I’m 33, Healthy, and Planning My Own Funeral

By Susie Bearne

I was 33 when I decided to plan my funeral. I was healthy, and I would describe myself as a glass-half-full kind of person. In other words, I’m not morbid, and I don’t have a death wish.

But over the years, the thought of my own funeral constantly popped up in my mind. Who would turn up? What music would be playing? And — with a good degree of narcissism — which ex-lover overwhelmed with grief would be lingering in the back pews? While friends planned their weddings, I had a different milestone that I wanted to plan for: the end of my life.

The more I started to think about the funeral, the more I wondered how my funeral might play out outside of my daydreams, given I wouldn’t be there to orchestrate it. If I were to die, how would my family know whom to invite? And as an eco-vegetarian, would my funeral reflect the principles I’d lived by? It dawned on me that my final soiree might actually be my own worst kind of party, with me wanting to jump out of the coffin and scream, “FFS, James Blunt?” as “You’re Beautiful” played softly in the background and everyone quietly wept into plates of frozen, beige party food.

One day, I read about Louise Winter – an editor turned funeral planner – online. According to her website, Winter founded Poetic Endings, a business dedicated to creating bespoke funerals, ensuring that send-offs could be stylish, meaningful and unique. I was intrigued. Could she help me plot out my big day?

I met Louise at The House of Saint Barnabas in Soho in London. Over a pot of green tea, she gently asked about my experience attending funerals. The funerals I’d attended were quite traditional and stuffy — black limousines, black clothes, and mostly somber, never really reflecting the spirit of the person who’d died.

Then, Winter quizzed me about every aspect of my future funeral.  Would I like to be buried or cremated? What I would like to be dressed in? Did I want to be embalmed? She explained that funerals didn’t always have to be held in a church, as I’d previously assumed. She also enlightened me on things I never knew, including the fact that I didn’t have to have my funeral in a church, and that it’s actually more environmentally-friendly to have a woodland burial than a cremation.

The cost of Louise’s services came to just under $400. For that, I got three hours of what is essentially event planning, guided by an industry expert. Following the one-to-one, Louise sent me a document which outlined the practical arrangements of my funeral such as keeping my body in a natural state and making sure people wear whatever clothes they want — color is encouraged. The document, which Louise sent to me, is a loose plan of how I’d like my big day to pan out. It can be updated by me at any time, and I’m not legally bound to any of it.

I decided on a candle-lit service in a historical house in London, where friends and family will be welcomed with glasses of Champagne for during the service and be encouraged to stand up and share anecdotes (note to friends: be funny). The after party is set to be in the same venue or a nearby pub, with guests encouraged to bring a vegetarian dish for a huge buffet. Other requirements include no embalming, a bamboo coffin, and a woodland burial near my parents’ home, complete with a tree planted nearby.

I get that it all sounds a little bit…intense. However, I’m not the only one preparing their funeral.

Over the past decade, there’s also been increased interest in dedicated spaces where people can discuss death and grief. For example, more than seven thousand Death Cafes, where strangers are encouraged to talk about death over tea and cake have been held across 68 countries since the social network was founded in 2011.

“When it comes to end-of-life planning and our relationship to death and dying, avoidance doesn’t work; it doesn’t prevent a person from dying, but it may prevent them from dying a good death,” says Lennon Flowers, co-founder and executive director of The Dinner Party, which encourages those who experienced loss to join others for a meal.

The rising societal urge to speak up about death and celebrate life has led to Reimagine, a non-profit which hosts events in San Francisco and New York across spaces ranging from hospitals to comedy clubs. “By bringing death out of the shadows and repurposing public spaces where all types of people are invited not just to talk about death we’ve seen a process of personal and community-wide transformation emerge,” says founder and executive director Brad Wolfe.

Amy Cunningham, owner of Brooklyn-based funeral directors Fitting Tribute Services, believes that millennials are far more aware of their own mortality — perhaps because of the current political climate and the rise of mass violence. “Death can strike at any moment,” she says. “This causes younger people to contemplate it and even get creative with what’s inevitable – as sad as that is. Young people want to break more of the old funeral rules and customs and make the funeral work for them.”

Danielle Ripley-Burgess, 35, a freelance communications consultant living in Kansas City fine-tuned her funeral plans on her own as part of her 2019 New Year’s resolutions. “I was diagnosed with colon cancer 18 years ago and I’ve thought about death a lot ever since,” she says. “Attending funeral services for friends, family and fellow cancer fighters has given me a lot of ideas.”

She describes her funeral as a “pop-music filled, colorful celebration of life full of faith-based Bible verses and songs that allude to the hope I find in death” – and with a taco bar serving up food. “When we pass away, our loved ones will be those suffering the most, yet they’ll also be tasked with handling our affairs. Making funeral plans is a small way to lighten their load,” says Ripley-Burgess.

It was following the death of her mother that motivated Alica Forneret to consider her own funeral. “I realized that there’s a lot of damn work involved with planning a funeral, especially when you’re grieving,” says Forneret, 30, from California. “I eventually realized that it was super important for me to start thinking and talking about this stuff with my family and my fiancée, because I didn’t want to put any of them in a situation where they weren’t prepared to execute on what I want done when I die.”

Forneret, a writer who now lives in Vancouver, says her funeral plans so far includes “good food” because “grieving is hard work and our bodies need to be nourished during those times” and ensuring someone tells jokes. “In short, I want my funeral to be positive and sad, to help people connect in their lives that’ll continue after I’m dead.”

“We are all going to die,” Forneret continues. “Preparing your family and friends in advance is really, really important. Then they can just ride the waves of grief without having to pick out fillings for the tiny sandwiches that’ll be served at your wake or what celebrant is going to MC your funeral.”

As for me, my environmentally-friendly and simple but stylish funeral looks set to be a beautiful and meaningful day, reflective of who I was — or rather, am. Knowing that my grieving family, doesn’t need to frantically worry about what songs I would have wanted to play, who to invite or if I wanted to be cremated means I leave knowing there’s one less headache for them. But one thing’s for sure, if it turns out to be quite the party and I’m in the heavens looking down, I’ll be absolutely gutted that I can’t be there.

Complete Article HERE!

Is This How We Conquer Our Fear of Death?

It is both absolutely possible and absolutely necessary to reframe the national dialogue around death, and make it a more open and honest discussion.

By Sarah John

Sarah John

It is a well-documented fact that few topics are as taboo as death. According to Psychology Today, current American society sees death and dying “as profoundly ‘un-American’ experiences” because they force us to confront our own lack of control. In a society that prizes individualism and forging one’s own fate, the finality of death threatens the way that many Americans choose to view themselves. Normally, we choose to avoid discussing the subject. “Instead of confronting their own mortality, many Americans tend to label such talk as ‘morbid’ and try to stave it off — along with death itself — as long as they can,” author, anthropologist and Brandeis University professor Anita Hannig said.

For most Americans, there is never a good time to talk about death — and that includes the times when they or someone they know has been touched by it.

When I lost a parent, several people in my own life were extremely uncomfortable with the vulnerability that surrounds death, mourning and tragedy. Throughout that period, I felt that my job was to recover as quickly as possible from grief so as to be “normal” again as if grief was an unnatural or perhaps inconvenient process. It took time for me to realize it is neither of those things. Even today, mentioning loss can be stressful, as I worry about how best to explain my situation without “killing the mood.” In my experience, I find that most people would prefer to never think about death, even as it affects people around them.

Can we conquer our societal fear of death? Given the strong aversion most people have to the topic, I have spent some time grappling with that question.

In the end, I believe the answer is yes. It is both absolutely possible and absolutely necessary to reframe the national dialogue around death and make it a more open and honest discussion.

The first thing that is essential to understand is that our national beliefs regarding death are inextricable from a number of other issues. Our thoughts on death, widows and widowers, hospice care, national tragedy, suicide and the rights of the terminally ill are all tangled together. If we cannot discuss tragedy at an individual level, then we are also unable to discuss how to better the lives of those affected by it.

Initiatives to open up dialogue around death have already begun. In January 2011, after finishing mortuary school, Caitlin Doughty started The Order of the Good Death. The Order describes itself as “a group of funeral industry professionals, academics, and artists exploring ways to prepare a death phobic culture for their inevitable mortality.” The Order encourages creating a conversation about the topic of death, partially so people can ensure their end-of-life wishes are met. The Order also highlights the importance of legal protections for the dying and dead, and the importance of equal access for everyone to have their death rites fulfilled. We can also look to when in 2016, noticing the lack of conversation around death, Hannig designed the class “Anthropology of Death and Dying.” After taking the class, students reported numerous gains, including more respect for the elderly. One student decided to intern at a hospice over the summer. Another said the class helped her process her grief for a loved one.

Today, you can even download the WeCroak app, which sends you five daily reminders that everyone, well, croaks — so we all better choose to live well.

Death is a sad and tragic reality of life, and one that can’t be ignored. It is never something to be glorified or celebrated. But it eases death’s pain for everyone when we can, at the very least, calmly acknowledge mortality. It is true that discussing death is extremely uncomfortable in most circumstances. But living in fear of death — and isolating those that have experience with it — is a much worse fate.

Complete Article HERE!

Palliative-care doctor left wondering ‘what if?’ after patient takes his own life

Dr. Susan MacDonald reflects on ‘Leo’ and whether she should have told him about assisted death

Dr. Susan MacDonald, a palliative care doctor in St. John’s, wonders if more could have been done for her patient ‘Leo.’

By Ariana Kelland

Susan MacDonald can’t quite pick one reason why Leo sticks with her, pushing her to put pen to paper to tell the story of her patient, and how she feels she failed him.

Asked what sets Leo — a pseudonym — apart from the rest, the palliative-care doctor shakes her head and sets her gaze away, “About Leo … I think, for one, I really liked him. I just really liked him.”

The second fact, MacDonald said, is that his death — suicide by taking his own opioids for insufferable pain — was not his only option.

Medically assisted death would have allowed Leo to die without having health-care professionals standing over him in a fruitless attempt at reversing his overdose, she said.

“He was such an intensely private person and his death was so public, and it didn’t need to be that way,” MacDonald said. “There were options. It just really struck me and made me think.”

MacDonald, an associate professor of medicine and family medicine at Memorial University of Newfoundland, reflected on her patient and what she could have done differently, in an article in the Canadian Medical Association Journal, titled Leo Died The Other Day.

The patient died within the last couple of years, MacDonald said, unable to comment further due to physician–patient confidentially. 

To raise — or not to raise — the option of assisted dying

For five months, she and Leo worked hard to control his intense nerve pain. But Leo’s death was inevitable. He had cancer, and by MacDonald’s estimation, had only weeks — maybe months — to live. 

Whether it was the physical pain that became too unbearable or the emotional struggle of his impending death, MacDonald doesn’t know why he took his own life. 

“It was a very distressing clinical case for me because I felt, at the end of the day, I hadn’t done the best I could for this particular patient,” MacDonald said.

“It was a reflective exercise for me to look back and say, ‘What could I have done better? Where are the problems? And what do we need to do about it?'”

MacDonald said she never raised medically assisted death as an option for Leo. Neither did he. But she wonders if some patients want to bring it up but can’t. 

Medically assisted death in Canada is legal. However, MacDonald said, there are no strict guidelines on how a doctor should broach the topic with a patient.

Changing the way she does things

Until Leo’s death, MacDonald would wait for the patient to bring it up, but the manner in which he died has her pausing for second thought. 

“There may be people like Leo, who could avail of that option if they knew about it or if it was offered to them,” she said.

“On the other hand, you have the potential to do harm by raising that question,” she said, adding doctors run the risk of offending patients by even mentioning assisted dying as a option.

Medically assisted death is legal in Canada. However, there are no strict rules guiding how physicians should broach the topic with patients.

“I’ve been doing this for 25 years now, and I still haven’t figured out always the right thing to say and the right thing to do for people.”

MacDonald hasn’t gotten many more inquires about medically assisted death since it was legalized, she said. “Not nearly as many as you’d think.”

Now, as she continues caring for those whose deaths are inescapable, she has Leo to think about.

Complete Article HERE!

The Game Of Death: You Win By Talking About Yours The Best

By Gabrielle Emanuel

It’s game night on the top floor of a bank building in Medford, Mass., and 25 people have divvied themselves up around the circular tables. Four women, none of whom know each other well, are seated near the snacks busily discussing their future burials.

Katie Wallace, a native of nearby Somerville, is confident she wants to be cremated. But it’s a bit more complicated for her. The urns are accumulating. “I have a room in my house where I have the ashes of six different people,” she says. “So I have to figure out what to do with all of those people.”

As a lavender dusk settles outside the floor-to-ceiling windows, the women chuckle about whether Wallace should pass this “inheritance” on to a younger relative or, perhaps, invest in a columbarium.

This isn’t just small talk. It’s part of the game. These woman and men, all of whom are older, have gathered to play a card game — one with chips, a deck of cards, and a winner and losers. But this isn’t poker or blackjack.

Question 15: What music do you want to be listening to on your last day alive?

The game, called My Gift of Grace, aims to facilitate conversations about the end of life. It’s part of a growing trend: efforts aimed at encouraging talk of death well before it is imminent. From The Conversation Project to Honoring Choices and another card game called Go Wish, all seek to find ways around the usual distaste for facing death in advance, so that people can better control the care they receive at the end.

“I think we are on the early cusp of what I hope will become a groundswell of change,” said Dr. Lachlan Forrow, director of the Ethics and Palliative Care Programs at Boston’s Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, in a phone interview.

The idea for this game started when The Action Mill, a Philadelphia-based design firm, was interviewing a hospice nurse, remembers Nick Jehlen, who ultimately led the game’s design team.

“She said: ‘The most important thing you could do to make my job easier would be if you could make sure that everybody who shows up for me has had one conversation about the end of their life with their family, just one.’ ”

Dr. Forrow says that having that one conversation is a lot harder than it sounds; for most people, talking about death is incredibly difficult. “It is like the biggest, existential, overwhelming, huge issue for anybody: that we are mortal.”

But Jehlen and his team weren’t deterred. They set out to make that conversation a little bit easier.

A Game About The End Of Life

The first step for the design team was thinking about everything they wanted for the end-of-life conversation: they wanted it to be done in person, with a family sitting around a table together, and everyone having a pleasant time.

A card game checked all the boxes. “Nobody gets together with their buddies to play poker just to pass some cards and some chips around,” Jehlen says. “They actually go to tell stories and share insights.”

Susanne Wilkinson, one of the women sitting with Katie Wallace in Medford, says the idea of a game about the end-of-life made her “a little dubious,” but, she says, “I am more curious to see what comes out of this.”

Wilkinson, of Somerville, is willing to withhold judgment. She believes that “as a society we haven’t done this very well yet, so I am looking for any angles that might provide some avenues.”

Jehlen and the rest of his design team had the same thought. So they designed a deck of cards with a different question printed on each card.

Question 3: Write your own epitaph in five words or less.

Question 5: If you needed help going to the bathroom today, who is the first person you would ask to help you? Who would you never be able to ask?

Question 11: In order to provide you with the best care possible, what three non-medical facts should your doctor know about you?

Question 15: What music do you want to be listening to on your last day alive?

Every person answers the questions, and the other players decide whether an answer deserves a ‘thank you chip.’ The blue poker chips are meant to express gratitude for a thoughtful answer, and it’s those chips that end up determining the winner.

Jehlen says the design team wanted everyone in the family participating. The goal was to avoid focusing solely on the one person that might be nearing the end of their life.

Wilkinson particularly appreciated this element of the game. While death can be a lonely experience, she thought “the fact that it allowed you to connect with other people makes it satisfying.”

The game also sought to focus on life as well as death, since having a good death experience is often about understanding what one values in life.

Jehlen says he struggles to capture the game in words. “The problem we always run into is explaining the game is a little bit like explaining a joke.”

But he can’t remember a My Gift of Grace game where there wasn’t laughter. Recently, he was with a group of health care professionals, “in the middle of these 25 people playing the games,” he remembers. “I closed my eyes and it was just like rolls of laugher.”

Dr. Forrow was not involved in the development of the game but when he checked it out he found it to be “a wonderful blend of serious and humor.” He says that’s important but he tempers his enthusiasm.

Is The Game A Winner?

Dr. Forrow believes the jury is still out. He says there is one ultimate test for this game and for all the other efforts to facilitate an end-of-life conversation.

“We’ll find out whether it’s helpful or not by seeing people using it,” Dr. Forrow says.

The Action Mill has sold about 2,000 games since it went on sale in December.

Dr. Forrow thinks a lot more people need to be having this conversation. And, despite seeing progress, he says, “I don’t actually think anybody is yet doing a good job.”

In an effort to get more people playing the game and having the conversation, Jehlen and his colleagues had the idea of public game nights. Wallace and Wilkinson attended one of the 10 games nights that have been held across the country so far.

While the game was designed for families to play during the holidays, Jehlen says, “the feedback we started hearing was that actually playing the game, talking about end-of-life issues with strangers seemed like it was easier than maybe having this conversation with your family.”

Wallace would agree, but she has a word of warning. She says it’s comfortable either with “complete strangers or very close friends.” But when these game nights happen in small communities, there is the possibility of seeing “people you know in a very casual way,” and that, she says, is “a little odd.”

Jehlen has been viewing these public game nights as something of a warm-up for a family game night. But it’s not just families and strangers, it’s health care professionals too.

Where Does Medicine Come In?

To Jehlen’s surprise, “many of the people who are buying and playing the game are actually health care professionals.” About a third of their sales have been to hospitals, hospices and other health care groups.

On the one hand, this could be a vote of confidence for the game. But on the other hand, Dr. Forrow says, it’s helpful to have this end-of-life conversation in a non-medical context. He worries that when sitting in a doctor’s office, medical concerns dominate the conversation.

“I adamantly, firmly believe that for the conversations to be really about what really matters that they should start maybe even as far away from the hospital doctor’s office as they can,” Dr. Forrow says, “because these are much more fundamentally human issues than medical issues.”

Despite that fundamental nature of the topic, Dr. Forrow believes that it can be helpful not to think about it in such broad terms. “I think focusing on some simple concrete task that you did or did not do, like designating a health care proxy,” can make it easier, he says.

Jehlen admits there aren’t yet clear, concrete steps to take after playing the game. While many of the questions in the deck have a medical undertone, right now there isn’t a guide to help people translate game answers into a Living Will or an Advanced Care Directive. Although, he says, the game’s maker is considering putting downloadable end-of-life care forms on the website.

Regardless of what the next official steps may be, Susanne Wilkinson knows her next move: Before leaving game night, she said she wanted to borrow the game and play it again.

Complete Article HERE!

Washington State Weighs New Option After Death: Human Composting

A green burial plot at the Woodlawn Cemetery in Snohomish, WA

By Kirk Johnson

Leslie Christian recently added unusual language to her living will: After death, she hoped her remains would be reduced to soil and spread around to help out some flowers, or a tree. In essence, compost.

“It seems really gentle,” said Ms. Christian, 71, a financial adviser. “Comforting and natural.”

A bill before the Washington State Legislature would make this state the first in the nation — and probably the world, legal experts said — to explicitly allow human remains to be disposed of and reduced to soil through composting, or what the bill calls recomposition.

The prospect has drawn no public opponents in the state capital as yet, but it is a concept that sometimes raises eyebrows. Funeral directors say a common reaction to the idea, which has been explored and tested in recent scientific studies, is to cringe.

“There’s almost a revulsion at times, when you talk about human composting,” said Brian Flowers, the managing funeral director at Moles Farewell Tributes, a company north of Seattle that supports the bill.

In truth, composting is an ancient and basic method of body disposal. A corpse in the ground without embalming chemicals or a coffin, or in a quickly biodegradable coffin, becomes soil over time.

But death certificates in many states include a box that must be checked for burial or cremation, with no other options. Aboveground composting, through a mortuary process that requires no burial or burning of remains, is a new category without regulation about how it should be done or what can be done with the compost. What that means is that hardly any funeral director — even in states where laws about human remains are loosely worded — would risk offering it without state permission.

Pete Seeger, the folk singer, crooned about the idea: “If I should die before I wake, all my bone and sinew take. Put them in the compost pile to decompose a little while,” goes the song “In Dead Earnest.”

“When radishes and corn you munch you may be having me for lunch.”

In America, there are regional patterns to what comes of bodies after death. In the South and Midwest, where religious or cultural traditions run deep, more families opt for caskets and concretes vaults, and fewer choose cremation, experts say. In the Northeast, where family roots sometimes extend back centuries, people often favor burial in local cemeteries alongside ancestors.

In the Pacific Northwest, by contrast, death is treated somewhat differently, for reasons that sociologists and religious experts have long pondered. It’s a region where transient newcomers have defined the culture since pioneer days. Church attendance is among the lowest in the nation. Preservation of the environment is a central concern.

In Washington State, a larger percentage of residents are cremated than in any other state. Washington has more “green cemeteries,” which encourage a return to nature without manicured lawns and chemicals, than most states; only California and New York have more. And laws allowing physicians to help terminally ill patients hasten their deaths, known as “death with dignity,” were pioneered in the Pacific Northwest.

“It’s this interesting combination of environmental sensibility and individual choice,” David C. Sloane, a professor of public policy at the University of Southern California, said of the Northwest region. Now the prospect of legalized human composting, he said, puts many of those regional impulses in a spotlight. “It’s a test case for seeing how people think,” he said.

A container used in a study of human remains and composting last year at Washington State University.

Jamie Pedersen, a Democratic state senator from Seattle, is leading efforts to pass the legislation to permit a composting process after death.

Democrats control both chambers of the State Legislature, and Mr. Pedersen, the bill’s sponsor, said he had enlisted support from Republicans as well. Gov. Jay Inslee, a Democrat, has taken no position, a spokeswoman said.

At a hearing this month, no one spoke in opposition, though a state association of funeral directors said that it hoped clearer information could be added to the bill about where composted remains could be distributed. It was uncertain, too, whether such a measure would be seen as a priority during a legislative session crowded with issues that may be easier for politicians to talk about and win points on.

The bill would also legalize a separate process sometimes known as water cremation or alkaline hydrolysis. Under that process, already legal in 16 states, bodies are dissolved using a mixture of heated water and lye, leaving behind bone fragments and a sterile liquid.

People are drawn to the idea of aboveground decomposition mainly for environmental reasons, Mr. Pedersen said. There’s no coffin, no chemicals, none of the fossil fuels that would be needed for cremation, and no expensive cemetery plot required. Some religious traditions also favor ideas of simplicity and of earth returning to earth.

Though the process sounds simple, it would not be cheap. Preliminary estimates suggest that it could cost at least $5,000 — less, perhaps, than an elaborate burial service, but more than the most basic cremation.

In a study last year at Washington State University, six bodies donated for the research were placed in a closed container, wrapped in organic materials like alfalfa, then bathed in a stream of air warmed by microbes, and periodically turned. Lynne Carpenter-Boggs, a professor of soil science and sustainable agriculture and the lead researcher in the study, said that after about 30 days, the bodies essentially became soil.

Fears that composted remains might smell bad or contain toxic elements — from dental fillings, for example, or pharmaceutical residues — were allayed, Dr. Carpenter-Boggs said. She said that the heat generated by micro-organisms broke down organic matter and pathogens, and levels of pollutants like cadmium and mercury were within federal limits.

“It certainly is feasible that families would take home a small portion that they could keep for a long time,” Dr. Carpenter-Boggs said. “Or families could bring home a small amount that would be interred into their landscape, placed under a loved one’s favorite tree, similar to what people do with cremains.”

Katrina Spade, the founder and chief executive of Recompose, a Seattle company that hopes to build the first facility to use the new method and conduct funeral services based around it, said the movement toward cremation — now used in more than half of deaths in the nation — has led to an erosion of essential rituals. Remains are often just picked up from a crematory, she said, and that’s that.

“This is not simply a process to convert bodies to soil; it’s also about bringing ritual and some of that ceremony back,” Ms. Spade said.

Ms. Christian, the woman who is hoping recomposition will be an option after she dies, says she has long been uncomfortable with the other choices. She has ruled out burial. And she does not like the idea of cremation because of environmental costs — emissions and climate impacts of fossil fuels used in the burning process. But her friends remain divided on the issue.

“The vast majority are like, ‘That is so cool,’” she said. “And then the other response is, ‘Oh, gross.’”

Complete Article HERE!

When Death Was Women’s Business

In the 19th century, women called “watchers” tended to the dying and the dead.

A woman tending to a sick man, 1861

By: Livia Gershon</a

In recent years, many Americans have begun looking for new ways to approach death. The death-positive movement supports people who prefer to die at home, and even those who wish to care for the bodies of loved ones the way many families did before the rise of the funeral industry. Historian Karol K. Weaver took a close look at that earlier approach, studying the business of death in early nineteenth century Pennsylvania, when care for the dying and dead fell mostly to women.

In those years, Weaver writes, watchers or watch-women—sometimes also referred to with the more generic term “nurse”—tended to the dying. These might be friends, family members, or hired help.

The watchers offered physical care and prayer, and organized visits by clergy and loved ones. Another important part of their job was observing the attitude of the dying person. If they could report a Good Death—characterized by courage and faith—it would comfort the other survivors. On the other hand, a Bad Death filled with struggle and pain could make for a cautionary tale aimed at the insufficiently pious.

Weaver writes that the final and most important job of a watcher was to verify that her charge was dead, observing the cessation of breath and even shaking the body to be sure no life remained.

Once the watcher’s work was done, “layers out of the dead” would wash, dress, and groom the body. They would also close the mouth of the deceased, using a tied cloth or a stick propped between the chin and breastbone, and use coins or other objects to keep the eyes closed. Layers out might also perform the skilled jobs that would later fall to undertakers, such as removing internal organs, blocking orifices, and slowing putrefaction by applying alum-covered cloth or filling body cavities with charcoal.

Like watchers, some layers out were unpaid family members or friends, but others were paid professionals. Looking at Philadelphia city directories from the early nineteenth century, Weaver found business listings for these women. Sometimes, they also advertised themselves as nurses or midwives—jobs that involved intimate care in a domestic setting just as laying out the dead did. Some listed themselves as “widows” in the directories. Weaver writes that this title suggested their connection with death and also explained the lack of a husband’s income that forced them to work for money.

Over the following decades, women’s death work declined. Increasingly, people died in hospitals rather than at home. With the Civil War came the need to transport Union soldiers’ bodies home, inspiring the rapid growth of undertaking as a business—often a father-and-sons affair. Now, families had a one-stop shop for coffin, burial plot, hearse, and the care and preservation of the body.

By 1867, the Philadelphia directory listed 125 male undertakers, one female undertaker, and four female layers out of the dead. The death industry as we know it today had been born.

Complete Article HERE!

A Difficult Conversation

by Cristian Cano

Where do you see yourself in five years? Ten? Twenty? It’s not an unusual question to hear, though answering it is never easy.

But what if you knew you weren’t going to live that long? What if you knew your death was coming in a matter of months — or even sooner?

End-of-life care is, generally speaking, the care that someone receives after being diagnosed with a terminal illness, such as cancer or Alzheimer’s disease. While some diseases may be treatable and even curable, terminal diseases are typically those for which there are no cures, and decisions regarding end-of-life care prioritize making the most of an individual’s time left.

Max Vergo, a palliative care doctor and assistant professor at the Geisel School of Medicine, explained that end-of-life care is highly individualized, and not all treatments are appropriate for a patient’s wishes. For example, some patients prioritize extending their lifespans as much as possible, perhaps to be able to attend a special event like someone’s graduation. But opting to live longer might come at the cost of a lesser quality of life, such as being bound to a hospital bed.

Other patients, however, would rather prioritize different treatments that would allow them to maintain a certain quality of life — say, being able to walk freely or live at home — even if that means their death may arrive sooner.

“For some people, [prioritizing living longer] feels like the quality would be so poor, it wouldn’t really be valuable time,” Vergo said. “Knowing that their time is limited anyway, they may choose a [different] path. … At least they’ll have some control over what the quality [of life] looks like.”

End-of-life decisions, while incredibly individual, often involve an entire of team of medical professionals. Kathryn Kirkland, the director of palliative care at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center and a professor at Geisel, spoke about how her patients interact with an interdisciplinary team of doctors and nurses, social workers, chaplains, creative writing specialists, artists and other volunteers, all of whom work to take care of “the whole person.”

Kirkland also explained how her team works with patients’ families and loved ones as well. For example, patients with terminal issues often experience feeling like a burden to their families. In those cases, patients and their families go through counseling to discuss those feelings and identify ways to alleviate them.

“Taking care of somebody who is very sick is a hard thing to do sometimes,” Kirkland said. “Most family members end up reassuring the person with [the] illness that they want to help, that the patient is not being a burden, but unless you have those conversations, it can be hard to influence people’s decision making.”

Among the many options that patients sometimes have, one of the most controversial is physician-assisted dying, also known as physician-assisted suicide. Ann Bumpus, who taught the course Philosophy 5, “Philosophy and Medicine” last fall, explained how physician-assisted suicide is different from euthanasia because patients take a drug that they know will cause their deaths, whereas euthanasia is when a physician administers the drug, usually via an injection.

Euthanasia is illegal in all 50 states, but physician-assisted suicide is legal in a handful of states. It became legal for Vermont residents in 2013 with Act 39, the Vermont Patient Choice and Control at the End of Life Act; physician-assisted suicide is still illegal in New Hampshire.

Cristine Maloney is the hospice medical director for Visiting Nurse and Hospice for Vermont and New Hampshire, meaning that she sees patients in both states. She noted that, given the difference between the law between Vermont and New Hampshire, she’s always cognizant of which side of the border she’s on when working with patients.

Maloney noted that when discussing the option with patients in Vermont, she tried to understand why they are considering it in the first place. Many patients are unfamiliar with the process, which requires two different physicians — one consulting and one prescribing — and a waiting period of at least two and a half weeks. Another misconception is that patients receive a shot or intravenons treatment to end their life, when in reality, it’s a powder that dissolves in water that patients must be able to take by themselves.

When asked about the emotional aspect of physician-assisted dying, Maloney said that many of her discussions with patients revolve around their desire to have control over this aspect of their life, as well as the expected nervousness about what dying is like. She noted that family members, and even the doctors who prescribe the medicine, often feel intense emotions too.

“After a patient takes medication like this, they die, but their caregivers or family members live with that experience, and so they often have also had some strong opinions … or feel nervous or concerned about it as a family member,” Maloney said. “I think the same is true for the [physicians]. Most of them are doing this for the first time, and it’s very different than anything a physician usually does. We’re usually doing the opposite, giving folks medications to not end their lives.”

How does physician-assisted dying enter into the broader topic of suicide as a whole? The name of the process itself is controversial. While the terms “physician-assisted dying” and “physician-assisted suicide” seem interchangeable in everyday discourse, Vergo expressed a strong preference toward the former.

“In our profession, [we don’t use] ‘suicide’ because these are rational decisions that people make,” Vergo said.

Bumpus spoke about how some of the arguments against physician-assisted dying include the possibility that it leads to a rise in suicide rates in young people and terminally ill people, acknowledging that there is not yet good evidence to prove or disprove the concern. She also touched upon the use of the word “suicide” instead of “dying.”

“Calling it suicide emphasizes the similarity, and the similarity is just that, technically, the person takes their own life,” Bumpus said. “I think using the word suicide for both overstates the similarities. I’m not saying that suicide is always irrational or always wrong, but I think these cases are really special end-of-life cases and ought to be looked at separately.”

Another compelling concern with physician-assisted suicide that Bumpus brought up was that vulnerable populations, including individuals without good health insurance or a strong understanding of the medical system, may be pressured — however subtly — to choose physician-assisted dying without exploring other options as much as they would have otherwise. While we, as a society, often believe that more options leads to more freedom, that’s not always the case, and offering physician-assisted suicide could end with patients feeling obligated to take it.

So, what can students do? For students who are interested in the medical field and may one day have end-of-life care conversations with patients and families, Vergo spoke about how much of his teaching work involves perspective training. It’s essential for physicians to understand how, given the same information, different people can have different perspectives, and none of them are wrong. He also acknowledged that having these conversations can be emotionally taxing for health care professionals as well, and a tried-and-true “scaffold” to fall back on during these conversations can help.

Vergo emphasized that no one is born having mastered these skills, but instead they are gained gradually with practice and training.

“It’s just like in sports,” Vergo said. “You don’t just become an awesome soccer player on your own. You usually have a team and then a coach that helps you figure out how you can take the next step in your skills. We do a lot of coaching.”

For students who aren’t necessarily interested in the medical field, these topics can still be important to think about, especially since many patients in end-of-life care couldn’t have anticipated their current situations. Kirkland, who has taken care of students who have gotten into car crashes or skiing accidents, has even seen friends enter positions where they had to make important decisions. While these topics aren’t always easy to talk about, having conversations early about what you value most in life is a valuable investment.

“Even though students don’t really want to think about how they’re mortal like everyone else, it is probably worthwhile to think about who you would want making decisions for you if you couldn’t make them for yourself,” Kirkland said. “Having conversations with families is important to do.”

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