When someone we love dies, we experience a loss – a true loss. Many of us talk about preserving and honoring the memory of someone we love who dies. We talk about a peaceful death or transition. Death is not always that peaceful transition maybe we all hope it might be. I for one do not want to die a painful death. Sounds just very unpleasant. Well, death is unpleasant. Even if the death is long expected or an end to a long painful battle, death is not usually something we look forward to. In death, we find a loss – a deep true loss. Even for those who believe in an afterlife, death brings a finality that cannot be fixed. Death causes a break in a relationship, and a break that cannot be mended but must be lived through. I think many of us focus on remembering and honoring the lives of our loved ones and urge others to do so because the loss that death brings is so painful. We do not like being reminded of the pain in ourselves, let alone in someone else. At the death of a loved one we face a tragedy we can never truly prepare for nor truly completely recover from. Death brings a certain finality that we each need to grapple with. Each grieving process may look different because each person has had a different relationship with the one who has died. We must recognize that at death a tragedy on some level has occurred. Things will not be the same, because they can never be the same. We do ourselves and those we serve a disservice to not acknowledge the tragedy of death. It takes a certain bravery to look at pain in others and ourselves. I think if we are to aid those in facing death and grief, we must accept this truth that with death comes tragedy. When we see those deep in grief, stop and remember that the pain of loss may run deep. Give others time to figure out a way to live life without the person they love. The process may take time, but it is a process that may never see a resolution.
Saturday marks Earth Day and many will take time to consider the health of the earth. I have participated in several Earth Day events. One time, my partner in green burial and I had a booth at an Earth Day event. We had many very interesting conversations, but our favourite of the day was a troop of girl scouts. The leader led from behind and encouraged the girls to ask us what our booth was about. Well, I explained about green burial just a bit, and the look of the faces of the girls and their leader was priceless. Most people at Earth Day events hope to find recycling or save the species booths; most are not expecting a green burial booth. Maybe they should. Maybe we need to take a look at how we are dying in North America. When we might need medical intervention, do we consider that at some point we might need to just let go and cease extraneous care? Have we each considered the impact of these interventions on ourselves, those who love us and the environment? When we are faced with planning a funeral and burial, have we looked at our options? Do we know our rights? Can we make informed decisions for our family and can we choose the greener options? Are these important to us? On Earth Day, perhaps we can take a small moment before we head off to a recycling event and ponder what it means to have an earth friendly death and burial.
Green Burial Hacks
More on Embalming
Many of the Christian faith are making preparations for Easter (or Pascha) this week. As many of my usual readers know, I am an Orthodox Christian. Today, I thought I would share a recipe that has been used in my family long before we were in the Orthodox Church. When I was young, we had friends who were Russian Orthodox. I remember one Easter we went to their home for Pascha. What I remember most about the day was that the Matushka (priest wife) had made this enormous Cheese Pascha. It had to be two feet tall. I did not like it at first because I don’t like candied fruit. Along the years, I have found that I love it, but without the candied fruit. As a matter of fact, when I eat yellow raisins I think of Pascha. My mother made Cheese Pascha every year afterward for our home and for our parish. I grew to love it. What is so remarkable about Cheese Pascha to me is that we form it in the shape of a tomb, mark it with the letters XB – the Slavonic initials for Christ is Risen. We make it sweet to remind us Christians that we believe death no longer separates us - death has lost its sting.
Martha Lynch’s Famous Cheese Pascha (two methods)
Works best with ingredients at room temperature
1lb cream cheese
1 cup confectioner sugar
Push through a sieve:
6 hard-boiled egg yolks – one by one
½ lb whipped sweet butter
6 hard-boiled egg yolks
½ cup seedless yellow raisins
½ cup candied fruit
½ cup chopped nuts
1 tsp. vanilla
Zest of one lemon
Place in dome like mold.
Line with plastic wrap for easy removal.
Set aside some raisins and nuts to decorate.
New Modern Method (my new twist on a great recipe):
Follow the same proportions.
In a food processor blend in: egg yolks, butter, cream cheese, and confectioner sugar (in that order)
Fold in the raisins; fruit (I never use them. I don’t like candied fruit. I double the raisins) nuts, vanilla and zest of tangerine.
Place in dome like mold. Line with plastic wrap for easy removal.
Set aside some raisins and nuts to decorate
Sitting at a church potluck last week, a man I know started telling the table what American Death Care Industry did to the human body was a disgrace. I agreed and added that it was totally unnecessary. Our companions looked utterly shocked and dismayed and the topic went no further. Ok, so the setting might not have been a great one, but I doubt very much that the outcome would have changed if we were all waiting for a bus or out in the garden chitchatting. I have learned from bitter experience that some folks just do not want to talk about death and death care. I understand. Talking about death brings up uncomfortable memories that we might not want to talk about. We do not wish to think about the fact that one day we will be no longer enjoying the life we have now, and we do not want to think about our beloved ones having to deal with our death – both emotionally and physically.
Americans are optimistic by nature, so death strikes many of us as some kind of defeat. I cannot count the times I have heard, “If I die.” The Death Care Industry knows this. It clouds the process in fancy obfuscations to make people feel comfortable enough to purchase a funeral or burial plan before they die. The industry uses the term “time of need” when talking about a person’s death. The sales pitch might go like this, “You can purchase this vault today it will be available at today’s price for the “time of need.” The person will think surely I do not need the vault today. I am glad it is purchased at today’s price for the “time of need” in the future. The whole process is called “preneed sales” and it fuels the industry. Purchase before you need. What is this need they speak of? It is our own death. If they spoke about death instead of need, who would sit down with them, hand over their money, and complete a plan for their loved ones for the time of need somewhere in the future. Few would be comfortable enough to do so.
A funeral sales pitch surely includes a pitch for embalming. What else is embalming if not a total negation of the natural process of death? Here we take a natural body, drain it of blood and replace the blood with chemicals. The industry can only guarantee preservation of the body for five days. What are we doing as a society when it comes to embalming? Why do we need to hang on to the bodies of our loved ones pumped full of unnatural chemicals? I don’t know. If the potential client does not choose embalming, then the sales person offers cremation as the other option of dealing with a body in death. Cremation uses a tremendous amount of energy (about the same amount of fuel it take to drive 600 miles) to cremate a human body. Both these processes distance our loved ones from our bodies in death. The body often is quickly taken away by the industry’s service providers and brought to a facility and a stranger, in whatever fashion the family has decided upon, prepares the body. We have separated ourselves so totally from the natural process of death that we cannot talk about it. Death, which is horrible on so many levels, gets pushed aside so that when we meet the death of someone we love, we might not have the vocabulary to discuss what is happening, and what we need to happen.
The alternative death care industry returns the power to families who face the death of a loved one. Death Doulas assist families in the care of the body and the legal process that follows death. The green burial movement connects the body back to the earth from where we come and to which we belong. Often people in our society forget that we are made to be part of nature and that our bodies are natural and biodegradable. The alternative death care industry promotes connectedness to life as well as allowing for a natural and simple way to deal with death that does not separate us from each other nor tries to hide that we are dealing with death, not something else. Next time people around you are talking about death, notice what terms they use. Be bold and enter into the conversation. Maybe even use the word death or dead. Changing people’s mindset is so important. Just keep in mind the tenderness of the topic. Some people cannot be moved to change. Some, however, might be willing. The more you speak honestly, openly and gently about death, the more you will learn how to talk about it and the more you can gage your audience. Change might be slow, but never hesitate to tell the truth.