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.
The word simplicity has kept rattling around my head these last two weeks. Simplicity carries peace and wholeness with it. Simplicity conveys a sense of completion. Simplicity uses the essentials to get the job done—whatever the job happens to be. Simplicity of thought has such elegance and beauty. Sometime our hectic lives do not afford us the time to stop and think of what we truly need. Sometimes our cacophonous lives block out the quiet voice of our hearts. Taking time and being present in the moment—seeing what we need in the moment—might be a luxury to some of us, but it might just be what we need to move forward. We might feel that we do not have a moment to stop and see the beauty around us. Simplicity eludes me more often than not; however simplicity is my deepest desire.
When I think about final plans and what to do with my body, I know in my heart I want what is simple and kind. I do not want a lot of fuss. I only want the essentials done to my body. I want my body washed, anointed, dressed and kept cool until the funeral. My body has been good to me considering what I have put it through. In the end I do not want to put it through a lot of extra effort just to preserve it for a few extra days. I hope that my body will get the honor and respect it so deserves. I have made plans for all my final decisions that have to be made. I hope the simplicity of the plan will allow those who have to actually have to carry it out a chance to catch their breaths a moment, and spend time with each other in love. I hope I can learn to live more simply—to live by the ideal of what is essential so that when my time on this earth draws to a close those closest to me will automatically embrace my simple and gentle plan.
Everything stopped. Everything changed. Nothing has ever been close to the same again. The feeling of helplessness still lingers with me seventeen years after the fact. I suppose I will never be able to move along past the moments when those airplanes hit those towers. I suppose the reason I am stuck in New York City has to do with the fact I lived and played in New York for six years. Some of my most cherished memories took place on top of those towers. I suppose I am stuck there because the events of that day began in New York City, and I am stuck there wondering why this had to happen. The hit to the Pentagon shocked me. The heroic acts committed in Pennsylvania humbled me. Their example of courage and love should rest in our hearts and give us the courage to do smaller acts of courage and love. I know that everything stopped in that moment and what followed was like a horrible dream from which I cannot awake.
I long for the time when we as a people were not afraid. I long for the time when we could hold civil conversations with people who do not agree with our perspective. I know part of me still lives in the pre-September 11 world. I suppose this is how grief functions. When we experience loss, perhaps the difficulty is that part of us remembers the time before the loss and longs to live that way again. We live then in a dissonance with reality. As long as we are aware to the nature of grief and memory, we can move on and begin to accept the reality for how we must now live.
Loss teaches us lessons all the time. Sometimes the loss can remind us of how we can live. Perhaps we can take the love we once felt and use this to mold the new reality we must now face. With the loss of September 11, we could begin to live life unafraid. Perhaps we could remember those who gave their lives on that day so other might live free of tyranny, and allow others to hold differing views. We could once again be a nation where we hold conversations so that we can come to a meeting of the mind. Let us not allow fear and loss take us away from who we are and who we can be. Perhaps everything stopped and changed forever, but still we can loosen our grip on the fear and grief the past might hold and move forward in courage and love.
I know that people often feel the need to care for the bodies of those we love because humans tend to care for the bodies of their loved ones in a variety of ways. In North America, however we usually either cremate or embalm our loved ones’ bodies upon death. From my experience, many people do not wish to be embalmed but getting that accomplished is often very difficult—especially if the family has not done research beforehand. The industry markets cremation as an environmentally friendly process, but in fact it is not so green once you consider what goes up into the atmosphere—possibly mercury or plastics. Consider the fact that we are burning something and this is released into the atmosphere.
Most of us do not like to think of the bodies of our loved ones having to decay or be destroyed. It is certainly not a cheery topic, but a topic we need to consider because one day we may be called upon to take charge of the final details for someone we love. If we have not considered our options we might choose the least difficult option —a funeral home packages. I do not want to talk about the troublesome packages offered by funeral homes. I do want to address the fact that the industry offers two diametrically opposed choices, neither which is gentle on the environment. On one hand we are told we can preserve their bodies “forever”. On the other hand, we are told the body does not matter anyway—ashes to ashes. The funeral home will not likely explain the toxic nature of embalming fluid nor the amount of fuel needed to perform a cremation or any other troublesome facts of these two processes. In the end we are left with bodies that can no longer nurture the earth either by toxins in the process (embalming) or by destroying all the nutrients (cremation).
Why do we do this? I do not know. Maybe we do not want to really look at death. Maybe we are not offered the option that would better suit our values. Maybe we have been so far removed from the cycle of life that death is so foreign to us, and we just do not know what to do. Whatever the reason, we need to take time and look at options for the care of the dead so that we can make informed decisions when we need to. At the time we face the death of a loved one, we might not be as strong as we would hope to be. Making a stand can take a lot of energy that we might not have. Take a gentle approach with yourself and your choices you I continue to be shocked at how difficult it is to have a body simply washed and anointed with oils. This simple approach probably would not easily line the pockets of the death care industry, and that is probably the reason many find this so difficult to find. It should take a sheer effort of will to have simple and environmentally friendly options. When the time comes, be gentle with yourself and do the best you can with what you have to work with. That is all we can do anyway.
My father departed this life ten years ago next month. The gravity of this anniversary strikes me profoundly. The month of his death has always been a difficult one. It encompasses his birthday, Father’s Day, and finally the memorial of his death. June has not been a fun month for ten years. This year, however, the memory of his death shocks me in a way I had not anticipated. How can he have been missing from our table, our conversations, and decision making these ten years? Of course the answer is that he hasn’t really, but we have missed that laugh and clever wit for far too long. The hardest part of missing him is when I truly need to know something that only he knows or have his sage advice, I am impoverished. He was not perfect by any stretch of the imagination, but he always knew how to have a good time, loved deeply and believed in God. One does not find that every day of the week. My father prayed every day. He told me once that he learned the importance of daily personal prayer in seminary and how it was essential to his formation as a priest. One of my joys is that I have many of his prayer books and the lists of people for whom he prayed daily. I also have his Bible. I personally do not like that particular translation, but I love to hold it and feel his hands again. These are my little treasures. I miss him every day, and I can’t believe I have had to live ten years without him, but I have. I will continue to do so and carry his memory and the lessons he taught me for the rest of my life.