Ashes to Ashes

Turning the dead into soil in Washington State.

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Micah Truman, founder of Return Home, uses the word beautiful many times during our conversation about his company’s unique burial process.

Terramation—what Return Home calls human composting—a two-month-long process that turns deceased bodies into soil, is new to the world. So new, in fact, that the service is offered in only a few places on the entire planet, and Washington State happens to be one.

Washington became the first place in the world to legalize human composting, thanks to a small, dedicated group of funeral directors led by Katrina Spade, a founder of the nonprofit Urban Death Project. As an undergrad at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, Spade had received the prestigious Echoing Green Fellowship and worked with scientists and biologists to develop a process that turns human remains into soil. In 2018, Spade pushed for human-composting legislation in Washington, later signed by Governor Jay Inslee in 2019. After it became law, she opened the world’s first human-composting center, Recompose, located in Seattle.

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Currently, there are only three states that provide this service: Washington, Colorado, and Oregon. Other states, including California, are working on similar legislation. In 2021, California Democratic assembly member Cristina Garcia, from Bell Gardens, introduced Assembly Bill 501, which would legalize “natural organic reduction.” It successfully passed out of the California State Assembly, the Senate Health Committee, and the Senate Business and Professions Committee, but it is currently tabled.

Return Home is located in Auburn, a suburb 20 miles south of Seattle. Speaking with me on a sunny spring morning, Truman recalls the story of a California family who recently used Return Home’s service.

The woman’s son had died suddenly, and she’d decided that because he hadn’t liked to fly when he was alive, she would transport him in a car herself. She drove from Northern California to Washington, her son’s body cooled and packed according to Return Home’s instructions. Once she arrived, Truman recalls, “She was able to sit with him and talk with him. We were able to place him in his vessel with his mom there.”

“It was one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen,” Truman says.

An entrepreneur and investor, Truman saw the Washington legislation as not just a business opportunity but an environmental one. The funeral industry isn’t particularly innovative: most people opt for either burial or cremation, and neither of those are good for the planet, he explains.

“Cremation has long been considered the environmental alternative. It’s the one that people use. It’s what I would have used, or my family, because we consider it the least environmentally impactful,” he says.

But, he points out, “Cremation uses about 30 gallons of fuel, spews about 540 pounds of CO2 into the air per cremation.”

The burial service Truman offers is different from a green burial, which, at its simplest, involves placing an unembalmed body directly into the ground without a box. Though green burial is also more natural than cremation, it presents the same problem that traditional cemeteries often face: limited space.

The idea of human composting might seem weird at first. Some “conservative religious groups” have reservations, says Truman, but he points out that the Catholic church was also once averse to cremation and is now on board. And if you think of human composting as slow burial, it’s less odd. Return Home uses a custom-made, heavily insulated plastic polycarbonate vessel; the body is placed inside with alfalfa, straw, and sawdust. After 30 days, the body disintegrates, leaving only bones, which are crushed and returned to the vessel to sit for another month. At the end of the cycle, 500 pounds of dense, nutrient-rich soil are created and can be used anywhere.

“We have to tell our families that it is extremely nutritionally dense,” Truman says. “So a lot of people would think, ‘OK, I will take a large pile of this and plant a tree in it,’ but there’s an enormous amount of nitrogen. It’s incredible. It’s the stuff of life.”

Joanna Ebenstein is the founder and creative director of Morbid Anatomy, an organization based out of New York City that has classes and lectures that encourage thinking differently about death and using creativity to explore the end of life. (Sample class: Make Your Own Memento Mori.) “We’re really about bringing death to the forefront,” says Ebenstein. A Bay Area native, she says that many people in the death-positive community are younger women and are more open to embracing natural burials, like human composting.

“A lot of them are focusing on trying to change attitudes about death so that we can live, so we can have better deaths. And that includes dying with more dignity, being able to choose when you die. And that also includes what you want done with your body and help people get to spend time with your body after you die,” Ebenstein says. “I certainly have seen many, many more people interested in this in the last 10 years than I ever have before.”

Though Return Home’s is the largest facility in the state—11,000 square feet, housing 70 vessels at a time, at full capacity—Truman is composting only 900 bodies a year.

With so few places offering the service in the country, Truman says 20 percent of his customers are from out of state: “Colorado, California, Missouri, Oregon. So we’ve had people come from all over there, and a number of them from California.”

Truman is still moved by the memory of the California family who came to Return Home.

At the end of the two-month process, the woman’s other sons made the drive up to gather the enriched soil made from their brother’s remains and brought him back to California.

“It was one of the most remarkable experiences I’ve ever had in my life,” Truman says.

You might even say it was beautiful.•

Complete Article HERE!

Is Alexa’s voice of the dead a healthy way to grieve a loved one?

By Riya Anne Polcastro

Amazon’s Alexa is getting an update that may soothe some grieving souls while making others’ skin crawl. The AI enhancement will enable the device to replicate a deceased loved one’s voice from less than a minute of recording, allowing users the opportunity to connect with memories in a much more extensive manner than simply listening to old voicemail messages or recordings might provide.

Still, there are reasonable concerns regarding how this technology could impact unprocessed emotions or even be used for unscrupulous purposes.

The ‘why’ behind the new AI

Rohit Prasad, senior vice president and head scientist for Alexa, told attendees at this year’s Amazon re:MARS conference  that while AI cannot take away the grief that comes from losing a loved one, it can help keep the memories around by providing a connection with their voice. A video played at the conference featured a child asking Alexa to have his grandmother – who had already died – read a book. The device obliged and read from “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” in the grandmother’s voice. It was able to do so by analyzing a short clip of her voice and creating an AI version of it.

At the conference, Prasad mentioned “the companionship relationship” people have with their Alexa devices:

“Human attributes like empathy and affect are key to building trust,” he said. “These attributes have become even more important in these times of the ongoing pandemic, when so many of us have lost someone we love.” By giving the voice those same attributes, his plan is for the voice to be able to connect with people in a way that helps maintain their memories long after their loved one is gone.

What does the research say?

While it’s yet to be proven whether an AI facsimile of a loved one’s voice has the potential to assist in the grieving process, there’s hope there could be a real benefit to the application. Research into how hearing a mother’s voice can ease stress among schoolchildren suggests the potential is there.

Leslie Seltzer, a biological anthropologist at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, determined that talking to Mom on the phone can have the same calming effects as receiving in-person comfort—which included hugs. In a follow-up study that demonstrated the same effects don’t hold for students conversing with their mothers through instant messages, the researcher explained that speaking with someone trustworthy has the power to reduce cortisol and increase oxytocin.

There is, however, a fundamental difference between talking to a living relative on the phone and interacting with an AI imitation of someone who is gone. Anecdotal evidence of friends and family listening to old recordings of their loved ones suggests that what is healing for some may be devastating for others. While some people report that listening to old voicemails, for example, help them reconnect and process their grief, others have said it made the pain worse.

What about the experts?

Dianne Gray, a certified grief specialist, also pointed out it could go either way. She explained the Alexa feature could “be immensely helpful or, conversely, act as a trigger that brings grief back up to the surface.”

She suggested regardless of the situation, the mourner should be in a safe space that will allow them enough time and support to work through any unexpected emotions that come up.

Likewise, Holly Zell, a licensed clinical professional counselor intern specializing in death and grief, agreed:

“Every person’s grief experience is unique, and each grief experience a person has across their life is unique,” she said. “What might be helpful in one situation might feel distressing or harmful in another.”

Zell is concerned the AI could interfere with the grieving process, particularly with the example given at the conference of a child listening to their grandmother read a story.

“One of the most challenging and also important aspects of grief is acceptance, which involves acknowledging that the death has happened and that certain things change in relationships after death,” she said. “It can be healthy to have a sense of a ‘continued’ relationship after death, but this is not meant to be in conflict with acceptance.”

Zell instead encourages having loved ones record messages before they pass. Those messages can also provide that connection that can be so crucial, Gray explained.

“This connection via sound can continue long after the loved one has died,” she said. “A common fear of the bereaved is that they will forget what a loved one’s voice sounded like.”

She’s hopeful that by hearing the voice of the deceased without their physical body, the feature can help people navigate acceptance.

“Research will be interesting on this topic.”

Additionally, Gray sees potential benefit for seniors with low vision who may find it easier to use the 100% voice-activated device than if they were trying to pull up recordings on their phones.

That doesn’t mean the AI is risk-free, she explained.

“What if there are things left unsaid, disharmony or abuse between the voice on the Alexa device and the beloved? What if the message on the Alexa device is not as kind, gentle or loving as it should or could be?”

Gray pointed to the unfortunate reality that people often die with close relationships still in tatters—and that their voice could have a negative impact on survivors.

Zell said she also remains unconvinced at this point.

“I’m sure there are people who will find this comforting or helpful. I personally and professionally feel skeptical of this as a useful tool, and would strongly encourage people to find their own meaningful ways to include their lost loved ones into their lives through photos, stories, videos/recordings and other experiences.”

Complete Article HERE!

After death, you’re aware that you’ve died, say scientists

Your subjective experience might not end the moment your heart stops, research on near-death experiences suggests.

By Philip Perry

Time of death is considered when a person has gone into cardiac arrest, which is the cessation of the electrical impulse that drives the heartbeat. As a result, the heart locks up. This moment when the heart stops is considered by medical professionals to be the clearest indication that someone has died.

But what happens inside our mind during this process? Does death immediately overtake our subjective experience or does it slowly creep in?

Scientists have studied near-death experiences (NDEs) in an attempt to gain insights into how death overcomes the brain. What they’ve found is remarkable: A surge of electricity enters the brain moments before brain death. One 2013 study, which examined electrical signals inside the heads of rats, found that the rodents entered a hyper-alert state just before death.

Some scientists are beginning to think that NDEs are caused by reduced blood flow, coupled with abnormal electrical behavior inside the brain. So, the stereotypical tunnel of white light might derive from a surge in neural activity. Dr. Sam Parnia is the director of critical care and resuscitation research, at NYU Langone School of Medicine, in New York City. He and colleagues have investigated exactly how the brain dies.

Our cerebral cortex is likely active 2–20 seconds after cardiac arrest.

In previous work, Dr. Parnia has conducted animal studies looking at the moments before and after death. He’s also investigated near-death experiences. “Many times, those who have had such experiences talk about floating around the room and being aware of the medical team working on their body,” Dr. Parnia told Live Science. “They’ll describe watching doctors and nurses working and they’ll describe having awareness of full conversations, of visual things that were going on, that would otherwise not be known to them.”

Medical staff confirm this, he said. But how could people who were technically dead be cognizant of what’s happening around them? Even after our breathing and heartbeat stop, we remain conscious for about two to 20 seconds, Dr. Parnia says. That’s how long the cerebral cortex is thought to last without oxygen. This is the thinking and decision-making part of the brain. It’s also responsible for deciphering the information gathered from our senses.

According to Dr. Parnia, during this period, “You lose all your brain stem reflexes — your gag reflex, your pupil reflex, all that is gone.” Brain waves from the cerebral cortex soon become undetectable. Even so, it can take hours for our thinking organ to fully shut down.

Usually, when the heart stops beating, someone performs CPR (cardiopulmonary resuscitation). This will provide about 15% of the oxygen needed to perform normal brain function. “If you manage to restart the heart, which is what CPR attempts to do, you’ll gradually start to get the brain functioning again,” Dr. Parnia said. “The longer you’re doing CPR, those brain cell death pathways are still happening — they’re just happening at a slightly slower rate.”

Other research from Dr. Parnia and his colleagues examined the large numbers of Europeans and Americans who have experienced cardiac arrest and survived. “In the same way that a group of researchers might be studying the qualitative nature of the human experience of ‘love,’” he said, “we’re trying to understand the exact features that people experience when they go through death, because we understand that this is going to reflect the universal experience we’re all going to have when we die.”

One of the objectives is to observe how the brain acts and reacts during cardiac arrest, throughout both the processes of death and revival. How much oxygen exactly does it take to reboot the brain? How is the brain affected after revival? Learning where the lines are drawn might improve resuscitation techniques, which could save countless lives per year.

“At the same time, we also study the human mind and consciousness in the context of death,” Dr. Parnia said, “to understand whether consciousness becomes annihilated or whether it continues after you’ve died for some period of time — and how that relates to what’s happening inside the brain in real time.”

Complete Article HERE!

Who is most likely to use medical aid in dying?

Data from each of the 5,329 patients across the US who died from medical aid in the 23 years after Oregon became the first state to legalize shows well-educated, white patients with cancer dominate the group.

“Although MAID will likely never account for more than a small portion of deaths, it is becoming more common in the states where it is legal, and it’s currently on the legislative agenda of another 14 states,” says Elissa Kozlov.

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More than 72% of patients who died with medical aid had at least some college education, more than 95% were non-Hispanic whites, and nearly 75% had cancer.

“We don’t know if these numbers reflect genuine, underlying differences in group preferences or disparities in how laws are written or services provided,” says Elissa Kozlov, an instructor at the Rutgers University School of Public Health, and lead author of the study in Journal of the American Geriatrics Society.

“But such large differences in utilization are always a red flag that demands further investigation, and if that investigation finds disparities that make it harder for some groups to access desired medical services, we need to correct them.”

“Many doctors will not participate in MAID, and many who will don’t necessarily advertise the fact.”

The sexes were relatively evenly represented—53% male, 47% female—but medical aid in dying (MAID) users naturally skewed much older than the population at large. Nearly 60% of the people who died with medical aid were between ages 65 and 84. Another 16% were 85 years old or older, while 8% were 54 years old or younger.

One major barrier to many would-be users is cost. MAID is now permitted by eight states and Washington, DC, but the federal Medicare program, which is the primary insurer of Americans 65 years old and older, doesn’t pay any costs associated with MAID.

Those costs can be considerable, Kozlov says. States that allow MAID typically require two doctors to certify the patient will die within six months. There’s also the expense of buying the medications prescribed for MAID, which are often not covered by insurance and can cost up to $3,000.

Another major barrier is finding a doctor who will provide the service.

“Many doctors will not participate in MAID, and many who will don’t necessarily advertise the fact,” Kozlov says. “You have to be well connected within a network of doctors or skilled in researching such matters, and that’s one possible explanation of why well-educated people are disproportionately represented in our findings.”

Many MAID users previously had received hospice care. Still, the overwhelming majority—90%—chose to die at home, and nearly as many—88%—told their families of their plans.

“Further research in this area is necessary because although MAID will likely never account for more than a small portion of deaths, it is becoming more common in the states where it is legal, and it’s currently on the legislative agenda of another 14 states,” says Kozlov.

Complete Article HERE!

Cancer treatment took my mojo. Hospice gave it back

The author with her grandchildren, Lily and Ella, at Sofra in Cambridge, June 2022.

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Eating is one of my greatest pleasures, and it was the first thing to go. Everything I put in my mouth tasted metallic. My taste buds were distorted. The nausea wouldn’t go away with any medication, not even marijuana. I was in starvation mode.

When the cancer had returned after 23 years to finish its job, I thought the targeted hormonal therapy wouldn’t be as drastic as the chemotherapy I had the first time.But it was worse. The daily pill I was prescribed to take indefinitely — or until such time when it no longer worked — subverted my bodily functions.

My blood counts plunged to critical levels. I had to have two pints of blood monthly to bring up the hemoglobin to carry more oxygen through my body. My liver enzymes rocketed, indicating toxicity. By January this past year, I was in bed all day, getting up only to use the bathroom.

I felt like I’d lost my mojo. My spark. My life.

In March, a nurse practitioner visited my infusion room at the oncology facility where I was receiving intravenous rehydration and asked if I would consider transitioning to hospice. I had no clear picture of what hospice was, except that it’s where you go when you are about to die. But I trusted my medical team’s judgment.

The author with her daughter, Elizabeth, in Portsmouth, N.H., and baby Lily who accompanied Elizabeth to care for Grace when she first entered hospice. (Courtesy Grace Segran)
The author with her daughter, Elizabeth, in Portsmouth, N.H., and baby Lily who accompanied Elizabeth to care for Grace when she first entered hospice.

I went into hospice. And to my surprise, that’s how I got my mojo back.

I was taken off all cancer drugs and cared for at home by the hospice medical team. They also supported my daughter, Elizabeth, and taught her how to care for me.

Elizabeth came by with newborn baby Lily, every day, and took care of my personal needs. Then we would go out for a lunch or at teatime, or take a drive to nearby towns. The short wobbly walks to the car while holding on to her arm soon became more steady, and I could walk further as my muscles became reconditioned. I began to pick at my food rather than reject it outright. A month later, I no longer needed the electric cart in Target, or for Ben, my son-in-law, to lift me into the car seat or out of the dining chair.

About six weeks after stopping the drugs, I woke up and I wanted an egg salad on sourdough bread and iced oat milk latte. For lunch, I wondered if we should do the dim sum carts at Joyful Garden. Or rasam and thosai at Dosa n Curry. We should definitely stop at Sofra on the way back for lemonade and tahini shortbread. The nausea and aversion for food was gone. I was delighted to be eating again and entered into it with abandon, especially in the company of family and good friends.

The Segran women -- from left, Elizabeth, Grace, Lily and Ella -- at a church park party, June 2022. (Courtesy Grace Segran)
The Segran women — from left, Elizabeth, Grace, Lily and Ella — at a church park party, June 2022.

With all the lunches I was booking with friends whom I’d not seen for months, I called Laura, my hairdresser, for an appointment. My hair had grown unruly now that the drug wasn’t curtailing its growth.

“You remember, right? Not too short and lots of texture,” I told Laura. When I got home, I dug deep in the closet for summer dresses and shoes. I had places to go!

I took baby steps towards traveling, another love of mine. Over a month, Elizabeth, Lily, and I took overnight trips to Newport, Rhode Island, Portsmouth, New Hampshire, and Portland, Maine, hoping to veer towards the airport after that and venture on to Chicago and New Orleans.

I started writing again. I’d scoured the internet but couldn’t find anything on first-person accounts about dying and hospice (always written by caregivers), so I wanted to write about that. And here I am.

My life is not perfect. I don’t walk nine miles a day as I did pre-cancer. I limp badly, and it’s a good day if I can make a quarter mile. I’m in bed for days after an overnight getaway. I don’t feel like seeing anyone some days. But I have the support of the beloved hospice team who comes to my home to help with my disabilities and take care of infections and pain, enabling me to live the life I want for as long as I can.

The window will close at some point, and I will go into decline as the cancer takes over. But I’m grateful for this interregnum. Hospice care has given me back my life, for now. I don’t know when the window will close — none of us do, really — but I’m cherishing every moment while it lasts.

Complete Article HERE!

Sitting shiva and los nueve días

— The parallels between Jewish and Latino Catholic mourning

The Latin American practice of los nueve días is in many ways almost identical to that of shiva.

By Amanda Rozon

When I told my father I’d be writing about the Jewish tradition of sitting shiva, he nodded with a clever smile, as if he was about to let me in on an exclusive piece of information.

“We do that too, you know,” he said. “We” being Dominicans.

As it turns out, Jews aren’t the only group that practices consecutive days of prayer and mourning after a death.

Catholics in many Latin American countries, prominently including Mexico and the Dominican Republic, practice los nueve días or novenario — nine days of mourning, named for nove, the Latin word for nine. It’s a practice in many ways almost identical to that of shiva — the Hebrew word for seven — the Jewish custom of mourning a death communally for seven days.

And like many who follow the traditions of shiva, many who practice novenario have plenty of opinions about how to observe the custom correctly.

My father, for one, holds deep resentments toward those who take los nueve días as an opportunity to party. He would not describe himself as spiritual or religious in any way, but he believes the dead should be respected. And if you show up to a novenario for fun and festivities, in his opinion, then you’d better have just stayed home.

Sharon Rose Goldtzvik, who wrote about shiva for the Forward this year, shared a similar reflection from her mother on sitting shiva. “We are not there for the food. We are not there to catch up with our friends. We are there for a specific purpose: to comfort the mourners,” she wrote.

That last part, my father said, is, in his experience, lost on some.

As Jews do, Catholic Latinos start the mourning process the moment the dead are buried. But when someone is buried varies between the two religions.

Jewish law holds that the dead should be buried no more than 24 hours after death, although today, the strictness with which that mandate is observed varies by denomination. So a shiva might and often does begin shortly after death. But because the Catholic church prefers that the deceased’s body be present for the funeral mass, their burial may take days.

For the nine days that follow that burial, things look very similar to shiva.

Family and loved ones gather at the deceased’s home to offer support, both spiritual and material. The long hours are spent remembering the dead, praying, sharing stories and lamenting the loss.

If the mourners are more well off, you show up empty-handed, bringing only emotional support. If the family has little money to spend on refreshments, everyone pitches in.

Members of Joaquina Chavez’s family in 2018 Puebla, Mexico, holding a final prayer for two deceased relatives.

Joaquina Chavez, who immigrated from Puebla, Mexico, to the United States as a teen in the late 1970s and now lives in Woodside, Queens, New York, says los nueve días is especially precious for Mexicans living away from their home country, since many families transport the deceased back to Mexico to be buried. The long period of communal mourning following that burial gives them an opportunity to come together with family members and friends whom they haven’t seen in years, sometimes decades.

“It’s also a time when people in my town forget about politics and issues and congregate and just pray for the family and the dead together,” she said, speaking in Spanish.

One key difference between shiva and los nueve días: While Jews often literally sit shiva — using low stools or pillows to symbolize feeling low in their grief and to be close to the departed — in a crucial part of the mourning ritual, Latino Catholics walk.

On the first day of mourning, a cross is erected next to an altar in the family home that the family will carry to the deceased’s final resting place on the last day, symbolizing the long journey the departed will take to divinity, and their family’s efforts to help get them there.

An altar decorated with pictures and offerings for the departed that remained erect in Chavez’s home for the nine days following the passing of her sister and brother-in-law.

In the nine days leading up to that final passage, ofrendas, or offerings, are also placed at the base of that altar, to be cleared up when the period ends. These can be small gifts one wishes to send off with the deceased — rosaries in vivid colors, fresh flowers and fruit to brighten up an otherwise dreary occasion.

Finally, for those who practice novenario, the mourning period always ends in a feast. In the Dominican Republic, a cow is traditionally killed to feed a crowd. By this point, word has spread across the town, and all are welcome. Whether you knew the deceased or not, no one is turned away.

Despite my father’s caution against a festive novernario, he was moved to tears describing the scene of those in his small hometown between two mountains, many of whom had little money for food, sitting around a fire pit and eating together — lending strength in numbers to help a family grieve.

In Mexico, the feast is also part of the ritual, although it can look different. In her experience, Chavez said, at gatherings before the final feast, the table is laid with “tostados, tamales, tacos, something small to offer.” But on the last day, she said “we make their” — the departed’s — “favorite meal to share with everyone.” In these last crucial steps, the transfer from the hands of loved ones to the hands of God is marked.

In both mourning traditions, this time of communal mourning can give a grieving family the strength to go back to work and to their daily lives. By leaning on each other, they share the burden of loss so it is not too heavy on any one person, they believe, leaving both the soul of the deceased and the spirit of the living intact.

In sum, it’s a way to tell one another that they’re not alone.

Complete Article HERE!

Do Mexicans accept death better than other cultures?

Day of the Dead diffuses the grieving process for loved ones, but it’s still a difficult loss

Funeral procession with taxi in Tenango del Valle, México state. More common in towns and rural areas, processions are rare in Mexico City.

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Oddly, we’d had a casual conversation about Licha’s condition a few weeks ago, when my husband Alejandro assured me that things were OK with his sister-in-law’s cancer treatment.

Then, a few days ago, I hear him talking on the phone with that tone of voice that transcends all linguistic barriers. You know the one — half hushed and 150% serious.

Licha’s death on June 19 was my second experience with a death in Alejandro’s family; the first was 12 years ago. My experiences with these events contrast somewhat with a lot of what is written in English about death in Mexico. The idea that death is dealt with differently here, more easily and readily, might be a little simplistic.

Such writings focus on Day of the Dead and its festive skeletons. It is true that Mexicans have their own way of relating to the general concept of death, but it is not a devil-may-care attitude, especially when it hits home.

As a United States-raised Protestant, both deaths I experienced caught me a bit by surprise because there had been no frank talk beforehand about the serious medical issues both women had.

Funeral at a church in San Francisco Tlaltenco, in Mexico City. The requirement to dress up or wear black seems to vary by region and social status.

In the case of Alejandro’s sister, Lupita, this was kind of understandable as she was only 45 years old. I do not know to this day how much Alex knew of her condition before she went into the hospital for the last time; I think Lupe herself kept most of it secret from the rest of the family.

Licha was in her early 70s — still too young though not quite so tragic — but a similar scenario played out. Everything was OK, or not so bad, until it wasn’t.

Like everywhere else, once death comes in Mexico, ritual and tradition take over. They seem to vary greatly in the details depending on a family’s socioeconomic status.

To get it out of the way, I’ll say that my husband, Alejandro, comes from a lower-working-class urban family — Catholic, but not overwhelmingly so. My husband believes in God but not so much in the church.

In Alex’s family, death is immediately followed by a flurry of phone calls among distant family members discussing decisions whether or not to travel. Mexican families don’t tend to scatter like U.S. ones do, and the need to travel long distances is still rare enough the families might not take this into consideration when making funeral arrangements.

Alex’s family is somewhat scattered in central Mexico, so the decision was made for him to travel to Guadalajara while I would stay in Mexico City.

Like many other cultures, Mexican funeral rites have a wake, or viewing period (although this can be optional), and some kind of ceremony related to the disposal of the body. The details of how these are done vary by local and family traditions along with the economic situation of the family.

There is also a novena, or period of prayer, unless the family is not Catholic.

The wake can last anywhere from 24 to 72 hours, depending on whether the body is embalmed. If not, the body must be buried or cremated within 24 hours.

Aside from this, regulations are not as strict or as pervasive as in other countries, and there is some flexibility in how and where a body is set for viewing. Family members can participate in the preparation of the body, such as applying makeup to the face, with viewings happening in funeral parlors or in people’s homes.

The body is laid out in a coffin and usually separated from viewers by a pane of glass or translucent shroud, though an open casket allowing mourners to touch the body is not unheard of.

Someone is usually with the body day and night at this time, often with one or more people praying. But there is often food and conversation going on as well, especially in the areas farther away from the deceased.

Final rites can be held in the same funeral parlor as the wake or at a church, with the latter being more common in more rural areas — as are processions. In the almost 15 years I have lived in Mexico City, I have never seen any sort of funeral procession, but I have seen them (motorized and on foot) in towns.

In the case of my husband’s sister, the final service was in the funeral home, with only immediate family accompanying the body to the crematorium. Burial is far more traditional, but the lack of space in places like Mexico City has made cremation more acceptable. Burial or the depositing of ashes is often done with a small ceremony.

If you are not from a Mexican Catholic family, the biggest difference for you will be the novena — a nine-day period after the burial when family and close friends gather at least once a day — often after work — to recite the rosary and other prayers for the deceased.

This is done in the deceased’s home or that of a close family member. It often means a crowded house, full of people eating tamales and drinking atole once the somber task of praying for the soul is completed.

Dress codes for public funeral rites vary quite a bit, and it seems mostly to have to do with socioeconomic status. People may wear anything from the most formal attire, preferably in black, or the clothes they wear every day. In my husband’s family, somewhat more formal attire in a darker color suffices.

Although the rites observed in the hours and days after a loved one dies are very important, they don’t seem to take on the sense of urgency that they have in my family. Probably because of Day of the Dead (when many funeral rites are repeated), it is not necessary to show all of your grief immediately.

So, yes, funerals in Mexico are about saying goodbye, but that goodbye is not as absolute as they are in Anglo-Protestant cultures. On Day of the Dead, you have a chance each year to relate to those who have gone before, a psychologically healthy way to deal with lingering grief.

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