There was a time when I thought that death acceptance was the opposite of death denial. I also thought that there were two signs of death denial: fear of death and dying, and strong attachments to life and living. My thinking was that if I didn’t have fear and anxiety about death, and I could sever my strong attachments in life, I would live peacefully with the full acceptance of death.
This post is part of Willow’s Information Series: Who provides end-of-life comfort and care?
Ngaio Davis, a licensed funeral director and embalmer for the last 17 years, considers herself more of a deathcare worker and support giver. As the founder of KORU, a micro-funeral business, she offers funeral-related or death-care services in the Vancouver area of British Columbia, Canada.
Before becoming a funeral director, Ngaio was a carpenter working in construction. When her body started to complain about the work, she knew she needed a change. The idea of becoming a funeral director kept showing up in her life, and then the more she looked into it and talked to people about it, the more she knew that she fit the role and the role fit her.
Doing Deathcare Differently
She originally called her company “Classic Cremation and Funeral Services” but once she realized that some people equate the word “classic” with “conventional”, she decided to rename it. Conventional businesses, she explained, typically take the deceased into their care and slot families into timeframes that work for the funeral business. Ngaio prefers to be responsive to the family, exploring how far she can go with empowering, supporting, and guiding families rather than taking over.
Responsive Death Care
One example of how Ngaio practices responsive death care was when she helped a family who wanted to spend time with a son whose body was physically damaged, but didn’t want embalming. Visiting him in a conventional funeral home at a set time for a prescribed duration wasn’t appealing due to the cost, and the limited time they would be able to spend with him. Ngaio explained the option of taking their son back to their home with her help. The family was then able to be with him for as much time as they wanted in the way they wanted.
Small is Beautiful
The fact that KORU is a micro-funeral provider also makes a difference. Within a conventional funeral provider, a variety of people have different roles and do different things. Because the business is small, it’s only Ngaio and her new business partner Emily Bootle who’ll take care of everything for their clients. This includes transporting the deceased, communicating with the doctor, and/or hospital, as well as the cemetery or crematorium, administrative tasks related to registering the death, and caring for and preparing the deceased to be laid to rest (final disposition) including washing, dressing and casketing. KORU also provides celebration, ceremony, or funeral services for families who want help to mark the death with an event or gathering of some sort.
As a progressive funeral provider, KORU’s team includes Community Engagement Coordinator iris paradella-hunter. Iris, who is also part of the Willow EOL Educator™ Program, manages KORU’S social media and sets up education and planning workshops for KORU clients and the public..
Why the name KORU?
Ngaio’s father is Maori from New Zealand, and her mom is Canadian. The Maori culture has a beautiful symbol called koru. She explained, “It’s the fiddlehead of the fern and it represents the very flow of life, that we begin and end, and begin and end again.” She contacted one of her uncles about using the word in relation to deathcare services. With a big smile she reported that, “He wrote back a beautiful email and said that because of your intentions and the heart-centred approach that you have, this is the word that you need to use.”
Minimizing the Impact of Death on the Planet
Ngaio is very conscious of the impact that dying has on the environment and does as much as she can to minimize that impact. In British Columbia there are only two options for the final disposition (laying to rest of a body): Flame-based cremation or burial (including green burial). Other jurisdictions have water-based cremation as well as natural organic reduction.
While the majority of Ngaio’s clients choose cremation, and cremation is ultimately a polluting form of disposition, Ngaio lightens her—and their—environmental footprint wherever she can. For example her go-to for a casket is a locally-made, eco-friendly natural pine-wood tray with a cardboard top. She also stocks a big range of biodegradable urns and she educates people about how they can dispose of their deceased’s cremated remains in ways that give back to the environment. In addition, she contributes to Bullfrog Power, a national company that puts clean energy back into the grid, so that she can offset the polluting energy from cremation.
Watch here as Ngaio shares words of wisdom for someone who’s had a family member die and for those thinking of getting into the funeral business.
Deathcare in the Pandemic Era
Public-health restrictions during the global pandemic have had a dramatic impact on people’s ability to mourn in community in familiar ways. In-person gatherings have shrunk in size or disappeared completely for many people and virtual ceremonies or hybrids have become common. Ngaio sees the silver lining in this new reality. “Because the in-person group size has shrunk, it allows an intimacy around ritual and ceremony that I’ve always believed in and tried to encourage people to embrace. I felt like there was so much more beauty and intimacy happening time and time again that was really beneficial and perhaps surprisingly so. That’s something from Covid that I hope we can keep.”
Smaller, More Intimate Opportunities
Ngaio believes that we have a tendency in the deathcare world to put all the emphasis on that one event, be it the funeral service, celebration of life, or a memorial. She’s a cheerleader for smaller, more intimate opportunities that can accompany “the main event” or even replace one central gathering. Multiple, intimate gatherings can create and hold space for people to get into the meat of grieving.
The examples below are all ones that Ngaio has either participated in or been made aware of by her clients. She’s watched the transformation in their faces and bodies as they’ve shared going through these rituals. She explains, “People usually start out tense, nervous, anxious, overcome with sorrow and as they go through the rituals, the tension eases, the anxiousness and nervousness leaves, the raw emotion lessens—even if just for a short period of time—and there is often a sense of peace and gratitude.” The opportunities available to people include:
- Spending time with your dead person, whether that also includes cleansing with essential oils and dressing them, or just being present with them to talk to, sing a song or play some music, hold their hand, decorate their casket, brush their hair, massage their feet, or adorn them with flowers and gifts of love.
- Being present at the cremation to bear witness to that final transformation, and to sing to them while holding their love and memories in your heart and mind.
- Cooking a special meal in honour of your person, setting a place for them at the table, toasting them and sharing stories with one another to mark their time on earth.
- Creating a tribute altar at home with their photo, their ashes (if cremated and even if you only have their ashes at home for a short time), keepsakes and / or other things that evoke their spirit for you. Tend the altar regularly until it doesn’t need your attention.
Can Funeral Directors Make a Living?
Ngaio thinks that many employees of funeral homes feel that they are underpaid. “Most people get into funeral service because they have a heart for helping people, and are not particularly motivated by money. I think people get taken advantage of over and over again because of this.”
As a business owner, however, who cared for about 130 clients in the last 12 months, there is potential to make good money, but it’s not easy, Ngaio explained. “There’s a real fine line between being adequately compensated for what we do, and setting the prices to reflect the value of the services we offer. Because people don’t seek funeral services on a regular basis, and perhaps have never done this before, they don’t know what to expect. In an industry where people are not well informed, and the customer is generally in a tender place, it can be challenging to let people know about the value they’re getting without it feeling like a hard sell.
It’s All About the People
All the hard work and challenges are definitely worth it for Ngaio. Her favourite part of her work is hearing the stories. “Sometimes I feel very sad that the stories are of someone who I can never physically meet and shake hands with because they’ve already died. But I love hearing stories. And sometimes I’m lucky enough in the pre-planning stage to be able to meet the people I”ll some day care for.”
We hope you enjoyed and even learned something about what’s possible in the realm of death care. Our thanks to Ngaio Davis, KORU Cremation | Burial | Ceremony.
With all our love,
Reena + Michelle
What about you?
What about Ngaio’s story resonates with you?
What did you learn here that you didn’t know about before?
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