Volunteering for a Jewish burial society showed me how to live a more sacred life

The work of a Chevra Kadisha is done without promotion or fanfare, and is solely for the benefit of the deceased

By Hannah Lebovits

The first time I touched a dead body was in a sanitized room inside a Dallas funeral home. I was stationed next to Ana’s toenails, with a small toothpick and a Q-tip. While firmly holding onto her foot, I silently cleaned away any dead skin, dirt or debris that might be found under her nails or between her toes.

Though Ana’s primary residence was several hours from the city, and she was not affiliated with any local synagogues, a burial plot in Dallas had her name on it. In Dallas, Ana’s family requested a Jewish burial service, including a plain, pine coffin and a ritual cleansing. The funeral home alerted the local Chevra Kadisha, the organization that prepares bodies in accordance with Jewish law, to perform the tahara or purification rituals, and, along with four other women, I volunteered.

Jewish death and Jewish life seem vastly different to me since joining the Chevra. Jewish life gets more and more public every day. Last year, an online Jewish organization paid for prime advertisement space in Times Square to fight antisemitism. Netflix offers Jewish experiences on demand, including the nuanced, scripted “Shtisel,” and the unabashed, reality-TV show “My Unorthodox Life.” Meanwhile, on Instagram, TikTok and Twitter, one can find countless accounts dedicated to informing the public about Jewish life and interfaith experiences.

Yet, while Jewish life seems to be increasingly visible, Jewish death rituals remain private, intimate and authentic. Narcissism and self-promotion are left at the entrance to the funeral home. Inside the tahara room, individual opinions, personal comfort and even your schedule are entirely secondary to the needs of the deceased. The experience is calming and comforting specifically because it is not about you. It’s a lesson for all of us who consider ourselves to be representatives of and in service to Jewish life.

If we can take a few moments to disconnect from the noise and selfishness of everyday living and instead focus on accountability — particularly in our interactions with those who may never repay us — we can maintain a certain purity of action in living an authentic Jewish life.

Prior to walking into the tahara room, I helped to prepare the casket. The first thing we realized, upon opening the box, was that there were not enough wood shavings to properly prepare her casket. Ana’s head was to be propped up on a pillow filled with wood shavings, and her body to lie on a sheet covering an arched bed filled with more wood shavings. We laid out the burial shrouds across the aron (casket) and waited for a funeral home manager to find more of this important material, but no additional wood could be found.

We asked her to keep some on hand for the future, set up what we had and hurried into the tahara room, unwilling to make the body wait for even another second.

After cleaning Ana’s nails and checking her body for any open wounds, I picked up a pot full of water. Starting with Ana’s hair, I poured the water from the pot onto her body as another member of the Chevra Kadisha washed her with a simple white linen cloth. We made our way down the right side of her body as another pair of women did the same on the left. Her body was cold to the touch.

Towels covered her body, and we lifted those towels only to reach a specific spot. Once the area was cleaned of any residual dirt or blood, we covered it again. Any bleeding that we had found during the process would be collected and buried in the casket with her.

I watched as her head remained elevated the entire time. Ana could be seen yet she herself could not see, and as such, we kept her face and eyes covered, out of respect.

Before washing Ana, I washed my own hands. In line with the ritual practice, I poured water from a cup onto my right hand, making sure the water spread from my wrist to the ends of my fingers. Then, I did the same for the left hand. I repeated this three times, in silence. After Ana’s body was cleaned, we washed again, replaced our gloves and filled three more buckets with water.

Ideally, Ana’s body would be entirely submerged in a mikvah. However, since that is not feasible in our community, we are required to pour water in a manner that will ensure that the flow does not stop, simulating a complete immersion. Ana’s body was completely uncovered as three women poured the buckets of water over her, beginning with her head and ending with her feet, making sure that the flow from the bucket was continuous. After the three women poured, we all proclaimed Ana’s purity, and one woman read the prayers. We then immediately covered and dried Ana’s body and began to dress her in burial shrouds.

Local traditions vary across places as different leaders (the “Rosha”) will follow specific customs they’ve been taught and have found to work. The practices followed by our Chevra include specific outlined rituals, local traditions and tikkunim, or “perfections.” A tikkun is a practice that assists in the performance of the ritual and serves as a reminder to the members of the Chevra that they must treat the body — which once held the soul and is now in transition — with the utmost respect.

One tikkun our Chevra keeps is placing a sign with the deceased’s Hebrew name in the tahara room, so that there is no time lost waiting to recall the name as we say the prayers. While dressing Ana, we turned the garments slightly inside out so that Ana’s body would not have to be moved more than necessary as we pulled them up her body — another tikkun we performed.

Complete Article HERE!

Sitting shiva and los nueve días

— The parallels between Jewish and Latino Catholic mourning

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

By Amanda Rozon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Complete Article HERE!

The psychedelic drug that could explain our belief in life after death

Scientists have discovered DMT, the Class A hallucinogenic, naturally occurs in the body, and may contain a clue to what happens when we die and why people see fairies

By Caroline Christie

DMT (Dimethyltryptamine) is the most powerful hallucinogenic drug around. The class A psychedelic is so potent that under the 1971 UN Convention on Psychotropic Substances its manufacture is strictly for scientific research and medical use and any international trade is very closely monitored. But it also naturally occurs in the human body. Now a Senior Psychologist at Greenwich University, Dr. David Luke, is trying to undercover a link between DMT and ‘near death experiences’ to explain elves, tunnels of light and centuries old folklore. On July 8th he’ll talk about his research at an event in conjunction with SciArt collaboration Art Necro at The Book Club in London.

Tell me about yourself

I am a psychologist at the University of Greenwich and I teach a course on the psychology on the exceptional human experience, which looks at extraordinary phenomenon of human beings. It’s all about mythical experiences, psychedelic experiences, personal paranormal experiences, mysticism, spiritual experiences, those sorts of things.

I do research on altered states of consciousness and exceptional human experiences, including psychedelics, medication, hypnosis as altered states and the experiences people have in the states such as out of body experiences, possession, telepathy, and clairvoyance – all your usual stuff.

How did you end up focusing on DMT?

I’m interested in DMT is because of my interest in psychedelics and the phenomenology of psychedelic use. DMT is of particular interest because it’s an extremely powerful psychedelic substance. But what’s more interesting than that, is that DMT naturally occurs in many plants, animals and in humans. It’s endogenous, meaning it’s made within the human body. So it’s more than just a natural plant psychedelic – it’s in us. That makes it extremely curious.

Wait – we naturally produce DMT? Why?

We don’t really know. It was first isolated as a chemical about 100 years ago in various plants. For example in ayahuasca, (a hallucinogenic brew from South America) the other chemicals that were isolated in a plant were named telepathine because users reported telepathic experiences. DMT was later found to be naturally occurring in the human body, found in large quantities in the cerebral spinal fluid. It’s thought to be produced in the lungs and in the eye. It’s also speculated, but not proven, that it’s made in the pineal gland.

What’s the pineal gland?

The pineal gland is a weird organ. During the daytime it produces serotonin, which we know keeps us happy and buoyant, and at night the serotonin gets converted into melatonin. It’s also thought that the gland produces DMT, which is converted from serotonin because they’re similar, it just an enzyme that converts it. The gland is part of the brain’s structure, situated just outside in the spinal fluid in a cavity. It’s really interesting. Why would we have an extremely strong psychedelic substance being produced in our brains? What is its ordinary function in humans? It’s not very well understood, largely because there’s not much done into it. The initial speculation thought that it was perhaps responsible for psychosis, in that people with schizophrenia may have an overproduction of DMT. There was some research conducted into it in the 1960s, but that didn’t get any consistent findings. So that idea was abandoned. Shortly after that, the research with humans stopped because psychedelics became illegal. It didn’t really stop people from taking them, but it did stop researchers from reaching the affect in humans.

Recently, research has begun again. A pioneering medical doctor in the 1990’s called Rick Strassman , started injecting people with DMT as part of a medical research project. About 50 to 60 participants were given high doses and they reported some extremely bizarre phenomena. Approximately half of the participants on a high dose reported being in other worlds and encountering sentient entities, i.e. beings of an intelligent nature which appeared to be other than themselves. The experience was so powerful that participants were convinced of the reality of experience with these other beings. It poses some very interesting questions.

What do these beings look like?

The beings themselves took on various forms. Sometimes they took on the form of little elves or imps or dwarves, sometimes they’re omniscient deities, other times they’re angelic beings. But they’re specifically not humans. Rick Strassman also speculated that the DMT experience had a lot of similarities with what we know about the near death experience.

How is being on DMT similar to having a near death experience?

The near death experience is a type of experience syndrome, whereby people perceive themselves to be near death or in danger of dying. Typical experiences include the sensation of leaving the body, entering into a tunnel of light and flashbacks of their lives. People typically meet some kind of being, sometimes a deceased relative or a powerful other, like an angelic being. The being will tell them it’s not their time to die and that they should return. Then the person who’s having the experience will return back to their body. Sometimes it coincides with them being resuscitated if they are having a genuine near death experience, like a cardiac arrest.

Research has suggested that there is an overlap between that experience and the experience people have when on DMT. In that there’s often encounters with beings, out of body experience, life changing experience, which is often said of near death experiences. But there are dissimilarities as well.

Why are these experiences particular to DMT?

That’s a five and half million dollar question. It’s not well understood. Why do people have this reoccurring theme of apparently sentient entities? It could be that it’s a hallucinatory experience, and for some reason DMT triggers the sense of encountering another being. Or perhaps it’s a misfiring of the brain’s neural network that’s reasonable for those kinds of experiences ordinary.

But it’s curious that the experience occurs in the absence of any kind of objective sentient being in the presence of the person. The other thing is that people quite adamantly testify to the reality of the experience. They say it’s more real than this world. Although we can explain it as a neurochemical misfiring, people who have the experience typically feel dissatisfied with that explanation because it feels so real. But to say it’s a hallucination isn’t satisfactory either.

Hallucination is a bit of a waste basket term for odd experiences we don’t really understand or can’t explain. It’s just a label really.

What’s even more baffling is that people seemingly independently have similar types of encounters. They may not know about other people’s experiences of little people, elves, gnomes or dwarves.

We’ve found reports of them right back to the very first DMT experiments conducted by a psychiatrist in Hungary during the 1950’s. He first tested it on himself and then gave it to his colleague.They all reported the same thing.

My colleagues and I think these experiences aren’t culturally mediated. This is when people are primed to expect something i.e. elves and dwarves and so on, because they’ve heard about it. We think people have been having these experiences on DMT naively, ever since it was first isolated and taken by humans. There’s something about DMT itself which cultivates these experiences. We’re just not sure how or why.

So why do you think DMT is present in the human body?

Rick Strassman tried to use it as a way of explaining the near death experience. He suggested that what happens when you have a near death experience is that your brain releases its store of DMT into the brain and it’s this chemical release that gives the experience.

No one has done a particularly thorough job of mapping the classic near death experience to the classic DMT experience. People have attempted crude compassions but no one has looked at it closely. When you do there are some overlaps but there are a lot of differences.

Although the DMT experience broadly contains all the elements of a near death experience, near death experiences are not like DMT ones. You have the experience of being out of the body or a tunnel of light, like you have with DMT, but there are things we find in the DMT experience that we don’t find in the near death one, such as geometric patterns and alien and bizarre experiences, whereas near death ones are typically very earthly.

What’s more Interesting is if you look at the folklore in literature around 100 years ago. People documented verbal accounts of people who had experiences with pixies. Typically in the folklore literature there were most often associated with spirits of the dead, which has some alliances with the idea of DMT being related to near death experiences. How and why that is, that’s anyone’s guess really.

Are we close to finding any answers?

Scientifically it’s somewhat tricky. I’ve been researching in this area for about 10 or 15 years. DMT struck me as being extremely curious because there’s no other psychedelic we know of that naturally occurs in the human body. I mean the human neural system has endocannabinoids which are related to cannabis THC, but there’s a big difference between that and the presence of DMT.

What’s the role of DMT in the body and why do people have such extraordinary intense and bizarre experiences when they take it? Strassman’s theory is that the purpose of DMT is to help people transition from a living state to a post-death state, whatever that might be. That’s a quite ambitious speculation from a scientific perspective. Because you can’t really know what happens after death.

Strassman’s theory is that the purpose of DMT is to help people transition from a living state to a post-death state, whatever that might be.

Current mainstream scientific thinking is that the brain dies and consciousness ceases. New research and evidence is beginning to challenge that. If you’re looking at the near death experience research that’s going on, people are reporting having experiences of conciseness and conscious awareness even when there’s no apparent brain activity. When the heart stops beating for about 20-30 seconds, all brain activity that we can detect stops because the brain is starved of oxygen.

In theatre operations when people have had their heart stopped and the blood drained from their brain have reported conscious experience throughout the whole procedure, sometimes lasting an hour or more, during which there is no brain activity that we can detect. This challenges the notion that you can have no consciousness experience without brain activity. Now we can’t be certain that they’re actually having a consciousness experience, because we can’t be sure it’s taking place at the same time as their stops working. They could just conflate the experience when they recover brain activity. Or it could be that there are some parts of the brain that we can’t detect, which still remain active. But there’s no evidence for that. So we’re in peculiar territory here, scientifically speaking.

Do you think we’ll ever be able to test for signs of consciousness after death?

We always like to think we’ll have a better understating in the future and science does tend to progress but it’s quite a tricky area. Experimentally it’s very difficult. We’re not in a position to experimentally put people into a death state and see what happens. Although we can take note of people who have surgical procedure and are put into a state of clinical death.

We don’t even know if DMT exists in the pineal glands. We have discovered it in the pineal glands of rats, which are anatomically similar to humans. So there is possibility but we have yet to discover what the pineal glands’ actually function is. It seems to be important as a neurological transmitter on certain, little understood, nerotransmitter sites in the brain. It also seems to have important indications in the immune system. But the question remains why we have an extremely potent psychedelic chemical floating around in the human body. Can this account for spontaneous mythical and spiritual experiences?

Complete Article HERE!

Penance and plague

— How the Black Death changed one of Christianity’s most important rituals

Confession, circa 1460/1470. Artist unknown.

By

The 14th century is known for catastrophe. By midcentury, the first wave of plague spread through a Europe already weakened by successive famines and the Hundred Years War between England and France. And crises just kept coming. After the first wave, which has come to be called the Black Death, the disease returned at least four more times before 1400. All the while, fresh conflicts kept erupting, fueled in part by the rising number of soldiers available for hire.

As a medieval historian, I study ways that community leaders used Catholic practices and institutions to respond to war and plague. But amid the uncertainty of the 14th century, some Catholic institutions stopped working the way they were supposed to, fueling frustration. In particular, the unrelenting crises prompted anxiety about the sacrament of penance, often referred to as “confession.”

This uncertainty helped spark critics like Martin Luther to ultimately break from the Catholic Church.

Saints and sacraments

During this era, European Christians experienced their faith predominantly through saints and sacraments.

In art, saints were depicted as standing near God’s throne or even speaking into his ear, illustrating their special relationships with him. Pious Christians considered saints active members of their communities who could help God hear their prayers for healing and protection. Throughout Europe, saints’ feast days were celebrated with processions, displays of candles, and even street theater.

Fourteenth-century Christians also experienced their faith through Catholicism’s most important rituals, the seven sacraments. Some occurred once in most people’s lives, including baptism, confirmation, marriage and extreme unction – a set of rituals for people who are near death.

A medieval manuscript with colorful illustrations depicts rites for people who are dying.
A 15th-century manuscript depicts deathbed scenes: doctor’s visit; confession; Communion; extreme unction; and burial. From the Bedford Hours of John, Duke of Bedford.

There were two sacraments, however, that Catholics could experience multiple times. The first was the Eucharist, also known as Holy Communion – the reenactment of Christ’s Last Supper with his apostles before his crucifixion. The second was penance.

Catholic doctrine taught that priests’ prayers over bread and wine turned those substances into the body and blood of Christ, and that this sacrament creates communion between God and believers. The Eucharist was the core of the Mass, a service which also included processions, singing, prayers and reading from the Scriptures.

Religious Christians also encountered the sacrament of penance throughout their lives. By the 14th century, penance was a private sacrament that each person was supposed to do at least once a year.

The ideal penance was hard work, however. People had to recall all the sins they had committed since the “age of reason,” which started when they were roughly 7 years old. They were supposed to feel sorry that they had offended God, and not just be afraid that they would go to hell for their sins. They had to speak their sins aloud to their parish priest, who had the authority to absolve them. Finally, they had to intend to never commit those sins again.

After confession, they performed the prayers, fasting or pilgrimage that the priest assigned them, which was called “satisfaction.” The whole process was meant to heal the soul as a kind of spiritual medicine.

Broken up by Black Death

Waves of plague and warfare, however, could disrupt every aspect of the ideal confession. Rapid illness could make it impossible to travel to one’s parish priest, remember one’s sins or speak them aloud. When parish priests died and were not immediately replaced, people had to seek out other confessors. Some people had to confess without anyone to absolve them.

A manuscript depicts people burying victims of the Black Death plague.
An illustration in the Annales of Gilles de Muisit, from the 14th century, depicts people burying victims of the Black Death.

Meanwhile, Europe’s frequent wars posed other spiritual dangers. Soldiers, for example, were hired to fight wherever war took them and were often paid with the spoils of war. They lived with the constant weight of the commandments not to kill or steal. They could never perform a complete confession, because they could never intend not to sin this way again.

These problems caused despair and anxiety. In response, people turned to doctors and saints for help and healing. For example, some Christians in Provence, in present-day France, turned to a local holy woman, Countess Delphine de Puimichel, to help them remember their sins, protect them from sudden death, and even leave warfare to become penitents. So many people described feeling consoled by her voice that a medical doctor who lived near the holy woman set up meetings so people could hear her speak.

But most people in Europe did not have a local saint like Delphine to turn to. They looked for other solutions to their uncertainties about the sacrament of penance.

Indulgences and Masses for the dead proved the most popular, but also problematic. Indulgences were papal documents that could forgive the sins of the holder. They were supposed to be given out only by the pope, and in very specific situations, such as completing certain pilgrimages, serving in a crusade, or doing particularly pious acts.

During the 15th century, however, demand for indulgences was high, and they became common. Some traveling confessors who had received religious authorities’ approval to hear confessions sold indulgences – some authentic, some fake – to anyone with money.

Catholics also believed that Masses conducted in their name could absolve their sins after their death. By the 14th century, most Christians understood the afterlife as a journey that started in a place called Purgatory, where residual sins would be burned away through suffering before souls entered heaven. In their wills, Christians left money for Masses for their souls, so that they could spend less time in Purgatory. There were so many requests that some churches performed multiple Masses per day, sometimes for many souls at a time, which became an unsustainable burden on the clergy.

An eagle's-eye photograph shows a graveyard being exhumed.
A Black Death burial trench under excavation between rows of individual graves and the later concrete foundations of the Royal Mint in East Smithfield, London.

The popularity of indulgences and Masses for the dead helps scholars today understand people’s challenges during the Black Death. But both practices were ripe for corruption, and frustration mounted as a sacrament meant to console and prepare the faithful for the afterlife left them anxious and uncertain.

Criticisms of indulgences and penance were a focus of reformer Martin Luther’s famous “95 Theses,” written in 1517. Though the young priest did not originally intend to separate from the Catholic Church, his critiques launched the Protestant Reformation.

But Luther’s challenges to the papacy were not ultimately about money, but theology. Despair over the idea of never being able to perform an ideal confession led him and others to redefine the sacrament. In Luther’s view, a penitent could do nothing to make satisfaction for sin, but had to rely on God’s grace alone.

Complete Article HERE!

A skate geezer ruminates on death and dying

by Michael Brooke

There are literally millions of articles, books, videos, podcasts, and pieces of art dedicated to the ideas surrounding death and dying.

But I’d wager a large fortune that very few of them give a perspective of death and dying through the lens of a skateboarder.

The book “The Endless Wave: Skateboarding, Death & Spirituality” aims to do just that – or at least start a conversation or two.

Firstly, I am by no means an expert in skateboarding, but I enjoy it immensely.

I’ve been joyfully riding since 1975 and pride myself on riding all types of terrain with all types of skateboards.

I enjoy street, vert, transition, longboarding, freestyle, and I’ll even run slalom cones.

My journey writing about skateboarding started in 1995 with this article: dansworld.com/michael.html

Dansworld was one of the first websites on skateboarding, and I was fortunate to be able to write about my experiences.

Full disclosure: I got the date wrong. I started riding in 1975, not 1976, but everything else is pretty much spot on.

The site inspired me to create my own website. I called it The SkateGeezer Homepage.

Its aim was to publicize older skateboarders and get them thinking about the nostalgic side of riding.

Visit the page – interlog.com/~mbrooke/skategeezer.html – if you dare, but I warn you, the graphics are pretty brutal.

Then again, what do you expect? It was created over 25 years ago!

The SkateGeezer Homepage led to a book contract and, in 1999, “The Concrete Wave: The History of Skateboarding” was published.

It sold 42,000 copies and launched a 52-part TV series.

After this, I launched International Longboarder Magazine in the summer of 1999. This magazine eventually became Concrete Wave, and I published and edited it until the summer of 2018.

Here’s a collection of issues: issuu.com/concretewave

The Concrete Wave: The History of Skateboarding: a book by Michael Brooke

From Publisher to Funeral Director’s Assistant

When I decided to sell the magazine, it was because I felt that it was time to do something else.

Originally, I thought I’d move into working at a non-profit. It turned out that my life was going to go in a different direction.

I wound up answering a job advertisement at a local funeral home. I had done some volunteer work at a nearby hospice and retirement home.

After my interview, they asked me to come in for a day to try things. This was late June 2018, and something about the job felt right.

So, for the last three years or so, I’ve been working as a funeral director’s assistant. It was quite a transition from publishing.

I pretty much do everything but arrange funerals.

From premature babies to those over 100 years old, I’ve experienced death up close and personal.

I’ve done dozens of house calls to transfer the deceased back to our funeral home and assisted at well over 500 funerals.

It’s been over three years since I wrote about skateboarding and over 25 years since I connected with Dansworld to write my first piece.

It feels wonderful to be writing again.

I want to thank my family, my wife Michal, daughter Maya and sons Jonathan and Ethan. They have been incredibly supportive of everything I’ve done.

They’ve also been monumentally patient and understanding too. Without them, I’d be nowhere.

I’d also like to thank Nathan Ho for inspiring me and being a catalyst for me to start writing again.

My hope is that this book inspires my fellow skateboarders to think about death and dying from a different perspective – a perspective that is uniquely ours.

Skateboarders: they value the time put into riding a skateboard | Photo: Shutterstock

1. Balancing the Risk vs. Reward

Think about the first time you stepped on a board. Were you a little bit scared or anxious?

Chances are you might have had some trepidation, but it was mitigated by the sheer joy and freedom you saw other skaters experiencing, and you wanted some of that!

So, you took a chance, jumped on the board, and were hopefully rewarded.

It is not just a question of balancing on a skateboard, but how you balance the risk vs. the reward.

Skateboarders know that falling can produce painful and sometimes lethal consequences.

But all those worries and fears are cast aside for the reward that is riding. Now think about the first time you learned to drop in on a mini-ramp or bowl.

Again, you probably felt a little anxious but knew instinctively that the reward would be truly worthwhile.

It is the combination of risk vs. reward that forms the first part of a skater’s lens, and we carry this throughout our life.

What I have learned in my 57 years of living and 46 years of riding a skateboard is that sometimes you have to jump right in, despite the difficulty or risk.

Built into the DNA of skateboarding is risk, and I know for a fact that it has changed the way I look at death and dying.

While it can be risky to skateboard, I feel that the greater risk is not living a fulfilling, joyful life.

The countless hours spent with friends skateboarding create a unique bond.

Sure, there are times you are competing in a game of skate or who can go the fastest down a hill, but mostly the ride is the reward.

Think of the road trips you’ve been on with your fellow skaters. That first push can lead to a lifetime of freedom and exploration.

For me, skateboarding was a catalyst to lead me to people, music, art, and ideas that I normally wouldn’t have discovered.

The more you commit, the greater the reward.

Skateboarding tricks: the more you commit, the greater the reward | Photo: Shutterstock

The Formula for a Joyful Life

Skateboarders know all about quality time – especially if you’re living in a climate that is not sunny all the time.

We cherish the opportunity to ride with friends. But most importantly, we value the time put into riding a skateboard.

We know that at any moment, a pebble, car, or crack in the pavement could stop us in our tracks.

When I attend a funeral, I can tell almost immediately what kind of eulogies I will hear.

If the family is tight-knit and supportive of one another, the eulogies will often be about the time the person put into people.

While hearing about a person’s business or academic accomplishments can be impressive, it is the anecdotes about the time spent with family and friends that really leave an impression on me.

I have never once heard, “I wish my father would have spent less time with us” or “I wish my mom would have spent more time at the office.”

Ultimately, life is about balance.

If you are obsessed with skateboarding to the point that it leaves you penniless, you’ve gone too far.

Conversely, there are so many millions of people afraid to take that first push or to drop in.

They firmly believe that life is scary and meant to be cautiously navigated. Their fears can lead to frustration, anger, and depression.

It makes for a joyless life.

Skateboarding has a magical way of creating a sense of freedom in your mind. Once your mind is free, anything is possible.

After all, you have a 100 percent chance of dying. The question is: what are you going to do about it?

Skateboarding: like life, a balance between risk and reward | Photo: Shutterstock

2. Reality Doesn’t Just Bite – It Spits!

Before I start this next chapter, I wanted to preface things with a small warning. The truth is that discussing death and dying can be very difficult for some.

Nathan and I are going to hit on some very challenging and somewhat painful ideas over the course of this book.

But if you picked up on what I was writing about in Chapter One, I think you’ll do just fine.

The following incident happened about three years ago, but I remember it like it was yesterday.

I had been at my job as a funeral director’s assistant for less than a week.

It was a blazing hot day in July, and I was getting to know my fellow co-workers. At the cemetery, we had spied someone lurking about 200 feet away.

We were told that it was an estranged brother who was not invited to the funeral but had somehow found out the time and place and was making his presence known.

It created a little bit of intrigue, but none of us were concerned that he would do something to disrupt the funeral.

As this was literally my second or third time attending a funeral at a gravesite, I wasn’t really sure if having a lurker was a normal occurrence or something completely uncommon.

It turned out to be something else – it turned out to be completely off the rails. The funeral service took about 30 minutes to finish.

The family left the grave, and slowly the brother walked up to the grave.

He stood in front of the grave and spat on it. Then he said, “I’m glad you’re dead, you f*****g c**t.”

He promptly left, and I stood there with my jaw dropped. As he left, I could feel the tension and anger just swirling around him.

I was literally stunned into silence.

Skateboarding: your skateboard will outlive you | Illustration: Brooke/Ho

Gaining Appreciation for Life

I am happy to report that a scene like this is not a common occurrence. The amount of visceral hatred that seethed in this man’s veins was both intense and shocking.

While I will never know what led up to this moment, it is forever seared in my brain.

A fellow staff member remarked that he’d been working in funeral services for over 25 years and had never encountered something like this before.

I guess in some crazy way, my timing was pretty good.

There is no doubt in my mind that you gain an incredible appreciation for life when you are surrounded by death.

It seems oddly counter-intuitive, and yet I encounter it constantly. What can we learn from my story about this man?

I think you could spend many years trying to unpack a scene like this, but I think it boils down to just one crucial thing.

“You gotta handle your shit, or shit will handle you.”

Clearly, this man (who appeared to be in his mid-60s) and his mother (along with the rest of the family) needed help.

He clearly carries a burning resentment that was overwhelming. Whatever history is between the family, it would appear that it was never dealt with.

This man needed help. Maybe he got it, but I sense it never really helped sufficiently. Or maybe, in the last three years, he did receive some help.

I can only hope that he did. Sadly, I will never know.

Skaters come from a variety of backgrounds. Some are rich, some are poor, and some are middle class.

I would venture a guess that a number of skaters turned to skateboarding because it was a path to freedom from an issue.

These issues or problems can range from mild to severe.

No matter what a skater tries to leave behind (i.e., an abusive home, inattentive parents, abusive sibling, or some other problem), the fact remains that skateboarding can’t fully erase the problem.

Coming to terms with this can be both alarming and painful, but it is necessary.

Make no mistake – I am glad I had skateboarding when I was younger. It wasn’t just a creative outlet; it provided me with a great deal of support.

But in truth, I never dealt with certain s**t until I reached my 50s.

Of course, things change with time, and nowadays, people are a lot more open to dealing with mental health issues.

But the reality is that if you use skateboarding as your only path to freedom, you aren’t dealing with the problem.

This can have a substantially negative impact as you move through life.

If you carry with you hatred against people who don’t look like you or skate like you, it is you who has the problem.

Skateboarding: if you use it as your only path to freedom, you aren't dealing with the problem | Photo: Shutterstock

Skateboarding Will Never Love you Back

Skateboarding promotes the idea of freedom, but if you are running away from an issue that needs to be dealt with, you will never be truly free.

This is a hard truth, but it is critical to accept.

As much as we love skateboarding or any other activity, it can’t truly replace family or close friends.

A skateboarder knows instinctively to value each moment riding – whether alone or in a group.

But as you start to move from adolescence to middle age and beyond, you realize that skeletons in closets have a peculiar way of rearing their heads.

Whatever demons you may carry, skateboarding has proven to be a great way to keep them at bay.

But the demons won’t fully be exercised until you face reality.

I have tried yoga, cooking, gardening, and conversing in another language.

At some point or another, these activities have let me down, oftentimes with ridiculous and embarrassing results.

I used to say that skateboarding never let me down. But the fact is that skateboarding is an activity, not a person.

No matter how much you love your skateboard or the act of skateboarding, it will never love you back.

It can’t because a skateboard is an inanimate object. An object that certainly improves your life, but it is only an object.

Skateboarding will be the catalyst for you to have experiences that you will love.

Often, it will bring you people who you might grow to cherish (and respect).

But the fact remains your skateboard will outlive you. A hundred years from now, your descendants might know that you skated.

But one thing is for certain: if you don’t handle your shit eventually, your descendants will have to.

Complete Article HERE!

How Preparing for Death Makes Life More Meaningful

by Tom Rapsas

Is there ever an appropriate time to contemplate your own death? Like grief, death is a topic most of us prefer not to talk about or even think about. Most of us assume our own deaths will happen at some point in the distant future. Yet, as Wayne Dyer once said, the future is promised to no one.

Most of us will wait until we are at the brink of death’s door to contemplate death. It might happen after a terminal medical diagnosis, a sudden heart attack or illness, or an automobile accident. Or you might live in a warzone, where the specter of death visits you on a daily basis.

But the fact is, no matter your station in life, death is a constant presence. We are nearer to death this year than last year, closer to death today than we were yesterday. During our whole lives we are moving inextricably closer to death. We are not allowed to stop the clock or to go more slowly. Old and young, rich and poor, all are propelled toward death with equal speed.

There are some who regularly practice for their own death.

They are not suicidal—in fact, just the opposite. They contemplate death so that they can better appreciate life. It’s part of an ancient Christian tradition called memento mori (translation: “remember your death”). It has received renewed attention thanks to Sister Theresa Aletheia Noble of the Daughters of Saint Paul, a Catholic religious order.

Noble has written a book titled Remember Your Death, where she asks us to become aware of our impending death so that we can become better focused on what is real and important in our lives. In her words, the practice “is more about living than it is about dying.” It’s about living each moment not knowing if it’s our last.

Sister Theresa believes that the practice of memento mori is essential because “only God knows when each person will die.” That does not mean going about your day thinking you will die, but recognizing “the possibility that this could come to pass. One day will be our last, and the great majority of us do not know when.” She continues:

No matter how many surgeries we undergo, how much we exercise, or how many vitamins we take, our bodies will break down slowly over time. Indeed, no matter what we do, our bodies will succumb to old age and die.

Spring is an appropriate time to remember our death.

Noble calls out the Christian observance of Ash Wednesday. It kicks off the 40-day season of Lent which ends three days before Easter Sunday. During Ash Wednesday, a priest or pastor dips their finger into a tray of ashes and spreads it on a congregants’ forehead in the shape of a cross. While doing this, they quote the Bible, saying “from dust you came and from dust you will return.” Dust is a metaphor for death.

Sister Thersa tells us that “as Christians, when we contemplate our own death, we also enter into the death of Jesus Christ. We remember death not from our own perspective, but from Christ’s perspective.” And from that perspective, death has been conquered. With the resurrection of Jesus, he has shown us that we all have the ability “to rise with him” and in essence, survive our own death.

You don’t need to be a Christian, for this work for you. Noble informs us that “even if one does not believe in the Christian message of salvation, the rich ancient tradition of remembering death can bring joy, focus, and fruitfulness to anyone’s life.” What follows are three compelling notions pulled from Remember Your Death.

3 Reasons to Prepare for Your Own Death

  1. It can cleanse your soul. When we remember death “it can motivate us to clear grudges, anger, and a desire for retaliation for our souls.” When we are able to forgive others, it can “heal relationships but most importantly, our souls. Forgiveness clears away what stands in the way of our union with God.”
  2. It can lead to greater humility. When we remember our death, we “truthfully admit we need God’s help,” and are more apt to accept God’s grace. By contrast, when we puff ourselves up with pride, we push away this grace. “Remember, you are dust and to dust you will return.” ~Bible, Genesis 3:19
  3. It can give you greater focus. Through the knowledge that the gift of life can be taken from us at any time, we gain a greater appreciation for our lives. As Sam Harris reminds us in a podcast titled The Lessons of Death, no one knows how much time they have left. “We’re all going to lose everything we have—and we don’t know when.” Since we don’t know how many moments we have left, it makes sense to be mindful of the limited amount of time we do have—and treat these moments like the treasures they are.

Complete Article HERE!

On Death, Dying, and Disbelief

BOOK BY CANDACE GORHAM
PITCHSTONE PUBLISHING, 2021

by Nicole Carr

As humans, most of us—especially after the last couple of pandemic years—have experienced the loss of a loved one. As humanists, we know how difficult it can be to grieve as a nontheist in a world that is designed for the religious. Many of the rituals our society uses to mark the end of life are built around belief in the afterlife, and that can leave nontheists feeling stranded and alone at a time when they especially need support. Candace R. M. Gorham offers that support with her book On Death, Dying, and Disbelief, published last year by Pitchstone Publishing.

When my mother died (much too young), I was still a believer. I had already stopped regularly going to church, but I believed in god and the sentiments that the people around me uttered were actually comforting: “She’s in a better place,” “You’ll be together again someday,” “She’s looking down on you.” I knew the rituals and they worked for me.

Twenty-five years later, when my husband died (again, much too young), I hadn’t found humanism yet, but I definitely considered myself a nontheist. Grieving was different this time, and I needed to find new ways to mark his death and find a way to live without him. I wish I’d had this book then.

As a licensed mental health counselor and a former ordained minister turned atheist activist, Gorham is uniquely suited to write this book. She also draws on her personal experience with grief. As she writes in the book’s introduction,

The ten tips I offer in this book were selected based on common questions and conversations I have had with nontheists and are things that have helped me personally. In this regard, I combine my personal awareness of issues unique to nontheists with my professional expertise in mental health counseling, and I try to address this deeply personal subject with the tenderness of one who can fully commiserate with the target audience.

And she succeeds. The book is deeply personal and yet still applicable to the reader’s own situation and experience. The chapters are organized as ten tips, and each one begins with a poem written by the author when she was coping with her own grief.

On my own journey from religion to nontheism, the idea I found hardest to let go was that loved ones who had died were in some other—better—place, where they were somehow watching over me. I held on to that idea tightly after all my other religious beliefs had fallen away. In fact, I held on to it for quite a while after I called myself non-religious. Gorham’s first chapter deals with just that concept, and how to reconcile a sometimes deep desire to believe that a loved one is still with us with our understanding that there is no heaven.

There’s a lot of important advice included about taking care of yourself physically, psychologically, and emotionally. There are the basic things, of course: eating, drinking, sleep, exercise. But there are also tips about things you might not think about in the midst of grief, like the importance of establishing new routines to help you move forward.

Gorham also includes information about when to seek out a therapist, the beneficial possibilities of medication, how to identify when grief has passed into a danger zone of potential self-harm or pathology, and the healing qualities of nature to help create a “restorative environment.”

And there’s a whole chapter on the need to “Cry. Cry. And then cry some more” which the author describes as “the most cathartic activity I have ever done.” Since humanists tend to like science and evidence, Gorham details, for instance, studies that point to the beneficial hormones and proteins that crying produces, along with the stress-relief and cathartic effect of the physical act.

In the same chapter, however, she reminds readers to “embrace the times when they are not crying” and find moments of enjoyment in the midst of grief. After all,

As a nontheist, you very likely do not believe that your loved one is watching you from the great beyond. So, it is not like they are there judging the extent of your grieving. And you are not competing with friends and family to see who can grieve the hardest and longest.

One powerful chapter is Tip #8: Do something in their honor. Gorham sets out several options for rituals that one can create to remember and memorialize a deceased loved one. In some humanist circles, “ritual” can be a bad word, but many people do feel a need to mark an important loss. As Gorham writes,

As nontheists, we might not like the word “ritual” because of its close ties with religion. However…synonyms include custom, fashion, habit, pattern, practice, and second nature. As you can see, a ritual is certainly more than just a religious activity. Rituals are extremely powerful tools that, when controlled and properly applied—as opposed to letting them control us—can provide the most healing of all of the activities, tips, actions, and recommendations I discuss in this book.

Her suggestions range from “Visit the Gravesite” to “Complete a Project.”

This is a compact book at just 152 pages, and its structure is perfectly suited to dipping in to find just the right tip for where you are in the process of grieving. With a final chapter devoted to advice for people who want to support those who are grieving, the book covers a lot of ground.

Everyone will find sections of the book useful to them. For instance, Gorham stresses the restorative power of nature, but not being an “outdoorsy” person, that advice doesn’t really speak to me. Instead, the sections that resonated most with me were Tip 8 (on ritual) and Tip 9 (on crying), described above. For others, it might be the opposite.

For me, the best passages are the ones that remind the reader that, though we must grieve, grief is not all there is:

You are alive and you must keep living. If you wake up crying, cry while you are getting dressed, cry while driving, cry when music is playing, cry anytime you are alone, cry in the shower, cry in bed, cry at meal time. If you cannot help yourself, then cry, cry, cry. However, it is also absolutely critical that you let yourself experience joy whenever possible….When you are able to break free from its hold and peek your head above water for even ten minutes to breathe the pure air of laughter and smiles, you must take it in as fully as you can.

Most importantly, Gorham stresses that each journey is unique and each person grieving is on a different timeline. The most repeated advice in the book is to be patient with one another—and yourself.

Complete Article HERE!