Monday afternoon was sunny and crisply cold, the sky a rich winter blue. I attended the beautiful funeral of my friend Meg. Prayers in Hebrew, and of a more Buddhist nature were recited at the graveside service. Words from Shakespeare, Wendell Berry and a Michigan artist/naturalist Gwen Frostic were spoken. Several people stepped forth with stories from the heart, of how Meg had profoundly impacted their lives.
We were able to give her a home funeral. Which means that after death she was bathed, dressed and laid in state in her home. She wanted a green burial, to be returned to the earth in the most direct way possible. She was placed in a in a lovely willow casket. We used cedar boughs and flowers grown locally from Erika’s Fresh flowers to decorate. Arrangements with Greenwood Cemetery were made to have a liner free burial. We had assistance from Ocean View Funeral Home for transportation. Many people in attendance had never been to a natural burial before.
On the way back home we talked about it in the car. The consensus was that natural burial now feels preferable to being cremated. This was a shift in occurrence for our family, we had honestly all had the assumption that cremation would be how we are handled after death. Yes, I have talked to my children about how they would prefer their remains to be handled if anything were to happen to them. We have had many opportunities to discuss death over the years. Discussing it openly has not resulted in nightmares, or phobias.
This is not how I was raised. My father was the county medical examiner in Gladwin County Michigan for many years- which meant that he signed all the death certificates there. My mother is the third generation of her family to reside in that small community, and as such nearly always knows who is currently at the funeral home. She attends many, many funerals. Despite these things, we children were “protected” from death. It wasn’t talked about openly, we never attended funerals. This was done out of kindness.
Consequently – Pet funerals not withstanding- I was an adult before I ever attended a funeral or memorial. One of my first experiences occurred during college, when a housemate died in a car accident. I was flooded with grief and panic. I didn’t know how to handle it at all. Her family held her funeral in the state she grew up in. Those of us who lived with her had a spontaneous ritual at the house- involving banging on pots, keening and wailing. Waves of pain echoed out into the world. Afterwards we all felt much better.
When Sam was 3, I chose not to attend the funeral of someone I really loved because I wasn’t sure if it was appropriate to bring Sam. Afterwards I learned that there were several children present. I have since come to believe that it is very important for children to understand that death is a natural part of life, and that attending the funerals of family or friends can actually make death easier to understand, and less frightening. A funeral helps us to understand where someone has gone on a very visceral level. After missing that funeral in 2001 I decided on the more direct approach with my boys. I delivered a eulogy with my boys, ages 3 and 7 hanging onto my legs in 2006. It was not their first funeral, nor their last. Sam was a pall bearer at Meg’s funeral.
Though societal ideas about talking to children about death, or attending funerals have shifted over the years, we still have a long ways to go. When a close friend died suddenly in 2003, someone told her 5 year old daughter that her mother had ” Gone to sleep with the angels in the sky.” This lie was confusing, and she wanted to know if her mother would come back if she was good? We understand death differently at different ages, but even small children can understand that there is a difference between our body and our infinite being self- our soul. When we answer their questions about death clearly without using metaphor, we allow them to have their own experience. They usually pick up on our feelings anyway, so the hope that we can “protect” them from death is not often very successful. The Dougy Center of Portland has many resources for helping children and families process grief around a death.
Being with Meg during her last days was such a privilege. She taught me a lot about dying consciously. At one point she said “This isn’t at all like it is in the movies.” Which is perhaps the understatement of the year. I would say it most resembled a long slow birth. There is sacredness in the transitioning to a new life, whether at birth or at death.
At her funeral my boys gathered very close to me. I know that we all were thinking not just about Meg, but also about my mortality. Afterwards, they both expressed their gratitude for my current health. Though it may be inevitable to see the parallel lines that could be drawn between Meg’s life and mine, being with her and attending her funeral did not illicit feelings of dread for me, just the usual mix of sadness, and gratitude and grief that accompanies the death of a friend.
The idea of natural burial was something I learned about several years ago when I met a woman, Cynthia Beal, who is an educator for home funerals and natural burial practices. (Here is her company) I lived in the same Eugene neighborhood as Cynthia while I attended UO, so her face was familiar when I officially met her several years after moving away. I invited her to come to Astoria to present a salon discussion about Natural Burial in 2009. It was the most well attended of the 5 or 6 salons we put on that winter at the Scorcher. People were riveted by her presentation. Questions poured forth from the audience.
- “Is it legal?”
- “What’s up with embalming?”
- “Can I be buried on my own land?”
- “What happens if someone has had chemo or radiation?”
- “Do we need to start a cemetery?”
There were dozens more questions. It was amazing to see how just having someone model a relaxed attitude around talking about death helped people to open up. That talk really changed my perceptions around death and burial issues. (In 2011 Lilipoh Magazine devoted a whole issue to home funerals, which contains a lot of useful information. It is available electronically for $5.)
I remember my dad saying that once an idea is out in the world it has a life of its own. Perhaps taking care of each other at the end of life is gaining momentum. Certainly the Hospice movement has made huge strides in the direction of home death. The efforts of compassionate funeral directors and cemetery managers are also helping more people take care of their loved ones after death.
While I feel fiercely that I would like to continue living for several more decades if possible, I don’t feel an immense fear of dying. I am glad that life experiences have made it possible for me to speak directly to my children about death. I feel grateful that the pendulum is swinging back to a place that connects us to the kinwork of our ancestors, and I like the idea that my remains may one day nourish an apple tree that will lend sweetness to the lives of my descendants.