Every year around this time, I think of a trip I made through the mausoleum at a cemetery. I think about the family who put up the little tree outside a tomb with the banner, “Baby’s First Christmas”. I also think of the woman who had a still born child the week of Christmas. So many of us rush around preparing for a holiday which features a baby, that we might not take a moment to think of those families who mourn the loss of a child. Perhaps we know of a family who struggles throughout this time of year because of a loss of a child. Perhaps we know of a woman or family who desperately want a child, but are unable to have one of their own. Perhaps we can take a breath and remember that not all of us are in a festive mood. Make a place in your heart for those who suffer this time of year.
A woman working on her Master’s degree in Journalism asked me yesterday why I want a green burial. Environmentally friendly burial or what we used to just call burial has become so much a part of my view on death. The thought of having my children embalm or cremate me is so repugnant to me. I know too much. I know too much about the processes of embalming and cremation to really feel at ease with them. I know many do. I remember when my husband first made me promise that I would not embalm him and how funny I found that request. Everybody does it! Why shouldn’t he? I know now why. The fact of the matter is green burial suits my outlook. I want the earth to receive my body and let nature take its course. I do not want an expensive burial. I want my people to gather, tell stories and to pray. No need for elaborate preparation of the body. I do not want my body drained of blood and replaced with poison. For what purpose? So that the body can be preserved for a few extra days? No thank you. Please just clean and anoint my body and place it in a shroud or coffin and later the grave after the appropriate liturgical services.
I usually write about how the holiday season offers us an opportunity to connect the past with the present, today I will take a different position. Sometimes honoring our family for some comes as a welcome opportunity, for others it does not. For many the holiday season can be wrought with conflicting emotions and memories, making the season as a whole very uncomfortable and upsetting. There is a solution. We can make our own decisions on how to celebrate these feasts. We do not need to feel the obligation to celebrate as we have in the past. Many people do, even if they tend towards a traditional attitude. Every feast day is different from the last by the simple fact that every day comes with its own special circumstances. No two days are ever the same, and so no two holidays are the ever the same. If you find yourself with conflicting emotions and unpleasant memories, take this opportunity to have the holiday as you see fit. There really are no rules, and if you need to heal from memories and emotions that haunt you, set yourself free from the bondage of replacing these with new memories. All that is required to celebrate any holiday is a joyful heart. When we become adults, we are free to decide how and why we celebrate. It is up to you how you arrive at that point. The past need not enslave you. If that means you do not see your family, then do not see your family. If it means you do not decorate, do not decorate. If it means that celebrating in the quiet of your own home by yourself, be the best guest in your own home. Some of us take pleasure in keeping pleasant memories alive in the holiday season. Some of us do not, and that is just fine. Take a moment to yourself to decide what will give you the most joy this season and discard the rest. Make joy the true tradition.
I am right now working through a major transition in my life. My mother’s health has become more complicated. My day job has also changed. I am consumed by these changes. As a result my blogging is not as consistent as it has been. I remain committed to educating people about death and the death care industry. The topic remains taboo in so much of our modern world, and I will always find that fascinating. Sometimes I think this taboo has to do with the fear of death—fear that one day we will die and the fear of the unknown of death. At other times, I think that the taboo has to do with the basic yuck factor of death. Let’s face it; death is not a pretty thing. It is the way of all things, but the process of death and the time following death really is not too pretty. Sometimes I think the taboo has so much to do with the fear of failure. Some people actually hope that they will never have to face the day of their death. Perhaps failure is not the word for it. Perhaps the word is the fear that negative thinking will take over. Some people actually think that talking about death brings about death. Somehow taking about death is defeatist thinking. It is no way defeatist—it’s reality. By keeping death a taboo subject we give power to the industry that works hard on keeping death a mystery. By keeping death a taboo topic, we cripple our loved ones at the time of our death because they will not know our wishes. By keeping death a taboo, we give power to our own fears and grow fear in those around us. Death comes. Our loved ones must know what the plan will be for dealing with our body. When the average funeral is $10,00.00, We really cannot afford to keep death a taboo topic.
Today is Halloween and the kiddies will dress up and go out to trick-or-treat. So much of this holiday has developed from other traditions until what we are left with is a holiday about being spooky and getting sweets. Some celebrate the Day of the Dead, which stems from the Western Christian holidays of All Saints Day and All Souls Day. In fact, Halloween means All Hallows Eve or the eve of All Saints Day in the Western Church. At its center Halloween should cause us to pause and remember those who have left this physical world. We can set aside the spookiness of the day for just a moment and bring to mind those we love who are no longer with us and connect to the reason we have this holiday
Some of you might not know, this summer my family went through a wide variety of health crises which caused the hiatus for this blog. My family all seemed to be healing well, or at least dealing with the new normal as the case might be. Then my mother began to go downhill. She had stove so hard to regain her independence and we were all impressed with the amount of sheer will and determination she displayed recovering from her crisis. I was confused. Mom seemed to be doing well one week and the next she was losing her gains. Mom displayed disturbing symptoms so we made the rounds with the specialists on her list. Finally, we came to the blood guy. One thing led to another, and mom has a diagnosis of cancer.
I am right now in the process of getting my head around this. I have to admit I do not find this easy or fun. I have to look at the possibility this might be the last health crisis and I do not like that. I do not like that at all. We are still in the process of finding the source and have not come to any conclusion of treatment, so we are in an early stage. I will take this day by day and week to week. Right now, I am trying to get out of denial and into reality which is not my favourite thing to do when someone I love is hurting this bad. Be patient with me and this process. Know that one of my great joys is the writing of this blog, but also that my editor is not feeling well. If I take another break, know that I am facing difficult times, and I will be back when ready.
I recall two poignant conversations I had regarding pregnancy loss. The first conversation took place when I was in seminary; one of the community members had lost her child at full term. One of my fellow students, who was usually very kind and sensitive, did not understand how the community could reel from a loss of someone who had never drawn breath. I tried to explain it to him, but I am not sure he understood. He probably does now that he has had a full life of experiences to draw on. The second conversation occurred when I worked at a halfway house for women on parole. One of our clients lost a baby at full term. The loss rocked the house. One of my coworkers and I were discussing how pregnancy loss used to be like when we were younger. She spoke about her mother who had lost a child to miscarriage. She said her mother could not or did not feel she could grieve publicly. My coworker recalled how she would sometimes hear her mother weeping behind closed doors when her mother did not think anyone was around. She remembered how sad it would make her and how she never understood why her mother was weeping until she was much older.
October is designated as Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness Month and internationally many countries designate October 15 as the specific day to remember those lost in pregnancy or as infants. We have come so far from the days when people did not feel that they could morn loss of someone so young. No longer do we need to feel that we do not have a right to morn a loss, and especially those who were lost at such a young age. Having said all this, I do think that we could move even further along the path of understanding. Perhaps, even if we do not personally understand this kind of loss, we could remember that we do not personally have to understand. We need only need to be there for those we know who are in pain, and let them grieve as they need to grieve.
The epitaph reads “I was once like you and one day you will be like me”, or words to that effect. This never ending truth of life and death fuels the fear so many of us have when looking at death. I would not say I fear death. In many ways I am comfortable speaking and writing about death, but when death comes close to home I no longer feel so comfortable. I do not like how death changes my relationships. I love the connection I feel with those I love, and when they die, I miss them so very much. This longing we have for those who are no longer living our lives with us, gives us pause for one day we know that those close to us will also one day miss us in the same way. Well, as least we hope they will.
I had a professor who would like to remind us from time to time by saying, “One day you will be as flat as the ground.” One could take this a few ways. Of course there are those who would not deal well with this statement. It might make them think that life was pointless and one day we would be no more. On the other hand one could take this to mean that we have but one life, and to do what we can with it, maybe by bringing life and joy to those who travel our life with us. Perhaps by embracing this idea we can make our life good today. Maybe if we have a well-organized mind we might realize that the actions of our life live on after us. Maybe we can take the best of what we have, and share it with those around us. Maybe by being who we are and sharing our joy we can plant a seed that can make life better for those who come after us. Yes, death comes for us all, but what are we doing with the life we have today, right now?
We entered October this week. I love the month of October with the changing of the leaves and the crisp feel in the air. We in the Midwest have started preparing for winter. Some of us put our gardens to bed. Many of us prepare for harvest and fall festivals. In my home, we will be having Canadian Thanksgiving this coming Monday. For me this signals the approaching winter in a big way. Winter is coming, but not yet. Because October has a transitional quality to it, it is a great time to begin or revisit our plans for our funeral and burial. One single most important thing we can do for planning our funeral and burial is to go out and shop our local funeral homes. 90.4% of consumers go with the first funeral home they go to. The industry knows this. Going out and shopping funeral homes might not be fun for most people, but you might be surprised once you start. If you shop out of curiosity, shopping a funeral home takes on a completely different tone than shopping out of need. When we shop out of need, we mostly want to get in and out as soon as possible. If we shop out of curiosity and with knowledge of our laws and rights, then we have the luxury of seeing how close to the law a funeral home adheres. Take the time this October, before the big time winter festivals start rolling in, and go out and shop your local area to see what resources you have available. Once you start, you might just be surprised at how interesting it becomes.
What most people are talking about when they talk about green burial is making environmental burial choices with the resources available. Green burial starts with the way we live our lives. It starts with a mindset of living our life as best we can—causing the least harm to the earth and those around us. It entails our day to day choices as well as the choices we make when we are in crisis. Sometimes these crises throw us off our game. When these crises entail life or death choices we might lose our minds just a bit. In that moment we take a breath and remember who we are and what we believe and move forward making the best choices we can from a firm foundation of belief.
Green end of life choices do not only entail which plot we might use, what urn appeals best to us or what fits the budget. Green end of life choices also include what kinds of medical interventions we might deem needed. It might also include distance in travel to events. Green end of life choices might also include what modes of transportation used. If we die in Nebraska, do we really want to have our body embalmed and transported across state lines? Even if we were fortunate enough to locate a funeral director who would aid us in being transported without embalming, do we really want the added expense and use of fuel to transport our body? We might also consider what container used. Do we want a coffin or a shroud? Where are these manufactured? I personally love the wicker coffins produced in England. I would not choose a coffin from England, however due to the cost of transporting it. I might choose one made nearer to home.
Green burial encompasses more than just the final resting place and a natural body. Even if the greenest of the green burials is not available to us, we can look at other factors in our burial choices that take a gentle approach to the earth and those around us. Most people do not have the opportunity for a very green end of life. That is the state we find ourselves in today. It does not have to remain so. Many of us are working toward a greener life and end of life. If you find yourself in a situation where you have to make end of life decisions and you cannot find green choices, do your best. That is all any of us can do.