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Begin with the End in Mind

Reading Time: 4 minutes

When it comes to death, many people think it’s a taboo to discuss their death, or they make the mistake of believing they are too young to plan for it. As demonstrated by recent events, however, there is no time that is too soon to start thinking about your death. The perfect time to plan your end is now.

How do you want it to go? Where do you want to be? Who should be there? What do you want to have around you? What do you want to leave behind and for whom?

Being deliberate about the end of your life frees you up to enjoy the rest of your life. It’s helpful to think about your last few months in five different domains: physical, emotional (relational), spiritual, life purpose, and after death. In each area, you can consider what would make the end of life feel complete, and possibly even pleasurable.

If you’re having trouble imagining how your death would manifest itself, you only have to examine your actual lifestyle, family medical history, and current health status. A couple of scenarios will become evident in short order. Something else to consider is that due to the miracle of medical technology, most of us are not going to die suddenly of an illness. Rather we are likely going to linger for a considerable amount of time. So it makes sense to think about how you want to spend that time.

Starting with the physical domain, think about what your body means to you. What are the judgments and regrets you have about your body? Also, consider some of the ways your body has served you. Then how would you like your body to be cared for as you’re dying? What do you imagine would make you feel comfortable in the final months and weeks of your life? This leads to your physical surroundings. Consider all your senses as you envision a physical space in which to have your desired death.

In terms of the emotional domain, you’re going to be looking primarily at your relationships, which is where your emotions find their expression. What are the dominant emotions in your life, and how have they played out in your relationships? Which emotions do you find challenging and why? You could also do the same inventory of relationships that you find challenging? Maybe there are one or two that could be revisited in order to have a sense of satisfying completion as you journey out of this plane.

The area of spirituality is often one that people push to the background in their “ordinary” life. That is, until the end, when they find that their fuzzy spiritual or religious understanding doesn’t provide a robust enough foundation in which to rest easy as functionality diminishes in the other domains. Right now, you can start to ponder what is God or Spirit to you. Where does your spirit/consciousness/soul go when it leaves your body? What are the religious or spiritual practices that would give you the kind of send-off that you would like to have as you are dying? Maybe there are a couple you could invest in now.

This is where you start to see how your current life becomes richer as you contemplate the end of your life.

In contrast to spirituality, when considering death, life purpose is the first place many people go, and that’s understandable. The idea that your life flashes before your eyes right before the end, whether true or not, is common enough that it is worth taking seriously. This is potentially a big area, so it is better to start now mulling over the big questions — What has given your life meaning? How do you want to be remembered? What were the significant highs and lows? Did you accomplish all that you wanted, and if not, can you live (or die) with that? You can start now putting together legacy projects that express who you are or have been and what you want to leave behind.

Finally, the domain of after-death care may be the hardest to consider seriously. Many people say quickly or even casually, “Oh, I just want to be cremated.” While currently, approximately 80% of people opt for cremation over traditional burial now, the after-death care industry is in the midst of a renaissance, and it’s worth knowing the full range of options available. If you’re concerned at all about the environment, for instance, you might consider a natural burial.

Moreover, this is an area where most people do the least planning, and so it ends up on the shoulders of the very person or people who are the most devastated by the loss of the person who has died. Consider it a loving act to actually plan for what you want to happen to your body after you have left. Remember, this part of the journey is not as much for you as it is for the people you are leaving behind. What is the best way for them to have the kind of loving closure you would want for them?

Furthermore, the matter of your will, Advanced Health Care Directives, Power of Attorney, obituary, etc. must be duly addressed before you die.

Clearly having some sort of plan for the end of your life is essential. The process itself can also have a beneficial effect on your current life as well. It can become the seed of fascinating conversations among your friends and family as you start to express your end of life thoughts and ideas while you’re still very much around.

While it may feel daunting when viewed as a whole, baby steps are perfectly fine when you start before death is imminent. You can also use a guide to help you through the process. The Five Wishes program is a popular one.

As an End of Life Doula, I can also guide you through a step by step process — Best 3 Months — that culminates in a visual map of your last and best three months. However you do it, the most important point is to simply begin with the end in mind.

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Cost Comparisons

Reading Time: 2 minutes

We are committed to providing information that will help you make dignified, affordable final arrangements.

Our Funeral Home Price Survey
Our annual Funeral Home Price Survey includes a price chart which allows you to compare what all the funeral providers in our service area charge for exactly the same goods and services.

How do we determine the costs shown in our survey chart?
Every January, FCACTX volunteers obtain price lists from more than 50 funeral establishments physically located in Bastrop, Caldwell, Hays, Travis, and Williamson counties. Specifically, we visited funeral homes in Austin . . . Bastrop . . . Cedar Park . . . Dripping Springs . . . Elgin . . . Georgetown . . . Kyle . . . Leander . . . Lockhart . . . Luling . . . Pflugerville . . . Round Rock . . . San Marcos . . . Smithville . . . Taylor . . . and Wimberley.

The prices in this survey were calculated by reviewing a General Price List (GPL) and a Casket Price List (CPL) obtained from each funeral provider. Because some funeral homes offer one or more packages and others do not offer packages, all costs shown in the survey are taken from products and services itemized on the price lists.

Our Cemetery Survey
Every other year we gather prices from a sampling of cemeteries in our five-county service area. The survey also includes information about the state veterans cemetery in Killeen and two national veterans cemeteries in San Antonio.To download and print,  just click on the Survey title of your choice.

Survey of Funeral Home Prices (2021)
Survey of Cemetery Prices (2020) 

Please consider supporting our work by becoming a member.
If you feel called to make a donation, please know that your contributions
     make it possible for us to serve our community without charge. 

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Natural Organic Reduction is Here!

Reading Time: 4 minutes

Want to be buried on your own land? 

We can help.

Herland Forest is pleased to announce that it has been granted a license by Washington state to operate the country’s first natural organic reduction facility. It’s been an interesting journey, so let me take you back to the beginning.

We were surprised when we got a call from Portland’s KOIN6-TV. The Washington legislature had just passed ESB 5001 making natural organic reduction a legal option for the disposition of human remains, and KOIN6 wanted to talk with someone involved in green burial about what was involved. Since we’ve been doing natural organic reduction of large mammals for some thirty years, we said, “Sure, come on out and we’ll talk.”

Reporter Emily Burris came out and took a tour of the Herland Forest, and we had a most pleasant conversation that resulted in a feature on the evening news. I was completely impressed by Burris’ competence as a reporter and how quickly she was able to grasp some of the complex issues involved. 

Given the amount of attention that natural organic reduction was getting, we recognized that there would be some people who wanted to avail themselves of this option. Given our long-standing involvement in developing village-scale sustainability systems, we decided to put together a low-cost process that transforms human remains into soil without harming the environment.

In Herland Forest, we go with traditional techniques and designs whenever possible. In this case, we used the concept of an old-fashioned rocking cradle to support and rotate the remains during the reduction process. We also designed our NOR facility to be totally off-grid so that no fossil-fuel energy would be used to operate the process. 

Folks who’ve done compost in their gardens know that a key part of the process involves turning the compost at regular intervals. This is important because it allows the organisms doing the work to get the oxygen they need in order to keep the process going.

the NOR cradle
the NOR cradle

Without additional oxygen the process would become sour and promote the generation of methane, something we want to minimize since methane is a much more impactful greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.

The NOR cradle is mounted on a rack that allows the cradle to be rolled back and forth by hand as the process proceeds. By monitoring the internal temperature, we know that when the temperature starts to drop, the cradle needs to be rotated.

When rotating the cradle no longer causes the temperature to rise, we know that the process is running low on oxygen. To counter that, the NOR cradle is designed as a hyperbaric chamber in which pure oxygen is injected into the compost to ensure that the process remains aerobic. The oxygen is produced on site using a clay matrix that separates air into nitrogen and oxygen, the same technology that enables people to have oxygen generators in their homes.

In order to break down the bones, our NOR process is designed to maintain a temperature of at least 160° F throughout the process. The natural decomposition process will initially heat up the remains, but in time rotating the cradle and adding supplemental oxygen won’t be enough to maintain the high-temperature. At that point, the cradle is designed to use solar energy from photo-voltaic panels to power an electric heating pad that’s built into the floor of the cradle.

Once the initial process is complete, the cradle’s lid will be removed and the compost taken out and screened. As with cremation and alkaline hydrolysis, any remaining bone fragments will be pulverized and any metal parts such as pacemakers and hip-replacements will be removed by hand and recycled. 

The reduced remains are then transferred to open-top, food-grade, 55 gallon drums. That’s where the final step of the reduction process occurs as the bacteria, protozoa and fungi finish the work of transforming the remains into soil. It’s similar to the way that wine is transferred into oak barrels in order to age.

Certain times of the year are good for applying compost; some aren’t. So, Herland Forest will store the reduced remains on site for up to a year so that the family can take possession of the remains at the time of year when they can use  compost most effectively. In the event that the family decides they don’t want to take possession of all four barrels of compost, then the remainder will be used to plant a tree in the Herland Forest.

So the upshot is that Herland Forest can now offer two different ways to return to nature and become a tree; natural burial in our forest, or reduction and then subsequent burial on your own land. 

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Bio Cremation: A Greener Death?

Reading Time: 5 minutes

What is legal in only 13 States, 3 Canadian Provinces and was condemned by the New York Catholic Conference in 2011? The punchline to this bad setup is less funny than you may have hoped: Alkaline Hydrolysis, otherwise known as Bio Cremation or resomation (resomation is a trademarked process). Alkaline Hydrolysis is a process that uses water and lye to break apart the body after death without the use of fire. This, proponents say, leads to a more environmentally friendly process for the disposal of bodies. Yet the response from lawmakers, governments and religious institutions has been rather lacklustre and even oppositional. To break down the process and consider the arguments, we spoke to funeral lawyers and Alkaline Hydrolysis experts to get the inside scoop.

The Bio Cremation Process

bio cremation

A typical bio cremation chamber

Bio cremation or resomation is based on a process called alkaline hydrolysis. The corpse is placed in a chamber that is filled with 95% water and 5% alkali that is then heated to around 160°C  or 320 °F. The water never reaches the boiling point and instead, breaks the body down into its chemical components. In other words, skin, muscle and tissue are dissolved, leaving only the bones. This process takes around 3 hours to complete. 


Once the process is complete, what is left is a greenish brown liquid made up of amino acids, peptides, sugars and salts, including an intact, white skeleton. The bones, which are now soft and porous, can easily be crushed and returned to the next of kin. This process is similar to regular, fire cremation in which only the bones remain. From there families can choose to bury the ashes, keep them on display or place them in a niche. The liquid which remains is drained into the city’s sewer system or can be spread in a green space, as it is considered safe and biodegradable.

 A fraction of the carbon footprint, no emissions and more sustainable 

What Are The Benefits of Bio Cremation?

Alkaline-Hydrolysis

According to Samantha Sieber, the Vice President of Research for Bio-Response Solutions, the appeal to consumers is that bio cremation “is a fraction of the carbon footprint, [has] no emissions and it is more sustainable”. That interest rests on the smaller environmental footprint of Alkaline Hydrolysis, a process which uses anywhere from 1/10th to 1/20th the carbon footprint of traditional cremation, a method which uses a lot of energy and produces a lot of carbon emissions. According to industry studies, one cremation uses 92 cubic meters of natural gas and 29 kilowatt-hours of electricity, pumping over 400 kilos of carbon dioxide into the air. That is enough carbon dioxide to drive a car for 15 straight hours and enough energy to power a large air conditioning unit for 44 hours. Mercury and other toxic metals from dental fillings and joint replacements are also burned during cremation. And this speaks to the other problem with traditional cremation, the fire. Sieber told us that aside from the environmental impact, consumers she has spoken to generally “have an aversion to fire” and prefer the “gentle” method of bio cremation. 

One of the misconceptions about Alkaline Hydrolysis is that the body is completely dissolved by the alkaline process, leaving no bones or human remains. According to Sieber, not only do the bones remain intact once the process is complete, bio cremation offers up to 20% more ashes than traditional cremation, a benefit for consumers looking to spread ashes or divide them amongst family and friends.

The Argument Against Bio Cremation

bio cremation

Horrified onlooker at the cremation of Baron Charles De Palm(First cremation in United States cira 1876)

Catholics were once strictly forbidden to cremate their bodies. However, new theological concepts in the 1960s did away with the aversion to the destructive nature of cremation. While one might think the Catholic Church would see no problem with a process that does the same thing, but in a more eco-conscious way, it has been one of the largest proponents against alkaline hydrolysis. Many of the arguments used against traditional cremation by clergy are now being used against proponents of bio cremation. A 2011 gathering of New York Catholics reified the Church’s belief that the sacredness of the human body and its dignity arises out of concern for both the body’s natural and supernatural properties”. The concern amongst Catholics is that bio cremation devalues the human body by turning it into “human waste” .

 Many of these experts are inherently conflicted about alkaline hydrolysis 

The Church has not been the only opposition to bio cremation. Tanya Marsh, funeral law specialist and professor at Wake Forest University School of Law wrote to TalkDeath and explained that “the most significant legal hurdle for the adoption of alkaline hydrolysis is that most states explicitly limit the legal methods of disposition to burial, entombment, cremation, and donation for educational or scientific purposes. Some states may have a broad enough definition of “cremation” to include methods of accelerated decomposition that don’t involve fire, but most states specifically define cremation as a process involving fire”. 

The uphill battle facing alkaline hydrolysis isn’t from lawmakers who oppose bio cremation, it is the difficult process of changing any law at state and provincial levels. To bring new issues to the attention of lawmakers requires a lot of time, energy and importantly, money. As the bio cremation industry is still small compared to more established funerary professions, it is often up to dedicated teams in individual states to push for change.

With regards to an industry hesitant to adopt change, Tanya Marsh claims that “some funeral directors have very proactively embraced alkaline hydrolysis but many of these experts are inherently conflicted about alkaline hydrolysis and fear that it offers further competition to an industry that is already struggling to cope with rising levels of cremation”. Yet Sieber believes the funeral profession is open and generally positive towards bio cremation. At the recent National Funeral Director’s Association convention in Indianapolis, funeral directors visiting the Bio Response Solutions booth were educated about the process and many expressed genuine interest.

Bio Cremation: Moving Forward

Alkaline hydrolysis is not a new process. In fact, Universities in Europe and North America have been utilizing the process since the 1990s to dispose of research animals. During outbreaks of animal diseases such as mad cow, industrial alkaline hydrolysis machines have been used to dispose of large numbers of animals safely and effectively. But as with any new technology, human adoption takes time and it takes effort.

 When [consumers] have to make a choice but they’re not being provided with accurate information, I think it is a disservice to the people the industry serves 

Where the process has been legalized, adoption rates are growing. By one estimate, when consumers are given the choice between bio cremation or traditional cremation, 80% will choose the alkaline option. This could be big news for a profession struggling to meet consumer demands for cheaper, eco-friendly disposal options. We asked Samantha Sieber what she thought some of the biggest challenges for bio cremation would be moving forward and her response was simple: education. She shares that “when [consumers] have to make a choice but they’re not being provided with accurate information, I think it is a disservice to the people the industry serves”.  When there is pushback against bio cremation it is often due to misinformed funeral directors and a miseducated public Sieber says.

Already bio cremation companies are beginning to make headway, with new machines recently sold in Quebec, Ontario and new markets in the United States. What the future holds for bio cremation will largely depend on an openness of state and provincial legislatures to adopt the technology. While the funeral profession has often been accused of being set in its ways, as with any profession, adoption of new technologies and techniques takes time and education. As consumer demand rises and this process becomes normalized, expect machines to be making their way to your nearest funeral home.

*A big thank you to Samantha Sieber of Bio-Response Solutions and Tanya Marsh for their time and input.

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The Basics of Green Burial Shrouding

Reading Time: 6 minutes

What is a burial shroud?
A burial shroud is a wrapping for a deceased being’s body. We also call them winding sheets, grave clothes, cerecloth, Tahara, Kaffan. I have learned many words for shrouds since my first personal shrouding experience in childhood, when I wrapped a dead bird in leaves tied securely with long grass before burying it in the meadow. That instinct to protect the remains of the beloved, and to make the body easier to transport for disposition, has many cultural and historical expressions. From ancient art to fine art to photo montages of a modern day pandemic, we are not strangers to seeing images of shrouded bodies. Shrouding customs are practiced in significant world religions and cultures (widely by Hindus, Muslims, and Jews, in African communities, and by some Christian sects), each with its own rules and specifications. No one culture, group, or custom originated shrouding. It is a loving kindness that human beings have shared through collective memory over time.​


Why shrouds?
The author Ray Bradbury wrote: “We are cups, constantly and quietly being filled. The trick is, knowing how to tip ourselves over and let the beautiful stuff out.” Why did I wrap that little dead bird in leaves tied with grass when I was eight years old? No one taught me to do that, although I’m sure by then I’d seen burials in old cartoons and westerns on TV. When I tipped myself over in that Ray Bradbury way, a leaf shroud made from what was close at hand seemed like the most natural and sacred way to honor a life. I was a field and forest wandering kid. It never occurred to me to bury the bird in a box.

In most shrouding cultures the shroud is a culminating facet of ritually washing and preparing the body for a journey to the chosen place of disposition, so that the spirit is free to journey as well. Shrouding allows us the time to honor the body of the person who has died and offers the comfort of protecting their body a last time, even as we release them to the disassembling elements of physical transition: time, soil, microbes, water, or fire. We know the shroud is a temporary cocoon, even as we know our loved one has died and that their body is now empty. The action of shrouding creates a chamber for the metamorphosis a body needs to become reduced again to the star stuff (science tells us) that all of creation is made from.

How is a green burial shroud different?
First off, it is cloth. Almost every burial shroud I have seen and touched has been essentially green. In green burial we carefully consider our choices for final disposition within the context of our ecological relationships, in life and in death. A burial shroud is generally made of textiles of some kind. In the fabric world, being genuinely green means gaining an understanding of the ‘fibershed’ we are a part of. As a thought experiment, start with the concept of a watershed, and then think cloth, and then meander from field to harvest, processing to production, and finally delivered into your hands for use. Creating a shroud used in green burial means we commit ourselves to thinking about where the fiber comes from, how it is grown, milled, woven, dyed, transported, marketed, used, reused, up-cycled, recycled, etc.

The shroud is as important as anything else we put in the grave, because the remains of decomposition are being considered in the overall ecology of the burial site. Whether or not we are also using a coffin, less is more. Choosing to use less fabric and avoiding metal or plastic zippers and buttons are as relevant as any other embellishments and grave additions that will or will not eventually reduce to soil.

When there is time to plan ahead for a green burial shroud, consider using organic fibers produced near to home, or sourcing a finished product or materials made from wool, cotton, hemp, or other natural fibers that are ecologically grown, dyed, woven, and sewn. If you are improvising with what you have on hand, lean into simplicity and choose to reuse the most natural fibers available to you (household silks and linen tablecloths will be just fine).

Types of shrouds:
Essentially, a burial shroud is one or more pieces of cloth used to wrap a deceased person. There are sewn shrouds, folded shrouds, multi-piece religious shrouds, elaborate silk shrouds, plain shrouds you can add art to, and shrouds made from your own grandpa’s shirts. Some have cloth handles and carriers, some have a sleeve for a body board and some come with convenient baskets. Most will need lowering straps. You can buy the shrouds used by faith traditions from funeral and burial supply distributors in North America. You can also purchase shrouds (in a variety of styles and price points) made specifically for natural and green burial by artisans you will find online—try an Etsy search and online natural and green burial suppliers. Some shroud makers provide bespoke and custom work from your heirloom and family textiles.

The Jewish Tahara and Muslim Kaffan are multi-piece shrouding garments and winding sheets, with differences based on the gender of the deceased person. There are exacting guidelines about who can participate in religious shrouding, the order of the ritual dressing, and arcane fastening customs. A little research will turn up illustrated specifications to give you an idea of what is involved with this style of shroud and the customs practiced. One important value these traditions hold in common is that the shrouding garments and fabrics should be plain and unadorned with no indication of the deceased person’s material wealth in life, to show that in death we are equal in our humanity.

And of course, you are a human being with ancient wisdom in your bones and you can make your own shroud. A homemade shroud doesn’t need the finest seams. It is ok to use yarn and a giant needle and stitch it together in a tidy enough way. Those early humans who cocooned a beloved dead friend in leaves and mosses did not need a straight hem and neither will you. Use what you have available. Repurposed fabric is usually a green burial choice as long as the cloth is natural—not synthetic or embellished with metallic or plastic paints. Use your common sense, and if you are burying in a specifically green cemetery ask them for guidelines to follow. When I started researching burial shrouds ten years ago, I stumbled on a generous share of patterns for both unsewn and sewn shrouds on the website of the Canadian Integrative Network for Death Education and Alternatives (CINDEA). This site is still current and has the most straightforward DIY shroud-making information I have found online.

How to shroud/wrap a body:
All the different styles of shrouds on the market and for DIY will fill, fit, tie, and carry in different ways, so I suggest doing the research to find what matches your aesthetic, the body, the burial site, and your pocketbook.

In shrouding cultures such as the observant Jewish and Muslim communities where ancient rituals and accumulated wisdom are handed down, the needs of the deceased are seen to deftly. There is an order to the ritual with specific garments and shroud pieces (sometimes gender specific), a particular way knots are tied, and prescribed prayers and songs. If you have origins in a shrouding culture or faith tradition I encourage you to find out how your people go about the work of preparing the dead for burial. There is so much to learn!

The motions and gestures of shrouding are familiar to any one who has swaddled a baby—lifting and rolling, wrapping and tucking, and settling-in. But this sense memory is both helpful and strange in death and (assuming the deceased person is an adult) the physics are very different. For people approaching shrouding for the first time, it genuinely helps to practice with a living person ‘playing dead’ before you try this out in a time of need. And if you are in a time of need and are shrouding for the first time, because dead people are heavy and cannot assist you in any way, it still helps to practice first with the living. It will make you laugh too, which is good medicine when you are living with dying. For more practice you can host a post-pandemic shrouding circle and invite a death educator to offer your green burial friends and community a chance to get acquainted with shrouding. If you find yourself suddenly in the thick of things, with cloth to wrap and a body that needs wrapping, my best advice is:

  1. Don’t rush!
  2. Use leaves, pine needles, sand, or dried lentils, and some aromatic herbs tucked into a bit of cloth or a little pillow case placed under the head inside the shroud. They won’t notice, but your heart will ease.
  3. Breathe, so you can feel the life-beat in your body.
  4. Sing, thank, weep, bless, and generally be yourself. It’s going to be ok.

Dina Stander is a poet, shroud-maker, and end-of-life navigator. She founded the Northeast Death Care Collaborative. She currently offers workshops on shrouding, creative grieving, and ‘distanced’ mourning. You can learn more about her work at www.dinastander.com. If you are thinking of a burial shroud sewn from your own heirloom textiles or articles of clothing then be in touch! Last Dance Shrouds welcomes collaborative projects . 

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The Circle Of Support:

Reading Time: 6 minutes

The Circle Of Support: Towards a new vision of Deathcare

‘A tree taps on a window pane, that feeling smothers me again – Daddy is it true that we all have to die? At the top of the stairs, is darkness..’ Billy Bragg

The work of working with the dying: I call it a vocation, because it is work that chose me. The work found me cowering, terrified of death, and called me in. The work began as I was supporting birthing women birthing their babies into the world, as a birth attendant. In these moments of stillness, being with woman, the one bringing life, I noticed how thin the veil was between life and death. But oh the terror of dying!

I heard the calling, and so I attended to it with the clinical precision of an academic reading texts, anthropological data, historical customs. I kept death at a safe arm’s length. Soon though, the focus changed, when a dying friend asked me to attend to her process of ending. I had to move swiftly to discover what it meant to really help the dying to die well.

Miraculously, at that exact moment, the opportunity to study ‘Death Midwifery’ with an experienced elder materialised, and this learning confirmed much of what I had thought. Attending to the dying was much like attending the birthing, though with a wider circle of care, for the dying person’s family, for the physical needs of people sitting with death as observers, the soon to be bereaved. It was also about hearing the wishes of the dying, sometimes expressing firm wants and needs, desires for how they wanted to be related to. Sometimes it was just about hearing and being with their feelings of loss, of fear, or lamenting the things they never quite got to.

‘Like a pale moon in a sunny sky, death gazes down as I pass by’
Billy Bragg

After these initial experiences with the dying, I softened a little to the presence of death in my life. It called more persistently to me, and although I still often ran away (mentally and spiritually speaking), I came to realise that whether I ignored it, ran from it, or feared it, death remained a vital weave in the fabric of life.

I began to study and look for opportunities to delve into the area of deathcare, and before long it was as if a door opened. I was asked to share. And each time I did, I was asked again. Asked to share what I’d gathered in my short time on the path, to create safe spaces for everyday people to talk about death and dying. Asked to delve into ideas of what the most family-centred death care could look like. In these early days, I was able to do this unsullied by the realities of running a business in the field. These unfettered contemplations created a foundation for everything that was yet to come on this path of death-work.

As I opened to the call, I was called on by the dying and their families; asked to offer support in practical, emotional and spiritual ways. This became increasingly tied into holding ceremonial space and co-creating rituals and gathering with families, to really reflect the life of a person who was loved and lost.

This work felt so much like home – yet having a chasm between caring for the dying, and offering their farewell, that precious time of collecting the dead and bringing them into my care, attending to everything right up until their disposition – that chasm felt at odds with the continuity of care. It would be some years before I met Nastassia Jones, and the path unfolded clearly before us.

In those years as a death doula, compassionate companion, family-funeral advocate and celebrant, I had the opportunity to imagine and begin to create a vision for what family-centred death care might look like, if we were able to connect palliative care givers (medical and non-medical), death doulas and compassionate companions who offer specialised non-medical care to the dying and their families. I imagined these practitioners joining together with the threshold choirs, the celebrants, and of course with the funeral-industry workers, joining in a way that was transparent, open-hearted, and that reflected the areas of speciality that all these people had. How might this circle function? What would it look like in reality? How could it work given that there are business interests, volunteers, independent practitioners and organisational employees in the mix?

‘Step out of the Circle of time, and into the Circle of Love’ Rumi

This vision of a circle of support, and a continuity of care is still unfolding, and the work we do at the Last Hurrah Funerals is all about opening to these wholistic and positive connections. We really believe that a connected circle of care is possible, and that this model will transform the experience for the dying, for their families.

Part of the work is at the cultural level, where we must come to accept death as an integral part of life, and where we are less afraid of it, less willing to have to rushed away, and less apt to assume it is a specialised area that can only be attended to behind closed doors.

Part of the work is at a personal level. We must understand what the spectre of death represents in our lives. Are we able to acknowledge when someone we love is dying? Would we be able to acknowledge when we were dying? If we can come to accept these eventualities, we would be more able to access help and support, to get our affairs in order, and to speak freely, well before we have to sit with the reality of such a condition of living.

‘When Death finds you, may it find you alive’ African Proverb

People who do this work discover that this work is a calling. They may not know it at first, but for many, the ones who stick with it, they realise it calls from within. This work asks much of people. I believe one of the main skills people who work in deathcare need is the ability to hold space – whether that be the embalmer in the prep room, who allows whatever arrives to be present, and to be cared for, for the arranger and director, who must read the room, and create a space in which people feel permission to express. It is true of the person answering that death call, knowing that for the person on the other end of the phone, it is possibly the hardest call they have ever had to make. It is true of anyone who contacts the dying or the bereaved. In being able to hold space, such people can transform an experience of despair and heartwrenching sadness into something which, while still despairing and wrenching, allows meaning, hope and the seeds of healing.

I began with a curiosity and desire to talk about death….and what I’ve discovered is that, given the chance and a safe space, most people want to talk back. People are actually dying to talk about death, without being told they’re morbid or depressing…without being limited to discussions of possessions and money and the distribution of these things. People want to come at the topic because in some way they do realise it’s something that can’t be avoided.

Working with families who’ve lost someone, who must organise so much and complete so many tasks when they’re at one of the most difficult and dark times in their life, requires a complex skill, and immense capacity. To listen. To sit and hold immense grief and big feelings and complex situations and conflict. To leave silence where it’s needed. To read a situation and offer what is useful, comforting, real.

The death-care industry is just that. It is an industry, with bottom lines and profit margins. Launching a funeral company in the COVID-era has been a stark lesson in economics for us, but something we are absolutely wedded to, is that the more you privilege the fiscal, the more you allow corporate culture to permeate the offerings you make, the less you’re able to connect with the people that you come to serve. For us, the social enterprise model is one that allows us to survive in the inevitable environment of spreadsheets and accountants, while still privileging something greater – serving families and the dying in ways that feel authentic. For us, this work is about making an awful situation a little less foreign, a little less awful. It’s about allowing something to unfold that can encompass a genuine goodbye.

Here at the Last Hurrah, what we hope is to make this idea of a circle of support a reality, one family at a time. This first year has been all the shades – wildly busy, and at the same time impacted by the pandemic. We haven’t been able to get amongst the people in the ways we imagined, but we have been able to get creative about farewells in a time of corona. We’ve also realised that this is home, this is where we are meant to be. Building this circle of support we imagine is a labour of love we’re completely invested in – may we find the ways to bring this vision to fruition!

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A Gentler Death

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Like most people, Cortney Gusick never considered the prospect of purchasing a casket until she needed to select one for a family member. Eight years ago, her dad died from pancreatic cancer, and she was thrust into the death-care industry as a consumer. The most difficult part of making the funeral arrangements was finding the right casket. Gusick wanted something that reflected who her father was in his very full life: a Hawai‘i boy who cared about the environment and carried those values with him to Oregon, where he raised his three daughters. Ultimately, Gusick settled on a simple pine box from a small-scale, non-commercial business. “His body was going to biodegrade as it was designed to do, and it would provide some kind of nourishment for the earth,” Gusick says. She reasoned that the receptacle in which he was buried should do the same.

Common caskets are not earth-friendly. Nearly every model found in funeral home catalogs is manufactured with metal, paint, silicone, synthetic polyester fabric, and other non-biodegradable materials. That greener options aren’t readily available in the modern burial industry concerns Gusick, especially in a place like Hawaiʻi, where a reverance for one’s natural surroundings is part of daily life. After her dad’s death, she saw the metaphorical light at the end of the tunnel, and she came out the other side a casket builder. “This is what I want to offer for people,” she says. “For someone’s eco-legacy to be, ‘I did right by the earth.’”

Last year, Gusick started Pāhiki Eco-Caskets, a low-impact, environmentally sound casket manufacturer, in the backyard of her Mānoa Valley home. The venture was a 180-degree pivot from her ongoing job at the Silicone Valley-based company UserTesting as a test engineer in the amorphous world of software and mobile applications. “I had zero background,” Gusick admits. But the 37-year-old felt equipped for the intensely tactile field she was about to enter. “My dad taught his girls how to do everything, how to change our own tires, acid-strip a deck, lacquer the house’s wainscotings,” she says. She binged on online tutorials to gain a baseline knowledge of woodworking. “Between Dad and YouTube,” she says, “I felt like, ‘I got this.’”

Three months later, she teamed up with Logan Baggett, a friend she met in Oregon who had previously worked in Hawaiʻi’s solar industry, to help finesse Pāhiki’s offerings of 4- to 6-foot-long, 100 percent biodegradable caskets crafted from untreated, Hawaiʻi-grown wood. Soon after, the company attracted five investors and received a business loan from the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, which they used to buy hardwoods and build out inventory.

In Hawaiian, the word pāhiki means “to pass quietly, go lightly, touch gently,” a definition the duo strives to embody. Their caskets are made with reclaimed local albizia, monkeypod, mango, avocado, and Norfolk pine provided by Waimānalo Wood, a lumber mill that also houses their workshop. Pāhiki caskets range in price from $1,800 to $2,200 (less than the $2,400 median cost of a standard metal casket). In the circumstance that someone needs a keiki casket, Pāhiki provides it for a dollar.

Gusick considers every dimension of her industry. We’re trapped in a “death-denial culture,” especially in the United States, she says, which is obsessed with indefinitely preserving the deceased in ways that only benefit the living. For Gusick, the more grandiose style of caskets, which can cost upwards of $15,000, are more for the living than the dead. Those caskets “resemble pieces of high-end furniture that belong in this world, that belong in a house, and look like they’re meant to last over time,” she says. But the reality is they go into the ground, never to be seen again.

Pāhiki’s unobtrusive design aesthetic is in direct response to that. The final products—caskets that trade metal, paint, synthetic fabric, and lacquer for wood, non-toxic glue, muslin, and coconut-oil finishes—are crafted to allow the wood grain to shine in its most organic state. The caskets are stripped of sensational flourishes, but not of sentiment. Family members can opt to purchase the “collaborative option,” for which Gusick and Baggett affix biodegradable linen loops around the casket’s perimeter to hold flowers from funeral guests.

Pāhiki also has a keen interest in engaging with communities that have large Native Hawaiian populations on Oʻahu and neighbor islands. During community talk stories, Gusick presents information about Native Hawaiian burial rights and practices—which involve cremating a body in an imu, wrapping the bones in kapa cloth, and burying them in lauhala—and how to perform them legally. As a Native Hawaiian, Gusick feels especially called to apply a Hawaiian understanding of ʻāina to her work. “Hawaiians were the original environmental stewards,” she says. “I can rewind back through so many generations of people where this was always their charge, to take care of the land, and now I can do it in a way that’s modern.”

As long as humans are dying, the death-care industry, which sees profits in the billions of dollars, will remain open for business. Pāhiki’s niche market is a fractional percentage of that, but it is poised to grow as an aging population becomes more informed of greener burial methods. While Pāhiki’s prototypes are evolving, the emotional gravity of the caskets will always be the same. “Isn’t it so crazy that we’re responsible for this thing that is so intimate for a person we’ll never meet?” Gusick often thinks. “We’ll never get to look into their eyes, never get to shake and touch their hand. It’s this very special, unique thing that will only be crafted and given to them once.” It’s a heavy order, but Pāhiki hopes to treat it lightly.

Above Ground

People who work in the death-care industry bring the lessons they learn in the field into their daily lives in quiet but profound ways. Here is what Gusick and Baggett have learned from the dead about how to live better every day.

Be introspective “Most people should contemplate death; it shouldn’t be an afterthought,” Baggett says. “We know it’s coming, we know it’s part of life—it’s just a transition, in my eyes.” Thinking about death and removing its negative connotations can lead to a more present and purposeful approach to life.

Be clear about your wishes “Documentation is an act of love,” Gusick says. “Put it in writing and in thoughtful detail.” The way you live isn’t always enough to let loved ones know how you want to be buried.

Be nice “There are 20 million things I don’t know about a stranger, but there is one thing I can guarantee I know about them and that they know about me,” Gusick says. That is the inevitability of death. “In society, you can quickly and easily dehumanize another person in the way you talk about them off-handedly or the way you treat them, not thinking back to that completely timeless experience you know you share with that person. If you reverse-engineer that awareness when you interact with people, you can use it to make a kinder, more insightful connection with someone. Or, you know, just try to not be a jerk.”

This ran in our “living well” section, click to read the other story about Maui’s nude-friendly Little Beach.

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Advance Directive Documents

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ADVANCE DIRECTIVES BENEFIT EVERYONE!

Advance Directive documents allow you to express your wishes when you are no longer able to speak for yourself. Even though it may be difficult to think about and discuss end-of-life choices, you will actually be saving your loved ones from having to guess what you wanted at a very difficult time.
Why Complete and Discuss Advance Directives?
Overview of Advance Directive Documents

Forms pertaining to Medical Care: 

Forms pertaining to Final Disposition of Remains: