Halloween time has hit the stores. We are still over a month away, yet when you enter any store you are hit with displays of candy and decorations. I personally love dressing up and carving pumpkins. Our old neighborhood in Hamilton always came together on Halloween night. Houses were decorated and we chatted from porch to porch as trick-or-treaters filed up our walk ways. We could talk about how Halloween helps people deal with the tragedy of death by giving them a chance to make it something easily dealt with by playing with ghosts and skeletons. Perhaps by dressing up and playing with scary things we can learn not to fear death very much. Perhaps this is a good thing. I do not know. But, what has struck me this year is how we seem to embrace death to the point of romanticizing and belittling it. When I see Halloween displays this year, I think that maybe we have lost touch with the deep pain death can cause. By romanticizing death perhaps we have done the same thing as sweeping it under the rug. Maybe going so far one direction by making death fun and entertaining we have still lost touch with the tragedy we face when we lose someone. As our society moves towards a romantic idea of death, we are still so far away from dealing with the reality of death. Maybe while you are hanging your new store bought skeleton this year, take a moment and think about what you are doing.
What a force the conventional death care industry has become! Sometimes looking at the state of the conventional death care industry, we might feel that we can do nothing to change the status quo. Many of us might think that we can do little against such an adversary, but we can make a change. We can all speak to our friends and loved ones about death and our rights, and that is all well and good. However, some of us feel that we can do more and we can. Death Cafes allow local people to meet and discuss all kinds of topics associated with death. You can start your own. Check out their site. They have great resources.
Some might want to work directly with loved ones assisting them with the process of death, preparation of the body and memorials. If this is you, you might be interested in becoming a death doula. It this speaks to you, contact the National Home Funeral Alliance. The internet offers many options for training, but the national office would best direct anyone interested in beginning this work.
Perhaps these two options do not fit what you might feel you want to do. Perhaps you belong to a religious or spiritual community and your traditions fall outside what the conventional death care industry likes to do. For me as an Orthodox Christian living in Illinois where my loved ones must hire a funeral director, I know that having a traditional funeral will be difficult but not impossible. I suggest if you belong to a spiritual community, perhaps you can begin a ministry or task force to help those at the time of death and following. If you are the leader of such a community, I highly suggest you begin looking for people within the community who can do this work.
People every day face the death care industry and have to navigate a way through all the roadblocks set up by the sales people within the industry. Maybe you are not one who can take a step outside the norm and help change the face of death care. Maybe you are. Maybe you have thought about doing something to help change death care in our society. If you are, make a plan and then take small steps forward. You might find that this is the work that fills your heart.
Twenty years ago this week, the world lost two strong and beautiful women – Princess Diana and Mother Teresa. The public memorialization for these two women these last few months strikes me. In no way could I ever fault anyone for having a fascination for Princess Diana. I have found her fascinating since she became engaged to Prince Charles in 1981. For months now however, the media in this country has promoted a wide variety of documentaries about Princess Diana’s life and death. We have been treated to all the glories and tragedies of her life. At the same time, the media falls silent about the other great woman who died twenty years ago this week – Mother Teresa. Where are her documentaries? She took up poverty in order to serve those in poverty. What awesome work she did too! How remarkable I find this conspicuous disparity between two great women. Does this demonstrate our societal interest? Are we more interested in tragic loss of a princess than remembering a great nun? Are we not interested in learning more about the self-sacrificing love of a nun who changed the world? She was not a Princess. She was just a woman who gave her life to loving those who have no one to love them. Do we really not want to look at her life and remember the many wonderful acts of love she committed? Does looking at the life of Mother Teresa make us so uncomfortable? I do not know.
Some of you might remember that I drive a school bus. No one is as surprised as I am at how much I love driving a bus. If I could handle a lock down in a federal prison for women while visiting the general population, I could handle driving a school bus filled with wildly creative children. The truth is I more than just handle the bus, I truly love the adventure every day. From time to time I get to l listen to the narrative play of the younger passengers. Last year, I heard, “And then Jesus comes down and says, ‘You have lied for the last time.’ ” This particular fragment of narrative play might go down as my all-time favourite. Recently, I heard one of my little ones say, “They are all dead and then the principal comes out and says…” I never got to hear what the principal said, but it got me thinking about narrative play when we were kids. Perhaps I have always been a bit creepy, but we played funeral with the neighborhood kids. We’d sing songs like, “Mary is dead now, and no one knows why”. My grandparents found it a bit disturbing, but we had fun. I wonder how many countless times we ended the story with “and he died” because we did not know how to end a story. It seemed a simple and effective way to move on to the next narrative we wanted to explore. As children, my sister and I had experience with death. My grandmother died when I was seven years old. The fact was we did not understand what it meant to die. We did not understand the tragic nature of death and its finality in this world. We played about death, I believe as a way of dealing with death – trying to figure it out. Narrative play dealing with the idea of death helped us understand what death was about. Sure, it might have disturbed the adults who understood all too well what death meant, but I am ever grateful that my sister and I were given the opportunity to explore death as kids and in a kid way.
One of my favourite comedies of all time is “Some Like It Hot”. I just love all the zaniness. During the drinking scene while Sugar chips away at ice lamenting her life she says, “Quarter of a century – makes a girl think.” Well last week I turned fifty. That really does make a girl think. I have been quite reflective about this particular birthday. It was not as difficult as thirty or forty, so perhaps I am growing up after all. I have thought long and hard about what the next part of my life will look like and what steps I can take for better health and longer life. For a few years now, I have been making small, but significant changes to my life for the sake of better health. I have lost a substantial amount of weight. I have a Fitbit, and while it is not perfect, it does help me monitor my activity. I need measurable data to look at and see what is going on. I seemed to have stalled in this particular aspect of my journey, and so on my birthday I joined a gym. Friday I go to make a plan that fits me so that I can make more changes for my better health.
Physical health is not my only concern. I am also concerned about spiritual health and things bring me into a fuller life and more in tuned with my spiritual perspective. I want to let go of things and patters that do not work for me and embrace what I know will bring me closer to what I know will bring me joy and those around me. Sure, when I was single and had no children, I could set more time aside for my spiritual life. Now at fifty, and in the thick of raising children and taking care of my mother, my spiritual life needs strengthening, and that takes effort and creativity. Spirituality also carries with it those things that bring me more alive, that connect me more to who I am. This is not some deep or airy-fairy thing. What I mean is that I need to continue to align my life and make good use of my gifts and talents and nurture that which I have been given.
One of my great joys in life is creating. I love to create all kinds of things. At forty, I realized I was an artist. I knew that as a mom with wee ones I could not continue to work in clay. Clay takes too much time and requires a lot of equipment. I started to photograph. It was portable and in the beginning of the twenty-first century, easy to come by. Throughout that decade I added writer to that list. I had to first allow myself to embrace this aspect of who I am. As a person living with dyslexia, who all throughout my education struggled with academic writing and spelling, who was told over and over again that I could not write – had to finally allow myself to write from the heart. I will continue to write through this decade. I hope to finish this death book and figure out what kind of format this will take. For me, I know this is just another wild adventure. As my dad always told me life is an adventure, not a problem to be solved. I look forward to embracing what comes my way in the future. I hope that living well – with truth and joy – I will leave my part of the world a better place.
The funeral market place is starting to change at least in the Chicagoland area. Funeral homes are seeing a decline in business due to the changing of attitudes of Americans towards death care and the real-estate market. Funeral homes are closing and in some cases consolidating. The desperate move few years back by the industry has done little to stave off the change in the market. By requiring the citizenry to hire them has not helped the death care industry in the Chicagoland area grow or remain steady. Funeral homes are closing. Much like the railroads at the turn of the last century who did not know they were in the transportation industry - the death care industry does not know it is part of the end of life industry. They think they are part of the embalming industry. This changing industry no longer follows the paths set down by the last generation. The larger death care industry has grown to include the return of family lead funerals and the rise of cremation. The current death care industry in this state has not let it sink in that the market can no longer sustain the older model. It can no longer keep raising the price of goods and services for a full embalmed body funeral while not making changes that allow the consumer to choose what he or she wants in an end of life ceremony.
As the US outlook on death changes, the market must change along with it. Change in markets other than the death care industry happens all the time. Service providers make changes to meet the needs and wants of the consumer. The problem with the death care industry is that they have an idea what a “traditional” funeral in the US must look like. These “traditional” funerals met the needs of US citizens who basically bought into the ideal the funeral homes presented. Embalming was king. Funerals handled by people outside the family was thought to be a step forward. Church funerals were the mainstay of the industry. The problem is the industry who views themselves as the professionals in the care of the dead are unwilling to change. They are unwilling to share the market place in states with laws that force families to hire a funeral director. In states that allow citizens to choose their own death care providers, the change to the market place will come organically. In the ten states that require citizens to hire a for-profit funeral director the changes will come painfully. As long as the State requires the citizens to hire one of these funeral directors, a family has no real choice, and the industry as we know it dies.
Chicago Funerals Closing
Tragedy struck my home community this last weekend. A family lost two women through domestic violence. Now this family faces the impossible task of not only facing these public and tragic deaths, but also managing to set up memorials and burials as well. This article is not about how women must find ways to be safe in their own homes and communities. It is also not about the fact that when one of us is murdered, the police first look to those who are supposed to love and protect us most in the world. This article also will not address the fact that just because we are born female, we are already more at risk of facing such a violent death. Today we will look at the family in the aftermath of such an event. In cases of extreme stress due to such a violent ending, one need not imagine how hard walking through the process must be for the family. The family must muddle through. Adults, who themselves are dealing with this tragedy, must step forward and support the children. Everything changed for them in a moment, and now the community has a look inside this most difficult time. For a while the community will be hyper focused on the story. For a while the community will eat up every last bit of information. In time, however, the news accounts will fade. People will go back to what they were doing before the story broke. For most of the community, life will not have changed, but the family and friends of those lost will continue to grieve. They must try to sort out what happened and make sense of such a senseless act. Take a moment and think of what kinds of hardships families like this face. When a story of domestic violence breaks, take a moment and think of how much harder their lives have just become. Sudden and violent deaths can occur. Not one of us is immune to this. Try and not let stories like this become a spectator sport. Try to remember real people have died and real lives are forever changed.
Once you sit down with a funeral director and he or she hands you the general price list you might see a long list of goods and services. The funeral home will often list the basic fee as the first item on their general price list. What is this Basic Fee on funeral home general price lists? Why do funeral homes have a basic fee? How do these work? A basic fee in a funeral home covers many things, but mostly it covers the cost of running a business which most businesses already include in the prices of their goods and services. For example, when you go to get a haircut, you do not pay a basic fee plus the price of the haircut. The price listed is the cost of the haircut and the cost of the salon or barber to run the business. You can tip, but you know the price is the price. In the funeral home, this is not so. You pay a basic fee, and then you pay for goods and services.
According the Funeral Rule, the funeral home’s basic fee cannot be declined. We have a right to purchase whatever goods and services we choose, but this fee we may not decline. The funeral homes wanted a way to secure their interests in dealing with families in grief, and so this basic fee was allowed by the funeral rule to protect the funeral homes’ interest. The basic fee is the least you can expect to pay at the funeral home you choose. Basic fees often cover filling out forms and coordinating with cemeteries, etc. This fee can range wildly. One funeral home might charge $3000, while another might charge $900. You must shop around to find one that suits your needs and pocket book. You can order any shroud or coffin you choose, so picking a funeral home should be about how you see they do business. You might consider what services they might offer and if they fit what your family needs, but shop around to see what the local market offers your family. You might be surprised at the wide range of prices.
Recently I heard a new story from a friend of mine. Her mother had died in Indiana and her body cremated. The family wanted to have a memorial at a place of their own choosing, which is completely within their rights. The funeral home told them that in order for them to have the memorial other than the funeral home, the family would have to pay $700 for the funeral home to transport the urn to the other locale. What kind of vehicle were they hoping to use to take an urn down the street? I do not know, but it would have to some special kind of vehicle to charge such and an exorbitant amount to take a small cargo such a short distance. Maybe the interior was covered in diamonds, I do not know.
The hubris of this action astounds me. This funeral director banked on the fact that their clients did not know funeral laws. That said, the state of Indiana has some odd laws. Indiana law requires the funeral home to take possession of the cremains and the whereabouts of them must be recorded. Cremains are considered final disposition, and a person with legal control can take custody of the cremains, even in Indiana. Indiana may require recording of the placement of the cremains, people still have urns on their mantles or in their gardens. The state might have tricky laws, but the family still has rights. The FCC Funeral Rules still clearly states that we as consumers do not have to pay for any goods and services we do not wish to pay for (except the Basic Fee). Transporting an urn for $700 is something a family can refuse. The family can transport an urn themselves to the place they have decided to have the memorial. This family and many others did not want know their rights and did not want to pay the funeral home the money to drive down the street, so the memorial took place at the funeral home.
Things like this happen – not every time a family sits down with an industry professional- but it happens nonetheless. I find this blatant disregard for human dignity and obvious greed driven behavior at the expense of a family in grief revolting. Many out there do not know where to turn for help when they do not feel comfortable with what an industry professional tells them. To be perfectly honest, how can a person in a state of grief be required to sort through this? This is not the way an industry that deals with a vulnerable population should act ever. The industry should expect to have the government looking over their shoulders making sure they adhere to the law and not lining their pockets with easy money.
What can we do? Continue to act as a light for those around you. People tell me stories because they know I will tell them the truth. They tell me stories because they know I will listen to them. Be open to talking about death to your friends and family. This might be the singular most important act any of us can do to help others. Death is still a taboo topic. Know your rights by doing your research. If you find yourself at a meeting with an industry professional, and what they tell you does not add up, contact the Funeral Consumers Alliance. Their phone number is 800-865-8300. When I need to know a fine point of law, I always contact them. They are always open to help people and have done so for years. The industry does not like them, and that means the Funeral Consumers Alliance knows what they are doing. Do not feel shy about contacting them if you do not know the answer. This is what they do, and they do it well.
Even when we think we have become more comfortable with the idea of our own death, we might find that we harbor odd ideas about death. I have come to realize that we often have a specific idea and sometimes interesting ideas about our final wishes. Some of us might think that cremains are light and airy and that somehow cremains can just blow away in the wind. Some people do not want their bodies to go back to the earth and are afraid of nature coming in contact their bodies. Some people really want to make sure that when they die, they are in fact dead. Still others think that maybe embalming might hurt. For me, I do not ever want to be put in a mausoleum because I do not know how I would get out.
I think having a good look at what romantic or fear based ideas we might entertain about death allows us an opportunity up to take a deeper look at the reality of death. Looking into our own misgivings about death might just open our eyes to the fact that we might not really embrace our own mortality. Perhaps having misgivings about death does not necessarily mean we are totally afraid of death. Maybe we just have a hard time coming to terms with the fact that at some point our bodies really will be dead. Our bodies one day will cease to function. We spend an awful lot of time everyday living with our bodies. We have lived through so much with them and through them. Coming to terms with the fact that one day we will have to leave these bodies just might give us misgivings. That might not be such a bad thing. Maybe this tells us that we are not infatuated with death. It might just tell us that we are not really ready to have a good look at our own death. Whatever the reason, having a look at these illogical ideas we have about death might just lend itself to a deeper exploration of our own psyche. This process might lead us to becoming more accepting of ourselves and others who are trying to take ownership of their lives and death.