Our Bodies, Ourselves

A funeral director wants to bring death back home.



Caitlin Doughty
Caitlin Doughty, a funeral director, says, “Maybe we need to look and say, ‘Wow, let’s look at this beautiful, natural corpse.’ ”

Caitlin Doughty, who was about to open her first funeral parlor, in Los Angeles, gazed at a skull that she had put on display above the desk in her office. Although it was plaster, the skull was a provocative presence in a room where Doughty planned to receive grieving families. It was mid-June, and that afternoon John Gettys, a field representative of the California Cemetery and Funeral Bureau, was coming to give the business a final inspection. Doughty, who is thirty, said, “I want the office to look like me, but I don’t want it to look too Arty Death Hipster.” This was possibly a futile hope. She grabbed the skull and sat contemplating it; in her vintage wooden swivel chair, she looked like a noble in a memento-mori portrait. “I don’t want the state inspector to think I’m testing him,” she said. “Maybe I’ll put it on a lower shelf. That way, I will stay true to myself.” She checked her phone: Gettys was running late. “Maybe he died,” she said. “How funny would that be?”

Doughty’s office, which is in a medical building on the gritty end of Santa Monica Boulevard, has a view of the 101 from one window and a glimpse of the Scientology campus from the other. On one wall hangs a painting, by a high-school friend, of a coffin that has been bent in half and placed atop a chaise longue, in the manner of Magritte’s “Perspective: Madame Récamier by David.” The bookshelf bears volumes of poetry, including Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass,” as well as a compendium of nineteenth-century funeral practices titled “The Victorian Book of the Dead.”

When Gettys finally arrived, Doughty rose to shake his hand. She is six feet one in ballet flats, and has pale skin, long mahogany hair with bangs, and a penchant for vintage dresses with nipped-in waists. (Today’s outfit was emerald green, which matched her eyes.) Gettys read through her price list, which offered a biodegradable willow casket for thirteen hundred and seventy dollars and, for a hundred and twenty dollars, a newborn’s casket made from recycled paper embedded with pressed flowers. Doughty considered her business an “alternative funeral service” that would bring mourners into closer contact with the dead by helping people to tend to corpses at home. She did not plan to offer embalming services, although she was qualified to do so, having graduated in 2010 from the mortuary-science program at Cypress College. Regulations of funeral homes vary from state to state, and in California one can go into business without having taken a class in embalming, or even having learned how to securely close the eyes of a corpse. (A piece of cotton from the end of a Q-tip slipped under the eyelid usually does the trick.)

Doughty has a low, mellifluous voice and an ironical manner. “Are you going to give us a cool license number? Like, all the same digits?” she asked. Gettys, a middle-aged man whose pants and shirt were both of an olive hue, was not perceptibly amused, and replied that the number would be up to the bureau, in Sacramento. “We plan to be massively compliant,” Doughty told him. Her funeral parlor does not have its own crematory, so she and Gettys drove to examine the nearby facility that she planned to use. Gettys told her that, thirty years ago, he’d entered the business as an apprentice embalmer. “The funeral industry doesn’t change a lot—it’s been around for a long time,” he said. “Everybody tries to reinvent the wheel. Well, let me tell you something. The wheel has already been invented. O.K.—there are little permutations that can be done to the business model, but by and large the idea is to dispose of dead bodies.”

It was clear that Gettys was not aware of Doughty’s public profile—that he had not, for example, come across her popular series of online videos, “Ask a Mortician,” in which she fields such viewer questions as “Are these really my mother’s ashes?” and “What is the best way to write into my will that my children will receive no inheritance unless they have my dead body taxidermied and propped up in the corner of the living room?” In 2014, she published a best-selling memoir, “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: And Other Lessons from the Crematory.” (“A girl always remembers the first corpse she shaves,” it begins.) And she is the founder of the Order of the Good Death, a mostly online meeting place for morticians and academics who are interested in exploring new ways to guide mourners through the experience of death.

A week after Gettys’s visit, Doughty posted on Twitter an image of an official letter that she had received from Sacramento. It began with a cheery “Congratulations!” Doughty tweeted, “I am a funeral home owner. There can be miracles, if you believe.”

Doughty grew up in Hawaii, on the island of Oahu. When she was a teen-ager, she fantasized about opening a funeral home that would combine retro charm with up-to-date service. As she writes in her memoir, she even came up with a name for her imaginary establishment: La Belle Mort. She saw herself creating tailored events that celebrated the life of the deceased in a highly personalized manner: sending cremated ashes into space, or shooting them out of a gun, or compressing them into a gemstone.

After graduating from the University of Chicago, she worked for about two years at Pacific Interment, a mortuary and crematory in an industrial district of Oakland. Without ceremony, she processed corpses through preparation and incineration. This work changed her vision of the ideal funeral practice. “When I first thought I wanted to get into the industry, I thought people needed a more friendly death—for death to be more accessible,” Doughty told me. “That changed very quickly. Now I think people need to get closer to it. It should be up in your face, not ‘Let’s turn Mom into a diamond.’ ”

Her new funeral parlor has a blunt name: Undertaking L.A. Along with Amber Carvaly, her business partner, Doughty intends to help people take care of their own dead, rather than outsource the task to professionals. “When I found myself in all these big industrial warehouses, alone with all these bodies, I thought, If Im doing all this, there are all these other people who arent doing this,” Doughty said. “That’s too much death for one person and not enough for all those other people.” Among the services offered by the fledgling company are help with home funerals, in which the body is bathed and dressed, then kept on ice for a few days, while the family grieves; natural burials, without casket or marker, at a green burial ground in Joshua Tree; and witness cremations, which permit family members to help load the body into the cremation machine and push the button that starts the fire.

Sherwin B. Nuland, in his 1994 best-seller, “How We Die,” wrote, “Modern dying takes place in the modern hospital, where it can be hidden, cleansed of its organic blight, and finally packaged for modern burial.” Doughty’s goal is to end our deliberate estrangement from the dead body. “There really are so many places in our culture where we demand something unnatural,” she told me. “As of right now, what most people find acceptable is either no body at all or something that has been highly mediated. Someone comes in, they take the body away, and, the next time you see it, it has been disinfected and treated and made safe and beautiful.” A dead body is not immediately dangerous, except in cases such as Ebola, and in those instances infectious-disease protocols apply. “And maybe a dead body doesn’t need to be pretty,” Doughty went on. “Maybe we need to look and say, ‘Wow, let’s look at this beautiful, natural corpse.’ ” The conventional funeral industry has given people the impression that death is an emergency. “But death is not an emergency,” Doughty said. “Death is the opposite of an emergency. Look at the person who died—all that stress and pain is gone from them. And now that stress and pain can be gone from you.”

The professionalization of death care in America didn’t get under way until the second half of the nineteenth century. Modern embalming—in which the bodily fluids inside a corpse are drained, through an incision in a vein, and replaced with a preservative solution, through an incision in an artery—was popularized during the Civil War, as a means of allowing the bodies of fallen soldiers to last long enough for them to be shipped home for burial. Embalming became the signature skill of the professional mortician, setting his services apart from those of people—usually women—who had previously been responsible for preparing a dead body for the grave, by bathing it, anointing it, and dressing it, often in a shroud. In 1863, Louisa May Alcott, who served as a nurse during the Civil War, wrote of an encounter with the body of a soldier whom she had tended until death. “The lovely expression which so often beautifies dead faces, soon replaced the marks of pain,” Alcott wrote. “I longed for those who loved him best to see him when half an hour’s acquaintance with Death had made them friends.”

As Gary Laderman, a professor of religion at Emory University, explains in his 2005 book, “Rest in Peace: A Cultural History of Death and the Funeral Home in Twentieth-Century America,” the first embalmers made house calls. Early techniques were sometimes primitive: in 1898, an article in the Journal of Medicine and Science complained that the arsenic used to preserve corpses had leached into the soil and the groundwater near cemeteries. The article cited a critic of the practice—“Gallons of poisonous solutions are squirted into bodies indiscriminately”—and called for the establishing of standards in the handling of corpses. Around this time, the first mortuary schools were established, and the National Funeral Directors Association, which is still the leading industry association, was founded.

The turn of the twentieth century saw the emergence of the first funeral homes—literally the homes of professional morticians, who lived over their shops. It became the norm to remove a body from a home or a hospital as quickly as possible. The death industry boomed: a survey published in 1928 revealed that between 1900 and 1920 the number of funeral directors grew by more than fifty per cent. (The annual number of deaths increased by only 2.3 per cent in the same period.) For most of the twentieth century, the majority of funeral homes were family businesses that were passed from father to son—and rarely to a daughter. In the seventies, ninety-five per cent of funeral directors were men, and even by 1995 there were still almost twice as many male mortuary-science students as female ones.

Today, sixty-five per cent of mortuary-school graduates are women. The gender shift reflects a significant change in funeral practices. Rates of burial—and, hence, of embalming—have undergone a drastic decline. In 1960, fewer than four per cent of corpses were cremated. Today, the cremation rate is forty-five per cent. (Industry projections estimate that it will reach seventy per cent by 2030.) The image of the funeral director has undergone a parallel evolution. Although undertakers are still often portrayed as black-suited men in possession of dour scientific expertise, the funeral director has emerged as a member of the caring professions.

Until recently, it was common to believe that women were not physically capable of doing removals. Though such sexist fictions have been upended—lifting a dead body is mostly a matter of technique—explanations for the recent rise in women’s “death work” are often no less dependent on restrictive stereotypes. Women in the industry often declare that they have an innate empathy for others, and that they excel at providing emotional support to the grieving. It’s also argued that women are especially skilled at dressing the dead—and at restoring the appearance of vitality through the tasteful application of cosmetics and styling of hair. “People are more comfortable about crying, about showing emotion, in front of a woman,” Erin Whitaker, a funeral director from South Carolina, told me. “And it’s easier, as a woman, to put your hand on their hand as a sign of comfort.”

With an increasing demand among baby boomers for customized funerals that reflect the individuality of the deceased, funeral directors are expanding into the business of event production. Today’s funeral director might stage a memorial service featuring the release of butterflies at the grave site, or with the deceased’s Harley parked ceremonially at the entrance to the chapel. In such instances, the skills of a funeral director can seem to fall somewhere between those of a nurse and a wedding planner.Mortuary Management, a trade magazine, offers articles about such innovations as the tribute blanket—an instant heirloom that incorporates photographs of the deceased into a custom-made tapestry—and urges funeral directors to be open-minded when faced with families who want pop songs played at a service. It’s a profitable strategy to, as a feeble witticism of the industry has it, “put the fun back into funerals.”

Since the nineteen-eighties, the National Funeral Directors Association has held an annual professional women’s conference. This year, it took place in Chicago, and it attracted more than two hundred women from across the country. They attended an embalming workshop and listened to speakers who delivered “Lean In”-style exhortations.

Many women at the conference were helping to run, or had taken over, their family’s funeral home, but there were also women who had been drawn to the work for other reasons. Patty Decker, of Woodstock, Georgia, who has been a funeral director for nearly thirty years, told me that she’d wanted to become one since she was eleven years old. “I just saw the respect that the funeral director in my home town had—how much he was admired,” Decker said. “You have to love this job. You are faced with your own mortality every day. We are like the directors of this show that no one wants to attend.” Maria Thomas, an apprentice embalmer in Virginia, had worked in the performing arts before starting her training. “The first time that a family threw their arms around me, thanking me for making their mom look so beautiful—that really touches something,” she said. Strangers were curious about her job, she said, and she welcomed it. “We worship youth and beauty—those are the things that are celebrated in our culture,” she said. “But we do have to accept that over here is the death corner, and you are not going to escape it. You might as well talk about it.”

Doughty didn’t attend the conference: she isn’t a member of the National Funeral Directors Association, and notes grandly in her book that the group “won’t comment on me.” But some of the funeral directors present were aware of her advocacy of alternative funeral practices. One afternoon, there was a roundtable discussion of ways that funeral homes might use social media.

“Who is going to follow a funeral home’s Twitter account, really?” one participant asked.

“Weirdos,” someone replied.

“Competitors,” added another.

Doughty’s online prowess came up, and one participant remarked that she thought it was healthy for the public to get a glimpse of a funeral director’s reality. But another participant expressed concern about Doughty’s perspective. “I feel like she’s the one who’s big on ‘You don’t need a funeral director,’ ” she said.

Affixed to the refrigerator in Doughty’s apartment is a photograph of the class of 1973 at the California College of Mortuary Science, which later became part of Cypress College. Forty-four men, nearly all of them white, are dressed in black tie; there are two women in the class. Hanging next to that image is a 2010 photo of Doughty’s class. Its thirty-one graduates form a racially diverse group, and twenty-two of them are women. At her new business, her colleagues are mostly female, too. “I don’t think it’s because we have some kind of helping gene—I don’t think it’s some deep need to nurture,” she told me. “For me, working with dead bodies is almost like a feminist act. I don’t want people to come in and say, ‘Oh, no, little lady, you don’t know what to do with this body,’ because they already say that about our reproductive systems. I know I am qualified to take care of this body.”

Many funeral directors like to say that they had a calling for the profession. Such statements are no doubt sincere, but it might also be convenient to characterize the career as having been thrust upon one: few people admit to being motivated by a deep interest in corpses and death. Doughty has no qualms in admitting to such a fascination. She says that she became “obsessed with death” in the nineties, while growing up as an only child in Kaneohe, on the east side of Oahu, where her father was a high-school teacher and her mother a real-estate agent. When Doughty was in grade school, she says, she witnessed a small girl tumbling from a height in a shopping mall. (Doughty presumes that the girl fell to her death, though she never found out for sure.) The incident made her conscious of her own mortality and that of everyone else. “Everybody has their moment when they realize that death is very real,” she says.

Doughty studied medieval history at the University of Chicago, and she eventually focussed on the cultural status of the corpse and the representation of dead bodies in art and religious iconography. “I was interested in how much they had a relationship with the dead,” she said. “If you went to a church in the Middle Ages, there would be bodies buried under the floor and in the wall and in pits outside the church, and absolutely everywhere. The church was the center of life, so you would go there and have sermons and plays and outdoor markets. Everything you did—you were surrounded by corpses. Of course, they feared Hell—it’s not like they were totally comfortable with death—but they were a lot more comfortable with the dead body than we are now.”

Upon graduation, in 2006, Doughty sought to convert her academic interest into real-world experience. At Pacific Interment, the Oakland crematory, she worked on bodies in the prep room and loaded them into the cremation machine. No special credentials were needed for the job, besides a tolerance for the brute facts of mortality. She gained intimate knowledge of the process of decomposition when it is unhindered by embalming: first comes a loosening of the skin, followed by bloating, putrefaction, and blackening. She chronicles her experiences in “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes,” which is filled with unflinching observations. (“The left side of her chest was caved in, giving the impression that someone had removed her heart in some elaborate ritual.”) Doughty learned that it is difficult to arrange the deceased’s facial features into a semblance of heavenly rest after rigor mortis sets in, a few hours postmortem. And she learned in what order corpses should be cremated when several must be processed in a single day. (Start with the heaviest decedent, when the cremation chamber is cold; if one waits until the chamber is hot, the body will burn too quickly, producing excessive smoke.)

For the most part, Doughty performed what is known as direct cremation, in which the body is removed from a hospital or a home, then incinerated without ceremony, the desiccated remains mechanically processed into unidentifiable fragments that are collected and given to a relative. This is the least expensive way of dealing with death: in the U.S., the cost of a direct cremation averages between seven hundred and twelve hundred dollars, whereas an in-ground burial typically costs about seven thousand dollars. Cremation gained in popularity in America largely in response to consumer groups that, starting in the nineteen-sixties, publicly questioned the expensive services of the funeral industry.

In 1963, Jessica Mitford published “The American Way of Death,” a scathing investigation into the practices of funeral directors. They were, she suggested, “merchants of a rather grubby order, preying on the grief, remorse, and guilt of survivors.” Funeral directors lined their pockets, in part, by promoting questionable psychological arguments, such as the claim that the viewing of an embalmed corpse was a necessary step in the grieving process. They recommended “eternal sealer” caskets to protect the corpse from even greater ravages than death. Mitford championed cremation as a sensible alternative to burial, and her book, which became a best-seller, helped set in motion an investigation of the industry by the Federal Trade Commission. When Mitford died, in 1996, she was cremated, at Pacific Interment, for a cost of four hundred and seventy-five dollars. A decade later, Doughty took considerable satisfaction from the fact that she was operating the same machine in which Mitford had been reduced to ash.

Like Mitford, Doughty reviled the excesses of the funeral industry. But the longer she worked at Pacific Interment the more she found her own attitude toward the dead body at odds with Mitford’s approach, which struck her as unsentimental to the point of callousness. Doughty began to think that Mitford’s effort to combat the commercial excesses of the traditional funeral industry had ended up reducing the dead body to something to be dispensed with as cheaply and efficiently as possible. This approach swept aside an important aspect of human experience: that of tending to loved ones in death, just as in life.

All Caring Cremations, the company that handles the burning of bodies for Undertaking L.A., is in a bleak industrial area in the San Fernando Valley. When Doughty took me there, she pointed out a building down the block that had served as the exterior of the Dunder Mifflin paper company, on the NBC show “The Office.” “In an ideal world, this is not the neighborhood I would choose if we had the option to go with a wooded-stream crematory,” Doughty said. “But that’s not an option we have.”

The lobby of All Caring was decorated with anonymous good taste: wingback chairs, a low table. There was an unplaceable unpleasant aroma. A small chapel was painted in institutional beige, with chairs and a lectern and, up front, space for a casket. “They have said we could do some décor stuff in here—not, like, a feminine touch, but we might put up different art, a different color on the walls, better lighting,” Doughty said. We heard a noise that I first took to be the loud rumble of the air-conditioning system; it was the sound of the cremation machine at work.

Doughty and Carvaly, her business partner, expect that many clients of Undertaking L.A. will seek out their services because of their advocacy of home funerals. For a fee of three hundred and forty dollars, Doughty and Carvaly will come to the home of a dying person and consult with the family about the best way to take care of the body in situ. (Opening windows can be useful, and so is planning to place the body on a bed or a couch that can be reached without climbing stairs.)

A person who helps families with a home funeral is often called a death midwife. (In most states, the services of a professional funeral director are not required by law.) Clients who like the idea of not handing off a loved one’s body might not have the space or the stomach for caring for a corpse at home, and so a visit to All Caring’s prep room—hidden behind a door marked “Employees Only”—is available. There they can help with bathing and dressing the body, then proceed to the chapel and sit with the deceased in valediction.

Carvaly, who is also thirty, was a women’s-studies major at college, and worked at a homeless shelter for women before enrolling at Cypress College’s mortuary program, where she began corresponding with Doughty. She had aspired to be an embalmer, which she thought would combine science and art. But she was disillusioned after working briefly at Forest Lawn, the vast L.A. funeral complex that inspired Evelyn Waugh to write “The Loved One,” his satirical 1948 novel. “Forest Lawn was very competitive,” Carvaly told me, over lunch at the SteamPunk Café, not far from the crematory. “How many bodies can you do in a day? How quick and efficient are you? It’s a business, and you should be able to do it quickly and efficiently. But I didn’t like it.” Undertaking L.A. is in the process of registering as a nonprofit.

Doughty and Carvaly do not expect their services to become mainstream choices. The notion that the dead body is a source of pollution is a deeply ingrained belief in many cultures. In Jewish law, a kohein, or priest, is not permitted to be under the same roof as a corpse (except in the case of close relatives). In Japanese tradition, undertakers belonged to the burakumin, society’s lowest and most reviled caste.

It would be more commercially viable to embrace the trend of selling the funeral as a kind of farewell party. I recently spoke with an entrepreneurial funeral director named Paula Staab-Polk, from Chatham, Illinois. Having grown up in her family’s funeral home, she struck out on her own a few years ago and decided to combine funeral and hospitality services. “The way I look at it is: our death is an event, and our life needs to be celebrated when we pass from this life to the next,” Staab-Polk told me. A few years ago, she added a reception center to her funeral home. She has given a funeral luncheon that featured the favorite recipes of a woman who died at ninety-eight; she has held a service for a ten-year-old girl who died of cancer, at which guests were invited to “adopt” one of the many stuffed animals that had been sent to the sick child’s bedside. Staab-Polk offers floral services and bagpipers, and she also hosts non-funerary events. “I’ve got three high-school proms coming up,” she told me.

Doughty understands the appeal of Staab-Polk’s model. “People are afraid of death,” she said. “Do you want to go sit with the corpse or do you want to party? If you put it like that, it’s not a very hard question.” She is not denying that people can find great comfort in a personalized funeral ceremony. “But I would still argue that it doesn’t give you the full engagement with death and grieving that you need,” she says.

She is particularly skeptical of funerals that offer the bereaved a very brief look at an embalmed corpse. “If you are one of those people who, when you were eight, walked by a hyper-embalmed, preserved corpse, with the makeup and the suit, that quick glimpse in the casket can be scary, because there is no time to process it, and it stays with you, and the fear stays with you,” she told me. Spending time with a dead body in its natural state may be more challenging, she says, but it “normalizes” the experience. “When you talk about families that have worked with their dead body, and sat with their dead body, first they come in and just kind of touch the hand gently, like they are going to break Uncle Bob. Then, three or four hours later, they are telling jokes about Uncle Bob and giving him a hug.”

Doughty contends that elements of Undertaking L.A.’s approach can be applied to the most traditional of funerals. Carvaly recently participated in the funeral preparations for a friend named Marea Balvaneda, who had died suddenly, of cardiac arrest, at the age of thirty-six. “She had a traditional Catholic funeral, and she was embalmed,” Carvaly said. “The only thing that was different was that, the day before she was buried, I went to the funeral home with her sisters, and we dressed her body.”

At first, one of Balvaneda’s sisters, Ashley Wodke, lingered outside the prep room while the others worked. Carvaly told me, “It was, like, super-intuitive—they didn’t even need me.” Wodke said, “I knew I needed to do it, too. And it wasn’t as disturbing or traumatic as I thought it was going to be.” Balvaneda was the oldest of five sisters and had always taken care of her younger siblings; Wodke said that she felt a responsibility to take care of her sister in return. “We made sure her last outfit, and her last application of makeup, was done right,” Wodke told me, her voice breaking. “We made sure she had the right red lipstick. She wore a very vibrant red—a stoplight red. If we hadn’t done it, it wouldn’t have been the right red.”

The death-care movement can be seen as echoing other attempts to celebrate the artisanal and reject the over-industrialized, over-sanitized, and over-medicalized way of life that prevailed in twentieth-century America. Home births, while still very much a minority choice, rose by more than fifty per cent between 2004 and 2012. The flourishing of farmers’ markets has supported local agriculture, and the eat-what-you-kill movement has emerged as an extreme critique of industrialized food. When Doughty adopts her exaggerated “Ask a Mortician” persona, it is so glibly morbid as to be almost a caricature of the Portland-Bushwick axis of cool. (In one episode, which explains that metal implants survive a cremation intact, she jokes, “My father has had to have both of his knees replaced, and if we decide to cremate him, guess what his beloved daughter will be keeping on her mantelpiece.”)

Doughty’s business is not, she insists, a hipster lark or a “vanity project.” She explained, “There’s no vanity in funeral service—you are in rooms with corpses all day. This is not to make ourselves look good. If you want to look good, you start a really rad Instagram account, or bake gluten-free cupcakes. You don’t cremate people.”

Undertaking L.A.’s support of home funerals is aligned with the death-with-dignity movement, which advocates for the right of the terminally ill to die at the time of their choosing. Doughty is on the advisory board of Compassion & Choices, a group that campaigns for right-to-die laws, and she believes that the way we treat the dead body in our culture has a great influence on the way we think about the care of an individual close to the end of life, be it our loved ones or ourselves.

Being afraid of the sight of a dead body is quite different from being afraid of dying, which is the province of the confessional, the therapy suite, or the insomniac bedroom. But Doughty has found that spending time around dead bodies has helped her accept her own mortality. Working at a crematory led her to a realization: “O.K., this is going to be me—so this body is, so I shall be one day.” She explained, “If you have that opportunity with your family or community to come around the body, it is not only good to honor the dead person—they probably don’t really care—but it’s for you, too.”

In late June, Doughty took a road trip with her boyfriend, Landis Blair, to Crestone, a former mining town in Colorado. Doughty met Blair, an illustrator whose pen-and-ink drawings evoke the work of Edward Gorey, in 2012, after giving a lecture in Chicago. When she posted an item to her blog titled “My Morbid Art Crush on Landis Blair,” they struck up a relationship. They have lived together for a year, in an apartment filled with macabre Victoriana and the odd taxidermy specimen. Blair owns a unicycle that is usually propped up in a corner of the living room.

Blair is illustrating Doughty’s next book, a globally informed look at the future of death care, and he was serving as navigator. Crestone is about four hours south of Denver, and it is eight thousand feet above sea level, at the edge of a plain surrounded by mountains. Over the past several decades, Crestone, which at its most recent count had a population of a hundred and thirty-seven, has become the site of a wide variety of religious retreats. The landscape is thought to have a spiritual aura like that of the Himalayas. It is also home to an open-air funeral pyre, which was built by the Crestone End-of-Life Project, a small but avid group that champions natural funerals. Doughty was visiting it for the first time.

After arriving in town, we met up with Stephanie Gaines, the End-of-Life Project’s founder, and Paul Kloppenburg, a rugged Dutch expatriate who holds the title of fire-master. Kloppenburg told Doughty that the first open-air cremations in Crestone, in the early nineties, were conducted on a mobile pyre—a hundred cinder blocks and a metal grate that could be set up on an individual’s property. “I would see the eagerness of the people,” he explained. “I would pull up with my truck and build the hearth, and let them have it.” But after the group received a letter of complaint from local residents it built a pyre four miles outside of town, on land belonging to a Buddhist center. To a metropolitan eye, the site is in the middle of nowhere, but Gaines reported that a neighbor a mile away was not happy about being downwind of it. “And people didn’t want the traffic,” she told Doughty. “Six cars is a lot of traffic around here.”

The plain was spectacular in its vastness, and snow-crested mountains rose craggily in the middle distance. The cremation site was strangely beautiful. There was a circular enclosure, about seventy-five feet in diameter, fenced with bamboo palings. Standing inside it, you had a sense of safety and intimacy, yet the grandeur of the wider landscape remained visible. Inside the fence were four teak benches; they were arranged around a ring of large stones that had been set into the dusty ground. At the center of the ring was the pyre: a structure, about as high as a workbench, consisting of an iron grate suspended between two thick walls of concrete. The grate sagged slightly in the middle, like a well-worn mattress.

Affixed to the pine posts that supported the bamboo enclosure were copper plaques with the names of the fifty or so people who had been cremated in Crestone. Some of them had moved there specifically to die; these included a woman with cervical cancer. Others had grown up in the area, among them a twenty-two-year-old man who’d died in a car accident.

The ceremonies take place around dawn, before the wind whips up. The body, wrapped in a shroud, is placed on the grate, and then family members with flaming torches ignite logs that have been placed underneath. The body is also overlaid with logs and fragrant juniper branches, so that onlookers see only flame, not the body as it incinerates. For the first quarter of an hour, there is usually silence among the onlookers as the flames roar; as the fire matures, people chant, pray, beat drums, sing songs. It takes about two and a half hours for the body to be reduced to ash—hardly longer than a conventional cremation, Doughty noted with surprise. Gaines told her that mourners “say they are never the same after this.”

That afternoon, we had tea at the mountainside cabin where Gaines lives. She explained to Doughty that in Crestone a body is given a three-day period of repose before it is burned on the pyre: chilled gel packs help keep the body fresh, and the corpse is placed on a wooden pallet, obviating the need to lift it from a bed or a couch several days after death. Doughty talked about a recent trip that she had taken to Japan, where she’d visited a corpse hotel, which allows families with apartments too tiny for a home funeral to participate in the ritual preparation of a body. She liked the idea of setting up something similar with Undertaking L.A. “What I am really interested in is asking whether it is possible to have a communal center,” she said. “Family comes from out of town and it’s, like, a three-day wonderland process.”

Gaines, who is in her seventies, had a radiant air of calm. She explained that she was a devout spiritual practitioner: a contemplative with a special interest in the Gnostic traditions. Many of the other members of the Crestone End-of-Life Project had similar inclinations, but, Gaines explained, anyone was welcome to participate in the community of care, which embraced both the deceased and their survivors. “You want everyone to have this opportunity, because it is so filled with grace, and such an opening,” she said. “It is so transformational for everybody—not just for the person who died.”

Doughty nodded. “I am pretty secular, but the transformation from body to ash is still incredibly meaningful to me,” she said. “I may not think the soul is necessarily going anywhere—but just the physical transformation and the transformation of the mourners are transitions. It is ritual, and it is very real, and it is important, no matter what ideas of the body and the soul and the spirit the family comes in with.” She petted Gaines’s cat, which was moving promiscuously from lap to lap, sparing nobody. “It’s an exciting time to be in death,” Doughty said. 

Complete Article HERE!

This Is What Happens to Your Debts After You Die

By Aubrey Cohen

Your debts become the responsibility of your estate.

Coffin on stage

When you die, any debts you leave behind could eat up assets that you had hoped to leave to heirs. In some cases, family members could even be on the hook for your debt. Many people buy life insurance not only to leave something behind for their loved ones but also to help deal with any debt and final expenses.

Will your debts die with you?

After you die, your debts become the responsibility of your estate — which is everything you owned at the time of your death. The process of paying your bills and distributing what’s left is called probate.

Your executor (the person responsible for dealing with your will and estate after your death) will use your assets to pay off your debts. This could mean writing checks from a bank account or selling off property to get the money. If there isn’t enough to cover your debts, creditors generally are out of luck.

But specific kinds of debts have their own wrinkles.

Mortgages and home-equity loans

If a property has a mortgage, the lender has some protection, at least up to the value of the property.

But federal law bars lenders from forcing a joint owner to pay off the mortgage immediately after the death of another co-owner. This also applies to any relative who inherits the home and lives in it. Practically, this means the family member or co-owner can simply take over the mortgage payments.

An outstanding home-equity loan against the property is different. A lender can force someone who inherits a home to repay the loan immediately, which could require selling the house. That said, lenders might work with new owners to allow them to simply take over the payments on the home-equity loan as well.

Auto loans

In the case of an auto that is not fully paid off, the lender has the right to repossess the car. But typically whoever inherits the vehicle can simply continue making payments, and the lender is unlikely to take action.

Credit cards

Once the estate runs out of assets, credit card companies are out of luck, because this debt is not secured by assets the way mortgages and car loans are. Any joint account holder would be responsible for the bill, but people who are simply authorized users of a card would not.

In community property states, listed below, spouses are responsible for any debts incurred during the marriage, including credit card debt.

Student loans

Lenders have no recourse if the estate does not have assets to repay other unsecured obligations, such as student loans.

If your relatives are not responsible for your debts, collection agencies may still legally call to discuss debts and to try to find someone authorized to pay them, according to the Federal Trade Commission. But collectors cannot mislead family members into thinking they’re responsible for the debts.


There are circumstances in which spouses or other people would be personally responsible for your debts. These include if they:

  • Co-signed for a loan.
  • Are joint account holders.
  • Are spouses in community property states: Arizona, California, Idaho, Louisiana, Nevada, New Mexico, Texas, Washington and Wisconsin. Spouses are not responsible for debts that predate the marriage, although half of any community property from a marriage could be put toward such obligations.

About 30 states have “filial responsibility” laws that could make adult children responsible for debts related to caring for parents or parents responsible for debts related to care of their children. These laws once were rarely enforced, but there have been recent cases in which creditors have used the statutes to pursue family members.

What’s protected?

Creditors typically cannot go after your retirement accounts or life insurance proceeds. Those will go to the named beneficiaries and are not part of the probate process. But if the life insurance beneficiaries you named are no longer living, your death benefit may go into your estate and can be subject to creditors. That’s one reason why it’s important to make sure your policy names the proper beneficiaries.

Life insurance can help with debt payments

To decide whether you need life insurance to cover debts after your death, consider these questions:

  • Do you have family members who would be responsible for your debts?
  • Do you have debts that would eat up assets you want to pass on to family members?
  • Do you want to pass on money that couldn’t be diverted to pay your debts, even if you owe those debts?

Life insurance can help in any of these scenarios. Term life insurance policies, which provide a death benefit for a set number of years, are suitable for most people’s life insurance needs. NerdWallet’s life insurance tool is a good place to compare prices. If you want to consider a permanent policy, such as whole life insurance, consult a financial advisor.

Complete Article HERE!

My view: Salt Lake City’s homeless deserve hospice care

By Kim Correa

homeless and hospice care
Death is a natural process, and since the dawn of humanity, people have been dying at home. But where do homeless people go to die? The shelters are not equipped to deal with the end of life.

Is Salt Lake City a city of compassion or a city of abandonment? About 50 homeless people die here annually. Death is a natural process; since the dawn of humanity, people have been dying at home. But where do homeless people go to die? The shelters are not equipped to deal with the end of life, hospitals can’t keep these patients for weeks or months on end, and most lack insurance to pay for a skilled nursing facility. Without a stable place to live, they end up in and out of the emergency room, straining our city’s fire, police and hospital resources, and eventually dying on the streets or in parks.

The INN Between provides a real solution to this small but critical segment of our city’s homelessness crisis. We opened in August in the old Catholic Convent on Goshen Street, providing a safe and comfortable place where about 13 of Utah’s terminally ill homeless men and women can experience the end of life with dignity. Our residents are grateful to have a place they can call home for their final time on this earth. Since opening, we have provided death with dignity to three people and provided over 420 housing nights to a total of 22 people. We have beautified the grounds and our presence has reduced loitering and potential criminal activity around a previously vacant building. The INN Between is almost full — a major concern as winter sets in.

The INN Between had been approved to operate in our other building, the former Guadalupe School, in May, under the zoning use of Eleemosynary Facility — “a facility operated by a nonprofit charitable organization or government entity to provide temporary housing and assistance to individuals who suffer from and are being treated for trauma, injury or disease and/or their family members.” The school building can house an additional 10 to 20 residents.

On June 19, the Salt Lake City Council blocked our use of the school by excluding “end of life and respite care” from the Eleemosynary definition. Now it is proposing an additional restriction to exclude “facilities not licensed by the Utah State Health Department.” The public hearing takes place Tuesday.

The proposed changes were intended to address a gap in zoning law and ensure people’s health and safety. We agree that there is a gap, but we disagree on its nature. The gap is the lack of housing for terminally ill homeless people. And there is nothing healthy or safe about dying on the street.

The INN Between is an ideal solution that offers safe housing — better than any housing our residents have had in years. In fact, the Utah State Department of Health has determined that our program complies with health and safety standards, exempting the INN Between from licensing. The Department of Health understands that all these people need is a home in which to die naturally.

The council’s proposed changes effectively mandate that the homeless die in state-licensed facilities, like nursing homes. But who will pay the $4,500 to $6,000 cost per month? The city, i.e., the taxpayers? If this were a viable solution, we’d already be doing it.

In order for the INN Between to meet community need, we must be allowed to operate under the pre-June 19 definition of Eleemosynary Facility. If adopted, the proposed zoning changes will demonstrate Salt Lake City’s lack of compassion for people who are dying and discriminate against Utah’s most vulnerable homeless people by severely limiting their access to housing and hospice care. Learn more on www.theinnbetweenslc.org/zoning.

Complete Article HERE!

Why Humans Care for the Bodies of the Dead

By Julie Beck

Why Humans Care for the Bodies of the Dead

In tracing the history and culture of corpses, a new book shows the importance of remembrance to our species.

The ancient Greek Cynic philosopher Diogenes was extreme in a lot of ways. He deliberately lived on the street, and, in accordance with his teachings that people should not be embarrassed to do private things in public, was said to defecate and masturbate openly in front of others. Plato called him “a Socrates gone mad.” Shocking right to the end, he told his friends that when he died, he didn’t want to be buried. He wanted them to throw his body over the city wall, where it could be devoured by animals.“What harm then can the mangling of wild beasts do me if I am without consciousness?” he asked.What is a dead body but an empty shell?, he’s asking. What does it matter what happens to it? These are also the questions that the University of California, Berkeley, history professor Thomas Laqueur asks in his new book The Work of the Dead: A Cultural History of Mortal Remains.“Diogenes was right,” he writes, “but also existentially wrong.”

This is the tension surrounding how humans treat dead bodies. What makes a person a person is gone from their bodies upon death, and there’s really no logical reason why we should care for the empty container—why we should embalm it, dress it up, and put it on display, or why we should collect its burnt remnants in an urn and place it on the mantle.

Humanity’s answer to Diogenes, Laqueur writes, has largely been “Yes, but…” People have cared for the bodies of their dead since at least 10,000 B.C., Laqueur writes, and so the reason for continuing to do so is a tautology: “We live with the dead because we, as a species, live with the dead.” And the fact that we do so, he argues, is one of the things that brings us as a species from nature into culture. (The taboo against incest is another example.)Despite the rationality of Diogenes’s logic, it’s unthinkable that we would just throw the corpses of our loved ones over a wall and leave them to the elements. Dead bodies matter because humans have decided that they matter, and they’ve continued to matter over time even as the ways people care for bodies have changed.

Laqueur’s book makes this argument with a dense, detailed sketch of a relatively small slice of time and space: Western Europe from the 18th to 20th centuries. The story begins with churchyards, which “held a near monopoly on burial throughout Christendom … for more than a thousand years, from the Middle Ages to the early 19th century and beyond in some places.” People would be buried (and generally had a legal right to be buried) in the yard of the church of the parish where they lived (or in the church itself if they were wealthy or clergy). This was a messy business. The yards were constantly being churned up as new bodies were buried, and they got lumpy. There weren’t many grave markers, and if there were, they were likely to read “here lies the body,” not a particularly personal epitaph.

“The churchyard was and looked to be a place for remembering a bounded community of the dead who belonged there,” Laquer writes, “rather than a place for individual commemoration and mourning.”Though bodies were jumbled together in churchyards in a way that it made it almost impossible to find any one individual, there was some method to their arrangement: They were buried very deliberately along an east-west axis to line up with Jerusalem to the east, the direction from which the resurrection was expected to come. John Calvin, the Protestant theologian, thought the very act of burial showed faith in a corporeal resurrection.

In the early 19th century, the dominance of churchyards began to wane, for a number of reasons. They were crowded, for one. Rotting bodies piled up in churchyards and church vaults also produced the kind of odor you might expect, and activists began to argue that they were unsanitary. But Laqueur points out that churchyards had always been crowded and smelly, and “for centuries the smell … was tolerable.” The rise of cemeteries as an alternative to churchyards, Laqueur writes, was really part of a massive cultural shift, one that owed a lot to the industrial revolution and the Protestant reformation.

During and after industrial revolution, unpleasant things of all kinds were being removed from people’s sight. Butchers and slaughterhouses delivered meat while keeping the blood behind the curtain; London constructed a massive sewer system, getting people’s waste off the streets and out of the River Thames. With this as the backdrop, it stands to reason that people might want the dead bodies out of their cities as well—while they didn’t pose a real public-health threat, people successfully argued that they did, and that was enough.

The first great cemetery of the West was Père-Lachaise in Paris, built by Napoleon, and it inspired the building of others in Copenhagen, Glasgow, and Boston, among other cities. Unlike churchyards, these cemeteries were stand-alone places for the dead, open to the public and largely separated from the crowded areas of cities.They were also disassociated from religion. “To some degree this is about the rise of negative liberty: the right to a grave in a neutral civic space irrespective of one’s beliefs or lack of beliefs, and the right to a choice in rituals of burial,” Laqueur writes. The waning dominance of the Catholic Church had a lot to do with that. Burying bodies right by the church would remind people on their way in to pray for the dead as a way of helping those souls stuck in purgatory. But many Protestant reformers rejected the idea of purgatory, and argued that the dead did not need the prayers of the living.

The focus of cemeteries was not, as it had been in churchyards, on a community of faithful dead, but on remembering the individual. It allowed for families to be buried together, which hadn’t really been possible in the tangle of the churchyard.


“It was a place of sentiment loosely connected, at best, with Christian piety and intimately bound up with the emotional economics of family,” Laqueur writes. “In it, a newly configured idolatry of the dead served the interests less of the old God of religion than of the new gods of memory and history: secular gods.” Cemeteries allowed for gravestones, monuments, epitaphs, the carving of names in stone. This provides a little insurance against the fear of death—that one’s name, at least, will outlast them. Carving in stone is a powerful metaphor for permanence, even if it’s just wishful thinking.

The advent of cremation as a popular practice took some of this enchantment away from the dead body. But while in some ways people who opted for cremation were finally recognizing the body as a shell, just like Diogenes said, deference towards bodies was often just replaced by deference to its ashes. Ashes are scattered, interred, and revered in many ways, just as bodies are. And cremation has obviously not completely replaced burial by any stretch.If care for the dead is one of the quintessential things about being human, fear of death is another. Being the only animal with constant awareness of its own mortality has significant effects on how humans behave. Often, according to terror-management theory, the thought of death will lead people to seek out and to value more highly things that they think will bring them immortality, in the metaphoric sense. Living on in the memories of others would do the trick, even though we must on some level know is only a reprieve against eventually being forgotten.On this matter, Laqueur turns to the 17th-century poet John Weever:

Every man, Weever writes, “desires a perpetuity after his death.” Without this idea “man could never have awakened in him the desire to live in the remembrance of his fellows.” And without it, human life in the shadow of death would be unbearable and unrecognizable: “the social affections could not have unfolded themselves un-countenanced by the faith that Man is an immortal being.” Our love for one another differs from the love animals might feel for one another in that an animal perishes in the field without “anticipating the sorrow with which is associates will bemoan his death,” whereas we “wish to be remembered by our friends.” Naming the dead, like care for their bodies, is seen as a way to keep them among the living. And maybe it is a way around Diogenes.

So yes, Diogenes, the body is technically nothing once void of its soul, or consciousness, or however one conceives of the essence of a person. We get it. But it’s a physical emblem of that person, and in caring for it, we offer the person’s memory a chance to linger, as we hope our own will.

Even if physical death is quick and final, social death takes time. And through communal effort, people offer each other the chance for their names to last a little longer on Earth than their bodies do. “There is also another way to construe the dead,” Laqueur writes: “As social beings, as creatures who need to be eased out of this world and settled safely into the next and into memory.”

Complete Article HERE!

Career Spotlight: What I Do as a Funeral Director

By Andy Orin

What I Do as a Funeral Director

Making arrangements after the death of a loved one is an inevitable part of life, and for some people it is also a job. Funeral directors help grieving families navigate the daunting, and perhaps unexpected, bureaucracy of death.

It is easy to let your imagine run wild when picturing the work of a funeral director, with television shows portraying macabre drama in gothic funeral parlors, but of course the truth is much more down to earth. (And more about paperwork than anything else.) To learn a little about the work of a funeral director we spoke with Jeff Jorgenson, who owns a funeral home in Seattle.

First, tell us a little about your work and how long you’ve been at it.

I am owner and funeral director at Elemental Cremation and Burial in Seattle. We opened up January of 2012.

What drove you to choose your career path?

When I was at the end of undergrad and applying to graduate schools, I needed to get a job to cover the bills and get me through the second half of schooling. I had a background in restaurants as well as aviation. I didn’t want to go back to restaurants and aviation was a really tight job market. I took, what I thought would be a temporary, position selling cemetery property and pre-planned funeral and fell in love with the industry.

How did you go about getting your job? What kind of education and experience did you need?

Truth is that getting a job doing anything in the industry outside of funeral directing/embalming is actually pretty easy. If you don’t mind being in a funeral home and you have great customer service skills, there are a lot of positions out there. As to the current position, in Washington state, you need 1800 hours of internship, 90 college credits and 25 arrangements with families to get a funeral director’s license. The biggest hurdle people usually face is getting the education—people who want to be funeral directors typically aren’t the type of people that are in love with academia. After that, it can be a challenge to find a funeral home that wants to take you on in an open funeral director position.

Did you need any licenses or certifications?

The funeral director license is for arranging for the disposition (cremation or burial) of the deceased. They are the party planners, so to speak, of the industry. Embalmers [do] the preparation of the body and require an embalming license to care for the deceased. For restaurant readers, they are “front of the house” and “back of the house,” respectively.

What kinds of things do you do beyond what most people see? What do you actually spend the majority of your time doing?

Most of the behind the scenes of funeral directing is nothing like what people think it would be. A funeral director can go months, sometimes years depending on the firm, without seeing a dead person. The reality is that it is a lot of paper pushing and managing the inflow and outflow of paperwork for permits and death certificates. I would say it is 10% meeting with families to go over arrangement details and the other 90% is trying to manage the chain of events and paper.

What misconceptions do people often have about your job?

See above. Everyone seems to paint their own little macabre job descriptions of what we do. The reality is far less Victorian and dark. The Emo/Gothic set ends up pretty disappointed.

What are your average work hours? Did you have to be on-call or is it more of a 9-5 thing?

As an owner, it’s 24 hours a day. As a funeral director, I try to keep it as close to 9-5 for myself and my team. Death does happen at all hours, so there are positions that have odd shift work, but funeral directing and embalming follows bankers hours pretty well.

What personal tips and shortcuts made your job easier?

Shortcuts are a bad idea in the funeral industry, and I’ll go on record as saying that trying to find and use them leads to really unfortunate outcomes. That said, finding ways to be more efficient with workflow of permits and scheduling cuts down on a whole host of conflicts.

On the emotional side of things, people coming into the industry have to be empathetic, otherwise they make really poor funeral employees. The challenge with that is that it is easy to fall into the well of grief. Taking on the grief of families that you meet and connect with can be a really hard hurdle to overcome. Finding where your boundaries are so that you can be healthy and still be a good funeral director is something that people coming into this field should be ready to address.

What do you do differently from your coworkers or peers in the same profession? What do they do instead?

That’s a good question, and honestly, I’ve been on my own long enough that I’m not sure how to answer it—as a funeral director. We do a lot of things systemically different than other funeral homes, and our operations are pretty unique in our environmental standards, and back office operations.

What’s the worst part of the job and how do you deal with it? I would imagine there’s an emotional toll to helping grieving families, but also that helping them through it is part of the appeal.

It depends on the day, but usually the worst parts crop up when you’re so busy that you make mistakes. The systems, checks and balances, and chain of custody measures in place are very stringent for the care of the deceased in almost every funeral home, so the “big errors” happen very rarely in reputable firms. Where mistakes crop up is with typos on death certificates or scheduling with families. They are little things that may be non-issues in the grand scheme of things, but at the time of someone’s death, it’s stressful to have an apartment number incorrect on a death certificate. The worst part is having things like that erode credibility when you’ve done so many other things to make life easier for the family.

What’s the most enjoyable part of the job?

Hugs and thank you’s from the families that I serve. It’s such an amazing win when you’ve made things better for people. I’ve never had another job that continually rewards you in that way.

What kind of money can one expect to make at your job? Or, what’s an average starting salary?

It’s a labor of love, because you’re never going to get rich doing this job. A funeral director can expect to make between $32,000 and $60,000 depending on experience, license, and location. $60k may even be on the high side. Funeral home owner? Ugh. for the first few years, you can pretty much bank on not getting a paycheck. After that… hell I don’t know, I’ll let you know when I get there.

How do you “move up” in your field?

The difference between bottom and top (outside the major corporations) is pretty shallow. From the owner to the funeral assistant or removal person (transfers bodies) may be one, or max two, layers. In the major corporations, it’s about six. It sounds so trite, but the reality is hard work and a mastery of craft. With any job, there’s the networking and political component. [It] isn’t any different than any other industry on how you climb the ladder.

What do people under/over value about what you do?

I think that people overvalue the care of the deceased. There is nothing mystical, difficult, dangerous, or surprising about caring for the dead. Anyone can do it. The problem is that they don’t have the tools for transportation and refrigeration. What I think people undervalue is the capacity of funeral directors to get things done efficiently. Everyone has a timeline that they think is realistic, and often times people want us to move huge mountains to get things done, but they think that it’s the way it is—that their expectations are realistic (e.g. dad died today and we want his ashes tomorrow). I think if I want a house, I should be able to pick one out and move in next week, but if you talk to a real estate agent or escrow officer, they might give you a little different perspective.

What advice would you give to those aspiring to join your profession?

Read this blog post and continue with further research. This business is probably nothing like you think it will be, so you need to have your head screwed on straight and have realistic expectations. This is not some kind of gothic forensics horror show. It isn’t a profession to shock your friends. It is an opportunity to help people navigate the bureaucracy of death. Which, if you step back and think about it, is a pretty profound opportunity to let people get to grieving and healing without the worry of handling the affairs themselves.

Complete Article HERE!

Death Is Way More Complicated When You’re Polyamorous

By Simon Davis

death become her
Screencap via ‘Death Becomes Her’

In February, Robert McGarey’s partner of 24 years died. It was the most devastating loss McGarey had ever encountered, and yet, there was a silver lining: “I had this profound sadness, but I don’t feel lonely,” McGarey told me. “I’m not without support, I’m not without companionship.”

That’s because he has other partners: Jane, who he’s been with for 16 years, and Mary, who he’s been with for eight. (Those are not their real names.) And while his grief for Pam, the girlfriend who died, was still immense, polyamory helped him deal with it.

There’s not a lot of research into how poly families cope with death—probably because there’s not a lot of research about how poly families choose to live. By rough estimates, there are several million poly people in the United States. And while polyamory can bring people tremendous benefits in life and in death, our social and legal systems weren’t designed to deal with people with more than one romantic partner—so when one person dies, it can usher in a slew of complicating legal and emotional problems.

“Whether people realize it or not, the partner to whom they are married will have more benefits and rights once a death happens,” explained Diana Adams, who runs a boutique law firm that practices “traditional and non-traditional family law with support for positive beginnings and endings of family relationships.”

Since married partners rights’ trump everyone else’s, the non-married partners don’t automatically have a say in end-of-life decisions, funeral arrangements, or inheritance. That’s true for non-married monogamous relationships, too, but the problem can be exacerbated in polyamorous relationships where partners are not disclosed or acknowledged by family members. In her work, Adams has seen poly partners get muscled out of hospital visits and hospice by family members who refused to recognize a poly partner as a legitimate partner.

McGarey and his girlfriend Pam weren’t married, so the decision to take her off life support had to go through Pam’s two sisters. The money Pam left behind—which McGarey would’ve inherited had they been married—went to her sisters too, who also organized Pam’s funeral.

This kind of power struggle can also happen among multiple partners who have all been romantically involved with the deceased. The only real way to ensure that everything is doled out evenly is to draft up a detailed prenuptial agreement and estate plan. Adams works with clients to employ “creative estate planning” to ensure that other partners are each acknowledged and taken care of.

Adams is a big proponent of structured mediation as a way of minimizing post-mortem surprises, like when families discover the existence of mysterious extra-marital partners in someone’s will. It’s much better to have those conversations in life than on someone’s deathbed, or after death.

But many poly people remain closeted in life and in death, according to sociologist Elisabeth Sheff, who has studied polyamorous families for 15 years and authored The Polyamorists Next Door: Inside Multiple-Partner Relationships and Families. A person might have a public primary partner—someone they’re married to, for example—plus other private relationships. That can make it harder to grieve when one of the non-primary partners dies, because others don’t recognize the relationship as “real” or legitimate in the way the death of a spouse might be.

Take, for example, something like an employee bereavement policy. Guidelines from the Society for Human Resource Management spell out the length of time off given in the event of the death of a loved one: a spouse, a parent, a child, a sibling, in-laws, aunts, uncles, grandparents. Unsurprisingly, extra-marital boyfriend or girlfriend is not on the list. (Actually, “boyfriend” and “girlfriend” aren’t on the list at all.) It’s possible for an employee to explain unique circumstances to an employer, but in her research, Sheff has found that some poly people prefer not to “out” themselves this way. People still disapprove of extra-marital affairs and some poly people, according to Sheff, have even lost their jobs from being outed, due to corporate “morality clauses.”

It’s similar, she says, to the experiences of same-sex couples who are closeted. “It’s much less so now because they’re more acknowledged and recognized, but 20 years ago, it was routine for [the family of the deceased] to muscle out the partner and ignore their wishes—even if [the deceased] hadn’t seen their family for years and years,” Sheff said. “They would come and descend on the funeral and take over. Or when the person was in the ICU. That same vulnerability that gays and lesbians have moved away from to some extent is still potentially very problematic for polyamorous people.”

Legal recognition of polyamorous unions could provide some relief. After the Supreme Court struck down the Defense of Marriage Act in 2013 and legalized same-sex marriage in 2015, calls for legalizing plural marriage have only become louder. Adams noted that an argument put forth in Chief Justice John Roberts’s 2015 dissent may provide a legal foothold for legalization advocates. “As Roberts points out, if there’s going to be a rejection of some of the traditional man-woman elements of marriage… those same arguments could easily be applied to three or four-person unions,” she said in an interview with US News & World Report earlier this year.

In 2006, Melissa Hall’s husband Paul died at the age of 52. Both were polyamorous, but Paul’s death presented “no special problems,” since they were legally married and Hall had all the rights of a spouse. Instead, she found unexpected benefits in dealing with her husband’s death: In particular, she told me that “being poly made it easier to love again.” Since they had both dated other people during their life together, Hall knew her husband’s death wouldn’t stop her from dating again.

In traditional relationships, it’s not uncommon for people to impose dating restrictions on themselves to honor the desires of their dead spouses, or to feel guilty when they start dating again. Of course, you don’t win if you don’t date either, as people eventually get on your case to “move on with your life.” All this goes out the window when you’re polyamorous, where dating doesn’t necessarily signal the end of an arbitrary acceptable period of mourning.

More partners in a relationship can certainly mean more support. It can also mean more people dying, and with that comes more grief. In an article about loss among polys published in the polyamory magazine Loving More, one man wrote: “Those of us who have practiced polyamory through our lifetime must be grateful for the abundance of love in our lives. But having those wonderful other loves means we must accept a little more grieving as well, when our times come.”

Is the trade off worth it? McGarey certainly seems to think so. “There is more grieving, but… we are held and cradled in the love of other people at the same time.”

He compares his relationship to the Disney movie Up, which starts with a guy falling in love and marrying his childhood sweetheart. “And then [she] dies, and he turns into this grumpy old man because he lost his love,” McGarey said. “I don’t see myself turning into a grumpy old man. I don’t know if I can attribute that to poly, but maybe that’s why.”

 Complete Article HERE!

One Hospital Surprised a Dying Man With a Final Visit From His Beloved Horse



After spending 65 years working with horses, terminal cancer patient Frank Keat’s last request was to be able to say a final goodbye to his favorite horse, Early Morn.

Because Keat’s weak health prevented him from leaving the hospital, he was unable to visit his beloved stables one last time. But the gracious staff at Bodmin Hospital in Cornwall, England, were determined to carry out Keat’s dying wish. The staffers vowed that he would be reunited with Early Morn before it was too late.


And they kept their promise: On October 23, nurses wheeled Keat out onto the hospital’s patio, where his horse companion was waiting for him. Their silent yet emotional encounter made Keat overwhelming happy. For his family members, the surprise visit was bittersweet.

“It was a really nice last gift and I was so delighted it happened,” his son, Tim, told SWNS.


Frank Keat passed away three days after he bid farewell to his prized horse.

Keat’s passion for horses started at the age of 15, when he began working in stables. Later on, he bred horses and spent the latter part of his career serving as a judge for equestrian competitions across England. ​


After Keat was admitted, he enjoyed retelling stories from his equine career to the staff at Bodmin Hospital. ​In more humbling moments, Keat spent his time reminiscing about his friendship with Early Morn.

Fulfilling Keat’s request has been a rewarding experience for nurses like Samantha Russell. “I can honestly say that this is the most memorable day of my career. The emotion was overwhelming and there wasn’t a dry eye on the ward,” Russell told USA Today.

Complete Article HERE!