At this workshop, writing your own obit means analyzing your past — or future

By Liz Mayes

On a Monday evening in September, seven people gather at the Rhizome, a house that has been converted into a community arts space in the District’s Takoma neighborhood. They range in age from late 20s to early 70s, and come from an array of professions — nonprofits, woodworking, think tanks. They’re all here tonight for an unusual writing exercise: one where people — typically of the healthy, non-dying variety — hammer out the text for their own obituaries.

The group’s facilitator is Sarah Farr, 43, a trained death doula who provides companionship and guidance to the dying. In the spring of 2017, she formed Death Positive DC and began hosting regular events: “death cafes,” where people sit around and chat about death, often over cake; and obituary writing workshops like this one. (Death cafes are free or donation based; obituary writing workshops cost $10.) She also operates a Facebook group with about 600 members.

Farr opens the workshop by tracing the history of obituaries in American journalism and outlining their shifting cultural significance through major events such as the AIDS crisis and 9/11. She encourages the group to think about how the advent of social media and memorial websites like have changed the way deaths are reported. (She notes that two-thirds of people who die in America get a page.) She shares examples of funny, viral obituaries — one simply reads, “Doug died” — and dives into the ethics of adult children publishing unflattering obituaries of their parents.

She also brings up the role that race and gender have historically played in the obituary sections of prominent newspapers. She mentions the New York Times project Overlooked, which started in 2018 and features obituaries of women and people of color whom the newspaper neglected to write about when they died. (Entries include journalist and anti-lynching advocate Ida B. Wells, transgender activist Marsha P. Johnson and poet Sylvia Plath.)

Then, educated about obituaries and ready to craft their own, the participants are set loose. They wander to different corners of the house or outside to the porch — and they begin to write.

Obituary writing workshops are part of an expanding suite of events and activities that fall under the umbrella of the “death positive movement.” Based on the belief that cultural avoidance of discussing death is harmful, the movement encourages people to speak more openly about dying. It had been rumbling for several years before it gained a name and solidified into an official movement. In 2011, a man named Jon Underwood — who would later die at age 44 — held his first death cafe in his basement in London. He envisioned the meetings as a refuge from what he saw as a pathologically death-averse culture.

That same year, a mortician named Caitlin Doughty started a popular YouTube channel, “Ask a Mortician,” which she used to spread information about death acceptance and to combat death anxiety. It was Doughty who, in a tweet, coined the term “death positive” as a play on the phrase “sex positive.”

After Underwood and his mother published an online guide for holding death cafes, the idea quickly spread and was enveloped into the growing death positive movement. Since then, according to Death Cafe’s official website, there have been more than 9,700 death cafes held in 66 countries. Anyone can host their own death cafe, as long as they abide by the official guidelines set out by Underwood.

The movement is growing here in Washington as well. Farr has seen attendance at her death cafes rise markedly over the years. Her first death cafe, held in November 2016, saw about 15 attendees. Recently, her meetings have topped out at 50, even in the rain and during the cold winter months. She remembers that just two years ago, there were very few death cafes in the region. Now, the Death Cafe website lists up to four or five per month in the D.C. area.

After about 20 minutes, Farr calls the group back together. Attendees take their seats and Nadia Raikin, 60, volunteers to share what she’s written. As she reads, her dry, cool humor is palpable: “Well. I am dead now. But at least I lived for a while, which is better than nothing.” She pauses to smile as a chuckle goes through the room. “But I’m happy I got to experience life and that my mom, upon blessings of my grandma, decided to keep me. I was born out of a force of nature. I guess I died when nature or God called me back.”

An older man named Chris is next. “Chris lost his life in a car accident on November 1st, 2020, nine days before his birthday. He was 75,” he says as the others listen attentively. Tall with gray hair, he speaks in a gentle, straightforward voice, sketching out the story of life, marriage and work.

“He was a humorous, easygoing man who drank a little too much but never caused any trouble when the drink got the better of him. He always felt intense empathy with the underdogs of the world, which he felt a member of. But he was happy and comfortable with this identity.” He stops reading abruptly and looks up from the page. “Anyway, blah, blah, blah. What did you all think?”

After a few more people share their obits, the group breaks for another round of writing. For the middle-aged and younger participants, writing their own obituaries can be a forward-looking exercise. Jill Eckart, 40, says, “I took it as an opportunity to create what might be possible in the next half of my life. I have about hopefully 45 to 50 more years left. With the end in mind, what do I want that space to look like?”

By now, the sun has set behind the apartment complex across the street. Seated on the old wooden porch, Carter Rawson, 50, speaks of how the impulse to document his life seems to come naturally to him. “I’m biased because I’m a historian,” Rawson says. “I like to read about a life well-lived.” He continues: “I’m not the most interesting person in my family, and I’m never going to be. But if you go to a yard sale and see disembodied old pictures, you wonder what their lives were about. I just felt I would want to do someone the favor of actually giving a narrative — being that one photo that had a story taped to the back of it.”

“I loved it,” Farr says. “I think it could be a great jumping-off place for a memoir.”

Complete Article HERE!

Floating ice urn makes for a unique eco-friendly memorial

This one-of-a-kind urn floats on the water while slowly returning cremated remains to nature.


As you may have heard, humans have a death problem. It’s not that humans die; it’s that once they do, the still-alive humans of many cultures bury the newly-dead humans in the ground. Given that there are some 7.7 billion of us on the planet currently … well, you can see where this is going. Add in the environmental impact of burying a casket’s sturdy materials and a few gallons of toxic embalming fluid along with it and it’s no wonder that more people are looking into alternative funeral ideas.

There have been some really beautiful, eco-friendly memorial products designed over the last decade or so, like biodegradable urns that use one’s ashes in which to grow a tree. But my jaw dropped when I saw this one, the Flow Ice Urn, which floats on the water while slowly releasing ashes in an unapologetically pure way. It is simple yet beautiful; and it brings to mind other funeral traditions that are intrinsically tied to the idea of returning the body to nature.

And while scattering ashes on a body of water is understandably popular, I love the inherent ceremony in watching an ice urn, and the ashes within, float and gradually dissolve into the sea. It would be just as ephemeral as scattering, but a bit more formal – and just so poetic.

The ice urn was designed by Diane Leclair Bisson, who approached the design with the creativity of an artist and the thoughtfulness an anthropologist. As her website notes, “her research into contemporary burial practices, and the preservation or the scattering of ashes has also engaged her in a reflection about materiality, which has guided the design of a new typology of objects and materials.”

Bisson notes, “The Ice Urn is a deeply sustainable object in its essence. The concept of making a dissolvable memorial object through the transformation of water into a solid form of ice – while encapsulating cremation ashes within it – is truly innovative. It is the most immaterial urn ever created, and it inspires new types of water ceremonies as well as a completely new approach to the idea of burial itself – emphasizing new thinking about the return of the body to the natural environment, and of water back to its original source.”

The Flow was originally designed for Memoria, a progressive funeral home group based in Montreal. But now Biolife, LLC, the developer of other eco-focused urns, has obtained the exclusive license to produce and market the patented ice urn in the United States.

Julia Duchastel, Vice President of Memoria explains that they spent years developing and perfecting the ice urn, noting that is is a proven and patented product that has been well tested tested at their funeral home locations in Montreal.

“Many people form a strong connection with the ocean, lakes, or rivers throughout their lives. Water is a truly extraordinary molecule – it is what makes life on earth possible,” says Duchastel. “Throughout history and across cultures, it has persisted as a symbol of life, renewal, and purity. With this connection to water, many people choose to have their ashes freed in the water after they pass. With the Flow™ ice urn families have a new and improved water burial option to honor a loved one and say goodbye in a more beautiful, meaningful, and memorable way.”

The urn is available at funeral homes; you can see more information on the ice urn page at The Living Urn.

Complete Article HERE!

‘I’ve been saying goodbye to my family for two years’

Last year the author wrote about parenting with motor neurone disease. Here, he reflects on the end of life, before his death two weeks ago

Joe Hammond with his wife, Gill, and sons Jimmy (left) and Tom in 2018.

By Joe Hammond

In the beginning I was just a dad who fell over a bit and then couldn’t drive the car. Then we had a name for what was happening to me: motor neurone disease. The rest of my physical decline has taken two years and I now write with a camera attached to a computer, which tracks reflections from my pupils. I can use the same device to talk with my synthetic voice. It’s obviously slower to use, and has trained me to get to the point, in much the same way that dying has.

In the room next door, as I write, I can hear Jimmy, my two-year-old son, offering to take passengers on a bus ride to various destinations. It’s half-term and Tom, my seven-year-old, has wandered out into the garden. He’s smiling, looking back at the house, as he points out a squirrel to someone standing inside. There’s adult laughter, too. I can hear Gill, my wife, talking with one of my carers.

I’m in an adjacent downstairs bedroom, suspended in a sling that hangs from the ceiling hoist. It’s positioned over a bedpan, and my floppy neck is wedged upright between a pillow and a piece of foam. I usually stay here for a while because it also has a view of the garden. It’s gusty and leaves are twirling down from an ash tree.

I realise I’ve been saying goodbye to my family for two years. Always imagining this version of myself, without a voice or moving parts. But now I’m here, I can see that we’re all just interested in the same thing: how anxious all these squirrels are as they bury their treasure in the turf. How they keep looking back over their shoulders. And how life just carries on, until it doesn’t.

There was a moment halfway through my decline when Tom needed to check whether he would die one day. He was wrapped in a blanket on my lap as I confirmed its inevitability. He sobbed and I pulled the sides of the blanket in around him. After a few moments his tears came to an end, and five minutes later he was upside down on the sofa giggling at his toes.

Children walk past spiders’ webs all the time and see little things dying. Death is all around them; they know this better than their parents, who have often forgotten. I know I had. But children haven’t reached this stage yet. Death and dying can be known. It doesn’t stop them laughing at a fart or making an empty crisp packet go pop.

Jimmy was at my bedside a few mornings ago dispensing imaginary ice-cream. I was staring upwards, and I could hear him low down to my right. I opened and closed my mouth to show that I was eating some of the “[va]nilla” on offer but, silent and motionless, I don’t know if he noticed, and then I heard him padding away into the next room.

I can’t be active in the life of my children. I have to see what the day brings. There was the moment last week when Tom rested his cheek into my upper arm, gently twisted the top of his head upwards against my flesh like a nestling cat, then twirled away. It was a moment that must have lasted five seconds at most but I kept it with me – held on to it – for days, as if I wasn’t just making contact, but taking an imprint.

I owe these moments to materials that are both plastic and hollow. To an expanding network of tubing crisscrossing my body: transparent blues and yellows, concertinaed or smooth. The largest gauge of tubing has the central importance of the eastbound M4 heading into London. This is the one swooshing air and oxygen into my lungs, but there are other tiny subcutaneous tubes more like narrow Cornish lanes, trickling a minuscule palliative cocktail just under the skin of my bicep. The other key thoroughfare is the one delivering sticky beige nutrition through a macaroni-sized tube running directly into my abdomen.

Tubes are now a way of life and, with so many doctors and nurses coming and going, there’s plenty of spare tubing lying around. This place is like a fisherman’s cottage but with coils of plastic everywhere – in wicker baskets or hanging from hooks. A lot of it ends up in the bath with my two boys. Or it becomes part of Jimmy’s marching trumpet band.

When I was diagnosed, my heart broke in different ways, but some of those feelings have softened. It was always the tiny pieces of future that hurt. I’d imagine Gill and Tom and Jimmy unloading shopping, or just being listless together on a Sunday.

But I’m very still with this disease now: I’m an observer, sensing lives happening in other rooms. I hear bottles and cans rattling in plastic bags. I see the rain at three o’clock on a Sunday. All this detail goes by or around me and I see it working. I see three people moving and turning together – and it’s no longer breaking my heart. It’s just sad and comforting. I didn’t expect the end of my life to feel like the future.

Hammond and his family at home last month.

I see and hear my family clowning around and I want so much to be in there with them – teaching my children to brush their teeth in the style of a camel. Instead I’m unnaturally still – observing the way their bodies move to express or receive humour. The way a back curves, or a head is thrown back. Watching hands thrust out wide, or even the opposite of such movements. All the infinite expressions. But I’m not clowning around any more; I just see it going on – how ornate it is, how beautiful.

Other losses are simpler and more incremental. Sometimes they are nothing more than adaptation and sometimes, like the loss of my voice, they are devastating. I lost my swallow very quickly. There was a three-week period when Gill made sure I had lots of really nice soups, and that was it. Food was a thing of the past. I’ve never got over that loss.

I’m fortunate that my ventilator filters out the aroma of most foods, replacing them with a smell like the inside of a plastic bucket. Occasionally smells get through, like roast lamb or the mist that comes from Tom peeling an orange, but mostly I’m assailed by food memories. The most recent is of the yellow Styrofoam containing takeaway from a Lebanese restaurant. Other food memories are more permanent and catastrophic, and these are all the foods I ever made or shared with my young family.

When the boys are in bed, Gill climbs up on to my hospital bed and sometimes falls asleep. It can feel like I’ve been waiting the whole day for this moment. Watching Gill asleep always feels like such peace to me, and some of this article would have been written with Gill by my side in that way.

It’s really hard to cry when you rely on a mask for air. I use a mask that’s attached to my nose, so when I cry my mouth stretches wide open and all the valuable air gusts out, like a badly insulated letter box. And the camera I use to communicate can’t track the progress of my pupils, so crying is a form of incapacitation. It’s so much easier for Gill, who can stretch out on the bed and sob without any of these secondary difficulties. It’s not that we’re always crying together. It just happens sometimes. Recently Gill’s been reading to me from old travel diaries, written in the days before we had children. Stories of mountains and recklessness on motorbikes, other countries. The past feels so luxurious.

But now it’s the present. It’s all been leading up to this. Sad but no longer broken. Here with Gill. It’s a magical kind of sadness, saying goodbye. A bit like preparing to travel again, but no longer together.

Complete Article HERE!

Burial traditions are evolving, designers see call to action

Taylor Johnson’s design involves a slowly-inclining park-like space, with burial spots along the way. At the top would be a multipurpose structure for celebrations of life.

Designers are responding to changing beliefs and traditions surrounding funerals and burials in the United States.

One of those designers is Lee Cagley, professor of interior design and chair of the department at Iowa State University. Cagley and seven interior design graduate students are examining cemeteries, funeral homes, mortuaries and interment practices in the American Southwest this semester in a studio called “Dearly Departed.”

By their final review this week, each student designed a unique, never-before-seen space for the future of burial.

Ahmed Elsherif designed an interactive space that blends boundaries, where people can gather in “the space in between the living world and the person who has died.” Rendering provided by Elsherif.

The National Funeral Directors Association reported this year that more and more Americans favor cremation over traditional burials. This year, the cremation rate is projected to be 54.8 percent and the burial rate 39 percent. By 2040, they expect the gap will widen to 78.7 percent cremation and 15.7 percent burial.

“The problem is that from the day of the last interment in a cemetery, standard practice in the industry is that the cemetery has to be maintained as is 200 years forward,” Cagley said.

Americans typically expect a grassy area when they think of a cemetery – but that requires water bills that can skyrocket to thousands of dollars a month. And with increasing numbers of droughts and growing effects of climate change, Cagley says this practice is not sustainable.

“If we assume that many people will be cremated, then what does the interior of a columbarium look like? And what does the landscape look like so it’s attractive enough for a family to bury their loved one?” Cagley said.

The assignment: Design a non-denominational, multi-functional structure in an 80,000-square-foot space in an existing mortuary. The space needs to feel dignified and spiritual while also serving as a space to celebrate the life of the person who died.

“Today’s generations want celebrations of life, not mourning,” Cagley said. “And that’s a challenge. They need to create a space where both live and dead people feel comfortable together. The living can be out of place in a mausoleum, and the dead can be out of place in a home. We need to design an emotional experience outward.”

Trevor Kliever created a three-story “library” with niches on each level to inter cremains.

Designing for funerals of the future

Ahmed Elsherif, graduate student in interior design from Egypt, designed that kind of space by blending boundaries. His building grew from a conversation he had with Cagley about the purpose of visitations, a practice with which he was unfamiliar.

Cagley explained it this way: “A visitation is like hello to the deceased; a funeral is like goodbye.”

Elsherif’s proposal incorporates this philosophy, creating an interactive space where people can gather in “the space in between the living world and the person who has died.”

“It is not just a spatial configuration, but a behavioral one as well,” Elsherif said.

Taylor Johnson, graduate student in interior design from Mason City, was inspired by the High Line in New York City, a space she frequented while living there and working in fashion design. The park is a former subway track that was renovated into a long, narrow park, with walking paths, vegetation and seating.

Johnson’s design involves a slowly-inclining park-like space, with burial spots along the way. At the top would be a multipurpose structure for celebrations of life.

“Walking up the incline would be like going through the grieving process, moving from grieving to healing to celebrating that person’s life,” she said. “Too many of these places are designed to make you feel like you want to leave as fast as you can.”

Trevor Kliever, graduate student in interior design from Le Mars, also incorporated that sentiment into his design, creating a space where family and friends can stay and reminisce.

His three-story “library” includes niches on each level to inter cremains. Outside would be a park featuring various burial options, alongside vegetation native to the region.

“Everyone thinks of the concept of yin and yang as separate entities,” he said. “My design takes opposing things and brings them together.”

The students’ work and their research this semester shows people’s widely divergent views about death, funerals and burials.

“Interior design needs to step up to the plate and be forward-thinking,” Cagley said. “The industry is looking at more forward-thinking ideas. Funeral homes were designed for my parents’ generation, and they haven’t been re-examined since. What is being redesigned now is done for my generation — and unfortunately, it’s already two generations behind.”

Complete Article HERE!

Machine Learning Could Improve End-of-Life Communication

Using machine learning, researchers were able to better understand what end-of-life conversations look like, which could help providers improve their communication.

By Jessica Kent

Machine learning tools could analyze conversations between providers and patients about palliative care, leading to improved communication around serious illness and end-of-life treatment, according to a study conducted at the University of Vermont’s (UVM) Conversation Lab.

Discussions about treatment options and prognoses amid serious, life-threatening illnesses are a delicate balance for nurses and doctors. Providers are communicating with people who don’t know what the future holds, and these conversations are very difficult to navigate.

Researchers at UVM wanted to understand the types of conversations patients and providers have around serious illness. The team set out to identify common features of these conversations and determine if they have common storylines.
“We want to understand this complex thing called a conversation,” said Robert Gramling, director of the lab in UVM’s Larner College of Medicine who led the study. “Our major goal is to scale up the measurement of conversations so we can re-engineer the healthcare system to communicate better.”

Researchers used machine learning techniques to analyze 354 transcripts of palliative care conversations collected by the Palliative Care Communication Research Initiative, involving 231 patients in New York and California.

They broke each conversation into ten parts with an equal number of words in each, and examined how the frequency and distribution of words referring to time, illness terminology, sentiment, and words indicating possibility and desirability changed between each decile. Conversations tended to progress from talking about the past to talking about the future, and from happier to sadder sentiments.

“We picked up some strong signals,” said Gramling. “There was quite a range, they went from pretty sad to pretty happy.”

Discussions also tended to shift from talking about symptoms at the beginning, to treatment options in the middle and prognosis at the end. Additionally, the use of modal verbs like “can,” “will,” and “might,” that refer to probability and desirability also increased as conversations progressed.

The findings reveal the importance of stories in healthcare for patients, researchers noted.

“At the end there was more evaluation than description,” said Gramling. “What we found supports the importance of narrative in medicine.”

The team is now focused on using the machine learning algorithm to identify the different types of conversations that can occur in healthcare. This could help providers understand what might make a “good” conversation around palliative care, and how different conversations require different responses. Providers could then match patients to interventions they need the most.

“One type of conversation may lead to an ongoing need for information, while another may have an ongoing need for functional support,” said Gramling. “So one of the ways those types can help us is to identify what are the resources we are going to need for individual patients and families so that we’re not just applying the same stuff to everybody.”

A deeper understanding of these conversations will also help reveal what aspects and behaviors associated with these conversations are most valuable for patients and their families. Educators could then effectively train providers to have the skills needed in palliative care.

Researchers believe that the most useful application of the machine learning tool could be at the systemic level, which could monitor how patients respond to providers in aggregate.  

“I think this is going to be a potentially important research tool for us to begin fostering an understanding of a taxonomy of conversations that we have so that we can begin to learn how to improve upon each one of those types,” said Gramling.

“We already measure other processes of clinical care, we just don’t do it routinely for actual communication.”

Researchers have recently applied artificial intelligence tools to the realm of palliative care. A study published in September 2019 demonstrated that a predictive analytics tool can help increase the number of palliative care consultations for seriously ill individuals, leading to improved quality of life for patients and their families.

“There’s widespread recognition of the need to improve the quality of palliative care for seriously ill patients, and palliative care consultation has been associated with improved outcomes for these patients,” said the study’s lead author, Katherine Courtright, MD, an assistant professor of Pulmonary, Allergy and Critical Care, and Hospice and Palliative Medicine.

Complete Article HERE!

Thoughts for the living from one of the dying

Metaphorical lightning strikes everyone, but this bolt struck me. I’m not quite the hero about it, and don’t ask me to be.

By Eddie Ryshavy

Pancreatic cancer comes out of nowhere and changes your life in one sentence from your doc. In my case, he called me at home and said, “The CT scan showed a three-millimeter mass on your pancreas.”

Stunned, I felt like the judge had just pronounced a death sentence and my earthly status was unalterably changed.

With such news, you realize quickly that you are now different from everyone around you. You have no future. Your worldview changes dramatically.

Humans are the only creatures who can recognize and appreciate the end-of-life process. I’m not 100% sure at this point that it is such a great capability.

I know I can’t speak for everyone. But after talking to some others occupying a seat in the same boat, I thought some comments for the living from the afflicted might be useful:

I find that I crave normalcy. Even though you are sorry, you are not nearly as sorry as the person dying. Make it quick and get on with behaving normally.

Hardest thing — telling people, especially those who want to explore every cancer cell with you. In the past I enjoyed discussing all my age-related maladies as much as anyone. But once they put on the terminal tag it tends to dampen the fun a bit.

Please, please don’t tell me about this friend of a distant cousin who had exactly what I do and died of a lightning strike on the last mile of a marathon at 103.

If you are one of those folks generally known as a crêpe hanger, who gets their jollies by contacting everyone with even a vague acquaintance with the impending decedent, please limit your background information search to nonfamily members.

If you are a close relative or spouse, you should be aware that the soon-to-be departed will have some days when he or she is having a hard time playing the hero.

Oh, I know how to do it. I’ve watched most of John Wayne’s movies. But he died often and had directors coaching him. I’m just on my own and only have this one shot at it.

I can tell you playing the part occasionally gets tiresome.

I know you feel bad for me. I feel bad for me, too. But know I didn’t do this just to ruin your day. Don’t make me spend the next 20 minutes helping you feel good because I understand you don’t feel good about my situation.

Some feel compelled to make sure they have done everything they can to ease the journey into eternity. They sit down, hold both my hands, lock eyes, assume the countenance of a longtime hemorrhoid sufferer and grill me about their version of redemption. They then use their close association with the Almighty to broker a good plea bargain on my behalf.

I know they mean well. But so do I when I say: Please don’t.

We just finished “the meeting” with our kids. My wife is plagued by a penchant to organize anything and everything around her. She had prepared a working outline that dealt with everything from our current and projected financial situation to plans for her living situation after my approaching exit. Thankfully, the kids picked up on my need for normal human contact, and while the initial information we needed to impart evoked some tears as it highlighted the finality of my situation, we got through it fairly quickly and returned to what I considered an enjoyable lunch.

We are paid-up members of the Cremation Society, and my wife has pledged to place me in a cupboard drawer along with the envelope containing the remains of our beloved pooch, Cinder, until the day all three of us will share my eternal parking spot.

Having been a sympathy-giver in the past doesn’t make receiving it any easier. It’s hard not to be envious that everybody you know has a future and you don’t. It makes you feel isolated, and frankly irritated. It has always been difficult for me to receive favors from others. I suppose it’s the downside of being in control.

The impending loss of control and accompanying dependence on others is another difficult part of this pilgrimage. If I should not properly show my appreciation, please know that I do appreciate your kindness — and you — very much.

And then of course there is the matter of the wig. One feature of my final journey I have vowed to resist is the humiliation of complete baldness. I know it’s in style and that many guys look good that way. I also know I wouldn’t be one of them.

We purchased a wig the other day which, after the initial shock, takes about 50 years off my appearance. My coiffeur assured me that after the hair stylist she recommends finishes trimming down the wig, it will be more age-appropriate. Even so, everyone I know will be well-aware I have on a wig.

Who knows — maybe I’ll set a trend, or at least provide a few laughs.

Once your downward spiral toward eternity has been medically confirmed, you realize that this trip must be taken alone. Hard as it is to leave the kids, all parents are aware, and generally accept, that we will eventually precede them. I can find no fitting expression to describe the anguish at the thought of leaving my life partner, a bond in my case that has officially endured 62 years but unofficially since high school.

Heart-wrenching doesn’t come close, but it’s the best I can do.

All I can ask in the interim is that you please join me in making my interaction with you as enjoyable as possible.

Complete Article HERE!

As a Muslim Mariam lives the ‘five before five’

— and finds meaning and balance as a death doula

Mariam’s serious car accident led her to engage with Muslim attitudes to death.

By Alice Moldovan

“I collided head on with a truck, the car caught on fire. It was a huge emergency operation,” says Mariam Ardati.

It was one of those car accidents “you think nobody could have survived.”

When she crawled out of the wreckage of her car, Mariam was amazed to see that she didn’t have a single scratch on her.

As a body builder, Mariam had considered herself invincible at the time — at the peak of her fitness.

The close brush with death turned her thoughts to what would have happened to her body under Islamic tradition if she had in fact, died.

“I walked away thinking, ‘where would I have been buried? What would have happened to all my things?'”

After recovering from the trauma of the accident, Mariam says she walked into a funeral parlour and said, “teach me, show me what happens when someone dies”.

The experience prompted a spiritual journey to reconnect with the Sunni Muslim faith she had grown up with.

“I was largely self-centred up until that accident happened,” she told RN’s Soul Search, “and it helped me find purpose and meaning.”

For the last 15 years she has helped other people in the Muslim community through the transition from life into death — as a doula.

Mariam supports the dying and their families in the lead up to death, then leads the ritual care for the body of the deceased.

Anyone can take part in death care

Mariam says women have always performed the final rites for other women.

She wants people to know that there is a range of jobs that family members can do to assist after their loved one has passed away.

Supporting the head, washing the body and brushing the hair are all meaningful ways to care for the deceased.

Mariam describes how she bathes a body an odd number of times, starting with three.

“The first wash is done with soapy water. The second is with clean fresh water. And the third is water that’s poured over the body that’s been infused with camphor.”

Then family members will wrap their loved one in a death shroud that has been perfumed with incense.

“This is afforded to every Muslim that passes away,” she says.

Mariam recalls a woman she worked with who didn’t think she could enter the room where her mother’s body was undergoing the ritual washing.

“She stood at the door of the mortuary and said, ‘I don’t think I can do this, this is just too much for me’.”

Mariam reassured her that she could just watch.

Mariam Ardati says becoming a death doula has helped her find purpose and meaning.

The woman saw the water running, saw Mariam stroking her mum’s hair and talking to her, offering prayers.

By the end of the whole process, the woman had taken over.

“I took a step back and watched her — with a lot of tears and a lot of emotion — go through each ritual in its entirety.”

Mariam says seeing a daughter perform these last rites for her mother “as she’s working through her emotions and coming to terms with her grief is such a powerful thing to witness”.

She recalls many women who say, “I’m so grateful for the fact that I was able to honour my mother in that way,” or “I was able to hold my sister one last time”.

The ‘very human touch’ of burial

Muslim burial rituals have a “very human touch”, says Professor Mohamad Abdalla, referring to the practice of men going down into a grave to lower a body in with their hands, sans coffin.

Mohamad is the director of the Centre for Islamic Thought and Education at the University of South Australia.

He explains that the body is positioned with the head facing Mecca, the traditional direction of prayer.

“With the soil of the grave they make a small pillow to lay his or her head,” Mohamad says.

Mohamad says Muslim funeral practices revolve around honouring and caring for the dead.

Three quarters of the way up the grave, small edges are carved out to hold several planks of wood.

“The soil is poured over the planks of wood, not touching the body of the deceased, essentially leaving about half a metre … for the circulation of air for natural decomposition.”

Muslim death ritual requires the body be buried as quickly as possible, which can be difficult in the event of a sudden death.

“It’s an honour to bury the deceased within 24 hours,” Mariam says.

She’s referring to the belief that after death, the soul ascends and is given “the glad tidings of heaven”.

When the two are reunited in burial, the soul shares that news with the body, remaining connected throughout the process.

Organ donation and autopsies can complicate the ritual and throw timing off.

“We do exercise our rights to object to an invasive post-mortem, as do other faiths and communities,” Mariam explains.

“We believe that process is an undignified act.”

However, there are alternatives for Muslims, for instance in the case of an unexplained or suspicious death, explains Mohamad.

“In the classical Islamic civilisation, autopsy was undertaken to understand the human body and blood circulation.”

Beyond autopsy, medical procedures after death are technically allowed, because preservation of life is one of the most important objectives of Islamic law, Mohamad says.

He explains that as long as the donor or their family consents voluntarily, organs are not sold, and the organs are healthy, it is a highly virtuous act.

“But the minority viewpoint says a person has no right to dispose of their body as they wish, because it is a trust from God,” he says.

Much of Mariam’s energy is directed to increasing death literacy in the community — helping people become accustomed to the idea of dying.

She encourages the same open approach at home with her own children, in a “mother-daughter bonding exercise”.

“I have cut my own [death] shroud, and I had my daughter by my side with the measuring tape saying, ‘No mum, that’s too short, we need to make it longer this way’.”

‘Five before five’

Mariam sees her job as an opportunity to serve God through caring for other people.

“When you’re living the life of a Muslim, you’re living between two states,” she explains.

One of those refers to “fearing retribution or the accountability of your sins”, and the other is “believing in the hope and mercy of God”

Mariam says she looks for the balance between the two.

It’s a sense of purpose that leads to an understanding that “your actions have consequences, and that you’re part of a larger social context”.

A Muslim is encouraged “to take advantage of what’s known as the five before five,” she explains.

“Your health before sickness, your life before you’re overcome with death, your free time before you become busy, your youth before your old age and your wealth before you become poor.”

Mariam says Muslims’ relationship with God is “underpinned by the understanding that God is the provider of infinite love, compassion and mercy”.

But for a person to earn that favour, she or he must live a life that’s conducive to those values.

In death, Mariam sees our final transition as a deeply communal responsibility, one that she is humbled to be part of.

She says she’s glad her own encounter with a near-fatal accident showed her that she wasn’t invincible.

Rather, it gave her a sense of purpose and meaning.

“I didn’t find that in the world of the living — I found it in the world of the dead.”

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