published, Kerr gave a TEDx Talk about this for an audience at  Asbury Hall at Babeville, in downtown Buffalo.

Complete Article HERE!

A mother grieves: Orca whale continues to carry her dead calf into a second day

“It reflects the very strong bonds these animals have, and as a parent, you can only imagine what kinds of emotional stress these animals must be under, having these events happen,” says one researcher.

Biologists say orcas mourn the loss of newborns as any family would. On Wednesday, J35 was still carrying her dead calf for the second day straight. In 2010, L20, photographed in Haro Strait, did the same thing with her dead newborn in a behavior biologists say is a common expression of grief.


For two days she has grieved, carrying her dead calf on her head, unwilling to let it go.

J35, a member of the critically endangered southern resident family of orcas, gave birth to her calf Tuesday only to watch it die within half an hour.

All day, and through the night, she carried the calf. She was seen still carrying the calf on Wednesday by Ken Balcomb, founder and principal investigator of the Center for Whale Research.

“It is unbelievably sad,” said Brad Hanson, wildlife biologist with the Northwest Fisheries Science Center, who has witnessed other mother orcas do the same thing with calves that did not survive.

Robin Baird, research biologist with the Cascadia Research Collective in Olympia, in 2010 watched L72, another of the southern residents, carry her dead newborn in 2010.

“It reflects the very strong bonds these animals have, and as a parent, you can only imagine what kinds of emotional stress these animals must be under, having these events happen,” Baird said.

“You could see the calf had not been dead very long, the umbilical cord was visible. When we were watching, all the rest of the whales were separated by a distance, and they were just moving very slowly. She would drop the calf every once in a while, and go back and retrieve it.”

J35 is doing the same thing, carrying her calf by balancing it on her rostrum, just over her nose. She dives to pick it back up every time it slides off.

Scientists have documented grieving behavior in other animals with close social bonds in small, tightly knit groups, observed carrying newborns that did not survive.

Seven species in seven geographic regions covering three oceans have been documented carrying the body of their deceased young, including Risso’s dolphin in the Indian Ocean; the Indo-Pacific bottle-nosed dolphin and the spinner dolphin in the Red Sea; and pilot whales in the North Atlantic.

In one instance, a researcher attached a rope to the carcass of a bottlenose dolphin and towed it to shore and buried it — with the mother following, touching the carcass until she could no longer follow into water too shallow to swim in. There she remained, watching.

Some carried their young in their mouths, some on their backs.

Deborah Giles, research scientist for University of Washington Center for Conservation Biology and research director for the nonprofit Wild Orca, also watched L72 carry her dead calf, following her at a distance in her research boat until the light faded and it was too dark to see.

“Same thing, it was hours and hours,” she said of that whale. “But I have never heard of this,” she said of J35. “More than 24 hours.

“It is horrible. This is an animal that is a sentient being. It understands the social bonds that it has with the rest of its family members. She carried the calf in her womb from 17 to 18 months, she is bonded to it and she doesn’t want to let it go. It is that simple. She is grieving.”

The news of the grieving mother came even as researchers are also tracking a 4-year-old in the endangered orca clan that is emaciated. Hanson photographed J50 on Saturday and documented the classic “peanut head” — a misshapen head due to loss of body fat. Her survival is in doubt.

The southern residents face at least three known challenges to their survival as a species: toxins, vessel traffic and lack of adequate food, particularly chinook salmon. When they are hungry, it makes their other problems worse, research has shown.

Gov. Jay Inslee has appointed a task force on orca whale recovery.

Jaime Smith, spokeswoman for Inslee, said the task force is looking at a range of solutions, both short and long term.

“The loss of this calf is a sobering reminder of what’s at stake,” Smith said. “And it’s why we’ve convened partners who we believe can and will be best able to identify what we need to do in the upcoming weeks, months and years to save these animals.”

For researchers who work closely with the southern residents, their continued decline is painfully apparent.

“I am on the water collecting poop from animals that are not getting enough to eat,” Giles said. “ I don’t know if people understand the magnitude of what we are talking about here. We don’t have five years to wait, we really don’t.”

She said other members of the whale’s family knew J35 was pregnant, because of their echolocation ability, which they use to find food.

“So they must be grieving, too.”

Complete Article HERE!

How Common Is Dementia Among LGBT Seniors?

By Robert Preidt

Dementia strikes about one in 13 lesbian, gay or bisexual seniors in the United States, a new study finds.

“Current estimates suggest that more than 200,000 sexual minorities in the U.S. are living with dementia, but — before our study — almost nothing was known about the prevalence of dementia among people in this group who do not have HIV/AIDS-related dementia,” said Jason Flatt. He is an assistant professor at the University of California, San Francisco School of Nursing.

The study included more than 3,700 lesbian, gay and bisexual adults, aged 60 and older. Over an average follow-up period of nine years, the rate of dementia in this group was 7.4 percent. The dementia rate among Americans aged 65 and older is about 10 percent.

The study was to be presented Sunday at the Alzheimer’s Association annual meeting, in Chicago.

The findings “provide important initial insights,” Flatt said in an association news release.

But “future studies aimed at better understanding risk and risk factors for Alzheimer’s and other dementias in older sexual minorities are greatly needed,” he added.

High rates of depression, high blood pressure, stroke and heart disease among sexual minorities may contribute to their dementia risk, the researchers say.

“Encouraging people to access health care services and make healthy lifestyle changes can have a positive impact on both LGBT and non-LGBT communities,” said Sam Fazio, director of quality care and psychosocial research for the Alzheimer’s Association.

But effective outreach to LGBT groups must be sensitive to racial, ethnic and cultural differences, Fazio added. This could result in earlier diagnosis, which has been linked to better outcomes, he said.

Flatt added that the study points to important implications for meeting the long-term caregiving needs of the LGBT community.

“Given the concerns of social isolation and limited access to friend and family caregivers, there is a strong need to create a supportive health care environment and caregiving resources for sexual minority adults living with dementia,” Flatt said.

Research presented at meetings is usually considered preliminary until published in a peer-reviewed medical journal.

Complete Article HERE!

Make an Eco-Conscious Final Exit

“The Green Reaper” talks about her latest book

By Katie O’Reilly

You’re probably aware that your carbon footprint doesn’t end when you do, but did you know that we could build a new Golden Gate Bridge every year using the metals that leach into the ground from traditional caskets? Take into account all the concrete we bury and we could construct a new two-lane highway beneath it. Factor in the annual carbon emissions that result from cremation and you could drive to the moon and back. This all is according to Elizabeth Fournier, the one-woman operation behind Boring, Oregon’s Cornerstone Funeral Services. It’s located in a rehabbed goat farm and is also the first green funeral home in the Portland metropolitan area. Fournier, in fact, is more commonly known as the “Green Reaper.”

After all, she’s long been helping Oregonians bury their loved ones in ways that involve no metal caskets, concrete linings, or carcinogenic embalming fluids (the noxious chemicals that are released into the earth when the casket eventually biodegrades and the body decomposes). This often means lowering unembalmed bodies into their own backyards in Green Burial Council–certified biodegradable cedar caskets, or even no caskets at all. Fournier (pictured, right), an upbeat and big-hearted mortician who’s prone to statements like “All Grandma’s juicy goodness will go back into the permaculture of the land,” says her nickname was coined by a neighbor who saw her standing in yet another yard with a shovel, excavating a new plot. “It’s a lighthearted way of saying, ‘Yes, you’re the death lady, but you’re the eco death lady.’”

When the Green Reaper was eight, her mother and grandparents died. Not only did young Fournier spend a lot of time in funeral homes, but she also found herself drawn to the tranquility of cemeteries, and even kept a mock graveyard on her dresser. She also devoured National Geographic stories about various cultures’ death rituals and performed funerals for her friends’ pets. Fournier, who soon after going into the funeral industry observed that its progression has aligned with the regression of the planet, wrote about her passion for green death in 2017’s The Green Reaper: Memoirs of an Eco-Mortician. Following its release, she received countless calls and emails from readers who wanted to extend their environmentalism into their after-lives but weren’t sure how to legally go about not turning into toxic waste. “I got a lot of people asking, Can you just put all this information in one place?” Fournier says.

Similar to how Caitlin Doughty of “Ask a Mortician” fame has cracked open the secrets of the funeral industry in hopes of boosting western cultures’ acceptance of death and grieving, Fournier wrote The Green Burial Guidebook: Everything You Need to Plan an Affordable, Environmentally Friendly Burial (the paperback version of which came out in May from New World Library) as a resource to catalog all the natural burial choices available in North America, and to empower readers to make more environmentally friendly final choices—which also, she says, tend to be more cost-effective and psychologically satisfying. A true memoirist, Fournier draws on many of her own experiences to guide readers through everything from green burial planning and funeral basics to sea burials and body-composting options. And The Green Burial Guidebook exudes warmth and compassion—readers who are grieving or faced with their own mortality will likely find comfort in its pages.

After devouring The Green Burial Guidebook in one sitting, Sierra called up the Green Reaper to  discuss climate-conscious changes within the funeral industry and greener ways to go about dying.

Sierra: Who did you write this book for?

Elizabeth Fournier: My intended audience was people who’ve never heard of natural burial and want to know what the heck is going on, as well as people who keep hearing about it and think it’s a trend. I wanted to clarify that up until 150 years ago, in fact, most burials were inherently green—when someone died they were bathed, prepared, and placed in a wooden box. This changed dramatically during the Civil War. Suddenly, bodies had to be transported over long distances in large quantities, and so we started embalming to preserve them, which became common practice. Now, we have a very eco-conscious, DIY culture, and a lot of people are saying, Oh my God, death and dying is so expensive! I wrote this book to show that it doesn’t have to be, and to give people the tools to handle loved ones’ deaths themselves.

So, you’re a funeral director telling people they don’t necessarily need to have or pay for a traditional funeral. . . . Have you experienced any pushback from your own industry?

Not a lot, although there are certainly some people who find the whole green death concept a little outrageous, don’t see the profit-making angle, and think this is just a trend that’ll go away. And that’s discouraging, because our role as morticians is to provide options for people who are going through a horrible time. And of course, this isn’t a trend. What was just a trend is the traditional funeral industry. It’s experienced a lot of growth with the last 50 years, but before that—and especially before the Civil War—burial was far more natural.

There are presently more than 150 green burial sites in America, compared with just a handful a decade ago. Why do you think green burial is on the rise in the U.S.?

A lot of it has to do with today’s generation of end-of-life decision-makers. Baby Boomers, who were born between 1946 and 1964, started recycling and launched Earth Day and put a lot of ecological concerns on the world’s radar. They’ve walked the walk during life, and a lot of them are thinking that a green death wouldn’t be that bad. Baby Boomers are making choices for their parents too.

And again, there’s the issue of rising costs of death—the average American funeral now costs $8,000, and people are saying, How do we afford that?! So, cremation has become more popular. But while that helps you avoid the consequences of embalming fluid, we’ve now learned that cremation’s carbon footprint isn’t so fantastic. So, let’s push further.

You write about being a kid who obsessively read about different cultures’ death rituals in National Geographic, and your book is peppered with insights about various internment practices and beliefs across the globe. Did any other cultures inspire you to become a funeral director who specializes in green death?

So many of them! In parts of the Philippines, for instance, they just make plain caskets out of a single piece of wood and hang them from cliffs; other Asian cultures leave bodies out for the vultures, and in places like India, many just do a funeral pyre. And then there are Viking funerals and other types of at-sea burials. All this stuff is pretty darn non-resource-intensive. And then take Sweden, where promession is legal. That’s when they actually cryogenically freeze-dry you in liquid nitrogen and put you on a vibrating table, which causes your body to disintegrate into particles, making you into a dry powder that can be interred in a biodegradable casket. Italians are using biodegradable seed pods to turn the dead into trees—their remains provide nutrients to a sapling planted above it, creating eco burial forests, rather than burial grounds.

But here in America, things are a bit more challenging—we still have reverence for the human body and human remains, so this idea of putting people in the soil, or watering plants with your remains, is very European. But, we’re getting there—there’s Jae Rhim Lee at Stanford, who developed the mushroom burial suit, a garment sewn with mushrooms whose spores help to detoxify and decompose the body, and Washington State University’s Urban Death Project, where you’re laid in a structure with chips to biodegrade, or as they say, recompose, and it works fantastically well. But, this all has to become palatable to the average person to talk about. Greenies are in the lead here.

“In parts of the Philippines they just make plain caskets out of a single piece of wood and hang them from cliffs; other Asian cultures leave bodies out for the vultures, and in places like India, many just do a funeral pyre. And then there are Viking funerals and other types of at-sea burials. All this stuff is pretty darn non-resource-intensive.”

Your book takes a very warm, open, and never morbid approach to the subject of death. Can you talk about societal comfort levels with death and how they affect the green burial movement?

We used to keep loved ones’ bodies in our homes for a while, but nowadays, funeral directors come and take them—our ethos is to just call the undertaker so we don’t have to think about or deal with any of the messy parts of death. But now people are realizing, partially thanks to the wonderful interwebs, that we have choices, and I think we’re slowly becoming more comfortable with death. A younger generation of funeral directors—the old man with the clammy hands is far from the norm nowadays—is trying to embrace more modern practices. Celebrations of life are becoming more popular, and I love the concept of the living funeral—if you know you’re gonna pass soon, rather than having a party when you’re dead, have it when you’re alive and can still enjoy being honored and listening to all the good things people say about you. People truly are embracing more choices. And when you consider Mother Nature and the drive to honor Earth as this gorgeous, loving place, you can engage in dialogue with people who’ve perhaps never talked much about death before.

What if someone wants to embrace green burial, but she lives somewhere like Manhattan and so can’t expect her loved ones to bury her in the backyard?

There’s certainly no perfect way to do it; it’s about shades of green. Consider that every state now has at least one cemetery that allows for natural burial, up from just a dozen nationwide a decade ago. It’s legal everywhere now; you just have to be diligent about calling the county and finding the often small cemeteries that don’t require a concrete grave liner. And plenty of companies are offering green burial caskets that use a basic liner, such as a wicker basket. But the movement goes beyond burial itself. Maybe you want to make sure your loved ones know you want local and organic food served at your reception and no cut flowers. Maybe you want to have guests carpool to your service, or you want to be buried in the sheets from your bed. There are all sorts of ways to approach green death. Like, on one hand you’re making a horrible choice if you insist on going into a mausoleum, but if it’s what best helps your family cope, then fantastic. Let’s find you some other ways to be part of the solution.

What’s next for you?

I’m working with someone right now to secure a place in Portland, Oregon, for an official green burial cemetery. I have to keep it under wraps right now but will be revealing more later in the year. It’s been a really fun process—we’re working to get community muralists to paint the wall behind it, and to find passionate underwriters, and to make this a really comfortable, beautiful place that will truly honor the people interred there. It’s been great to meet and talk to all the fantastic people who’ve come out of the woodwork to talk about how doing something good for the planet can really help grieving loved ones heal.

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