How Jewish Rituals Helped Me Mourn My Miscarriage

By

I had a miscarriage this summer — and it broke me in more ways than I could have imagined. At my nine-week appointment, I discovered, to my complete surprise, that I was experiencing a “missed abortion” – a pregnancy loss in which I’d had no miscarriage symptoms whatsoever. Not only did I have to make medical decisions while in shock, but I also struggled intensely to make sense of what I was feeling emotionally and spiritually.

With help, I recognized that I was deep in the throes of grief. Jewish tradition provides an incredible structure for mourners to grieve the death of a loved one. Yet nothing is prescribed for my miscarriage grief. When grieving, it can be harder to make any decision, large or small. I craved a prescription for what to do; that might have left me with fewer heart-wrenching decisions.

Nonetheless, I found healing and comfort in adapting Jewish rituals and traditions.

In honor of October being Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness Month, here are some of the lessons I learned:

  1. Jewish tradition teaches that we are not obligated to mourn a miscarriage or even the death of a baby who lives less than 30 days. In fact, we are taught that up through 40 days after conception (this would be just under 8 weeks pregnant in today’s terms, since counting begins at the woman’s last period, not at conception), the embryo is considered to be merely water (Yevamot 69b). This does not describe the emotional reality of many pregnant women or couples. Even in those early weeks, the connection to the embryo can be incredibly deep. And yet I recognize that mourning a miscarriage is not the same as mourning the death of a child or an adult. I didn’t lose a baby that I’d held. I didn’t even lose a fetus. I lost an embryo (the transition from embryo to fetus happens in the 11th week), but that embryo was supposed to make me a mother. That embryo was supposed to grow into a fetus. I would have delivered a baby, named and held my child. That embryo had a due date. I had a timeframe sketched out already for when I would start looking at daycare options.
  2. The specific grief of a miscarriage is different but still very real. In order to cope with my grief, I needed to mourn. The ancient rabbis likely believed that having a prescribed set of mourning rituals for a miscarriage may have been a burden, since families could experience multiple miscarriages.
    Today, too, families may experience one or more miscarriages. While miscarriage rates may or may not have changed since rabbinic times, many things have changed: birth control has led to less pregnancies; at-home pregnancy tests help women find out that they are pregnant much earlier than even several decades ago; because of ultrasound technology, pregnancies feel much more “real” when a future parent sees an embryo or a flickering heartbeat at a fairly early stage. All of this leads to pregnant people (and their partners, if applicable) who are more likely to experience grief when losing a pregnancy. The Perinatal Grief Scale was developed in 1988 to help clinicians diagnose and care for their patients’ grief. What if certain rituals of mourning were opportunities to grieve, instead of a potentially weighty obligation placed on the family? Michael I. Norton and Francesca Gino, faculty at Harvard Business School, conducted experiments to measure the impact of mourning rituals. They determined that rituals are incredibly effective in reducing grief because they allow mourners to regain a sense of control, at a time when it feels like they have lost any semblance of control of their world. For me, rituals like burial and mikveh also helped me find a sense of validity in my grief. I needed concrete physical acts that also stemmed from Jewish tradition to help me recognize that my loss was real and mattered, both in my own eyes, and perhaps more importantly, in the eyes of Jewish tradition.
  3. Rituals may be traditionally absent, but Jewish rituals, modified from other contexts, are emerging. Not everyone marks time and life cycle through Jewish liturgy and ritual, but I do. Each person will find what is meaningful for them in coping with a miscarriage. In the first few days, I felt compelled to have a way to externalize my pain. 

When an immediate relative dies, the mourner tears their clothes or wears a kriyah ribbon. I chose to let my nail polish chip away naturally over the coming weeks instead of taking it off my fingernails once it started to chip. I looked unkempt and that felt appropriate. People should know that something was awry. I whispered kaddish once while tears streamed down my face – it felt both rebellious and cathartic. I realized that I needed a burial of sorts, echoing how we address a loved one who has died. 

With the help of Sinai Memorial Chapel, I arranged to bury my embryo, unmarked, near newly planted trees in a cemetery. I chose not to be present for it, but it was comforting to know that it was returned to the earth. I also visited the site a few weeks later with a friend and buried a piece of paper on which I’d written my due date, and some other dates that would no longer be shared with this baby – I had envisioned a baby costume for this Purim, and had imagined that this Passover would be my first as a parent. None of this was halachically prescribed or encouraged but these acts helped me say goodbye.

 

Some new Jewish rituals for mourning a miscarriage suggest planting a sapling. But for me, this didn’t seem fitting. A sapling would grow into a larger plant, but my baby-that-should-have-been was never going to grow. While I yearned to one day be able to grow a different pregnancy, that wasn’t what I wanted out of this ritual. I needed a ritual that was solely about loss before I could begin to think about new life again.
  4. The cultural norm is to keep the pregnancy quiet through the first semester — but that’s not always helpful. Miscarriages are common, but it feels incredibly lonely.* The Jewish community has a superstitious relationship to the evil eye: if you tell others about your blessing (of pregnancy), the evil eye might overhear and change your luck. Soon after the first trimester, you start to show, and the secret is out, so the concern about the evil eye lessens a bit then. When I miscarried, only a small group of people knew about my pregnancy. How could my tight-knit Jewish community support me through this trauma when only a handful of people knew that I was pregnant? We have been trained to not publicly reveal pregnancies until we are past the first trimester, and yet that first trimester is when 75-80% of miscarriages occur. And they happen more than we realize. 20-30% of pregnancies end in a miscarriage, and the statistics only increase as women continue to have children into their late 30s, 40s, and beyond.   One the one hand, the more people you tell about your pregnancy, the more people you feel like you need to ‘un-tell’ should you, God forbid, miscarry. On the other hand, those people are the ones who can hold you – feed you, check in on you, and let you fall apart with them. 

When I did tell people who didn’t know that I had been pregnant, I had to tell them three secrets at once: (a) I decided to try to become a parent (b) I had been elated that I got pregnant (c) I am now crushed because I had a miscarriage and now I need you to be gentle with me. Sharing pregnancy news – whether about a new pregnancy or a pregnancy loss – is an incredibly vulnerable act. Don’t be too afraid of letting people know before you cross the first-trimester finish line, if those people would not only celebrate with you but also support you through your fears or even a loss. Let’s change the stigma around revealing a pregnancy while it is still uncertain. The uncertainty doesn’t go away entirely until you hold a baby in your arms.
  5. A miscarriage is related to, but not identical to, infertility. Trying to get pregnant again may feel intensely different than before. 
For weeks, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I’d done something to cause this, even though I was reassured again and again that running too much or taking a redeye or that sip of coffee would not cause me to miscarry. 
People told me that it was a good sign that I was able to get pregnant. While there might be medical truth to that, as much as I wanted reassurance that I would eventually, God willing, be able to carry a pregnancy to term, I need to mourn this particular loss – this particular baby-to-be that I carried and would never become a baby that I could hold in my arms. I went to the mikveh before I tried again, so that I could acknowledge that my body, which was supposed to create life, had in fact held a sort of death. I needed to immerse and wash that away in order to be ready for new life again.
  6. A miscarriage is not (always) the same as being sick. 
My mental and spiritual health were compromised, but thankfully, in my particular situation, I was never worried about my physical well-being. This may not be true for other women, but I did not want to benschgomel (a call-and-response moment during an aliyah to the Torah, often said when you survive a potentially life-threatening experience) both because of this gratitude for my health throughout and because I was not sure that I wanted to acknowledge my miscarriage quite so publicly. 

I associate gomel with surviving in the face of fear, but I had not been afraid. Instead, I had been devastatingly sad.
  7. When in shock and grief, decisions are exponentially harder. Prescribed rituals or other things to do or not to do can help you move through that. 
When an immediate family member dies, Jewish tradition prescribes very specific and concrete changes in order to grieve the life lost. 

I have been working on compiling resources for rabbinic colleagues to help their communities mourn miscarriages, perinatal losses, and neonatal deaths, but there isn’t a definitive set of do’s and don’ts. In the midst of what can be a deeply chaotic and heart-wrenching experience, rabbis can help by developing a concrete set of ways to mourn. Had I been steered toward taking several days to fully grieve in a way that parallels shiva, I believe that I would have healed more easily.

Grieving my pregnancy loss was incredibly challenging. And yet, a foundation in traditional Jewish mourning rituals eventually helped me find ways to adapt them that felt honest and appropriate for miscarriage. As I moved through each day, I also found myself experiencing deep, profound gratitude for the people in my life who showed up for me over and over again.

May we find ways to cushion the pain of pregnancy losses with community, ritual, and tradition.

Complete Article HERE!

We’re looking at death all wrong. Here’s why.

Can a shift in the way we treat death and dying improve our lives while we’re still here?

A Beginner’s Guide to the End: Practical Advice for Living Life and Facing Death

  • These days, for the most part, the concept of death is consumed by health care and medicine.
  • However, as humans we need to view death as more than just a medical event. It takes into account our psychology, spirituality, philosophy, social worlds, and personal lives.
  • This reconsideration should also apply to the way we treat people who are dying. Life is in the senses, not just our physical capabilities.

BJ Miller: Health care, medicine in our country is a giant, colossal thing. And it’s got a ton of momentum. And medicine has become– the domain of death is more or less ruled these days by health care. In times past, it’s been the church, or the family was the sort of center of all this.

These days, it’s mostly medicine. But what’s really important in all this is that we people, we humans, we patients, loved ones, we need to kind of take back the subject on some level– that dying is not just a medical event. It’s way bigger than that. It is all-encompassing. It’s where everything comes to account– our psychology, our philosophy, our spirituality, our social world, our intrapersonal lives– all of it. The medical piece is a little itty bitty piece. It just gets too much attention.

So I’ll just think about the emotions for a second. For one thing, to remind ourselves– for me, the difference between emotion and a thought is you can control your thoughts. You can’t really control your emotions. Emotions are much more slippery. They’re going to have their way with you. So you ignore them at your own peril.

That’s one thing to get across. But I also say that to let us off the hook. The way you’re feeling, on some level, isn’t your fault. And one of the things I see that happens a lot around this subject– again, we’ve talked about how one can be made to feel ashamed to be sick, ashamed to be dying, like we’re failing, somehow.

I want to make sure that we all understand, there are certain things that are way beyond our control. And that means– that may be hard to swallow, but it also means we’re off the hook. It’s not my fault, the way I feel. I shouldn’t have to hate myself or be embarrassed about it. So let’s set some ground rules.

And there’s this other layer that is particularly vexing, which is how others start treating you. And it’s very common, under the banner of sanctity or wanting to protect someone, to– I watch people, they stop telling jokes. Maybe they think it’s sort of sacrilegious to try to be funny around someone who’s sick. Or maybe they don’t talk about their own joys that they happen to have in their day while their colleague is meanwhile miserable with a fever or something. They don’t feel like they should talk about their own joys. Or I don’t know, whatever it is– pick anything.

But one of the things that ends up happening is we end up accidentally making life even harder for each other by keeping the truth of the situation at bay. All right? So these are the ways we die before we have to die. We die before we have to die because no one tells jokes to us anymore because they don’t think we’re going to want to laugh, or that sounds perverse.

Or maybe our partner stops the intimacy. Physical intimacy might dry up, or sexuality. The idea that a disabled person can be sexual, that’s still a novel concept. Just look at most exam rooms in a doctor’s office or in a hospital. Most of them are not even wheelchair-accessible.

My mother uses a wheelchair. They used to just assume she wasn’t having sex, so they wouldn’t offer her a pap smear.
And so one of the things you want to avoid if you plan for your death is you want to– ideally, we come to our death without piles and piles of regret. So when I’m working with patients, especially upstream of their death, I’m always encouraging them to feel things, enjoy the body they have while they have it, appreciate their body while they have it, because it’s someday going to go, and you’re going to miss it.

So touch is just profound. It’s elemental. It is, even if you think about, I think, the scourge of dementia, for example– and a lot of us are terrified of this eventuality. We’re going to lose our minds. Yeah. And it’s hard. And that is a very difficult prospect. And I’m also pretty convinced that there’s a life on the far side of our intellect.

And for me, that life is in the senses. As long as I can feel something, I’m interested in being alive. I’m even more interested in that than a thought.

Complete Article HERE!

Need Some Dinner Conversation Topics?

How About Death?

By

The dinner table is the most natural place for human connection and difficult conversations.

80% of people want to die at home, yet only 20% of people do.

This statistic is what helped the founder of Death Over Dinner, Michael Hebb, to recognize the opportunity in creating meaningful conversations around death… over dinner.

“The dinner table is the most natural place for human connection and difficult conversations. The comfort of food and drink goes a long way toward taking the edge off of this topic,” says Hebb.

What is Death Over Dinner?

Death Over Diner was launched in 2013 as an extension of a conversation with friends and colleagues around things that matter. It turned out that amongst topics, death was a central theme –– the fears most harbor about it, both for ourselves and those we love.

The Death Over Dinner website walks individuals through how to host their own dinner, including choosing something for your guests to read, watch, and listen to prior to the dinner.

Since launching, Death Over Dinner has become a global phenomenon, with people holding death dinners every day all over the world. From New York to Seattle, and everywhere in between, more than 200,000 people have used DeathOverDinner.org to talk about:

· Life wishes especially in final days

· End-of-life care desires

· Palliative care desires

· A living will

· Their own mortality

· Fear surrounding death

· and more.

Collaborators including Chase Jarvis, Arianna Huffington, Dr. Oz, The US Surgeon General, and Former Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist have all hosted robust conversations over dinner, as well as have set up an online tool to help others have this important conversation. In 2017, Death Over Dinner joined social wellness venture RoundGlass to expand their mission and reach.

To get a better understanding of how (and why) this started, what is happening now, and where it is going now that the death wellness movement is in full swing, let’s dive in to some questions.

How did Death Over Dinner Begin?

Death Over Dinner actually began as a graduate course Hebb taught at the University of Washington in the Communications Department.

Over a four-year time period, Hebb and a variety of different students and collaborators including Chase Jarvis, Arianna Huffington, Tom Kundig, and Kate Bailey, explored how they could scale meaningful dinner table conversations about critical issues we face as humans.

In the second year, they landed on death and end of life as the primary topic, inspired by the tremendous gap between what people want at the end of their lives and what they get.

The life changing statistic that 80% of people want to die at home yet only 20% of people do was the primary inspiration for the future of Death Over Dinner.

Death literacy was at an all-time low, and open conversation could potentially revolutionize the health care system. The team recognized that a grassroots movement was needed.

Since then, Death Over Dinner has spread across the world, with people holding death dinners every day across the globe.

How Many Death Over Dinner Events Have Been Held?

Since the events are independently organized and people re-use the resources multiple times for multiple dinners, it will always be difficult to know the precise number of dinners held.

The conservative estimate is that 200,000 dinners have taken place, which means that roughly 1 million people have sat down and had the experience of talking about death with others in their family and/or community.

Regional partners have helped launch platforms in Australia, India and Brazil and two years ago the Jewish Edition of Death Over Dinner was launched in partnership with about 30 rabbis.

The Healthcare Edition build in partnership with the Cleveland Clinic is currently in beta and being tested by dozens of the leading health care systems in the US.

For the founder, Hebb, there is nothing more thrilling than to sit down with doctors and nurses and see precisely how meaningful these conversations are to those who are facing death everyday.

How Do The Death Over Dinner Resources Help People Facing Death?

Let’s face it, no one is truly an expert on death. Few people have experience with death and many choose to run far from a conversation about it. End of life conversations are inherently difficult to initiate and can be stressful to navigate for anyone.

That’s why Death Over Dinner strives to make the process crystal clear, and formulated the concept similar to a board game. When you know the rules, it’s easier to relax and just play.

Designed to be held without facilitators, Death Over Dinner gives a little guidance to get started. From there, people intuitively know how to talk about what is most important to them.

Vulnerability is unquestionably the winning move in the Death Over Dinner “board game.” The questions Death Over Dinner prompt allow people to drop their armour and open up about their fears.

Death Over Dinner encourages people to not edit their responses and to say things they are afraid to say. Doing this brings individuals closer to knowing their priorities, and it brings them closer to the people in their life. 

Why Are Death Over Dinner Conversations So Important?

 The impact of grief on our well-being can be detrimental and difficult to calculate.

Roughly 25% of us are actively grieving, which begs the question, how are we grieving? If we don’t know our loved ones wishes, will we grieve longer and more intensely? Will we carry regret and have difficulty letting go?

Not to mention that the end of life expense is the number one cause of personal bankruptcy in the United States.

However, when we face our mortality, there are many beautiful things that happen.

“There is no better medicine than end of life awareness to give you clarity about what is truly important to you, your values, your priorities, how you want to live.  Life becomes more clear and sacred when we thoughtfully and intentionally face our impermanence,” says Hebb.

Studies done by Dr. Jordana Jacobs and other leading psychologists prove that talking about death actually increases our capacity to love. Other studies have shown that we become funnier and laugh more easily after being primed for death.

“There are two basic motivating forces: fear and love. When we are afraid, we pull back from life. When we are in love, we open to all that life has to offer with passion, excitement, and acceptance.” John Lennon

What’s Next For Death Over Dinner?

When Death Over Dinner was created, Hebb’s moonshot was that they could find a way into the center of the American medical establishment and inspire clinicians to talk about death in an open hearted and vulnerable way.

Knowing that oncologists, nurses, survivors and cancer patients are breaking bread every month at Memorial Sloan Kettering takes Hebb’s breath away when he gets present and lets it sink in.

“To think that we are really just at the beginning seven years after we launched, just starting to crack open the potential of this conversation, that is awe inspiring,” says Hebb.

Since the launch of Death Over Dinner in 2013, death literacy in the US has increased, and people are beginning to make more empowered decisions. The global death wellness movement and conversations around end of life are now front page news.

People are getting more creative, using their imagination for planning their last chapter and planning memorials.

There’s a shift from a reactive to a proactive approach to end of life well-being, and the movement is just getting started.

Learn more about Death Over Dinner and plan your own dinner today.

Complete Article HERE!

A Personal Día de Los Muertos Journey

By Joseph Leahy

A transplant to Los Angeles since 1988, Joseph Leahy was familiar with mortality. His family was in the funerary business. His family often took him to the cemetery as a child. “I’ve spent a lot of time around death and dying,” Leahy said. It was only when he moved out West, however, that he discovered the traditions of Día de los Muertos and identified with it. His enthusiasm for the celebration was so much so that his altars were often lauded in the early years of the Hollywood Forever Cemetery’s annual celebrations. Today, he continues to honor its sanctity with a yearly ritual commemorating his loved ones through a personal altar made at home and with the help of his daughter. His appreciation for the sacred tradition has also influenced his work in the HIV positive/AIDS communities. Apart from his yearly personal altar, Leahy has also helped these communities celebrate the ones they’ve loved and lost through meaningful remembrance.

Dia de los Muertos (Day Of The Dead) 2019

More than 500 years ago, when the Spanish Conquistadors landed in what is now Mexico, they encountered natives practicing a ritual that seemed to mock death.

It was a ritual the indigenous people had been practicing at least 3,000 years. A ritual the Spaniards would try unsuccessfully to eradicate.

A ritual known today as Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead.

The ritual is celebrated in Mexico and certain parts of the United States. Although the ritual has since been merged with Catholic theology, it still maintains the basic principles of the Aztec ritual, such as the use of skulls.

Today, people don wooden skull masks called calacas and dance in honor of their deceased relatives. The wooden skulls are also placed on altars that are dedicated to the dead. Sugar skulls, made with the names of the dead person on the forehead, are eaten by a relative or friend, according to Mary J. Adrade, who has written three books on the ritual.

The Aztecs and other Meso-American civilizations kept skulls as trophies and displayed them during the ritual. The skulls were used to symbolize death and rebirth.

The skulls were used to honor the dead, whom the Aztecs and other Meso-American civilizations believed came back to visit during the monthlong ritual.

Unlike the Spaniards, who viewed death as the end of life, the natives viewed it as the continuation of life. Instead of fearing death, they embraced it. To them, life was a dream and only in death did they become truly awake.

“The pre-Hispanic people honored duality as being dynamic,” said Christina Gonzalez, senior lecturer on Hispanic issues at Arizona State University. “They didn’t separate death from pain, wealth from poverty like they did in Western cultures.”

However, the Spaniards considered the ritual to be sacrilegious. They perceived the indigenous people to be barbaric and pagan.

In their attempts to convert them to Catholicism, the Spaniards tried to kill the ritual.

But like the old Aztec spirits, the ritual refused to die.

To make the ritual more Christian, the Spaniards moved it so it coincided with All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day (Nov. 1 and 2), which is when it is celebrated today.

Previously it fell on the ninth month of the Aztec Solar Calendar, approximately the beginning of August, and was celebrated for the entire month. Festivities were presided over by the goddess Mictecacihuatl. The goddess, known as “Lady of the Dead,” was believed to have died at birth, Andrade said.

Today, Day of the Dead is celebrated in Mexico and in certain parts of the United States and Central America.

“It’s celebrated different depending on where you go,” Gonzalez said.

In rural Mexico, people visit the cemetery where their loved ones are buried. They decorate gravesites with marigold flowers and candles. They bring toys for dead children and bottles of tequila to adults. They sit on picnic blankets next to gravesites and eat the favorite food of their loved ones.

In Guadalupe, the ritual is celebrated much like it is in rural Mexico.

“Here the people spend the day in the cemetery,” said Esther Cota, the parish secretary at the Our Lady of Guadalupe Church. “The graves are decorated real pretty by the people.”

For more information visit HERE!

How to die a good, green death

With water cremation and human composting on the horizon, Washingtonians are asking: What should happen to our bodies after we die?

by Manola Secaira

Often, the worst kind of dinner party is one with a bunch of strangers: It’s hard to break the ice, and if small talk dies, you might end up sitting in stony silence. But the dinner I spent Sunday at Ballard’s Brimmer & Heeltap came preloaded with excited chatter.

This was all the more surprising given the preordained topic: Death. And before I’d even picked up my fork, one purple-haired seatmate, Elly, was already telling us from across the dinner table about the passing of her grandma.

Elly said her grandmother’s death was about as clean as they come. Her grandmother was comfortable talking about it with Elly, she had distributed her belongings long before it happened, and her family was close by at the time of her passing. She even had a “death doula” to assist her during the process. Grandma planned it all out.

“That’s a good death,” Amanda, another participant, said enthusiastically at the end of Elly’s story. Everyone else at the table nodded in agreement. About 40 of us had gathered for Death Over Dinner, a Seattle-based nonprofit dedicated to reversing the pain and suffering associated with mortality.

Dying well means different things to different people. Maybe it’s dying for a good cause, or just dying when you’re still cognizant of your surroundings. But planning my funeral now, at age 23, is something I’d never considered — until I heard about death positivity.

Death positivity is a movement to get people comfortable talking about their eventual demise. Washington is a uniquely good place for it. You can go to one of Washington’s numerous death conventions or parties, such as one hosted by the People’s Memorial Association (PMA) in December. Many of its biggest supporters, like PMA’s Executive Director Nora Menkin or Katrina Spade, founder of Recompose, make their home here. And most death-positive advocates know the statistic that although 80% of people want to die at home, only 20% actually do, so they say these conversations are a good way to learn the last wishes of the people you love and to express your own wishes before it’s too late. 

For the environmentally inclined, Washington has long been on the cutting edge of what a green death could look like; death positivity is often linked with green options, which offer even more choices for people to consider when planning their deaths. This includes green funerals — basically, environmentally conscious funerals that can include everything from recomposition to water cremation to green burials (also known as natural burials), which allow the body to naturally decompose without preservatives. And a cemetery in Bellingham, Moles Farewell Tributes, became the first certified natural burial ground in an existing cemetery in the nation and the 12th cemetery certified overall by the Green Burials Council in January 2009.

In addition, “recomposition” (frequently called “human composting”) was legalized this year along with water cremation, adding to the list of  environmentally conscious ways you can dispose of your body post-mortem. Water cremation, also known as alkaline hydrolysis, is basically cremation with hot, chemical-filled water instead of fire inside a pressurized vessel. (Water cremation of pets has been legal for much longer.)  

Advocates say that the death positivity movement, combined with the legalization of more options, has moved forward conversations about it further than ever before.

“Death is having its moment right now, in a lot of ways,” says Brian Flowers, green burial coordinator at Moles Farewell Tributes. “So that education is happening at a pretty rapid pace.”

Michael Hebb, the founder of Death Over Dinner, is one of those advocates in Washington persuading people to talk with their loved ones about their mortality. While most of Hebb’s dinners happen independently among families (you can download a template to host your own from his website), the dinner I attended was one of the first around Seattle where participants had a chance to delve into death with strangers. For me, those strangers were Amanda and Elly, who are longtime friends, on my left, and a quieter, elderly couple, Sheryl and Bill, on my right. Each person was fairly comfortable talking about their deaths; Sheryl told the table that her last meal would involve potatoes, and Bill matter-of-factly said all he would want was a mango. 

Hebb took a moment at the beginning of the dinner to walk participants, seated all around the restaurant, through the night’s proceedings: On each table was an envelope with five short questions about death, ranging from playful to serious. “What would you choose as your last meal?” “What are your wishes for your body after you die?”

But before we could answer, he brought our attention to the candles by our dinner plates.

“The first thing that happens at the table is we all take a moment and think about someone who has died, who had a powerful impact on our lives,” Hebb told us. “Really the first person that comes to mind.” Then, each participant was asked to give that person a short eulogy to their table before lighting the candle.

I knew mine in seconds. Hebb told us to hold on to that person, even if it made us uncomfortable. Vulnerability, he said, was key to making this work. So I held on.

Participants engage in conversation during a Death Over Dinner event at Brimmer & Heeltap in Ballard on Oct. 27, 2019. The dinner series, started by Michael Hebb in 2013, is meant to facilitate and normalize open conversations about death in a positive way.

* * *

Most people I talk to know what they want their funeral to look like. Some friends told me they wanted something cheap and easy. Others were quite specific: One roommate told me she wants her cremated ashes exploded in fireworks; another said she’d like her body detoxified and eaten up by mushrooms (she told me this while cooking mushroom risotto). An ex used to tell me he’d like his body shot out of a cannon. When I sent my sister the question over text, she replied seconds later: “Make me a tree for sure.”

My parents also had a response at the ready and told me they’d want a quick burial, no fancy stuff, the day after they die. In Guatemala, most funerals happen that way; there’s no weeklong preparation. When my Abuelito Quique passed away in Guatemala City, my dad flew out from the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport the night it happened and arrived just in time for the funeral services the following morning. Abuelito Quique’s funeral might qualify as “green” in the U.S. — or at least greener, since there’s no need to preserve the body through embalming or other chemicals.

Most Americans these days don’t pine for a cushioned casket in which to put their immaculately preserved corpse. In Washington, almost 80% choose cremation; the national average sits at about 50%, according to a 2017 study. Curiosity about greener funerals is on the rise, too. Adults over 40 interested in green funerals jumped nationally from 43% in 2010 to 64% in 2015, according to a Funeral and Memorial Information Council study.

“In the time that I’ve been doing this, it’s accelerated tremendously,” says Lucinda Herring, a green burial consultant and author of Reimagining Death. “I think that’s only going to grow, particularly with baby boomers who are taking care of their parents and themselves.”

But a greener death doesn’t mean an easier one. There are plenty of hoops to jump through before getting a body in the ground — especially for greener burials. Part of it is the lack of options. In Washington, only a handful of cemeteries allow green burials, some of which are certified by the Green Burial Council. Preplanning is often necessary in order to ensure that the deceased can even be taken to a green burial site.

“[Plots are] hard to get to so, numberwise, there’s probably enough to meet the demand right now, but they’re spread out geographically in a way that’s challenging for families,” Flowers says. At his location, he’s helped service families from cities as distant as Olympia or Boise, Idaho.

Until Herring helped perform her first green burial in the ’90s, she and her friends didn’t know that such a thing existed. A friend dying of breast cancer told her and others that she didn’t want her remains to go to a funeral director. She wanted a funeral at home. It was only after some research that Herring discovered it was possible and legal to care for the body immediately after death at home.

“Nobody knows,” Herring says. “[Even] now, hardly anybody knows.”

Still, Herring says the increase in public interest has made educating others a little easier. She also emphasizes the need to plan ahead.

“If you’re looking for a green burial plot, you should very much talk to cemeteries and ask if they provide green burial,” she says. “Because doing it at need if someone dies quickly is difficult.”

Some of those barriers to green burials are coming down. With the legalization of water cremation for humans this year, Washington bodies no longer have to be shipped to other states (typically Oregon) for the process. Flowers says Moles Farewell Tributes was one of only a dozen green burial sites when it opened its green cemetery in 2009.

“We’ve definitely seen a shift,” Flowers says. “Now, there’s over 300.”

Flowers and others say lack of information is the biggest barrier keeping green death options out of the mainstream. Spade, the founder of Recompose, says that when people are taken aback by the idea of composting their remains, she usually let’s let them mull over other options before pressing further.

“If you really think of the traditional method, [and] you think of embalming, you’d think, ‘Oh, that’s intense also,’ ” she says, “So honestly, I usually just let it lie. I think people need their own time to come around to it.”

After telling her about the dinner, I asked what I should do if I ran into a person like that myself. She laughed a little. That shouldn’t be an issue, she says: “If you’re attending Death Over Dinner, you’re perhaps more comfortable than the average person.”

* * *

We began to light our candles at the dinner table, and when it was my turn, I returned to third grade. Anisha was one of my best friends, a small Muslim girl with chubby cheeks who shared my adolescent love of the Disney Channel show Kim Possible, whose brother we tormented by hiding his Pokemon cards under her bed, who I would talk to for hours on the carpeted floor of her bedroom, and who passed away from heart failure one night a couple years into our friendship.

My parents told me in our driveway, next to our minivan on a slightly humid, overcast afternoon. We talked about what it meant, and about God. The rest came in pieces: the news of her funeral, which happened quickly and privately, and then the realization that I would never see her again. When I visited her parents’ house the week of her death, Anisha’s mother told mine that she’d looked like she was only sleeping. There were cookies on the table that I didn’t eat. I remember wanting one but passing because everything felt so strange that it didn’t make sense to enjoy chocolate chips.

I’ve told myself this story many times. Retelling it now feels like reciting a mantra, one that’s simplified in its repetition, but has become as much a part of my life as my name or the soft scar on my knee. When I encountered my next death, I can’t say I was ready, exactly, but I knew who to talk to about it.

Finding comfort in talking about death takes practice. Hebb told me that he hadn’t always had that himself. Conversations about death in his family were nonexistent. Hebb’s dad was over 70 when he was born, making it likely he would pass before Hebb graduated from college, or even high school. He realizes that logic now but says he didn’t think much about it when he was a kid. When his father died, Hebb was 13, and his family didn’t know how to talk about it.

“It really devastated our family,” he says. “The majority of the time we’re faced with this conversation, it’s when something has gone horribly wrong or when it’s about to.”

Hebb says his father didn’t get to explain what he wanted from his death, and his family was left with a pain they didn’t know how to process. Just knowing how to talk could have made the situation much different.

The five other guests at my table expressed varying degrees of comfort with talking about the deaths of those close to them. I’d never told the story of Anisha to a group of strangers, and the words felt odd coming out of my mouth (it didn’t help that this happened before we got appetizers). But there was also peace in the process. Everyone listened. I listened in return. And by dessert, we were already planning what we wanted our funerals to look like in detail. I’ve always wanted a burial I can call “green,” whether that means turning my body into mulch or something else. But I also realized I was willing to bend if a cheaper but still-green option was easier.

At the end of the dinner, just before everyone got up to leave, the restaurant’s owner tapped a glass to get our attention. There were two birthdays to celebrate, she told us. A chocolate cake was carried out from the kitchen and everyone began to sing “Happy Birthday.”

Ending a dinner about death with a birthday might make sense to a death-positive person: Most advocates will tell you that life and death aren’t so far apart. Spade put it simply, saying she believes “that humans are part of nature, even if they’re destroying it.”

We go back to where we came from. All bodies decompose. Green burials — and the acceptance that comes with them — simply reinforce that whatever is left of us eventually gives life to something else. If that’s what I choose, I’ll be giving life long after my dying breath.

Complete Article HERE!

Death Cafes Allow People To Confront Death With Others

At a death cafe inside Bigelow Chapel at Mount Auburn Cemetery, people gather to enjoy cake and tea while discussing death and mortality in a safe space.

By Olivia Deng

Before dying or almost dying, the conventional anecdote is that people see a flashback or a white light and have an out-of-body experience. But Barbara Olson, a retired social worker, saw darkness and Darth Vader as she started accepting her end. She had fallen out of a raft 20 years ago in Maine. “I kept having all these ‘Star Wars’ images of Darth Vader… Our guy on the raft [had] a ‘Star Wars’ name so that’s why I started thinking Darth Vader,” Olson said. “The other thing I kept thinking about is, I was with a man that I didn’t know that well … I was worried about my father and what he might think.”

These conversations arise at a death cafe, a gathering where people enjoy cake and tea while discussing death and mortality in a safe space. Death cafes can be held anywhere — a home, a coffee shop, and in this case, a cemetery. Inside the regal gothic revival-style Bigelow Chapel located on top of a hill at Mount Auburn Cemetery, a diverse gathering of strangers treated themselves to cupcakes and tea before settling down in chairs arranged in circles. Boxes of tissues lined the walls, should anyone need one.

Death cafes are modeled after 19th-century salons where people convened for intellectual discussions. Bernard Crettaz, a Swiss sociologist, introduced the idea of death cafes in 2004 and Jon Underwood popularized them, hosting the first death cafe in his London home. Soon enough, death cafes were embraced across the world.

Death, famously called the “great equalizer” by journalist Mitch Albom, obviously sparks curiosity and questions. But many repress asking those questions out of fear. The topic is perceived as taboo and difficult to confront, even though death surrounds us.

“One of the eternal questions that we, as humans, have is about the meaning of life and part of that discussion stems from what happens after life, which is death,” said Bree Harvey, vice president of cemetery and visitor services at Mount Auburn Cemetery. Death is a daunting subject to grapple with, but the growth of the death positive movement and death cafes bring conversations about death to a more nuanced, collective grappling.

Far from a grim consortium of goths, death cafes attract people from all ages and walks of life. In my discussion group alone, there was a nonprofit worker, scientist, mortuary school student, yoga teacher, hospice volunteer manager, retired social worker, and Mount Auburn Cemetery employee. For all but one, it was their first time attending a death cafe. Before beginning our discussion, we were told ground rules to foster a comfortable and respectful environment: listen, speak your truth, share the air, respect, accept and expect, and self-care.

Olson said she attended the death cafe because she couldn’t talk about death with people in her life. “If you go by statistics, I’m three-quarters through my life and very aware there’s an end. I’ve seen people very scared in their life at the end, and people who have not been actually. I do think sort of normalizing and talking about it is very normal.”

Cupcakes at the death cafe at Mount Auburn Cemetery.
Tissues line a wall at a death cafe inside Bigelow Chapel at Mount Auburn Cemetery.

Talking about death could be increasingly common with climate change. The thought of a mass extinction lurking around the corner brings great anxiety and urgency to make the most of our lives. “To have to envision that happening in my near or far future is the scariest part for me,” said Michelle Frasca, a mortuary school student, at the death cafe. Because of climate change, Frasca said she would rather not be immortal if given the choice. “I’m so much of a pessimist that I’m like, it’s going to be terrible, I’m going to have to watch people die, I’m going to have to watch the world die.”

Corinne Elicone, events and outreach coordinator at Mount Auburn Cemetery, may only be 25, but she’s already bought a plot at Mount Auburn Cemetery. Elicone had an experience where medical professionals did not respect her grandfather’s end-of-life wishes. “He wanted no life support, he didn’t want to get food or liquids. He was in the resuscitating area to be revived. And I had to go into that hospital room and tell the nurses to unplug his fluids,” Elicone said at the death cafe. “It made me feel like there’s nothing I can do when it comes down to it, people are going to do their daily tasks.”

However, not everyone gets to make their end-of-life plans. Just like there’s inequity in life, inequity persists in death. “There’s no grand conversation on access to a good death. Who gets to die well in this country? People with money. They get comfort and they have care and they have shelter and they have music and soft linen. And people who don’t have money don’t really have options,” said Lashanna Williams, a death doula and executive director at A Sacred Passing.

Death grounds and humbles us, in addition to helping us prioritize our lives, said Eric Redard, a hospice volunteer manager, at the death cafe. Daily life is filled to the brim with pressures: You work until you die and along the way, fear failure and inability to fulfill your dreams. Is contentment all we can ask for?

Olson, who recently moved to a new home, said that she felt a newfound peace that isn’t quite happiness, but it is enough. “I could just sit on the back porch and listen to the crickets all night. I don’t feel like I need to do anything … I started thinking, if I should die anytime between now and the next 20 years, which is quite likely to happen, I want to feel this way.”

The leaves are green and awaiting to burst into shades of gold, orange and red, but in a couple months, they will fall to the ground and decay. Like fall, a season that brings both renewal and decay, death is full of dualities: denial and acceptance, mourning and comfort, and loss and living with intention. Death cafes show us we don’t have to reckon with it alone.

Complete Article HERE!