The Ethical Will

Life Is About More Than Your Possessions

By Deborah Quilter

Have you considered how to pass on your non-material assets?

When people find out Debby Mycroft helps people write ethical wills, she always gets a predictable response: The Lament.

“They say, ‘Oh, I wish I had a letter from my dad or grandmother or great aunt,’ whoever that person was. I have not come across a single person who has not wanted a letter from that special person,” says Mycroft, founder of Memories Worth Telling.

Unlike legal wills, ethical wills — also known as legacy letters — are not written by lawyers, but by you. They can include life lessons, values, blessings and hopes for the future, apologies to those you fear you may have hurt or gratitude to those you think you have not thanked enough. Traditionally, they were letters written by parents to children, to be read after death.

People who do not have children address them to friends or groups. One of Mycroft’s clients was placed in child protective services when she was quite young because her parents were addicts. “She had a rough upbringing. She intentionally decided not to have children herself. But she wanted to write an ethical will to other foster kids to let them know [they] can survive this,” Mycroft explains.

Why Write an Ethical Will?

Think that your life isn’t important enough to warrant an ethical will? Mycroft disagrees, saying, “You don’t have to be a war hero or a Nobel Peace Prize winner for your story to have value. When people accept awards at the Olympics, they thank the people who had an impact on their life, like Mom or Dad, who was always there to take them to training.”

But there’s an even more important reason you might want to consider a legacy letter. According to Barry K. Baines, author of Ethical Wills: Putting Your Values on Paper, such documents can bring enormous peace of mind.

Baines recalls one dying patient who was bereft because he felt there would be no trace of him when he left. “The first wave would wash away his footprints. That sense of hopelessness and loss was overwhelming,” says Baines. The man rated his suffering at 10 out of 10; after he wrote his ethical will, his suffering reduced to zero.

Don’t wait until you are on your deathbed to do this, Baines warns. As soon as you articulate your values, suddenly you start to live your life more intentionally. Especially if you share it.

“Live your life as you wish to be remembered,” Baines advises. Plus, he adds, legacy letters can help with making amends, addressing regrets and healing relationships.

Ethical Will: Telling Your Own Story

If you don’t feel capable of writing your legacy letter yourself, you can use an online template, take a workshop, read a book about it or work with a professional writer.

But don’t judge your skills harshly. Baines finds that whether people are educated or not or if their letters are simple or complex, they always have a certain elegance because of the truth they contain. “When the families get one, they just glow,” Baines says, adding, “This is a unique gift that only you can give.”

When you write your letter, don’t just say, “My core values are consideration, gratitude, kindness, simplicity,” advises Mycroft. Tell a story about how you’ve lived these values.

In her own legacy letter, Mycroft told her kids about a temp job she had as a teen. She appeared nicely dressed in a skirt, blouse and heels. When she walked in, the employers gave her a funny look and asked, “Why do you think you are here?”

She explained the agency had sent her out for secretarial work. Then her employers handed her a hard hat and steel-toed shoes. “That’s when I look at them quizzically.”

Turns out they were a plastic-bag manufacturer and she was supposed to sort through damaged goods to salvage the ones that could be sold.

“I was so angry that that agency had sent me out on that job. It was hot and humid in Virginia. I was fuming,” Mycroft says. “When I got home, my parents started grilling me. They said, ‘Did you agree on this job?’” And Mycroft confirmed that she did.

They asked what the contract said. Mycroft replied that the contract was pretty clear. Did she sign the contract, her parents wanted to know?

“Yes, but,” she says she told them. “And my parents said, ‘You signed it; you’re committed to it.’”

Mycroft stuck with the job as promised. “That was my first lesson in integrity, perseverance and diligence,” she recalls. She did what she said she would do. As a postscript, she got fantastic jobs from the agency over the rest of the summer. They knew they could count on her.

What Goes Into the Legacy Letter and What Stays Out

Ethical wills are often likened to letters from the heart, so perhaps the best advice is to literally write a love letter.

Love letters don’t recriminate. They don’t judge. They don’t scold. A love letter is there to show how much someone matters to you.

Criticisms and judgments should be left out, advises Mycroft. It’s okay to include regrets and family secrets, even if they hurt. If worded properly, these could bring the family to a place of acceptance and understanding.

She notes, “Sometimes when those things are hidden for so long it causes a lot of resentment — as in] why didn’t they tell me I was adopted? I wish I had known.”

“Definitely avoid manipulation,” Mycroft advises. “Legacy letters are beautiful expressions of love and encouragement, telling other people what is so fantastic about them. I do not think they should be hands reaching up from the grave slapping you or saying, ‘I told you so.’”

Think about how your letter might be received. Baines worked with a woman who had a very hard life. “Every part of her ethical will was blame and guilt-tripping,” he recalls. While some people can turn around a bad experience and use it is an example of what not to do, this woman could not.

“It almost seemed like she was purposely trying to hurt people,” Baines says. But eventually she realized that and gave up, sparing her family the hurt she would cause them.

Get a Second Opinion

Baines believes writers should show their legacy letter to a trusted friend before passing it on, to avoid inadvertent errors. Your reader might say, “You mentioned your two children, but you only write about one and not the other.” That could be extremely hurtful.

Baines also urges people to share the letters while they’re living. It might be painful, but there’s still potentially an opportunity to mend wounds. After you die, there’s no recourse at all.

What About Videos or Selfie Videos?

Some people make videos or selfies of their ethical wills, but keep in mind that technologies can become outmoded.

Mycroft gave both her children the letter and a video of her reading the letter so they not only have her words, but can also hear her voice.

“I’ve heard of people saving voicemails of people who have passed on,” she says. “Can you imagine saving a voicemail and all it says is ‘Susie, are you there? Can you pick up? Hello?’ If you’re willing to save that message just to hear their voice, how much more powerful would it be to hear your voice reading that letter?”

The Time Is Now

The time to write your spiritual legacy is now. Mycroft provides a case in point about her mother, who knew the family lore and lineage.

“I gave her one of these fill-in-the-blank family history books because I wanted to make sure it was preserved,” says Mycroft. “Five years later, when she had passed away and I went to clean out her office, I found the book. It was completely empty.”

Complete Article HERE!

This Seattle writer wants to change how we talk to kids about death

Facing her own terminal diagnosis, a cookbook author pivots to recipes for coping with grief.

After being diagnosed with terminal brain cancer, Seattle cookbook author Caroline Wright turned her attention to writing children’s books addressing grief and death.

by Tom Keogh

Seattle-based cookbook author Caroline Wright can teach you how to make a salad for four with grilled escarole, peaches, prosciutto, mozzarella and basil oil.

She can show you how a sandwich of grilled manchego cheese and sausage on peasant bread is made in the style of a master chef from Catalonia. For dessert, she’ll tempt you with a wicked coconut-caramel cake with malted chocolate frosting.

But when the leftovers are wrapped and put away, Wright can also impart some hard-won wisdom: how to talk to kids about death.

Wright, who studied cuisine at a renowned cooking school in Burgundy, France, always wanted to write as much as develop her skills in a well-appointed kitchen. At age 23, she became a food editor at Martha Stewart Living, and later brought her crisp, engaging voice to her cookbooks, Twenty-Dollar, Twenty-Minute Meals, Cake Magic! and Catalan Food: Culture and Flavors from the Mediterranean (co-authored with Daniel Olivella).

She hasn’t stopped writing about food. But in 2017 she was diagnosed with a glioblastoma, an aggressive, rapidly growing brain tumor, similar to the one that killed Sen. John McCain. With the possibility of death looming large, Wright turned her prose toward facing her own mortality — and starting the conversation with her kids.

Luminous and voluble in person, Wright is a self-described, inveterate doer. When not writing or cooking, she’s pursuing photography or quilting or knitting. She can’t stop making things happen, whether it’s tinkering with recipes for her next cookbook, or organizing a panel discussion at Town Hall (Saturday, Nov. 9) on children and grief. The event will explore how we talk to kids about death, a topic with no simple bearings.

Wright has written two recent books on the theme of child bereavement, inspired by her and her husband Garth’s agonizing challenge of communicating with their young sons about Wright’s still-uncertain prognosis.

The Caring Bridge Project (which came out in February) is a collection of Wright’s online journal entries from her year of chemotherapy and radiation treatment. It’s part of Wright’s written legacy to her boys, Henry, 7, and Theodore, 4. But she intended it, too, for a broader readership: families facing similar experiences with children’s anxiety and despair over loss.

This past summer she published Lasting Love, a picture book for reading aloud to bereaved kids. The heartbreaking but emotionally affirming story, with comforting illustrations by Willow Heath, is about a dying mother returning home from the hospital with a formidable friend: a mighty, furry creature who will always remain by her child’s side, as both an avatar of her powerful love, and as a faithful companion who never judges grief in any form.

Halfway through the tale, the mother passes.

“The child would know,” says Wright of her decision to include the mother’s death. “So stepping around that seemed silly. I wanted the kid to be part of spreading her ashes.”

For Wright, there was no option but honesty. She knew her kids would watch her change, physically, during treatment, and they would find her less available. Keeping them in the dark — especially the older boy, Henry — would have been unfair. “The thing kids can’t rebound from is broken trust,” she says. “There’s no resolution for that.”

When she and Garth first talked with Henry about her cancer, and how she and her doctors were doing everything they could, but she might die anyway, there were tears. But Henry devised a helpful analogy:

“Mommy’s brain is a garden, and there’s a weed in it.”

“Henry and I have had amazing conversations, poetic and hard,” Wright says. “If I die, I want both boys to have a relationship with their memories of me. If I lied to them, it would sully that relationship.”

Thirty-two months after Wright was told she’d likely have 12 to 18 months to live, she is miraculously cancer-free, but vulnerable to a swift reemergence of the glioblastoma. If you take cancer out of the picture, she actually became healthier while fighting the disease, radically changing her diet, dropping 40 pounds and growing lean and strong through yoga, energy work and exercise.

Wright says the boys now occasionally bring up her cancer at random times. When Theodore recently saw her short hair wet and matted after a shower, he grew weepy, recalling her treatment-related baldness, and associating it with being away from him.

The profundity of loss, and the despondency of a child left without the constancy of a loved one’s care, makes Lasting Love a benevolent bridge between a parent and son or daughter going through these troubles.

“The theme of Lasting Love is, literally, love lasting forever,” Wright says. “That’s what we were telling Henry. That was the only piece of hope that we could give him: Mommy’s fighting very hard. And even if mommy dies, the connection you have with her is never going to go away. And there are many loving people surrounding you.”

Wright’s Town Hall event is part of her outreach mission to regional families and to nonprofits concerned with children and bereavement. Among them is Safe Crossings, which supports grieving kids of all ages, at little or no cost. Amy Thompson, program coordinator, will join the panel, along with therapists from other organizations.

Thompson says the field of grief counseling for early childhood through adolescence is growing because of a rise in traumatic losses: gun-related murders, opioid-overdose deaths and suicides. Grieving kids are often isolated, subject to bullying, and told to “get over it” by clueless adults.

“The message from society to grieving young people is ‘move on,’ ” Thompson says. “But if you’re intensely grieving for months or even years after a death, there’s nothing wrong with you. Loss changes over time. As children grow and reach new developmental milestones, they can better process the permanency of death, and we see them regrieve.”

The attention Wright and Lasting Love are receiving in therapy circles and in the media is helping to normalize grief in children — in everyone, really. When she learned she had beaten seemingly impossible odds and, while not out of the woods, is without cancer, Wright celebrated with her family by making a favorite cake, although with a few adjustments: it was sugar-free, gluten-free and covered in carob frosting instead of her once-beloved chocolate.

“I live with great respect for this thing that may happen to me again,” Wright says of the glioblastoma cells that might still be lurking in her brain. “But I don’t live in fear of it. There is nothing to be gained by that. I might die and I might not.”

But the bond between parent and child will last beyond death, she says. “Kids are resilient. With support, they will have full lives.”

Complete Article HERE!

Grounding Ourselves

On rethinking our views of green space and funeral options as we plan for the final disposition of our bodies.

In the historic City of London Cemetery, 1,500 out of 780,000 graves have been reused to date — a practice legalized for the municipality in 2007.

By Regina Sandler-Phillips

In 2008, Vietnamese Zen master and peace activist Thich Nhat Hanh wrote “The Bells of Mindfulness” about the need for collective awakening to protect the earth. One decade later, master composter David Buckel connected the self-immolation of Buddhist monastics to his own self-immolation for action against climate change. Tragically, Buckel’s self-described “early death by fossil fuel” caught public attention in a way that his long-term, nationwide contributions to community composting could not. Our most sustainable practices — those that quietly prevent the depletion of vital natural resources — are rarely headline-grabbing.

Natural burial, like community composting, involves acceptance that the organic remains of the living are neither trash nor personal commodities. They belong to the earth. Yet, even though human bodies have been continuously returned to the earth for millennia, the idea that our world will be overrun by cemeteries remains entrenched in popular consciousness.

The experience of the United Kingdom — a tiny island nation that has long promoted cremation to save space — teaches otherwise. “For most environmentalists, it’s actually better to fade away than burn out,” concluded UK ethics journalist Leo Hickman back in 2005. “Our lives … already result in enough gratuitous combusting of fossil fuels. Much better, in death, to compost down as nature intended.” (Read more about the energy inputs, emissions, and toxic impacts of cremation in part one of this series.)

While it may seem alien to conventional expectations, the reuse of graves is a sustainable, long-established practice in Europe and elsewhere. In the historic City of London Cemetery, 1,500 out of 780,000 graves have been reused to date — a practice legalized for the municipality in 2007. As reported in The Guardian, graves chosen for reuse must be at least 75 years old, and notices must be posted for six months at the grave and in advertisements. If anyone connected with the grave raises an objection, the grave will not be reused. Gary Burks, who first came to live at the cemetery as the young child of a gardener and is now its superintendent, reports that very few objections have been registered.

In most cases, the original decomposed remains are lowered by deepening the grave, allowing for a new burial above. The original headstone inscription is preserved, but reversed to allow for a new inscription on the other side of the headstone. Burks believes that, with continued sensitive application of these procedures, the beautifully landscaped grounds will be able to accommodate interments indefinitely.

Most predictions of disappearing space focus on cemeteries within major urban centers. But just as city dwellers regularly leave these centers in search of more spacious real estate, the majority of burial plots — especially in the US — remain available outside of city limits. Like Hickman in the UK, American environmental planning professor Christopher Coutts has concluded that the most sustainable form of body disposition is burial without embalming in a simple biodegradable covering, followed by reuse of graves after bodies have decomposed back to the earth.

Another common variation of grave reuse involves a deeper excavation of graves at the outset, so that two or three family members can be buried one on top of the other(s) in the same plot. “Multiple-depth” burial practices are recognized in the United States, and ritually acceptable in Christianity, Judaism, and Islam.

While the utilitarian, lawn-style suburban cemeteries of the mid-twentieth century may not represent today’s ideal landscaping aesthetics, they still preserve basic green space against a range of more fossil-fuel-intensive onslaughts. The Green Burial Council recognizes this with three levels of North American cemetery standards.

“Hybrid” burial grounds are cemeteries or cemetery sections that simply forego the use of concrete vaults or other outer containers to reinforce the ground. Such vaults are never required by state law in the US, but rather by the regulations of individual cemeteries. Except in areas where the earth is particularly shifting and unstable (as in cities built below sea level), most Jewish and Muslim burial grounds would qualify as “hybrid” — since these traditions have long upheld a simple, natural return to the earth.

“Natural” burial grounds, besides foregoing vaults and outer containers, do not allow for burial of any bodies embalmed with toxic chemicals, or of any containers not made of biodegradable materials. Again, this is consistent with traditional Jewish and Muslim practices.

“Conservation” burial grounds are natural burial grounds legally committed to long-term stewardship for land conservation and preservation of natural habitat. There are very few designated conservation burial grounds at this time — and significantly fewer people can be buried in conservation burial grounds than in conventional cemeteries, which are zoned for many more graves.

Beyond the technicalities of “green” certification, there are always sustainability tradeoffs between each organic, inorganic, emotional, social, and economic consideration in the human ecosystem of funeral arrangements. For example, the greenhouse gas emissions of long-distance transport to a certified natural burial ground must be weighed against the availability of graves in more local cemeteries that support natural burial practices.

As the Funeral Consumers Alliance points out, “You can make any burial greener by eliminating embalming, and using a shroud or a biodegradable casket. Omit the vault if the cemetery will allow it. Otherwise, ask to use a concrete grave box with an open bottom, have holes drilled in the bottom of the vault, or invert the vault without its cover, so the body can return to the earth.”

Of course, the least privileged are not afforded this full range of choices. A cemetery of layered graves for the indigent and unclaimed is known as a potter’s field, referring back to the New Testament. Potters Fields Park in London is quite cheerful about its origins. In New York City, several now-upscale parks served as potter’s fields long before Hart Island — the largest mass burial ground in the United States — was opened for that purpose. More than one million dead, most of them lost to family and forgotten by history, have been buried on Hart Island in layered trenches by prison inmates since 1869.

Following decades-long efforts of family and community activists, supported by organizations like the Hart Island Project and the New York Civil Liberties Union, relatives of those buried on the island have won limited visitation rights in recent years. Those who “affirm a close personal relationship” can visit their corresponding burial area up to twice a month, while access for the general public remains restricted to a public viewing gazebo once a month. This past spring, the New York City Council moved formally toward transferring the jurisdiction of this municipal cemetery from the Department of Corrections to the Parks Department.

A few years earlier, the New York State legislature outlawed the use — without consent — of presumably unclaimed bodies for medical research or funeral embalmer training prior to Hart Island burial. Meanwhile, Hart Island continues to challenge us with a tangled thicket of ethical dilemmas, from cadaver shortages through prison reform to land use deliberations.

We may offer tips for “how to avoid the fate of a common grave,” but the unspoken truth is that we are all fated to return to a common earth. The most integrated solutions to the dilemmas of Hart Island actually point toward the most equitable and sustainable consumer choices for all of us at death: layered burials in simple, biodegradable containers; preservation of urban green spaces and history; public transportation access; and community education and counseling for informed funeral decision-making — including fully consensual arrangements for needed anatomical gifts.

Archaeological discoveries remind us that layered civilizations inevitably result in layered burials. Our first priority should be helping to insure that our own civilization will not be prematurely buried (or drowned) in the upheavals of climate change — and that there will be equal access, regardless of income, to whatever sustainable burial options exist locally.

In a poignant twist, one of the family members most active in the struggle to open Hart Island as a public space made arrangements for her own burial there. Rosalee Grable, whose mother was buried on the island in 2014, died two years later at the age of 65. “I am getting quite eager for my little spot on Hart Island,” Grable reflected shortly before her death. She knew that under then-current city regulations she would need to forego a funeral attended by family and friends, that her burial would not be confirmed until 30 days afterward, and that local friends would have difficulty visiting unaccompanied by her long-distance family members.

Even so, Rosalee Grable leveraged her power of choice in solidarity with so many whose lack of choice brought them to the same place. By deliberately choosing “the fate of a common grave,” she left a legacy that challenges all of us to plan the final dispositions of our own bodies in affirmation of our common humanity — and our common earth.

Complete Article HERE!

The environmental toll of cremating the dead

As cremation becomes more common, people around the world are seeking greener end-of-life options.

Sarcophagi burn during a traditional Hindu mass cremation event on August 18, 2013, in Bali, Indonesia.

By Becky Little

Over the past four years, cremations have surpassed burials as the most popular end-of-life option in the United States, according to the National Funeral Directors Association. At the same time, companies have been springing up touting creative things you can do with a loved one’s ashes, such as pressing them into a vinyl record, using them to create a marine reef, or having them compressed into diamonds.

Cremation—along with these creative ways to honor the dead—is often marketed as a more environmentally friendly option than traditional embalmment and casket burial. Concern for the environment, in addition to economic considerations, may be driving some of the increase in popularity.

“[For] some people, I bet that’s part of it,” says Nora Menkin, executive director of the Seattle-based People’s Memorial Association, which helps people choose end-of-life options.

But while it’s true that cremation is less harmful than pumping a body full of formaldehyde and burying it on top of concrete, there are still environmental effects to consider. Cremation requires a lot of fuel, and it results in millions of tons of carbon dioxide emissions per year—enough that some environmentalists are trying to rethink the process.

The average U.S. cremation, for instance, “takes up about the same amount of energy and has the same emissions as about two tanks of gas in an average car,” Menkin says. “So, it’s not nothing.”

Greener funeral pyres

The particular impact of an individual cremation depends on where and how it’s performed. In India, Hindus have a long tradition of cremating relatives on an open-air pyre. This requires cutting down millions of trees, and the practice contributes to air and river pollution since most pyre cremations occur near water.

Since 1992, the nonprofit Mokshda Green Cremation System has been trying to curb this pollution by giving communities access to more fuel-efficient structures for funerary rites.

In these structures, the “pyre” is a metal tray heated with firewood. This setup takes less time and requires less wood than a traditional pyre. It’s also easier to transition from one cremation to another by removing the metal tray filled with ash and replacing it with a new tray containing the next body.

Right now, about 50 such units are spread around nine Indian states. According to Anshul Garg, the director of Mokshda Green Cremation System, one metal pyre can handle around 45 cremations a day. The system also lowers the amount of wood needed from about 880 to 1100 pounds for a conventional cremation to 220 to 330 pounds.

“So, it’s almost less than one fourth of the wood requirement,” Garg says.

Though there has been some resistance to this non-traditional method, Garg says, people are more open to the Mokshda system now than they were in the 1990s. More than 150,000 cremations have taken place on Mokshda pyres in India, saving more than 480,000 trees, averting about 60,000 metric tons of ash from rivers, and releasing 60,000 fewer metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions, according to program officer Chitra Kesarwani.

In addition, Garg says, the nonprofit has received inquiries from other countries in Africa and Asia about making their pyre cremations greener.

In the U.S., by contrast, all cremations happen indoors at crematoriums. The big environmental concerns with this type of cremation are the amount of energy it requires, and the amount of carbon dioxide emissions it produces.

Regional environmental regulations mean that most U.S. crematoriums have scrubbing or filtering systems, such as after-chambers that burn and neutralize pollutants like mercury emissions from dental fillings.

“Most filtration systems are focused on reducing metals and particulate matter and nitrous oxide,” says Paul Seyler, the marketing division manager for Matthews Environmental Solutions, which manufactures cremation technology.

However, these filters do not neutralize the CO2 generated by cremating a body, including the gas generated as a by-product of heating that body up to 1,200 degrees Fahrenheit or more. Matthews estimates that one cremation produces an average of 534.6 pounds of carbon dioxide. Given this figure, Seyler estimates that cremations in the U.S. account for about 360,000 metric tons of CO2 emissions each year.

Back to the earth

For Americans who don’t want to use up so much fuel or release so much carbon dioxide when they die, alkaline hydrolysis may be a more appealing option. Sometimes known as water cremation or aquamation, this way of dissolving a body in water is now legal in at least 18 states.

Alkaline hydrolysis “has about a tenth of the carbon footprint of conventional cremation,” Menkin says. “While the process does take a similar amount of time, it doesn’t have to heat that much, and it’s the water that’s doing most of the work.” In addition, the process releases zero emissions from the body itself.

As with cremation, there are some remains left over after alkaline hydrolysis that families can keep in an urn or scatter in a special location. And the process creates a lot of sludgy organic liquid that has some very practical uses.

“Some facilities capture the liquid, and it’s taken away and it’s used on some farmland; it’s an excellent fertilizer,” Menkin says. “But most places, it just goes into the municipal sewer system. And a lot of sewer systems actually appreciate it, because it actually helps with the quality of the wastewater.”

In the future, we’ll probably see many more alternatives to cremation. This year, Washington State became the first in the U.S. to legalize a type of corpse composting called natural organic reduction, or recomposition. Starting in 2020, this process will convert bodies into useful soil that friends and family can either use or donate to the state’s Puget Sound region. And across the U.S., it’s legal to opt for a so-called natural burial, in which the body is allowed to decompose in the ground without added chemicals, concrete, or synthetic materials.

Ultimately, people have to take into account many factors when making funerary preparations, such as how much a certain option costs, whether it aligns with religious and cultural practices, and whether it’s available in a given area. But with more end-of-life options becoming widely available, it’s getting a bit easier to go from ashes to ashes while still being green.

Complete Article HERE!

End-of-life doulas:

The professionals who guide dying people

Christy Marek is a certified end-of-life doula: she accompanies dying people and their families.


Doulas are tasked with maintaining a sense of calm for dying people and those around them, and opening the conversation about death and loss, topics that can often be taboo

In October of 2016, Gregory Gelhorn ran the Twin Cities Marathon. Seven months later, he was diagnosed with ALS, a progressive neurodegenerative disease that causes nerve cells to break down, resulting in muscle weakness and atrophy. The average life expectancy of an ALS patient, once diagnosed, ranges from about two to five years. The cause of ALS is not fully understood, and no cure is known. Gelhorn was in his mid-40s.

“It was a shock,” said Kathy Fessler, Gelhorn’s sister. “He was always the one who took the best care of himself.”

Dying from ALS is a singularly awful experience; the disease causes the body to progressively deteriorate while the mind remains clear and lucid. Gelhorn had loved being active. He had played three sports in high school, coached girls’ basketball and served as a travel director at Lakeville North high school in Lakeville, Minnesota. The disease progressed rapidly; soon, he was using a wheelchair and relied on a BiPAP machine to breathe. Doctors estimated he only had a few months left. Gelhorn and his family – his two teenage children, wife, parents, and siblings – began to grieve.

In the midst of it all, Fessler happened to see an article in the Star Tribune about Christy Marek, a certified end-of-life doula who lived only a few miles away. Fessler contacted Marek, who soon took on Gelhorn as a patient.

A doula, typically, is a professional who helps mothers during pregnancy and childbirth. Unlike midwives, doulas do not serve in a medical capacity; rather, their primary role is to provide emotional, physical and psychological support.

The practice originated in the natural childbirth movement in the US in the 1970s, alongside the Lamaze method and the popularity of alternatives to hospital birth, like water birth and home birth. That same generation of Americans who were having children in the 70s are now approaching their twilight years, and the practice of serving as a doula has expanded in scope. End-of-life doulas use the same concept as birth doulas: they provide support for the dying.

“On all sorts of levels, I think the Baby Boomers, that generation has just been here to shake things up,” said Marek. “The natural birthing movement, they did that. And now it’s the same thing. They’re saying, no, I don’t want the death my parents had. We are rich in possibility, why can’t I make this whatever I want it to be?”

End-of-life doulas are sometimes called death doulas, though many have reservations about the term.

“To me, end-of-life is a process,” said Marek. “The work I do with people isn’t just about that one point in time when somebody dies.”

Although doulas are not required to have medical training, many come from the healthcare field. Shelby Kirillin, an end-of-life doula based in Richmond, Virginia, has also been a neurointensive trauma nurse for over 20 years. It was her experiences in the neuro-ICU that led her towards becoming a doula. Many of the deaths she had seen there, she explained, struck her as cold, sterile and lonely.

“I just couldn’t imagine that the person dying had ever envisioned their death to be like that,” she said. “Dying isn’t just medical. It’s spiritual.”

Fascinated by the idea of a structured approach to end-of-life care that prioritized the individual wishes of the dying, Kirillin enrolled in a doula training course with the International End of Life Doula Association (Inelda), a not-for-profit that promotes the approach. Although there is no centralized regulatory body for doulas, training and certification programs are offered by a number of organizations, including Inelda and the Larner College of Medicine at the University of Vermont.
“There’s so much fear and anxiety about death,” said Janie Rakow, the president of Inelda. “The doulas are there to calm everyone down. They work with the dying and their families to educate, to explain what’s happening. That what they’re seeing is part of the dying process.”

Rakow and her business partner, hospice social worker Henry Fersko-Weiss, founded Inelda in 2015 to train doulas and promote their use in hospices, hospitals, prisons and homeless shelters. Their training program covers topics like vigil planning, active listening and doula self-care.

Part of what doulas do is open the conversation about death and loss, topics that can often be taboo or deeply uncomfortable for the dying or their family.

“Can you imagine if a woman was going through labor and no one around her was talking about it or preparing for it? There’d be an uproar if we treated birth like we treat death,” said Kirillin. “You have to talk about it. You’re dying and you’re no longer going to be here.”

Doulas help their patients plan out their deaths: talking with them about their wishes, and how they would like to spend their last day. Some prefer to die in a hospital, others at home. They decide who they want around them, whether it’s with all their family and friends, or a religious figure, or alone. They choose the details of the setting, whether they want to hear music, whether they want to have someone hold their hand, and what rituals – religious or secular – they want performed.

Doulas often also perform legacy work, the practice of guiding the dying to create tangible artifacts to leave behind for their loved ones. Sometimes, it’s a photo album, a collection of recipes, or a video archive. One of Rakow’s patients wrote a series of letters to her pregnant daughter’s unborn child, expressing her hopes and wishes for a granddaughter she knew she would never meet.

As death approaches, doulas are tasked with maintaining a sense of calm for dying people and those around them.

“One of my patients this past spring, as he was transitioning, he started to vomit,” said Kirillin. “I reminded everyone that when a woman is laboring a birth, sometimes she vomits. It’s the body’s natural way. Let’s just make him comfortable.”

Finally, the last part of a doula’s work comes a few weeks afterwards, when the doula meets with the deceased’s loved ones to reprocess and discuss everything that has occurred.

“It’s after the casserole brigade has come and gone, and everyone’s gone back to work,” Kirillin said. “We talk about grief and bereavement. You’re not going crazy. You can be happy and sad in the same moment. There is no timeline.”

Of course, the practice of guiding the dying on their final journey is not new. Death is not an unknown phenomenon, and the act of tending to the dying has existed as long as human civilization itself. Marek has a theory for why the need for a formalized approach to death has manifested now, in these particular circumstances – why the dying feel the need to contract a trained professional, rather than being able to rely on a more organic source of support.

“In America, a few generations ago, our communities were doing this work,” she said. “The reason the role is showing up in a formalized way now is that we don’t have those community ties any more, not in the same way, and certainly not the same level of responsibility to each other as used to be woven into our communities.”

Kirillin agreed: “I would love for our culture to never need me,” she said.

Much of doula work is the very definition of emotional labor, and though Janie Rakow suspects some doulas feel conflicted about taking money for their services, she sees the profession as no different from that of therapists or hospice workers.

“I had one of my patients tell me I wasn’t charging them enough,” she said, though Inelda also encourages pro bono work, and many doulas serve purely on a volunteer basis. She also cautions her doulas not to take on too many cases in a row, and to be cognizant of their own mental health. But, she said, the act of tending to the dying is not as depressing as many assume; rather, it can be very rewarding.

“When you sit with a dying person and they take their last breath, it is as amazing and awe-inspiring as someone taking their first,” said Kirillin. “It is important, and sad, and needs to be cherished.”

Gregory Gelhorn died in September 2018. He spent his last day in his home, surrounded by his family. Together, they watched a movie and listened to 90s prog-rock.

Complete Article HERE!

Finding Meaning in Grief

Grief expert David Kessler wrote a new book while grieving the loss of his son

In David Kessler’s latest book, Finding Meaning: The Sixth Stage of Grief (Simon and Schuster), he writes: We want to find meaning. Loss can wound and paralyze. It can hang over us for years. But finding meaning in loss empowers us to find a path forward.

By Julie Pfitzinger

For Kessler, a noted grief expert,  finding a path forward became an unexpected and integral part of his life.  While Kessler was writing this book,  his son David, who had overcome a drug habit only to start using again, died in 2016 at the age of 21.

The founder of, Kessler, 60, spent several years working with the late psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross (author of the groundbreaking On Death and Dying) and co-authored two books with her.

“Our grief is as unique as our fingerprint. We all have different backgrounds of love, and we all approach grief in our own ways.”

Additionally, Kessler, who lives in Los Angeles, has counseled countless individuals, led workshops and delivered presentations throughout his long career. He is a trained thanatologist (someone who studies death and dying) and has been onsite at crime scenes, plane crashes and other traumatic events to help grieving loved ones. Kessler also lost his mother at age 13, and because he was under 14, was prevented from being in her hospital room with her at the end of her life.

Next Avenue talked with Kessler about facing loss and finding meaning in, as he says, “a grief-illiterate society.”

Next Avenue: People in grief often ask you where they are supposed to find meaning in a loss. Where are some of those places?

David Kessler

David Kessler: I think that meaning is everywhere, just waiting to be found. We can find meaning in how [our loved ones’] lives touched ours. There is meaning in how we’re changed by their lives, and how we changed theirs.

In your work as a grief counselor, you tell people their grief won’t get ‘smaller’ over time, but they must get ‘bigger.’ How does that happen?

When people ask me ‘How long will I grieve?’ I respond by asking them, ‘How long will your loved one be dead?’ We can’t change the pain, but we can build a meaningful life around that pain.

Think of the memories you have of your parents or your grandparents, that live with you and that you can share with your children and with your grandchildren. That is the growth that can come from pain.

In our culture, we talk so much about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, but we should talk about Post Traumatic Stress Growth. It’s after loss that growth is possible.

In today’s world, you say grief has been ‘minimized and sanitized.’ Why is it such a struggle to bear witness to someone’s pain? How can we be present when people we know are grieving?

Our generation is probably one of the last generations that remembers when death was part of life. I remember as a boy riding in the car, and seeing a hearse driving down the street ahead of us. Our grandparents may have died at home, now death generally happens in a hospital.

We are a grief-illiterate society. We are also a society that wants to ‘fix’ everything. When someone is grieving, they aren’t broken. They don’t need to be fixed. They need someone to sit with them in their pain and to witness their grief. In some ways, I’m teaching the lessons of our great-grandparents, who did those things when someone died.

Some people skip funerals because they are afraid of facing pain or remembering their own losses. If you are a person whose friend didn’t attend the funeral of your loved one, how do you move forward in that relationship?

First of all, I really encourage people to attend funerals. It’s important. However, if you have a friend who didn’t attend a funeral for someone you loved, know that it wasn’t about you. It wasn’t a statement about your friendship. It was a statement about their own pain. They didn’t do it to you — they just did it.

If you’ve had a friendship for twenty years, forgive them because of that twenty years.

You talk about the difference between private and public grief. Can you explain this?

Our grief is as unique as our fingerprint. We all have different backgrounds of love, and we all approach grief in our own ways.

In our generation, we were taught to be stoic. Think of the example of Jacqueline Kennedy, who didn’t cry publicly after JFK’s assassination. People said, ‘That’s what strong grief looks like.’ But she was later quoted as saying, ‘That was the First Lady grieving.’ Of course she cried in private.

We all act differently in public. Some people cry with friends, but some only cry alone.

Quoting Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, you say that people can be left with ‘unfinished business’ when someone from whom they have been estranged dies. How can they make peace with that?

We have to accept who they were, and the role they played in this lifetime. I always say it takes two people to tango — it wasn’t all you, and it wasn’t all them.

I believe that if you ask forgiveness sincerely in your heart, the person who is gone will feel it sincerely in theirs. A lot of people report that they have better relationships with people in death than they did in life.

While you do touch on the death of your son David at various points in the book, it isn’t until the end, in a chapter called ‘Everything Has Changed Forever,’ where you tell the story of his death and the days following. Why did you decide to talk about your personal experience of grief at the end of the book rather than at the beginning?

This isn’t a memoir, or a book about my grief. My grief is just one example; the book has many stories from other people about their grief.

A month after David died, a forty-three-year-old friend of mine died of the flu. Another friend lost their beloved dog not long after that. When I offered consolation, people said, ‘Your grief is worse than mine,’ but that’s not true. All tears count. The worst grief is always yours.

How are you finding meaning?

Elisabeth Kübler-Ross never intended for the five stages of grief to be linear. They don’t prescribe how you are supposed to grieve, they describe how you are supposed to grieve. As I write in the book, my work isn’t about my son’s death, but his death has deepened my work. And finding meaning is not extraordinary, it’s ordinary. Grief is not about pain. It’s about love.

Complete Article HERE!

First green living, now green dying

Biodegradable caskets, water-based cremation

Jack Davenport, owner of Davenport Family Funeral Home and Crematory, adjusts a lamp near a wicker casket Oct. 30, 2019, in Lake Zurich. A biodegradable wicker casket is one option offered to those who want a green funeral.


Seven years ago Jack Davenport, co-owner of Davenport Family Funeral Homes and Crematory, was approached with what seemed to be an unusual request.

A family trying to grant the last wishes of a loved one wanted the body buried in a biodegradable casket to allow for natural decomposition.

Davenport, 53, was able to accommodate the family, and in the process launched a new line of business that caters to environmentally conscious families. His firm now offers biodegradable caskets and shrouds, which are typically a linen cloth used to wrap the body of the deceased.

“I do this because the environmental, green movement is growing,” Davenport said. “Some families don’t want cremation. They want a burial … their mentality is that what comes from the earth will have to return back to it.”

Green burials aim to reduce greenhouse gas emissions caused by cremations and toxic chemicals used for embalming a body. And as consumers become more conscious about the products and services they use, Illinois funeral homes are ramping up their green burial services for a small but growing client base interested in reducing their carbon footprint, even in death.

Several funeral homes in the state offer services in which the body is buried in the ground in biodegradable materials like willow, seagrass or bamboo. Other green options include biodegradable urns and a water-based alternative to cremation called alkaline hydrolysis.

According to a 2019 survey from the National Funeral Directors Association, less than 20% of funeral homes across the country performed green funeral services in the past year. And some funeral homes are limited by state laws in what they can offer. But demand for green funeral services is growing, so much so that the funeral directors group now offers a green funeral practice certificate.

Linen burial shrouds are pictured Oct. 30, 2019, in Lake Zurich. The shroud consists of overlapping pieces of fabric that can be loosely tied in front and feature woven carry straps and handles.

Davenport, who has funeral homes in Barrington, Lake Zurich and Crystal Lake, said his firm has performed about eight green burials so far this year.

“By and large it’s a request by the deceased,” Davenport said. “It’s something that’s preplanned by families.”

Proximity has helped Davenport in his effort to offer green burials. Davenport said his funeral homes are only a few miles away from Windridge Memorial Park and Nature Sanctuary, a cemetery in Cary that has a nature trail dedicated to natural burials.

The 48-acre cemetery has been offering natural burial sites along the trail for a number of years, Windridge family service manager Kelly Lawyer said. The cemetery is plotting an additional 400 natural gravesites at a different location on the property, Lawyer said.

Illinois state law does not require bodies to be buried in caskets, although cemeteries typically require gravesites to have some type of reinforced concrete box — either a vault or a grave liner — to keep the ground level and prevent settling. A handful of cemeteries are willing to waive the vault requirement and allow natural burials, at least on a portion of their properties.

It’s unclear exactly how many Illinois cemeteries reserve sections for natural burials, but Lawyer said she knows of at least four, including one in Springfield and another in Vernon Hills.

Marion Friel, owner of Green Burials of Love in Norwood Park East, said she also uses Windridge for green burials, a service she has been offering since 2010.

Last year Friel helped Cheryl Barnes, of Beverly, set up a green burial for her 66-year-old sister, who died of uterine cancer on Dec. 28. Barnes said she was able to honor her sister’s last request, which was “to be put in a bag and then be put in the ground under a tree.”

Barnes said her sister was wrapped in a light shroud and buried next to a tree near a hill at the Windridge nature trail.

“I thought I had to settle for a second-rate of what my sister wanted,” Barnes said. “But I was able to give my sister exactly what she wanted.”

Jack Davenport, owner of Davenport Family Funeral Home and Crematory, adjusts the top of a wicker casket on Oct. 30, 2019, in Lake Zurich. A biodegradable wicker casket is one option offered to those seeking to have a green funeral.

The overall cost of the burial alone was about $6,000, plus other expenses for the funeral service, Barnes said.

According to the funeral directors group, National Funeral Directors Association, a family can pay up toward $9,000 for a traditional funeral service and a burial. Green burials tend to be less expensive because they don’t involve embalming chemicals and vaults, and instead allow the body to decay naturally. Davenport said he has different prices for green burials — a service with a wicker casket can cost about $5,200 with a ceremony, or about $4,800 for a burial with a shroud.

The availability of green burial options varies by state and locality.

Traci Macz, owner of Irvin Macz and Day Macz Funeral Homes in Sandoval, Illinois, doesn’t offer natural burials yet. Macz said she’s been working with local leaders to reserve a section in the city-operated Sandoval Cemetery for green burials. Currently, she educates families about other green options available to them like less harmful embalming fluids or biodegradable urns.

“For us, having two young sons, we have to set the bar and educate consumers on what is available to them,” Macz said. “That why it was important for us to get the green funeral practice certificate from the National Funeral Directors Association.”

Jimmy Olson, owner of Olson Funeral Home and Cremation Service in Sheboygan, Wisconsin, said state law wouldn’t allow his funeral home to accommodate a family’s request to perform alkaline hydrolysis, a water-based cremation process that breaks down the body to liquid and bone using water and either sodium hydroxide or potassium hydroxide.

The relatively new process is sometimes referred to as flameless cremation, resomation or aquamation.

“It’s so new. We are all trying to find a way to explain it and offer it to consumers,” Kurt Soffee, a funeral home director in Murray, Utah, and a spokesman for the national funeral directors group, said of the process.

Several states, like Wisconsin, do not yet permit alkaline hydrolysis. Olson said he found a funeral home in Minnesota that was able to accommodate the family’s request.

“I’ve spent the last year working with (Wisconsin) state Sen. Patty Schachtner to pass a bill that will allow for alkaline hydrolysis,” Olson said.

Although Illinois has allowed alkaline hydrolysis since 2012, only a handful of funeral homes have the equipment to perform it.

Matt Baskerville, who owns four funeral homes under the names Reeves and Baskerville in Illinois, said he began offering the service to clients shortly after it became legal in the state.

Baskerville, who refers to the process as flameless cremation, said it’s a much greener option because it does not burn fossil fuels or release emissions. The funeral home charges about $3,000 for alkaline hydrolysis, which is a little more than cremation because the firm has to use another company to perform the process, Baskerville said.

“I think there are so many different forms of green funerals. Many shades of green,” Baskerville said. “A natural funeral can involve no harmful embalming products or using biodegradable caskets, or it can also include purchasing locally owned flowers. People are more conscious of this today.”

Barnes, who visited her sister’s gravesite a couple of weeks ago at the Windridge cemetery, said she hopes more people will consider the greener options. Barnes said she herself would like to donate her organs after her death and have a natural burial for the rest of her remains.

“My sister, at the time, she did not want to be embalmed or put in a box,” Barnes said. “I hope people realize all they’re doing is putting chemicals into the ground when the body is filled with embalming fluids.”

Complete Article HERE!