Leading The Way Back

In Memory of Purification Dorado Pisano, February 2, 1942 – February 7, 2018
by Rochelle Martin

February 12, 2018

For the last number of years, as a volunteer, I’ve taught community and professional groups about do-it-ourselves after-death care and its ecological (doesn’t pollute or poison!), financial (costs almost nothing!), and psycho-social-spiritual benefits (this can actually be meaningful, folks!).

Generally, in my experience, people are curious about the idea of caring for our own dead. They didn’t think it was possible, legal, or safe, and when they find out that it is, they are intrigued, if still hesitant. There are religious and ethnic communities in my city of Hamilton, Ontario who still care for their own, but most of us have been hoodwinked by the funeral industry, for a couple of generations now. We think we require their services – that public health or legislation demands funeral director involvement after a death. We’ve actually forgotten that our dead loved ones our “ours.”

This past week, my friends Steve and Emma led the way, back to more responsible and compassionate care of our dead. They did something that was simultaneously very brave, and also no big deal, as they cared for Emma’s mom after her death, at home. They asked me to tell their story, wanting others to hear about what’s possible – and I’m glad they did, because it would have been hard not to share!

To begin, we must note that Steve and Emma had already been leading the way, prior to Emma’s mom’s death, in helping us imagine how we might care better for our elders. Emma‘s mom had been living with them since she came from the Philippines to join her daughter in Canada, 22yrs ago. Already coping with significant mental and physical illness at that time, Emma and Steve managed Emma’s mom’s increasing care needs at the same time that they were raising their own children. I first met Steve and Emma when our sons started kindergarten together. For 11yrs now, I’ve observed their forbearance in caring for an ailing parent and young kids, with a remarkable combination of practical “you gotta do what you gotta do” attitude, and an obvious gratitude for the chance to have children and Emma’s mom in their lives. They didn’t make it look easy, but they made it look important. I think many who have known them have been inspired to think differently about what’s important, and what’s possible.

As Emma’s mom’s health continued to decline in the last couple of years, I’d talked with them about at-home deathcare options. But it was only a few months ago, when doctors indicated that her death from cancer was imminent, that Emma started to make specific plans. “If she could just hang in for another month, until her birthday,” Emma said, “that will give me enough time to get funeral plans organized and host a big birthday party for her, so people can say goodbye.”

And indeed, her mother cooperated, looking forward to her birthday cake, the 30lb. roast pig, and the house full of guests that they had, to celebrate her 76th birthday. I was fortunate to be there to see both Emma and her mother glowing – so pleased that they’d made it to this day. There was a beautiful birthday altar set up, with Jesus (statue) presiding over so many flowers and desserts and birthday cards, next to Emma’s mom’s bed in the living room. She got up briefly, with her oxygen tank, to blow out the candles on her cake, but on second thought, they skipped the candles, deciding to forgo the possibility of a big oxygen-fueled explosion! They helped her cut the cake, instead.

Emma’s mom died four days later, in the same room, with Emma and Emma’s daughter by her side. She’d just asked for ice cream, and enjoyed a spoonful. Emma said that the moment of her death was so undramatic, they weren’t sure for a while that she’d really died. Her birthday altar turned naturally into a memorial altar, still full of flowers. Emma wondered aloud about the birthday balloons still tied to her bed. “We should just leave them up!” she decided.

They cared for her body after death in the same way that they had cared for her every day, in the last weeks of her life. They changed her adult brief, cleaned up some vomit, changed her dress and bedding, put some techni-ice packs under her, and tucked her into her bed in their living room. Emma’s brother and sister were there to help with this, and it was done with love and familiarity – uncomplicated, unceremonious, uncontrived.   Soon Emma and Steve’s kids would come home from school and greet their grandma’s body, as they had when she was alive, “Hi, Lola.”

And you must know, Emma’s mom was *radiant* – no makeup, no fuss. (Though to be fair, she was a beautiful woman in life!) Until you’ve seen someone who has died, and hasn’t been assaulted by embalming and jaw-wiring and waxy make-up in a funeral home, do not doubt how beautiful people can be, after death.

Steve and Emma’s family is Roman Catholic, and they asked our priest to come to their home a few weeks before she died, to offer Emma’s mom the Sacrament of the Sick. He returned the day after she’d died to say prayers with the family, as Emma had planned. They described these religious rituals as warm, intimate, and meaningful.

Three days after her death, a direct cremation company came to pick up Emma’s mom’s body. The attendant who came to pick her up was moved to learn that they’d cared for her at home for a few days after death, saying she’d never encountered that before. Steve and Emma told her they couldn’t imagine doing it any other way – that the last few days had been so important in the process of saying goodbye.

Having been interested in home funeral care for 25yrs now, I’ve read a lot of home funeral stories, and seen some beautiful photos and videos of at-home deathcare.   There is plenty of talk within the home funeral movement about what to include in an after-death care kit, techni-ice vs. dry ice, and ceremonial washing of the body, etc. Although there are lots of little “deathcare hacks” that might feel empowering to know (how to prop up the jaw so the mouth doesn’t hang open!), and unlimited options for ritualizing the care of our loved ones after death (poems and candles and essential oils!), Steve and Emma’s care of her mother was simple, and intuitive. They didn’t really need any of that.

I’m not sure it would be fair to call it “easy” – certainly Steve and Emma’s care for her mom over the years and through her death was no small achievement – but they did this with “ease” in a way that inspires me deeply, and I hope inspires others. When it comes to care of our dying and dead, we are capable of, and have access to, so much more than our prevailing culture might prescribe. It doesn’t need to be complicated. People have been having babies and caring for their dying and dead without much hoopla, from time immemorial, in varied and deeply meaningful, human(e) ways. Thanks, Steve and Emma, for leading the way back to this, in our community.

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Calling Out Being “Called”

by Rochelle Martin

I hear a lot of references these days to “being called” to work with the dying and dead – we use it in our conversations with each other online, in death doula training course outlines, in media interviews.  I think there are two ways in which the term “called” is often used re. deathcare work and I think both need reconsideration.

It is my guess that this term and concept first became popular in 20th Century protestant Christian languaging: “I feel called [by God] to…”   Over the years, it’s been overused and abused to justify anything and everything one might want to do in these circles (televangelists have been the most egregious abusers of this concept, perhaps, but pastors and parishioners use this language daily to achieve their ends).

“Being called” has been used so extensively that it’s slipped into our prevailing post-Christian Canadian culture’s lexicon, unchecked.  Now many people use it in a secular way.  They don’t mean to imply that some deity is calling them to care for the dying and dead;  what they mean is to convey an inner yearning (“call”) to do so.

I find both of these uses of “call” problematic.  The abused and overused religious usage often implies that one’s god is everyone’s god, or that a “calling” is unquestionable, having come from God.  These assumptions are easily discounted and dismissed, however, in our current secular environment.

It is the second, secular usage of “call” that offends me most – insidious in its unexamined self-righteousness and sentimentality.  Our “called-to-this-work” language essentially claims that caring for the dying or dead is a special calling in a way that raising sheep or cleaning offices or plowing snow, is not.

Perhaps caring for the dying and dead *is* more of a “calling” than those other types of work – but if so, I would argue that it is a *universal* calling.  If we are going to use the word “call,” we must acknowledge that we are all called, by nature of being human, to care for our dying and dead.  None of us can claim to have a “special calling” to this, any more than we should be claiming to have a special calling, for example, to breastfeed our babies.

Finally, if there *is* such a thing as a “special calling” to lead our communities in our care of our dying and dead, it should be a “call” that originates from the community – not something one feels/claims personally.  Stephen Jenkinson articulates this imperative to move away from individualistic/internal/personal understandings of death and dying, toward a communal/shared approach, in his latest treatise “Die Wise.”

It is not an easy lesson he brings, and it certainly isn’t “feel-good,” but it is a prophetic voice in the wilderness of our sentimentalized, if well-intentioned, death and dying culture.  Let us dive deeper – out of ourselves and into community.

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Why Is It So Hard to Discuss Death With Family

Rick Lucas

It could be the toughest conversation you will ever have and the easiest to put off. People tend to not want to face the necessity of discussing or planning their own funeral service. Planning ahead your funeral service is as much a responsibility as planning for your retirement or kids education. Discussing it with a professional that deals with the hard facts on a daily basis can make the chore a little more palatable but does not mean you can avoid informing your family of your decisions.

The conversation is such an easy task to put off because unlike retirement planning there is no real date or time frame to take into consideration. It almost seems to be human nature to procrastinate when there is no real dead line. If there is no realistic window of time to reference then it seems so easy to wait for that window to creep towards closing before acting. The problem is that sometimes that window is slammed shut due to events beyond our control and decisions are left undone. Those decisions are left to family that is burdened with tragedy and loss multiplying the emotional distress.

The unknown is scary. Death is scary. The unknowable could be the most important factor in causing people to leave for another day thoughts of their own demise. Talking about it makes it real. How will it happen? How will it all end? Will I lay in bed lingering or will I disappear like lightning? All unsettling thoughts even for the most pragmatic. Setting those thoughts aside and making family aware of your final wishes will help to put things into perspective. Knowing that your final wishes have been attended to and the tough decisions have been made helps attain peace of mind that is immeasurable.

It really is unfortunate but disputes among family members can be a real problem. The disputes can be a myriad of issues ranging from money to who gets the good china. It is understandable. It is so much easier to let whoever fight about whatever later especially if there are health issues. That would be the time to consult with a lawyer and write up a will that is clear about your final wishes. It would be irresponsible to not address those issues or to let it turn into an even bigger dispute. That is why it is even more important to address while you are healthy and have the energy to have the hard discussions and make the tough decisions.

It can be difficult to look into a future that you may not be a part of. There is a sense of relief once the hard part is finished and the plans are made. Prearranging your funeral will guarantee that your family will be allowed to grieve and heal instead of worry and plan.

This article was written in consultation with Rick Lucas of Louisville SEO Strategies.

rlucas@seostrategieslouisvilleky.com

Article Referral URL: http://www.rattermanbrothers.com/

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Gratitude

This little blog post is about gratitude. I’m feeling so grateful toward the dedicated group of core coordinators who have been meeting almost weekly now for over 3 years to birth Community Deathcare Canada. My colleagues Don Morris, Rochelle Martin, Sue Muirhead, Sarah Kerr, Jemma Fong, and Judith McGill have given so much of themselves to co-create this national community of practice. We have been operating beautifully together, utilizing a model of shared leadership to imagine and facilitate the reclamation of community-based deathcare in Canada. Together we invented a mission, vision and values for this organization, and now I’m grateful also for a shift to a board of directors model as we currently seek non profit status.
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Direct Access to Certificates of Cremation Reinstated in Ontario

Direct Access to Certificates of Cremation Reinstated in Ontario

Rochelle Martin

Aug. 20, 2017

In October 2016, the Office of the Chief Coroner of Ontario streamlined its system for the issuance of certificates of cremation. The new, centralized online system permitted access only to funeral industry service providers, shutting families out of direct access to applications for certificates of cremation. Families suddenly found themselves having to employ a funeral home, transport services, or crematorium to apply for a certificate of cremation on their behalf, if they chose cremation as the disposition option for their loved one.

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Willow – Love and Light

I have been searching for blog posts for our new website and recently heard back from Michelle Pante and Reena Lazar who have co-founded Willow.

At Willow their goal is to transform the often overwhelming and fragmented process of advance planning into a rich opportunity for personal growth and transformation.  I found it fascinating to read why they have chosen Willow as the name for their business!

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CBC – Death midwives help families cope with end-of-life care

bright flowers“… As our population ages, baby boomers are beginning to seek the alternative to the traditional end of life care. They are taking more control over what happens to them, some are seeking green burials and home vigils and asking difficult questions about the meaning of death. They are hoping to find a richer set of experiences for them and their families. Enter death midwives a growing practice here in Canada. Death midwifery is both an ancient and brand new discipline that brings deathcare back into the home ….”, listen and read Gloria Christianson’s story of her son, Scott’s end of life journey and Judith’s experience shared on CBC.

See full article & audio

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Home Funeral Practicum on Gabriola Island BC

Hi everyone, this is long overdue!

In February, 2017, I attended Don Morris’ Home Funeral Practice workshop on Gabriola Island. The weekend was so inspiring that as result we formed the Gabriola Community Death Care Collective. We found the workshop informative and very moving. Our collective consists of Michele, Leah, Christine and myself, Elfi. We are in the seeding time of our endeavour and beginning to connect with other community organizations and hoping that our work will blossom. We appreciate your work very much.

More to come!

Elfi Shaw

Find out more about home funerals at:   http://www.homefuneralpracticum.com/eventspracticums.html 

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How To Listen to the Dying

by Olga Nikolajev RN, MA, CT

Listening in this way can be used for any communication process, especially when “listening” to someone speaking about dying and death, or any difficult conversation. If we can start listening with presence, empathy, compassion, forgiveness during these discussions, imagine how much better listeners we will be with other conversations, developing true heart to heart communication, speaking from the heart as our ancestors did.

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