Honoring the Body Donors Who Are a Medical Student’s ‘First Patient’

— Gratitude ceremonies give students and faculty members a chance to recognize the sacrifice of those who gave their bodies for medical research and education, and the loved ones they left behind.

Nivedita Ravi and Ryan Cohen, students at Columbia University’s medical school, performed in April at a gratitude ceremony honoring people who had donated their bodies to be studied in the school’s anatomy lab.

By April Rubin

A solemn gathering at Columbia University last month had the trappings of a traditional memorial service. Students and faculty members performed music and gave speeches. The university’s chaplain closed the ceremony with a reflection.

But there was one key difference: No one in the room had ever met the people whose lives were being honored. The attendees were all students and faculty members at Columbia’s medical school, and they were gathered to show gratitude for the people who had donated their bodies for the students to study in the anatomy lab.

“Who were they before?” said Bree Zhang, a first-year dental student. “A parent, a child, a co-worker, a friend? What books did they read? How is their family doing now, and do they know how much their loved one has given me and the rest of us?”

Similar scenes played out across the country this spring as medical, dental and physical therapy students assembled to offer tributes to whole-body donors and their families. At the ceremonies, students perform music, light candles, read letters and share art. (A heart diagram from Ms. Zhang’s anatomy studies, overlaid with her whimsical drawings of books, tree roots and human figures, was projected behind her as she spoke at Columbia.) A nondenominational spiritual leader often plays a role. Sometimes a tree designation or an offering of flowers to a donor’s family is included.

A portrait of a woman in a double-breasted maroon coat sitting in a seat in an auditorium.
Bree Zhang, a first-year dental student at Columbia, spoke at the ceremony and shared artwork inspired by her experience in the anatomy lab.

It is not clear how many people in the United States donate their bodies for medical research and education, though estimates suggest that about 20,000 people or their families do so each year. Criteria vary by program and by state; generally anyone over 18 can become a donor, though people with certain transmissible diseases, such as hepatitis B or C, tuberculosis, H.I.V. or AIDS, are typically excluded. Many programs also exclude bodies that have been autopsied or have had organs removed for donation.

Even with the introduction of elaborate 3-D visualization software, dissection remains a cornerstone of a medical education for most first-year students, as it has for centuries. Students spend months methodically studying the structures of the body, including organs, tendons, veins and tissue. The experience teaches more than the foundations of medicine. Treating the donor, who is viewed as a doctor’s first patient, with respect and care gives students a grounding in ethics and professionalism, said Joy Balta, the chair of the American Association for Anatomy’s human body donation committee.

Recognizing a sacrifice

Body donation is a selfless act by the donors, as well as by their families, who can wait as long as a couple of years to receive the ashes. The memorials, often called ceremonies of appreciation or gratitude, recognize the sacrifice.

“You’re able to think about the donor that you’ve been working with,” said Dr. Balta, who is also the director of the Anatomy Learning Institute at Point Loma Nazarene University in San Diego. “These are people,” he added, “that donated their bodies, that wanted you to work with them to improve science and health care.”

The Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons at Columbia began hosting a donor gratitude ceremony in the late 1970s as a way of marking an experience that “is very difficult for some students and really transformative,” said Paulette Bernd, who runs the school’s clinical gross anatomy course.

Three women in medical scrubs and protective aprons consult a textbook while examining a cadaver on a gurney in a laboratory.
Georgetown University medical students, from left, Justine Mann, Lauren Bierman and Jacqueline Antonishek, with a donor body in an anatomy lab in 2011.

Relatives of the donors are invited to the events at some schools. At others, the ceremonies are only for students and faculty members, an extension of the anonymity that is provided to the donors in the lab. At Brown University, for instance, only a donor’s age, cause of death, marital status and occupation are shared with students, and the donor’s hands and faces are covered for much of the process.

“The bodies go through this whole process of being de-identified,” said Nidhi Bhaskar, a first-year medical student who helped coordinate a gratitude ceremony at Brown this month. “And this is a really great way to re-humanize them. We take into account the very real gift they left, and the family members who are still processing their loss.”

The anatomy lab can be a fraught experience for medical students, for whom “it may be their first experience where they’re dealing with death and dying,” said Dr. Daniel Topping, a clinical associate professor in the department of anatomy and cell biology at the University of Florida College of Medicine.

Abby Carey-Ewend, a second-year student at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, remembers being incredibly nervous about it.

“But when I started it,” she said, “I realized that it was really a phenomenal opportunity to be able to work with three other students and one donor, and to really learn the intricacies of the human body from something beyond a textbook or videos.”

Ms. Carey-Ewend helped plan the appreciation ceremony for her medical program, which was held in April. A priority, she said, was acquainting family members of the donors with the campus community and the students their loved ones had helped educate.

‘I knew she was helping somebody.’

Among the guests at the ceremony at Washington University was Regina Dunn. When her mother, Louise Dunn, died in July at 90, she was too distraught to plan a funeral. The donor remembrance was Louise Dunn’s first memorial service, she said.

“They just made you feel so comfortable,” Regina Dunn said of the students. “And a lot of people wanted that closure.”

Louise Dunn, who opened a modeling school for women of color in St. Louis in 1960, was driven throughout her life by a desire to help people, her daughter said. So it was not surprising that she wanted to continue to help others after her death, Ms. Dunn said, even if some of her survivors had to overcome a degree of apprehension over her decision to donate her body to science.

A close-up image shows a row of people dressed in white holding white flowers by the stem.
Medical students paying their respects to body donors at Zhejiang University in Hangzhou, China, in 2018.

Regina Dunn said that a Black student told a friend who accompanied her to the ceremony that having a Black donor in the lab, when most donors are white, had a profound impact.

“I felt honored, I really did,” Ms. Dunn said, “because I knew she was helping somebody.”

For the family of Michael Haas, who donated his body to the Indiana University School of Medicine, a gratitude ceremony last month was a full-circle moment in several ways.

It was held on April 16, four days before the anniversary of Mr. Haas’s death, his wife, Molly Haas, said. The ceremony was held on the university’s campus in Bloomington, Ind., where the couple were engaged in 1970. The families received white and red carnations; Ms. Haas recalled that her husband always bought her red carnations.

Both decided to donate their bodies in 2012, around the time that the symptoms of Mr. Haas’s Alzheimer’s disease began to show. For Mr. Haas, a former social worker and Episcopal priest, becoming a whole-body donor was a way of extending a lifelong mission of service, his wife said.

“His values, his ethics were always very generous,” Ms. Haas said.

‘A great sense of gratitude’

The appreciation ceremonies are typically planned by students, but they also give the faculty members who run the anatomy labs a way of processing their relationships with the people who donate their bodies for medical education.

“I feel a great sense of gratitude and responsibility and honor every time I’m around a donor,” said Dr. Topping, of the University of Florida. “It’s a very sacred thing for me.”

When the Zucker School of Medicine at Hofstra University, on Long Island, made its gratitude ceremony a virtual event during the coronavirus pandemic, it allowed donor relatives from across the country and around the world to participate, said Robert Hill, an associate professor. In 2020, relatives of one donor logged on from India, he said.

A man standing behind a music stand performs a piece on the violin to an audience in an academic auditorium.
The Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons at Columbia has been hosting donor gratitude ceremonies since the 1970s, said Paulette Bernd, who runs the school’s clinical gross anatomy course.

Nirusha Lachman, the chair of the department of clinical anatomy at the Mayo Clinic College of Medicine and Science, attended her first gratitude ceremony about 40 years ago when she was a student in South Africa, and she has since spoken at several.

The gatherings, she said, serve to drive home the point that donors live on through the education that their bodies have provided.

“You want this to resonate, even with the families,” Dr. Lachman said, “that death was not the end for their loved ones.”

Complete Article HERE!


— The Ritual Of Taking On The Sins Of The Dead

Ritual of eating the sins of the dead

by Andrei Tapalaga

Throughout history, various cultures have developed unique rituals and practices surrounding death and mourning. One such intriguing tradition is sin eating, a ritual in which a designated person consumes food or performs a ceremony to symbolically take on the sins of the deceased. In this article, we delve into the history, cultural significance, and psychological implications of sin-eating.

Origins and Historical Context of Sin Eating

The origins of sin-eating can be traced back to ancient civilizations. In many cultures, death was seen as a transformative process, and the belief in the transference of sins to another person or object emerged as a way to cleanse the departed soul. Sin-eating rituals were prevalent in societies where the concept of sin and the afterlife held significant religious and spiritual meaning.

Sin-eating rituals varied across different regions and cultures. In some instances, a designated sin eater, often a marginalized member of society, would be called upon to perform the ritual. In other cases, family members or close friends would partake in the symbolic act of consuming food or engaging in ceremonial practices to absolve the deceased of their sins. These rituals served as a form of catharsis and a means to ensure the spiritual well-being of the departed.

Symbolism and Beliefs Associated with Sin Eating

At the heart of sin-eating is the belief that the sins of the deceased can be transferred to another individual. The act of consuming food or engaging in ritualistic practices symbolizes the assumption of guilt and responsibility for the sins committed during the lifetime of the departed. Sin eaters were often seen as sacrificial figures, taking on the burden of the deceased’s transgressions to facilitate their journey into the afterlife.

Sin-eating rituals also had a communal aspect. By absorbing the sins of the deceased, sin eaters played a vital role in purifying the community and maintaining social order. The ritual was believed to restore harmony and balance, ensuring that the sins of the departed did not linger and cause harm to the living. The presence of a sin eater provided solace to grieving families and served as a means of closure and reconciliation.

Psychological and Societal Implications of Sin Eating

Sin-eating rituals offered a way for individuals and communities to cope with the emotional and psychological impact of death. Engaging in symbolic acts of absorbing sins provided a sense of closure and relief, allowing mourners to navigate the complex emotions associated with loss and guilt. By externalizing and transferring the sins to another person or object, individuals could process their grief and find solace in the belief that their loved ones had been spiritually redeemed.

Sin eaters often occupied marginalized positions within society. Their role as sin absorbers ostracized them from mainstream communities, yet they were simultaneously valued for their spiritual service. This duality highlights the complex dynamics between societal norms, beliefs, and the need for spiritual guidance during times of death and mourning. The presence of sin eaters reflects the intricate relationship between outcasts and the communities that rely on their unique services.

Contemporary Perspectives and Legacy of Sin Eating

With the passage of time, sin-eating rituals have declined and become increasingly rare. As societies modernized and religious beliefs shifted, the practice lost its prevalence. However, sin-eating continues to be studied and analyzed for its cultural, psychological, and anthropological significance. Contemporary scholars and researchers delve into its historical context and attempt to understand its enduring legacy on funeral customs and the human experience of death.

The legacy of sin-eating lies in its ability to shed light on the intricate relationship between death, guilt, and spiritual redemption. As a historical and cultural artifact, sin-eating serves as a testament to human attempts to grapple with the complexities of mortality and the quest for spiritual purity. The rituals associated with sin-eating offer valuable insights into the diverse ways in which different societies have confronted the existential questions surrounding life and death.

Sin eating stands as a captivating and thought-provoking practice that invites us to explore the multifaceted aspects of human culture, belief systems, and our eternal quest for understanding the mysteries of life and death. While its prevalence has waned over time, the rituals and symbolism associated with sin-eating continue to captivate our imagination, reminding us of the profound significance of rituals and customs in shaping our perception of the world and the afterlife.

Complete Article HERE!

We have the power to reimagine how we die and how we mourn

— We live queer lives—and we can die queer deaths too

By Zena Sharman

At the funeral for Jamie Lee Hamilton, a trans Two-Spirit and Métis Cree activist and sex worker advocate, her community sang and danced to “Respect” and “Sisters Are Doing It for Themselves” during the church service and ate cupcakes decorated with rainbows and red umbrellas. When disabled queer Korean activist and organizer Stacey Park Milbern died, her community organized and livestreamed a 150-car caravan in Oakland and shared tributes under the hashtag #StaceyTaughtUs. Shatzi Weisberger, a Jewish dyke, death educator and activist known to many as the People’s Bubbie, died in 2022 at age 92. She got a head start on her funeral four years earlier by hosting her own FUN-eral, a death-themed party where her friends decorated a biodegradable coffin with glitter and got temporary tattoos while being serenaded by the Brooklyn Women’s Chorus.

What would you picture if I invited you to imagine your own gloriously queer funeral? Maybe it wouldn’t be a funeral at all, but a celebration of life, or a drag show, a brunch, a protest or a rave. Maybe it would be all of these things and more. Would there be sequins and glitter? Dapper suits and splendid hats? Leather and denim? Cozy onesies? No clothes at all? My ideal scenario is a cross between a potluck, a magic ritual and a dance party; I like to imagine my beloved people dressed in whatever they feel most comfortable in. I hope they sing, dance, eat, laugh and cry together, resplendent in their many expressions of queerness as they gather in remembrance and celebration.

Instead of a single event, you might want several gatherings reflecting different facets of your life: a religious service by day, followed by a raucous night at a dungeon, or an intimate ceremony for only your polycule, before a larger memorial open to all of the people who knew and loved you. For some, it might feel good for your chosen and families of origin to mourn together; for others, it will be important to create protected spaces that intentionally keep out your estranged parents or your transphobic aunt. You might choose rituals, traditions or ceremonies that are part of your cultural, spiritual or ancestral practices, or want something completely secular. Maybe you’ll want a virtual memorial so your friends and loved ones from all over can remember you together, or invite people to mourn you privately in whatever ways feel right to them. What we imagine can be as unique as we are.

Our wildest imaginings likely differ from stereotypical depictions of funerals as formal, sombre events where black-clad mourners stand sadly around a heavy wooden coffin. Queerness offers us ways of perceiving and being in the world around us while making and remaking it through a distinctly queer lens. While the conditions of LGBTQ2S+ people’s lives often push us into unwanted proximity with death, we have the power to reimagine how we die and how we mourn. This includes active resistance to the violence and oppression that cuts short too many LGBTQ2S+ people’s lives and an invitation to subvert the beliefs and practices getting in the way of dying queerly, on our own terms. When we queer death, dying and mourning, they become sites of creativity, self-determination, collective care and resisting oppression, creating opportunities to challenge dominant ideas, practices and narratives that limit our ability to express who we are at every stage of our lives, including when we die.

As a death doula and self-identified death nerd, I talk about death a lot, and I’ve noticed that people tend to have one of two instinctive reactions when I bring it up: they recoil, regarding me strangely—or they lean in, wanting to know more. These leaning-in moments feel intimate to me. They often come with stories about a beloved person who died, questions about grief and death and the kinship of knowing it’s safe to talk about something that can feel unsayable. I’ve had these tender exchanges with friends, co-workers and strangers, which shows me how hungry many of us are for spaces where we can talk openly about death. There’s something about these interactions that feels inherently queer to me: holding space for each other while we share a raw or vulnerable truth, or reveal parts of ourselves that we’ve learned to keep hidden away.

Many of us have internalized a tendency to avoid talking about death, an instinct that can be accompanied by feelings of fear, anxiety or denial. When we do think about it, we may keep our thoughts to ourselves because we don’t feel ready to start a conversation about death with the people around us, or because we’ve consistently received messages that talking candidly about death or grief is risky or off-limits. For some of us—especially racialized, Mad and disabled people—talking openly about death or freely expressing grief can lead to pathologization or criminalization.

It can feel overwhelming to confront our mortality or that of the people we love, and many of us haven’t been taught the basics of what the dying process looks like, or what to do when someone dies. Before my oldest child was born, we went to a prenatal class to learn what happens during and after a birth. I wish I’d had a similar opportunity to learn about death a decade ago when I was caring for my mom at the end of her life. “We’re hungry to understand our own death and our own mortality and the death that surrounds us all the time, in a more real way,” Santa Fe, New Mexico-based death educator and host of the Death Curious podcast, Alexandra “Aries” Jo, tells me. They attribute this hunger to the stripping away of death from our everyday, mundane lives.

It hasn’t always been this way. It used to be more common in North America to experience death as a collective, community event. Deaths were more likely to happen at home, where family and community members—often women—cared for their own dead. Some communities have kept these traditions alive as part of their faith or cultural practices, and a growing number of people are accessing home hospice care. But for many of us, the past century has brought with it the increasing medicalization and professionalization of death and death care, transforming it into something that happens behind closed doors in settings such as hospitals or funeral homes. As a result, historian Katherine Arnup explains in a Vanier Institute report on death and dying in Canada, the experience of death has become “very foreign and frightening” for many people.

Yet it feels like an oversimplification to speak about death avoidance or the place of death in our everyday lives without acknowledging that many people and communities live and die in contexts saturated with death and grief, experiences that are tied to systemic oppression. “Loss is a part of life. Bereavement is natural. Grief is natural,” Oakland, California-based author and media justice activist Malkia Devich-Cyril tells me, “but mechanized loss, racialized loss, loss that comes as a result of inequality—that’s not natural. It is unnatural and it is the direct result of groups of people [in power] refusing to lose.” Devich-Cyril, author of a forthcoming book on Black grief and radical loss, points to how these forms of loss produce “an undue burden on those of us who have less power in the world. Grief becomes not only a consequence of disadvantage, but a cause of disadvantage and of disproportionate experiences of grief.”

Stefanie Lyn Kaufman-Mthimkhulu, a Providence, Rhode Island-based disability justice educator and organizer, challenges the idea that the COVID-19 pandemic prompted many people to confront death for the first time. When faced with this sentiment, Kaufman-Mthimkhulu tells me, “So many disabled folks I’m in community with are like, ‘Okay yeah, maybe for you, but not for us.’” Kaufman-Mthimkhulu’s own relationship with death and dying is shaped by being a younger disabled person who has experienced shifts in their body’s capacity and access needs while grappling with medical ableism. It’s also been influenced by their experiences of navigating chronic suicidality. When reckoning with their own mortality, Kaufman-Mthimkhulu draws on the “lessons in impermanence” that come with the “dynamics of living and dying on crip time.”

While I’ve read lots of books and taken several courses to learn more about death, dying and grief, the first people to teach me important lessons about collective care for dying people and how to come together in mourning were leatherdykes a generation older than me who’d lived through the AIDS crisis. It was they who showed me how to organize end-of-life care outside of inadequate and inaccessible state-run systems. They showed me it was possible to stop traffic to sing our beloved dead through the street into their memorial celebration. In these ways, they were part of a lineage of LGBTQ2S+ people who cared for their own dying and dead community members as part of a wider response to the state abandonment and systemic discrimination characteristic of the AIDS crisis in the 1980s and 1990s. Our lineages include experiences of immense loss and collective grief and trauma; they also include organized resistance, collective care and a refusal to abandon each other during and after death.

Today, in my own circles as a queer person, more than one friend has expressed surprise to me at having lived into their thirties or forties, ages they were convinced they’d never live to see. With waves of anti-trans legislation and fascist violence currently sweeping North America, many trans people are fearful of increased violence and risk of harm, prompting some to hold protest signs with the message: “The trans agenda is an average life expectancy.” While supportive of the larger death positive movement, Los Angeles, California-based end-of-life doula, writer and educator Vanessa Carlisle, who is queer and non-binary, tells me they prefer to think of themself as “death accepting” because “I don’t need to be death positive about how much death is happening in my community.” Carlisle, who has deep roots in LGBTQ2S+ and sex worker communities, emphasizes their commitment to fighting for community survival as part of their work in end-of-life care. They want the communities they’re part of “to survive and be happy and well in a world that seems hell bent on destroying us.”

Sarah Chavez, the Los Angeles, California-based executive director of the death education and advocacy non-profit The Order of the Good Death and a founding member of The Collective for Radical Death Studies, affirms that this spirit of resistance and solidarity is integral to death positivity. Chavez, who co-founded the modern death positive movement in 2011, tells me that death positivity is fundamentally “about engaging and talking about death in an honest and open way, without shame.” She emphasizes that we cannot do this “without engaging with the systems and conditions that lead to unacceptable or bad deaths that result from violence, a lack of care, and all forms of systemic oppression.” 

“Queering death is also an opportunity to challenge narrow and limiting understandings of what constitutes a good death.”

How we die is intimately interwoven with how we live, Chavez points out, and “the exact same experiences and barriers that individuals encounter in life typically follow them right into death,” shaping our end-of-life experiences and what happens to our bodies after we die. She cites the example of the added stressors a dying person who is undocumented and their loved ones might face at end of life, like fear of deportation, family separation, language barriers, lack of access to cultural practices and the added costs associated with repatriation of someone’s body to their home or ancestral country. These barriers are systemic: a third of U.S. hospice programs limit access or outright refuse to care for undocumented people at end of life. This is why, for me, queering death demands the transformation of our health and end-of-life care systems and is wholly aligned with an abolitionist politic that includes border abolition.

Queering death is also an opportunity to challenge narrow and limiting understandings of what constitutes a good death. As researchers Cindy L. Cain and Sara McLesky write in an academic article on expanding definitions of the “good death,” qualities often associated with a “good” death—like not being a burden to others or mending familial relationships—“de-individualize the experience of death and disregard diversity within definitions of what is good.” These mainstream understandings, which shape the design of everything from our end-of-life care systems to the laws and policies governing death and dying to the training of hospice and palliative care providers, prioritize “a vision of dying that may not be achievable” or desirable to all patients and function as “a form of social control that seeks to discipline patients and their family members.”

An example of this is the ableism often inherent in stereotypical ideas of a good death. Kaufman-Mthimkhulu tells me they’ve often heard people describe a good death as “someone who’s died silently in their sleep at night, who’s a burden on no one and nothing.” They connect this to the “tremendous amount of fear” many of us internalize about “losing capacity, becoming more interdependent or more reliant on other people, or entering into new kinds of relationship dynamics where power might be shifting.” This is a very real fear for the disabled Canadians being systemically denied the supports they need to live while the government expands their access to medical aid in dying. At the same time, the ability to maintain our independence shouldn’t be the foundation on which we build our ideas of a good death. As in all facets of our lives, death is an opportunity to embrace interdependence as a foundational principle of disability justice. That’s why Kaufman-Mthimkhulu’s idea of a good death is “somebody who is able to move through the process of dying in a way that adheres to their values and beliefs and is met with compassionate, competent, self-determined care.”

In a blog post on what the death positive movement isn’t, Caitlin Doughty, the mortician and advocate who founded The Order of the Good Death, writes that it’s imperative to support communities to define “what a ‘good death’ means to them” and to work alongside each other to dismantle the barriers that get in the way of such deaths. When I think of how I might define what a good death means to me, I’m reminded of the consent practices I’ve learned from being part of sex-positive queer communities for the past twenty years. What feels good in the context of my embodied experiences, my identities, my relationships and my history might not feel good to you, and vice versa. When I contemplate this more broadly in relation to queering death and dying, I return to the themes of creativity, self-determination, collective care and resisting oppression.

To me, queering death is part of a larger liberatory project encompassing our efforts to fight for the survival and thriving of all communities experiencing systemic oppression. As a longtime LGBTQ2S+ health advocate, the more I look at death, the more I think about how we live our lives, what enables our individual and collective flourishing, and what gets in the way, at every stage of our lives. Queering death is about when, where and how we die, the care, support and options we have access to during this process, and what happens to us and our loved ones after our deaths. It’s also about actively working for a world where all LGBTQ2S+ people—especially those who experience the most significant and harmful impacts of systemic oppression, like people who are trans, racialized, Indigenous, disabled, Mad, poor, incarcerated, unhoused and/or undocumented—have what they need to live long, full, joyful lives free from violence and harm. Queering death is not about hastening the inevitable; it’s about fighting for us all to live and die in ways that respect, honour and celebrate every aspect of who we are.

Complete Article HERE!

Meet the startup “growing” mushroom caskets and urns to “enrich life after death”

— When it comes to matters of life and death, there may be a missing key ingredient of conversation: mushrooms.

Director Lonneke Westhoff, right, and founder Bob Hendrikx, left, of Dutch startup Loop Biotech display one of the cocoon-like coffins, grown from local mushrooms and up-cycled hemp fibres, designed to dissolve into the environment amid growing demand for more sustainable burial practices, in Delft, Netherlands, Monday, May 22, 2023.

By Li Cohen

A new startup has found that fungi can go beyond filling people’s plates while they are alive. They can also be used to take care of their bodies once they’re dead. The company, Loop Biotech, is “growing” coffins and urns by combining mycelium – the root structure of mushrooms – with hemp fiber.

The founders of the company say they want to “collaborate with nature to give humanity a positive footprint,” a goal that is difficult to achieve with today’s common burial practices.

A study published last year in Chemosphere, a peer-reviewed scientific journal, found that cemeteries can be potential sources of soil and water contamination, with people in urban areas that live close to packed cemeteries are most at-risk of those effects. Heavy metals are among the pollutants that can leach into the soil and water, the study found.

And even if people opt for cremation, that process emits “several pollutants,” including carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides and sulfur dioxide, the authors of the study said.

Shawn Harris, a U.S. investor in Loop Biotech, told the Associated Press that the startup is a way to change that situation.&

“We all have different cultures and different ways of wanting to be buried in the world. But I do think there’s a lot of us, a huge percentage of us, that would like it differently,” he said. “And it’s been very old school the same way for 50 or 100 years.”

Loop Biotech offers three options, all of which they say are “100% nature” – a “Living Cocoon” that looks like a stone casket, a “ForestBed,” which they say is the “world’s first living funeral carrier” that looks like a thin open-top casket covered with moss in its bed, and an urn for those who prefer to be cremated that comes with a plant of choice to sprout up from the ashes.

All of these items, the Dutch company says, are “grown in just 7 days” and biodegrade in only 45 days once they are buried.

“Instead of: ‘we die, we end up in the soil and that’s it,’ now there is a new story: We can enrich life after death and you can continue to thrive as a new plant or tree,” the startup’s 29-year-old founder Bob Hendrikx told the Associated Press. “It brings a new narrative in which we can be part of something bigger than ourselves.”

Along with being more environmentally friendly than traditional burials, the products are also cheaper, ranging from about $200 to just over $1,000. A metal burial casket costs, on average, $2,500, according to the National Funeral Directors Association’s 2021 report, and a cremation casket and urn combined cost an average of about $1,600. Wood burial caskets cost even more, about $3,000.

For now, Loop Biotech is making about 500 coffins or urns a month, and ships them only across Europe, the AP reported.

“It’s the Northern European countries where there is more consciousness about the environment and also where there’s autumn,” Hendrikx said. “So they know and understand the mushroom, how it works, how it’s part of the ecosystem.”

Complete Article HERE!

Leaving the earth a better place

By Kathleen McQuillan

Three young men work in silence excavating the place where their grandmother’s body will be buried — free of harsh embalming chemicals or the effects of a fiery furnace.
No concrete vault or steel casket. Her remains are “dressed” in her favorite pajamas and wrapped in a simple white cotton shroud, ready to be placed in a designated plot of ground at what is called a “conservation burial site”. A hand-made wicker basket housed her body for the length of time it took to decompose. The lid was covered with dried ferns, rose petals, and her favorite wildflowers. Although the men have agreed to silence, nothing stops a steady flow of memories, some of which will be shared for the lowering of her body into this hallowed ground. With explicit details on how to prepare the site, they are fulfilling their role in what will be remembered as their family’s ritual of final good-byes.

As I read this story, I recalled the burial rite for my mother who died five years ago. My brothers and I agreed to dispense of a formal funeral because most of our extended family were scattered across the country and all of my mother’s closest friends had predeceased her. Not aware of alternatives, we decided on a simple cremation and planned to disperse Mom’s ashes at a place we’d named “Karen’s Rock”.

Located up a hill and across an abandoned pasture left fallow for at least thirty years, a massive granite boulder rises out of the willow brush and wild plum. My guess is that it was deposited there by an advancing glacier scraping its way across the landscape some ten thousand years ago. When my sister died in 1997, this was where I sprinkled her ashes with my family in full agreement that this unique rock monument would act as a suitable headstone. On the day we sprinkled our mother’s ashes, I and my siblings shared a warm and comforting thought. Our mother was finally reunited with her daughter.

The opening to this story was inspired by an article entitled “Down to Earth” by Kathy Jesse that appears in the Spring issue of the National Wildlife Federation magazine. It examines “eco-friendly alternatives” to the conventional funeral practices of embalming and cremation. I’d heard of “green burials” but never “natural organic reduction” or NOR, a process that places human remains in a specialized vessel with a mixture of organic materials that hasten decomposition. After six weeks, the body is fully transformed into compostable soil that is, in most cases, returned to the family for final disposition. There are twenty NOR facilities in seven states with accompanying tracts of land called “conservation burial sites” where composted remains can be buried and the land eventually available for reclamation and reforestation. Minnesota is not among them.

Interest in alternative burial practices is increasing, partly because of growing environmental concerns with embalming and cremation, and also due to increased use of services provided by hospice professionals and death doulas dedicated to educating and supporting families’ direct involvement in end-of-life decision-making and caregiving. Americans, as a whole, are becoming more at ease with issues surrounding the final stages of life. More of us are completing Advanced Directives that clarify our preferences regarding medical interventions as death draws near. Books and podcasts abound that focus on death as an inevitable and natural part of life to be discussed openly rather than denied, avoided and feared.

Since the mid-1800s, Americans have adopted embalming, burials in vaults and caskets, and more recently, cremation as our conventional methods for disposing of our bodies after death. These practices have become increasingly expensive, creating enormous financial burdens on grieving families. According to Jesse’s article, a study conducted by the National Funeral Directors Association in 2021 states “the average cost of a casket burial in the United States is $7,848, with cremation averaging $6,970.” And these figures don’t include the cost of a burial plot.

Green burials and NOR are significantly less expensive. They also inflict far less harm on the environment. As earth’s human population approaches 8 billion, how we handle our physical remains becomes an ever-increasing concern. Most of us are clustered in urban areas. The land available for burials is rapidly declining. When we take a look at the volume of natural resources consumed each year for burials — an estimated 20 million board feet of hardwoods and 64,500 tons of steel used for caskets, and 1.6 million tons of concrete for burial vaults; the toxins that leak into the soil from an estimated 4.3 million gallons of embalming fluid made of formaldehyde and other carcinogens; and atmospheric pollution from crematorium emissions estimated conservatively at 140 to 250 pounds of carbon dioxide per person — the need for less polluting alternatives becomes ever clearer!

Dr. Sara Kerr PhD., a Canadian educator, certified death doula, and founder of The Centre for Sacred DeathCare in Calgary, Alberta states on her website that NOR uses 1/8th the energy of cremation (furnaces must reach 1900 degrees F. and maintain that temperature for two hours), and NOR sequesters its carbon (about one pound per person) back into the soil. She describes human composting as “a collaborative vision in service to ecological restoration, regenerative agriculture, grief-tending, and land-based healing.”

Just imagine… our bodies giving back to Nature … a final gesture of good will in return for the life it gave us. As this method gains greater acceptance, our death rituals will evolve, bringing us together to mourn and celebrate the lives of our deceased and with a deeper understanding that death is less an “ending” and more a “returning”. For those of us standing by, we can be comforted knowing that this final act did not degrade the earthly home left behind, but instead helped to restore it.

Complete Article HERE!

The uphill battle for LGBTQ people after death

The Louisiana LGBTQ+ End of Life Guide. Though it was made with Louisiana’s laws in mind, creators of the guide are hoping to adapt and expand it to every state in the country.

By Katy Reckdahl and Christiana Botic

Three years ago, Robert Turner, a retired computer analyst in New Orleans, was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. So far, Turner, 63, only feels slightly stiff and a bit slower in his motion. “I tell my doctor I’m on the 20-year plan of surviving this,” he said.

Still, because Parkinson’s is progressive, his sister, a geriatric nurse, imagines the worst.

So Turner spent part of last week leafing through the 35-page Louisiana LGBTQ+ End of Life Guide, created in New Orleans about a year ago. It’s thought to be the first of its kind in the United States.

He’s been focused mainly on the guide’s first of four sections, called “When You’re Well,” which deals with Louisiana law and death planning, advance directives and wills. “I’m not ruling out a future husband, but there’s not one currently,” he said, as he outlined where his possessions will go and who can make funeral arrangements for him.

Robert Turner at home in New Orleans. He has Parkinson’s and is utilizing the Louisiana LGBTQ+ End of Life Guide.

Turner understands the stress of not having the proper legal framework in place when a loved one passes. “It’s just one of those things that we all put off and we all need to do,” Turner said. “My first husband died of AIDS in the early ’90s. We had scheduled a lawyer to come visit him in the hospital the next day, and he died that night.”

“Louis was really my first boyfriend, my first partner, my first husband, even though gay marriage was, of course, not legal in Louisiana then,” Turner said. “I didn’t have anything legal to show for his estate that he was my partner.”

A handmade magnolia wood urn holds the remains of Turner’s late husband, Louis Magee, who died at 38.
Turner looks at a photo of him and Louis.

The guide is the brainchild of Ezra Salter, 31, a funeral director in suburban New Orleans.

The onus to create this comprehensive guide came after Salter started dating their partner, Keira, a transgender woman. Salter, who identifies as nonbinary, was shocked at the disapproval that came from family. Salter feared what might happen if one of them died but couldn’t find a centralized, readily accessible resource to help them navigate the issue.

Neither of the pair have changed their names legally, and though relationships with family are improving, the tensions have remained. Salter’s parents haven’t met Keira during the 10 years they have been together. Some members of Keira’s family still refer to her by the name she was given at birth, known as a “deadname.”

Nonbinary funeral director Ezra Salter, who created the Louisiana LGBTQ+ End of Life Guide, at Metairie Cemetery.
Salter walks through Metairie Cemetery.
Salter holds Keira’s hand. The married couple have been together for 10 years.

In collaboration with several experts, Salter published the Louisiana LGBTQ+ End of Life Guide in 2022.

Salter said they frequently hear from guide users that “‘I never thought of this, I thought that power of attorney was enough,’ and not fully understanding the depth of what they need to protect themselves.”

“Getting documents in line prevents some heartaches,” Salter said of planning for death for unmarried couples in the LGBTQ+ community. “It’s difficult to see someone struggle with the idea that the husband who they used to sleep next to every night is sitting dead in a cooler because you can’t cremate them earlier unless you have this magic piece of paper.”

The family tension Salter speaks of is a common experience among members of the queer community. It makes the guide a necessity.

Salter and Keira, left, watch television at their home.

Nicholas Hite, of the Hite Law Group in New Orleans, founded his own law group in 2013 and focuses on LGBTQ+ representation. “Part of preparing, legally, for death is understanding that it’s most often not a lightning-bolt moment, where you’re alive one minute and dead the next, because of medical care and the nature of modern life.”

“For queer folks, your biological family — the people who are legally the next in line to make decisions — are oftentimes the last people that you want making your decisions,” he said. “So you need legal paperwork allowing your most closely held individuals — who aren’t necessarily married to you or related by blood — to be in the hospital and at the funeral home with you and on your behalf.”

Lawyer Nicholas Hite at his office in New Orleans.

Three years ago, because Ellen Stultz lacked such paperwork, she spent three months trying to claim the body of her close friend Oscar White, 62, who died without a partner or known family. “The situation was hard for me, still is really hard for me,” said Stultz, who has fond memories of French Quarter strolls and whiled-away afternoons at White’s apartment with his little family of adopted stray dogs.

After two months, she started to worry that White would be buried in an unmarked grave. She called the morgue every day, then connected with Salter through mutual friends. Within a week, she’d received a box in the mail containing White’s ashes.

Ellen Stultz saved the USPS box that conveyed the ashes of her friend Oscar White.

“His death was so traumatic,” Stultz said. “Yes, this is something that happened, but it seems like it doesn’t have to.”

Stultz did all she could within the system to claim White’s remains. Though no one else was requesting them, the state would not release the remains because she was not a blood relative. “When I first called the morgue, they were like, ‘Wait and see if any next of kin comes to claim his body.’ And at this point, he’d already been there a month. They didn’t really have much advice except just, ‘Keep calling,’” Stultz said. “Once I got Ezra involved, having someone to advocate for me, that’s all it took.”

Stultz holds White’s ashes.
Stultz holds photos of White and their group of friends in New Orleans.

For gender-diverse people, death arrangements have added complications, said Salter, who often hears the same questions again and again. “Who’s going to handle my body when I die, and how can I make sure that they use the right name and the right pronoun?”

“As I became trained in funeral service, I asked specific questions a lot, to every professional I met,” Salter said. “I’d raise a lot of hypothetical questions —“I’m asking for a friend.” I made it my business to get these answers because it was not clear anywhere online. I kept what I call a ‘chaotic Google Doc’ of everything I knew about funeral services.”

“I put my own life and, sort of, my own transition on hold to gain knowledge and work in a system, so that I can then go help people outside of the system who still need to interact with this institution and, you know, bridge the gap,” Salter said of working in the corporate funeral industry.

Salter holds a casket key they use at the funeral home where they work.
Makeup used to cosmeticize the dead.
The parlor room at Salter’s funeral home.

Hospital policies rarely deal with what gender (or nongender) should be assigned on death certificates, said Dietz, a contributor to the Louisiana guide who works as an advocate for transgender health care. (Dietz uses a mononym, without a surname.)

Most often, gender determination is made by the doctor signing the death certificate. But gender markers from medical records can be unreliable, since transgender people who still need prostate exams or Pap smears — considered “gender-specific care,” may retain their birth gender, even if they change gender on driver’s licenses, Dietz said.

“Oftentimes, life feels so overwhelming to LGBTQ+ people, depending on your layers of intersecting identities that are oppressed. So it can be really hard to prepare for death when we’re trying so hard to live,” Dietz said.

Because laws and institutional policies vary greatly between states, the creators of the Louisiana guide hope to create similar guides for every state, through a partnership with the national death-care advocacy group the Order of the Good Death.

Dietz, a contributor to the Louisiana LGBTQ+ End of Life Guide, at home in New Orleans.

In Louisiana, all powers of attorney expire at the time of death, said Liz Dunnebacke, who helped publish the guide through her New Orleans nonprofit, Wake, which provides death-care information and resources.

So even if someone has prearranged their own funeral, their next of kin can legally override those plans. “Your estranged mother can blow in 30 years later, order a full Catholic service with rites and exclude your chosen family from the ceremony,” Dunnebacke said.

That nightmare can be averted through the Funeral and Disposition of Remains Directive, a newly minted, two-page form. “The legal code existed, but no document. So we created one, which we now make available,” Dunnebacke said.

The directive, once notarized, identifies who will make decisions about physical remains and funeral ceremonies. It is an essential step, both legally and emotionally, Hite said.

“You know, many of us spend our entire lives fighting to get control and autonomy over our bodies,” he said. “The guide empowers folks to continue to maintain control over themselves, even after they’re dead.”

Complete Article HERE!

Returning to Our Roots

— The Rise in Human Composting

More Americans are turning to human composting—now legal in six states—to avoid the environmental pitfalls of mainstream deathcare.

by Britany Robinson

Frederick “Fritz” Weresch planned on becoming a math teacher or a famous actor. He was empathetic and diplomatic, known to gently encourage the shy students to speak up in class. The high school senior loved music, learned the piano as a child, and had recently taught himself to play guitar.

He also, according to his friends, had talked about wanting to be composted after he died. His parents, Eileen and Wes Weresch, wanted this for themselves, too. They just never imagined they’d be carrying out Fritz’s wishes before their own.

Fritz, 18, was found unconscious on November 30, 2022. He died six days later from unknown but natural causes, according to his family,

His parents are still wading through the thick of mourning. “Grief brain” is making it hard to remember certain details about the months since Fritz’s death, Eileen said. But one thing she and her husband feel good and confident about was their decision to have Fritz’s body undergo human composting, also known as natural organic reduction or “terramation.”

Human composting is the process of turning human remains into nutrient-rich soil. It’s an option that avoids the environmental pitfalls of more mainstream practices: cremation releases carbon dioxide and air pollutants, and casket burial typically involves hazardous embalming chemicals and nonbiodegradable materials.

It’s a practice that some say could shift the United States’ $20 billion deathcare industry. More than 52% of Americans are interested in “green burial,” according to a 2019 survey from the National Funeral Directors’ Association (NFDA).

Six states have legalized human composting in the last four years. Washington state, where the Wereschs live, was the first, legalizing the process in 2019.

“There’s this romanticism to it,” said Haley Morris, a spokesperson with Earth Funeral, a human composting facility in Auburn, Washington. “So many people want to turn into a tree.” But at the root of this romantic idea is something that’s increasingly possible, Morris explains: “For your final act to do good for the Earth.”

When Fritz died, Eileen and Wes approached Return Home, a Seattle-based company, to care for his remains and host a laying-in ceremony. His body was placed in a large, white, reusable vessel on a bed of organic materials—straw, alfalfa, and wood chips. Loved ones added flowers and notes to the mix. Fritz’s best friend cut off his long, curly black hair to lay with Fritz, prompting other attendees to leave locks of their hair as well.

“We got to be there and be part of the process,” Eileen said. “Our culture has made dead bodies icky or scary and that’s not the case.” She said something doesn’t feel right about seeing an embalmed body. “But [Fritz’s] body felt so right. You could hold his hand, and it felt like holding his hand.”

With Eileen’s permission, Return Home captured and shared a video of the ceremony to Tik Tok, where it has more than 600,000 followers.

“The first and most important thing we need to do is win over hearts and minds,” said Micah Truman, the founder of Return Home. He said one way to do that has been to normalize and provide explanations on human composting via social media.

“There’s this romanticism to it…for your final act to do good for the Earth.” — Haley Morris, spokesperson, Earth Funeral

Human composting, or as Return Home calls it “terramation,” is typically an eight to 12-week process, depending on the provider. Once a body has arrived at a human composting facility, they’re placed in a reusable vessel. Some providers, like Return Home, offer funeral services or a “laying-in” ceremony, after which the vessel is sealed and naturally occurring microbes begin to decompose the body. Rotating the vessel along with careful control of temperature and moisture levels also help the process along. Details vary across providers, including how bones are dealt with. At Return Home, they’re removed after one month, reduced to tiny shards, and returned to the vessel to continue decomposing.

The resulting soil, about one cubic yard, can be used to plant trees, spread in gardens, or saved however the family sees fit. Some families opt to donate soil to a nature preserve or land restoration project, Morris said, adding that Earth Funeral owns five acres on the Olympic Peninsula where they send donated soil.

Until recently, most Americans were buried in caskets. Casket burial typically involves embalming the body with chemicals, including formaldehyde, menthol, phenol, and glycerin. Every year in the U.S. 800,000 gallons of formaldehyde go into the ground with embalmed bodies, according to the Green Burial Project. Formaldehyde is listed as a probable human carcinogen by the Environmental Protection Agency, and according to a study by the National Cancer Institute, morticians have a significantly higher rate of myeloid leukemia.

In addition to toxic chemicals, casket burial uses an abundance of materials—concrete, wood, steel—for a single purpose, which are then left in the ground. Land usage is another concern. Cemeteries use up land that might otherwise offer natural habitat to wild animals or housing for humans, covering those acres with monoculture lawns treated with petrochemicals. The space to do this, especially near population-dense cities, is becoming scarce. A traditional funeral with a casket burial is also expensive. The median cost in 2021 was $7,848, according to NFDA.

Today, slightly more Americans opt for cremation, a cheaper and less land-intensive option than burial, but one with its own problems. The impact of burning corpses on air quality made headlines in 2020 when Los Angeles county was forced to suspend limits on the number of cremations due to a backlog of bodies from the coronavirus pandemic. Those limits exist because cremation releases air pollutants, including particulate matter. Most of these are filtered out by post-treatment systems, but cremation still emits about 573 pounds of carbon dioxide—the equivalent of a 500-mile car journey—per corpse.

From a financial perspective, human composting typically costs less than casket burial and more than cremation. Return Home’s standard pricing is $4,950.

Eileen Weresch first heard about human composting on an NPR segment back in 2019. She researched the process and, that night, brought it up over chicken fajitas with her family.

“I was fascinated,” said Eileen. “We talked about how it’s carbon capturing instead of carbon emitting; how it’s going back to our roots.” And so it was decided: Eileen and Wes wished to undergo human composting when they died. Eileen recalled that Fritz, “was super into it, too.”

Fritz was an organ donor. While Wes and Eileen held vigil during their son’s final days on life support, they heard from several of Fritz’s friends. They wanted Fritz’s parents to know he had told them he wanted his body to be composted when he died. Those friends, along with hundreds of classmates and loved ones, lined the halls of the hospital for Fritz’s “honor walk,” when Fritz was wheeled to the operating room where his organs were prepared for donation.

“I believe that in the future, medical science will prove that at least one aspect of what we call ‘love’ resides in our physical bodies and ourselves,” Eileen told those who had gathered to say goodbye. After Fritz died, his body was transported to Return Home.

“I believe that in the future, medical science will prove that at least one aspect of what we call ‘love’ resides in our physical bodies and ourselves.” — Eileen Weresch, Mother to a terramated young person

Truman, the founder of Return Home, was an investor when he first heard about human composting. He’d been looking for a new focus in life. “I’d come to the conclusion that infinite growth in a finite world is madness,” he says. He wanted to build a company where “the bigger it gets, the better the world gets.”

After first hearing about human composting, he couldn’t stop thinking about it. At first, it struck him as odd. But the more he talked to people who loved the idea of becoming soil after death, the better he understood the appeal. “Love it or hate it,” he says, “this idea will live in your head rent-free. I just had to do it.” He opened Return Home in June of 2021.

Rob Goff, executive director of the Washington State Funeral Directors Association, says they receive calls from all over the world, from people who want to know more about human composting, which is estimated to become a $1 billion industry. Traditional funeral homes in Washington are responding to this demand, many of which have added human composting as a line item, working with providers to transport bodies to their facilities.

Human composting as practiced by startups like Return Home isn’t the only way to lessen the environmental burden of deathcare, said Carlton Basmajian, urban planner and author of Planning for the Deceased. The terramation process is best understood as an alternative to cremation because the body is broken down in a facility and the family is given the remains at the end of the process. He said he sees more promise in so-called “natural” or “green” burials, which entails designating land for the burial of bodies without chemicals or coffins. (Many of these sites, including one that Eileen approached, only allow for burials during warmer months when the soil is soft.)

“[Natural burial] has the potential to allow us to preserve and rehabilitate larger areas of land,” said Basmajian.

Truman said he believes the process at Return Home gives families more time to grieve, compared to the long-standing traditions of the funeral industry. With human composting, families can visit their loved one’s vessel throughout decomposition. They can call and check in on how the process is going. The traditional funeral industry, Truman says, has turned grieving into a 48-hour process, but many find that insufficient. “We hurt, and we do it for a long time.”

In February, more than two months after Fritz died, Eileen received a call notifying her that Fritz’s body had completed its transformation into soil. She and her husband are now making plans to distribute his remains to loved ones and build a memorial garden in his honor.

Complete Article HERE!