The Importance Of Death

In nature, death is a returning of nutrients to be remade into new life. Spring flowers will emerge where the turtle died to nourish bees, deer and other animals.

By Sarah Hatfield

We think of autumn as a time of harvest and brilliant color, a time when we can start to read more books and slow down and not feel so guilty doing so. Some might think of it as the ‘waiting room’ of the holidays, anxious to put up their lights and greenery. Still more might see work — falling leaves mean raking, mowing, and cleaning out gutters; moving firewood, putting gardens to bed, planting bulbs, and cleaning up the detritus of summer around the house.

Rarely do people think about autumn as death. Now I’m not trying to bring down the mood, but really, if you think about: those beautiful gold and scarlet leaves? Dying. The leaf piles that spark laughter and among children? Piles of death. The poor animals looking for secure places to spend the winter? Dead on the side of the road. Okay, perhaps this is all a bit harsh, but here’s the point I want to make.

Death is important, natural, and surrounds us daily. And honestly, most people I’ve met in this country don’t have a healthy relationship with it. I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, reading some things from other people, and what really inspired this article was Halloween and how in other countries and in past cultures there is a celebration of death. Called many things, but here’s the point: they celebrate death.

Death is a returning, to all that we were before. No matter your belief. Perhaps you return to the soil, to your god, to the arms of the ones you’ve lost, or every dog you’ve ever had. Perhaps you return to a heavenly realm, a city of gold, or an inferno of fire and pain. That part differs for everyone (but may have something to do with why a lot of people fear death). Death itself is constant, ever present, necessary, and unavoidable. The circumstances leading up to a death might be tragic, sudden, or painful; or they might be slow, consuming, or painless. The death itself is the retuning, and something we should celebrate.

My dad died a few years ago in September, my dear Ryan died in December entirely too long ago: bookends to the season that grows darker and deeper. These are the two most recent deaths I carry with me. Before them, my aunt, my cousin, all four grandparents, acquaintances. Some expected, some not; some painful, some peaceful. Yet they cross my mind and heart and are still part of my life.

The tiny death of each leaf provides a home for animals rarely seen.

People mourn in different ways, but wouldn’t it be wonderful if there was a day that everyone — regardless of how they mourn — was given permission to do so? One day to remember the dead and who they were, what they meant, what they brought to your life. One day to let them fill you again with laughter, love, and comfort. One day to acknowledge that they will always be dead and you will carry the grief with you until you, too, die. It could be the one universal celebration of the one thing that awaits us all – death.

Back to the natural side of things, all those brilliantly colored leaves that fall to the ground, they are indeed dead. But through their death, they regenerate the forest floor, provide winter shelter and sustenance to millions upon millions of living things. Mammals gather those leaves to line their burrows and protect them from the bite of cold; death helping to guard against death. Countless species rely on this annual accumulation of death, the release of life no longer needed, to keep them alive and safe. Without death, much couldn’t live.

Death of the year’s growth allows the microfauna to thrive all winter, busily feasting and decomposing beneath the snow. This feasting on leaves and plants stems and animal bodies returns the energy of life to the tomb of dormancy, which returns to life with the rising of the spring sun. Seeds will tap into the rich humus of autumns past to push through the blanket of leaves and sprout anew in April’s light and warmth. Insect larvae will emerge from winter cases to fly upon warm spring breezes because death has sustained them through the darkest times.

Even now, as always, humans are part of this dance, surrounded by the death that so many fear, but is actually what, in fact, nourishes us. We eat vegetables and meat (dead things) to keep us healthy over the winter and throughout the year. We burn wood or petroleum products (dead things and really, really, really old dead things) to keep us warm. We make clothes from (dead) plant fibers, (sometimes, but not always dead) animal products, and petroleum products (once again, really old dead things). I’m sure you get the idea.

I guess what I want to share is that death is one of the most natural processes in the world. The living need death to continue living. Acknowledging that, accepting that, is healing, freeing. As we enter a time that many call depressing, dark, and torture, take a bit of time to look inward, face some fears, and have an honest look at how death sustains you and the life around you.

Leaves are gathered by many animals to make their homes warm for winter.

Regardless of race, religion, attitude, politics, origin, location, or occupation, death unites us as living things connected to a force we all share, are all a part of, and to which we will all succumb. Let’s celebrate that! With all the joy of a four-year-old and their dog jumping into in a pile of the crunchiest, most colorful autumn leaves, let us celebrate this season, this life, and the death that makes it all possible.

Complete Article HERE!

A modern witch celebrates the cycle of life and death at the confluence of cultures

— This time of year, a bruja, or witch, practices central Mexican Indigenous rituals and modern pagan ones, both honoring the Earth and “us as individuals as part of nature.” But the holidays of the Day of the Dead and Samhain are not the same.

The Rev. Laura Gonzalez poses after teaching about Day of the Dead at a bookstore in Chicago in 2019.

By

As Americans of all faiths prepare for Halloween with costumes and candy or the Day of the Dead with food and flowers, the pagan community is also preparing for its holiday celebrating death and rebirth.

Samhain is the third and final harvest festival of the pagan Wheel of the Year, as the holiday calendar is known in many Earth-based religions.

“(Modern) Pagans have incorporated the seasonal concern with the dead in a holy day that celebrates the cyclicity of life, death, and rebirth,” writes folklorist and pagan scholar Sabina Magliocco in her book “Witching Culture.” 

Not unlike the Day of the Dead and Halloween, Samhain (a Gaelic word pronounced “Sow-en”) includes feasting and honoring one’s ancestors, though those celebrating Samhain are likely to add some divination. Based largely on Irish folk religion, it is a time when the divide between the physical and spiritual worlds are believed to be thin.

The Rev. Laura González, who is a practicing witch and a pagan educator and podcaster in Chicago, celebrates all three. “(My practice) is a hodgepodge,” she laughs.

The Rev. Laura Gonzalez celebrating Tlaxochimaco 2022 in Little Village, Chicago. Courtesy photo
The Rev. Laura Gonzalez celebrating Tlaxochimaco 2022 in Little Village, Chicago.

González merges modern paganism with Mexican traditions, including practices indigenous to central Mexico, where she is from. “At their core, modern paganism and these indigenous practices both honor the Earth,” she said. Nature reverence is essential, she said, to her spiritual path.

“Let me describe to you what happens in my life,” González said in a phone interview. On Oct. 1, the decorations go up for Halloween, a purely secular holiday for her. Then, around Oct. 27, she sets up a Day of the Dead altar to honor deceased relatives, as most Mexicans do about this time, she said. “My mother died on Oct. 27, 2011. I believe it was her last wink to me,” said González.

Since then, González has been honoring her mother with bread and coffee but has also made it her mission to teach others about the Day of the Dead and its origins. She teaches those traditions as well as modern paganism both locally and over the internet at the pagan distance-learning Fraternidad de la Diosa in Chihuahua, Mexico.

On Samhain, González always hosts a small ritual for her Pagan students and participates in Samhain celebrations, either as an attendee or organizer. Some years she travels to Wisconsin to be with fellow members of the Wiccan church Circle Sanctuary.

Samhain is traditionally honored on Oct. 31, but some pagans celebrate it Nov. 6 or 7, an astrologically calculated date. Regardless, group celebrations must often yield to modern schedules, and González said she will celebrate an early Samhain this year.

“My (Samhain) celebration is for the ancestors and for the Earth going into slumber — the Goddess goes to sleep,” González said. She likes to focus her ritual on modern pagan trailblazers, often referred to as “the mighty dead,” rather than on her relatives, which she honors on the Day of the Dead.

González’s central Mexican indigenous practice and her modern pagan practice, rooted in  northern Mexico and the United States, “are very similar,” she added, both honoring the Earth and “us as individuals as part of nature,” something she believes has been lost in modern Day of the Dead traditions. However, she quickly added, “Indigenous practices are not pagan.”

Growing up in Mexico City, González was surrounded by mainstream Mexican culture, with Day of the Dead festivals and altars. As she was exposed to the Indigenous traditions that are still woven through Mexican culture, she explained, she began to study folk magic and traditions, as well as “Native philosophies.”

The Day of the Dead, she said, “is the ultimate syncretic holiday,” a merger of the European-based Catholic traditions with Indigenous beliefs and celebrations. “The practices brought to Mexico by the Catholic colonizers were filled with pagan DNA,” she said. All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day contain remnants of traditional Samhain and other older beliefs, she noted.

“These colonizers came to a land filled — filled — with skulls and its imagery,” she said, which must have been frightening and somewhat of a culture shock, she added.

An altar during Tlaxochimaco 2022 commemorations in Little Village, Chicago. Courtesy photo
An altar during Tlaxochimaco 2022 commemorations in Chicago.

González is now actively participating in the revival of the Indigenous traditions as a teacher and celebrant. The Indigenous holiday, she said, is a 40-day celebration. The first 20 days is called Tlaxochimaco, or the birth of flowers, and the second is Xoco Huetzi, or the fall of the fruit.

“We all are flowers,” she explained. We grow, flower, bloom and then become fruit. Eventually falling and becoming seed, and the cycle continues. The Aztecs “used this mythology to describe life and life cycles,” she said.

“But there are people who do not make it to fruit. They die young,” González explained. These people are honored during Tlaxochimaco.

During Xoco Huetzi, celebrations are held to honor those who have made it to old age before passing. Both festivals traditionally involve dancing, she said, which is considered an offering to the dead. 

The 40-day celebration was eventually condensed into two days aligning with the colonizers’ Catholic traditions, she said, becoming the modern Day of the Dead celebration, a holiday that is quickly becoming as popular north of the Mexican border as Halloween is.

While González is not offended by purely secular Halloween celebrations, even with its classic depiction of witches, she struggles with the growing commercialization of the Day of the Dead. “I know what I am, and I know what I celebrate,” she said, speaking of Halloween. “I find it funny that the wise woman has been made into something scary.”

What does offend her is people dressed as sugar skulls. “It’s a double-edged sword,” González said. “It’s a source of pride knowing the world loves our culture,” she said. However, she added, “You love our culture, you love our music, you love our food, you love our traditions, you love our aesthetics, you love our parties and holidays, you love all of that, but you don’t love us.”

Complete Article HERE!

Dia de los Muertos (Day Of The Dead) 2022

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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What My Father’s Death Taught Me About Living

By Lydia Polgreen

We buried my dad on Friday. He asked to be interred in a pine box. He had long ago lost his once ardent interest in organized religion, but he remained committed right up to the end to the idea that burial helps the soul escape the body.

He endured a long sojourn in the twilight of dementia. Obituary-ese would call it a struggle or a battle, but that wasn’t John Polgreen’s style. He accepted his diagnosis with equanimity and bore it with no self-pity. He died a few days short of his 73rd birthday.

Like many families around the world, mine has seen a lot of loss in the past couple of years. It started with my paternal grandmother, Beth, who died early in the pandemic, though not of Covid, at the age of 92. She lived a long life filled with adventure, surrounded by a loving family and friends.

Next came the shocking, sudden death of my father’s younger brother Bob. He died of a heart attack last year, three months before his 70th birthday. He was building, with his own hands, as was his habit, a dream house on the shores of Lake Superior for him and my aunt to retire to and enjoy their growing passel of grandchildren. And then, just like that, he was gone.

And now it was my dad’s turn. For the first time since these deaths, my family gathered to mourn. We all missed so many celebrations during the pandemic — graduations, weddings, bar mitzvahs. But there is something especially cruel about not being able to gather in the aftermath of a loved one’s death.

Saul Bellow, one of my dad’s favorite writers, wrote in a letter to Martin Amis that “losing a parent is something like driving through a plate-glass window. You didn’t know it was there until it shattered, and then for years to come you’re picking up the pieces — down to the last glassy splinter.”

So much of who I am came from my father. He grew up in a conservative white Midwestern family. He was seized early on by a curiosity about the world that would ultimately carry him across the globe, helping farmers in poor countries improve their lives. He would marry an Ethiopian woman, my mother, Rahel, and dedicate much of his life to helping the rural poor in the Global South, especially farmers, improve their lives.

When I was a kid, my father and I were close. We spent most of my childhood living in Kenya and in Ghana. He impressed upon me a love of discovery and of books. He was a white man with an African wife, raising Black American children outside of the United States, and took it as his responsibility to educate us about what life would be like when we eventually moved back. He pressed a copy of Malcolm X’s autobiography into my hands as a preteenager.

But he was also a footloose dreamer, often distant or even absent. He traveled a lot when he had a job, though he went through long periods of not working. He was forever short of money: My mother’s cherished gold jewelry was in and out of pawn shops throughout my childhood. We were always struggling to stay one step ahead of an eviction notice. Not long after I graduated from college, he persuaded me to co-sign a mortgage so that he and my mom could buy a house, then proceeded to ruin my credit by being constantly late on the payments.

As so often happens in families, my parents’ bitter divorce after decades of marriage strained our relationship. I was busy with my exciting career as a foreign correspondent; he quickly remarried. We grew apart.

A few years ago, he started having little strokes. His memory had never been great, but he started forgetting things that had just happened. He grew unsteady on his feet, making the march from cane to walker to wheelchair. His wife, Pam, lovingly cared for him through it all.

We reconciled. The shortcomings that seemed so glaring when I was young suddenly faded because I could see how the story worked out. The things he failed to provide were nothing compared with what he had given me: the raw materials for a life filled with adventure, connection and meaning. A belief in the fundamental goodness of people across all kinds of difference. A commitment to trying to understand the world and make it understandable to others.

During the pandemic, my wife went back to school to train as a social worker focused on helping people with terminal illnesses. She was drawn to that work after the deaths of her parents — her mother seven years ago from cancer, her father from a heart attack in 2017.

One night over dinner I asked her about her work. What, exactly, do you do with people who are dying? How do you help them and their families? Beyond helping with their practical needs, she explained, she tried to help them normalize their feelings, minimize their regrets and see that people have the capacity to change, right up to the end.

She said that the thing people wanted more than anything was answers. How long does my wife have? Is my mother suffering? These are questions that are impossible to answer, so her work consisted of something else.

“I try to help them increase their tolerance for uncertainty,” she told me. In the absence of answers, she tried to help them live with not knowing.

There is something so powerful about this idea, something so broadly useful to modern life. We all want to know what happens next, to fix upon some certainty as an anchor in the rough seas of our times. But to tolerate uncertainty is to become buoyant, able to bob in the waves, no matter the tide.

Not long after my father’s passing, I learned that an old friend from college, Billy Sothern, had died by suicide. He and I had lost touch over the years, but it wasn’t hard to keep tabs on what he was up to. He was a celebrated defense lawyer in New Orleans who specialized in death penalty cases.

What always blew me away about Billy and his work was the improbable optimism of it. There are few things harder to achieve than exonerating a person sentenced to death for a crime he or she did not commit.

As we drove home from seeing his widow the other day, my wife said, “You have to be incredibly vulnerable to admit that you think the world can be better, to believe that what you do could actually make some kind of change.”

We live in a time dominated by pessimism and cynicism. These poses are a kind of armor against the vulnerability of hope. To be cynical is to close the door to the possibility of disappointment. To be pessimistic is to foreclose the risk of being made a fool by optimism.

I realize now that the most precious thing my father gave me was an example of how to live a life devoid of cynicism and pessimism. He was a dreamer and an optimist, sometimes to an absurd and even dangerous degree. But a bias toward the vulnerability of hope — that is a true gift.

As my father lay dying, I was glad I had the chance to tell him that I loved him and I was grateful. I don’t know if he could hear me, and that’s OK. As we sat together, I thought about the principles for dying and realized that they are also rules for living. A set of maps for navigating a broken world on a dying planet. Tolerate uncertainty. Normalize feelings. Minimize regret. Know that people have the capacity to change and connect, right up to the end.

Complete Article HERE!

The Enduring Genius of ‘The Craft of Dying’

— More than 40 years ago, Lyn Lofland, who died last month, published a book that changed how I think about death and dying.

By: John Troyer

Lyn Lofland’s 1978 book “The Craft of Dying: The Modern Face of Death” completely changed how I think about death and dying. As I write in the introduction to a special 40th-anniversary edition of the book published a few years ago and featured below, “The Craft of Dying” is truly a message in a bottle, one sent from a decade when death and dying social movements coalesced around end-of-life ideologies that the Western world still struggles with today. Sadly, Lyn died this past September after a long and impactful career. I encourage you to read her obituary, written by one of her final graduate students, Ara Francis, who also contributed an epilogue to the book.


Lyn Lofland’s “The Craft of Dying” (1978) is one of the most important books on post-WWII death and dying practices that almost no one has read. To see Lofland’s largely overlooked, but still relevant, text republished by the MIT Press is both thrilling and deeply gratifying. It is the one book that in my capacity as Director of the Centre for Death and Society at the University of Bath I think every person working on contemporary death and dying issues must read. Indeed, I strongly recommend that anyone interested in understanding how events 40 years ago shaped what Lofland would call today’s “thanatological chic” read “The Craft of Dying” and note the current uncanny resemblances to the 1970s.

This article is excerpted from the 40th anniversary edition of Lyn Lofland’s book “The Craft of Dying“

“The Craft of Dying” is, for me, that death, dying, and end-of-life issues book.

A common response to my adamant recommendation is — why? Why and how is this specific book any different or better than its contemporaries, e.g., “On Death and Dying” by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross or “The Denial of Death” by Ernest Becker (to name two big death canon contenders)? My rapid answer is that Lofland’s book both documents what happened in the 1970s (the formation of new hospice spaces, activist groups encouraging people to accept death, the introduction of college courses on dying, and so on) alongside an invaluable critique of those activities. In fact, it is Lofland’s critique and classification of death-focused groups as social movements creatively constructing a new end-of-life ideology that makes “The Craft of Dying” fundamentally important. Lofland calls these end-of-life groups (similar in structure, she will note, to diffuse 1970s women’s movement and environmental movement groups) the happy death movement and uses the term to connote enthusiastic warriors taking on a challenge. Her critique is both generous and insightful at all times. But Lofland was not content with merely documenting what these death and dying groups did; she wanted to better understand what motivated their new end-of-life politics and thinking. It is her push to clearly articulate what is happening in her own moment that makes her book so valuable today; almost every argument and observation she first presented 40 years ago remains both pertinent and urgently needed now.

Almost every argument and observation Lofland first presented 40 years ago remains both pertinent and urgently needed now.

This book is truly a message in a bottle, and one sent from a decade when death and dying social movements coalesced around end-of-life ideologies that the Western world still struggles with today. That Lyn Lofland accomplished this feat in so few pages is an achievement in and of itself.

Discovering “The Craft of Dying”

For all my praise of Lofland’s work, I am embarrassed to say that I first learned of, and then read, “The Craft of Dying” in summer 2014. My mid-career discovery of Lofland occurred only after my esteemed colleague (and walking Death Studies encyclopedia) Tony Walter asked if I knew her book and the happy death movement argument. I said that no, I didn’t. Tony asked about Lofland, because he understood how “The Craft of Dying” directly related to my (then new) research project on American death and dying discourse during the 1970s.

In a nutshell, this research project examines how the 1970s functioned as a crucial but largely forgotten decade for understanding what motivates today’s death and dying groups, as well as foreshadowing many current end-of-life debates. It is during the 1970s that new death and dying tools and technologies took root, altering the definition of death: things taken for granted today, such as living wills and life-support technologies. Much of the decade’s activity is at a very local level and includes individuals forming groups that emphasize Death Acceptance, the Right-to-Die, and dying a Natural Death — all thoroughly documented in the book.

But the 1970s was also a decade when end-of-life issues extended all the way to the White House and bookended politically tumultuous times. In 1971 President Richard Nixon announced his War on Cancer, and in 1979 President Jimmy Carter formed the President’s Commission for the Study of Ethical Problems in Medicine and Biomedical Behavioral Research, which later published its landmark 1981 report Defining Death: A Report on the Medical, Legal, and Ethical Issues in the Determination of Death during the Reagan administration. Carter’s group would eventually become known as the President’s Council on Bioethics and advise all future Presidents on a wide array of issues, including, but not limited to, death and dying.

Lofland’s research remains a key historical and conceptual anchor for anyone interested in that decade, since “The Craft of Dying” analyzed and critiqued what was happening in the 1970s, during the 1970s. What any reader comes away with from this book, I think, is how death and dying were national conversations related to ongoing events — e.g., the Karen Ann Quinlan right-to-die case in New Jersey (which also went global) — and connected to personal freedoms — e.g., the country’s first Natural Death Act, passed in California in 1976, that gave individuals the right to legally refuse medical treatments even if the refusal meant dying.

After Tony Walter’s helpful nudge, I discovered that “The Craft of Dying” was long out of print (the republishing idea first occurred in this very moment), but I persisted in locating a copy and subsequently devoured the book in one August 2014 sitting. I say in all seriousness that reading this book fundamentally changed how I approached all research on death, dying, the dead body, end-of-life concerns, the politics of death, the historical formation of hospice spaces, current Happy Death groups pushing for what Lofland has called “death talk,” and neoliberal economic “choice” about funerals. I could go on and on. And like any convert with a newly discovered evangelical zeal I wanted nothing more than to excitedly read long sections of “The Craft of Dying” to audiences.

Coincidentally enough, captive audiences were available to me in August 2014, since I was the Scholar in Residence at the Morbid Anatomy Museum in Brooklyn, New York (now sadly closed). I am not kidding when I say that almost all my public lectures during the residency involved me simply reading sections fromLyn’s book, especially the introduction:

It seems likely that eventually humans will construct for themselves a new, or at least altered, death culture and organization—a new “craft of dying”—better able to contain the new experience. I believe, as do other sociological observers … that in the ferment of activity relative to death and dying during the last two decades in the United States we have witnessed and are witnessing just such a reconstruction. Undoubtedly within this ferment, especially that emanating from the mass media, there are elements of fad and fashion—a thanatological “chic” as it were, having approximately the same level of import as organic gardening and home canning among the rich. And certainly one can never underestimate the capacity of American public discourse to transform “life and death matters” into passing enthusiasms. But there is, I believe, more to this activity than simply one more example of impermanent trendiness in modern life. Americans, especially affluent middle-class Americans, have been in the process of creating new or at least altered ways of thinking, believing, feeling, and acting about death and dying because they have been confronting a new “face of death.”

And if you are reading this now and thinking to yourself that these words eerily describe death and dying in your own historical moment (“fad and fashion” always gives me pause), then you begin to see why a book published in 1978 continues challenging everyone to examine how any decade’s happy death movements can possibly be unique, or new, or revolutionary. Lofland wants readers to understand the history of the present, so that the next generation’s death and dying activists might also comprehend the historical relationships to their own current struggle.

Relevance for Today

“The Craft of Dying” also productively intervenes in one of the 1970s’ most unhelpful and unnecessary death and dying arguments, an argument that dogmatically persists today — i.e., that death is a taboo. If the happy death movement functioned like a true social movement, Lyn Lofland reasoned, then that movement needed an enemy, and the death taboo is the perfect foil, since everybody already “knows” that it “exists.”

The fact that we all eventually die becomes that rare universal constant that allows each human the opportunity, should we take it, to experience and think about death and dying in new ways.

Lofland is neither the first author, nor will she be the last, to thoroughly challenge how and why the death taboo argument is used, abused, and greatly exaggerated. The death taboo will always be a productive fiction for various happy death movement groups committed to ideologically transforming the “face of death” in America and the West, but it is a fiction all the same. As she rightly points out in part III, the death taboo argument serves a useful function that is especially popular with death-movement intellectuals (full disclosure: I am a card-carrying member of said group). Her critique of death-movement intellectuals is reason enough to appreciate how farsighted this text remains today. Lofland’s crucial intervention begins:

It has been variously formulated, but essentially the view holds that America is a death-denying society, that death is a taboo topic, that death makes Americans uncomfortable so they run from it, that death is hidden in America because Americans deny it, and so forth. The consequences of all this denial and repression are asserted to be quite terrible: exorbitant funeral costs and barbaric funeral practices, inhumane handling of dying in hospitals, ostracism of the dying from the living, inauthentic communication with the fatally ill, an unrealistic, mechanical, non-organic view of life, and so forth. … As many scholars have pointed out, the empirical evidence for all these assertions is something less than overwhelming (see, for example, Dumont and Foss, 1972; Donaldson, 1972). And one might consider it somewhat odd that the statement that death is a taboo topic in America should continue to be asserted in the face of nearly a decade of non-stop talking on the subject. But if one appreciates the functions these statements serve in enemy evocation, one can also appreciate that their questionable empirical basis is hardly a serious obstacle to endless repetition. The importance of the “conventional view of death”—of the conventional wisdom about death—as propounded over and over again by movement intellectuals, is not its “truth” but its utility.

If making more people rigorously question whether or not they really need the death taboo fiction to advance their own death and dying arguments is the only thing republishing “The Craft of Dying” accomplishes, then all the waiting was worth it. Seeing the taboo argument finally debunked would also recognize Lofland’s scholarly commitment to status quo challenging scholarship both then and now. That said, I have a strong hunch that in the decades to come many death-movement intellectuals and practitioners will still make the death taboo argument to advance both their careers and book sales — a point not lost on Lofland when she states that the death taboo is always about utility, not truth.

Above and beyond the book’s uncanny timeliness (e.g., when reading the preface, replace all the originally listed years with the current year and note the similarities) Lofland taps into another core human experience: we Homo sapiens persist at dying. The fact that we all eventually die becomes that rare universal constant that allows each human the opportunity, should we take it, to experience and think about death and dying in new ways. Part II, Individual Constructions: Styling and Controlling the Dying Role, in particular, focuses on how the dying person becomes something different during the 1970s.

I found myself directly confronting Lofland’s newly articulated experience of death and dying, as discussed in part II, when my younger sister, Julie Troyer, died from terminal brain cancer on July 29, 2018. Watching my sister die made me reflect quite heavily on the book’s key assertions, and in very unexpected ways that accidentally (albeit sadly) coincided with writing this introduction. The MIT Press expressed interest in republishing “The Craft of Dying” while my sister was dying, but I started writing the introduction after she was dead — an interval of approximately one month. My father, Ron Troyer, a long-time grief and bereavement support-group facilitator and retired American Funeral Director, best summed up my death interval experience in very Loflandian language: it is one thing to publicly say, “Julie is dying,” it’s an entirely different experience to state, “Julie is dead.” The former felt active, the latter inert.

I chose to add this section about my recent experience with death and dying, as Lofland rigorously analyzes the role of language and expressivity in encouraging people to discuss precisely these issues. For many days I wondered aloud if it was appropriate for a death studies academic, such as myself, to write a new introduction for “The Craft of Dying” that includes a discussion of such a personal experience. After staring at this book for what seemed like eons, I fully realized the genius of Lyn Lofland’s irreplaceable contribution to contemporary death and dying discourse: that, no matter what any of us do; no matter our personal, professional, or familial relationship with death, everyone still dies. And that Lofland’s always-new-craft-of-dying requires we living humans to critically reflect on these confrontations with mortality in our own meaningful ways, so that we might glimpse, for a moment, what living and dying can become in our technologically advanced 21st century. It is vitally important, I think Lofland would say, to see our personal mortal ends in the modern face of death.

What, Then, for the Future of “The Craft of Dying”?

I see no reason why this book will not remain relevant for another forty years. In surveying how Lyn Lofland’s central arguments evolved over time, connections clearly emerge with the ACT-UP AIDS protests of the 1980s and 1990s, and the contemporary activism of today’s Black Lives Matter groups. Lofland rightly predicts that death and dying social movements will persist at emerging and folding back into each other, precisely because death refuses to phenomenologically disappear. The complexity of what she wrote has never dissipated and will continue to find new audiences for many years to come. Part I, The Situation of Modern Dying: Problems and Potentials, sums up via the chapter title itself what each generation will assuredly confront.

“The Craft of Dying” does come with a cautionary note, however, and it is a point that bears mentioning in the conclusion to this new introduction.

Happy death movement groups (then and now) always run the risk of alienating the very people they so eagerly want to help through non-stop ultra-upbeat expressive death talking that then demands transforming and accepting death/dying/mortality at all costs. The challenge here involves individuals becoming convinced that they are doing death wrong, and in that moment of doubt, Lofland wryly suggests, a “dismal death” movement might emerge:

If expressivity comes to be widely accepted as the only way to achieve a decent death, the emotionally reticent will find themselves under great pressure to “share.” If the idea that death and dying provide new opportunities for self-improvement becomes common currency, the chronic under achiever will find himself facing one more opportunity for failure. Not “getting off” on death may become as déclassé as sexual unresponsiveness. Then perhaps, a “dismal death” movement will rise to wipe the smile from the face of death and restore the “Grim Reaper” to his historic place of honor.

This book will remain relevant for all these specific cautionary reasons, and many more. I hope that in another four decades “The Craft of Dying” is republished for that historical moment’s own happy death movements; especially the ones that still evoke the death taboo enemy in order to evangelize a getting-off-on-death gospel. The irony, of course, is that Lyn Lofland showed us all how easy it is to talk about death and dying without ever transgressing any taboos, and she did this forty years ago in the book that you are about to read.

On further reflection it becomes clear that most happy death movements just can’t help themselves when it comes to constantly talking about this taboo that isn’t actually true. Why? It makes them feel useful. Lyn Lofland would likely say that’s okay.

In the face of dying, Death doesn’t really care.

Complete Article HERE!

My Grandfather’s Death Party Was a Final Gift to His Family

The end of life is often invisible, shut away in nursing homes or intensive-care units. There’s another way.

By Sara Harrison

My grandfather liked to stage a scene. He moved to California in 1935 to work in Hollywood, becoming a director for B-list movies and TV shows like “77 Sunset Strip” and “The Mickey Mouse Club.” Despite his work, he didn’t particularly care for film and didn’t own a TV until 1964. Even then he mostly used it to watch Dodgers games. What he liked was the process of making a show: reworking the script, setting the angles, being in charge.

Like so many in his generation, he was a multipack-a-day smoker; a Philip Morris cigarette hangs from his lower lip in nearly every photograph I have of him. He lived with emphysema for decades, maintaining his last sliver of healthy lung tissue through a combination of lap swimming, walking, Scotch and luck. But at 97 years old, he had flagging energy. No longer able to walk from his bedroom to the kitchen without stopping to catch his breath, he rigged up an oxygen tank that allowed him to roam the length of his home. Tubes followed him up and down the corridor.

For a brief moment, at my grandfather’s party, I got to slow down the inevitable, to be with the people I grew up with, in the place we held sacred and dear.

Death is, famously, one of the few certainties in this life. It’s also a reality that doctors, patients and families tend to avoid. In a recent report, The Lancet Commission on the Value of Death notes that today death “is not so much denied but invisible.” At the end of life, people are often alone, shut away in nursing homes or intensive-care units, insulating most of us from the sounds, smells and look of mortality.

Not so for my grandfather. Though he didn’t rush headlong into the hereafter, he didn’t want to wait for his faculties to fail one by one. He wanted to die with a modicum of independence, with hospice care.

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On an unseasonably warm Los Angeles day in May 2011, a cast of characters — his children, grandchildren and friends — assembled at his home, ready to play their part in the last act of his life. I was a college junior at the time, required to read Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan” for class that week. I found it in an English poetry collection of my grandfather’s and read sitting on a sagging couch, intermittently distracted by family members who, one by one, came in and asked what I was doing. They’d smile and recite the opening lines: “In Xanadu did Kubla Khan/A stately pleasure-dome decree:/Where Alph, the sacred river, ran/Through caverns measureless to man/Down to a sunless sea.”

What ensued was a five-day tropical vacation. My grandfather couldn’t stand the air-conditioning, so we wore bathing suits most of the day and paged languidly through withered photo albums. I floated in the sacred waters of my childhood — the swimming pool — and harvested lemons from the prolific backyard tree. When 6 o’clock rolled around, my grandfather would ask, “Who’s pouring me a Scotch?” Cocktails, cheese, olives and stale water crackers appeared. We listened to classical records and told stories and took turns cooking dinner. But just as Coleridge’s vision faded, interrupted by a person from Porlock, our reverie was splintered by closed-door meetings with hospice nurses and conversations with doctors, who could attest my grandfather had a sound mind and a failing body and was eligible for end-of-life care.

However perverse it may sound, that death party — as my sister and I came to call those five days — remains one of the most profound experiences of my life. For a brief moment, at my grandfather’s party, I got to slow down the inevitable, to be with the people I grew up with, in the place we held sacred and dear. Amid that joyful reverie, I had time to sober up and confront the simple reality that my grandfather wanted to die and that everything would change. I saw that the man who had commanded movie sets and TV crews now rarely left his house. That his sweaters hung loose on his stooped shoulders, and that his rosebushes withered with neglect. That things were already changing, whether I was ready for it or not.

People often talk about death as if it’s the worst thing that can happen to someone. As if it’s something that must be avoided at all costs. Better to age, however painfully, however diminished, than to ever admit that we are mortal. But at the end of a long, full life, my grandfather was done. He died with power and agency, love and support. To have that death, he had to acknowledge and embrace his mortality. At our death party, he gave his family a chance to accept that fact, too.

More than a decade later, my parents are discussing their own plans, debating whether to be cremated or buried. My dad calls to talk about what I want. Would I visit their grave sites? Would that be meaningful? There are no monuments for my grandfather, whose body was eventually cremated and scattered at Evergreen Cemetery in Los Angeles. When I miss him most — when I married, or when my nieces were born — I pay homage with a cocktail, a toast and a memory. I think about one evening during the party when, as the room hummed with humans, he held my head in his hands. A few days later, he had his usual Scotch, went to bed and died. In my memory, this moment — the moment when we looked at each other, when we said I love you and when we let each other go — lives on. It comforts me when I pass through caverns of sadness and am marooned in sunless seas of grief. I tell my parents I don’t need them to have a grave site.

Complete Article HERE!

Final moments of life have one thing in common

— Three professionals who work with death and dying have described the one thing they all have in common.

By Bek Day

Woody Allen famously said “I’m not afraid of death, I just don’t want to be there when it happens,” and whatever you think of the scandal-plagued filmmaker’s behaviour in life, it’s a sentiment many can agree with.

“We live in a death-denying culture,” says Dr Merran Cooper, who is also trained as an end-of-life doula and physiotherapist. “By denying the possibility we might die, and having conversations about it, we deny ourselves the opportunity to have the most important conversations of our lives with the most important people.”

But just what are those all-important final moments like for people? Is death really as frightening as we think?

News.com.au spoke to three professionals who work with death and dying and their descriptions all had one major thing in common: it’s usually more peaceful than you might expect.

Camilla Rowland, CEO of Palliative Care Australia

“My experience has been that usually as the different organs start to shut down, people come in and out of a semiconscious state, and it is usually very peaceful,” Camilla explains, adding that the feeling of someone’s ‘spirit’ ‘energy’ filling the room is also common.

“I’ve had that experience, and also many other members of my palliative care team have said that as well, that they felt the spirit of the person around them. And that’s not necessarily a religious thing, it’s just a feeling that occurs. I’ve had people from all walks of life and all different belief systems say the same thing.”

Patsy Bingham, Death Doula

“Peace, calm, relief, hysteria – there could be any one of these feelings depending on who died, how they died and whether they were too young to die,” explains Patsy.

“But for everyone, it is a defined moment in time, and I have a habit of looking at the clock when someone takes their last breath, as family members don’t, and then ask later.”

Dr Merran Cooper, CEO of Touchstone Life Care

“Everyone dies differently but most commonly, when death is expected, a person begins to sleep more, and breath more shallowly until it is very hard to tell whether they are breathing or not,” Dr Cooper explains.

“It can be a peaceful thing to watch. There are noises that worry the person watching, and even bleeding which is distressing to watch, but for the person dying, they slowly move to a place of deeper and deeper unconsciousness until they do not take the next breath.”

Complete Article HERE!