Alternate Death Traditions

***  Time for this post? Reading …1 minute. Viewing …19 minutes. 

Enculturation is the process by which individuals learn their group’s culture—through experience, observation, and instruction. It is how traditions evolve.

We all become enculturated, that is, steeped in the way things are done in the society in which we live. It’s what we know, what we get used to, what we think is normal.

How WE do death isn’t the only way…

Caitlin Doughty is a licensed mortician and death acceptance advocate. She is founder of the nonprofit The Order of the Good Death, author of three books, and operates Undertaking LA, an alternative funeral home.

And here’s what they do in South Carolina when someone “has passed”…

Enough said!

Die Wise

*** Time for this post?  Reading… 5 minutes. Viewing…you’ll be surprised how quickly the time passes.

When I wrote my first blog about dying, reader Barb Morin posted this comment…

A master of this subject [thinking about dying] —a self-described dealer in the “death trade” for over 20 years is Canada’s own Stephen Jenkinson. He has written a number of books – the last one called Come of Age and an earlier one entitled Die Wise.

He has a website called orphanwisdom.com and he is currently on tour through North America doing a presentation called “Nights of Grief and Mystery” with a musician named Greg Hoskins.

We recently attended this in Calgary—me and 5 family and friends who were not really looking forward to an uninterrupted 2.5 hours where entry was not allowed after the doors closed, with no intermission . About all I can say is that no one moved for the fastest 2.5 hours in my life and none was “unmoved’” by the content. My husband, who has a reputation for being able to sleep through ANYTHING shortly after it begins and wakes up as the clapping starts, was awake for the entire thing! He even said, “that was really good”!

I’d certainly encourage you to look at him as a resource. He has an NFB film about him and his work called Griefwalker which you can find on YouTube. He also teaches on occasion at Hollyhock Retreat Center on Cortes Island and teaches at his farm in Ontario.

As it happened, Stephen Jenkinson had not yet crossed my path—and I could hardly ignore such a compelling recommendation. Having listened to him on video, today I’m sharing an excellent interview that gives you a sense of what he’s about.

Notable aspects…

This is such a rich conversation, it’s impossible to summarize. Here are some things that leapt out at me…

  • The palliative care system is technologically driven and it shapes our credo of end-of-life care, which is—If you can, you should. It’s a philosophy that has no upside.
  • The “more-time” bargain we make to avoid the end of life has consequences we never imagined.

  • We have messed with the idea of “your time to die.” And so, we don’t die when we are dying…
  • Pneumonia used to be called “the old man’s friend.” Now it is treatable—and treated in the elderly—so we can’t even die from pneumonia anymore.
  • Our description of a “good death” is dictated by the attributes of the death phobia of the culture…
  • We should be asking, not what can we do about dying but what does dying ask of us?
  • Your obligation as your body’s trustee is to learn its ways, including its limits and, later, its dying too…
  • The Balinese tending to their dead in a morning ritual. The evidence of it is everywhere. I encountered this young woman on an early morning walk in Bali, holding a tray of beautifully prepared food that she was about to put out.

What caught your attention?

Stephen Jenkinson does not give us the same-old same-old. What caught your attention? Did you find things to think about?

A little change in social attitude…

*** Time for this post?  Reading…3 minutes. Listening…10 minutes. Considering…at your leisure.

The death phobia that pervades our consumer culture does not serve us well…

We get to indulge in death phobia because commercial interests are right there, ready to step in and do the difficult things for us. In this way, we avoid a lot of discomfort.

But we pay a price for our comfort…and it’s not just in money. We become death illiterate, with no language for what death asks of us and no emotional capacity to recognize that death is asking something of us.

The cultural story…

Research has shown how important our attitude is, both individually and collectively. When enough of us hold a similar point of view, it becomes the cultural story. I like the term meta-narrative—the big over-arching story—because it conveys how pervasive the cultural story about anything can be.

When it comes to death, here are some of the attitudes Westerners are steeped in.

  • Dying is something that happens to us; it isn’t something we do.
  • When you’re dying, you’re not behaving right—You’re supposed to live.
  • We are victims of death.
  • We should battle against death as long as possible.
  • Good things should never end.
  • Dying is akin to failing.
Attitude is the most important decision you'll make today. ~Paul Dughi #death #dying

Not all cultures tell the same story about death…

Eastern philosophy, for example, has different perspectives that have gradually come into our field of view. The most notable catalyst for this awareness was when The Beatles went to India in 1968 for a training course at the ashram of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi.

Although the most famous, The Beatles were not the first Westerners to become intrigued with the Eastern view. Alan Watts, who died in 1973, was a British-born philosopher, writer, and speaker. He’s best known as an early interpreter and popularizer of Eastern philosophy for a Western audience.

Watts moved to the United States in 1938 and began Zen training in New York, then earned a master’s degree in theology,  and was an Episcopal priest before joining the faculty of the American Academy of Asian Studies.

I find it interesting to listen to him, with his unique blend of East/West understanding. It always intrigues me to see how things that seem opposite—like East and West— can be wrapped up together to make a bigger, more coherent and dynamic whole.

Here are some of Alan Watts’ thoughts about death and dying…

“…just the end of you as a system of memory.”

Now isn’t that an intriguing thought! For more of his philosophy that helps us think in another way, here’s a compelling video about accepting death.

Unhooking Your Death from the Consumer Culture

*** Time for this post?  Reading… 9 minutes. Viewing… 4 minutes. Doing something to unhook yourself…up to you.

We live in a time when dying has been sanitized and commercialized—like most of our life experiences. In our consumer culture, commercial interests have taken over all the difficult things we used to do ourselves when someone died. In return, we get to detach from the experience and feel less discomfort.

That wasn’t always the case. Here’s a recollection shared by Nora, a reader who is now 90 years old.

My first direct experience [with death] was probably around the age of 5 or 6. In those days people still often dealt with the death of a family member at home, and my mother was often called on to help with washing of the body. In this particular instance a baby had died and I accompanied her to the farm where the family lived. They were friends. I watched as the baby was washed and placed in a small wooden box, then taken out and buried on the property. I didn’t see the burial, but can’t recall why. I only remember that I wasn’t scared and thought it was completely natural.

That had changed by the time the Baby Boomers were growing up in the 1950s and 60s. By then, the funeral industry was in full swing. Death was outsourced and we didn’t learn, as Nora did, that it is completely natural and not scary. In the absence of such experience, we’ve become fearful of the unknown and susceptible to the death phobia that pervades the culture around us.

Death phobia serves commercial interests…

Here are just a couple of ways that come to mind:

  • Death phobia causes us to take measures beyond all reason to stay alive or keep a dying family member alive. This keeps hospitals, cancer clinics, nursing homes, pharmaceutical companies, and high-tech medical manufacturers in business. I find it interesting that more and more of the people working in these places are speaking out—saying that we’ve got it all wrong, that we need to view death differently, to see it as a natural process rather than a medical condition. Professor Ken Hillman is one of the front-line people who is speaking out. He’s an Australian intensive care physician who has seen a lot of people near the end of life. In his view, dying in the elderly is being hijacked. People end up in and out of hospital to treat failing organs or a broken bone caused by a fall. What the system does not recognize is that frailty is a natural condition that precedes death, and the elderly should be assessed in terms of frailty, not malfunctioning body systems. You won’t want to miss the TED Talk of this sensible and compassionate man. His recent book is A Good Life to the End.
  • Death phobia creates the climate where funeral homes are able to profit substantially from the susceptibility of grieving people. They know to manipulate us into spending far beyond our original intention—such as paying $10,000 for a casket that goes directly into a crematory furnace, or paying for unnecessary embalming of a body that will be cremated. If you think my attitude is too cynical, watch this undercover investigation by Canada’s CBC Marketplace.

The good news is…

There is movement back to sanity and we, the people, are no longer allowing the consumer culture and economic system to completely co-opt our experience of death.

Here is a bit of what’s going on…

    1. Low-cost funerals are available if you do some basic consumer research. It’s easy with the internet to do some initial screening—starting with a search for “low-cost funerals” followed by your city name. When you find funeral providers that offer the level of service you want at a reasonable price, check their reliability. Read the testimonials on their website (and wonder why they don’t have any if they don’t). Check out the company at the Better Business Bureau. There you’ll discover how long they’ve been in business, their BBB rating from F to A+, and what customers have said about their experience with that company. After this pre-screening, call companies that still interest you and do a telephone interview. By then you’ll have enough information to make your selection. In my case, I selected a low-cost provider and got what I wanted for $1600. A full-service funeral home, with a chapel and reception area I wouldn’t be using, gave me a quote of $4100 for exactly the same services (simple cremation). It takes some time up front, but the reward is that you save thousands of dollars by not leaving it to your family to make a last-minute decision after you’ve died.
    2. Memorial societies and cooperatives are not-fo-profit organizations made up of members who have joined together to obtain dignity, simplicity and economy in funeral arrangements. Instead of directly offering funeral services, they negotiate with existing funeral homes to obtain reduced rates for their members. You pay a modest fee to join, and then make your arrangements with one of the specified funeral homes. The selected providers have funeral homes that offer a full range of services including large chapels, reception rooms, and on-site parking. For some people, this is an advantage over low-cost funeral providers, which usually do not have these facilities and cater to people who have their own locations (home or religious building) for the service and reception.
    3. People are befriending death so they are more comfortable with planning for its arrival instead of avoiding thinking about it.
    4. People are talking about death over dinner across the world. Between 2013 and 2016, more than 100,000 death-over-dinners were held in 30 countries. Imagine that!
    5. Do-it-yourself is back. Home funerals are becoming “a thing” with plenty of good help to make it happen. And look what’s going on in New Zealand…

No passive consumerism for them…

I love how they are taking charge! And other people must too, because there are now coffin clubs throughout New Zealand, in the UK, and in Tasmania.

The Coffin Club was started in 2010 by Katie Williams, a former palliative care nurse, to personalize funerals and drastically reduce cost.  But, she says, the biggest attraction of the Coffin Club movement is companionship. Watch this short video and don’t miss the “chook-in-the-box” around the 4-minute mark.

Your thoughts?

So…has this inspired you in any way—even a small one—to see how you can unhook your death from the dictates of the consumer culture? I’d love to hear…

Make Friends With Reality

*** Time for this post?  Reading…a minute. Viewing…15 minutes. 

Last week I wrote about how we use euphemisms to replace the word “death” because we consider it a harsh and ugly reality.

What if we did as philosopher-comic Emily Levine did. When faced with a diagnosis of stage IV lung cancer, she looked for ways to make sense of life, living, dying, and death.

A television writer, producer, and filmmaker, Emily Levine spent her life tearing apart classics and physics and pop culture, and then, in trickster fashion, putting them together in ways that got us thinking differently. “Her goal was to short-circuit your mind, to shake you out of your silly old and/or thinking with a little bit of and/and.” Here is her view of death, after she had befriended it:

’I’ am just a collection of particles that is arranged into this pattern, then will decompose and be available, all of its constituent parts, to nature, to reorganize into another pattern. To me, that is so exciting, and it makes me even more grateful to be part of that process.


This talk was posted in April 2018. Emily Levine died on February 3, 2019. Emily’s Universe carries on.

Initiate Straightforward Conversation

*** Time for this post? Reading…10 minutes. Viewing…17 minutes. Considering…as you wish.

Death. Dying. Have you noticed that most people dance around the subject of death when they’re in a situation that puts it in their face—whether it’s their dying or someone else’s.

Case in point—the funeral director I met with a few months ago. I was making my Plan B arrangements in case my body donation doesn’t go through. (This could happen if its condition is unsuitable at the time I die.)

Obviously, I wasn’t prepaying for a funeral since I don’t know whether or not I’ll need their services. But he was willing to meet with me, on that understanding, to fill out the paperwork. There are some tricky questions on the forms that must be submitted when registering a death, and I wanted to make sure the correct answers are on file.

Within minutes, it was obvious that the funeral director was selecting his words carefully in an effort to avoid causing me discomfort. Fair enough, in that we had just met and he was trying to assess where I was coming from.

I helped him out by saying something very direct about my death that let him know he could speak freely. The conversation was much more satisfying after that.

Elders have a responsibility…

I think it’s our responsibility, as elders, to get over ourselves and any preciousness we may feel about dying. Shifting our mindset leads to more constructive behaviours, and we will be modelling a better way for our children,  grandchildren, and perhaps also our friends.

Death phobia…

We Baby Boomers have grown up in a death-phobic culture in which dying has been sanitized and commercialized—like most of our life experiences. This has left us crippled, unable to handle death well. And that’s what our children and grandchildren are learning from us. This is the time for us to turn the tide—to learn what death requires of us and become comfortable talking about it.

I’m not a fan of euphemisms…

In a death-phobic culture, it becomes the norm to use euphemisms—substituting mild, indirect, or vague expressions for those thought to be offensive, harsh, or blunt. Legacy.com, which hosts more than 20 million on-line obituaries, lists the top ten euphemisms used in death notices. If ten isn’t enough, here’s a longer list.

Passed away

Went to be with (the/his/her) Lord

Went home

Departed

Entered eternal rest

Was called home

Left this world

Succumbed

Lost his/her battle

Slipped away

Somehow, the word “die” is culturally perceived as offensive, harsh, and blunt. Yet its actual definition is straightforward: To cease functioning, to stop living or existing, to undergo the complete and permanent cessation of all vital functions.

Verbal tranquilizers?

Euphemistic expressions for death and dying have been described as “verbal tranquilizers” and I think it’s a fair description of how we attempt to avoid what are seen as harsh realities.

In her excellent article about whether euphemisms are helpful or harmful, social worker Esther Heerema says:

…using the word “dead” makes it difficult to deny the reality. And, psychologically, while denial clearly needs to turn to acceptance, a little bit of denial is not all bad as a short-term coping mechanism. Indirect language can sometimes be a helpful way to mentally and emotionally handle your feelings gradually.

She also points out that euphemisms may be used for reasons other than denial. These include protection, to avoid being rude or offensive, to avoid discomfort, to offer spiritual comfort, or because of our own grief.

Her article highlights several considerations, including using euphemisms with children and principles for knowing when direct communication is the best choice.

Using euphemisms when speaking to children about death is usually not recommended. While the intention is to be gentle and protect the child from additional pain, indirect language is often confusing to a child. A euphemism involving terms such as “asleep” or “rest” might cause them to misunderstand and become fearful of going to bed at night. Similarly, saying, “We lost Uncle Fred last night” could prevent the child from comprehending that the person died and instead prompt them to go looking for Uncle Fred because he’s “lost.”

…When you should use direct language: The words death, dead, and dying should be used when it’s important to be very clear about what is happening. This includes when critical medical decisions are being made based on the prognosis of the patient, when speaking with those who might not fully understand indirect language, and when there might be a language barrier that might hinder understanding.

Talking about death over dinner…

Death Over Dinner, an initiative by Michael Hebb, is a deliberate opportunity to talk with others about death. For the past 20 years, Hebb has been working to “understand the secrets of human connection. His projects have turned into international movements and impacted millions. His second book Let’s Talk About Death was published in 2018.”

Why dinner?

You might wonder why anyone would have a conversation about death over dinner. Here’s how it’s explained on the Death Over Dinner website:

The dinner table is the most forgiving place for difficult conversation. The ritual of breaking bread creates warmth and connection, and puts us in touch with our humanity. It offers an environment that is more suitable than the usual places we discuss end of life.

So, it’s an intriguing idea. What I really like is how they’ve created a structure that helps you plan an event tailored to your interest in the subject. After filling in a simple questionnaire, you receive practical planning and hosting help, including

  • Suggested dinner invitation text, including the read/watch/listen resources you chose to share with your guests
  • Proposed conversation prompts for your dinner
  • Post-dinner activities and ways to share your experience with the community

Learn more…

The cool thing is you can try this out even if you don’t go ahead with the dinner. I found it a really good way to gain perspective on the breadth of the topic of dying, to review the variety of resources they have included, and see what conversation starters they suggested. I highly recommend checking it out at deathoverdinner.org

You can get more of the back story in a 2016 article in The Atlantic or the book that was published near the end of 2018. Or listen to Michael Hebb himself…

What do you think?

Would you be inclined to organize a dinner to talk about death? If not, do you wonder why you wouldn’t? That might be revealing…

Regaining Perspective

I know I’m getting old when I find myself saying, “What on earth is this world coming to?!!” It’s a fair bet that I’m not alone in this.

It’s easy to get lost in the heaviness of that perspective. In those moments, I find a breath of fresh air in Jeanne Robertson. Today I’d like to share her with you…

Jeanne Robertson is an American humorist, motivational speaker, and a former Miss North Carolina and physical education teacher. You can hear many more of these short clips on her YouTube Channel. Here are a few more samples of what you’ll find there.

Managing your completed death documents…

You’ve ticked off the items on your checklist.

You’ve done a happy dance.

And now you have a pile of important papers sitting on your desk. Several are original signed documents. Leaving them there doesn’t seem prudent.

What to do with your documents?

These three principles will help you decide what makes sense.

1  Safety 

Your documents should be stored where they are safe from fire, theft, or simply being misplaced.

2  Accessibility

Your documents should be easily accessed by your executor (as named in your Will), by your Attorney* (as named in your Power of Attorney), by your agent (as named in your Personal Directive, Living Will) and your supporters (as named in your Supported Decision-Making Authorization).  *The use of “attorney” in this context does not mean your lawyer. It refers to the person(s) you have designated to handle your financial affairs when you can’t.

3  Information

All relevant people should have copies and know where the originals are stored. If this involves combinations, passwords or keys, they should have that information too.

Things to think about…

Your Will ~ After you’ve died, the executor needs a working copy to begin wrapping up your affairs. The signed original is required when the application for Letters Probate is made. Where should you store it? Here are some things to consider…

  • The lawyer who drew up your Will may be able to store it for you.
  • A safety deposit box in your bank is another possibility. However, don’t put it there until you check with the bank about conditions under which they can release the will. The law generally requires that a safety deposit box be sealed until probate is granted. Yet the executor needs the original Will to submit with the application to obtain probate, and you don’t want it locked up in a bank where you can’t get it out. Your bank may allow supervised removal of the Will immediately after death. But make sure this is the case before storing it there.
  • The executor may be required to prove he or she is the named person by producing a photocopy of the Will along with photo identification,  Therefore, it’s crucial to make sure that each of your executors has a copy of your Will.
  • You might be able to handle the accessibility issue by registering your executors as co-signers on your safety deposit box. Of course, that could mean they will have access to the box even when you are alive. Best thing is to discuss this idea with your banker, explaining what you are trying to achieve.
  • Wherever you store your Will, provide your executor(s) with a copy—and note at the top where the original is stored. If that is a safety deposit box, also note where the key is kept. If the executor does not have a key, there is a substantial charge to drill open the box.
  • If you keep your Will in a fireproof, non-portable safe at home, make sure more than one family member has the combination or knows where the key is.

Your Power of Attorney ~ Your Power of Attorney document is needed when you are unable to look after your financial affairs. Instead of making photocopies of a single signed original, your lawyer may recommend that you sign an original for each of your attorneys for their convenience in having a signed original with them whenever they go to an institution to act on your behalf. In addition, you need a signed original that you will store in a safe, accessible place.

Distribution…

Signed documents

  1. Anyone named as your representative in a document should have either a copy or an original of it.
  2. If it’s  a photocopy, note on the top where the original is stored and provided access information in a way that keeps it secure—i.e. don’t put the combination to your home safe on the top of the photocopy!
  3. In some cases, a signed original is convenient for your representative to have. This applies to the Power of Attorney, Personal Directive, and Supported Decision-Making Authorization. Ask your lawyer if this is possible for the Power of Attorney. For the other two, make the number of copies you’ll need and have both you and your witness sign all of them.

Unsigned, self-generated documents

Some of the documents I recommend are not required by law but are helpful to your survivors. They include your Paper Trail, Last Wishes Letter, encrypted file of passwords and other sensitive information, and health history.

The principle here s to distribute them so they are not just stored in one place.  This ensures both safety and accessibility.

Access is particularly important because some of the information will be needed immediately after death—your last wishes about disposition of your body, for example, and what sort of funeral arrangements you want or don’t want. Even if you have given your family verbal instructions, it’s best to have it in writing because people remember conversations differently at the best of times, and even more so when under stress.

Review and update …

Divorce doesn't automatically cancel your Will. Marriage does in many places. There are unintended consequences in both cases. The take-away—revise your Will when you experience any major life change.
Major life changes should trigger an update.

  • Divorce  To many people’s surprise, divorce doesn’t automatically cancel your Will. As you might imagine, this can lead to unintended consequences.
  • Marriage On the other hand, marriage automatically revokes your Will in some jurisdictions. When you think about it, this makes sense because, once  married, a person has different obligations. A new Will should be made as soon as possible after marriage. If it isn’t, the person will die without a Will and the estate will be handled under intestacy legislation, which often results in things not happening the way you would have wanted.
  • Your children have married, you have grandchildren This may change your list of beneficiaries and how you want your assets to be distributed.

Schedule a yearly review.

I learned this good habit from my friend Diane, who has mastered the art of staying on top of things and keeping them in order. I’ve taken a page from her book, and am now reviewing my documents at the beginning of each new year.

Sometimes I’ve had very few revisions. But last year I had cataract surgery, switched to a new optometrist, and decided to donate my body to medical education.

The relevant changes have been incorporated into my documents, I’ve put revised copies in my file, and have given a set to each of my kids to replace the previous version. It feels like a big accomplishment!

So… when yours are all distributed, pat yourself on the back and give yourself 17 points for…

Good work!

Tackling your Death Documents

*** Time for this post?  Reading… 3 minutes. Completing documents… unknown and worth every minute. Dancing… as long as you want!

Quick! Do your near and dear know where your mother was born? Or your father’s full name exactly as it is on his birth certificate?

They should…because the funeral home will ask for these details (unless you’ve prearranged your funeral and already given them the information).

Do your kids know if you or your spouse ever received Family Allowances or the Child Tax Credit?

They should know that too…because the government will want the answer when your family applies for the Canada Pension Plan Death Benefit.

Who knew?!!

Not me, until I began getting all my paperwork ducks in a row.

Apparently, funeral homes are required to submit information about your lineage when registering your death with the provincial government. I have no idea why the federal government needs to know about Family Allowance cheques I received half a century ago…and I didn’t ask.

But you can be sure I wrote down the answers to those tricky questions and gave them to my kids.

Here’s a blank copy with space to fill in your answers to questions that might be tricky for others. Click on the thumbnail below for a PDF version or here to download the Word File.

Preventing overwhelm…

We all know there are documents we should have in place before we die—not just one, but about half a dozen. Where to start?!! 

First thing…

Here’s a checklist.

Print it and put a checkmark beside the documents you’ve already completed.

Then

Look at the unchecked items and focus on the one closest to the top. Beside that item, write down the first thing you’ll do to get it underway. Give your yourself a completion date for that first step. Then do it.

If you feel stuck, review my blogs on the various documents.

Cost of a basic will
Wills…getting down to business
Wills…without the mumbo jumbo
Power of Attorney (at the end of this blog)
Personal Directive
Supported Decision-Making
Paper Trail
Last Wishes

Rinse and repeat…

You may find that you have more than one document on the go at the same time because you’re waiting for something—your appointment with the lawyer, a chance to get to your safety deposit box and check on an item in there, an opportunity to discuss your personal directive with your children before arranging to have your signature witnessed, etc.

The key is to keep things moving and tick off items as they are completed. When you check off the last one, do a happy dance!

Snoopy Happy Dance from David Innes on Vimeo.

The business of dying involves more than paperwork…

***Time for this post?  Reading… 1 minute. Viewing…17 minutes. Thinking about it…as long as it takes.

My last few posts have been about several major documents that we should put in place well before we’re at the end of life. But dealing with mortality includes more than signing documents. Important as paperwork is, the human aspect of death is equally significant.

Key points…

When you make your personal (advance) directive, be sure your family is on board. This doesn’t mean they have to agree with what you want. The question to ask them is… Will you honour what I want?

Kit Jackson mentions a small book called Hard Choices for Loving People. I haven’t read it. Here’s where you can find out more.

Five things to say at the bedside of a dying person…

  1. Thank you.
  2. I love you.
  3. Please forgive me.
  4. I forgive you.
  5. Goodbye.

That more or less says it all, I think.