Compost me!

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Of all the ideas for after-death care that I’ve run across, I’m most excited by The Urban Death Project, so much so that I even donated to their Kickstarter campaign (and have a lovely set of postcards to show for it!)  I really REALLY want this option for all of us!

I’ve long known that traditional burial isn’t my destiny, in large part because of exorbitant costs.   The choice was simple, then–cremation, right?

And for  a great many years, that was my answer.  I know where I want to be spread, what I want left behind, the whole affair.   Burn me, sprinkle me, done.

But then Eloise Woods had to get in the way.  Learning more, seeing how natural burial works, understanding the harmony and peacefulness and return-to-nature that a natural burial can bring–well, I want that.   Ashes, despite the old “sprinkle me in nature/under a tree” ideals, don’t have anything good for the earth (save some pH adjustment).   But burying your ooky, fatty, decomposing yumminess, for the soil to regain?  That’s where it’s at!    And gradually, my plans shifted, to where I’m almost buying my plot at Eloise Woods right now.

But the gold standard for cool body disposal, for returning you in usable form to the earth, has to be with The Urban Death Project.   In what is the equivalent of a behemoth compost bin, conditions are created just perfectly to render bodies into beautiful, nutrient rich compost,  to be used directly for the benefit of the earth wherever you wish, in as many locations as you wish.   No excess pollution or fossil fuel usage, no chemicals or expensive caskets, not even any  digging involved–just a ramp to the top, and six weeks of processing time, then pull me out of the the bottom, ready for service.

Curious?  I am too!  And hopeful.  The more I learn, the more I hear Katrina Spade speak, the more I believe in her vision.   If Katrina can get the Urban Death Project off the ground, it’s my hope that I’ll live near enough to one of them to be able to use her services when I need them.

Her most recent interview and article, from PRI, speaks to the process, her research, and how the system will work.

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Click to hear Katrina’s plan for composting bodies

Curious?   Want to know more about not letting all your nutrients burn up or get washed down the drain?  Like the harmony of natural deathcare? Interested in avoiding an unnecessarily chemicaled ending?

Let’s talk about your options.  The Urban Death Project isn’t one of them just yet, but you do have choices!

ER Doc: The Day I Meet You in the Emergency Department Will Probably Be One of the Worst of Your Life

You know I usually use this space to share information and cool finds related to deathcare (burial/cremation/natural burial/etc) with you, and that compelling you to write down and share your final wishes is a particular passion of mine.

But it’s really only one piece of the puzzle, a book in the series.  Being responsible about and ready for your end of life issues starts with advanced directives and medical power of attorney, and runs all the way though having created and shared good legal documents for your estate.   And these steps include conversations and discussions the entire way, making sure your loved ones, the ones who will mostly likely be making these decisions for you and enacting your wishes, are well aware of them.

I would be remiss if I didn’t occasionally preach from that sermon book as well!

So in that vein, I wanted to share this compelling essay from an Australian ER doctor:

The day I meet you in the emergency department will probably be one of the worst of your life

The final-moments conversations she details in her article could well apply to you, or the vast majority of folks around you, who haven’t found time or space to talk about the end-of-life healthcare decisions with their loved ones.  Who are too scared of death to realistically discuss their desires around CPR/breathing tubes/dialysis/heroic measures, which in the moment compels the fear of loss to throw a Hail Mary when better,calmer judgments faced with the same health crisis might make a different choice.

The truth of her profession, Dr. Witt (Ash, as she introduces herself) says:

You see, as doctors, we have the ability to keep a person alive indefinitely. If our lungs fail, we can put a tube down your throat and have a machine breathe for you. If your kidneys fail, we can attach you to a machine that filters the toxins from your blood. We can even mimic the function of the heart. We can fill your veins with tubes and lines and attach you to life support…

If a person’s heart stops, we can perform CPR. CPR requires me to put my weight onto your mum’s sternum and push. To do this effectively, I will inevitably break some of her ribs. This sounds horrible, but if we don’t do that, the heart doesn’t pump blood to the body and without blood, we die.

A young heart might be likely to restart, whereas statistically, mum’s 89-year-old heart won’t and we would perform traumatic CPR until we made the call to stop.

But despite that, she sees it all too often in her emergency department:

When I am the medical registrar at a code blue that involves doing CPR on an elderly person, I usually go home after work and cry. We’re causing so much trauma to a frail person’s chest, when realistically every doctor in the room knows the outcome will be death – regardless of whether we do CPR for 10 minutes, 1 hour or 3 hours. The patient’s ribs are cracked and their final moments are traumatic. They are surrounded by doctors, not their children. That’s not a “good” or dignified death.

Does that sound at all like the final moments you want for your mother?  Your father?   Anyone you care deeply about, or even like a little bit?

Why do we do it then? Because if you insist you want “everything” done, that’s what doing everything means. If you don’t write an advanced care plan telling us what matters to you, we do the default option….Some people want everything done and want tubes and life support and an admission to ICU. In my experience, when people understand what “everything” means, they don’t want that at all.

Much like decisionmaking around funeral choices,  research, discussion, and advanced planning can make a world of difference in the quality and direction of the choices we make for our loved ones at the end of life.    If you’ve never talked to your mom, your uncle, your husband about their beliefs around heroic measures and aggressive but long-shot treatments, about their wishes for the kind of death they want–you may not feel comfortable speaking the words that lead to stopping their only hope (even so small) at living through the moment.   And that may ultimately get you to the same place, only with your dad’s last hours being full of tubes and treatments and trauma.

The last word is Dr. Ash’s:

The day I meet you in ED will probably be one of the worst days of your life, if you’ve had this discussion, the knowledge that you’re respecting mum’s wishes will make your pain easier to bear, I promise. Please have this talk this week, regardless of whether your parents are 60 or 100. Your future self will thank you for it.

Amen.

Bringing Death Positive to the Next Generation

There’s a good reason why only one in four Americans has currently documented their end of life healthcare wishes.  Why roughly half of American adults don’t have even a basic will or estate plan in place.

We just don’t like to talk about death.  Don’t care to think about it.  Sure don’t want to admit it’s coming in our futures, even though dying is the only 100% universally guaranteed event in any life.  

Do we think we can control or postpone it by not facing it and planning for it?

How crazy it is that we, as a society, manage to be repeatedly surprised and rendered speechlessly uncomfortable by something that happens to everyone?

Regardless of how we got to this place, there’s one good and simple solution: Death Positivity.

The Death Positive movement is gaining steam across the globe– official government and non-profit groups, self-organized societies and individuals making it their goal of bringing death into the light, opening up dying and deathcare for discussion and exploration and familiarization.

As a funeral planning advocate, you’d better believe I’m 100% behind what these groups are doing.  Our fear of death hampers and holds us back from making good decisions based on solid research.  Anything that brings death out of hiding in the back rooms and heavy parlors of funeral homes and into public awareness, to be discussed and planned for, I wholeheartedly support.

But I also think there’s a better way–our kids.

Death, like first periods and masturbation, is uncomfortable to talk about, because we as a society have never done it, and don’t have the good words stored up to do so.  It’s time to break that silence, to bring death and everything around it out into the world.  (You’re on your own with the other two, and good luck with that!)

As a leaping off place, Buzzfeed has compiled some real-world tips for talking to kids about death, sourced from The Sharing Place, a grief therapy outlet for kids.  Some of the ideas the experts pass along include:

When someone dies, they’re not “asleep.” This could make a kid scared of her own bedtime.

It’s worth making some distinctions between different types of death and illness (especially around choosing or not choosing death, and contagious versus non-contagious deathly illnesses)

Start talking to your kids about death as soon as possible. It’s easier to explain a dead bug than a dead family member.

It’s OK to say “I don’t know.”  (The experts) recommend saying something like: “I’ve never died before, so I’m not really sure. Sometimes bodies just stop working and we don’t know why.”

Death, like diapers, happens.  It will happen–to you, to me, to everyone we love.

Make the commitment now to break death out of the we don’t talk about it  box, and open the conversations with your family and loved ones, even if it’s scary for you.  It may not be easy or comfortable at first, but the reward, especially as you open kids up to the idea and reality of death, and let them know it’s okay to talk about, will return to you in peace and calm when it’s time for you all to discuss deaths that matter within your family.

Saturday Afternoon, when I was a Corpse…..

So, a late October Saturday afternoon, a lovely rainy day, I was a dead body for about 30 minutes.

And it wasn’t all bad!

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I’m lucky enough to live in a very progressive area of Texas, home to Sandy Booth and Donna Belk, two amazing, positive women who are passionate about making home funerals accessible and a reality for as many folks as possible.   To that end, they lead home funeral workshops, run a monthly meetup group, and are available as guides and consultants for local home funerals as well.  The workshop I attended was held in the community room of a local library, and drew folks from all over Texas, even people who drove hours and stayed the night in Austin just to attend!  (So thankful I’m close enough to just drive up…)

My Final Hour

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Sandy and Donna started the workshop off by letting us introduce ourselves.  I was startled by the efforts some attendees had made to attend this workshop!  Here I thought I had it rough, having to make the 35 mile drive out to Lakeway, but I was nearly the only ‘local’ in the class–some had driven the three hours in from Houston, or Dallas, or even further, Huntsville!   It’s shocking to me, and maybe sad, that in such a large and independence-loving state like Texas, there are so few resources available to help folks with this last act of caring and self-reliance.

After introductions, we spent the first hour of the workshop learning about the process of doing a home funeral, viewing slides of previous clients’ arrangements, and talking about the legal issues and regional peculiarities of the process of caring for your own dead at home (who knew that registering a death and getting a death certificate issued could be such a burden?!)    I was fascinated by Donna’s assertion that their primary role during a home funeral is breaking the barrier–that we, as Americans detached from death, have a built-in aversion to, a fear of touching a dead body.  Donna explained that she makes a deliberate point of touching the body first, using the caring motions and actions that the family will be performing, and in that way smooth the path for the others to touch as well.

I was also heartened to hear that having a home vigil (even if you let a funeral home do the body preparation) is legal in all 50 US states–who knew?

After a brief break and some specific logistical questions answered, we moved into the hands-on portion of the workshop, where Sandy and Donna led us through actually caring for a body.   And here’s where I got to play dead!

I’m sure I wasn’t their first choice, as I would come to realize, seeing as part of the process was learning how to safely transport a body (and I’m tall and sturdy, to put it mildly).  But, since I was the only volunteer, up on the table to die for me!

Sandy started by explaining how to clean and dress the body, including how to manage a dead-weight object safely to access the bottom side for cleaning.   I was dutifully patted and ‘washed’, dressed in a lovely pink and purple muu-muu gown, and draped with beautiful textiles–the entire time having my care explained in detail, my caregivers being warned that I might drool, or may need my bottom sheets changed.  (A girl could get used to the attention!)

Next up, logistics.   Sandy explained in detail how to plan for hand-transport of a body, what to look out for in terms of navigation of doorways and such, and why just picking it up singly like you would a sleeping child wouldn’t work.

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I’m fairly certain none of the folks who attended–all my age or older, no one a body builder as far as I could tell–had planned to carry over 160lbs of body as part of their day, but before we all knew it, I was being gently and carefully motored around the library, every one of my 9 bearers taking extra care to keep my head up, not to let my body bang against things, and to ensure I felt safe.   After our jaunt, they returned me to the preparation table, and we talked about various vessels that they could use to bury me, if that was their choice.

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And just like that, my stint as a corpse was over!

After our hands-on caring exercise, we debriefed the experience.  As part of it, Sandy asked me how it felt to be the corpse.  I had to tell them, and I have to tell you, it was very intimate, very caring.   Each participant was clearly there with purpose, intent on practicing and learning the skills they would put to use with their loved ones–and I definitely felt that passion, that loving intentionality.   Even though we were all strangers before that day, there was a gentleness and a deliberate caring that was palpable, and was very comforting.

Our workshop debrief, and the workshop itself, ended with folks sharing about their experiences with death of loved ones, and their personal motivations for wanting to explore caring for their own dead.

It was interesting to listen to the diversity of the reasons for attendance at the workshop, as varied as the participants themselves–but what we all shared, underneath our concerns about cost and timing and such, was love.  Each of us spoke of the loved ones we were seeing on the table, wrapped in pretty silk, lovingly bathed with a cloth, carried gently to the resting spot.  I came to understand that that love and caring that I felt from strangers as they prepped and ferried me had nothing to do with our short, temporary bond, and everything to do with who I was for them–not just a corpse to clean, but Mom.  Or Grandma.  Or Abuelo.  Or a beloved friend.

And that, on my drive home, was what stayed with me.  Home funerals have a cost advantage, and can certainly be spiritual and healing as well.  They’re the easiest route to a green burial, certainly.

But at their core, they’re the last, greatest caring you can do for someone you love, breaking the modern societal barriers and taboos to embrace and attend to your loved one’s final needs, making sure the job is done with love, rather than just respect and efficiency.