Sunday, February 24, 2008

A Cut to the Chase at Bridal Veil Falls

It's late Sunday night, my night to post. I'm all over the place tonight. I can feel the energy of Spring. I can feel the change about to happen. Outside I can see the green life breaking up through the decay, the dead fronds and leaves and bug carcasses all there feeding the new shoots.
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 fact they're leaning in just the slightest bit...)
" I also encourage people to think differently about standard burials or 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

Remains to be Seen…”After the Fact” Fashions

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

Death Happens

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.”

I will.

Thanks for such wonderful comments. I’m so glad we’re talking about this!