Until just weeks ago, the hard work, dedication and sacrifice of the bereavement industry, or death trade as it’s sometimes called, wasn’t even listed as an essential service. Despite this recent shift in designation, I suspect there’s little or no applause or acknowledgement for the essential workers like the ones named by our provincial government: coroners and workers performing mortuary services, including: funeral homes, crematoriums, cemeteries and workers supporting the appropriate handling, identification, storage, transportation, and certification of human remains.
When someone dies, there are choices to be made. What do we lose when we approach those deathcare choices like just another retail transaction? Let’s look at two deaths I was involved with recently.
Coco’s recent death was sudden and took us by surprise though it shouldn’t have because she was in her elder years. After she died I wrapped her body in blue velvet leaving only her face visible. Coco’s shrouded body was placed on a bed of cedar and laid out in our living area with a candle burning at her side.
Life continued on around Coco. Several times a day we walked by her and paused to reminisce or stopped and talked to her while gently stroking her face. On the third day after her death, we were ready to bury Coco. She was one of our daughter’s gerbils and had been in their lives for about three years.
A Story in Contrasts
Contrast Coco’s after-death care with this story of a friend’s Aunt Rosie. Rosie died after several months in a residential care facility due to a stroke and a fall. Most people dear to Rosie didn’t visit her in this final phase of her life because they found it too disturbing to face her dramatic decline. And besides, Rosie could barely communicate with visitors.
When Rosie died, a family friend helped her husband find the lowest-cost funeral provider to “take care of things” which he saw as moving her body and arranging her cremation. The family planned to organize a Celebration of Life at a later date.
Within two hours of her death, Rosie was placed in a plastic body bag, taken away by strangers and brought to the funeral provider’s cooler where surrounded by other dead people, she waited a few days until it was her turn at the crematorium.
Default deathcare robs us of opportunities to reflect and connect
What I did for Coco was out of respect for both Coco and for my family. We needed to acknowledge her death and let it sink it. We wanted to honour how she touched our lives and we needed to begin to mourn the loss of a beloved. We gave ourselves the gift of time and space to begin to accept that Coco was dead and to support each other in this process.
What concerns me about Rosie’s story is the lost opportunity to reflect and connect around the death of their beloved. The “let’s take care of this as quickly and cheaply as possible” default choices made by Rosie’s husband minimized opportunities for those who cared for her to be with their heartache and to support each other on their path to healthy mourning and healing.
Deathcare shouldn’t be just another retail transaction
A human being is no longer here on earth, the profound mystery of death has occurred and we’re looking for the best deal? We need to do better. Death is a shared human experience. Our lives are finite and precious only because we die. Yet, most of us struggle to some degree to have heartfelt and practical conversations about our inevitable death or the death of someone close to us.
We avoid talking about dying as an active process and about how we want to be cared for after we die. We don’t know the scope of our choices and we don’t know what we want. What usually happens is the people left behind do what they see others doing or they follow the lead of what was done “last time.” We need help to do this differently.
Your Departure Directions is a tool for connection and conversation
Rosie didn’t leave behind Departure Directions, the term we use for your written guidelines—determined by your values, beliefs and priorities—for how you wish to be cared for after you die. She probably didn’t take the time to think about, let alone tell her family, how she wanted her body cared for and by whom, how she’d like to be laid to rest, who she’d like to be involved, and what rituals, if any, she might like to have after she died.
There were no conversations ahead of time about what mattered most to Rosie and how her values and priorities in life might be reflected in her wishes for after-death care. There were no conversations about what would be meaningful for those nearest and dearest to her. It’s our conviction that you can honour your own values while also trying to find ways to honour the wishes of important people in your life.
While we’ll never know what difference Departure Directions would have made for Rosie or her family, we do know it’s empowering to feel that we’re making informed and intentional choices.