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

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

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

By April Rubin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Recognizing a sacrifice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘I knew she was helping somebody.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘A great sense of gratitude’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Complete Article HERE!


— The Ritual Of Taking On The Sins Of The Dead

Ritual of eating the sins of the dead

by Andrei Tapalaga

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

Origins and Historical Context of Sin Eating

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

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

Symbolism and Beliefs Associated with Sin Eating

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

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

Psychological and Societal Implications of Sin Eating

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

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

Contemporary Perspectives and Legacy of Sin Eating

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

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

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

Complete Article HERE!

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

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

By Zena Sharman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Complete Article HERE!

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

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

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

By Li Cohen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Complete Article HERE!

The parting gift from my dying friend was an extraordinary act of selfless compassion

— In the hospital room I lost it. I stood there awkwardly with wet eyes. And then something incredible happened

We are raised to be stoic in the presence of the dying, when our instinct is the opposite.’


The word that our old friend was about to die travelled as quickly as a Mallee scrub fire. He’d been medically evacuated home from overseas a week or so earlier. He was now in hospital with his family about him, not very responsive and unable to talk.

“You should get there quickly. He might only have a day or two.”

There was disbelief and shock. I’d last seen him across a cafe table in Glebe three months earlier where he was characteristically ebullient. He enthused about his plans overseas for the years ahead, and spoke of his love for his children and grandchildren.

He gave me four boxes of antique books.

“I don’t need stuff where I’m going,’’ he said. He meant overseas. His words now seem unintentionally prescient.

The sadness I felt when I heard of his terminal decline was largely about his now unrealised – and cruelly thwarted – plans. Also, I just couldn’t – still can’t – foresee a world without this man, one of the bravest, most forthright, irreverent, passionate and generous people I’ve known.

Last year in this space I wrote about the importance – and occasional fickleness – of “mateship’’ and male friendship. I wrote how “two of my most important friendships have been with men who are both 20 years older than me’’.

“Both are intensely creative and passionate, have done amazing things while continuing, as their 80s approach, to live compelling lives that have been marked by courage and iconoclasm, sensitivity, tragedy, devastating loss, success, disappointment and, not least, a desire to do good. They’ve gently guided me and been there (each with a sixth sense, almost, that told them I was troubled) when life has cut up rough.’’

This was one of the men I had referred to. He’d long been around for me as a mentor – on how to be genuine, how to be true to your beliefs and art, and especially on how to learn to not give a damn about the critics and the knockers. He’d been there to counsel me through the grief associated with my parents’ deaths. He’s the type of bloke who texts when your team wins – or loses – big. Who always asks after – even offers to mind – your dogs.

When serious illness struck my family a few years ago, never a week passed without him checking in. Urging me to hope. For hope and optimism were always his propellants. Publicly at least.

And so I drove out of Sydney on one of those glorious, crisp autumn mornings under a crystalline sky of the gentle blue you might find on a bolt of shirt cotton in the tailor’s window. It was an air-punch morning. One on which to celebrate life. And I was driving to a regional hospital to say goodbye to a dear friend who, although 77, was Peter Pan incarnate to me and so many others. I was counselling myself as I drove to keep it together. For him. For how much do the dying fear what’s next and become even more afraid when their anguish is reflected in our eyes and responses? We are raised to be stoic in their presence, when our instinct is the opposite.

It was on a day like this, 25 years earlier, we’d first met over a long lunch in Sydney where I’d come, as a newspaper reporter, to write a profile about him. We’d been true mates ever since. Although I do wonder at the equality of our friendship; he always seemed more there for me than I for him. Yes, we talked often about the tragic death of his adult son. But I could offer him nothing, then, because I had never experienced any such loss. I could not reciprocate the hope he’d always urged in me. For it was already hopeless. I could only lend a caring, passive ear to his pain. I don’t know how he survived that. Testimony to an old soldier’s resilience, perhaps.

And in the hospital, now, there he was in bed, diminutive now for such a robust man and wearing the pallor of imminent death. His beautiful children were about him, the room brimming with love. His eyes and his smile sparkled as they always had. He grinned as we held hands. There was time alone. I thanked him for it all. And yes, I lost it. I could do nothing but stand there awkwardly, with wet eyes, when his kids re-entered the room. I felt like an intruder.

And then something extraordinary happened.

Helped by his son, he stood on unsteady legs upon a mobility device to visit the bathroom. I gave him a stoic two-handed thumbs-up. He smiled and gestured for me to come forward. As we hugged in silence he patted me on the back as if to sooth my earlier evident distress.

It was an extraordinary act of selfless compassion, a perpetual gift if you like, from a mate who had already imparted so much to me about life and humanity. He was making sure I was OK.

He died a week later.

Complete Article HERE!

Washing and dressing our dead

— The movement challenging how we grieve

Shelley Anson took part in a washing and dressing ritual when her mother Lorraine died. Here, she holds a frame photo of her parents.

Advocates say that modern practices have robbed us of centuries-old rituals and interrupt a profound and pivotal point in the grieving process.

By Sophie Aubrey

Four days after her mother died, Shelley Anson walked into a candlelit room at a funeral home. There, her mother Lorraine lay on a bed, tucked in as though she were just asleep. A cooling mat to slow decomposition was humming away beneath her body.

“She looked so beautiful. She had colour in her face, even her lips. I asked if it was make-up, but it was from massage. I was in absolute disbelief and awe, I cried and cried,” Anson says.

“I was kissing her and she was cold to the touch, but that was OK. I was telling her how much I loved her, how grateful for her I was and how happy that she was reunited with my dad.”

For the next three hours, Anson cuddled her mother, brushed her hair and washed her face, arms, torso and legs with warm water and myrrh oil. Finally, she dressed her in her favourite sequined maroon dress for the funeral.

The experience, in December, was transformative for Anson’s grief.

“It was perfect in every way. It brought me absolute, great peace,” she says. “I could have stayed longer, but I felt like I’d finally done enough and that it was OK to go home.”

In contemporary Australia, much as in the rest of the Western world, our eyes are closed to the realities of death. The dead are often hurried away from a hospital room by an appointed funeral director and not seen again, unless a family chooses to farewell them with an open casket.

But there is a growing push towards keeping vigil with a loved one after their death and taking on the care of their body, either at a private house or a funeral home.

Advocates of what’s been termed the “death-positive movement” say our modern, sanitised practice interrupts our grieving process, creates a fear of death and has contributed to the loss of centuries-old rituals of caring for our loved ones.

A bereavement casting made by Pia Interlandi of Shelley Anson’s hand clasping her mother’s.
A bereavement casting made by Pia Interlandi of Shelley Anson’s hand clasping her mother’s.

Libby Moloney is the founder of Natural Grace, a Victorian holistic funeral company that has been at the forefront of shifting the narrative around after-death care.

“In the 1900s we surrendered the care of our dead to well-meaning strangers in what we now know as the funeral industry. In a way death was sterilised and outsourced. It’s a model that’s very much about easing your burden, taking away the stress,” she says.

But Moloney says this robs families of a pivotal point in the mourning process that comes from the act of being with the body of their loved one, of feeling the stillness of their hand.

“It happens to everybody, and it’s deeply sacred,” Moloney says. “It takes the human mind and body about three days, where there’s a visceral, profound knowing that ‘I’m ready’ – ready to separate from the body of my person and I can now go on to the next steps. It’s unbelievably empowering.”

She says at least 80 per cent of her clients have an element of death care, with roughly half choosing to do this at home, the other half at her Woodend or Fairfield sanctuaries. These rituals usually take place over a three-day period before a funeral ceremony and burial or cremation.

Tasmania-based Bec Lyons spent six years in the mainstream funeral industry before becoming a death doula and independent funeral practitioner. Today, she leads both the Australian Home Funeral Alliance and Natural Death Advocacy Network, which aim to raise awareness of family-led funerals, death care and natural burials.

Death care is not for everybody, but Lyons’ goal is to teach people that there isn’t just one way to grieve. Most Australians don’t know that they don’t have to appoint a funeral director, and that it’s perfectly legal and safe to care for the body of their loved one. In NSW, the deceased can stay at home for up to five days; in Victoria, there is no prescribed limit. The key requirements are to register the death and arrange a burial or cremation.

Australian Bureau of Statistics data shows there were more than 171,000 registered deaths in 2021, up from almost 147,000 10 years earlier. It’s estimated that by 2066, the number of annual deaths will be over 430,000.

“There’s a pertinent conversation around what are we going to do with all those bodies? Death needs to move back into the home,” Lyons says.

With 70 per cent of Australians wanting to die at home, Lyons believes that the older generation, having watched their parents die in nursing homes, want to do things differently.

She says the number of home funerals she’s facilitated has doubled in the last 12 months, which she puts down to increased understanding of death, as well as financial considerations: they can be half the cost of a typical funeral.

Lyons says more people began to explore the idea of after-death care and home funerals (meaning a dead person is kept at home until they are put to rest) during COVID-19, when restrictions stripped away usual mourning practices. Holding vigil at home was still possible.

“In conventional Western society, the only vehicle we have to mourn is the funeral ceremony. For people who want that, that’s fantastic. But when COVID-19 hit, you ended up with grief that had no outlet,” she says. “Grief is an emotion that needs something to do.”

Anson’s mother died at age 79, 2½ years after a brain cancer diagnosis. Anson, an end-of-life doula and nurse, cared for her at home for the first seven months until, emotionally, she couldn’t do it any longer. But putting her mother in a nursing home weighed heavily.

It’s why after-death care and being with her mother’s body was extraordinarily healing: “That was my way of giving that last bit of love that I felt I hadn’t been able to give.”

Melbourne Chevra Kadisha CEO Simon Weinstein with volunteer Yaelle Schachna.
Melbourne Chevra Kadisha CEO Simon Weinstein with volunteer Yaelle Schachna.

Several religions and cultures have preserved ancient death care rituals. In Islam, it’s customary for same-sex relatives to wash the bodies of their dead, usually three times, then wrap them in sheets. Hindu families traditionally wash a body with holy ingredients such as milk, honey and ghee before dressing them.

Simon Weinstein is chief executive of the Melbourne Chevra Kadisha, a funeral home that serves much of the city’s Jewish community and delivers funerals according to Orthodox laws and traditions.

In Judaism, a burial should happen as quickly as possible, preferably within a day, and until that happens, a body is guarded – an act called “shemirah” – by family sitting close by to protect and comfort the soul.

The body is also washed in a ritual of purification and immersed in a holy bath. Weinstein says this process, tahara, is done by trained, same-sex volunteers as children and grandchildren of the dead cannot be involved to preserve modesty – but the community is tight-knit, and there is often a connection with at least one volunteer. “It’s an act of ultimate kindness and respect,” he says.

The cotton shrouds for the ritual of tahara are ironed at Melbourne Chevra Kadisha.
The cotton shrouds for the ritual of tahara are ironed at Melbourne Chevra Kadisha.

The dead person is then dressed in white cotton shrouds, and it’s at the end of this process that close relatives sometimes enter the room to place a cap on the head or tie a final bow.

“A common theme that comes out is how angelic they look. It’s very comforting for families,” Weinstein says.

Yaelle Schachna was praying in a room next door when her late grandmother was undergoing tahara. She joined for the final stage. “I gave my grandmother a kiss and it was very peaceful for me to see her. I could say goodbye.”

Last year, Schachna became a Chevra Kadisha volunteer. She this week helped send off her great aunt in a purifying ritual.

“For the first time, I stood there and was teary the whole time,” she says. “It was a beautiful send-off. I think you can hear in my tone the holiness I feel.”

There are two methods of looking after a dead body. One is through cleaning and cooling, which slows rather than stalls decomposition. The other is with embalming, which involves injecting chemicals such as formaldehyde and methanol to prevent the corpse from degrading.

Death positive advocate Dr Pia Interlandi, here pictured in 2014, runs Garments for the Grave.
Death positive advocate Dr Pia Interlandi, here pictured in 2014, runs Garments for the Grave.

RMIT senior lecturer Dr Pia Interlandi has been involved with the death-positive movement for a decade, creating bereavement casts – one of which she made for Anson of her and her mother’s clasped hands – and running Garments for the Grave.

Interlandi believes the movement goes together with attitudes on living sustainably. “If you love composting and the environment, it doesn’t make sense to be embalmed with chemicals and put in a box lined with plastic,” she says.

“Embalming is sold as a perceived psychological protection to seeing the dead body of a person you love. The natural death movement is about saying ‘you can cope with this’.”

Interlandi says that it might feel “strange” to see a dead body at first, but the slowness of death care allows you to move through the shock. “Dressing my nonno [grandfather] was the most transformative moment of my life,” she says.

Moloney explains that dead bodies become cold and pale, while limbs stiffen and get heavy, but these changes act as signals that the person is ready to be returned to nature. “It’s incredibly powerful and healthy to see those gentle changes; they inform our subconscious that we need to prepare to separate from their body.”

Ana and Thea Lamaro pictured together before Ana’s death in 2016.
Ana and Thea Lamaro pictured together before Ana’s death in 2016.

Thea Lamaro’s mother, Ana, began to prepare for her death two years before she died of breast cancer in 2016. She decided she wanted her body to be taken home to her apartment after her death, and not be left alone for three days.

Ana’s body was washed and dressed in a shroud by family and friends and Thea spent time talking to and holding her mother.

“I felt so comforted by having her body in the house. When I woke up throughout the night I could go to her,” Thea says.

Samantha Selinger-Morris with her mother, Sylvia Morris.

“[It] helped me so much to integrate the fact she had finally died. It was a very gentle way of saying goodbye.”

Thea, who is developing a podcast series called Approaching The End speaking to people preparing to die, says she appreciated being able to decide the moment her mum’s body left the house: “I was letting her go rather than having her taken from me.”

Interlandi hopes that our conversations on death evolve past the question “do you want to be buried or cremated?” and towards: What type of funeral do you want? Who do you want to be cared for by? How do you want to be dispersed?

“People think it’s hippie woo-woo, and it’s not. There is a spiritual component, of course, because this is ritual – but it’s about choice and how you identify yourself in life goes into how you identify yourself in death.”

Complete Article HERE!

Leaving the earth a better place

By Kathleen McQuillan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Complete Article HERE!