Planning your funeral doesn’t have to be scary, says the author of ‘It’s Your Funeral: Plan the Celebration of a Lifetime Before it’s Too Late’

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The pandemic has forced many to rethink and readjust their present with their future. Some have left jobs that provided steady paychecks and a predictable complacency for unknown, yet meaningful passion projects. Others are are taking more control of their destinies as they see fit. Unwilling to settle in life anymore. So why would you settle in death?

That’s the question Kathy Benjamin, author of “It’s Your Funeral! Plan the Celebration of a Lifetime — Before it’s Too Late,” asks. Amid the book’s 176 pages, Benjamin exposes readers to death in a light, humorous, and practical way, akin to a soothing bath, rather than a brisk cold shower.

The Austin-based writer’s niche is death (her last book centered on bizarre funeral traditions and practices). Having panic attacks as a teen, Benjamin said enduring them felt like she was dying. It was then that she started wrestling with the idea of death.

“I feel like I’m actually dying all the time, so maybe I should learn about the history of death and all that,” she said. “If I’m going to be so scared of it, I should learn about it because then I’d kind of have some control over it.”

It’s that control that Benjamin wants to give to readers of this book. She introduces readers to concepts and steps one should contemplate now, in order to make sure the last big gathering centered on you is as memorable as you and your loved ones wish. Poring over the book, one finds interesting final resting options such as body donation that goes beyond being a medical cadaver, “infinity burial suits” that lets one look like a ninja at burial, but also helps nourish plants as decomposition begins; and quirky clubs and businesses that allow one to make death unique (as in hiring mourners to fill out your grieving space and time, and designing your own coffin).

Kathy Benjamin knows death can be scary, but she's determined to show that planning your own funeral doesn't have to be.
Kathy Benjamin knows death can be scary, but she’s determined to show that planning your own funeral doesn’t have to be.

Now before you think this is all a bit macabre, Benjamin’s book also serves as a personal log so you can start planning your big event. Amid the pages, she offers prompts and pages where you can jot down thoughts and ideas on fashioning your own funeral. If you want to have a theme? Put it down in the book. You want to start working on your eulogy/obituary/epitaph, will, or your “final” playlist? Benjamin gives you space in her book to do so. It’s like a demise workbook where you can place your best photos to be used for the funeral and your passwords to your digital life, for your loved ones to have access to that space once you’re gone. If all the details are in the book, a loved one just has to pick it up and use it as a reference to make sure your day of mourning is one you envisioned.

As Benjamin writes: “Think about death in a manner that will motivate you to live the best, most fulfilling life possible. By preparing for death in a spiritual and physical way, you are ensuring that you will succeed right to the end.”

“Everyone’s going to die, if you’re willing to be OK with thinking about that, and in a fun way, then the book is for you,” she said.

We talked with Benjamin to learn more about the details of death and thinking “outside the coffin” for posterity’s sake. The following interview has been condensed and edited.

‘It’s Your Funeral! Plan the Celebration of a Lifetime — Before it’s Too Late’ is by Kathy Benjamin, Quirk Books, 176 pages, $14.40.
‘It’s Your Funeral! Plan the Celebration of a Lifetime — Before it’s Too Late’ is by Kathy Benjamin, Quirk Books, 176 pages, $14.40.

Q: How much time did it take you to find all this data about death? You share what was in the late Tony Curtis’ casket.

Kathy Benjamin: I have shelves of books that range from textbooks to pop culture books about death, and it’s something that a lot more people than you think are interested in so when you start doing online research you might just find a list of, here’s what people have in their coffin and then from there, you’re like: ‘OK, let’s check if this is true.’ Let’s go back and check newspaper articles and more legitimate websites and things and those details are out there. People want to know. I think of it as when you see someone post on Facebook — somebody in my family died. I know for me, and based on what people reply, the first thing is: What did they die of? We want these details around death. It’s just something people are really interested in. The information is out there and if you go looking for it, you can find it.

Q: Was the timing for the release of the book on point or a little off, given the pandemic?

KB: That was unbelievable timing, either good or bad, how you want to look at it. I ended up researching and writing during that whole early wave in the summer (2020) and into the second wave, and it was very weird. It was very weird to wake up, and the first thing I would do every morning for months was check how many people were dead and where the hot spots were, and then write … just a lot of compartmentalization. My idea was because people who were confronting death so much, maybe it would open up a lot of people’s minds who wouldn’t normally be open to reading this kind of book, they’d be like: ‘OK, I’ve faced my mortality in the past year. So actually, maybe, I should think about it.’

Q: Is there anything considered too “out there” or taboo for a funeral?

KB: I always think that funerals really are for the people who are still alive to deal with their grief, so I wouldn’t do anything that’s going to offend loved ones. I can’t think of what it might be, but if there’s a real disagreement on what is OK, then maybe take the people who are going to be crying and keep them in mind. But really, it’s your party. Plan what you want. There are so many options out there. Some people, they still think cremation isn’t acceptable. Because death is so personal, there’s always going to be people who think something is too far, even things that seem normal for your culture or for your generation.

Q: You mention some interesting mourning/funeral businesses, but many seem to be in other countries. Do we have anything cool in the U.S. as far as death goes that maybe other places don’t have?

KB: One thing we have more than anywhere in the world is body farms. We have a couple and just one or two in the entire rest of the world. The biggest in the world is at the University of Tennessee. For people who don’t know, body farms are where you can donate your body as if you would to science, but instead of doing organ transplants or whatever with it, they put you in the trunk of a car or they put you in a pond or they just lay you out and then they see what happens to you as you decompose. Law enforcement recruits come in and study you to learn how to solve crimes based on what happens to bodies that are left in different situations. I think they get about 100 bodies a year. I always tell people about body farms because if you’re into “true crime” and don’t care what happens to you and you’re not grossed out by it, then do it because it’s really cool and it’s helpful.

Q: You mention mummification and traditional Viking send offs, what about the burning of a shrouded body on a pyre? Have you heard about that? It was the way hunters were sent into the afterlife on the TV series “Supernatural.”

KB: I haven’t heard of anyone doing it in America but obviously that’s a big pop culture thing. For Hindus, that’s the way it happens in India … you go to the Ganges, and they have places specifically where you pay for the wood and they make a pyre and that’s how people go out. I doubt there’s a cemetery or a park that would allow you to do it in the U.S., but on private land, you’re pretty much allowed to do whatever. I would definitely check on regulations. You would have to get the pyre quite hot to burn the body to ash, like hotter than you think to make sure you don’t get a barbecued grandpa.

Q: In your research, have you come across anything that completely surprised you because it’s so unheard of?

KB: There’s been things like funerary cannibalism, which is where you eat loved ones after they’ve died. But once you’ve read the reasons why different tribes around the world have done it, you’re like ‘OK, I can see why that meant something, why it was meant to be emotional and beautiful.’ Things like sky burial in Tibet, they have a Buddhist monk chop up the body and lay it out for the vultures to come get. Part of it ties back to Buddhist tradition but also it’s Tibet, you can’t dig holes there in the mountains. So, there’s a logical reason for it. When you look at these things that originally seem gross or weird, once you learn the reasons behind them it all comes back in the end to trying to do something respectful for the dead, and trying to give the living that closure.

Q: What are your plans for your funeral?

KB: I definitely want to be cremated. I don’t know if I want people to necessarily come together for a funeral for me but like I have a playlist, and even before the book I had a whole document on the computer of what I wanted. I want all the people to know about the playlist and then they can kind of sit and think about how awesome I am while the sad songs play, and then there’s different places that I would want my ashes scattered.

Complete Article HERE!

Why Some Scientists Think Consciousness Persists After Death

We should not assume that people who are near death do not know what we are saying

By News

A very significant change that happened in the last century or so has been the ability of science professionals to see what happens when people are thinking, especially under traumatic conditions.

It was not a good moment for materialist theories. Here is one finding (there are many others): Death is a process, usually, not simply an event.

Consciousness can persists after clinical death. A more accurate way of putting things might be that the brain is able to host consciousness for a short period after clinical death. Some notes on recent findings:

The short answer is, probably, yes:

Recent studies have shown that animals experience a surge in brain activity in the minutes after death. And people in the first phase of death may still experience some form of consciousness, [Sam] Parnia said. Substantial anecdotal evidence reveals that people whose hearts stopped and then restarted were able to describe accurate, verified accounts of what was going on around them, he added.

“They’ll describe watching doctors and nurses working; they’ll describe having awareness of full conversations, of visual things that were going on, that would otherwise not be known to them,” he explained. According to Parnia, these recollections were then verified by medical and nursing staff who were present at the time and were stunned to hear that their patients, who were technically dead, could remember all those details.

Mindy Weisberger, “Are ‘Flatliners’ really conscious after death?” at LiveScience (October 4, 2017)

Death is probably, in most cases, a process rather than a single event:

Time of death is considered when a person has gone into cardiac arrest. This is the cessation of the electrical impulse that drive the heartbeat. As a result, the heart locks up. The moment the heart stops is considered time of death. But does death overtake our mind immediately afterward or does it slowly creep in?

Some scientists have studied near death experiences (NDEs) to try to gain insights into how death overcomes the brain. What they’ve found is remarkable, a surge of electricity enters the brain moments before brain death. One 2013 study out of the University of Michigan, which examined electrical signals inside the heads of rats, found they entered a hyper-alert state just before death.

Philip Perry, “After death, you’re aware that you’ve died, say scientists” at BigThink (October 24, 2017)

Despite claims, current science does not do a very good job of explaining human experience just before death:

Researchers have also explained near-death experiences via cerebral anoxia, a lack of oxygen to the brain. One researcher found air pilots who experienced unconsciousness during rapid acceleration described near-death experience-like features, such as tunnel vision. Lack of oxygen may also trigger temporal lobe seizures which causes hallucinations. These may be similar to a near-death experience.

But the most widespread explanation for near-death experiences is the dying brain hypothesis. This theory proposes that near-death experiences are hallucinations caused by activity in the brain as cells begin to die. As these occur during times of crisis, this would explain the stories survivors recount. The problem with this theory, though plausible, is that it fails to explain the full range of features that may occur during near-death experiences, such as why people have out-of-body experiences.

Neal Dagnall and Ken Drinkwater, “Are near-death experiences hallucinations? Experts explain the science behind this puzzling phenomenon” at The Conversation (December 4, 2018)

Such explanations are a classic case of adapting a materialist hypothesis to fit whatever has happened. They don’t explain, for example, terminal lucidity, where many people suddenly gain clarity about life.

Research medic Sam Parnia found, for example, that, of 2000 patients with cardiac arrest,

Some died during the process. But of those who survived, up to 40 percent had a perception of having some form of awareness during the time when they were in a state of cardiac arrest. Yet they weren’t able to specify more details.

Cathy Cassata, “We May Still Be Conscious After We Die” at Healthline (September 24, 2018) The paper requires a subscription.

So we should not assume that people who are on the way out cannot understand us. Maybe they can — and would like to hear that they are still loved and will be missed.

Complete Article HERE!

How ‘Big Funeral’ Made the Afterlife So Expensive

It’s time to reevaluate the cost of death care—and its environmental impact.

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“You can’t die these days because it’s too expensive,” Randy Hinojosa told Time last year. Hinojosa had just paid $15,000 for a funeral for his wife of 26 years, after she died of the coronavirus. Like thousands of families coping with unexpected pandemic funeral costs, he drained his savings and launched a crowdfunding campaign to recoup some of the losses. “I didn’t even want to ask anybody for money,” Hinojosa said, crying. “I had this pride that I could do this.”

The pandemic, which has killed 690,000 Americans and counting, has magnified the importance of swift, respectful disposition of the dead—and the untenable cost of doing business in the current system. In 2019, the average funeral cost $9,135, according to the National Funeral Directors Association. That included viewing and burial, but not dwindling cemetery space or big-ticket items like monuments and other grave markers. Even cremation, for decades promoted as a cheaper (and greener) alternative to burial, now averages $6,645.

These practices are not just financially devastating, they’re also environmentally calamitous. In addition to human remains, traditional burial puts an estimated 1.6 million tons of reinforced concrete and 800,000 gallons of formaldehyde—a chemical used in embalming and a probable carcinogen—into the earth each year. Cremation, meanwhile, generates an estimated 534.6 pounds of carbon dioxide per person—more than the per capita emissions of Afghanistan.

These harsh end-of-life economics have contributed to a crisis of funeral poverty in the US, says Victoria J. Haneman, a professor at Creighton University School of Law in Nebraska. Funeral poverty existed long before the pandemic and, without significant reform to both the funeral industry and to national and local systems of funeral aid, many families will continue to struggle with growing credit card debt and new personal loans amidst their crushing grief.

In the worst-case scenario, people will be forced to leave their loved ones unclaimed in county custody, where sheriffs, medical examiners, social workers, chaplains, and others will cremate or bury the remains. In the US, as many as 3 percent of bodies are left unclaimed each year, a number that has reportedly risen due to economic inequality, the opioid epidemic, and the pandemic.

Though the US has the resources to guarantee everyone a proper burial, they’re not evenly distributed. “We should not be normalizing the $9,000 as the average cost of a funeral,” Haneman says. “Not only is that staggering, it’s wholly unnecessary.”

For most of American history, people died at home, where they were tended to by loved ones. Women in the community prepared the body, while men made the casket. That started to change with the Civil War, where death occurred on faraway battlefields. Enterprising morticians subsequently popularized embalming, a preservation technique that allowed families to ship bodies long distances so those who died could be buried where they had lived.

Today, death is a $20 billion industry. (That’s similar to the total revenue for the global music business in 2019, or the market for meat substitutes.) In its most corporate and cynical forms, it’s marked by largely unchecked pricing, including markups as high as 500 percent on caskets. It’s also defined by decades of resistance to innovation, even as public attitudes toward death are shifting. In 2015, for example, one funeral conglomerate estimated that for every 1 percent of its customers who chose cremation the company lost about $10 million—a “problem” some morticians attempt to solve by selling families often-unnecessary services and products, from pre-cremation embalming to pricy urns.

Where many communities were once served by small mom-and-pop funeral shops, the death-care landscape has been transformed by shareholder-driven companies. Service Corporation International is the largest funeral services provider in North America, with over 1,500 funeral homes and 500 cemeteries in its portfolio, accounting for roughly 16 percent of the overall market share. Instead of lowering prices as it has scaled, SCI prices average 47 to 72 percent higher than those of its competitors, according to a 2017 report coauthored by the Funeral Consumers Alliance. The only people who don’t seem to mind are investors, whose stock is up 151 percent over five years. Thanks to the efforts of Big Funeral, the industry holds a monopoly on the afterlife—and it’s pricing people out of dying.

But reining in these profit-driven companies has proven difficult, as their practices are often supported by local statutes. For example, two-thirds of states have onerous “ready to embalm” laws that require funeral directors to have access to an embalming room, even if they don’t want to offer the service or families don’t request it. These regulations persist despite the fact that embalming isn’t necessary in the case of cremation, which half of Americans now choose, and that green burial grounds—an increasingly popular choice among the eco-conscious—typically forbid the practice in order to prevent contamination of the soil. In New York State, the cost to maintain such facilities is passed on to consumers (in the form of higher funeral prices) to the tune of $25.8 million annually.

To date, the best efforts to curb these practices have come from the funeral consumers’ movement, spurred on by muckraker Jessica Mitford’s 1963 book The American Way of Death, which found evidence of widespread predatory pricing and disinformation in the industry. In the 1970s, the Federal Trade Commissions instituted its Funeral Rule, which requires that funeral service providers offer prospective customers accurate, itemized prices. Yet in 2020, the agency’s own undercover investigators found that roughly 19 percent of funeral homes they visited in five states failed to disclose adequate pricing information.

Part of the problem is that many people feel that the sticker price of a solid mahogany coffin or a ceramic urn reflects their love and respect for the dead. And even if they wanted to find a cheaper alternative, with so many Americans unable or unwilling to plan for their death, families are often left to organize and finance funerals under duress. It’s no wonder the majority of them will use the first funeral home they contact, without conducting a price comparison.

While business as usual remains clearly exploitative, it’s hard for many Americans to envision an alternative. But death care doesn’t have to be so commercialized, says Joshua Slocum, executive director of the Funeral Consumers Alliance. “That is not a natural law.”

Today, the federal government, as well as many state and local agencies, provides some assistance to families who might otherwise struggle to bury their kin. But these funds are not always accessible, and reimbursement is typically meager. In 2020, for example, the Social Security Administration set the cap on funeral grants to $255 a person—and it issues aid only to select heirs.

That’s what made the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s decision to reimburse the families of people in the US killed by Covid-19 up to $9,000 for funeral costs so unprecedented. While FEMA has provided burial assistance in the wake of natural disasters before, the pandemic relief effort is of a different magnitude. As of September, FEMA has awarded over $1 billion to more than 165,000 people.

FEMA’s remarkable support should have been a model for federal funeral assistance, with or without disaster, for decades to come. But by doling out aid without any attempts at environmental, economic, or other reform of the funeral industry, the program effectively subsidized it. “We had this fantastic opportunity to use this moment to not only pay for death care but to also promote environmental initiatives and innovative death technology,” Haneman says. We failed.

Even so, the pandemic has encouraged many people to reconceive death care as the end point on the continuum of health care, says Philip Olson, a technology ethicist at Virginia Tech who studies death. Funeral directors are now seen as #LastResponders who pick up where doctors left off. In an ideal world, both kinds of care would be universally accessible and focused on quality, not profit.

In 2016, Olson ran for the board of directors of the Funeral Consumers Alliance. He made government-funded death care his platform, but the idea of a socialized system was one few in the organization were willing to broach. Some consumer advocates worry that universal death care will inevitably benefit the funeral industry, whose worst practices they aim to curb. (“Big warning flags go up in my head when I hear ‘subsidy,’” Slocum told me, adding, “is that charity for the family, or a subsidized profit to the funeral home?”) But Olson still believes that funeral costs could and should be covered, perhaps through a future expansion of Medicare, a federal health insurance program primarily for Americans 65 and older.

Medicare is funded by several sources, most notably the payroll taxes of those currently in the workforce. That money is used to cover hospital, skilled nursing, and hospital services for enrollees, as well as some outpatient services and prescription drugs. Olson says taxpayer dollars could be distributed to ensure minimum coverage for funeral expenses, too. If health is a human right, as the World Health Organization claims, the dignified treatment of human remains should be, too. In the end, Thanatos comes for us all.

There’s some international precedent for such a system: In Sweden, every resident is guaranteed a funeral service and burial or cremation. In 1990, the government instituted a burial tax calibrated to the area in which someone lives (and presumably dies and is buried), as well as their income level.

When a Swede dies, their family automatically receives space for storing and viewing the body, a ceremony hall free from religious symbols, a grave or equivalent in a public cemetery for 25 years, coverage for the cost of burial or cremation, and some limited transportation. Other items, such as a coffin or urn, tombstone, funeral officiant, decorations, and reception, are not included. Nonetheless, the average cost of a funeral in Sweden in 2014 was just $2,897.

Right now, the Biden administration is advancing a law that, if passed, would allow Medicare to negotiate prescription drug prices. In the same way, universal death care coverage could negotiate the cost of coffin prices and other funeral services and supplies. While not everything could (or should) be covered, the essentials would be guaranteed to everyone. The government could also make it a point to incentivize green death care options, including natural burial, aquamation, human composting, and mushroom suits. In the process, Olson says it could lead to a sizable shift in power by challenging the primacy of what he calls “funeral industrialists” (funeral directors, cremationists, cemetery managers, and others) and biomedical experts, and raising up advocates of alternative approaches like home funerals, DIY caskets, and more.

“There are other ways of thinking about ourselves, not just as funeral consumers,” Olson says, “but as mourners, grievers, as members of a society in which the management of the dead is a social necessity.”

Complete Article HERE!

Families and practitioners adapting to virtual funerals during the COVID-19 pandemic

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The growing use of virtual funerals during the COVID-19 pandemic is having a profound impact on grieving processes and the funeral industry, according to a new scoping review from the University of Toronto published online in OMEGA—Journal of Death and Dying.

The scoping review was conducted by a team of six Master of Social Work students at the Factor-Inwentash Faculty of Social Work Program at the University of Toronto as a capstone project in their gerontology program. The team examined 62 academic and grey literature articles that examined the use of virtual funeral practices during COVID-19.

“COVID-19 is greatly impacting the ways in which we grieve,” says lead author and recent graduate Andie MacNeil. “Rituals and other mourning practices are such an integral component of the dying process, and they are being interrupted at a time when we are experiencing tremendous loss of life due to COVID-19.”

The review highlighted some of the concerns that many individuals have with replacing in-person funeral practices with virtual alternatives.

“The large recent uptake of virtual funerals due to restrictions has shone light on many challenges of this practice,” says co-author Rennie Bimman, now a in at the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario and Roger Neilson House hospice in Ottawa, Ontario. “There are concerns about the authenticity of using virtual platforms for mourning rituals that are meant to take place in person, and there are also significant barriers regarding access to technology.”

Although the review highlights the challenges associated with virtual funerals, it also draws attention to resilience and resourcefulness as people find new ways to grieve despite pandemic restrictions.

“It is imperative to highlight the ways in which individuals and families have adapted in order to continue traditional ways of grieving that are familiar and comforting,” says co-author Jacqueline Ho. “Practices such as virtual shiva and live-streamed funerals emphasize how people create meaningful experiences, despite the inability to be together in person.” Ho now works for the Mon Sheong Long Term Care Centre in Toronto, Ontario.

The review also emphasizes the important role of healthcare professionals and funeral service professionals in supporting the complicated grieving process during COVID-19.

“Our findings have demonstrated significant resilience, not only among individuals who have experienced loss, but also among and funeral professionals who are finding new ways to support those who are grieving,” says co-author Tali Barclay, a social worker and psychotherapist at the Breakwater Institute for Occupational Stress and Trauma.

As the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic and virtual practices continue to unfold, it is important for mental health professionals to be attuned to how the COVID-19 pandemic may impact long-term grief outcomes.

“Mental health professionals must consider the strengths of those who have lost loved ones during the pandemic and also be cognizant of how these disruptions and changes to grieving may have lasting impacts,” said co-author Blythe Findlay, a counsellor with the David Kelley Services program at Family Service Toronto.

Although virtual funerals have proliferated during COVID-19, the scoping review expects virtual services to continue beyond the pandemic.

“The shift to virtual mourning practices may be the way of the future,” says co-author Taylor Hocking, program manager for the Toronto HomeShare Program at the National Initiative for the Care of the Elderly. “The COVID-19 pandemic has shown how easy it can be to open this once very private event to family and friends around the world. The shift to virtual services can increase accessibility and provide opportunities to connect with distant loved ones, allowing many to grieve in ways not experienced before.”

Complete Article HERE!

My Dad Is Dead. His Landlord Just Evicted Him.

A jumble of complicated and unexpected logistical tasks can fall into your lap after a loved one dies.

By Stephanie H. Murray

When my father’s heart stopped, I had no choice but to keep moving. He had lived alone, and I understood that managing the logistics of his death—planning his funeral, settling his debts, divvying up his belongings—would be an enormous task. Those looming practical matters infuriated me; I hated that my world-shattering news had not, in fact, shattered the world. It kept spinning along, so I did too. I got the news on a Thursday; flew from my home in the United Kingdom to his home in Savannah, Georgia, on Saturday; and headed to his apartment with my sister on Monday to begin tying up the loose ends of his life. We didn’t have a key to his apartment, but my sister knew the building receptionist and was sure she’d let us in under the circumstances.

Instead, she turned us away. I began to panic: How would we get his suit for the funeral? How would we figure out if he had
life insurance that we could use to pay for the funeral? When would we be allowed to empty his apartment, and would I still be in the country by then?

I had never been to my father’s apartment before—I moved overseas in the fall of 2019, two months before my dad moved to Savannah and six months before the coronavirus pandemic thwarted my plans to visit family—but it hurt to be treated like a stranger there. I wanted to rifle through the artifacts of his life and sink into the happier memories their presence conjured. To sit with whatever remnants of my dad lingered among his belongings. To reclaim what little I could of the visit that COVID had denied me. And I resented the receptionist standing guard at the door to ensure that I didn’t.

I felt certain that there was some misunderstanding, but the only error was mine. Any permission I’d had to rummage through my father’s things had died with him. Successfully navigating the process, referred to as probate, for getting that permission back can be tricky and usually requires the help of a lawyer. Even then, things don’t always go as expected—which is how I ended up collecting my father’s belongings from the sidewalk when he was evicted almost three months after he died.

My circumstances felt bizarre, but it’s not unusual for a jumble of complicated and unexpected logistical tasks to fall into a person’s lap after a loved one dies. Stephanie Handel, a grief and trauma psychotherapist at the Wendt Center for Loss and Healing, in Washington, D.C., told me about pamphlets that the center used to provide recently bereaved people, detailing the enormous list of things they’d need to do in the following weeks and months: contact Social Security, find burial assistance (if they were eligible for it), publish an obituary, order death certificates, contact employers and banks, shut down social-media accounts, cancel subscriptions, handle medical paperwork, hire an attorney, pay taxes. “It’s an intellectually and psychologically challenging task. And it’s a task that you have to undertake when you’re not at your best,” R. Benyamin Cirlin, the executive director of the Center for Loss and Renewal, in New York City, told me.

What I learned after losing my father was that the laws protecting a dead person’s property are surprisingly robust. If he’s made prior arrangements, the ownership of some of his things will transfer automatically. Banks, for example, allow clients to name a “payable on death” beneficiary on some accounts. In almost all cases, practically everything else—even clothing and silverware—must go through probate before anyone can legally claim it. The fact that my father had a will that named me as his executor did not allow my sister and me to sidestep this process. “The will is just a piece of paper until the probate court has verified it,” Gerry W. Beyer, an estate attorney and a professor at Texas Tech University’s School of Law, told me.

The probate process varies by state and even by county, but it generally involves tracking down an original will and getting any “heirs-at-law”—usually the spouse and children—to acknowledge it. If all goes smoothly, probating a will might take a couple of weeks. But any hiccups—say the original will can’t be found, or a pandemic overwhelms the probate-court system—can slow the process down. And if an eligible heir contests the will, probate can take years, Gregory Matalon, an estate attorney based in New York, told me. In the meantime, the deceased person’s things are in a kind of legal limbo and, except in rare circumstances, no one’s supposed to touch them.

Of course, in many cases, people touch them anyway. Family members take what they want of their relative’s heirlooms and donate the rest. Landlords may pressure a deceased tenant’s family to clear out his apartment. When it comes to items of little personal or monetary value, jumping the gun on probate is rarely a problem, the Ohio-based attorney Joan Burda told me, but prematurely making off with cherished or expensive items can lead to legal trouble down the road. For that reason, some landlords won’t allow anyone into a deceased tenant’s apartment without court approval. Our lawyer advised us to halt my father’s rent payments in the hopes that his building would relax this requirement. If my father was evicted, our lawyer reasoned, we could take his things when his apartment was being emptied.

There are some good reasons to protect a dead person’s belongings—you wouldn’t want the wrong person walking away with their prized possessions—but the rigidity of the process can create nightmares for loved ones with good intentions. One woman I spoke with had to take nine months off work to help her elderly father manage his late wife’s estate—he was the official executor but was unable to manage the task on his own.

These logistical headaches can shape the experience of grief in a variety of ways, Cirlin told me. Sometimes, the people saddled with the practical matters sideline their emotions for a while, which can seem strange to outside observers and can be unsettling for the bereaved themselves. People can feel like “Why am I not crying right now?” Handel explained. “But there are things that need to be done, which means that your ability to be present for your own feelings in some ways needs to be halted.” For others, these responsibilities can heighten grief. Filling out paperwork or donating clothing can serve as “another window into the fact that your whole reality has changed,” as Cirlin put it. Someone may feel they’ve found their footing in the aftermath of loss only for one of these innocuous tasks to pull them back into grief. Especially when the process doesn’t go smoothly—if a loved one’s paperwork is poorly organized, for example, or probate unveils unpleasant information about them—the ugliness of these chores can complicate the fond memories and rosy narratives we want to walk away with. “It’s hard to sit with resentment when you’re missing someone,” Cirlin said.

My father’s apartment building never relented, but with the help of our attorney, we did arrange a supervised visit to search for the will and pick up my dad’s suit. (An assistant property manager for the building declined to comment on specifics of the case, but noted, “Generally we are not allowed to provide individuals who are not on the lease with access to an apartment even if they are related to the resident. We try to work with family members of a deceased resident to allow them to obtain their loved one’s belongings. Our actions were taken with direction from, and in coordination with, the family’s attorney.”)

We couldn’t find his original will, but we printed a copy from his computer and then folded the lone suit hanging in his closet into a grocery bag, along with a pair of black sneakers. My sister slipped a plastic rosary from his bedside into the pocket of his jacket, and as she glanced over her shoulder to make sure the receptionist wasn’t watching, we both began to laugh, quietly and tearfully, at the absurdity of the circumstances. If his estate had anything of value, it wasn’t in that apartment. American property law stood between us and a crusty baseball cap sitting crumpled on the counter, a poem I’d written for him on his birthday that he’d printed and tacked to the wall in his office, a hundred worn books that his excessive underlining had rendered worthless to anyone but us.

On our way out, the receptionist gingerly peeked into our bag to ensure that we hadn’t taken anything we shouldn’t have and then escorted us to our car, where she reminded us that we’d be welcome back once we had the proper documentation.

He was evicted before we got it. Mercifully, the assistant property manager let us know the date and time in advance, so we hired movers to collect my father’s things and put them in storage. But when we arrived to get his belongings off the sidewalk, some of them had been damaged. An open bottle of Drano had soaked the contents of one bag. The praying hands of a statue of Our Lady of Fátima that my parents had gotten on their honeymoon had cracked off her arms. And there was nothing I could do about it, because the laws designed to ensure that my father’s things ended up safely in my possession had exhausted their reach.

“I think, very sadly, what you’re learning is that grief is very messy,” Handel said. It’s inextricably bound up with the tedium and absurdity of human existence. It may be triggered by death, but grief is a province of the living. And life goes on.

Complete Article HERE!

Africa’s religious traditions: In praise of the ancestors

Animism and its veneration of the ‘dear departed’ have a human scale absent from the ‘great’ faiths. Drew Forrest makes the case for Africa’s religious traditions.

Egungun spirits perform during a Voodoo ceremony on January 11, 2012 in Ouidah, Benin. The Egungun are masqueraded dancers that represents the ancestral spirits of the Yoruba, a Nigerian ethnic group, and are believed to visit earth to possess and give guidance to the living. Ouidah is Benin’s Voodoo heartland, and thought to be the spiritual birthplace of Voodoo or Vodun as it known in Benin. Shrouded in mystery and often misunderstood, Voodoo was acknowledged as an official religion in Benin in 1989, and is increasing in popularity with around 17 percent of the population following it. A week of activity centred around the worship of Voodoo culminates on the 10th of January when people from across Benin as well as Togo and Nigeria decend on the town for the annual Voodoo festival.

By Drew Forrest

Those who stayed away when Geoffrey Oryema headlined at Womad in Benoni in 2000 – the poor turnout spoke of South Africa’s cultural isolation – missed more than a luminous musical performance.

At the height of his powers the “Orpheus of Acholiland” made a compelling statement about the continent’s religious beliefs.

At the age of 24 Oryema was smuggled out of Uganda in the boot of a car after his father, a cabinet minister, was denounced as a plotter and murdered by Idi Amin. Geoffrey did not return for 39 years.

Hence the persistent note of sorrow in his songs: since Ugandan independence, the Acholi minority he sprang from has been trapped in endless cycles of regional and ethnic violence.

In this land of Anaka [his father’s ancestral village]… we had dreams of a clear, green land… /Dead sand, dead sand,” he lamented on his first album, Exile.

Central to Oryema’s performance on the Womad night stage were the songs of his magisterial fourth album, Spirit. Released in France the previous year, it revolved around the death of his father, Erinayo… 

Late in the evening I walked down
Down by the river
Plunging my hands in the water
I felt the spirit moving
The spirit of my father protects me
Guides me
                                 (“Spirits of my Father”)

… and of his brother, John, who died during Geoffrey’s exile:

I can hear your voice
From a distant place
Among the flowers and grass
I can hear your steps beneath
The stone…

                                  (“Omera John”) 

In “Save Me” we meet the same idea: to a repeated, hypnotic motif the song tells of a man who, in a dream or trance, falls under the paralysing thrall of a star. He calls out to the sun and the moon, who come to his aid.

This is animism, the belief, pervasive in Africa, that the cosmos teems with innumerable spirit beings that share human concerns and can be harnessed to the human project.

The result, wrote the originator of the term, anthropologist Edward Burnett Tylor, was a vision of “universal vitality” whereby “sun and stars, trees and rivers, winds and clouds become personal animate creatures”.

“The whole psychic atmosphere of the African village is filled with belief in this magical power,” wrote the father of African theology, Kenya’s John Mbiti, who described Africans as “notoriously religious”.

It is a noble idea, simpler and more dignified than the esoteric contortions of Christian theology and better suited to an age when people are striving for a new relationship with the natural world.

An ‘Egungun’ spirit stands during a Voodoo ceremony on January 11, 2012 in Ouidah, Benin.

Animism has no doctrine of the soul’s immortality and no eschatological expectations, such as judgement in the afterlife or the evangelical fantasy of “the Rapture”.

It has no central authority, no set liturgy or creed and no interest in doctrinal compliance – the main source of religious conflict and persecution down the centuries.

It takes many forms specific to different ethnicities, meaning that unlike Christianity and Islam it has no global ambitions and does not try to stuff itself down the throat of unbelievers.

Despite the imposition of the coloniser’s beliefs, it has proved extremely durable. In many parts of Africa and the New World it has fused with Christianity in syncretic hybrids that enshrine the traditional practices of ancestral veneration, ritual purification by water, prophecy, exorcism, healing and the interpretation of dreams.

Victorians like Tylor thought of animist belief in Darwinian terms, as the earliest stage in the evolution of religion and a window on the “primitive mind”. This was a step forward, at least, from the notion of an unbridgeable gulf between the “civilised” and the “savage”.

Later scholars turned against such evolutionary thinking as deeply misconceived. They also rejected the “degradation theory”, according to which animist beliefs are degenerate borrowings from high cultures such as ancient Egypt.

“All contemporary cultures and religions [are] regarded as comparable,” writes anthropologist George Kerlin Park.

Most traditional African religions hold with a single Creator – but in a way that recalls the deism of the European Enlightenment. The widespread belief is that God created the universe, but is so remote that he does not engage with it and cannot be approached directly.

The Oromo of the Horn of Africa, for example, reject the Christian ideas of the God of love, God the Father and the Trinity as implying weakness. According to historian of religion Julian Baldick, their Waqa is the all-powerful demiurge of the great forces of nature, “the sky, the stars, the clouds, the god of thunder and lightning”.

Their proverbs convey the deity’s deafness to human cries and the need for resigned submission among his creatures: “A man does not stop praying and God does not change what he has decided”; “People are right to praise God when someone is killed by lightning”; “One does not understand the deeds of God or the laughter of dogs”.

In a widespread tradition, the Dinka of South Sudan hold that God withdrew from the world when the first woman lifted her pestle to pound millet and struck the vault of the sky.

Kenya’s Kikuyu believe the deity has: 

No father, no mother, nor wife
nor children
He is alone
He is neither a child nor
an old man
He is the same today
as he was yesterday 

For this reason, worship of the high god is rare in African tradition ­­– it is the multitude of secondary divinities, who throng the sublunary sphere, that are the objects of veneration, propitiation and service. Foremost among them are the ancestors or, in classical mythology, the shades.

For many non-Africans, this is not a remote idea. Ancestor veneration is practised in Japanese Shinto, Hinduism and Chinese patriarchal religion. Roman Catholicism, the oldest form of Christianity with many pagan borrowings, incorporates remnants of it in All Soul’s Day and Halloween, when the spirits walk abroad, and in the cult of saints.

In Africa, Ghana’s Asante people, for example, acknowledge an inaccessible creator, while their ritual life revolves around the veneration of their matrilineal forebears, conceived of as guardians of the moral order and intercessors with the great spiritual powers.

The Yoruba religion tells of orishas – tutelary spirits subject to the unapproachable supreme being, Oludumane – believing that 401 of them “line the road to heaven”.

Many African theologians resent the term “ancestor worship” as a paternalistic misconception. What is offered to the dead through prayer, offerings and sacrifice is not the worship of deities, but an extension of the honour and service due to living parents. The purpose is to reassure them they are still remembered and loved.

Ancestral spirits are seen as the invisible but most important part of the kinship network. Dead relatives and community members preside over landmark events, including such rites of passage as the Xhosa imbeleko (ritual inclusion of the newborn in the clan), ukubuyisa (reincorporation of the dead), and ukwaluka (initiation into adulthood), and must be cared for and kept favourably disposed.

Former Kenyan leader Jomo Kenyatta distinguished different ancestral spirits in Kikuyu belief, including those of one’s parents, who continue to advise and reproach, and those linked to the wider clan.

Feelings towards the shades are not straightforward: they are objects of love and reverence, but also of fearful placation and numinous dread.

In Totem and Taboo, Sigmund Freud deals with this complexity, noting that people in traditional societies also “fear the presence and the return of the spirit of the dead person”, and offer propitiatory ceremonies not just out of love, but “to keep him off and banish him”.

A Kenyan scholar relates that once they have placated the spirits by offering them sacrifices, villagers expect them to move away.

But “the living dead” are mainly invoked to use their superior resources for earthly ends. One writer notes that ancestor veneration is about “supporting fertility and sustaining the community, by maintaining a harmonious relationship with divinities and channelling cosmic powers for good”.

One conduit is the igqirha (Xhosa) or mganga (Swahili) – the diviner/seer/healer with the gift of access to the spirit world. In traditional society this is enhanced by a strict initiation in which the novice is said to fall ill and dream of “beings in an endless westward march across the heavens, arrayed in feather headdresses and carrying sleeping mats”.

The dead live, but not ­– as in some creeds – for all eternity. University of London scholar Alice Werner points to the grandparents in Maurice Maeterlinck’s play The Blue Bird, who wake from the sleep of death only when someone remembers them.

The ancestors survive and retain their potency as long as they are held in the communal memory. As this rarely stretches back further than grandparents, they become increasingly attenuated and fade away after a few generations.

Once forgotten by the living, they are assimilated to the great impersonal forces of nature ­– storm clouds and the eclipse.

My wife’s ashes are buried in our garden, overhung by an elderberry tree that is strangely frequented by the same robin. At our rural plot, which we bought and built together, I feel her presence.

Habit and tricks of the imagination, no doubt. But one can understand the power and tenacity of animist belief – It has a human scale rooted in one’s kin, free of great frowning cathedrals or high priests in snow-white vestments pronouncing infallibly “from the throne”.

It has no Grand Inquisitor, Day of Wrath, purgatory or everlasting hellfire. It does not practise forced conversion, foster racial hatred, or call for the violent overthrow of other people’s gods.

With its vision of an intimate cosmos, it is more likely to engender respect for the natural world than a faith that tells men to subdue the earth and have “dominion over every living thing”.

Above all, animist beliefs, particularly in ancestral spirits, provide continuity of the ties that bind the living and the dead. For the bereft, like Geoffrey Oryema, this must help to staunch the dripping inner wounds of grief.

Complete Article HERE!

Goodbye and Good Journey

Buddhist funeral traditions around the world help both the dead and their loved ones let go and move on.

Funeral ceremony at Jigenji Soto Zen temple in Yamanashi, Japan.

by

Final Ordination

At the heart of a Zen funeral is ordination. In the ceremony, the deceased is ritually ordained in the same way that living monks and nuns are. This is done because total dedication to spiritual life, of the kind undertaken by monastics, is seen as the natural endpoint of life, even if that wasn’t the case when the person was alive. Ordination is also seen as increasing the probability of a favorable rebirth.

To begin the funeral ceremony, a vigil is maintained by relatives for a day and a night while Zen priests chant from scripture and an altar is prepared in the household. Attending mourners offer okoden, or “condolence money,” to the family of the deceased. The centerpiece of the altar is a portrait of the deceased, alongside candles and offerings of flowers and fruit.

The dead’s ordination is the same as a living nun’s or monk’s. The precept master asks the body three times if the deceased will observe and embody the five precepts. Where a living monk or nun would offer their vow, the corpse’s silence is interpreted as acceptance.

The deceased is then given a Buddhist name and presented with a lineage chart connecting them with enlightened masters stretching all the way back to the Buddha himself. The family of the newly ordained is provided with their own tablet with the deceased’s Buddhist name on it, and the tablets are either kept in the local temple or displayed in the family’s household altar afterward.

Some Zen funerals also feature a shout which is meant to sever the deceased’s bond to the earthly plane. Those who have attended such ceremonies say this also provides a moment of catharsis for the mourners. The funeral concludes with the cremation of the deceased’s body.

What, then, are Zen funerals like for those who are already ordained? The funeral of a monk or nun can take different forms, both long (involving a procession including the deceased’s robes and lineage papers) or very short. The funeral for the founder of the Soto Zen, Dogen, is famously said to have consisted of just a short moment of chanting by his most senior disciple.

Sharing Merit with the Dead

White cloth, a symbol of virtue, marks a Theravadan funeral in the Sri Lankan tradition. Fringed palm fronds and white banners, often with a picture of the deceased, mark the way to the home of the deceased. A white banner declares in large writing: “All conditioned things have the nature of decay.” In the house, mourners in white are greeted by relatives of the dead, the men dressed in sarongs of white cloth and white shirts, the women in white saris. Having been washed by family members, the body of the dead is also attired in white.

The wake, during which the deceased’s family greets and feeds the guests, lasts for several days, which allows those traveling to reach the funeral house. Guests sometimes bring gifts of food for the family.

The funeral ceremony truly begins with the arrival of the monks. They enter the front room of the funeral house, where their feet are washed by a male member of the household. The monastics are guided to chairs draped in white cloth and the deceased’s family kneels before them in respect.

Then the coffin is brought to the front room, or remains in a tent in the front yard if there isn’t room in the house, and a salutation chant to the Buddha is offered, followed by the chants of the three refuges and the five precepts. Parcels of white cloth are presented to the monks, and the mourners chant, “We offer the ‘cloth of the dead’ to the community of monks.” This gift of cloth has a practical origin. Monks in Sri Lanka, as elsewhere in Theravadan societies, rely on the community to feed and clothe them. Payment for presiding over the ceremony comes in the form of white cloth.

In this merit-sharing culture, the Theravadan funeral also features a bowl filled with water by the deceased’s family until it overflows, representing giving merit to the dead so their rebirth will be a promising one. As the water is being poured, the monks chant: “Just as rivers full of water fill the ocean full / Even so does what is given here benefit the dead.”

After a sermon based on Pali scripture is delivered by the senior monk, the mourners chant “Sadhu!” three times, an expression of gratitude connected to the attainment of arahatship. Speeches by family and neighbors follow and then the coffin is conveyed to the burial ground or crematorium under a white umbrella.

Two important dates continue the remembrance ceremonies after the day of the funeral: Mataka-bana, when a monk returns a week later to deliver a sermon to the family and other mourners, and Thun masa-dana, an alms-giving three months after the funeral to support the monastics who officiate at funerals and other ceremonies in the community.

Guiding the Dead Through the Bardo

A Tibetan thangka painting of the pure land of the primordial buddha Amitabha, known as Amida in Japanese.

The Tibetan approach to death and dying is guided by the teachings of the Bardo Thodol, popularly known in the West as The Tibetan Book of the Dead. This text describes what happens to us in the bardo, an intermediate period or gap between death and rebirth. During this time, it is possible to advise and help the deceased so they can achieve enlightenment or at least a favorable rebirth.

In Tibetan Buddhism, there are a number of meditations and rituals that can be performed after someone dies or during their dying process. These include reading them the Book of the Dead over a forty-nine-day period to guide them through the various stages of the bardo journey, and powa practice, in which an accomplished master can help the dying person transfer their consciousness directly into an enlightened state.

The sukhavati ceremony is traditionally performed shortly after a person’s death. In this ceremony, their loved ones, friends, and fellow practitioners, guided by a Buddhist teacher, pray they will be reborn in Sukhavati, the Western Paradise or Land of Ultimate Bliss. This is the enlightened pure land of the primordial buddha Amitabha in which they are free of all karma, defilements, and suffering.

In this ceremony, the congregation generates loving-kindness and compassion toward the deceased, who may be suffering confusion and fear in the bardo. They urge the deceased to let completely go of their previous identity and karma and ask the buddhas and bodhisattvas to guide them to the pure land. Here is a prayer that is typically recited in Sukhavati ceremonies in the Kagyu school of Tibetan Buddhism:

Wonderful Buddha of Limitless Light [Amitabha], to his right the Lord of Great Compassion and to his left the Bodhisattva of Great Power, surrounded by an infinite retinue of buddhas and bodhisattvas.
The joy and happiness is limitless and wonderful in this pure land called Dewachen [Sukhavati].
As soon as this life has passed away, without the diversion of other births,
May [name of the deceased] be born there and thus behold the face of Amitabha.
All buddhas and bodhisattvas of the ten directions, please grant your blessing that the wish expressed in this prayer be accomplished without hindrance.

In some versions of this ceremony, a photograph of the deceased is burned at the climax of the ritual so the deceased does not hold on to their former identity. As the photograph becomes ash, the prayers conclude and in the silence, the teacher intones the single syllable HUM, the mantra of great compassion. All pray their loved one will take the excellent opportunity of the bardo state to enter Sukhavati, the paradise that is freedom from karma and suffering.

Taking Refuge in Amida Buddha

The funeral rituals of Jodo Shinshu Buddhism, as practiced in the Buddhist Churches of America, remind practitioners that through taking refuge in Amida Buddha, the central figure in Pure Land Buddhism, one can transcend time and space, and join together in the pure land as buddhas before returning to samsara to help others. In this way, death is understood to be a beginning rather than an end, and funeral rites offer comfort, solemnity, and the opportunity to express gratitude to the surviving family and friends.

After a person’s death, the minister is contacted by the family and the Makuragyo (literally “pillow service,” or bedside service) is performed. The home altar is decorated with white cloth and flowers, as is the body. The minister will chant one of the gathas from the Larger Sutra of Immeasurable Life, such as Juseige or Sanbutsuge.

Often, relatives live too far away for the body to remain long enough for them to travel to the funeral, so a cremation is done and the funeral takes place with a photo and urn. The funeral service itself begins with the ringing of the calling bell, reminding listeners of the impermanence of all things, an important remembrance in times of death.

Next, the presentation of the Buddhist name occurs. If the dying person has not already received a Buddhist name, the chanting of Kisamboge, by Shan-tao, helps to confirm the person; for those who have already received their name, the chanting is considered a rededication.

Then there is a chanting of Shoshinge, by Shinran, during which guests come up to burn incense, symbolic of the purification of one’s heart and mind to receive the truths of the Buddha. After this, there is an opportunity for eulogies by friends and family, followed by a dharma teaching and the recitation of Rennyo’s “White Ashes” from the minister, which concludes with the line: “By so understanding the meaning of death, we shall come to fully appreciate the meaning of this life, which is unrepeatable and thus to be treasured above all else.”

Traditionally, the service ends with some words of acknowledgment and a meal afterward, held at the temple or a nearby restaurant.

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