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…

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…