Friday, June 27, 2008
No....I'm not talking about the 'Yikes, now I'm a ghost!' kind of being at one's own funeral. I've got a different idea. What if you COULD actually be there at your own funeral...or at the "rehearsal" of it? What if you planned a party with your funeral as the theme?
Now wait, don't think I've gone off the deep end...(well, you can if you want, I suppose....but listen...)
I had a friend years ago, who was known for ( among other things) his many varieties of home made wine, ( Dandelion, Peach, Strawberry, etc. ), and his long, blond/brown hair, which he wore tied back in a braid as thick as my wrist. (this figures later in the story) He also sported the requisite 'mountain man' beard and moustache , like many of his friends at the time.
One year he invited everyone to a big party that he referred to as his ' Wake'. There were some awkward jokes about why he was having a 'wake' for himself but he was a guy who was kind of hard to know deeply and his sense of humor tended toward the wry or sometimes caustic. At this 'wake', toasted him as we drank all the different kinds of wine that he made, and we laughed and talked into the night. Before we left, he did say that he wanted everyone to drink up the last of his home made wine "when the actual time came," whenever that would be.
As it turns out, that's just what we did. About 6 months after that first 'wake', we were all unexpectedly gathered again, in the presence of our friend's cremated remains. He'd fallen asleep at the wheel one night on the way home. His volkswagen bus hit a telephone pole, and the driver's seat was not bolted to the floor. Yeah. We all pondered similar things about that. But he was gone. And he'd left us our instructions. Which we did improvise upon.
Thinking about this now, I have to say that his was likely my most favorite funeral.
We hiked through the February snow to a gorge filled with Hemlock trees--a place he'd turned many of us on to-- and we stood circled near the adjacent river talking about who he was to us. I played a song on my guitar and sang...others read poems or just shared memories. A few tossed a single rose or other flower into the moving water. Then his best buddy pried the lid off the metal cannister which contained what was left of our friend. None of us had ever seen 'cremains' before. There was a silence as Bill fumbled a bit with the lid. He opened it and looked down for a very long 10 seconds or so then looked up at us and said quizzically "You'd have thought there would have been more...hair."
All the tensions 'poofed' at that moment as we shared a good chuckle and then passed the tin around and each took a handful. We scattered his ashes all around that place and after a few more words hugs and tears, made our way back to finish off the remaining varieties of our vintner's harvest. Many tears and toasts for our friend and his strange kind of forethought.
So I'm just asking...what if we did this kind of thing more often? I mean what if it was more culturally acceptable to have a funeral rehearsal? Like we have rehearsal dinners for weddings and such? I'm just asking....(it's my job!)
I've got more thoughts on this idea...different perspectives, conversations and further imaginings...which I'll put in the next post. Feel free to share your own stories or thoughts...or plans for your own shindig!
Thursday, June 19, 2008
I was listening to a story on NPR about a small town in Romania. There was a mayoral election, but the front running candidate who had been a popular mayor there for many years took ill and died while the voting was still going on. I mean during the election. Amazingly, when the votes were all counted, the dead fellow had won by 23 votes!!
Yes, that's right. They elected a Dead Man.
The reporter asked a resident of the town-, a man who voted for the deceased- why he voted for a man who was dead.
He said, "I know he's dead...but I don't want Change."
Well, that about says it eh?
I don't want change either. I mean, well, I do, yes. I say I do. I can think of lots of things that I want to be different. My very mission is about *changing* the way our culture faces Death. But inside of that, I find all these little ways that I am resistant to change. Ways and habits that I'm comfortable with. Things I don't want to have to learn to do differently.
I'm changing the way I am marketing my creations. I've begun calling them burial and cremation shrouds, and I am changing my market....moving further into the arena of pet shrouds.
I'm changing the way I see my business...and myself in it. Changing the furniture around in my studio. Changing the companies I buy fabric from. Changing the designs little by little all the time. I keep thinking I want it all to 'settle down' into some 'reliable' process or product or market. But I'm not sure I really want that. I think something in me likes to keep 'fiddling' with it.
It's a funny kind of push and pull, this change thing.
So I have no clear 'conclusion' here about the subject of change. I like the sign I've seen on a tip jar in a restaurant "If you fear change, leave it here." Though here's another change...folks on the street who ask for money don't ask for 'spare change' anymore...they ask for 'a buck' or 'a couple of bucks'. Change.
Like I said. I don't have a conclusion to these ruminations. But I do know one thing.
I'm not voting for the dead guy.
Happy Solstice, Friends.
Monday, May 26, 2008
Portland in May. Rain. A little sun. Rain. Grey. Fog. Rain.
I've been away from posting for a time. Working all the many layers of establishing a means of income from this mission of mine. Thinking I don't "have anything to say". Wanting to be crafting some cleverly perfect musings about Death. Sharp natters. Insightful commentary. Barf. This isn't my 'novel' --it's my blog. I get to write in it! Sometimes it's all of those things I listed. Sometimes it's different. Like today.
During the time 'away' I've been learning on my new sewing machine all about 'free motion quilting'- which is a feature I am adding to the shrouds. I've been making more of the pet shrouds, meeting with veterinarians, sourcing biodegradable ribbon (harder than you might think....) . I've been using the lovely embroidery features on the new machine to trim the shrouds I'm making. I'm writing new brochure copy, consulting about the website, researching micro-loans, venture capital, angel investors, etc. etc. I've almost got my new logo done, am about to have a photo shoot, about to launch the website....(sooon....sooon....)
And for some reason have encountered a large layer of terror.
Feels like a big lumpy 'something' under a rug in the doorway. Sometimes, somehow I step over it, or cringe around it....or, lots of times I just sit in the room feeling like I can't get past it. What does it mean to really really put these shrouds 'out there' in a *bigger* way in the world? What am I fearful of? Getting it right? getting it wrong? getting too many orders? getting no orders?
There's some kind of perfectionism lurking here, I know it. I just read something about this from, 'Art and Fear' by David Bayles and Ted Orland, quoted in a book about quilting creatively. Here's an excerpt...
The ceramics teacher announced on opening day that he was dividing the class into two groups. All those on the left side of the studio would be graded solely on the quantity of work they produced, all those on the right solely on its quality. His procedure was simple: on the final day of class he would bring in his bathroom scales and weigh the work of the "quantity" group:. 50 lbs. of pots rated an "A", 40 lbs. a "B" and so on. Those being graded on "quality", however, needed to produce only one pot-albeit a perfect one- to get an "A." Well, came grading time and a curious fact emerged: the works of highest quality were all produced by the group being graded for quantity. It seems that while the "quantity" group was busily churning out piles of work-and learning from their mistakes-the "quality" group had sat theorizing about the perfection, and in the end had little more to show for their efforts than grandiose theories and a pile of dead clay... To require perfection is to invite paralysis.
Every day there is something to be done. Every day there is fabric, thread, batting, ribbon, and time-- to spend...to 'waste'...to create things with. A day with no 'product' isn't necessarily wasted.
Doing Doing Doing....No one thing I do is any more important, really, than any other. It's easy to see that when I'm, say, on retreat and deep into the silence. But the world out here seems so convincing in its urgency. So emphatically sure of the hierarchy of tasks and the necessity of a ' finished, perfect product'.
It seems like I'm waiting for something to be "done". (preferably perfectly) in order to have it 'out there' for 'public consumption'. Maybe this is what has stopped me from writing these last several weeks....I don't 'have anything "done".
And now, in my mind, I am hearing my octegenarian friend, Jean. Once, in a conversation about wanting to be 'done' with things she said to me "Done? DONE?! ... 'Done' is Dead, Dear!"
I'm smiling again. She cracked me up with that one. There's nothing like a good perspective check.
So...I'm not done. Still here. Glad you are too.
Wednesday, April 23, 2008
I've got a friend who is a clothing designer. She just participated in a fashion show here and it's got me thinking in strange terms ...."The spring line of shrouds features daring new colors..." Well, why not?
I've been preparing for some professional photo shoots for the work. And also about to meet with interested veterinarians to talk about the pet shrouds. That's a conversation I am looking forward to~!
And in the midst of this, last week I heard from the friends for whom I'd made the first pet shroud. Their dog, Bear, had finally reached the place where he couldn't walk and was in more pain than medication could handle. The vet was on the way and they were waiting with Bear, saying goodbye. I made his shroud several weeks ago, so they were prepared. I'd made a special cushion inside on which I had quilted an image of a zuni 'spirit bear'. When he died, they laced him into it and carried him to the grave they'd dug and lined with flowers. I would like to have been there. It sounded so beautiful.
So now I want to thank Bear, and his people, for asking me to make his shroud. Not only for the trust they put in me to make something fitting for his departure, but because applying myself to a completely new design that wasn't for humans actually sparked and inspired my newest design that is for people. How cool is that?
So Thanks... and Goodbye, Bear.
Monday, April 7, 2008
Wow, So many things are happening in the world of "the shroud lady"!
In my ever changing journey to dispel myself of the fiction that I don't know how to manage a business, I have availed myself of several wonderful (and a few lackluster) opportunities. All of them fruitful in some ways, hardly any of them in the ways I expected. That's fine though...it's all good grist for the mill and all that. But before I begin waxing philosophic this early in the post, let's get down to the story of the week.
I've been working on creating THE perfect shroud design for a while now. I have a few good ones, each with a different feature, but lately I've been wanting to create something that does it all....covers the body, comforts the ones who grieve, incorporates my signature lacing system, can be used instead of a casket and actually carried by pallbearers, AND is biodegradable as well as beautiful.
There are many small details in coming up with something that does all this. Choosing the right fabrics. A pleasing and functional shape. Size and placement of handles and reinforced support panels. Figuring out 'standard' sizes to offer. Choosing and refining the images and patterns for the quilted parts. I'm not going to talk a bunch about all that...just letting you in on a few of the processes I'm involved in.
But here comes the heart of the story.
I was close enough to "finished" with the pieces of this latest design, and needed a willing 'model', so I brought it with me to 'Craft Night'. I meet weekly with several folks interested in various crafts from modern times to the medieval period. At any given evening there might be someone knitting, sewing 'garb', doing mending, creating armor, tooling leather, illuminating a manuscript, making chain mail or decorating wedding invitations. I showed up that night with some knitting--- and with all the pieces of this current shroud design.
Now, I am a recent addition to this group, but many of them know me because my daughter is part of this bunch of medieval re-enactors. They also know I make burial shrouds and have seen the ones I have been working on for pets....but they've never really seen a 'people shroud'.
I unrolled it all and put the layers together and asked my daughter to lie down and test it out.
I didn't make an announcement, but it was a small room and it didn't take long for people to notice what was happening. There was a "Whoa!" and a "Hey...what's going on there?" and then a short silent pause. I explained what I was up to...and that I wanted to take this chance of having enough people in one place to try it on someone and carry them around in it. As I worked, someone said to my grown daughter "Hey Rainbow....is it a little strange to have your Mom there wrapping you up in a burial shroud!?"
My daughter, bless her little cotton socks, didn't miss a beat. She shrugged her swathed shoulders and said, "Who better?". Indeed. Exactly.
I continued on, describing my idea and showing how each part fit to the next. When she was all covered, I asked folks to line up on either side--even recruiting the host's teen daughter and a friend--to take hold of the handles. "Ok! On the count of three;
We easily lifted this precious bundle and carried her a little ways. It worked! Beautifully! Before we set her down, we all just spontaneously 'rocked' her back and forth a bit. Someone asked her how it felt. There was a pause...and she said "really good". There was some joking and some laughter, all pretty lighthearted. We began to set her down. "Hey! Gently!" she said from inside the linen. We gave her a soft landing and then I unwrapped and refolded the pieces.
There was a little bit of discussion. People were glad to have finally seen one- seen what I have been talking about all this time. They liked it. We talked a little bit more before folks returned to their own projects and conversations. It was all very 'casual' and this makes me happy. I know this small, casual introduction of something we never talk about or see (much less, 'try on'!) before the painful moment of actually needing it, will have a long ripple effect.
May I never actually have to do this for my daughter....because as we all know, children are 'supposed to' outlive their parents... (sadly it doesn't always work that way).
Still...there is something stirring and gently comforting about having done this with her, and it has left me
( when I actually let myself think about it) with another layer of tenderness toward my daughter and gratitude for each minute of the life we've had together.
It's been a part of my spiritual practice to look at those things I have the most attachment to and imagine myself without them. To go into meditation and consider each one and imagine it gone. There's the material things that make up my life here...house, car, dishes, clothes etc....."gone"....... there's the memories..."gone"..... the ideas of who I am,"gone"..... the dreams of what I want to become...."gone"..... the body I live in (oooh...that's a hard one)..."gone"..... and in between, there's the breath and simple attention.
On a long retreat, when I was feeling a deep peaceful acceptance with these practices I decided to test my equanimity. I decided to imagine my daughter "gone". Gone as in Dead.
There was a long spiraling "Noooooooo!" in the mind. A clenching. And a weird sort of 'bounce'. It's not that I broke the silence, or that I ran screaming from the meditation hall...I didn't blow up or fall apart or anything. It wasn't so dramatic. There was enough presence to remember that this was a practice. But the mind just wasn't about to stay there, with that thought for very long! That one definitely broke the "bubble" of concentration!!
Still, I'm glad I did it. Opened that door. It's a useful edge to investigate.
So last week, when I wrapped my daughter in that shroud, amidst all that casual talk and laughter, I guess that was me still working with that practice. And if I hadn't made the commitment to write this blog, I may not have linked those two things together...may have missed this opportunity to "notice attachment". Yep. There it is. I'm still attached. To my daughter and her being in the world a long time with me.
I'm not worried about it. Seeing it is all the work that's needed.
I love you , Rainbow.
Sunday, March 23, 2008
The Easter tradition that I grew up with is all about Death and Resurrection. The rituals in the church of my childhood took up most of this week with what we were taught to call the 'Passion of Christ'.
This signified the time in which this controversial fellow "...was crucified, died and was buried" and then ( here comes the clincher...) "on the third day he rose again from the Dead."
In one way, this sort of condenses the "story" that goes on in nature for the roughly 6 months between the Fall and Spring Equinoxes. ( In the northern hemisphere anyway). Not the crucifixion part literally, but the laboring and dying and fading away and then after a time, a rebirth. I love this time of year. I love the promise of it.
I think often about this story about Jesus and the impact it had on me as a child. I think about those women to whom the care of the body of Jesus was entrusted. It's kind of like it was the first 'home funeral' I ever heard about. They took him down from the cross. They bathed and anointed and wrapped his body in linen. They put him in a shroud. And they put him in a "tomb" and then rolled a big stone in front of it. I had so many questions about this! Was the tomb above ground or under? Was it a cave? How come it looked like that in the pictures in my missal? How did those women roll that big stone in front of the opening? How did they find a stone that big lying around?
Then after all that work...they go back a few days later and he's gone! Not just disappeared, no, he clearly must have "woken up" because got "undressed"~! He took off the shroud! He left the wrappings! This is big stuff for a small girl. I pondered the drama of this moment a lot. He woke up! From being dead! And took off his shroud!
When I first started to make burial shrouds, I wanted to find a picture or a pattern of one. At that time almost all of my searches ( especially on the internet ) yielded only entries and pictures of part of the very shroud that Jesus was to have left behind. It's now called the "Shroud of Turin" (because it's in a museum there) and is purportedly the cloth that covered Jesus in the tomb. They think this because the image of his face is somehow 'burned' or in some mystical way imprinted into the cloth. This is all quite fascinating, but it doesn't give much clue as to the design or pattern of a whole shroud. And there is of course controversy about the origins of this most sacred relic of the Church. But it's called a shroud. THE shroud. Hmmmm.....
I never know what I'm going to write about when I start these posts. I had no idea that this entry would lead me to this place but I'm smiling thinking of the way one thing can lead to another. I'd not ever thought of this link between me and Jesus and Home Funerals....But there it is.
OH! and Happy Easter!
Friday, March 14, 2008
What should I write about this week? I've been quite busy with the "business end" of things. Making a business that supports me from this work of my calling is being quite the journey.
It seems I've spent the first part of this "Fine Farewell" endeavor studying, and sharing what I've learned...getting the heart of the work established. I've been finding out what people think and figuring out what they might need to know in order for me to fulfill my mission of changing the way Western culture faces Death. This part, while not exactly easy, has been work that feels 'natural' to me. It's all 'right brain'. Juicy, connective. Guiding people into the contemplation of this mystery. I have an affinity for this sort of work. It makes sense to me.
At the end of last year I began focusing more and more on the 'left brain' aspect of it all...and it's been quite the challenge! How does one stay grounded ( yes, I did say grounded....) in the actual mechanics of transactions and negotiations while engaged so deeply in the emotions of this kind of practice?
I've made a lot of shrouds...I keep changing the design bit by bit. I've 'practiced' with them on various friends and neighbors (one of my neighbors in Ashland was quite the willing model...and he told me I should call my business "Duds for Dead Folks"-people just love to find humor in this!). And I've written recently that I'm making shrouds for pets as well. However, the truth is that I haven't sold a whole lot of them yet.
I understand this...it's why I've spent so much time on the education part of this thing. But I want people to be using them.
Well....it's starting to happen.
Two weeks ago, my friend Kristin, the vet had occasion to use 3 shrouds in the space of 4 days. She was so pleased with them...and related that the families were also moved and truly helped by seeing their animals wrapped -or in some cases helping with the wrapping-in this way for burial or cremation.
Then something else happened that has moved me deeply. Last week I had the opportunity to offer one of my shrouds for someone who was homeless and had no next of kin to make any kind of arrangements for them. I was able to bring one of my shrouds to the funeral home and wrap this person in it, lacing it up, tucking it in and tying the ribbons. I tucked in a few sprigs of dried lavender tied with a ribbon, and then arranged three camellias I'd cut from the huge blooming bush outside my front door. It looked beautiful.
I didn't know how I would feel, I just knew it was a potent opportunity.
How I felt was deliberate, peaceful and very 'clean'. There wasn't any emotional 'stuckness'. There was just a sense of the honoring of this person's life and a gratitude for all the circumstances that led me to that moment to offer my presence.
What happened was a simple, fundamental human experience-- I got to perform a 'good deed'....and I felt a solid sense of having done something that will return to me in ways that I don't even know about yet.
Wednesday, March 5, 2008
"Dying Well" was the title of the radio program today, which interviewed the Executive Director of Oregon Hospice, Ann Jackson. Two friends alerted me about it ( I'd already flagged it for myself) and I decided to try and participate. I didn't quite make if from the phone queue to being on-air but I did post online. (see OPB.org "Think Out Loud")
I genuinely appreciate Hospice as a concept and the many compassionate and dedicated organizations providing Hospice care and education for people engaged with Death. I've been a volunteer, and my mother was cared for through Hospice in her dying process. In my experiences, and in conversations with many different folks, I've wondered something about Hospice. Where is the line...and where might it be, with regard to Hospice care just after Death?
I live in Oregon, the only state where it is legal to obtain a physician's aid in dying. I'm proud of my state and I appreciate being here in this climate that nourishes my penchant for pushing the edge regarding how we face Death.
So I'm thinking today (again) about the potential role of Hospice in Home Care of the Dead.
First, it seems that some education is in order. From Hospice workers to doctors and nurses, from hospital staff and administrators to workers at the Department of Vital Records and even to legislators themselves, many people who are actually involved in the processes and 'regulations' connected with dying and death do not actually know what the law says in terms of what can happen with a post-mortal body. ( I'm sorry that was such a long sentence!)
As I've said here before, most folks simply call the funeral home and that's that...even if they might want to sit with their dead one's body. They think it's not really 'safe' or 'proper' or even legal to do so. In a case where Hospice is involved this process could be greatly helped.
The kind of care--the moving and bathing and dressing the body of someone who is dying--that kind of care which a family is already familiar with can be done in a loving and ceremonial way after someone has died. What's not clear to me (nor is it really clearly set out in Hospice guidelines) is whether a family can request help with this from Hospice and how far that assistance will go.
Of course, there are other considerations in a Home Funeral...and there are places to find out answers to those considerations. I'm not suggesting that Hospice would want to try to be involved in the Home Funeral movement... ( not right now, anyway! ). But they could help a family begin the process of caring for the body and they could be better informed to help families explore the options available. 'Seems consistent with their work to empower the family to further embrace the Dying and the Death of the person they loved.
I'll be meeting with various Hospice-connected folks soon to talk about this very thing. I'll let you know what I find out. Meanwhile, let me know what you think, too!
Sunday, February 24, 2008
What a mystery! How does it know when to start up like this? Mute, innate, purposeful, confident, sure....a list I wouldn't mind being used to describe me and the 'green life' of my own business/art/mission. Especially those last two.
I took myself to Bridal Veil Falls yesterday. A slow walk down to the bridge and up to the platform to stand in the mist and hear the ondine's song. I stood for a long while, breathing slow and deep. Later I hiked on to the overlook, and I spoke with two women as we took in the view of the river. We talked about the place a bit, and about living in Portland, and they asked what my work was.
It's an interesting experience to answer this question. I'm still fine tuning my words to speak my vision clearly in the world.
"I'm an artist and I make burial shrouds."
I've learned to carry on calmly when people blanch, and to remain open to the startled look and quick recovery. I just keep calmly talking.
"I like to think of a burial shroud as a ceremonial wrapping for the body of someone we love who has died."
(oh good...I haven't lost them...in fact they're leaning in just the slightest bit...)
" I also encourage people to think differently about standard burials or cremations...to bring the idea of sustainability into the picture.". I get nods, and I can see the frozen gears begin to turn again. I warm up to my subject.
"Maybe even consider the idea of Home Funerals."
I truly love to speak with people about this. I'm a 'cut to the chase' kind of gal and you can 't really cut it any closer than Death.
Most folks I meet really appreciate the opportunity, (even if they never thought they wanted it), to have an open conversation about what we do with bodies after the people who lived in them are gone.
We talked for maybe 10 minutes...asking questions and sharing experiences. Then they told me about being with a pet who died and whose body was at home for 24 hours before they took it to be cremated. And it was there...right there in the space between the words..."why is it so easy to do this for our animals and so complicated and surrounded by taboo to do this with our humans?"
I've been feeling some of the recognizable jitters and stresses of starting this new business of mine. How will it support me? Am I working hard enough to make it go? Is it ok to take the weekend off? And then here's this wonderful experience that, in the writing of it, shows me how integrated into my life this mission of mine is. I wasn't shirking my entrepreneurial duties...I was right there, being my mission in the world. And this conversation, about the animal friend just happens to coincide with me making burial shrouds this past week for people's pets. How's that for encouragement from the Universe? So I am mulling over the idea that our experiences of death with our animal friends can inspire differences in the ways we handle deaths of our humans. More on that later.
Time for turning in now...Thanks to those two women for their open friendly thoughtfulness.
Until next time...
Thursday, February 14, 2008
or…”What does the well dressed cadaver wear?”
I’ve always understood the function of ceremonial garments. I’ve designed many costumes for rituals, events and performances so it isn’t a great leap for me to imagine using a beautiful burial shroud to honor someone who has died.
I think of it as ceremonial wrapping for the dead.
Enveloping someone in a burial shroud with care and intention is like wrapping a precious gift before giving it.
My friend Mara was telling me last night about her sense, when actually enshrouding the body of a dear friend, of the very literal farewell. Bit by bit, as the fabric was wound around and covered more and more of the body, she was able to receive, kinesthetically, the death of her friend.
Wrapping a body in garments that are special and sacred for burial makes for deep conscious engagement in the grieving process.
Even without a shroud, there’s no reason a person couldn’t be dressed for the funeral by their friends or family in clothing intentionally chosen. Hey, be proactive! A forward-thinking person could commission a shroud in custom colors with personalized design elements! (I’m making my own!) Or just be like my grandma who put aside a favorite dress on a hanger in the closet and said ‘that’s for burying me in’. And they did~!
Look, we have christening gowns for babies, outfits for first communion, bar mitzvah, proms. Fashions for dance or sports, costumes for Halloween or Mardi Gras, professional uniforms, wedding clothes for brides and grooms, caps and gowns for graduates! But no culture of traditional clothing for the dead! Nor any tradition of actually dressing them.
We just bring a ‘suit of clothes’ to the funeral home and drop them off, leaving the details to the staff.
Where does it come from, the thought that it’s morbid or distasteful or somehow just inappropriately intimate to do this for someone we have loved? Is it more appropriate for a stranger to bathe (which implies, lets face it, seeing them naked) and dress them? To comb the hair, apply makeup, fasten the buttons, straighten the tie?
Maybe your answer is “Yes!” to this.
And I appreciate the many caring people who do this with dignity and tenderness for people they don’t know.
I just have to keep asking the question.
Me, I want my circle to do this. People who remember how my hair looked, the way I liked to wear scarves, my favorite earrings. People who will sing or cry or crack a joke with the others there. People who will make me beautiful one last time…and then wrap and lace me into the shroud I’ve made, slowly and ceremonially, until my face and form are gone from sight. And weep and moan and giggle and wail and cheer and rail and sing and eat and toast me many times as I’m lowered into the ground.
And maybe someone will remember to say one last time…
Dahling, you look Maaahhhvelous!
(Thanks to Yohanna for the title of this post!)
Sunday, February 3, 2008
It’s a fact that our culture seems positively wackoid about making sure that we don’t admit that death is a part of life. We just don’t get to see people…ordinary people…old people and sometimes even younger people…actually die anymore.
In fact some of you reading this will probably think I’m weird for even saying it! But that’s because, if you will remember, you and I live in a time and climate of extreme what? denial. ( oh, right...) And if our exposure to a dying person is limited, even moreso is our exposure to the body of someone who is actually dead.
We have an ungodly, unholy, unsubstantiated and unflattering phobia of the post mortal body. That is, the body after death.
It’s worth noting that it wasn’t always this way in the U.S.. It might surprise you to know that during the Victorian era, portraits of the dead were commonly made. These portraits ranged from a simple ( but startling to us) image of the deceased in their casket, to elaborately staged studio portraits. (a young woman, for instance, her hair elaborately arranged, dressed in yards of organza and lace and delicately posed on a bed full of flowers). There were even some instances where a family took advantage of this final opportunity and would actually prop the dead person up in a chair, with their eyes open, and pose all around them for one last family portrait!
I tell you this because it’s important to know that how we think about it is simply a matter of convention. Another way to say it is that it has gone ‘out of fashion’ to talk or think this way,
(or ANY way!), about death.
Most people used to die at home. This was just how it happened. Our elders- or sometimes not so elder folks- got ill or injured, were taken care of at home, faded, and eventually died right in their own beds. With people around. Children, grandchildren, neighbors, family members, pets, pastors, spiritual friends, local healers or doctors. Even if they'd been in a hospital, they came home to die.
It wasn’t morbid or unsanitary or inappropriate or disgusting to have someone at home who was in the process of dying. It wasn’t even always regarded as unfortunate! Sometimes it was seen as an honor!
It was natural.
It was inevitable.
…and although it was sad, it wasn’t somehow “WRONG”.
It was just…the way it was.
When people died, others were reminded of the cycles of life. Communities could then take the opportunity to grieve publicly, and to acknowledge together their sadness and loss. This is one very important function of death in a community. It gives the opportunity to grieve together…to cry in public, to wail, to mourn. It doesn’t even matter if all of your wailing and mourning isn’t solely for the person who died! It’s just that the opportunity-- the heart opening that occurs when someone dies-- is the perfect moment to unpack and release all the little griefs we carry around from all the little endings and deaths we experience every day just because we are alive.
I’ve just finished reading a book which takes place during the first half of the last century in Appalachia. (It's called Refuge by Dot Jackson). There were many deaths in the book, over the course of the main character’s life. Some were stillborn or infants, some children, some were young adults, some old people. They died of disease, accidents, injuries, crimes of passion. I was moved, reading the story, that nearly all of them died and were taken care of at home.
I felt love and respect and admiration for the way those people rose to each occasion, doing what was necessary, crying and grieving while they washed and cleaned and dug graves and stood vigil and held the close kin in the solid embrace of community. Reading it was a gift and a message to me. “Keep telling” it said. “There is something beautiful and terrible and deeply right about being present to death. Keep telling.”
Thanks for such wonderful comments. I’m so glad we’re talking about this!~Marian
Monday, January 28, 2008
So…. where were we? Oh yes….DENIAL. We were In Denial. About Death.
Part of the problem, it seems to me, is that in our culture-especially in this relatively 'young' culture of this country called the United States, we've virtually eliminated our opportunities to see or touch or talk about a body of someone we love who has died. It's become "impolite". It's "morbid curiosity" , "unnatural", "taboo". It's a manufactured cultural No-No.
I think this is literally crazymaking.
As my younger friends might express it...WTF?? Everybody dies. No matter what you think, how healthy you are, how spiritually aware, how 'good', how rich, how well fed, how physically fit, the fact is that 99.9% of us are going to die. ( I leave that small margin of possibility for the immortalists among us)
Death is not a sudden malicious disease or an unprecedented evil predicament. It's what happens. You get born, you live, you die. And generally, you leave your dead body behind. ( another small margin for the ascensionists and magicians among us)
What's odd is that my parents’ generation were actually on a cusp, or turning point of a very large change in the way people cared for their dead. What I mean is, they had actual childhood experiences of home or family funerals. But as they grew up, the custom and social ritual around death was drastically changing. The funeral industry was making huge inroads toward redefining what was ‘good’ and ‘right’ and ‘appropriate’ and ‘safe’- in terms of handling the body of one of our loved ones after death. And don’t forget the power of advertising….the lure of doing something ’new and improved’.
And too, in some ways it seemed that my parents had the task of proving how much better off they were than their parents. This often meant that they could ‘afford’ to pay more money for “professionals” to handle things that were previously handled by their frugal (and sometimes wiser) parents.
My father recalls that his grandmother’s wake was a family affair, carried out at home. Her body was prepared ( washed and dressed) by the women of the family, a casket was procured from a local woodworker, food was organized and provided by family and neighbors and his grandmother was ‘laid out’ or ‘waked’ in the parlor. A touching detail he shared with me is that after everyone had gone home-leaving the kitchen and dishes all cleaned and put away-my father and his father got out blankets and pillows and made makeshift beds of chairs put together so that they could sleep in the parlor with his grandma in her casket.
There was no squeamishness, no fear. He said to me ‘That’s just how we did it”. And the next morning, folks came to carry the casket to the church for her funeral.
He’s always talked about ‘a plain pine box’ for himself, but we talked seriously about his own funeral arrangements last summer. He joked, at first, about wanting one of my burial shrouds but then made it clear to my brothers and I that we were to call the local funeral home and have them do “the same as they did for your mother”. The standard procedure. Embalming, limited viewing hours, a metal casket, a Catholic mass, and burial in the local veteran’s cemetery. I wanted to ask him ‘what happened to doing it all at home’? But it seemed like too loaded a question.
"What happened" is what I'll talk about in my next post.
Thanks for all your comments. and yes, as one of you said, this is a conversation *dying* to happen. I think we're all just 'dying' to talk about Death. Feel free to do that here.
Friday, January 25, 2008
Hello. Welcome to Grave Natters...a place where you and I can think and talk about the way we think and talk about Death. Those of you in England will know this but for those who don't, "natter" means chat, talk, converse, etc. - and grave....well that's obvious.
My mission ( since I have chosen to accept it) is to;
Change the Way Western Culture Faces Death.
First of all, Western Culture in general doesn’t face death. We skirt the issue. We hate endings. We refuse to let go to age to fade away, to stop, to admit defeat, to “surrender” to Death. To Die.
Death Greg Palmer calls it ”The Trip of a Lifetime” ( check out his book and his public tv show exploring various cultural practices regarding death).
Being a child of the 60s I personally resonate with this way of seeing death. “The TRIP of a lifetime.” Indeed. -Makes it something to prepare for...to anticipate. Something to look forward to!!
Here’s a story I have about death. It might be similar to one that you have.
Eleven years ago, while my mom was in the process of dying from cancer, my father was doing a lot of things to keep her going…’keep her strength up’ “keep a good attitude’ “don’t give up’. He liked her to have lots of visitors and put it out that she wanted people to come and keep her company. The truth was that all this activity and forward motion was confusing to her. It seemed to me that she actually wanted to just let it all go, bit by bit.
She wanted long periods of silence. She wanted small tastes rather than big meals to eat. She wanted someone to sit with her, hold her hand or even lie on the bed and spoon her…cradle her. Not do a lot of talking.
She was cold.
She was achy.
She was a little confused.
She was in pain.
And then, every once in a while she’d open her eyes and crack a joke! Or make a very shrewd observation about someone or some situation. (she was always known for that anyway..) Or initiate a “project” (well, at least talk about one).
But these bursts of energy were just that. Short bursts. She was dying and she knew it , I knew it, but it seemed like my father didn’t.
At one point my mom wanted me to talk to my father about limiting the number of her visitors. She hated the idea of having to somehow ‘entertain’ them, or to always be ‘ready’ for them. They came at their own schedule, not hers and it was hard on her, thinking that they might arrive at any time.
So one day I said to my father that my mother needed more silence. That she was in a deep period of reflection. I said I’d spent most of my adult life exploring deep states of consciousness and that it seemed to me that she was IN one. I said;
“Dad, Mom needs more quiet reflective time and less excitement and visitors. She’s in the middle of one of the most important, deep, spiritual experiences of her life.” I felt so wise and helpful. I thought I'd explained it so well! He'd get it and change accordingly. What happened was that he looked at me with disdain and disbelief and, shaking his head, he opened his mouth and said;
“No she isn’t!”
(He said it like, ‘What?! How did you ever come up with THAT idea? ‘)
Well, I was a bit taken aback, but it also let me know what I was dealing with.
In a word, it was DENIAL.
It did stop me short, there. I had to take a good look at it, past my anger and incredulity (inside of which there was some denial of my own...). I had to really see where he was coming from.
Denial. Yup. That was it. A classic case. Not his fault. Culturally supported denial of Death. And I already knew from personal experience that a person in denial will deny that they are in denial. So really, there wasn't much to say to him in that moment. I just had a lot to sit with.
I'll talk more on this in my next post. I'm glad you're here. Feel free to share your own thoughts. I might not answer every one but I'll read them all for sure.