The Rising Cost of Not Living

by Mona Chalabi

Jerry Burton was a frugal man. So frugal, in fact, that his possession of an organ donor card was motivated by his disdain for waste. While he was still in hospice care, Jerry made it clear to his son and daughter-in-law that they should shop around to get a good deal on his funeral. They did. In total, the transportation of Jerry’s body, the cremation, and the pickleball tournament that he wanted to be held before his service cost $695. Such bargains are a rarity in America’s modern funeral industry.

The median pricetag of a funeral in 2017 was $7,360—a cost that would take the typical US worker five months of labor to cover. Because of these high prices, many families are panicking at the same time that they are grieving. 

The death of Kara Killeen’s father was followed by calculations that provide a depressing tally of the average American’s struggles. Student debt bills meant that Kara and her sister had less money in the bank (and much of her dad’s retirement money had gone toward helping them cover those repayments, as well as the family’s mortgage). Limited care provision under Medicare meant that Kara’s mother had lost her job to look after her sick husband (and since her job had been writing for the local newspaper, there wasn’t exactly an abundance of new vacancies for her to apply for later). And, like many American families today, the Killeens don’t all live in the same city, so there were flights to think about, in addition to the funeral costs.

Fortunately, an aunt was able to cover Kara’s flight back from Scotland to Ohio. Unfortunately, the fact that Kara needed an intermediary in another time zone to book her travel meant that she made it back two days after her father’s death. Once reunited, the family looked at their funeral options; they were shocked at the prices they were hearing. A reception in a local bar where her dad had been a regular customer would cost $3,000, including catering. They could have held it at their family home for free, instead, but that wasn’t really viable: Kara had come back to discover the house where her mother had cared for her dying husband was a messy cross between a hospital and a home. An urn would have cost $275, programs $160, and an obituary $200, according to the latest averages from the National Funeral Directors Association.   

In the end, with her aunt’s financial support, Kara’s family was able to pay for the cheapest option available: Kara’s father was cremated and his remains were returned to the family in a plastic bag, and there was no funeral. The family still faced a bill for $2,000. “His final mark on the world was just to not have enough money,” Kara told me, bitterly. Funerals are supposed to be a chance to grieve, mourn, and begin the process of emotional recovery after a death; but when money is tight, they can feel like a second trauma. 

In the movies at least, funerals are a chance to meet old friends that you didn’t even know that your dearly departed had. To hear stories that you had never heard before. “You expect everyone to be there,” Kara said. We infer much about a life from a funeral. For no service to be held might imply some secret shame. A small gathering might indicate a lack of popularity. Cheap flowers suggest, well, cheapness. Each of these sentences could just as easily apply to another of life’s landmark social gatherings—weddings—except that marriage customs have changed faster than our death customs. 

It is a matter of personal prerogative whether a couple spends their life-savings on a Star Trek-themed extravaganza or just heads to city hall with two strangers pulled off the street to act as witnesses. That choice is more likely to be seen as a question of taste rather than of moral character. But when the social occasion requires people to be present to honor someone who is absent, then the rules change.  

The desire not to skimp (or at least, to be seen not skimping) leads us to make bad decisions according to Joshua Slocum, the executive director of the Funeral Consumers Alliance, a nonprofit watchdog. “It’s a distressed purchase,” he explained. “No one wants to buy a funeral.” Our decisions are clouded, not just by grief but by the fact that there is no requirement for funeral homes to email you a pricelist or post one on their website. “I can’t think of any other business sector that doesn’t allow you to shop around,” Slocum added. So families will simply choose whichever funeral home they used the last time they had to hold a service. 

What those families rarely realize is that their local funeral home, once run as a “mom-and-pop” family business, is now probably owned by a Wall Street firm. Service Corporation International, or SCI, for example, operates 1,477 funeral service locations and 483 cemeteries across the country, and is worth $13.3 billion (for comparison, the countrywide clothing chain Gap Inc. is worth $8 billion). Shareholders expect dividends and they have to come from somewhere: according to Slocum, SCI charges between 40 percent and 75 percent more for its services than independent funeral homes do. 

The price of dying is also high because there are simply too many funeral homes. Slocum gives me the example of Montpelier in Vermont, the smallest state capital (by population) in the country. The city has two fully serviced funeral homes that, between them, handle an average of seventy-six deaths a year. These businesses have to keep prices high if they want to cover their mortgages and pay their staff. 

I asked Slocum why he became involved in funeral consumers’ rights. He replied simply, “I love Mitford.” It was after reading Jessica Mitford’s classic muckraking polemic on the American funeral industry, The American Way of Death (originally published in 1963), that he became fascinated by the industry and wanted to know more. Little of substance has really changed in the business since Mitford’s book was published except for the escalating prices. Back in 1960, the cost of a funeral was around $700—still a considerable amount of money in real terms, amounting to about seven weeks of a typical worker’s wages at that time (as noted above, by the same measure, today’s figure is at least twenty weeks).

Funeral charges have risen for the same reason that prices have always risen: a disconnect between demand and supply. For a combination of reasons—cost, changing mores, and environmental concerns—more consumers now want their remains and those of their relatives to be burned rather than buried, but the US funeral industry is largely stuck in the past. In fairness, this cultural change has come relatively quickly: in 1960, when Mitford was researching her study, just one in twenty-eight people who died in the US were cremated; today, it’s one in two—half of all funerals. Yet mortician schools still place a heavy emphasis on embalming skills, and more than two thirds of states (thirty-six out of fifty) require funeral establishments to maintain an embalming room (or access to an embalming preparation room); and nearly half of states require a funeral director to be a certified embalmer. Those laws directly contribute to higher prices. In a study published last year, two economists at Kenyon College in Ohio, David E. Harrington and Jaret Treber, calculated that embalming regulations in New York State cost consumers an additional $25.8 million each year.

Although American business traditionally hates regulations, regulating how companies handle and dispose of cadavers makes sense—there are too many public health and public safety considerations involved, let alone consumer rights, for this to be otherwise. “Now, death is seen as an emergency: a dead body has this association of being a biohazard,” explained Caitlin Doughty, who started working in deathcare in 2008 and today owns and runs Undertaking LA. This contrasts sharply with the way a decease was handled 150 years ago, in a pre-industrial era. “Death was a domestic task,” she said. “The women would prepare the body, the men would prepare the casket.”

States began to legislate to control funeral directors around the same time they set professional standards to govern doctors and lawyers, in the mid-nineteenth century. The main aim was to protect the vulnerable—in this case, the bereaved—from charlatans. But many state laws about deathcare now appear outdated or nonsensical. Four states prohibit funeral homes from serving food and beverages entirely, and in New Jersey until very recently, homes could only serve water and peppermints (it is unclear whether such rules arose for reasons of decorum or public hygiene). In five states, funeral directors have exclusive rights to sell caskets, in effect a protectionist measure that blocks cheaper competition—such as Amazon’s “Premium Cardboard Coffin for Adult Funeral,” for just $235.

The outlook seems bleak for customers with few choices and facing high costs. But after sixteen years working in funeral consumer rights advocacy, Slocum doesn’t see it quite this way. “There are two sides to issues like this,” he argues, “and in order to make funerals that are affordable, you need to have both oversight of the industry by the government, but you also need consumers that act with agency rather than being helpless victims.”

It is difficult, though, to think of any other purchase that is quite so unavoidable as paying for a funeral, nor one that demands decision-making at a time when emotional distress is a given. One way to feel empowered in the way that Slocum suggests is to lean, if you can, on your community.

Askia Toure and his two sisters, Sakina and Zahira, were able to turn to the Islamic Society of Greater Houston, Texas, when their mother died of uterine cancer in 2015. The society helped Sakina, who was the only sibling that lived close to her mother when she died, to wash and shroud her mother’s body according to Islamic practice. Two days later, their mother was placed in a plot she had pre-chosen. “That’s how we’ve been raised,” Askia said, “to bury each other with dignity as soon as possible for the least amount of pain or debt inflicted on those who are still here.” When families can’t cover the cost, the community that makes up the membership of the Islamic Society pitches in. Even before Askia’s mother died, the society’s members had contributed to cover the medical costs of her final illness, using a crowdsourcing page. 

Crowdfunding for the funerals themselves is now common. Just one site alone, Go Fund Me, boasts that every year it raises $330 million for some 125,000 memorials (a level of contributions that averages out at $2,640, about a third of the typical funeral’s costs). These sites are especially important for families like the Toures because black American households have less wealth than any other racial or ethnic group in the country. When a large, one-off expense like a funeral needs to be paid, the choice facing such families is often brutally simple: ask for help or sell the car.

Even with a community behind you, bargain-hunting is still important. Non-funeral home options are still limited—and, in fact, can often be even more expensive. You can, it is true, order a cardboard casket from Amazon for as little as $235, but then what? Most states have strict laws about where and how you can dispose of a body. Shopping around for professional funeral services is still the better option for most people. “You can find prices that range from $700 to $4,000 for the same basic service,” said Slocum. “The grief will come, but the terror [of financial ruin] doesn’t have to.”

Funerals are hard because they force us to manage a very practical matter that is simultaneously a profoundly emotional one—to make arrangements amid tumultuous feelings. One thing that can help is to have talked to a loved one before she dies about the kind of funeral she’d want. When it was time for the conversation that Jerry Burton wanted about his desire for a cheap send-off, his daughter-in-law, Melody Burton, a marketing and communications manager from Gresham, Oregon, was apprehensive. But it turned out to be a blessing, not a trauma. “You don’t get to talk about things that are so deeply personal like that very often,” she told me. “It was a beautiful time.”

Complete Article HERE!

Ashes to Ashes and Into Trees

This Bay Area start-up wants to change how we think about death

By Austyn Gaffney

Five miles inland from the rocky coast of Mendocino County sits 20 acres of forest. The trees—redwoods, Douglas firs, tan oaks, madrones—line old logging roads. Ferns and rhododendrons soften the forest floor. On a clear day, from a crest in the wooded parcel, there’s the blue snap of ocean.

It’s near this crest that Sandy Gibson, founder and CEO of Better Place Forests—a company whose mission is to conserve land by turning it into natural cemeteries—showed me his gravesite. Trees marked by orange, pink, or blue ribbons were available for burial plots, but Gibson’s redwood, towering above a dry creek bed, was ribbonless, signifying its purchase. Nearby trees with small copper plaques at their base, reminiscent of US Geological Survey markers, served as people’s tombstones.

Gibson has been yoked to death from an early age: When he was 10, his father died of a stroke, and a year later, cancer took his mother. As a child, he remembers leaving their gravesites before they were even filled in with soil, and later visiting a shiny black tombstone along a busy street in Toronto, Canada. With a voice gentle but earnest, like he’s intimately familiar with the octaves needed to discuss death, Gibson explained on this foggy morning in August how he now finds comfort in seeing a ceremony to its end.

“We’ve been burying our dead for 50,000 years in cemeteries,” Gibson told me. “The earliest things we can find are basically tools in caves and burial sites. The idea of a permanent sacred space for the people that you love is something deeply and innately human.”

Better Place Forests takes cremated ashes, which are, essentially, bacteria-free bone dust, and spreads them in forested properties. When mixed with bacteria-rich soil, the nutrients in the ashes break down and feed a tree’s root system. On a bronze table next to the visitor’s center, forest stewards sift cremated remains with soil. Then, they lead a “spreading ceremony,” ushering loved ones into the forest and up to the base of the selected tree. There, the sifted soil is mixed with more dirt. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, the dead are returned to the earth.

Now 36, Gibson is the epitome of a start-up CEO—gray hairs pepper his temples and his beard. He’s clean-cut but practical—a button-up shirt, slim pants, and walking shoes. For seven years, Gibson and one of his two partners at Better Place Forests, Brad Milne, ran a software company in Toronto. But Gibson was dissatisfied. Software could disappear one day. He latched onto the idea of creating something physically beautiful that might endure a technological collapse. (In the 45 minutes Gibson and I spent touring his Point Arena property, he referred to beauty, on average, once every 60 seconds.)

“I used to think about nothing, about blackness,” Gibson said, turning to face me beside his redwood. “Now there’s certainty. And that certainty is beautiful.”

Depending on traffic, Point Arena lies three to four hours north of San Francisco. A second site, slated to be open for burials in 2020, is two hours south in Santa Cruz. Better Place Forests is purchasing as much land as it can, as fast as it can, with plans to expand into Washington, Oregon, Colorado, and Arizona. Although Gibson claims he started his company in California to be near the redwoods, it probably doesn’t hurt to be close to Silicon Valley. The biggest challenge, though, might be getting investors excited about death.

“It’s a scary topic,” Gibson admitted. “But people love nature. They love protecting nature. You’re changing the discussion from one about death to one about conservation and beauty. That one’s a lot more accessible.”

Along with the promise of closure, Gibson and his team are selling the notion of legacy through conservation. If cemeteries take up space, Gibson wondered how death could do the opposite. How could it give space back? By purchasing a tree, customers invest in the preservation of a natural landscape. Each purchase also triggers an “impact trees” program, which commits to replanting a certain number of trees—between 25 and 400 depending on the price of the purchased tree—in wildfire-affected areas of California.

Before Better Place Forests came to Point Arena, this former logging parcel was full of dense underbrush that made it more susceptible to forest fires. By establishing conservation easements on purchased properties, Better Place Forests promises to pay for the ongoing management of the entrusted land. Furthermore, if the start-up goes under, the land will be protected in perpetuity. But the process is a bit complicated. Negotiations for the easement on the Point Arena property are still incomplete, though as of October approximately 100 spreadings had taken place.

For the past 150 or so years, the United States has developed a far-reaching death industry. Before the Civil War, families mourned and buried their dead at home. But the staggering amount of dead bodies from the war, needing to return home for one final ceremony, led to embalming and undertakers. Business began to boom, introducing more elaborate coffins and making engraved stone markers more common.

The price tag of death spiked, damaging both pocketbooks and the environment. According to Mary Woodsen of Cornell University, in the US alone, conventional burials account for 20 million board feet of wood, 1.6 million tons of reinforced concrete, 17,000 tons of copper and bronze, and 64,500 tons of steel each year. Over 4 million gallons of embalming fluid are used annually, almost one-fifth of which contains formaldehyde, a toxic substance linked to increased cancer risks among funeral-industry workers.

In her 2015 book, Greening Death: Reclaiming Burial Practices and Restoring Our Tie to the Earth, Suzanne Kelly laments the “walled-off city of contaminants” that will flood her own father’s body after he is embalmed, placed in a wooden casket, and then a metal casket, before being encased in a concrete vault inserted into the ground and then buried beneath the dirt. Kelly fears his grave will become a problem, instead of a place of mourning. Mounting awareness of these impacts has led to a growing movement for green burials, which the Green Burial Council defines as “a way of caring for the dead with minimal environmental impact.”

The process of cremation—which accounted for less than 10 percent of US burials in 1980, but today plays a role in over half—isn’t great for the environment either. Along with emitting carbon dioxide and mercury, cremation uses enough natural gas to power a 500-mile car trip, though, according to Kelly, advocates are pushing for renewable forms of energy and crematory filters to limit contaminants. Water cremation, or alkaline hydrolysis, is also on the rise, using a water-based solution, instead of heat, to speed up decomposition. It uses one-fifth the energy of fire cremation and better retains the body’s nutrients.

Today, there are approximately 93 green burial sites across the US. The first cemetery certified by the Green Burial Council was a preserve in South Carolina founded to protect a quarter mile of Ramsey Creek. Opened in 1998, it now encompasses over 60 acres, and over 400 natural burials, both whole body and cremation, have taken place on the site. Management practices on the land are permanently restricted so it remains wild.

Along with better environmental standards, green burials tend to be less expensive than conventional ones. In the past 30 years, funeral costs have risen almost twice as quickly as any other consumer items. According to the National Funeral Directors Association (NFDA), in 2017, funerals with a burial, viewing, and vault cost an average of $8,755. But green cemeteries, like Honey Creek Woodlands in Georgia, advertise natural burial plots for $3,200. For natural burials involving cremation, those costs drop between $1,150 and $2,700, depending on the location.

Though trees in Better Place Forests are hardly cheap. While community trees (in case you’d like your ashes to mingle with those of a bunch of strangers for eternity) start at $950 per spreading; individual trees begin at around $3,000 and can go upwards of $17,000. Each tree includes one to two ceremonial spreadings, and each additional spreading is an additional cost. But if all your relatives agree to be interred beneath the same tree, that spreading fee can be about an eighth of the cost of a conventional burial.

Most natural burial sites, including Better Place Forests, don’t include the cost of cremation, which ranges widely from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars. The number of funerals involving cremation is expected to rise to almost 80 percent of burials by 2040. And although more baby boomers are choosing cremation, they’re not all choosing cemeteries.

It’s a good thing, because we’re running out of space. According to a 2012 study, if all Americans who reach 78 years old (the average life expectancy) chose to be buried in standard plots, by 2042 we’d need 130 square miles of pure grave space, an area about the size of Las Vegas.

The green burial movement subverts the major economic interests of the funeral industry in other ways besides circumventing traditional funeral services. Returning people to the earth in a more natural way doesn’t surround death with sales of land, resources, and facilities. Service Corporation International, the largest multinational funerary business, reported a revenue of over $3 billion in 2018 alone. It’s estimated to comprise at least 15 percent of the death-care industry in North America, operating almost 1,500 funeral service locations and close to 500 cemeteries. Their report to the United States Securities Exchange Commission stated that they were “poised to benefit from the aging of the American population.”

Kathee Pfalmer, a baby boomer from California, had a hard time talking about her eventual passing with her family. She’d brought up various unconventional burial methods with her four children. Would they like mom’s ashes pressed into stones reminiscent of diamonds and made into rings? Or perhaps a nice piece of pottery with her ashes worked into the glaze? Unfortunately, she couldn’t imagine her children saying, “Let’s go pick up mom’s vase.” Then she stumbled across a Facebook ad for Better Place Forests.

When she visited the Point Arena forest in October, she, like Gibson, connected with a redwood tree. Although genetically the same, her tree has two trunks that appear distinct, and the pale stump of a burned tree, left over from a 1906 forest fire, leans against them. Pfalmer says the trio resonated with her because of her eclectic mix of family members, who though not all biologically related, are very loving and supportive of one another. Her decision has shifted the conversation with her children.

“Something about buying this tree and having a place helps me talk to my kids about it,” Pfalmer told me over the phone. “They can imagine my passing without thinking about me dying.”

In a 2017 study by NFDA, over 60 percent of respondents felt it was important to communicate funeral plans, but only 21.4 percent had done so. More than half of all respondents wanted to explore green funerals as a way to reduce their environmental impact. Or perhaps, to become a positive contribution to an environmental web.

“I thought it was a really good way of introducing the finality we all come to,” says Pfalmer, who brought along her 14-year-old granddaughter to pick out her tree. A lifelong gardener, Pfalmer is familiar with the cycle of life and death. She wants the cycle of her life honored in a natural way, and she hopes that for her granddaughter, the experience “might help her feel more at peace with the inevitability of death as part of life.”

Cody Sanders, a Baptist pastor and theologian who specializes in how death care impacts the environment, believes our corpses aren’t dying in a natural way but instead are being withheld from the ecosystem to which they belong. He argues that in death, our corpses can be in tune with the earth’s own cycles of life and continue living through the transformative process of decomposition.

“We’ve done everything we can in the last 150 years or so to deny the earth the life it could receive through our dead bodies,” Sanders writes in a paper for the journal Pastoral Theology.

Sanders suggests that how we treat our dead “mirrors ideologies and theologies that have arisen that suggest humans are not a part of the earth,” and that this “has strong ties to the practices that are contributing to the climate collapse at this point.”

Suzanne Kelly, author of Greening Death, claims sustainable death choices could provide a new tool for engaging in climate anxiety—a more intimate connection to the earth. In her book, she quotes Bob Fertig, a green-friendly funeral director, who says, “The focus on the environmental aspect [of the green burial movement] is wonderful, but I think what sometimes gets lost in that is the potential for closeness with death and the way it makes people feel.” 

In other words, green funerals aren’t just good for the environment. In an age of climate crisis, strengthening the bonds between people and the planet can be good for the human psyche too.


Weeks after visiting the Point Arena forest, I called my dad and asked him, “Would you like to be buried beneath a tree?”

My father has had a rare form of stomach cancer for over half a decade. I found out after graduating college while lying on the floor of the apartment I was subletting—not because I was awaiting bad news but because it was midsummer in Kentucky and I had no air conditioning. I thought my father had gone in for a minor surgery, but my mom called, saying they’d found tumors. They’re the kind of tumors that can be stalled but not the kind that go away. He has since retired on disability. He tires often and can suffer stomach pains that send him to the emergency room. He’s taken up meditation and spends time in a condo in Ontario to be closer to family. I often hesitate when he brings up his death. I get tongue-tied in the company of mortality, but now, when referencing another living being, like a tree, I found the discussion flowed more easily.

Of course he’d like to be buried beneath a tree, he said. Since childhood, he’s explored thousands of miles of the outdoors. On his first canoe trip, he was in diapers, and he hitchhiked out to the Canadian Rockies the summer he was 16. He still has the steel-frame, faded red backpack he used to traverse Jasper National Park. We don’t stroll too far from home these days, but we often manage to find our way to a riverbank or some nearby woods. On the phone now, he repeated his desire for cremation, and while he liked the tree idea, he balked at the cost. “Why wouldn’t I just donate what I’d spend reserving a tree to a conservation group?” he asked.

The cynic in me wants to critique Gibson’s model: the continued commodification of the natural world, and of burial sites. The idea that a San Francisco–based start-up is finding capital gains in something as tender-hearted as death. But somehow I keep falling short. Sure it’s just a tree. Sure it’s a lot of money for the ritual of saying goodbye. Aside from the small fact that it’s illegal, I could spread my father’s ashes wherever I like. But the idea of being able to visit his remains while also conserving a natural space? It sounds a little like solace.

“People still need a sense of place. You want to know there’s a place for your family to come,” Gibson told me, echoing Kathee Pfalmer’s wishes for her tree. “You want to know there’s a ceremony that will make it easier for your family to grieve.”

In May, months before I met Gibson in Better Place Forest’s tract of trees, I traveled to the gravesite of my great-grandfather in Nova Scotia with my father and my paternal grandmother. The cemetery was camouflaged along a backroad of birch trees and brambles, but my grandmother recognized the turn-off immediately. She’d visited her father here since he died when she was five years old, and she wanted me to pay my respects at his burial site. There was an intimacy in picking flowers to lay on the graves of our relatives, fenced off between two small fields and curtained with trees. There is a sweetness to these spaces.

Death is part of the ongoing web of life that humans are ecologically tied to by virtue of being mammals on this earth. For Sanders, privileging these alive human bodies “allows us to maintain the destructive fiction that all that is lifeless is inert and without significance or desire. The dead body—lifeless as it may be—is not finished revealing to us our roles and responsibilities for care.” The earth still desires something in relation to our body, Sanders writes—its return to the “aliveness” of the ecological world.

There is a natural order to things that ugly interruptions like cancer, addiction, car wrecks, and other tragedies take away from us. Nature reestablishes that order. It reminds us, especially the nonreligious among us, that there is life after life. Those nutrients in my father’s bones, in my bones, could enrich the soil. I imagine worms eating bits of me, and birds eating bits of worms. I imagine the process of my decomposition spiraling out beyond me. And I admit, it brings me comfort.

Complete Article HERE!

Conversations change around death, dying and funeral planning:

‘It’s not going to bring on your demise any sooner’


Conversations around death and dying are changing, and those in the funeral industry say it’s the baby boomer population leading the charge.

“You used to just have four funeral homes and you could choose between one or two things, [and] everybody charged basically the same thing,” says Brandy Rollins, family service manager at Trinity Funeral Homes.

Many people are looking for more options in every aspect of funeral planning from cost, to service options and final dispositions.

You are now able to personalize every aspect of your service to include what is most important to you. There’s also several options when it comes to how to dispose of your body from a traditional burial, from casket and concrete linings placed in the ground to cremation.

There’s also a movement in support of what’s called green burials, which don’t use concrete liners or embalming. Bodies are placed in a biodegradable shroud or casket.

Because there are so many options, Rollins says it is imperative that people have conversations with their loved ones about exactly what they want.

“If you don’t know what is important to the person that you are ultimately responsible for, it’s a burden to decide that,” she says.

Rollins suggests pre-planning your funeral to make it easier on your family.

“It’s a very loving act [and] it’s a very kind act,” Rollins says. “Some would argue it’s the last act of kindness you can provide.”

There’s also a push to get more people talking about their own deaths, not just for pre-planning reasons.

Death Cafes are being held around the world. The creators of the pop-up events state on their website, Death Cafes are meant to “make the most of our finite lives.”

“It’s just an aspect of life,” says Gina Vliet who has hosted Death Cafes in Edmonton.

Vliet is a member The Order of the Good Death, which encourages “staring down your death fears.” She is also an advocate for death positivity.

“Our culture is focused on living and prolonging life,” Vliet says. “I think acknowledging mortality is something people come to very organically.”

Vliet encourages people to get over the “cultural taboo” of not wanting to talk about death and dying. She is an end-of-life planning consultant who helps people plan for the final stage of life .

Vliet says that planning for your death and talking about it gives you more freedom and energy to enjoy life.

“It’s not going to bring on your demise any sooner,” Vliet says.

Both experts agree that talking about your death or the death of a loved one is a very loving act for your family, even though it can sometimes be uncomfortable.

Complete Article HERE!

Floating ice urn makes for a unique eco-friendly memorial

This one-of-a-kind urn floats on the water while slowly returning cremated remains to nature.


As you may have heard, humans have a death problem. It’s not that humans die; it’s that once they do, the still-alive humans of many cultures bury the newly-dead humans in the ground. Given that there are some 7.7 billion of us on the planet currently … well, you can see where this is going. Add in the environmental impact of burying a casket’s sturdy materials and a few gallons of toxic embalming fluid along with it and it’s no wonder that more people are looking into alternative funeral ideas.

There have been some really beautiful, eco-friendly memorial products designed over the last decade or so, like biodegradable urns that use one’s ashes in which to grow a tree. But my jaw dropped when I saw this one, the Flow Ice Urn, which floats on the water while slowly releasing ashes in an unapologetically pure way. It is simple yet beautiful; and it brings to mind other funeral traditions that are intrinsically tied to the idea of returning the body to nature.

And while scattering ashes on a body of water is understandably popular, I love the inherent ceremony in watching an ice urn, and the ashes within, float and gradually dissolve into the sea. It would be just as ephemeral as scattering, but a bit more formal – and just so poetic.

The ice urn was designed by Diane Leclair Bisson, who approached the design with the creativity of an artist and the thoughtfulness an anthropologist. As her website notes, “her research into contemporary burial practices, and the preservation or the scattering of ashes has also engaged her in a reflection about materiality, which has guided the design of a new typology of objects and materials.”

Bisson notes, “The Ice Urn is a deeply sustainable object in its essence. The concept of making a dissolvable memorial object through the transformation of water into a solid form of ice – while encapsulating cremation ashes within it – is truly innovative. It is the most immaterial urn ever created, and it inspires new types of water ceremonies as well as a completely new approach to the idea of burial itself – emphasizing new thinking about the return of the body to the natural environment, and of water back to its original source.”

The Flow was originally designed for Memoria, a progressive funeral home group based in Montreal. But now Biolife, LLC, the developer of other eco-focused urns, has obtained the exclusive license to produce and market the patented ice urn in the United States.

Julia Duchastel, Vice President of Memoria explains that they spent years developing and perfecting the ice urn, noting that is is a proven and patented product that has been well tested tested at their funeral home locations in Montreal.

“Many people form a strong connection with the ocean, lakes, or rivers throughout their lives. Water is a truly extraordinary molecule – it is what makes life on earth possible,” says Duchastel. “Throughout history and across cultures, it has persisted as a symbol of life, renewal, and purity. With this connection to water, many people choose to have their ashes freed in the water after they pass. With the Flow™ ice urn families have a new and improved water burial option to honor a loved one and say goodbye in a more beautiful, meaningful, and memorable way.”

The urn is available at funeral homes; you can see more information on the ice urn page at The Living Urn.

Complete Article HERE!

Burial traditions are evolving, designers see call to action

Taylor Johnson’s design involves a slowly-inclining park-like space, with burial spots along the way. At the top would be a multipurpose structure for celebrations of life.

Designers are responding to changing beliefs and traditions surrounding funerals and burials in the United States.

One of those designers is Lee Cagley, professor of interior design and chair of the department at Iowa State University. Cagley and seven interior design graduate students are examining cemeteries, funeral homes, mortuaries and interment practices in the American Southwest this semester in a studio called “Dearly Departed.”

By their final review this week, each student designed a unique, never-before-seen space for the future of burial.

Ahmed Elsherif designed an interactive space that blends boundaries, where people can gather in “the space in between the living world and the person who has died.” Rendering provided by Elsherif.

The National Funeral Directors Association reported this year that more and more Americans favor cremation over traditional burials. This year, the cremation rate is projected to be 54.8 percent and the burial rate 39 percent. By 2040, they expect the gap will widen to 78.7 percent cremation and 15.7 percent burial.

“The problem is that from the day of the last interment in a cemetery, standard practice in the industry is that the cemetery has to be maintained as is 200 years forward,” Cagley said.

Americans typically expect a grassy area when they think of a cemetery – but that requires water bills that can skyrocket to thousands of dollars a month. And with increasing numbers of droughts and growing effects of climate change, Cagley says this practice is not sustainable.

“If we assume that many people will be cremated, then what does the interior of a columbarium look like? And what does the landscape look like so it’s attractive enough for a family to bury their loved one?” Cagley said.

The assignment: Design a non-denominational, multi-functional structure in an 80,000-square-foot space in an existing mortuary. The space needs to feel dignified and spiritual while also serving as a space to celebrate the life of the person who died.

“Today’s generations want celebrations of life, not mourning,” Cagley said. “And that’s a challenge. They need to create a space where both live and dead people feel comfortable together. The living can be out of place in a mausoleum, and the dead can be out of place in a home. We need to design an emotional experience outward.”

Trevor Kliever created a three-story “library” with niches on each level to inter cremains.

Designing for funerals of the future

Ahmed Elsherif, graduate student in interior design from Egypt, designed that kind of space by blending boundaries. His building grew from a conversation he had with Cagley about the purpose of visitations, a practice with which he was unfamiliar.

Cagley explained it this way: “A visitation is like hello to the deceased; a funeral is like goodbye.”

Elsherif’s proposal incorporates this philosophy, creating an interactive space where people can gather in “the space in between the living world and the person who has died.”

“It is not just a spatial configuration, but a behavioral one as well,” Elsherif said.

Taylor Johnson, graduate student in interior design from Mason City, was inspired by the High Line in New York City, a space she frequented while living there and working in fashion design. The park is a former subway track that was renovated into a long, narrow park, with walking paths, vegetation and seating.

Johnson’s design involves a slowly-inclining park-like space, with burial spots along the way. At the top would be a multipurpose structure for celebrations of life.

“Walking up the incline would be like going through the grieving process, moving from grieving to healing to celebrating that person’s life,” she said. “Too many of these places are designed to make you feel like you want to leave as fast as you can.”

Trevor Kliever, graduate student in interior design from Le Mars, also incorporated that sentiment into his design, creating a space where family and friends can stay and reminisce.

His three-story “library” includes niches on each level to inter cremains. Outside would be a park featuring various burial options, alongside vegetation native to the region.

“Everyone thinks of the concept of yin and yang as separate entities,” he said. “My design takes opposing things and brings them together.”

The students’ work and their research this semester shows people’s widely divergent views about death, funerals and burials.

“Interior design needs to step up to the plate and be forward-thinking,” Cagley said. “The industry is looking at more forward-thinking ideas. Funeral homes were designed for my parents’ generation, and they haven’t been re-examined since. What is being redesigned now is done for my generation — and unfortunately, it’s already two generations behind.”

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As a Muslim Mariam lives the ‘five before five’

— and finds meaning and balance as a death doula

Mariam’s serious car accident led her to engage with Muslim attitudes to death.

By Alice Moldovan

“I collided head on with a truck, the car caught on fire. It was a huge emergency operation,” says Mariam Ardati.

It was one of those car accidents “you think nobody could have survived.”

When she crawled out of the wreckage of her car, Mariam was amazed to see that she didn’t have a single scratch on her.

As a body builder, Mariam had considered herself invincible at the time — at the peak of her fitness.

The close brush with death turned her thoughts to what would have happened to her body under Islamic tradition if she had in fact, died.

“I walked away thinking, ‘where would I have been buried? What would have happened to all my things?'”

After recovering from the trauma of the accident, Mariam says she walked into a funeral parlour and said, “teach me, show me what happens when someone dies”.

The experience prompted a spiritual journey to reconnect with the Sunni Muslim faith she had grown up with.

“I was largely self-centred up until that accident happened,” she told RN’s Soul Search, “and it helped me find purpose and meaning.”

For the last 15 years she has helped other people in the Muslim community through the transition from life into death — as a doula.

Mariam supports the dying and their families in the lead up to death, then leads the ritual care for the body of the deceased.

Anyone can take part in death care

Mariam says women have always performed the final rites for other women.

She wants people to know that there is a range of jobs that family members can do to assist after their loved one has passed away.

Supporting the head, washing the body and brushing the hair are all meaningful ways to care for the deceased.

Mariam describes how she bathes a body an odd number of times, starting with three.

“The first wash is done with soapy water. The second is with clean fresh water. And the third is water that’s poured over the body that’s been infused with camphor.”

Then family members will wrap their loved one in a death shroud that has been perfumed with incense.

“This is afforded to every Muslim that passes away,” she says.

Mariam recalls a woman she worked with who didn’t think she could enter the room where her mother’s body was undergoing the ritual washing.

“She stood at the door of the mortuary and said, ‘I don’t think I can do this, this is just too much for me’.”

Mariam reassured her that she could just watch.

Mariam Ardati says becoming a death doula has helped her find purpose and meaning.

The woman saw the water running, saw Mariam stroking her mum’s hair and talking to her, offering prayers.

By the end of the whole process, the woman had taken over.

“I took a step back and watched her — with a lot of tears and a lot of emotion — go through each ritual in its entirety.”

Mariam says seeing a daughter perform these last rites for her mother “as she’s working through her emotions and coming to terms with her grief is such a powerful thing to witness”.

She recalls many women who say, “I’m so grateful for the fact that I was able to honour my mother in that way,” or “I was able to hold my sister one last time”.

The ‘very human touch’ of burial

Muslim burial rituals have a “very human touch”, says Professor Mohamad Abdalla, referring to the practice of men going down into a grave to lower a body in with their hands, sans coffin.

Mohamad is the director of the Centre for Islamic Thought and Education at the University of South Australia.

He explains that the body is positioned with the head facing Mecca, the traditional direction of prayer.

“With the soil of the grave they make a small pillow to lay his or her head,” Mohamad says.

Mohamad says Muslim funeral practices revolve around honouring and caring for the dead.

Three quarters of the way up the grave, small edges are carved out to hold several planks of wood.

“The soil is poured over the planks of wood, not touching the body of the deceased, essentially leaving about half a metre … for the circulation of air for natural decomposition.”

Muslim death ritual requires the body be buried as quickly as possible, which can be difficult in the event of a sudden death.

“It’s an honour to bury the deceased within 24 hours,” Mariam says.

She’s referring to the belief that after death, the soul ascends and is given “the glad tidings of heaven”.

When the two are reunited in burial, the soul shares that news with the body, remaining connected throughout the process.

Organ donation and autopsies can complicate the ritual and throw timing off.

“We do exercise our rights to object to an invasive post-mortem, as do other faiths and communities,” Mariam explains.

“We believe that process is an undignified act.”

However, there are alternatives for Muslims, for instance in the case of an unexplained or suspicious death, explains Mohamad.

“In the classical Islamic civilisation, autopsy was undertaken to understand the human body and blood circulation.”

Beyond autopsy, medical procedures after death are technically allowed, because preservation of life is one of the most important objectives of Islamic law, Mohamad says.

He explains that as long as the donor or their family consents voluntarily, organs are not sold, and the organs are healthy, it is a highly virtuous act.

“But the minority viewpoint says a person has no right to dispose of their body as they wish, because it is a trust from God,” he says.

Much of Mariam’s energy is directed to increasing death literacy in the community — helping people become accustomed to the idea of dying.

She encourages the same open approach at home with her own children, in a “mother-daughter bonding exercise”.

“I have cut my own [death] shroud, and I had my daughter by my side with the measuring tape saying, ‘No mum, that’s too short, we need to make it longer this way’.”

‘Five before five’

Mariam sees her job as an opportunity to serve God through caring for other people.

“When you’re living the life of a Muslim, you’re living between two states,” she explains.

One of those refers to “fearing retribution or the accountability of your sins”, and the other is “believing in the hope and mercy of God”

Mariam says she looks for the balance between the two.

It’s a sense of purpose that leads to an understanding that “your actions have consequences, and that you’re part of a larger social context”.

A Muslim is encouraged “to take advantage of what’s known as the five before five,” she explains.

“Your health before sickness, your life before you’re overcome with death, your free time before you become busy, your youth before your old age and your wealth before you become poor.”

Mariam says Muslims’ relationship with God is “underpinned by the understanding that God is the provider of infinite love, compassion and mercy”.

But for a person to earn that favour, she or he must live a life that’s conducive to those values.

In death, Mariam sees our final transition as a deeply communal responsibility, one that she is humbled to be part of.

She says she’s glad her own encounter with a near-fatal accident showed her that she wasn’t invincible.

Rather, it gave her a sense of purpose and meaning.

“I didn’t find that in the world of the living — I found it in the world of the dead.”

Complete Article HERE!

Millennials Aren’t Killing the Funeral Industry

— But It is Changing

By Heather Morrison

We haven’t figured out immortality, so it’s important to discuss the inevitable.

In 1997, The Onion published the article, “World Death Rate Holding Steady at 100 Percent.”

While immortality is a quest for lots of fictional characters — like Voldemort and the Cullens from “Twilight” — and a few Silicon Valley elites like Jeff Bezos, that headline from The Onion still holds true more than two decades later.

Duh. Everybody dies.

But a lingering taboo around death in the U.S. makes it hard to talk about. People in and around the funeral industry are hoping to change that.

“Talking about sex is not going to get you pregnant, and talking about death is not going to kill you,” said Darren Crouch, founder and president of Passages International Inc.

Not only are we not talking about death, we’re also trying not to think about it. Only 1 percent of 18- to 34-year-olds plan their own funeral before experiencing the death of a loved one. That number jumps to nearly 20 percent following the death of a loved one, according to CJP Field.

The Green Burial Council’s Holly Chan, 24, thinks it’s time for everyone to start talking about and planning for the inevitable.

At the end of October, she’s hosting a talk called “Death over Dim Sum” at the Reimagine End of Life festival in San Francisco that’s bringing together end-of-life experts and Asian Americans of all ages.

“Age doesn’t really change how much contact you have with death,” she said. “We could die at any time.”

Family members aren’t any better off not having discussed the wishes of a deceased loved one, she said. Instead, they’re often left with uncertainty and an expensive funeral.

“I think this conversation is relevant at any time,” she said, adding that it’s OK to change your idea of what your funeral might look like as your life changes.

Death influencers?

Caitlin Doughty runs the YouTube account Ask A Mortician, which has more than 900,000 subscribers. She vlogs about topics like budget-friendly funeral options, new types of caskets and scams within the funeral industry. She also talks about death positivity.

“Do not beat yourself up over where you are in your journey to accept death,” Doughty said in a video called “7 Habits of Highly Effective Death Positive People.”

“Yeah, there’s a lot about death that sucks,” she continued. “It’s OK to feel bad about death.”

But death is a journey that isn’t going away. It’s time to get comfy with it, she says.

Death doulas are trying to spread the same message by posting about their work on Instagram.

A doula is traditionally someone trained to support and comfort pregnant people and their partners during the pregnancy and birth process. Now, the same idea is being used in end-of-life care.

Chan has found comfort in the growing number of people on Instagram talking about the job of a death doula. She hopes it will bring more attention to the topic of death and dying and spark conversation.

Social media is already shifting some long-held taboos around death, said intergenerational expert Henry Rose Lee.

“Social media has removed many taboos about what can be seen, shared and discussed,” she said.

Younger generations are trying to confront topics that have been impolite to talk about in the past.

“Millennials don’t want to die any more than any other generation,” Lee said. They’re just “embracing the need to discuss quite tough subjects, like death.”

[ICYMI: We Asked a Mortician About the Death-Positive Movement, and This is What She Said]

Fireworks at a funeral

As more people talk about death, more people are moving away from the “traditional funeral” — the kind with a funeral home, casket and everyone standing around in black.

In the same way people are personalizing their wedding ceremonies more and more, people are wanting the same for their funerals, Lee said.

“I have even talked to some millennials who are planning a band or performers of some kind,” she said. “Many see the funeral as a chance to celebrate.”

Chan has heard people planning on an end of life celebration before they die, with firework displays, motorcycles and games.

Lee points out that all this can be done in addition to any traditions, religious or otherwise, you want to include.

“Religion does still have an impact on decisions about funerals and death,” she said.

However, nearly four in 10 adults ages 18 to 29 are religiously unaffiliated. And they are four times more likely as those a generation ago to identify that way, according to a study by the Public Religion Research Institute.

Due to that shift, “it is likely that, in the decades to come, millennials may move away from some of the older traditions,” Lee said. “Time will tell.”

Green burials aren’t just a fad

One of the biggest movements in the funeral industry is green funerals, including more environmentally friendly burial options.

In 2018, nearly 54 percent of Americans were considering a green burial, according to a survey released by the National Funeral Directors Association.

“Green burial is for everybody,” said Lee Webster of the Green Burial Council.

Traditional burial methods — like being embalmed and buried in a metal casket — take a toll on the environment. Green burial uses biodegradable plain wooden caskets, shrouds, tree pods or coral reefs. And the options are expanding.

One family Crouch talked to put a family member’s remains in a biodegradable turtle-shaped urn. They dropped the urn into the sea. A real-life turtle swam up next to it, he said.

“It’s very, very powerful,” he said. “That family is never going to forget that service.”

Though millennials are carrying on the push for greener funerals, boomers actually originated the idea. They were concerned about the land, what we were putting in it and how to conserve it, Webster said. It wasn’t a climate change issue then — but now it is.

“People are living greener and it would be an obvious extension that they may expect to die greener,” Crouch said. “The problem is the industry has been very slow to change.”

But millennials are normalizing the conversation around green burials, “and then everybody follows,” Webster said.

Textbook for the modern funeral director

The gap between what people want and what funeral homes currently offer means a person’s funeral might not line up with how they lived their life.

“The industry is so used to doing the cookie-cutter funeral,” Crouch said. “Even though they may have driven a hybrid vehicle, maybe they were avid gardeners, maybe they were environmentalists, it’s not uncommon for that person to be embalmed and buried in a metal casket.”

Webster literally wrote the textbook on potential solutions to this problem. Now mortuary school students are learning about environmentally friendly burials.

It’s in the best interest of funeral homes to start adapting to what people want, Crouch said. As more and more options become available, think about how you’d want to be celebrated and buried.

Washington just became the first state to allow “human composting” as a burial method. Who knows what could be next.

“There are a lot of unique things on the horizon,” Crouch said. “Some of them may or may not be practical.”

But, he said, the modern funeral director should listen to what was important to the person in life and present the family with all their options — not just what’s been done in the past.

Complete Article HERE!