Friday, December 16, 2016


It's the post-Thanksgiving holiday season...time of angels and angst; beauty and the blahs; carols and crises. We came to the table to give thanks last month, and if it was anything like my day, things were so rushed I couldn't even get the luncheon guests to say a blessing.  Also on my mind were the memories of Thanksgivings past and all those precious loved ones no longer at the table with us.  Our blessed ancestors.  To honor these beloved deads, there is a tradition in many cultures around the world of setting a place for them at the table. Holding space for grief and remembrance.  In the dark season, offering up a prayer in the tradition of those very ancestors to persuade the return of the light.
A friend from my local Death Cafe shared with me his family's new tradition, and I was so impressed I vowed to John that I would share it on my blog.  And his words (almost all!!) and with his picture, read about how we can pay homage to all those precious people, passed on, but never forgotten.

This was our first year without my mother at the table.  With that as a starting point we began to think of so many previous Thanksgiving meals with family and friends, especially around my mother's table.  She was always ready to set another place for the social strays in our midst.  Who would we invite, if time were not such a limiting factor? 
Our daughter cut a stack of 3"x 3" cards from watercolor paper and creased them for folding, and brought along the colored pens and pencils.  While dinner was cooking, we gathered the gathered around the table and explained the idea.  
To be honest, it got off to a slow start - people seemed hesitant for fear of doing it 'wrong.'  We are making it up as we go!  How can it be wrong?  That reluctance was soon overcome and pens were flying!
Something that surprised me was that I still wrestled with those folks that I should invite, but didn't necessarily want to.  That happens, you know.  Time threw a wrench in it as well.  Among the dead was a gentleman that we had the pleasure to know for a number of years, as well as his first partner and his second partner (all dead now).  I invited all three.  I figure it was up to them to sort that out!!  I would have done the same in life, I guess. 
The value of the exercise was in the doing, and in the conversations over the crayons.  Next year we will start with blank cards again. 

Ancestors.  I always try to remember that I am because they were.  They live on in my bloodstream.  Wherever I walk, they walk beside me.  Even when I am alone, I am never on my own.  

Write this always on your heart.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

The Man Who Cried (for) Wolves

One morning earlier this year I received a phone call from a woman named Alisa.  Less than two minutes in to the conversation I knew this was the person associated with the Abundance Community in Pittsboro.  She and her husband had managed to get Stephen Jenkinson to come down for a public speaking event.  I remember nearly passing out in the bakery when I espied the poster for this event, thinking THE Stephen Jenkinson??? In a little church in PITTSBORO???  As I had just finished reading Jenkinson's "Die Wise," I was eager to hear him in person.  When I had called to inquire about attending this event and just happened to mention that I was a home funeral guide, Hannah from their office told me about a woman who may be interested in what I did because her husband was dealing with ALS.  So when Alisa called and began telling me a little about her situation I realized this was precisely who Hannah had told me about.  Alisa said that they would be in need of a death midwife at some point over the next few months. She was beginning to feel the sturm und drang of her beloved's diagnosis with the dreaded ALS.  Would I come out to meet her and Chris and paint a picture of what a home funeral would look like?  I called Jenny, sweet friend and mentor, and within the next couple of weeks we drove out to their farmhouse to meet them both.  It was sort of an instant girl crush for me.  Alisa was a brilliant, creative force.  In fact, as part of the staff of Abundance NC, "Creative Force" is her title!  What couldn't this woman do I was thinking while I observed all the animals on the farm, her gardens, her rescue animals, her handmade soaps, her felted wool booties, her book collection, her home schooled children! Well, there was the fact that she couldn't take care of Chris by herself as she faced the future of his steady, certain decline and eventual death.  We talked openly with Chris and Alisa. Chris used an iPad-like device to talk since it took so much effort to speak.  At one point, one of their Boston terriers jumped up on the sofa beside me.  Chris held up the screen for me to see with a big wide grin on his face:  "Be careful....he's gassy!?"  I couldn't stop laughing! God, it is so good to have humor when talking about death and dying!  Jenny and I asked a round of questions about their expectations of and plans for home funeral guides.  I know I left with a sinking heart to see this beautiful family now facing the future without their husband and father, a man who had dedicated himself to the restoration of the red wolf in eastern North Carolina.  This meant years and years of crawling through huge agricultural fields which had been sprayed with pesticides, something which Alisa was convinced had poisoned Chris and led to his ALS diagnosis. BIG AG...I was totally sympathetic.   Wondering if Chris would like us, I didn't worry for very long.  As we left he flashed the biggest, brightest smile and told us we were welcome any time.   On a subsequent visit, we walked around the woods while Chris followed in his high falutin' motorized wheelchair.  We observed Chris and Alisa's neighbors and friends digging the grave for their best friends' son who had just died from heroin.  Death lurked here, we all felt that.  At one point Jenny managed to ask Chris which spot he liked for his own grave.  He pointed between two pines, then his head slumped while tears fell from his eyes.  Six weeks later, on June 4, I got the call from Alisa at 4:00 in the morning that Chris had died.   I scrambled to get dressed, grab my essential oils and "Home Funeral Ceremonies" book, and started dialing Jenny so she could meet me.  Ring. Ring.  Ring.  No answer.  Ring. Ring.  Ring.  (we learned later that Jenny's ringtone is so delicate she never heard her phone!  she made sure to change it the next a much louder ringtone! we are still laughing about this!)  Forty minutes later as I approached the farmhouse I knew I was going to have to fly solo for this home funeral.  Alisa met me in the driveway so we would not wake the children.   We hugged each other so tightly.  And then she told me about her Nana's at precisely the moment of Chris' death the music from this old ceramic cat had started playing, a sure sign that Nana was waiting for Chris on the other side of the veil. Alisa, her sister, her father and stepmother, and Chris' best friend all washed and anointed his body while I read from the book and guided them in their delicate ministrations. Until you witness and take part in a home funeral, no amount of my attempts at describing this event can do it justice.  RIP, Chris Lucash!  You continue to inspire me every day. 

Watch the trailer for the documentary on Chris' life here. 

Staring Down Fate

Friday, April 8, 2016

The Jenny and Sara Road Show!

The Triangle Land Conservancy (TLC) hosted their "Wild Ideas for Getting Outside" Expo on March 9.  Jenny and I were invited to have a table at this event. Over 200 guests from all over the Research Triangle showed up to learn about innovative ideas for safeguarding clean water, protecting natural habitats, supporting local farms and food, and connecting people with nature.  I would be hard pressed to think of a more beautiful way to connect with nature than to "go green" at death!  I have been in conversation with TLC for almost two years now, holding out hope that at some point a beautiful parcel of land will appear which can be used for just this purpose.  
There was the usual full spectrum of reactions when people approached our table:  the "I see that, but it says DEATH on one of the books, so I'll just keep walking" or the inquisitive "what does that mean, 'green burial?'" to the shocked "is that LEGAL?" And I swear, if one more person had come up to us and said, "Have you heard that you can get buried and become a TREE??" I was going to scream!  Whether it's the burial pod, or the mushroom suit, or a coral reef ball, they remind me of PET ROCKS. What the heck is wrong with just going a simple shroud or a plain pine box???  Mother Nature will take care of the rest!  
Time to hit the road again...

Tuesday, March 29, 2016


Whew!  Who could imagine that North Carolina would be such a hotbed of activity where consumer funeral rights are concerned??!!  While I can't say my phone has been ringing off the hook, I have had a fair share of phone calls related to these issues.  Two came within a week of each other, prompting me to contact both the National Home Funeral Alliance (NHFA) AND Funeral Consumers Alliance (FCA) headquarters.  Both concerned a daughter or son's rights to their mother's bodies at death.  
While one mother is alive and in an assisted living facility, the daughter was told that upon her mother's death, she would be required to use the services of a local funeral home for transport of the dead body.  In fact, the daughter has since informed said assisted living facility that they are dead wrong (pun intended), and that she will transport her dead mother herself to a funeral home located elsewhere within the state for final disposition.  That's right, folks.  There is no state law that prevents you from gaining next-of-kin custody and control of your dead loved one.  
Case #2 involved a major hospital which refused to release the son's mother to him because she had undergone an autopsy.  HUH?  Despite repeated encouragement from me that a)his mother's dead body had no doubt been "closed up" post-autopsy and posed no threat to anyone and that b)the several states he would travel through to get his mother home to her final resting place had no embalming requirements, the hospital kept citing a "policy" which forbid them to release his mother to him.  During his second attempt to reason with the hospital administration, not only did they never produce this policy, but they ended up calling the police on this grieving man!  In the end, he was forced to call a mortuary service to retrieve his mother, have her embalmed (!), and then pay for her flight to the state where she would ultimately be laid to rest.  This was a flagrant injustice, changing the son's ability to transport his mother without embalming and also delaying burial plans.  Again, both the NHFA and FCA national headquarters strategized on how to compel the hospital to change their practices and stop denying families the right to custody of their dead.  
Both of these incidents led to the creation of the following document, "What to Do When Families' Home Funeral Rights Are Challenged."  
So beware any attempt by hospital or assisted living facility officials to tell you that you cannot take your loved one when they die.  These folks may tell you that it's their POLICY, or try to insist it's against the law, but they will not be able to provide a legal statute number.  No policy trumps a family's right to take charge of their loved ones at death.

Friday, March 25, 2016

The 11th Commandment

I am so inspired by Anne Weston, a recent acquaintance, who is hell-bent on establishing a green cemetery in this part of the state!  A few weeks ago she had reached out to Jenny, my dear friend and home funeral guide mentor, to see if they could meet for lunch to discuss said green cemetery. Jenny then phoned me to ask if I could join them.  Guess you figured out the answer to THAT question....  We had a very lively discussion for two hours, Anne all the while flipping through her 3-ring notebook where every sub-topic imaginable having to do with green burial was neatly arranged. She has an accountant, a realtor, and an attorney in her back pocket.  We hear you, Anne, and we have your back!  Let's get 'er done!  
I finally had to ask what the inscription tattooed on her arm meant.  See, back in high school, much to my parents' and principal's chagrin, I opted to take Home Economics rather than Latin.  I still can't sew, although I can cook without following a recipe.  But I need help with this classical language.  "It means 'do not be afraid,'" Anne told me.  "And this is something I strive to remember and practice because I'm an introvert. Doing this work takes courage.  For me, it's like the 11th Commandment because I am trying to lead others to live more fearlessly regarding their death."  

Monday, February 15, 2016

Digging in THE DIRT with the Triangle Land Conservancy!

Thanks to Hannah Shapiro, Intern with the Triangle Land Conservancy (TLC), for this interview! This is from the TLC Blog, THE DIRT. 

A Conversation about Green Burials with Sara Williams

  February 13, 2016

    A few days ago, I had the opportunity to speak with Sara Williams, an advocate for green burials. I was a bit nervous to talk with her because death isn’t something we talk about. It’s one of the very few guaranteed aspects of life, yet the subject is too often avoided. Sara’s goal is to change that trend, to get people to talk about death and to figure out the best and most environmentally friendly plans for when we die.
In high school, Sara was told that she was obsessed with death by a classmate, and she’s embraced that idea since, “but not in a macabre way.” She recalled her first experience with death; as a child, she attended a funeral for one of her school friends and thought, “that’s not him.” As Sara sees it, we’ve lost the ability to take care of the people we love the most in our conventional ways of dealing with death.
“There’s something wrong with the way we bury people, we’ve sold our souls to the funeral industry.”
Sara reminded me of the nearly unbelievable cost that it takes to have a funeral, an enormous stress to families that are going through the death of a loved one. She affirms that the traditional way of dealing with death in our country is both a social justice problem and an environmental problem.
Sara believes that individuals should have a choice about what happens to their bodies after they die, whether it’s a traditional burial, cremation, or green burial. And her goal is to educate people about the impacts that their decision may have on the environment.
In a conventional burial, the embalming process releases numerous chemicals, including formaldehyde, into the environment. In this process, hardwood, steel, and concrete vaults are also buried in the ground. Because of this, Sara said many people decide, “I’ll just be cremated,” without really thinking about it and understanding what that means for the environment. Along with the immense amount of mercury and other toxins that our bodies accumulate throughout our lives, emissions from the fossil fuels used in cremation each year in the United States could drive a car to the moon and back 84 times.
Green burials are a way to avoid burying toxic chemicals in the ground and releasing immense amounts of fossil fuels and toxins into the atmosphere. In this process, the body is placed in a shroud or pine box and buried naturally, without the chemicals, vaults, concrete liners, and expensive hardwood or metal caskets.
In 2014, Sara became a board director with the National Home Funeral Alliance after attending a conference in Raleigh. She also started her local Death CafĂ©, which she says isn’t a support group, but rather a place where individuals come together to have conversations about death and dying.
Now, Sara works with families that want home funerals to help them, “reclaim the sacred tradition of caring for our own.” She told me about the first time she helped somebody take care of the one that they loved, to fulfill a mother’s wish to be buried naturally, in a pine box in the Shenandoah Valley. She remembers how tender and beneficial this process was for the grieving daughter, and how important it can be to embrace the work of caring for our dead instead of running away.
Sara is looking forward to retiring this summer to spend more time with her young granddaughter, and she is eager to continue advocating for green burials. There are only three cemeteries in the state that offer green burial sites (all hybrid). The first conservation burial ground opens this spring in Mills River, near Asheville. She says people in the area often ask about it and her hope is to help find a space nearby for those who want a green burial.
In looking for options in the Triangle region, Sara has approached TLC as a potential partner. TLC is always open to creative conservation strategies and thus, staff and board members are taking time to learn more about green burials and how they may fit into TLC’s conservation mission.
In emails following our conversation, Sara shared something that her good friend, Bill Gupton, likes to say.
“Our Western culture desperately declares, at every possible opportunity, that human beings are somehow separate from, somehow elevated above, the natural world. Yet deep inside, all of us know that is simply not true. And modern science confirms what native people have told us – that we are inextricably woven into the fabric of all existence. You come from stardust. You, and I, are connected. Wouldn’t it be incredible to be able to bury your loved ones – to be buried, yourself – in a truly traditional human way? To return to the earth, to become part of the natural cycle once again.”