Monday, August 30, 2010

Disposition of Remains

Hi Friends! Today’s topic is “Disposition of Remains”. This is the legal way of referring to how a body is cared for after death. ( i.e., transportation, embalming, burial, cremation, etc.) If you’re familiar with my writing, you know that I have made other observations of our cultural climate of ‘rampant professionalism’. Most people think they have no choice about this set of procedures…or don’t want to be the one to make these determinations. So the choice and implementation of these options is most often given over to a Funeral Director. But… if a family chooses a home funeral, then in nearly all states,(there are 7 holdouts) a friend or family member can preside over the process. Most states in which this is true have laws that determine the ‘statutory preferences of family members for this role.’ That means there’s an order or “chain”, of relatives who are legally “in line” for the job. This may be fine with you—or it may not. Each family is different. If your choice isn’t in line with the state’s, you can circumvent this by planning ahead-- choosing the person you want to be in charge, NOW. Before you die. Be advised though, that in order for this to happen, a legal form that names the chosen person should be filled out and kept on file.

Are You “Good to Go”?

Today as I was updating things on my website, I noticed that the links to some of the information were no longer active—and that the forms I was intending to share have become inexplicably more difficult to find, at least in my state (Oregon). So I thought I would do everyone the service of linking them to this article. First, the one I refer to above, for those of you wanting to have your close friend or non-traditional partner act as your ‘funeral director’ - i.e. preside over a home funeral- in the event of your death. This form is buried deep in the bowels of the “….” website, sandwiched between lots of legalese detailing the hierarchy of relatives to whom your body disposition rights revert in the absence of a document like this. The document is not offered in pdf or word form on the site, and the text is formatted strangely. You'd really have to work to find this and then put it into a usable format. Why? Well, I don’t know… but don’t worry; I’ve done it for you.

Fill It Out Now!

It’s easy! I made it into a PDF you can download, print and fill in. Appointment of Person So no excuses—Go do it now. Grab two witnesses, get them to sign it, and put it in with your other papers regarding your death plans. “What other papers?” you ask. Well, papers like your Death Certificate Worksheet. What’s that, you ask? It’s a list of all of the information needed to fill out a death certificate. States are pretty darn picky about how these forms are filled out, so doing this yourself now can save lots of time and stress on your loved ones when you die. Most of this information is known by you. It’s collected and used for the census, (why we need to be intruding on a family’s time of mourning, in order to collect census information is another question…but that’s how it is right now). I’ve given you Oregon’s worksheet here; you can find a link for Washington’s on the “Resources” page of my website under 'Legalities'…residents of other states will need to do a bit of sleuthing on your state’s “.gov” website. Try looking in ‘funeral law’ –or try the Department of Human Services or Vital Records in your state.

Estate Law

While looking for this information, I found the Oregon State Bar Association’s newsletter with a very helpful section on “Disposition of Remains”(excerpt). You might want to print this out as well -or at least read it thoroughly. I like that it’s pretty clearly worded.

Exit Plan

I’m just going to make the case here (again!) for talking about death-in-general, and our own death-in- particular, ahead of time. Do some actual preparation before the fact. We do so much other kinds of ‘planning ahead’…but when it comes to death, we’re strangely superstitious.
Our minds say something like; “if I plan ahead, it’ll happen sooner”. As if we’re ‘inviting it’ or something! It’s an interesting phenomenon. I mean. I’m not immune, there are some things I find myself a bit superstitious about too; I’ll admit it right here. For instance, someone recently shared a little internet ‘game’ with me called the ‘death clock’. You plug in a simple set of information and it “calculates” your “Death Day”. I have to say, I didn’t do it! That fell into the ‘not tempting fate’ category for me. But that’s a bit of pop culture…with no real relevance to the actual ‘nuts and bolts’ of a death occurring. As far as the real stuff…like that form I gave you the link to? I’ve got mine on file. Signed and witnessed.

Doing these ‘nuts and bolts’ tasks opens the door to other levels of contemplation. I might write my own obituary again. I’ve done one before and it’s an interesting exercise! You might spend some time choosing music you’d like to have played, or poems you’d like to have read at your funeral. You could imagine it like planning a really nice party for all of your friends. You want them to laugh, to cry, to be moved, to share some nice food and drink, to tell some good stories… and to send you off into (wherever it is we go when we die) in a style consistent with your whole life.

What do you think? Will you make a notebook and start your own “Exit Plan”?
Let me know! Participate in the conversation by commenting on this posting using the link below.

Until next time…
~ Marian

This is the feature article from the E-Zine of a Fine Farewell . We post there twice a month, with additional information included in this blog, where you are free to leave comments. I invite you to subscribe. here
Newsletter and blog content copyright A Fine Farewell 2010
Images are used under creative commons licensing through Flickr shares - listed in order from top to bottom: PineGroveCemetery_byKevinDooley, the queue_by Marfis75, paperwork_by Anniebby, Exit?_by Konstriktion. Inclusion of images in no way implies endorsement by photographers of AFineFarewell.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Behind the Mask of Death

Today I want to let you know I'm going to run my increasingly popular class; "Behind the Mask of Death" again on September 18th from 1-5! If you have heard of this and wanted to attend, here's your chance. If you haven't heard of it and are curious, the details are below.

I want to tell you that my intention with all of my classes and workshops is to create more
safe and sacred opportunities in which to contemplate our thoughts and feelings about death. That is my passion, my calling and my joy.
I've been a ritual guide for over 25 years and an artist most of my life. This workshop combines the two to illustrate one of my favorite maxims: "Use Art to make Ritual...and Use Ritual to make Art"™. To this end,we use collage techniques, and I provide simple mask shapes so there's no 'artistic training' necessary. There's real possibility for healing, for transforming fears and regrets, and for experiencing deep peace around the death of someone you love. When we take the risk to look 'behind the mask', and we're sitting in sacred space together, witnessing and supporting each other, amazing things can happen. Deep truths are accessed when we simply give our minds and hearts the space to open up and be with the discomforts of facing death. Anger, mirth, curiosity, grief, yearning, despair, all these and more combine to create a whole that is infinitely greater than the sum of its parts.

Quoting from my flier:....
"In sacred space, we’ll invoke the power and mystery ‘behind the veil’, and make our own simple masks that reveal what our Wise Self believes about the transition we call Death. Then we’ll journey together, following the sound of the gongs, and return with a gift from the beyond. Sitting in circle, we become a council of beings who have grown more curious, and less fearful, about the transition we call Death. In closing, we’ll witness and share the gifts of insight we have received."

I hope you're intrigued. Find more information and register HERE.
I'd love to take the journey with you! Bye for now...~Marian

Monday, August 9, 2010

This Mortal Coil

"If you're really paying attention, you have to learn to live each moment with a broken heart." ~Catherine Ingram

Well I’m still rolling with this theme of ‘arising and passing’. It’s been good to keep my attention on this and I’m glad for the boost that writing about it has brought to my everyday awareness. So here is the continuing saga of ‘all things must pass…’

This week, I’ve been blessed with what has been an annual event for the past 4 or 5 years… the blooming cycle of a kind of African lily that I have in a pot outdoors. I have managed to transport to and enjoy this in my last 3 homes. You can see in the picture… it’s a lovely 6 petaled orange flower, it’s not more than 2 inches across, it produces a liquid nectar that bees and wasps like, and it has freckles (like me!). This plant has become a wisdom teacher for me...because these flowers that I find so pleasing bloom for just one day. That’s it. One day.

Be Here Now
When this time of year comes, and the first one opens, I know I’m ‘in school’ for a couple of weeks of this profound daily lesson. I always think, "They’d make such a beautiful bouquet! I want to collect them! I want to bring some to my friend! I want to see a bunch of them blooming all at once!" Instead what happens is that, one at a time, a bud will swell early in the day (depending on how sunny it is), and fling itself open (I’ve never caught that moment), hang from the stem with it’s nectar glistening in the remaining sunlight, and then start to close up after dark. During the night the motion continues. They fold up in the most pleasing and ‘deliberate’ way… The petals shrink and spiral around each other to form a swirling coil. You can see this in the second picture. The first time this happened, I thought "Wow, are they just going to sleep for the night?" But they didn’t open again the next morning - all that elaborate beauty and function, for such a short time.
What’s funny to me is that even though I know about this plant behavior, every year I still want each bloom to stay open longer! I can’t help it…even though I know the cycle by now, I still catch myself feeling ‘sad’ if I ‘miss’ one (I even stopped just now to go outside and look at ‘today’s blossom’!) The knowing of it sets up a whole train of thinking in this mind that wonders how to get ‘more’ of the flower, and feels sad and a bit anxious, even, about missing one of them. It’s subtle, but I can feel it. It’s that place of ‘clinging’ that I keep examining. I’m clinging to something, craving something. Such a human feeling, this wanting, craving, yearning.
But look…the thing I am craving is right here in front of me! Something I already “have”. The flower is right here - right now! This habit of my mind cracked me up the first time I realized it. I was in the middle of an incredibly joyful experience of singing with a group of women, and I could feel the subtle quiver of anxiety, those little cracks in the heart that come from knowing something won’t last. I saw myself enjoying something so much that I began craving it and though "Huh?"

Constant Craving
Watch yourself sometime with this in mind. See if you can catch the moment when that utterly pleasant sensation of enjoyment slips over into clinging / craving. Can you notice your mind making little strategies to prolong, or remember every detail, or preserve the experience? (I think this is why the camera was invented!) Can you notice, like me, that in the middle of enjoyment, instead of just being completely IN the moment, we’re already starting to think of it ending? The comical, paradoxical result of this mental scrambling is that we are actually missing something- a person or an experience…while it’s here!

That is the essence of the mind that clings, isn’t it? The discomfort with the knowledge that something we love or like or enjoy is going to end. How to live with the knowledge of endings without letting that knowledge make us whiny or clingy or bitter? How to live in each moment, holding the broken heart and the full heart simultaneously? We get hundreds of opportunities to practice this every day. If we keep practicing, getting really good at this kind of presence, facing death has got to be easier. And that’s a great reason to keep practicing.
Okay, back to my flower….(which, yes, I did take pictures of for this article!) But Hey, wait! This flower really does only last for one day! It’s extra glamour is its ‘limited engagement’! Hah! Kind of like people! We’ve all got a ‘limited engagement’ here. What do we do with it? I could say we’re like this flower…we fling ourselves open, blaze our colors for one glorious ‘day’ and then curl into a spiral coil and send our energy back into the earth.

A coil! That word used to signify the troubles and stresses of daily life…its trials and suffering. Shakespeare's Hamlet spoke of death as ‘shuffling off this mortal coil’. And that’s what everyone does - everyone we love, everyone we don’t love, and yes, even us. Some day we just give our little shrug and off comes the ‘mortal coil’. So here I am again asking… is it okay to just know that (everyone - you, me, all of us) we’re all going to die? Can we feel the heart break of that and, at the same time, take comfort in the reliable rhythm of it?

Don't Forget to Laugh

Last time I said ‘It’s okay to Cry’… now I’m going to offer that it’s okay to laugh, too. They’re both good for letting go. My friend Gene Burnett is a singer/songwriter who also teaches Tai Chi in Ashland, OR. He says in his funny, witty, irreverent song “We’re All Gonna Die”…”we’re all headed for the soil, when we shrug this mortal coil”. If your heart could use a little irreverent push into laughter,
listen to his song here.**
** Adult language warning: The media link to Gene Burnett's song "We're All Gonna Die!" is hosted on his YouTube channel. Gene Burnett is a multi-faceted artist and writer. Some of the content available on his related videos list contain adult language and themes; watch at your own risk.

Til next time…

As ever, I enjoy hearing from you. What are you craving these days, while you've already got it? Share your cravings and your thoughts by using the comment link below.

This is the feature article from the E-Zine of a Fine Farewell . We post there twice a month, with additional information included in this blog, where you are free to leave comments. I invite you to subscribe. here
Newsletter and blog content copyright A Fine Farewell 2010

Friday, August 6, 2010

Natural Funerals in the Oregonian

Hello Friends! A great article was posted online and ran in the print edition of the Oregonian on Friday July 29.. "A Natural Return to the Earth". Yours truly, 'Shroud Lady' was quoted in it more than once! Writer Laurie Robinson featured many prominent Oregonians who have been moving the conversation about sustainable funeral practices forward. More and more people are investigating these options and, in fact, Portland's River View cemetery just last month began to allow natural burials anywhere within the cemetery.
This is an interesting idea--alternative to creating a specifically "green" section in a cemetery. There are varying opinions and lots of pros and cons...but in general I'm pleased about this. While I applaud the efforts of those who are creating fully natural cemetery preserves--conservation burial grounds, sustainable landscape management, native species restoration, etc... I also think that making the green option available for people who have already purchased plots in an established cemetery is a very good compromise. And I believe that other people seeing those natural burials, (without vaults, without embalming, using shrouds or hand made pine or willow caskets) .... will be curious and interested to inquire about those options when making their own funeral plans.
I think it's good to 'lay out a path' for people who are curious but maybe not ready to go "100%" toward a natural option. I mean, I prefer to eat all organic foods, but the organic version of every ingredient or product I use just isn't always available. Does this mean I'm a 'fake'? or that my efforts are meaningless? No, of course not. It's the same here, really.
I think it's important to provide ways for people to take steps toward sustainability, and to support and celebrate each of those choices. It's important for people to feel good about their funeral choices, not made wrong or feel intimidated for not being 'perfectly green'. What do you think?
Check out the article
...and remember to click the "Information" box link to find many providers in the Portland area.
see you soon....
Marian (a.k.a. "Shroud Lady")

Monday, July 26, 2010

Crying is Good Practice

    It’s July 23.  I’m sitting here with tears in my eyes.  I just finished listening to a special radio program honoring Daniel Schorr.  He was the senior news analyst at NPR and he died this morning.
   I enjoyed listening to many of his commentaries on what was happening on the world stage.  I came to  appreciate his ‘long view’, and though it wasn’t really a ‘shocking surprise’ to hear of his death…he was 93, after all… still, I watched myself go through an interesting set of thoughts and feelings as I realized how much I would miss his calm, patient style helping me to make sense of troubling news events.

  Remembering Daniel Schorr

Image: DanielSchorr_from Flickr_ByMichaelFoleyPhotography   I appreciated him because he’d seen and lived through so much change and because he was a ‘walking history book’, so often having a historical reference from the past that correlated with something he was reporting on in the present.  He’d lived through difficult times in our country and retained his integrity, humor and good will.  There was always something reassuring about Mr. Schorr’s commentary, because it affirmed the cyclical nature of things, and the ability of a person to live through and learn from those cycles.   It said something about what arises and passes, and what endures.
   When I heard the news of his death, I was in my kitchen.  I let out an “ohhhh”  …just standing there hearing his distinctive voice in my mind.    I was stunned, and lost in reverie for a bit.  It was announced that there’d be a special broadcast in an hour, so I fixed my dinner in time to sit down and listen.
   There were many excerpts of a long interview with him that took place 3 years ago on his 90th birthday.    I learned he was nearly arrested for refusing to reveal his sources; that he saw Berlin before, during and after he Wall; he had collaborated with a rock musician he’d never heard of named Frank Zappa, who admired him enough to invite him to speak to his audience, (on stage, at the Warner Theater!) about the importance of voting!  And at 92, he was asked ‘what’s lost in using social media like Twitter?’ His reply: “What we lose is editing!  The discipline that should go with being able to communicate is gone.”  Still, right after that, he turned to Scott Simon and asked, on air, “Ok, how do I do it?”, and gave it a try!

Practicing Loss  

   Anyway….by the end of the tribute broadcast, I was crying. I mean I was crying like something broke loose.  And I thought “Why am I crying?”… He was 93!  He was going to die at some point, sooner than later.  I knew it. Everybody knew it. And besides, jeeze, I didn’t even know him!”  Well I just gave myself permission to go ahead and cry, because I know by now, that I was doing something useful.   
   What I was doing was ‘practicing loss’.   Last month I wrote about the necessity of loss…now I’m suggesting how we can engage the lessons in the loss…and to do that, first we have to feel the loss. What I’m most interested in here is the ‘first up’ human response when we’re faced with any kind of loss. What do we do?  Most often the first thing we do is *cling*.  It’s just what we do…it’s one of the oldest “distress recordings” in our minds, and we all have it.  It’s like a song that plays, and the title is… “Don’t Go!”

Go Ahead and Cry   

Image: (don't)Cry_from Flickr_ByPedroKlien
   Every day, we encounter dozens of opportunities to notice losses…. Something happens that we don’t want or didn’t anticipate, we lose a chance at something, we miss a phone call, we forget an important meeting, we didn’t get the job, or the interview, we don’t make the team, we get ‘bad’ news about our health, our grades, our bank account, our teeth!  Every day we’re wading through floodwaters of things coming apart, breaking down, not working out, fading away.   Do I sound ‘pessimistic’?  I’m not.  I’m just reminding myself (and you) of the nature of things as they are. 
   How often do we see young ones crying about losing something, and some well-meaning adult tries to   stop the crying by distracting them with toys, games, food, TV, etc.  This teaches us early on to distract ourselves from the pain of loss….and we lose the chance to practice being with one of the deeper lessons of human existence, namely, that everything comes and goes!  Nothing lasts forever (not even this article)! What if all these little ‘losses’ are practice sessions for the bigger ones?   Of course we ignore lots of these daily losses.  It’s practical, as adults, to do this.  But it’s good to be aware when the backlog is getting high.
   So where am I going with this?  Well, when I was sitting there tonight crying about how I won’t have Daniel Schorr’s particular take on things to reassure or amuse me anymore,  I was realizing that I was taking an opportunity to let myself feel loss.  I was practicing how to be with loss and death.  That my backlogged ‘bubble’ of past and anticipated losses was swelling and this one somehow just pressed hard enough to make it burst.  So, I had a cry and restored the balance for a while.
   This is what I want to say.  I think it’s a really good idea for us to go ahead and notice when we feel sadness about losing something, whether it’s a moment of fleeting beauty in the woods or the breaking of a favorite teacup, or the loss of a trusted news analyst.  Just feel the feelings, and don’t listen to the voice that says  “that’s nothing to cry about”.  Go ahead and cry.

The Joy of Feeling
Here’s a story that happened to me once after a long meditation retreat:
     I had just broken silence and I was sitting on a large rock near a pond, with another retreatant.  We’d taken a walk together, still tentative about speaking, and were taking in the beauty and the stillness of the trees, water, rocks.  She took a breath and said “I know that all of this,” (and she gestured to the nature all around) “all of it will someday pass away, will no longer exist. And     somehow, I just can’t bear it.”   

    I was startled and deeply moved by what she said.  It was a good teaching for me because, first, I realized that part of my enjoyment of the beauty was the subtle belief that it would be there forever and unchanged-- and there she was reminding me that it wasn’t any more permanent than anything else!  And so I was a bit miffed with her for ‘ruining’ my reverie.  Then I heard the second part of what she said… the “I can’t bear it” part…and I understood that she didn’t ‘like’ the  idea of impermanence any more than I did in that moment.  And then, because all of this was occurring in the singularly clear mind-space that can arise after long periods of silence, there was a quality of just noticing this whole train of thought.   And this gave rise to tears and a sense of deep compassion for the human desire for security, for being safe from harm and free from loss.

    We can’t be free from loss.  So practicing with all the small ones is a great way to prepare for meeting death.   My mother used to tell me so often, “You wear your heart on your sleeve.”  She wanted to protect me from pain and loss, I know.   But in my life I’ve come to believe in ‘wearing’ this trembling heart of mine, and to trust in the things that keep it open, and soft and receptive.   Yes, it hurts to do this     sometimes.  But I have a trust in my heart’s ability to heal.   For me, the joy and compassion and peace that arise from feeling so deeply are worth the price.

Image:DiffuseHeart_fromFlickr_byFxgeek   What about you? What makes your heart tremble?   I’d like to know…use the comment link below.

Until next time,

This is the feature article from the E-Zine of a Fine Farewell . We post there twice a month, with additional information included in this blog, where you are free to leave comments. I invite you to
Newsletter and blog content copyright A Fine Farewell 2010

Monday, July 12, 2010

It's Not O.K. to Call It 'Suicide'

I want to write about something today that is controversial and deeply touching.  It’s a subject that grows more important as many factors in our death-defying culture spin further away from rationality and toward fear-mongering and greed.  I’m talking about people in severely challenging and terminal health situations who want to preserve their right to refuse “heroic” (invasive) medical procedures which would essentially prolong their suffering.   I want to use the preferred and correct terminology for this, “ Aid in Dying”,  contrasted with the term that the media likes to use…the one that grabs everyone’s attention: “Assisted Suicide”.
I found these words contrasting the two from
Dr. James Lieberman in Psychiatric News, a publication of the American Psychiatric Association: He refers to Oregon’s Death With Dignity Act as DWDA.
  1. “The suicidal patient has no terminal illness but wants to die; the DWDA patient has a terminal illness and wants to live.
  2. Typical suicides bring shock and tragedy to families and friends; DWDA deaths are peaceful and supported by loved ones.
  3. Typical suicides are secretive and often impulsive and violent. Death in DWDA is planned; it changes only timing in a minor way, but adds control in a major and socially approved way.
  4. Suicide is an expression of despair and futility; DWDA is a form of affirmation and empowerment.”
  Barbara Coombs Lee sums it up in her blog:  “…suicide is the self-destructive impulse of a person who has every reason and ability to live. Aid in dying is the self-affirming decision of a person who cannot choose to live, and can only choose the manner of an imminent death.”

Against the Law?
In the 1970’s, the laws about suicide, which used to be illegal, changed.  This was both because of advances in psychiatry and psychology, and a reasonable desire to update wording  to reflect America’s independence from ‘the crown’. (two hundred years late!)  (Citizens were ‘owned’ by the King and the crime was destruction of property.)  
  As a young person in the 60’s, the idea of suicide being against the law always puzzled  me…you couldn’t put someone in jail who had already taken their own life so why was it a crime?  Who would be punished?
In religious terms, it was clearly against the faith I was brought up in, and made a little more sense to me from a logical standpoint.  Since I was brought up to believe that a person had a soul, which persisted after death and which was aimed toward heaven, I could see a chain of consequences there.   If committing suicide was a mortal sin, it would prevent someone from going to heaven.  ( I didn’t think it was fair, but that’s another article…)
  Socially, I was most aware of a deep sense of shamefulness around this subject.  It certainly wasn’t the ubiquitous topic of conversation back then as it is (sadly) now.  But it did happen, and when I overheard my mother or other adults talking about someone who taken their own life, it was in hushed and secret tones…and there was shamefulness connected with it.  It was confusing…but I knew I wasn’t supposed to  ask about it so I didn’t.

The Hemlock Society
The legal changes were a progressive step for the time…but there were people who saw more deeply into potential issues that the updated law still did not address.  Derek Humphry founded the Hemlock Society in 1980, 5 years after the death of his first wife from inoperable bone cancer. He helped her to end her life when the pain and indignity of her illness became too much for her to bear. 
  He wrote a book about this experience and formed the Society which was dedicated to informing, assisting and supporting people with the same kind of painful dilemma, supporting their Right to Die.  His work is directly responsible for the current law we have here in Oregon which allows for Physician’s Aid in Dying.   The Hemlock Society merged twice with other groups and all of them are now merged into the Oregon based “Compassion and Choices” headed by Barbara Coombs Lee.   (
Visit the Compassion and Choices website).  They are an excellent resource for information, support and legal advocacy around end-of-life choices. I am proud to give financially to their efforts (Donate to Compassion and Choices)
Seeking Ethical Progress

So much has happened, socially, legally and spiritually over the last 2 to 3 decades.  People are thinking deeply about this, and now there is more compassionate and intelligent dialogue about it.  Buddhists, Christians, Pagans, Muslims and more—no matter who we are, there is a good chance we will have some exposure to this kind of choice and it will move us into uncomfortable, yet growth producing conversations, arguments and decisions. 
  Medicine has ‘advanced’ to the degree that procedures can be implemented which will ‘save the body’ or ‘prevent death’ more than ever before.  But the problem is that these procedures too often do not  enhance life.  Oregon recognizes a person’s right to plan for a dignified death when the circumstances would unduly prolong suffering. The media feeds us sensational stories and persists in calling this dignified procedure 'suicide'.    This is why I want to share those contrasting words with you.
  I feel concern when I hear more and more stories of people, mainly elders, who, despite their best efforts to be clear and informed, have somehow ended up in exactly the positions they tried so hard to avoid:  a stroke, heart attack, or sometimes even a doctor’s appointment which requires communication among several specialists who don’t take the time to act as a team with the family. Any of these situations can result in a spouse or family member caring for someone who is no longer able to do the most basic self care, is in unremitting pain, has no hope of recovery, whose quality of life is extremely poor, whose medical care consists of one painful, egregiously invasive procedure after another.  Often there is horrifying financial expense.   This is so much a product of our denial of death, along with the culture of corporate greed that has grown up around medicine. 
  The times we live in and the choices and experiences available to us seem to have outstripped the capacity of many of our spiritual teachings to address them.
How About You?
  Where does this leave us?  It’s an interesting and fruitful edge for inquiry; and there are no easy answers.   But I want to throw in a word from a dear friend of mine that helps put a little perspective into the conversation.  She said to me one day, “You know, Marian,  Death isn’t the worst thing that can happen to a person!”  
Until next time…
What do you think about this?
I welcome your comments. 

This is the feature article from the E-Zine of a Fine Farewell . We post there twice a month, with additional information included in this blog, where you are free to leave comments. I invite you to
Newsletter and blog content copyright A Fine Farewell 2010

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

The Necessity of Loss

The Necessity of Loss
I’m reading a book by Sue Monk Kidd and Ann Kidd Taylor called “Traveling with Pomegranates: A Mother-Daughter Story.” The authors are yes, mother and daughter, and much of what was said resonated with my own experiences as a mother- and as a daughter. I was deeply moved by an insight that Sue, (the mother) was working her way toward for the whole first part of the story-- it was about Loss.

Her ‘doorway’ is in examining puzzling feelings of loss regarding her daughter –while they are traveling together. At one point she says:

“I tell myself the bereft feeling that washed over me means nothing- I’m just jet-lagged, that’s all. But...I know the feeling is actually everything. It is the undisclosed reason I’ve come to the other side of the world with my daughter. Because in a way that makes no sense, she is lost to me now. Because she is grown and a stranger. And I miss her almost violently.”

The story is a travelogue full of intense dreams, joy, grief, conversations and mysteriously mystical occurrences. Underneath it all there is this edge...this impending sadness, like a minor chord in the soundtrack of a film. And then there is this aphorism, like a glossy, irregularly shaped pearl: Loss is Necessary.

Necessary. This really struck me. Loss is necessary.

It’s odd… I don’t know why this struck me with such impact. On the surface it doesn’t seem all that different from a lot of what I say. I’m always talking about things coming and going- arising and passing. I’m always encouraging people to notice endings. To notice loss, to make room for grief, to make use of all of the little endings in life instead of dismissing them or pretending they aren’t happening.

I’ve spoken a lot about how we never get to practice losings and endings because we are surrounded by a surfeit of *new things to buy* and an injunction to pursue the fiction of permanent, eternal youth. If you don’t like your (fill in the blank…anything from toothbrush to ‘significant other’), just get a *new* one! I rant at times about this cultural proclivity, and I crave an alternate approach.

BUT…This idea of “loss” as “ necessary” has really got me engaged. I guess it’s like any deep investigation into a truth that is HUGE. It’s not as if one can say “okay, I got that one. Give me another of the ‘Great Truths of Life’ to work on.” For the RBTs (really big truths), one could spend a whole life refining an understanding of them. It’s just that I never said it that way… “Loss is necessary”.

I’ve thought of loss as inevitable, yes. As something to adjust to, be present with, learn from, accommodate, acclimate to… Yes, yes, all of the above! Still, with this insight, “Loss is necessary” I can find in all of those actions a subtle reactivity to the feelings of discomfort around loss.…an overall grimacing belief that loss is a kind of emotional hurdle and that the value is derived in the integration of the ‘bad’ feelings. I am seeing how this assumes a pejorative nature of loss.

Loss as an adversary. When my mother died, I remember that at first I felt it was just somehow wrong to be in the world without her. It was a weird ‘biological’ thing…the person who carried me inside her body was no longer here…so how could I be here? Then of course there were many other ways of coming to terms with the loss of her … revisiting the losses that we experienced over the course of our relationship…the loss of future experiences. And the loss of the chance to ever make peace together for some of the more difficult wounds we dealt one another.

Accepting all of these losses as necessary is giving me another angle of perception. It’s a kind of ‘wide angle’. It goes along with a direction I give myself whenever I’m struggling too much with a particular problem. I say “Okay, Get Bigger, Marian”…get big enough to see this from a distance away. Get a perspective on it.

From the personal angle, the death of someone we love can just feel wrong….and in the case of violent deaths, “untimely” deaths, deaths of children, etc, it’s understandable to think that. But with time, and having the awareness tucked away in our psyche that ‘loss is necessary’ there can arise the holy balm of acceptance. It’s just what is. Blame is gone, shame is gone, denial is gone. It’s just what is. Loss happens. Surrendering to what is can be very freeing.

If I think about my own losses and my struggles with those losses, I see that accepting the loss as necessary clears the way for me to settle fully into the self I am now, without whatever it is that I’ve lost. This doesn’t mean I don’t hurt. It just means I’m able to relax and allow myself to move forward again…forward into the period of growth and fullness that inevitably comes around.

If loss is necessary then …we don’t have to struggle against it. How about that? We can skip the extra mental suffering that comes from seeing it as somehow wrong, and begin to see if as a naturally occurring phenomenon. Something that just is.

Maybe what Sue Monk Kidd meant about loss is that it’s necessary in order to make our passage. It’s necessary so that we can realize the full measure of our humanness. Loss is the coin we’re given to ‘pay the ferryman’ for the trip across the chasm to the far shore.

Comments? I’d love to hear your thoughts and feelings about losses in your life.

Until next time…

This is the feature article from the E-Zine of a Fine Farewell . We post there twice a month, with additional information included in this blog, where you are free to leave comments. I invite you to
Newsletter and blog content copyright A Fine Farewell 2010

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

In Memoriam

In Memoriam
When I was researching for this article, I found conflicting listings for ‘The First Memorial Day’. Most agree it originated after the Civil War. Stories range from wives and daughters placing wreaths on the graves of their lost loved ones to freed slaves burying Union prisoners of war and then organizing to honor them. Doubtless there was simply a welling up of grief for the loss of lives and the devastation of homes and families after that War was finally over. Historically we know that a fraternal organization of veterans of the Union army who had served in the Civil War officially proclaimed that May 30, 1868 be designated as Memorial Day and flowers were placed on the graves of both Union and Confederate soldiers in Arlington National Cemetery. It took 22 more years before all states observed it.
So that was the beginning…
“Storewide Memorial Day Sale”
But let me ask you…what do you think of when you think “Memorial Day”? I’m guessing it’s picnics, sales, and a three day weekend, as much as it is remembering soldiers who have died. As a nation, we are oddly removed from the visceral sense of grief and loss of our soldiers. A columnist in the Washington Post, E.J. Dionne Jr. makes an interesting point about this. He says; “Our major wars -- particularly the Civil War, which gave rise to Memorial Day, and World War II -- were in some sense mass democratic experiences. They touched the entire country. The same cannot be said of our more recent conflicts.”

I’ve been turning this over in my mind and I see the truth of it. Not that we have no consciousness at all about the current fight-that-we-don’t-call-a- war, and the number of soldiers who have died. And yes, there are places all over the country where war dead are honored today, including and especially our nation’s capitol. But there is a deep fatigue and disillusionment regarding the current deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan, and as a nation we are uneasy these days, and divided in our social responses to men or women in uniform. There is much more of a sense of the waste of young lives and a mistrust of the motives and methods of the conflicts we are involved in now, and much less unity –less of that ‘democratic experience’ that Mr. Dionne writes about.
Non-Soldiers dying in a Non-War
The number of civilian deaths (I won’t call them ‘casualties’) is also difficult and wearing on soldiers. Reasons and ideology around these military conflicts are debated endlessly, but soldiers are still deployed. There is no clear sense of victory or of when it’s all going to end. There are troubling reports of a real lack of guidance or support in processing the daily eroding doses of grief and anger and loss and confusion that soldiers face.

Death and grieving. There are so many of us walking around with so much unhealed, unexpressed and often misplaced grief. It might even be said that one of the causes of war is misplaced unhealed grief.
The first step in healing grief is acknowledging the death. The visceral reality of death.
Memorial Day is a national opportunity to do this. I know it was established to honor and remember soldiers who have fought and died…but I also know that when one death is honored and acknowledged, it opens the door to remembrance of all of the other deaths that have occurred in one’s life. Memorial Day is, then, a national day in which we are ‘allowed’ to think about death and to mourn and grieve in whatever way feels right. But because of this weird disconnect that pervades so much of our culture around death and grief, what do we do? Party and shop! I’m not saying we should be ‘dismal’ today…but it would be good to have a balance here! Is there another way to honor this holiday of remembrance?
National Moment of Remembrance
How many of you knew that in 2000, then-president Bill Clinton issued this memorandum?
I hereby direct all executive departments and agencies, in consultation with the White House Program for the National Moment of Remembrance (Program), to promote a ``National Moment of Remembrance'' to occur at 3 p.m. (local time) on each Memorial Day.
I can’t say I’d ever heard of it but I can’t help thinking “What if we actually did this?” Like those tests of the “emergency broadcast system”…what if, on radio and tv, during parades, music festivals, in shopping malls,wherever, what if we actually had this?

National Moment of Remembrance? Can you imagine in the midst of shopping, if the entire mall’s public address systems were used to announce this moment of silence for remembrance? What might occur if, as a nation, this was established and became commonplace? Would it spark more of them?
“ Memorial Day” sparks “Memorial Moments”
Imagine people sharing more small moments of silence together. Moments in which you knew it would be okay to be thinking of someone you loved who had died, because everyone else was doing that too?
It would be like practicing something really difficult, (facing death) - all together. Everybody would be included because everybody has at least an ancestor who has died! Everyone!
Eventually it would have to change the way we think about death, wouldn’t it?
Remembrance, Shared Grief, Peace
What if after a whole lot of these moments we came to PEACE in our remembrance of someone we love who has died? And what if that peace spread outwards? It could happen…

I found these words on a bookmark the other day:

“Inner Peace~A personal solution for global transformation”
Global Transformation. Yeah. I like the sound of that!
If you missed the moment of silence on Monday don’t worry, you can do it anytime..right now, for instance. It’s never too late to cultivate a little Inner Peace.

Until next time

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

How One Dead Bird Could Change Everything

How One Dead Bird Could Change Everything
A while back my friend Kerissa told me this story, ending with a great question;

When I was a pre-school teacher I once had an irate parent call a conference with me because I had allowed the children to look at a dead bird and told them that eventually everything dies. She asked me how dare
I terrify her son. The funny thing is that her son was not terrified - but she obviously was. I am curious what your thoughts are on talking to children about death in our culture as it currently is?

Of course I have lots of thoughts to share about this!
First, I personally think that as a teacher, my friend did exactly the right thing, and I'd encourage her to do it again. Children can handle much more information than we give them credit for. In sharing 'adult' information with children, I have found the keys to be: honesty and simplicity. If we can communicate simple facts, i.e., "Here's a dead bird" and "Everything dies" without expressing our own emotional baggage, then a child has a great chance of taking in and integrating new information. This of course doesn't mean they will have NO reaction...or no questions. Children will have questions. It's their 'job'.

If one of their questions is: "You mean, even me? I'm going to die?" You can answer with a sincere and matter of fact "Yep, even you, what do you think about that?" If you can just allow time for a child to 'chew on' that bit of information in an interested and curious manner, trust me, they'll be the better for it. (and their answers just might crack you up!)
What if they cry? What if they get mad? What if they feel or show some fear?

Perfectly Okay! Actually that's great!
Those are all perfectly natural feelings and reactions anyone might have about death. And if someone...a child or an adult is asking these questions, the best thing you can do is to be open to the asking and present to their feelings. No need to try tone down, head of or distract... just simply be present with the person having feelings. You might think of it like witnessing. You could say something like 'yeah, it's sad' or 'you sound angry' or 'what seems scary about it?'

These kinds of explorations can open the door to surprisingly deep connecting with a child. And believe me, they'll be grateful as they grow up for this kind of foundation.

I'll let you in on a little secret here....Actually this entire process works marvelously well with adults too! Which leads me back to the mother of the boy in our story....I think my friend's intuition that her student wasn't terrified but his mother was, might be true. Since we live in a culture of, (remember?), *denial* of death, this mom may have a bit of her own unexamined fears about death. Lots of us are carrying stuff like this around... so what can we do?

Let's say you yourself are having some surprising, embarrassing, intense or difficult feelings around death. Someone you know has died. Or... Someone you know is dying. Or...You're getting older and realizing you're actually going to die one day. However it happens, let's say that somehow, you've gotten a 'jolt', and death is on your mind.

What if you could find a supportive friend who will simply try that witnessing idea?

What if they said, "You seem to be feeling sad...tell me about your sadness." Then they just let you talk, with no interruptions, no telling you why you don't have to feel sad or don't have to worry.

Or what if this same friend asked, "What seems the most scary to you about this?" And then just listened? With a warm friendliness. Just listening to you.

I'm a firm believer in people's own innate ability to sort out a confusing situation and arrive at a useful decision or course of action. We just need time, and a little company while we do it. I don't often directly offer 'what I think you should do' kinds of information. (at least I try not to!) Mostly I find that listening well, with the sense that I have complete faith in a person's intelligence and natural abilities, is often the only thing needed for someone to 'right themselves' and carry on.
If you think about this, it's a tremendous relief, really, on either side of the equation. As a friend wanting to help, we don't have to 'figure things out' for our friends in difficulty...we can just keep listening to them while they sort through it all find their own solution.

As someone who is feeling bad, we can just 'unpack our 'bag' and not be sorting through our difficult stuff in isolation. We may not always know the 'right' thing to say or do, but we can always feel good about sharing some good 'listening time'.

If we had lots more opportunity to sit and 'think out loud' about death, with a supportive listening friend, I think a paradigm shift would occur. True healing would be unavoidable! And that's what I'm after.

So.... the next time you're with a young one, and there's an opportunity...a dead bug, a dead bird, a dead have a conversation about how "everything dies", I hope you feel empowered to open the door.

Until next time,~Marian

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Can You Kill Death

Can You Kill Death?

If kill means conquer, would the conquest be a literal or a figurative achievement? And who would take up such a quest?

Have you noticed how popular Vampire stories have become in our 'entertainment media'? You could say it's about a fixation with blood and violence....but I think that underneath, it's about trying to 'kill death'. It's all about becoming 'forever young'.

Okay, here is where I fall back on my old assertion, that contemporary western culture is deep denial about Death. And since this is so, we just don't have much public dialog that simply includes death. We have plenty of images of killing, and plenty of dying. No shortage of gore-- and movie ratings astonish me in this regard. These get a "PG 13" but serious stories about death are 'for mature audiences'. Somehow it's more creepy and less acceptable to see an actual dead body in a casket, with mourning family in attendance.

Death used to feature prominently in fairy tales, plays and daily conversation. A body, with all of the life gone out of it, was something most people had seen several of by the time it was their 'turn to die'. Everybody knew that everybody 'got their turn'. Living on farms, or hunting game, children grew up with intimate knowledge of both birth and death. Most knew how to wring the neck of a bird, or hunt small animals. Many were taught how to field dress an animal that had been brought down in a hunt. Most had seen animals giving birth...and sometimes seen the newly born animals become the prey of other animals.

These are no longer common experiences...AND, we don't even have literature or media in schools that brings this awareness to children. I saw Chef Jamie Oliver talking to a class of grade school students recently. He's on his own laudable quest to bring healthy food lunches into schools. I was stunned (as was he) to find that many many children did not actually know that meat came from animals!! They could not identify the animal that a 'hamburger' came from. Or even chicken! "Meat" is something bought in a plastic wrapped package in the grocery store, or more commonly, ordered from the drive-through menu. Since we have "sanitized" our shopping experience and we don't see animal carcasses at a butcher shop anymore, this makes someone with a meat cleaver a character from a horror movie!

My friend, Kris Santoro, wrote to me once about the results of this denial in terms of his own experiences around death. Read on to learn about his desire to do things a bit differently.
There are so many flavors of denial when it comes to dealing with death. It isn't just a frustration with the 'unfairness' of it all or a sense of a wrong being done. In terms of the aged and the ailing, there is a certain amount of time allowed, I think, to prepare, embrace, and anticipate the passing. And those moments can be a comfort both to the dying and the those who remain.

But so far in my brief 30 year span of life, Death has never come as a welcome release, but as a thief taking people that were not prepared, did not wish it, and left their families bereft of the chance to 'make peace.' I think this is true of many in my generation (I am thirty.) We are not raised with death as one of life's many dance partners. So when it comes, for many of us, it can be jarring, numbing, or paralyzing. It is only a negative experience for so many of us.

I am not a humble person; I know 3 languages, own my house, love my wife, and lead a pretty awesome existence. I am used to seeing my will be done in the world by applying my attention, my resources, and my skills. I am also not above dragooning friends and acquaintances into assisting me with things I view as important. Death takes no account of my 'gifts,' desires, or abilities. My will, powerful enough in terms of life, can feel meaningless in terms of death.

As an independent young man used to seeing his own way through the trees, this is incredibly galling and painful.

Death and dying have become for me, an implacable enemy hiding in the trees, waiting to pounce on and ravage my dreams and my heart. I find nothing peaceful in it and my greatest desire is to have led a life of meaning and joy before it takes me.

On a lighter note, I plan to raise my children (they are on back order) differently than I was raised. Death needs to be understood as a natural part of life from an early age. It should be respected and incorporated into our rituals and our homes so that when it comes it is as accepted at the turning of season and as inevitable as tick following tock.

For me... well I am still working on not being hideously angry at death. One of my favorite stories is an old Russian tale where a soldier catches death in a sack and beats the tar out of him. My intellect suggests that a world without death would be a grim one; my soul wants a turn with the stick.

Thanks, Kris!
Feel free to share your thoughts. I'd love to hear from you... 'til next time... ~Marian

This is the feature article from the E-Zine of a Fine Farewell . We post there twice a month, with additional information included in this blog, where you are free to leave comments. I invite you to subscribe here.
Newsletter and blog content copyright A Fine Farewell 2010

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Cardboard Cremation Caskets

Cardboard Cremation Caskets
Whenever I mention these as one of the options for people in speaking about home funerals, I see people sort of frown or smirk…. "Cardboard?...CARD Board? I’m gonna put someone in CARDBOARD?" Well I suppose it can seem a bit odd, yes. And why is that? Once again, it’s a cultural belief system in operation. It’s because we have all these associations with 'cardboard boxes' and their basic unworthiness.

Okay. I get it. But bend your mind for a minute here. That’s what I’m always trying to get you to do, in my writing, isn’t it? (and lest you think you are the only victims, I am always trying to do this with my own mind as well.) I think it’s a good thing to ‘bend’ or ‘stretch’ one’s thinking a bit. It’s good to challenge concepts or opinions or pre-conceived ideas. We like our pre-conceived ideas, don’t we? We’ve often spent a good long while working on them, refining them, polishing them. We’re often quite proud of them. But let me say, it can really be liberating to let them go sometimes!
Like now, for instance…like this idea about the "lowliness" of a "cardboard box".

A "cardboard cremation container" is the standard name for this . It is, in fact, what is used by a funeral home or crematorium, for what is referred to as 'direct cremation'. It’s generally a simple, sturdy cardboard container with a lid. It has handles pre-cut into it for ease in carrying and I’ve been told it can fit someone 6 foot or slightly taller and support up to 275lbs .
All funeral homes carry a version of this. Many of them do not display or offer these for sale on the showroom floor, but a family may certainly request one. They’re by far the least expensive option, if that is a consideration. But the simple cardboard box has a few other noble and redeeming features.
First, whether used for cremation or burial, it takes the least amount of time to 'dissipate'. I mean it either composts in the earth more rapidly than other casket materials, or burns quickly- using less fuel for cremation (and, I’m told, reducing wear on the 'retort' -or cremation chamber)
Second, it’s light in weight which makes it somewhat easier to carry.

Another of its virtues is that it can be decorated easily…and here is where it’s humble profile really shines! It has a kind of friendly, unassuming demeanor which puts would-be artists right at ease! It seems that it’s just not so intimidating to think of decorating cardboard as it might be to think of doing the same to a fancy wooden casket! People, once they get going, seem to dive right in!
I’ve seen elaborate paintings, collages, written messages…flowers, trees, animals, birds, abstract designs, handprints and even pawprints! Family or friends can each take a small or large area and do whatever they like. Some like to coordinate an overall design, and some create a mélange—colorful mixtures of heartfelt messages. Children get right into the act. It seems to really engage people in a way that is often satisfying and healing.
I’m kind of fascinated by this. I think of it as an emerging folk art trend. I’m glad it’s an option and I’m happy to tell you about it.
Now I’m not knocking caskets…in fact 'some of my best friends are casket makers…'. (I had to say that…) I am not suggesting that everyone go for the cardboard option. I just want folks to know it’s there. Remember, I am a proponent of choice…and in case you hadn’t noticed, I’m always interested in 'jiggling' some of our 'solid' opinions and ideas…just to make a little room for something new and unexpected to come in.
And I just wanted to bring this simple humble player out into the spotlight for a bit of recognition.

This is the feature article from the E-Zine of a Fine Farewell . We post there twice a month, with additional information included in this blog, where you are free to leave comments. I invite you to subscribe here.
Newsletter and blog content copyright A Fine Farewell 2010