What I learned about grief from working at a funeral home

— Talking about death, grieving and deathcare options can be positive

By Heather Taylor

When I tell people I worked at a funeral home, I expect one of several responses: they are surprised, change the subject or express how depressing they think the job is. There were some sad days during my two years of work as a funeral arranger in the deathcare industry, but I felt great satisfaction in helping and supporting people during a hard and stressful time. The lessons I learned from having a front-row seat to hundreds of families’ grief have remained with me, and there is a benefit to sharing those lessons with others.

The importance of talking about death, dying and grieving is not always fully understood in our culture and it is often treated as taboo. A 2022 study by a life insurance company, Ethos, found while Americans think about death frequently, they do not talk about it. Among other topics considered to be inappropriate or uncomfortable in polite society including money, sex, politics and religion, the study stated people would prefer to talk about anything other than death.

Despite this unwillingness or inability to talk about dying, it is a universal experience. Everyone will die, and will experience the death of people they love, whether they discuss it or not.
There have been increased efforts to start discussions around death and grief recently, as people question established funeral practices and challenge cultural norms. Organizations like The Order of the Good Death and Death Cafe began to give an appropriate forum to talk about more morbid topics.

Caitlin Doughty is a funeral professional and the creator behind the YouTube channel “Ask a Mortician.” In her book, “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes,” she writes about why it matters to talk about these issues and how speaking about death can positively impact grief.

“It is never too early to start thinking about your own death and the deaths of those you love,” Doughty said. “Accepting death doesn’t mean that you won’t be devastated when someone you love dies. It means you will be able to focus on your grief, unburdened by bigger existential questions like ‘Why do people die?’ and ‘Why is this happening to me?’ Death isn’t happening to you. Death is happening to us all.”

I saw firsthand how families were able to address their grief around the death of a loved one when they were better prepared for it. Of course, there are instances of tragedies that catch people off guard, but generally being at least a little prepared for death and funeral proceedings provides more time and mental capacity to grieve the loss.

“It is never too early to start thinking about your own death and the deaths of those you love.”
— Caitlin Doughty

Another important lesson I learned about grief while assisting families is there is no singular way to grieve death.

As I worked answering phones, greeting people and taking information for death certificates, I had the privilege of talking to people of all ages, races and religious affiliations. All had experienced the death of someone they knew, but beyond that, they did not share much in common.

Some people were relieved that an elderly family member was no longer experiencing pain or chronic illness. Some were hysterical over the death of someone lost at a tragically young age. Others came in a numb state or were ready to get down to business.

I spoke to people who wanted to tell me their whole family history or love story. Others hadn’t heard from the deceased in years and had little to share.

One young woman around my age conducted herself with an almost preternatural composure for the entirety of her father’s funeral, only to break down in sobs when it was done. She told me she felt selfish because she didn’t want to take away attention from her dad, but over the course of the previous week, the rest of the family forgot her birthday had come and gone.

One of the questions I heard repeatedly was a variation of “What am I supposed to do? Is this normal?”

But there is no single way to grieve, and no way that is inherently right. Grief has as much to do with the person who died and all they represented as it does with the people who are living.

Over the years, there have been different theories and models created to explain the process of grieving. Perhaps the most well-known is the concept of the five stages of grief.

This model of grieving was originally introduced in the late 1960s by psychiatrist Elisabeth Kubler-Ross. The main takeaway from this framework was people may feel or work through emotions of denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance when facing a loss.

Kubler-Ross updated the concept of the stages of grief over time, writing with David Kessler in “On Grief and Grieving”:

“They were never meant to help tuck messy emotions into neat packages. They are responses to loss that many people have, but there is not a typical response to loss as there is no typical loss. Our grief is as individual as our lives.”

Kubler-Ross acknowledged that people who reach the acceptance stage have not necessarily conquered grief. A misquoting or misunderstanding of the stages has contributed to the idea that a person can work through the stages and then move on.

This framework can still be helpful in letting people know the emotions they feel are valid and acceptable.

“Our grief is as individual as our lives.”
— Elisabeth Kubler-Ross & David Kessler

However, there is another theory around grief that was introduced to me while I was working in the funeral industry which I have found more helpful and accurate to people’s experiences.

The concept of “growing around grief” was introduced by a grief counselor, Lois Tonkin, in 1996. Tonkin had spoken to a mother who lost a child and participated in an Elisabeth Kubler-Ross workshop to address her grief.

Rather than finding that her grief had disappeared as she worked through her emotions, the mother reported it instead stayed the same size, but with time “her life grew around it.”

Tonkin illustrated the model with a simple graph showing a large, white circle representing life, with a smaller, shaded circle within meant to represent grief.

“There were times, anniversaries, or moments which reminded her of her child, when she operated entirely from out of the shaded circle in her life and her grief felt just as intense as it ever had,” Tonkin wrote. “But, increasingly she was able to experience life in the larger circle.”

In the immediate aftermath of a death, it can be hard to imagine life will go on. While I was working, I often saw families over the course of several weeks or months after a death had occurred. With time and further life experiences, their grief did not disappear, but they were able to function and forge on.

Tonkin’s concept of grief is encouraging in these instances because it does not imply a person will forget their loved one or shrink their grief, but rather add to their own life after loss.

“In this way, they continue the process of integrating the loss with their lives and moving forwards,” Tonkin wrote.

Table with a photo of an elderly woman, a cremation urn, and a hand placing flowers.
Cremation is a popular method of disposition, but should it be one of the only options?

It may also become easier to grieve as Americans work toward offering increased options for deathcare and the disposition of remains.

In the past, funeral activities were primarily managed at home, allowing the family to take part in meaningful rituals. Around the time of the American Civil War, the practice of embalming was popularized, and in the years following, deathcare became industrialized and commercialized, moving from inside homes to behind closed doors.

In the 1960s, around the time of Jessica Mitford’s book “The American Way of Death” which criticized the funeral industry, cremation began to rise in popularity. It was seen as a more cost-efficient form of disposition.

Today, burial and cremation are the primary options available to Americans. For those who have not made plans ahead of time, the process falls upon family members who can feel overwhelmed and left without sufficient options.

“Choice doesn’t enter the picture for the average individual faced, generally for the first time, with the necessity of buying a product of which he is totally ignorant, in a moment when he is least in a position to quibble,” Mitford wrote.

The high cost of funerals, along with the limited choice and opportunities for personalization add stress to families and leave them wondering if they made the right decisions.

While I was working, I saw people seek out ways to incorporate creativity into arrangements for their deceased friend or family member, and I saw how satisfying this could be.

There were instances of people bringing in nontraditional items to use instead of cremation urns, including canning jars or teapots belonging to the deceased. The local Indigenous community built their own caskets for tribal members on several occasions, creating something personal through community effort, often emblazoned with farewell messages and signatures.

These were ways to work around the impersonal and often more expensive options available, and they were a truer representation of the person who had died.

Thankfully, though I was only able to offer burial and cremation options while I was working, increased choices should be available to some states soon.

California recently decided to allow alternative disposition options including alkaline hydrolysis, commonly known as “aquamation” and terramation or “human composting.” Human composting will not be available until 2027, as requirements and standards are currently being put in place.

Both options are more environmentally friendly than traditional cremation, and existing terramation companies have shown an interest in involving families in the process and offering personalized service.

Green burials, where a body is not embalmed or buried in a traditional casket are legal, but often cemeteries will require specific items which make green burial impossible. Cemeteries dedicated to green burials or conservation burials are gaining interest, but are still less available than traditional options.

Further education and discussion about these topics can only open the door to providing more options for grieving families to feel they are honoring their loved ones in ways that bring them satisfaction. Through researching and spreading the word about alternative burial and cremation options, we can assist in opening the door for legislation to allow them. This can also lead to pressuring existing businesses to offer a broader range of services.

A skull vase full of blue, white and purple flowers sits next to a sign that reads "people are dying to work with me."
Humor can help too! This was my desk decor at my funeral home job.

I can’t claim that I have attained a level of enlightenment from my experiences in the funeral industry that will keep me from feeling grief when those close to me die. In fact, I know the opposite will be true and their losses will hurt deeply. However, I’ve seen from the example of others that life can and will go on.

I also hope through supporting legislation and education about increased options for deathcare, I may be able to provide my loved ones and eventually myself with an appropriate, fitting end. Personally, I want to be buried in a green burial cemetery or composted!

From what I have learned, I hope I have a better grasp on the concept of my own mortality, and I am able to offer more grace and empathy to others in grief — and to myself. Those are the values I find most important from the lessons I’ve been fortunate enough to learn from both the living and the dead.

Complete Article HERE!

My grandparents donated their bodies to science. I needed to know what happens after

— Jackie Dent’s grandparents’ body donation was hardly discussed until a chance conversation set her on a quest to find out more about the secretive world of dissection

‘I know the enormous contribution that the dissected have made to medicine … We are alive because of them’: Australian journalist and writer Jackie Dent.

By Jackie Dent

Dissection might not be a normal topic to contemplate but when both your paternal grandparents donate their bodies to science it does intermittently cross your mind. My grandmother Ruby’s body went to the University of Queensland in 1969 and my grandfather Julie’s in 1981. Yes, that was his name.

The fact that both my grandparents’ bodies were dissected for science has always lurked within the family. For years, I’ve seen it as a slightly intriguing thing, quietly spectacular. A radical but slightly weird postscript to their ordinary lives. I mean, why would anyone do that?

Over the years, their donation had been very vaguely discussed in the family but not overanalysed. Or analysed at all really. Nobody seemed to wonder much about what had actually happened to Julie and Ruby.

But one hot Sydney summer, everything changed. I was at my parents’ place and their neighbour asked us over for a Christmas drink. As we chatted over sparkling wine, one of the daughters updated us on her new job. She was working at a university and hospital teaching facility and mentioned that some medical students are no longer using full bodies for dissection. She also said that human arms and body parts were being shipped in from the US.

I was stunned. Why aren’t they dissecting full bodies? And why do they have to fly in arms?

She wasn’t sure.

We finished our drinks, said “Happy Christmas” and I went home perplexed.

Over the ensuing weeks, the conversation at Christmas niggled. Had Australians really stopped donating? But also, come to think of it, what happened to Ruby and Julie all those years ago? Did I really want to know? As a Harvard professor told the 1896 meeting of the Association of American Anatomists: “We know only too well that dissection is an abomination to the popular mind.”

What was I hoping to find out? I maybe wanted to know the gory details of dissection, the slicing and chopping but was nervous as I’m quite squeamish. I wondered what the anatomy lab looked like, who was in the room. I wanted to know if what had happened to their bodies mattered, what it meant to the students. Were they respectful?

Australian journalist and writer Jackie Dent at her home in Sydney, NSW, Australia.
‘I entered a world of embalming fluid recipes, mould on bodies and bandsaws.’

But their bodies went to the university so, so long ago, 50 years. How would I even find the people who were in the room back then? And would they talk? The whole business felt so secretive.

So I began tracking down old surgeons, doctors and technicians who were in the dissecting rooms in the period when my grandparents were there. At first, I thought I would just be dealing with dissection.

No way. That was just the start of it.

There was the possibility that one of my grandparents’ body parts ended up in an anatomical museum. I wasn’t sure if I could handle that. I read an old academic paper penned by an anatomist and surgeon studying the palmaris longus and balked at a photo – was that my grandfather’s hand?

I entered a world of embalming fluid recipes, mould on bodies and bandsaws. Whereas for centuries, embalming methods were kept secret, they are now shared more freely, and sometimes adopted into a dissecting room culture when a new anatomist or technician arrives with a good mix. There are today a plethora of recipes and techniques used to embalm the dead so much so that some say the field is more craft than science. Even in death our bodies are unique – our fat or time of death means we can each react differently to the same chemical formula. I learned from the British anatomist Prof Claire Smith that mould can sometimes form on a donor through a small spore that was already there or through a student or staff member sneezing. When using a bandsaw, human heads are frozen first to get a clean line through the middle of the nose.

By going into the past, I learned about contemporary anatomy. Some students find hands freakier to dissect than faces. While in parts of the world anatomists still use bodies left unclaimed in morgues, there is also a growing “humane” anatomy movement where students meet the families of donors or hold moving ceremonies for the dead when they have finished their dissection course. I delved into the history of body donors, a curious lot who donate for all sorts of reasons, which range from being helpful to avoiding a funeral as they disliked a particular relative. Body donation tends to run in families.

Anatomists once relied on the bodies of people who did not consent to dissection – executed criminals or the vulnerable whose bodies lay unclaimed in asylums, hospitals or poor houses. Thankfully, Australia has long been considered “gold standard”: donors in the labs filled out paperwork and consented to being there. While there are no national figures on numbers of donors, the University of Melbourne, for example, gets about 200 bodies a year, some of which are shared with other institutions. Australians are still donating.

The reason body parts are flown in is fairly straightforward. Sometimes 15 knees are needed for a surgical workshop and it is logistically easier to get them from a US body broker.

After spending time with dead donors at a surgical workshop, watching dissection influencers at work on Instagram, reading evocative dissection notes from 1540 and basically becoming an amateur dissection wonk, I now have a much better sense of “what happened” to my grandparents’ bodies.

The Great Dead Body Teachers by Jackie Dent cover

But I also know the enormous contribution that the dissected have made to medicine for the past 2,000 years or so. We are alive because of them. They should be better known in the history of science as a cohort who created a body of knowledge.

I also view my body differently. We are palaces filled with so many beautiful shapes and curves, all mirrored in nature: the leaf-like lobules in my breast, the atria centralis retinae in the eye is like a crack of lightning in the sky. I now get why some anatomists told me they enjoy dissecting. As the University of New South Wales’ Dr Nalini Pather said: “Some people do needlework, and some people do art. I like to dissect.”

And yet, will I donate my own body? Hmmmm. I’m still young. I’ve got a few years left to decide. For now, my main issue about donating my body? I imagine myself being cold in the dissecting room. I picture myself yearning for a jumper on my torso or a doona over my tattered corpse. Yes, it’s a silly line of thinking as being dead I wouldn’t feel the cold, but there you have it.

Complete Article HERE!

Sky Burial

— A unique death ritual

The ancient death ritual called sky burial is still practiced in parts of Upper Mustang, like in Tibet, Bhutan and Mongolia

By Ravi M Singh

The evening in the dining room of the Mystique Hotel, Lo Manthang, buzzed wild—the noise so loud that voices needed raising. Packed almost to the gunwales by trekkers, cyclists, and motor-bikers, the crowd included us too—four cyclists, Khashing, our team leader, Shayeet, Diwas, and this scribe.

The heated room wore a festive ambience; everyone appeared in a back-slapping mood, and so we were—the vibe in the room was almost palpable. It was our last day in Lo Manthang, a 13-day cycling tour we did in 2018.

We were talking with an Australian cyclist group when my eyes clapped on Wangchhen Lowa, better known as Ram Gurung by all in Lo Manthang, sitting before the iron stove sipping Shyu Cha (Tibetan tea made from yak butter, salt, and tea). I brightened up and excused myself from my friends and the Aussies to join him for a chat.

With 20 years at ACAP (Annapurna Conservation Area Project), Wangchhen aka Ram, also co-owner of the hotel, seemed to know what’s what about Mustang and helped me with a wealth of information.

Following an exchange of customary pleasantries and more insight into the walled city of Upper Mustang, its inhabitants, rich culture, religion, and history, the topic, upon my curiosity, diverted to the ancient death ritual called the sky burial, still practiced in Upper Mustang.

With over two decades of experience in conservation, biodiversity, and flora and fauna of the Trans-Himalayan region, Lo Manthang, it was a privilege conversing with him.

Before touching upon the sky-burial issue, he briefed me on the vultures of Upper Mustang, which play a crucial role in the consummation of sky burials. They included especially the Himalayan griffons (Gyps himalayensis) and lammergeiers (Gypaetus barbatus), the bearded vultures.

“In recent years, the number of Himalayan vultures, especially griffons and lammergeiers, the bearded vultures in the Upper Mustang region, has declined disastrously,” said Wangchhen.

The Himalayan griffons survive on carcasses and carrion. They nest in high cliff edges and even deserted sky caves in Mustang—often sighted at Chhuksang, Yara, Ghemi, and other wind-ravaged arid cliffs.

Native to Mustang and other Trans-Himalayan regions like Dolpo, Humla, Jumla, and Manang, these highland carnivores are large birds and weigh from eight to 12 kg with a wingspan of 2.5m to 3m.

The Himalayan lammergeiers, a close cousin to griffons, too, scavenge like the griffons and live on high crags, but weirdly their diet comprises 90 percent bones (the marrow being their favorite). Almost as large as the griffons, if not bigger, they gobble up the shredded bones after the griffons pick them clean.

To honor the dead, funeral ceremonies and death rituals in Nepal vary from one culture to the other. Typically, the deceased body is largely either cremated or buried. In Tibet, singular to their culture, a death ritual commonly performed is a sky burial.

“Going by the legend, the concept of sky burial in Mustang has its roots in Tibetan culture, preserved in Upper Mustang for eons. Widely exercised to date in Tibet, countries like Bhutan and Mongolia, too, follow the ritual,” said Wangchhen.

Some three decades ago, the sky burial ritual ubiquitous in Mustang gradually declined following trappings of haphazard modernization, making inroads into the once pristine area.

“This funeral practice, widely performed in Tiri village in Kagbeni, suddenly ceased; it has been over 10 years since any sky burial took place there, but the ritual continues in a village called Dhamkar in Upper Mustang among the ethnic minorities called the Lowas (Gurungs, Bistas and Biswokarmas),” said Wangchhen. He sounded very convincing, as he has Lowa roots.

When someone from this community dies, a high Lama (priest) scrutinizes the deceased’s zodiac sign, astrologically juxtaposing it against five Tibetan Buddhist elements—the earth, water, fire, air, and the space—and determines the method for the departed’s funeral.

If the high Lamas decide to go for a sky burial, the funeral ceremony begins, accompanied by the beat of drums, cymbals, and dung chen (a Tibetan long-pipe horn). After the rites, the body is handed over to the monks assigned to behead the body, dismember the corpse, and hack it to pieces. The severed head gets buried, and the chopped-up pieces are moved to an elevated site to feed the vultures.

Curiously, the commotion lures vultures from great distances to assemble at the site and swarm at the chopped body tissues, jostling each other to grab their choicest piece. By performing this rite, the sacred vultures, an emanation of wisdom deities, transport the deceased’s soul to heaven—so believe the local folks.

Strange as it may sound, the vultures do not feed on the meat if the deceased were a sinner. The sky burial rite is nothing less than gruesome but a stark reality founded on Tibetan spiritual values.

“Based on Buddhist tenets and values, the philosophy behind the sky burial ritual is insightful and profoundly spiritual. When you die, your spirit leaves your body, leaving behind nothing but a mass of flesh and bones. If your worthless body can serve as a source of sustenance to another living being, it’s good karma to a noble cause,” said Wangchhen Lowa.

A dull boom of a gong, punctuated by the sharp clang of cymbals and the haunting wail of a long pipe horn, sounded from a nearby monastery as Wangchhen Lowa rounded up on the eerie account of Lo Manthang’s sky burial.

Complete Article HERE!

The Various Costs of Dying

— A new report breaks down what it costs to die, giving further reason to make clear final arrangements

By Emma Suttie

As a culture, we don’t like to talk about death. Even though it’s the destination we all share, regardless of our beliefs, most of us prefer not to think about it. Unfortunately, this aversion leaves most of us unprepared for death when it arrives, making things harder for the loved ones left to manage our affairs.

A new report looks at the cost of dying in the United States, from the material costs to the emotional and physical toll it takes on those left behind.

The report was created by Empathy–a company that helps people manage the logistics and emotional hardships associated with death. The company surveyed almost 1,500 people who had experienced the loss of a close family member in the last five years. Their goal was to try to quantify and better understand what they went through.

Here are some interesting findings from the report:

  • 3 million people die in the U.S. every year
  • 68 percent of Americans who are grieving suffer physical symptoms
  • An average of 540 hours of work are spent settling a loved one’s affairs
  • It takes families an average of 12.5 months to resolve all financial matters after the death of a loved one
  • 20 percent of the workforce is grieving a recent loss at any given moment

The Financial Cost

Perhaps the most astonishing figure from the report was that the average direct financial costs related to the death of a loved one can reach $20,000. This includes things like the cost of the funeral and financial and legal matters that must be dealt with when a person dies.

The report found that the average cost of a funeral is $7,848, the cost of financial matters averages $4,384, and legal matters cost an average of $4,967. Using these numbers, it’s easy to see how the cost can easily climb to $20,000 and beyond. And these are only part of the financial costs associated with dying.

Other financial costs the report included in their analysis are those associated with the total funeral costs, like payments to the funeral home ($3,584), the burial plot ($1,841), catering and refreshments ($602), hiring officiants, priests or other clergy ($472), music ($136), and invitations ($111).

How Loss Affects the Mind & Body

There are other, less tangible consequences as well—like grief—which is a highly personal experience that people are grappling with while having to contend with all the tasks associated with the death of someone they love, which only complicates the process further.

The stress and emotional strain associated with a loved one’s death often lead to physical symptoms. The report found that 93 percent of those surveyed suffered from at least one physical or mental symptom after their loss, 83 percent suffered anxiety, with 46 percent suffering for a few months or more. None of this seems surprising, considering that grief can be an overpowering emotion, and after the loss of someone close to us, we have an immediate increase in tasks and responsibilities to manage the affairs of the one we’ve lost.

Other physical and mental symptoms that lasted more than a few months reported in the study were:

  • Memory problems (30 percent)
  • Unusual anger or irritability (30 percent)
  • Weight loss or gain (33 percent)
  • Irregular sleep patterns (38 percent)

And the above numbers increased significantly if the person happened to be the executor of the deceased person’s estate–a job that comes with considerable responsibility and its own unique stresses.

How to Prepare–for Peace of Mind

Although our views about death are highly individual, there are things that we can all do to help prepare for it when the time comes. Preparation can help us relieve some anxiety, think about what we want, as well as think through some of the logistics, which will help others have a clear roadmap of what we desire and how to make it happen.

There are a lot of things to consider when we begin thinking about our own death. And although this can initially seem an anxiety-producing activity, it can actually be very grounding and help give one a sense of peace.

Here are some things to think about, broken into different categories:

If you are diagnosed with an illness and need healthcare, here are some considerations:

  • Do my loved ones fully understand my condition and what to expect?
  • Have I expressed exactly what medical interventions I want and ones I don’t?
  • At what stage do I want to waive further medical interventions or procedures?
  • Do I have a do not resuscitate (DNR) order that would be enacted after certain procedures or surgeries?
  • Have you chosen someone who can make your healthcare decisions when you can no longer make them yourself? Do they know your wishes?
  • If the healthcare system can no longer help with your condition, what would you like to happen? For example, would you like to be at home?

Personal Considerations

  • What are my beliefs about death? Do I need to make peace with any aspect of this process?
  • Are there any family or friends I want to talk to, and share love and gratitude with so they know how I feel about them?
  • Is there anyone I may have had difficulties with and want to make peace with before I die? Perhaps there is someone who may need my forgiveness or a broken relationship I want to repair.
  • Who would you like to leave your personal belongings to? Make notes as to who should have what so you can make sure people get what you want them to have.
  • If you are a single parent with young children, who will care for them after you are gone?
  • If you have pets, who will look after them?
  • Where are all your personal photos/videos? Are they on a computer? If so, does someone else know how to access them?
  • Have you labeled people in your photos? And where do these personal treasures go when you die? Will they go to children or other family? Having personal effects like photos well labeled is important so your family can identify others later on.

Funeral/Memorial/Celebration of Life Planning

  • What would you like to happen to your body after you die? Do you want to be embalmed? Buried? Cremated? Or do you want a green, or natural burial?
  • Do you have a preference for what casket you would like or how you would like to be buried? If you would like to be buried, where will it be?
  • Would you like a burial plot, headstone or grave marker? If cremated, where would you like your ashes scattered, or who would you like to keep them?
  • Do you want a ceremony of some kind? If so, what kind of ceremony would you like, and how would you like people to celebrate you?
  • Would you like flowers, and if so, what type? Or would you like people to donate to a charity you believe in instead?
  • Would you like someone to deliver a eulogy or have several people speak about your life? If so, speak to them ahead of time.
  • Should you pre-pay for funeral/burial/cremation services ahead of time? It can often be less expensive when done in advance.

Legal Considerations

  • Consider writing a will to make your wishes known and have them carried out legally.
  • Do you want someone to be your power of attorney?
  • Make a list of your assets so you can decide who you would like to have them.
  • Organize and store important documents and passwords so they can be easily found and accessed.
  • Talk to your loved ones about your wishes.

If you need a little inspiration, BJ Miller, a practicing hospice and palliative care physician, gives a moving TED talk about what really matters at the end of life.

Here are some resources to help guide you through the process and keep you organized as you go:

Final Thoughts

Although this all might seem a bit daunting initially, you can do what is comfortable and take your time. Choose which tasks are important to you, and work your way through them at your own pace.

Although some people are blessed to know that they are coming to the end of their lives and can prepare, many of us will not know in advance.

Thankfully, we can choose to do any of the things above at any time. Perhaps more important than anything is the way contemplating death can remind us of how precious life is and how important it is to cherish every moment and let the people in our lives know what they really mean to us.

Complete Article HERE!

Rest in … compost?

— These ‘green funerals’ offer an eco-friendly afterlife.

A shrouded mannequin demonstrates the “laying in” ceremony at Recompose, a human composting facility in Seattle. Human composting, water cremation, and green burials are gaining traction as people seek to minimize their environmental impact in death.

Traditional burial and cremation pollute the ground and emit carbon dioxide. People are looking for new options.

By Allie Yang

You may have seen the headlines: Earlier this year, New York State became the sixth in the nation to legalize something called human composting. In 2022, Archbishop Desmond Tutu chose to be cremated not by flame, but by water, in a process called alkaline hydrolysis. In 2019, actor Luke Perry was buried in a “mushroom suit” made of cotton and seeded with mushroom spores. All were part of a push to make the afterlife more eco-friendly.

Death care has remained largely unchanged in the United States ever since embalming and burial became the de facto method as far back as the Civil War, says Caitlin Doughty, mortician and founder of death care advocacy nonprofit Order of the Good Death. Most people don’t even have access to other options: burials and cremation are the only methods that are legal in all 50 states. 

Traditional burial methods harm the planet in various ways. Embalming slows the decay of a person’s body so that it’s presentable at a funeral—but after burial, the chemicals used for embalming leach into the ground. Caskets require enormous amounts of wood and metal, and cemeteries often build concrete vaults in the ground to protect them. Even cremation requires a lot of fuel, and generates millions of tons of carbon dioxide emissions a year.

Now, however, a variety of theoretically more sustainable death care alternatives are increasingly being offered around the country. Here’s what you need to know.

Green or natural burial

Green burials have been used as long as humans have been burying bodies. Both Native American and Jewish communities traditionally use green burials. But in recent generations, they have fallen out of fashion as people opted for more elaborate burials. Green or “simple” burials became more commonly used for the poor and wards of the state.

These are generally defined as burials using materials that are both nontoxic and biodegradable. In a typical green burial, the deceased is dressed in a 100 percent cotton shroud and buried in a plain pine box.

In some cases people choose to “become” a tree in death by having a tree planted over their plot. (However, the tree burial pods that kicked off this trend—in which bodies are wrapped in an egg-shaped pod that supposedly feeds the roots of a young tree—are not available for commercial use and it’s unclear if they are even viable.)

(In these cemeteries, nature also rests in peace.)

Almost every cemetery in the U.S. has an area reserved for green, or “simple” burials, according to Ed Bixby, president of the Green Burial Council (GBC), which helps educate and certify burial grounds meeting sustainability standards. On some burial properties, plots are marked via GPS and a natural stone marker—otherwise, the area is left to grow wild, becoming less like a cemetery and more like a nature preserve full of life.

Most families who choose natural burial also forgo embalming, often seeing the process as overly invasive, when refrigeration alone adequately preserves the body. Others opt for gentler embalming fluids made without formaldehyde, which are becoming increasingly available.

But could these simple burials contribute to the spread of disease or pollution of the land? The data from existing research on traditional cemeteries “doesn’t indicate that bodies are dangerous in and of themselves,” says Lee Webster, director of New Hampshire Funeral Resources and Education and former director of GBC, adding that vaults, chemicals, and non-organic containers used in traditional burial do contribute to pollution. 

Further, the WHO has found “no evidence that corpses pose a risk of epidemic disease—most agents do not survive long in the human body after death.”

Still, it’s unclear if some of the newer variations of green burials are effective. For example, the brand responsible for Luke Perry’s mushroom suit claimed it would neutralize toxins and give nutrients back to the earth. Years earlier, however, the suit’s maker had hired mortician Melissa Unfred to study the suit—Unfred found there was no evidence the suit had any real effect.

Water cremation

One cremation creates an average of 534 pounds of carbon dioxide, one scientist told Nat Geo in 2016. Toxins from embalming fluid and nonorganic implants like pacemakers or tooth fillings also go up in smoke. Water cremation—also known as aquamation or alkaline hydrolysis—produces the same result with significantly less environmental impact and for some, a spiritual benefit.

(Greenhouse gases, explained.)

Native Hawaiians practiced a form of water cremation for thousands of years. They would use heated volcanic water to break down the bodies of their loved ones, says Dean Fisher, water cremation consultant and former director of Mayo Clinic’s donated body program. Then they would bury the remaining bones, where they believed the soul’s spiritual essence was stored.

The tradition has fallen out of practice in recent years—but in July 2022 Hawaii legalized water cremation, putting the tradition back within reach.

Water cremation machines work by pumping a heated alkaline fluid around a body for four to six hours, exponentially accelerating the natural decomposition process. Bodies can be embalmed or unembalmed and dressed in any material that is 100 percent natural. After the body breaks down, only bones and non-organic implants remain. The bones are dried, crushed, and returned to the family.

The only byproduct of water cremation is nontoxic, sterile water that can be recycled into the local water supply—270 gallons of it, or slightly less than what the average American household uses in a day. There are no emissions into the ground or air.

But water cremation does have its drawbacks. For one, traditional cremations are more readily available, faster, and usually less expensive. Water cremation also requires energy to heat the water and run the pump, although a Dutch study from 2011 showed that’s only 10 percent of the energy used in flame cremation.

Further, some critics of water cremation argue it is immoral or disrespectful to the deceased, akin to flushing your loved one down the drain. However, advocates counter that water cremation simply accelerates the natural decomposition process and is no different from the blood from routine embalming that also goes through water treatment to be neutralized.

Either way, water cremation appears to be gaining steam in the U.S. It is currently legal in 28 states—and 15 of them approved it within the last decade.

Human composting

Human composting turns bodily remains to soil through a highly controlled process—very different from food composting that can be done in your backyard. In a sealed container, a body is cocooned in a mix of natural materials like wood chips and straw. Over a month or more, the vessel heats up from active microbes that start to break the body down. Fans blow oxygen into the container, which is regularly rotated to reactivate the microbes.

(How composting works.)

After 30 to 50 days, bone and any non-organic matter are taken out. The bones are then ground down and returned to the material. It takes another few weeks to “cure,” as microbes finish their work and the soil dries out. The end result is a cubic yard of compost that families can use or donate to environmental causes.

There are environmental costs to human composting, also called natural organic reduction (NOR). Fuel is needed to transport elements like wood chips, and electricity is used to power air pumps, fans, and the vessel rotation.

“We’re just getting started as a company tightening [those elements] up,” says Katrina Spade, founder of Recompose, the first NOR facility in the country located in Seattle, Washington. Still, she says the company’s own assessment of the process showed just over a metric ton of carbon savings per person over traditional cremation or burial.

Human composting is rare. It’s only legal in six states—most recently in New York in January. But a Massachusetts lawmaker has also proposed a bill to allow human composting, and advocates like Spade believe that a number of states will legalize it in 2023.

But even if you’re not interested in an eco-friendly afterlife, advocates say that these burial alternatives come with another advantage: Families can be more involved in the death care of their loved ones, from bathing and dressing them at home to lowering their body into the grave if they choose a green burial.

“It’s not required. But it’s always encouraged to do what you can, if you wish,” Bixby says, adding that most families embrace being part of the process. “You’ll watch them go through the gamut of emotions… then when they’re done, they’ll have this genuinely serene smile on their face. They found a greater sense of acceptance of that passing through the process.”

Complete Article HERE!

From cradle to compost

— The disruptors who want to make death greener

Startups rush to gain foothold in a burgeoning industry as New York and California move to legalize human composting


Americans are looking for greener ways to die, and a new wave of deathcare startups are rising to the occasion.

After death, bodies are typically handled in one of two ways: embalmed and buried in a casket, or incinerated and turned into ashes. But both of these options have contributed to the environmental crisis – with fossil fuel-intensive cremation emitting chemicals such as carbon monoxide into the air, and burials taking up large swathes of land.

As interest in alternatives rises, startups aiming to disrupt these practices are gaining steam. New York in January became the sixth state in the US to legalize human composting, also known as “natural organic reduction”, which uses heat and oxygen to speed up the microbial process that converts bodies into soil.

The growth in demand comes in part due to Covid-19, experts say. The pandemic brought death to the forefront of the public consciousness and exposed concerns about its environmental destruction, as places like Los Angeles had to suspend air pollution rules to allow an influx of bodies to be processed.

Human composters are pitching themselves as part of the solution – and trying to dismantle the funeral industry in the process. The potential to alter an age-old practice has brought together former Silicon Valley types, celebrity investors and mission-driven entrepreneurs as interested in lofty green goals as they are in changing our relationship to death.

Katrina Spade, founder and CEO of Recompose, poses with a shrouded mannequin in front of an array of human composting vessels.
Katrina Spade, founder and CEO of Recompose, poses with a shrouded mannequin in front of an array of human composting vessels, in Seattle.

Providers say they are seeing unprecedented demand. The human composting startup Return Home has seen 20 people from California, where human composting is not yet legal, transport loved ones to the company facilities in Washington state – including five who drove with bodies in tow.

“The fact that we are now seeing so many Californians flocking to Return Home in order to pre-purchase services for themselves and their loved ones is proof-positive that [our technology] is the future of funeral services,” said Micah Truman, the company’s CEO and founder.

Founders paint a picture of an industry that is both collegial and competitive, where entrepreneurs connect at meetups and through group chats but often find themselves looking over their shoulders for people entering the industry with less altruistic views. This is especially true as old guards of the funeral industry seek to cash in on the new trend, Truman said.

“It’s interesting because to create disruption, we are going to have to have outsiders coming in,” he said. “Because everyone in the funeral industry is so invested in existing technologies, you need outsiders to help with thinking outside the box – no pun intended.”

An industry poised to explode

Natural organic reduction is a relatively new process, recognized throughout the industry as having been pioneered by a woman named Katrina Spade. In her graduate thesis in 2013, Spade investigated methods farmers had been using to compost animals and found they could be applied to human bodies. When remains are placed in a container with natural materials like straw and wood chips, the microbial process that converts bodies into soil can be accelerated. Composting a human currently takes eight to 12 weeks, and is estimated to use just one-eighth the energy required for cremation.

In the ensuing years, Spade worked with lobbyists, lawmakers and investors to legalize natural organic reduction in Washington in 2019. By December 2020, her company Recompose had made it available to consumers for $7,000 – in line with the median cost of cremation, at $6,971, and the median cost of a funeral with burial, at $7,848, not including cemetery plot costs, which can run upwards of several thousand dollars.

In the years since, at least three companies have sprung up in Washington alone, some of which have secured millions in funding from venture capital firms. And with more states catching on, entrepreneurs say the industry is livelier than ever.

At least six states have legalized the process so far, and California, the most populous US state, will allow human composting in 2027 after a law passed last year goes into effect, opening up the potential for millions of new customers.

“In Washington, where human composting has been legal for some time, the industry is concentrated and hyper-competitive,” Truman said. “But I’m sure everyone is going to be doing pushups and getting ready to go to California as soon as it opens.”

US-DEATH-ENVIRONMENT-RETURN HOMEReturn Home CEO Micah Truman shows a demonstration “vessel” for the deceased, which has been decorated by Return Home with flowers and family photos, during a tour of the funeral home which specializes in human composting in Auburn, Washington on March 14, 2022. - Washington in 2019 became the first in the United States to make it a legal alternative to cremation. (Photo by Jason Redmond / AFP) (Photo by JASON REDMOND/AFP via Getty Images)
Micah Truman shows a demonstration vessel for the deceased, decorated by Return Home with flowers and family photos, in Auburn, Washington.
Truman holds a sample bag containing composted animal remains.
Truman holds a sample bag containing composted animal remains.

The commercialization of alternative deathcare is already creating tension in an industry built on a fraught product. It’s difficult to get people to talk about death, much less invest in it. This has left deathcare entrepreneurs and advocates for greener death grappling to balance altruistic goals with the demands of startup culture, according to Caitlin Doughty, a mortician and author of several books about death and the funeral industry.

“There is a newer disconnect between the fundamental idea of ritual around death in human composting versus a bizarre appeal to Silicon Valley that is emerging,” she said. “It is a fascinating development.”

With the traditional funeral market worth $20bn, it is no surprise new technologies have piqued the interest of tech investors. A 2019 survey from the funeral directors’ association found that nearly 52% of Americans expressed interest in green-burial options, and experts have estimated that the emerging market opened by legalization efforts in Massachusetts, Illinois, California and New York could create a market value in the $1bn range.

There is also a growing market in Gen Z and millennials, who have been called the “death positive” generation – more willing to discuss after-life plans at younger ages and try green alternatives. Startups are rising to the occasion with social media outreach: Return Home has more than 617,000 followers on TikTok, where its employees answer questions like “what happens to hip replacements in the human composting process?” and “how does it smell during the process?”

Human composting is not the only alternative deathcare option that is seeing increased interest. Others include aquamation, a process legal in 28 states by which the body is turned into liquid and then powder. Green burial, in which bodies are interred without embalming or a casket and allowed to decompose naturally over time, is legal in almost all states, but laws vary as to where the body can be buried.

Darren Aronofsky is one of the more high profile supporters of human composting startups.

But of all the alternative options, human composting seems to have gotten the most attention, said Doughty.

“I do see the composting space as being uniquely competitive in a way that I haven’t seen with [other processes] like aquamation or even cremation,” she said. “It seems uniquely positioned at a nexus of climate change policy and new technology that appeals to the Silicon Valley ethos.”

A focus on ethics

The environmental benefits of alternative deathcare have become a large selling point for companies as green investments trend upwards. Transcend, a New York-based green burial startup that promises to turn human bodies into trees after death, highlights its goal of mass reforestation and eco-friendly burial in its advertising, stating on its website: “Every Tree Burial creates a healthier foundation for all life on Earth.”

Its founder and CEO, Matthew Kochmann, has a Silicon Valley background, counting himself as one of the first employees at Uber. He came to the deathcare industry after meditating on the spiritual nature of burial options, he says.

“I was thinking about how I personally would like to become a tree after death, and I realized that there weren’t any options out there to make that happen – I’d have to do it myself,” he said. “I am a huge advocate of helping heal humanity’s relationship and fear around mortality.”

Through Transcend’s process, the body is buried in organic biodegradable flax linen along with a unique blend of fungi-enriched soil, and a young tree is planted in the ground above it. The company says the mushrooms then “work their magic” to ensure “a direct connection between the nutrient-rich body and the tree’s root system so that the body can literally become the tree”.

wood chips in a tray inside a circular module
A Recompose cradle in Seattle.

The company has piqued the interest of investors and celebrities, with Darren Aronofsky, director of Black Swan and Requiem for a Dream, counting himself among the company’s advisers. Still, fundraising hadn’t always been easy, Kochmann said, adding that some investors had told him: “We don’t invest in taboo areas like pornography or death.”

“Putting death on par with pornography just shows that there’s still a lot of work to do in our culture and our society to get people more comfortable with it,” he said.

Recompose, the original human composting startup, has raised nearly $18m – none of which, its founder is quick to point out, came from traditional venture capital funds, but instead from accredited “values-aligned investors”, Spade said – investors who “are first and foremost investing for the mission and the vision” of Recompose.

Spade said the company had prioritized fundraising models that allow it to stay true to its roots as an advocacy group while still creating sustainable funding. It has also launched a “community fund” to help subsidize its services for clients who cannot afford to pay full price.

The company has worked directly with legislators to pass laws that allow for human composting while creating a framework that supports strong ethics in the burgeoning industry.

“We want to be sure that any kind of human composting operator that’s working with grieving families is doing so within the utmost ethical practices,” she said. “It is not only about how to decompose, operate, and care for our clients – but also, how can we support an industry that always has the most ethical, rigorous operations?”

Spade said although her company had been the first to pioneer human composting, she was “thrilled” to see the movement grow. And although the new frontier of deathcare is getting increasingly crowded in some places, those involved say there is an environment of camaraderie and support as they work towards a common goal: taking down the monopoly that the traditional funeral industry has on death.

“This is a community that has to prioritize solidarity,” said Kochmann. “You are fighting for legislation, you are fighting regulatory battles, and you are fighting an uphill consumer battle because people don’t want to think about death.”

Complete Article HERE!

An Indonesian Tradition Of Digging Up Dead Relatives For A Spirited Afterlife Ritual

Men carefully remove a coffin from a intricately carved burial chamber cut into a massive boulder in the village of Pangala, Toraja district of Indonesia, South Sulawesi Province.

By Vishal Arora

An ethnic community in Indonesia engages in a unique funerary ritual where the deceased are brought back to their families, some of them for a final smoke.

Photojournalist Garry Lotulung traveled to a mountainous region on the island of South Sulawesi, one of the more than 17,000 islands that form this archipelago, to capture the emotions that surround this ancient practice that a largely Christian community is still holding on to, and their perspective on life and death. This exclusive photo essay and video offers ReligionUnplugged.com readers a first hand glimpse of this unique religious and cultural ceremony.

Lotulung, who is a consultant photographer for the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, has 10 photos to transport us to the archipelago’s Tana Toraja region, where the Ma’nene tradition, pronounced “ma-NAY-nay,” is practiced.

The word “Tana” in the region’s name means “land.” And the people of this region are called Toraja, pronounced as “to-RRAH-jah,” which means those who are from mountains.

(Warning: The following photos show human remains that may be disturbing to some viewers.)

Preserved bodies are placed in the Sun to dry, allowing for the old clothes that had wrapped the body to be removed before continuing with the Ma’nene ritual. Pangala Village, Toraja district.

The Ma’nene ritual involves exhuming the corpses of deceased family members periodically, cleaning and re-dressing them. Some even place cigarettes in their mouths before returning them to their graves. They also take the opportunity to clean their relatives’ crypts while the bodies are out. It is a ritual that happens every three or even five years in August.

Partly premised on the belief that death is not the end, the ritual is held every three to five years in August, depending on what a family decided after the death of a relative. Lotulung was there last summer, but his excitement about documenting this ritual, which might be “the only one in the world,” has not faded away.

Out of those 10 photos, the following is what Lotulung called his favorite, capturing a moment at a cemetery where a family is gathered, full of emotion as they are “reunited” with their loved one, changing clothes of their deceased relative with great respect and care.

Relatives lovingly place new clothes on the body of a deceased relative. Pangala Village, Toraja district.

According to a post on the site Authentic Indonesia:

The procession of the Ma’Nene ritual begins with family members coming to Patane (a building that has some room to store several bodies) to retrieve the bodies of their deceased family members. Patane is a family grave that looks like a house. Then, after the body is removed from the grave, the body is cleaned. The clothes worn by the bodies of the ancestors were replaced with new cloth or clothes. Usually this ritual is carried out simultaneously by one family or even one village, so that the event is quite long. After the new clothes were put on, then the body was wrapped and put back in Patane. The Ma’Nene procession was closed by gathering family members at the Tongkonan traditional house to worship together.

Lotulung said the community holds lavish funerals, based on their age-old belief that keeping one’s ancestors happy may result in a good rice harvest. The spirit of the dead is believed to linger in the world until the death ceremony is held, and afterward, the soul begins its journey to Puya, the land of spirits, as per local beliefs, he explained.

At times, bodies remain in homes for extended periods after death as families save for funerals, which in some cases can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Relatives reverently place money in the coffin next to a mummified body. Pangala Village, Toraja district.

Torajans spend a lot of time and money on funerals and subsequent rites, believing that death is not the end and that not keeping ones ancestors happy may result in a poor rice harvest. It is also not unusual for bodies to remain in homes for long periods of time after death while families save for lavish funerals.

Fellow photographer Puta Sayoga wrote in The New York Times a few years ago:

For Torajans, death is a gradual and social process. The bodies of people who have recently died are kept at home and preserved by their families, sometimes for years, until the family has enough money to pay for a funeral. The spirit of the dead is believed to linger in the world before the death ceremony is held. Afterward, the soul will begin its journey to Puya, the land of the spirits. The longer the deceased person remains at home, the more the family can save for the funeral and the bigger and more expensive the ceremony can be. Elaborate funeral ceremonies can last for 12 days and include the sacrifices of dozens of buffalos and hundreds of pigs. Such ceremonies can cost as much as hundreds of thousands of dollars.

A report in The Guardian in Nigeria says that Toranjans believe the spirit of the person lingers and only finds peace in Puya, the land of the spirits, when a funeral ceremony has occurred. The practice dates back to a hunter named Pong Rumasek who was walking in the mountains and found a dead body in the Trojan mountains. The legend holds that the hunter cared for the body and dressed it with his own clothes — an act they believed brought him good fortune.

These views are certainly not compatible with Christianity, according to which death is a passage from physical life to eternal life in heaven or eternal separation from God in hell.

Even Islam – Indonesia is home to the world’s largest Muslim population – does not approve of what might be seen as ancestor worship. Muslims believe in the concept of qiyamah, or Judgment, that the soul will be judged by Allah according to one’s deeds and actions in life.

Family members surround the preserved body of a relative placed in the Sun to dry. Pangala Village, Toraja district.

“Today, Torajans are largely Christian, but their age-old funeral practices — which predate their conversion to Christianity — persist,” Sayoga writes in the Times. “Ma’nene’, for example, which is carried out three years (or more, depending on the family’s agreement), is meant to be a way to honor deceased relative. According to the belief, performing the rite will result in a better harvest in the following year.”

For Toraja Christians, both Protestant and Catholic, the retention of the ritual can be mostly about preserving an important part of their culture.

However, critics argue that the Ma’nene ritual is a form of cultural appropriation, as it is being commercialized and used as a tourist attraction, apart from involving animal sacrifice. They argue that the ritual has lost its sacred meaning and has become a way for the Toraja people to make money.

An elderly man poses for a photo with the bodies of his brothers and sisters. Pangala Village, Toraja district.

However, Lotulung disagrees with such criticism, responding to the complexity of the practice with empathy.

“I have a deep empathy for the Toraja people, as they still provide a proper place and show respect to their ancestors,” said Lotulung, whose work focuses on documenting social issues and environmental crises in Indonesia.

Every family buries their loved ones with as much honor as possible, and sometimes in ways that only they can fully understand, he argued.

A woman covers the body of her sister with new clothes. Pangala Village, Toraja district.

Lotulung could also connect and relate with the Toraja people. He said he couldn’t help but feel emotional while making these photos.

When the photojournalist saw a family pull a body out of a casket, he was “silent for a moment,” wondering whether anyone would ever get a chance to see or meet family members after their death.

“I felt emotional being around the graves. In that atmosphere, I could sense the sadness that follows the loss of a loved one,” he said. “For example, I saw a young woman standing in front of a cemetery and looking at a picture of her deceased mother with tears in her eyes.”

A woman covers the body of her sister with new clothes. Pangala Village, Toraja district.

As a photojournalist, Lotulung said he was careful about giving space to grieving families during the shoot. They appeared to be unaware of the fact that they were occasionally the object of tourists’ attention, he said.

He added that he witnessed a grandson who finally got to hug his grandfather’s body after changing his clothes. Amazed by what he saw, Lotulung thought, “Death helps us understand the reality of life.”

Family members carefully clean a mummified body before dressing it in new clothes. Pangala Village, Toraja district.

Lotulung stated that during his time in Toraja, he never received any information from the villagers about any call for a ban on the practice. He believes the Toraja people do not need attention from international media or tourists, and that they do this sincerely out of respect for their ancestors.

A man holds a traditional lamp inside a cave used as a tomb. Sandan Uai Village, Toraja district. Toraja district.

He also thinks this ritual will continue for much longer as it has been passed down from generation to generation and is deeply ingrained in their culture.

While tourists from Western countries may provide an impetus for such “unique” customs to carry on, members of the community will continue to cling to these rituals to show their respect for their ancestors, and also for fear of drawing their wrath, Lotulung concluded.

Complete Article HERE!