SevenPonds Interview: When Funerals Move Online, How Can We Create Mourning Rituals That Truly Validate Loss?

An interview with funeral director, end of life specialist and death doula Michelle Acciavatti

Recently I had the enormous privilege of being interviewed by Colleen Ferguson, a writer for the SevenPonds blog. The interview is linked in the sub-title to this post and pasted below.

I gave this interview just as I had come to the decision that being a funeral director was keeping me from fully serving my community in the way that I want. For me this interview truly captures the essence of the way I way I want to serve and I’m so grateful to have that captured in a way I can share with all of you.

“When Funerals Move Online, How Can We Create Mourning Rituals That Truly Validate Loss?

An interview with funeral director, end of life specialist and death doula Michelle Acciavatti Posted on September 16, 2020 by Colleen Ferguson (Blog Writer, SevenPonds)

Image of end of life specialist Michelle Acciavatti

Michelle Acciavatti’s father would always say of her that she “is an expert at fitting square pegs into round holes.” As a licensed funeral director, death worker, educator and activist in Vermont, Acciavatti has done just that, dedicating much of her career to breaking down traditionally accepted ideas and finding ways to approach them anew. 

Acciavatti was instrumental in getting green burial legislation passed in Vermont in 2017; subsequently, she and her peers founded the not-for-profit organization Green Burial Vermont. Their goal is to advance statewide green burial options across the country by educating and empowering local ambassadors to do so in their own communities.

Death Studies, too, has undergone interrogation under Acciavatti’s microscope. She is a founding member of The Collective for Radical Death Studies, an international organization that aims to explore death, dying, and the rituals of care from a decolonized perspective. The growing Radical Death Canon centers on the experiences, voices, and deathways interwoven in the fabric of communities of color and marginalized populations that have been affected by systemic and colonial structures.Image of Michelle Acciavatti end of life specialist

Acciavatti at home reading “Till Death Do Us Part: American Ethnic Cemeteries as Borders Uncrossed,” edited by Allan Amanik and Dr. Kami Fletcher, President of The Collective For Radical Death Studies.

With the global pandemic, Acciavatti’s most recent work has included articles and webinars on the subject of community, mourning rituals, grief and natural death care during the era of social distancing. As with most meetings these days, Acciavatti and I met via Zoom to discuss her most recent work. Backed by the bright yellow walls of her home, she is warm, engaging, articulate and earnest. Our conversation begins with her standing to show me her T-shirt, which reads “This Body Will Be A Corpse.” 

Hi, lovely to meet you. Can you start by sharing how your work in end of life began? 

It really started during my undergrad, when I became very interested in the relationship between cognitive development and motor development. That’s what led me to grad school because I thought I wanted to be a neuroscientist. Turns out I hate the work of being a scientist — I’m the daughter of a scientist; I love thinking like a scientist, and I think I embody it in a lot of ways, but the actual work of it is not for me.

But I had a relationship with the Office of Ethics at Boston Children’s Hospital, and they wanted to bring in someone with a background in neuroscience because so many end-of-life situations involved neurological development.

So I was working with the task force that worked with kids in a minimally conscious state. It was very difficult, because I often felt like, here I am, at one of the best — if not the best — children’s hospitals in the world — one that has done so much to help support families and overcome the institutionalized racism that happens in medical communities by involving translators, chaplains that represent different religions, and different support structures.

But then there’s the parents who love their kids and that’s all that matters to them. And they’re being told they have to make a decision about whether or not their child lives. And sometimes it came with a gentle nudge, but it seemed like the parents were really on their own. There was something missing from that end-of-life decision. 

The pivotal conversation came when I talked with my friend about what I was feeling. She was a doula and is now a licensed midwife, specializing in home birth and she said to me, “You should be a death doula.”

That was it. I went home and looked it up, and there wasn’t even a Wikipedia entry about it. That was in 2013. 

A lot of your work is in advanced planning, but with a focus on community death care and community care. What, in particular, has shaped that part of your work? 

I had this experience when my mom’s mom was dying.  She had a recurring infection that was literally draining the life out of her. And she said she was done; she didn’t want treatment anymore. And my mom sat with her the whole time. 

This made me realize there are ways to be very present for dying. Ways that aren’t new, but have been lost in white communities in particular and are now emerging again. Skills that are being actively sought and found. 

If we go back and look at Orthodox Jewish communities or Muslim communities or communities of color, these things are less new, and in fact have always been fairly common — caring for the dead, birthing at home — community support for both of those transitions is much more common. But for me, who had a limited exposure to communities of color, it felt new and novel and like I needed to learn everything that anyone was willing to teach me and reconnect with it.

So, from there, I realized this was what I wanted to do. It tied together everything I was interested in — how does the brain work? What does it really mean to be alive?

And that’s why I believe advanced planning is such an important piece. But for me, it has so much less to do with medical decisions and so much more do to with the question: What does it mean to you to live a full life and live completely?

This is where the values-based approach to your work comes in?

Yes, we all have different things that give value to our lives. But when people are going to be faced with making decisions for you, they need to know why you want interventions or why you don’t. That’s the conversation about medical decisions that matters. It’s been very interesting to sit with people and drill down into what gives their life value.

Because of COVID, a lot of funerals and ceremonies have moved online. What challenges do you see arising from that? 

The internet and virtual meetings are a great tool, but that’s what it is. It’s a tool. The internet can help mediate the needs of those who can’t meet and gather, but less so the needs of people who are in closest physical proximity to the person who has died.

But if we view the funeral or memorial service as a social event, where its purpose is to allow people to start accepting that their life no longer contains the person who died, the question is: Do they feel supported?

And that’s the piece that I just don’t think is there. You’re still not held in community and being validated in the community. 

How else has social isolation affected the grief process and the ways we meet the needs of the mourning? 

In a lot of ways, COVID has taken the individual away from the dying process. When talking about one person out of hundreds of thousands who have died, they often become another statistic, not a person. So, an interesting challenge becomes, how can those who are grieving reclaim them as a person?

For example, take Nick Cordero, the Broadway actor. He was in the hospital for 100 days, and his wife kept him in the public eye constantly, sharing their stories. She centered him as a human being and not just another COVID statistic. And sometimes it was uncomfortable. But at the same time, I knew this guy’s name; I knew his wife’s name; I knew all these things about him. He became a person to me. And when he died, I was upset. His wife had succeeded in not hiding that grief and that process, and she had made him real to so many people. 

And I think it’s important to draw a parallel that this is what marginalized people are trying to do every day — trying to be seen as real people. I think that connection is important to make and to hold. And then that expands into — “Okay, so how do we as a white community engage in more public mourning practices?”

We have examples, teachers and things we can learn from — not appropriate, but learn from. And we can look back to our own histories, like mourning clothes or the wreathes we would put on the door to mark that we were mourning. And again, we can learn from communities that have more experience staying present and learning to drop down that veil of “this isn’t socially acceptable” and instead asking, “what do you need supported?”

This also ties into the work that Dr. Alan Wolfelt has done on the needs of the mourning. What it boils down to is that you need to be seen, validated, and heard. You need your loss validated — and that’s true for the individual as well as the community that’s experiencing that loss.

For a long time, our conventional services haven’t really done that. Likewise, the internet is great, but when it comes to sharing stories of the person who died, it adds a level of depersonalization. How do we make this feel more personal? And that has become the work of figuring out how to create new mourning rituals. 

Image of Michelle Acciavatti specialist in mourning rituals and values based ceremonies

What are some of those new mourning rituals?

There’s been this move toward the “honest” obituary, being more honest about how people have died and who they are. The obituary is moving away from encasing people in a demographic way, like “this was so-and-so’s daughter, owner of this store” — and while those details are important because it grounds us in a community, they don’t tell our whole story.

The obituary as a storytelling tool can help the mourning process, but it also requires an ask. 

For the grieving,  it comes down to asking yourself, “What do I need? Do I need to have this ceremony or ritual made beautiful with music? Or with words? Or with a story?” And then you need to make that intentional ask. 

A beautiful example is a widow whose husband had died. They used to have cocktails every evening and say a particular phrase. And so, in his obituary, the family requested that their community, at a certain date and time, lift their glasses and say that phrase. 

And even though this idea might be a little abstract, you know everyone is going to be out there raising a glass and toasting you and your loved one and be out there thinking of you. That’s one way of being held. It is a powerful community ritual. 

Or if it’s music, maybe you make a playlist that you play and share with everyone. If it’s beautiful words or stories, you can ask people directly to share their stories. Usually people will put more effort into what they’re going to share because they know it’s going to be featured in the ceremony.  

But it starts with a very intentional ask — “I am grieving, this is something that will help my mourning process.”

Approaching grief and mourning with intention seems to be the key here.  

Yes, it’s this new a la carte model of asking, “What do you want to do?” and then providing choices. Really sitting down and getting to know you in a way that you can start to tell me “This is how I’m feeling,” so it can become a ritual and ceremony that fits those needs and feelings. 

And it also becomes COVID-compliant without starting from this place of restriction, from a place of, “Well, we can’t do this or that.” Instead, it’s starting from a place of curiosity and engagement and acknowledgement and grief and loss. 

My hope is that by really meeting people on this values-based level, it helps break down all sorts of barriers and there’s an opening for people to come to me however they are, and whatever they need becomes the focal point for how I’m going to be working with them. What do you need? Who was your loved one? What is their story?

It’s about them, it’s not about me. Everything I’ve done was to get the tools and the privileges granted to me by the state in order to be that facilitator in the fullest capacity.

Every death is unique, and my goal is to put that into the work I’m doing. That’s a big piece of what I’m seeing is missing and that’s what I want to do. 

How can people find out more about what you do or work with you? 

My website is a great place for people to figure out what I do and who I am, and they can contact me through there. I am a licensed funeral director in the state of Vermont, but no longer attached to a funeral home. As a licensed funeral director, I have privileges and power that come with experience and knowledge and working within the system. 

If other funeral homes want to bring me in to work with families who are interested in green burial or those who want unique, values-based funeral rituals, I can work with families that way, and I can also provide some level of expertise for home funeral families who want to do it all themselves. And I am going to continue to provide education and support in the community. 

I also want to call attention to Vermont Natural Burial, which is looking to create a space for both natural burial and land-based ceremonies to allow people to develop after-death rituals that are in service of the body and also in service with their own grief and mourning.

My dad always said I was an “expert” at putting square pegs in round holes … and maybe what I’m doing now is carving a square hole for once.”

(For those of you who are unfamilar, SevenPonds is an organization that strives to create inclusive dialogue about death through a resources that meet the needs of those touched by death- including a fabulous monthly blog.)

Little Deaths: How my own life changes remind me of my mortality

Changes in our lives can be viewed as little deaths. Throughout our lives we will experience these little deaths. If we remain open to them these little deaths provide excellent opportunities to be reminded of our mortality, and re-evaluate our values for living well.

I’ve never written about why I became a funeral director. I recently left my job at the funeral home. I am still a funeral director, but it’s a big change.

I WILL write about why I became a funeral director, my incredible journey, and why I left the funeral home. But not today.

I could write about the grief I am feeling and it’s labels of ambiguous or disenfranchised grief. But not today. Suffice to say I am grieving.

Today I want to write that in that grieving process of working through this little death I have had to commit to the change I made. I can’t go back to working in the funeral home. There are reasons I left. My path has altered course to bring me closer to being authentically me in the way I serve families during dying and after death. I can grieve what I have left behind and honor the unknowns in the future calling me. But my decision carries and absolute finality.

As Anatole France wrote “All changes, even the most longed for, have their melancholy; for what we leave behind us is a part of ourselves; we must die to one life before we can enter another.”

When we go through major life changes we must let go of who we thought we were, assess what we have learned, and let ourselves transition into who we are now. We carry the past, not as a burden, but within the new person we are becoming. And we have learned just what it means to truly live our own values for living well in order to be willing to experience a little death and enter a new life.

Re-framing Advance Directives as Patient Safety Tools

(Many thanks to Emily Eliot Miller of Death Jewel for inspiring the thoughts in this post)

A woman I know was recently admitted to the hospital for observation after a concussion. She was shocked to find a DNR order pasted on her door.

I think the majority of conversations about Advance Directives focus on making sure your wishes are documented. I know in my experience they also always come along with a conversation about over-treatment: unwanted hospitalization, unwanted CPR, unwanted dependence on machines to sustain life.

But, as my good friend and colleague Emily Eliot Miller points out, there is a pressing reason to separate the two conversations. Because for many people, the fear is not over-treatment, but under-treatment.

As the national dialogue on racism in American institutions continues, one of the many important conversations is about how people with black and brown bodies are treated differently in our medical institutions. Another conversation is about how the white, American medical institutions have preyed on and discarded those with black and brown bodies, resulting in a deep-seated mistrust of these institutions that has yet to be properly addressed, let alone rectified.

And, there is an intersection between the implicit racism of our medical institutions and the treatment of those with bodies that are also “othered” – those with disabled bodies, bodies that don’t match their preferred gender, those with chronically ill bodies, those with fat bodies, also face the very real fear that their bodies will be treated differently. Or not at all.

So, yes, an Advance Directive is a way to document your wishes for medical treatment. But let’s also start talking about it as a way to ensure patient safety. To make sure every person gets the treatment they WANT.  Treatment many are afraid they will not get.

It sounds simple, but it won’t be easy. We have a long way to go to make sure every single person is treated as a whole human by our medical system. But an easy first step is to stop talking about Advance Directives as a way to prevent over-treatment and to start talking about Advance Directives as a way for patients to feel seen and heard as whole humans.

Let’s make Advance Directives into tools for patient safety.

The color of your skin should not be a reason it’s easy to die

I want you to do a thought experiment with me.

Imagine an ordinary day. You leave the house to go to work. You tell the people you live with goodbye, maybe you love them and tell them so, but you leave with the understanding that you will come home at the end of the day and be together again.

Now, imagine on your way home there is a terrible accident. And you die. You don’t make it home. And the people expecting you to come home have to be told that you’re never coming home again. You’re dead.

It’s devastating, right? It’s unfair. It’s sad. It’s the way I come to play a role in some people’s lives- as a funeral director. As the one to handle the body. As the one to hand tissues to the people who are suddenly in love with someone who is dead instead of with someone who is alive. It’s never not sad.

And it was an accident, right? Maybe you were speeding or changing the song or just tired. But you didn’t do anything wrong. It’s not your fault. But you’re still dead.

Do you see where I am going with this?

I’m white. If I leave the house at night, I come home to my husband who is sleeping soundly because we can’t spend our lives worrying about accidents and there’s no other reason why I wouldn’t come home.

But for George Floyd, and Breonna Taylor, and Ahmoud Arbery, and Tamir Rice, and Sandra Bland, and Iyanna Dior, and Tony McDade, and Amber Isaac, and far too many others-

when they left home their families worried about more than freak accidents. They worried that the color of the skin of the person they loved might be a reason that they wouldn’t come home.

And they were right.

That accident? That one thing between you and coming home to your loved ones? That’s not the only thing that Black Americans have to worry about keeping them from coming home. It’s not what keeps mothers and fathers and sisters and brothers and children and friends and lovers of people with black skin awake.

Too many Black Americans don’t come home because they are murdered. They are murdered by people who are supposed to keep us safe. By people who have bought into the systemic sickness of our culture that teaches white people that black skin is dangerous, is a threat, is not human. By a medical system that devalues self-reporting of symptoms because black skin is seen a “tougher.”

It’s a fact that in this country the color of your skin is a very real factor in whether or not you come home.

Come home from going for a run. Come home from giving birth. Come home after going to sleep in your own bed. Come home from playing in the park with your friends.

That’s more than devastating. That’s unacceptable.

And it needs to change.

Life is short. And it is so very easy to die simply by nature of being human and mortal and existing in the world.

We can’t change that.

But the color of your skin should not be a reason it’s easy to die.

And we can change that.

We can make it equal for all people by standing up and fighting the systemic racism that pervade every institution in this country. We can have conversations in our own homes and families, in our communities, on a nationwide level, about racism and how to combat it. What we cannot do is remain silent.

We can do better. We MUST do better.

Black Lives Matter.

 

Hear Me On VPR’s Morning Edition

Sam Gale Rosen, the producer for Morning Edition on VPR, set up a conversation between myself and its host, Mitch Wertlieb, about acknowledging death at a distance. It aired on 5/26/20 and although it’s just a few minutes, I think captures the heart of my recent posts and work.

Have a listen:

https://www.vpr.org/post/raise-toast-play-song-send-card-acknowledging-death-distance

Read my previous post Grieving and Caring During the Pandemic COVID-19 for a full list of ways to mourn during the time of social distancing, how to support someone who is grieving, and tips for designing a graveside service and limiting attendance.

 

Or read the transcript:

One of the cruel realities of life since the COVID-19 pandemic struck is how it has changed the way we deal with death. When a loved one dies, there’s no longer an opportunity for closure, for saying goodbye among the close community of family and friends with words, tears and a heartfelt embrace.

But Michelle Acciavatti is thinking of other ways to bring solace to Vermonters. She’s one of the funeral directors at Guare & Sons funeral home in Montpelier.

Michelle Acciavatti spoke with VPR’s Mitch Wertlieb. Their conversation below has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Mitch Wertlieb: This is the age of online-everything, as you know. And that was true even before this pandemic hit. But you have said that simply having an online funeral as a substitute is really not the best solution for everyone. Why is that?

Michelle Acciavatti: It’s not just the physical distance, but it’s also having to communicate through a screen using technology. I think the internet is a wonderful tool for connecting. But if you’re not comfortable with it or you’re not familiar with it, or you simply don’t have access to it – and these are things that I think are particularly true in Vermont – it’s maybe not the best tool.

Yes, they’re coming together, but are they having the same needs met in that way? Or are we, in our striving for something that feels normal and familiar, overlooking kind of what is the purpose of coming together?

What are some of the suggestions that you have discussed with the people you work with and with others in the community who may be grieving that are outside of this, as you were just mentioning, this online kind of presence?

So one of things that I’ve been doing working with families, is to have them actually put an ask right in the obituary that says what can people do to let you know that they know that you’ve had this loss happen and that they’re thinking of you, that they feel for you. What’s something that would do that in a way that honors specifically the life of the person who has died. 

That I think has been resonating with people, because people do still read obituaries, they still get shared. It’s a great way for people to find out that someone has died. So it’s a really great way to spread a message that says, you know, “I would love to even just get cards.” It can be as simple as that. People tend not to send cards anymore.

More from VPR: ‘My Mother Was My Best Friend’: Remembering A Life Lost To COVID-19

When I was in a spot when I was grieving, when my mother-in-law passed away, the number of cards that I got, the time that someone took to hand-write a message to me, really meant a lot. So I’ve shared that with families, and that’s been an ask that’s gone out. And one thing that people always know is if you don’t have someone’s address, but you do know the funeral home that they’re working with, the funeral home can make sure that things do reach families.

Some people have asked for everyone to raise a toast at a specific time. And then there can be things that come out of that that perhaps you can ask somebody to take a picture and send you a picture of them raising that toast, or send you a little note after they’ve done that. So it’s a collective experience, that you’re not in the same room and you’re not doing it, but you’re all doing the same thing. And then you can talk about what it felt like to raise a toast to that person. What was going through your head, what made you think about that person.

Vermont, especially such a small state, so many people, especially in smaller rural communities, they really know one another. Some have for decades, maybe their whole lives. How should we be thinking about and dealing with those ripple effects on the death of a community member?

I think this is so important because generally, that’s what a wake or a visitation does, is it allows all the people whose lives have been touched by somebody to come together. And what’s interesting in watching that happen, you know before the pandemic happened, is to see the circles of people. These are all the people that knew somebody in high school or knew them at this job or knew them when their kids were small and they coached Little League or something like that.

When you take away that visitation, that’s something that I worry about, people having a feeling that they can’t express or explore. And I think that’s another thing, where just the very small gesture of reaching out and even saying, “Hey, you might not know me, but I always used to run into your wife at the coffee shop, and we always had the nicest conversations, you know, before we’d go our separate ways to work in the morning.” Or just something, just sharing that memory, how you knew somebody. Or just, “I know how important they were to the food bank. And I’m going to make a donation to the food bank in their memory because of all the work they did volunteering there.”

And again, it helps the family feel seen, but it just also acknowledges our communities. I mean, even here in Montpelier, where I live, I mean, it’s still a small town for being a city. And when people die, to recognize that, “Hey, this town is going to be a little different now without this person,” and the role that they played in it.

But nothing is too small or too silly, I think, for the family never to appreciate. And also to make a difference in your own life, and to acknowledge what you’re feeling and to get those needs met as well.

Are you sharing ideas with other folks who do the same job you do?

I think I would love to see more collaboration. In Vermont, in a lot of ways we were bracing for the situation that we’ve heard reported from in New York or in Massachusetts or New Jersey, where we were all going to be super overwhelmed as funeral directors. But it really did focus on the logistics and having conversations about this type of thing has been a little harder.

We’re not overwhelmed with work, but death goes on the same way that life goes on. So we’re all very busy, and we also are not able to have sort of our annual meetings. There hasn’t been a chance for funeral directors to come together and kind of organically have these conversations. So I would love to see this conversation become a broader, more statewide conversation.

More from VPR: End-Of-Life Wishes In A Pandemic

And I think it’s what you said earlier: a lot of this is very relevant, whether we’re in a pandemic or not. We’re more spread out now in terms of where we live. People can’t always come back for the funeral. People can’t take time off work. So I don’t think these ideas are ever going to lose their relevance going forward.

You know, right now, it might look a little weird to have something in the obituary – it’s not standard to have an ask in an obituary that says, “Hey, you know, at 3 o’clock on Tuesday afternoon, will you play this Tom Petty song? Because it was their favorite song.” That’s not generally something that you see. But I think that it’s great. It’s pretty easy for everyone to do.

And so against just normalize seeing things like that in obituaries will help us as we continue to navigate how this is going to look, and how funerals will be shaped coming forward and coming out of this.

 

Grieving and Caring during COVID-19

My last post came from a place of deep sorrow as I tried to understand how I could support families who were grieving during this time of social distancing, mass illness, and profound change.

Thanks in part to many of the responses and interviews I did in the wake of that post I found myself feeling inspired to help craft creative and compassionate new ways for families to find ways to grieve, get support, design services, and limit service sizes, as well as tips for people supporting people who are currently grieving the death of a loved one. I drew from Dr. Alan Wolfelt’s The Six Needs of Mourning, past mourning traditions, and conversations with families. I’m please to share those ideas here and hope that they may be of use others.

1. For Grieving Families

2. Designing a Graveside Service

3. Limiting Gathering Size

4. Supporting Someone who is Grieving

1. Grieving During the Pandemic

Because of the gathering restrictions in place due to the COVID-19 pandemic mourning the death of a loved one is especially difficult at this time because we can’t engage in familiar traditions such as funerals and receptions. I hope these ideas help you feel connected and supported by your community as you grieve during this time of social distancing.

One of the wonderful things that happens at funerals and receptions is the chance to meet other people who loved your loved one- people you might not even know- and hear their stories. Thanks to technology sharing stories in groups is something that can still happen.

If you are not comfortable with technology, or do not have internet service, an obituary can be a great way to ask your community to come together to support you, or to be in touch in old-fashioned ways- such as letters.

Mention an activity or wish in the obituary to be done together at a designated time. People can send photos and notes about their experience afterwards. Here a just a few ideas:

  • A favorite song, poem, movie, TV show to be listened to/read/watched
  • Lighting a candle
  • A dedicated moment of silence
  • A time to say a prayer or meditation
  • A color that can be worn on a set day or used to decorate a space indoors or out
  • A routine such a morning cup of coffee, watching the sunset, taking a walk
  • A favorite meal that people can make and eat on a set day

Or ask your community to do something over a longer period of time such as:

  • Hang/place something in a street facing window- perhaps a sign with a favorite memory, saying or poem; a specific color, or even just your loved one’s name so that when you walk around your community you can see who is supporting and thinking of you.
  • Place a basket on your steps and ask for people to leave memories, cards, photos, flowers, or condolences. Ask people to leave live plants you can use them in a memorial garden.

Things to organize in the community:

  • A drive-by wake: People can meet at a certain time at a designated spot and then drive past the home. Encourage people to make signs and/ or bring battery-powered/electric candles for the family to see.
  • A Facebook page for people to share stories, pictures of themselves participating in the activity, and stay in touch 

Things you can do to signal that you have lost someone:

  • Place a candle in your window with your loved one’s name and objects that are symbolic to their life
  • Hang a black wreath with your loved one’s name on your door

Signaling to your neighborhood that you are mourning is one way for them to know you might be in need of extra support or even just good wishes. If you’d like, you can even organize a way for them to respond, such as asking for cards.

2. Designing a Graveside Service

During the COVID-19 pandemic the most common funeral option has been a graveside service with plans for a memorial church service or celebration of life at a later date. While some religions offer a short committal service, you may wish to add elements of your own to the ceremony. I hope these tips help you think about crafting a unique service to honor the life of your loved one.

Simple is beautiful. Nothing needs to be extravagant and service time should be approximately 30-45 minutes.

Consider:

Who will you be inviting, what do they have to offer- do they sing, write poetry, speak well in public? With only a few people in attendance, use the talents of the guests to design something unique and meaningful. 

What elements of your loved one’s life do you want to honor and celebrate at the graveside? 

Asking those attending to dress in your loved one’s favorite color, or sports team jerseys/hats.

Discussing with loved one which readings and songs they feel are meaningful to the life of your loved one- you might learn of something new and it is a great way to include people who can’t be physically present

Asking the people attending to share (short) stories of how they knew your loved one at the graveside. Have them include how they will carry the memory of your loved one in their life moving forward. You can also ask people who can’t attend to write a 1-2 minute story that can be read.

Prior to the service, asking people to write down a wish or memory that can be placed in the grave with the casket- these can come even from people who can physically be there and even read aloud before being placed.

Find a way to include people who cannot be there so that everyone feels as though they are able to honor your loved one and support you:

  • Live-stream or record the service.
  • Ask everyone to them wear a favorite color/sports team of your loved one’s.
  • Start the service with a moment of silence everyone can observe at that specific time.
  • Place flowers for people who would otherwise be there on the casket and state who each flower is from.
  • Bring a small object (like river stones) that can be present at the ceremony and the given to everyone who attended and distributed to those who can’t attend. If your loved one collected items (such as teaspoons or other knick-knacks) and you are comfortable sharing those, that would add a lovely personal touch.
  • Create a book of with what was read and said and share it

If you simply cannot limit the number of people who want to attend consider organizing a car parade. People can decorate their cars in honor of your loved one and drive past the gravesite before returning to their homes. If you choose this option please remind people that they must stay in their cars.

FOR GREEN BURIALS

At a green burial the people present can participate in symbolically, or entirely, closing the grave. If this is the case please ask everyone to wear gloves- gardening gloves are ok- and be aware that the shovel handle will be disinfected between uses.

If the cemetery allows planting at the gravesite ask guests to bring an appropriate plant (each cemetery will have its own guidelines but a good rule of thumb is that it should be native and should be a pollinator) and a small shovel. Each guest can take a turn planting their plant.

 

3. Small Gatherings

 At a funeral or graveside service one of the most important things people gather to do is to honor and celebrate the life of the person who has died.  It is only natural to want to include all the people whose lives have been touched by your loved one in the ceremony and invite them to witness the burial.  However, to keep each other safe during the COVID-19 pandemic that is not physically possible.

Many of the families I have spoken to us about the challenges of having to choose only a few people who can be present at the funeral or graveside service. What is unexpected is how rewarding they have noticed the small ceremony being.

There are many different ways to approach thinking about how to limit who you invite. It may be immediate family, or people who are local. The key shared with me by families is to approach the decision with intention and compassion.

Consider:

Who will most benefit from being physically present?

How do the people you invite represent aspects of your loved one’s life?

Who are the people who can come together and support you and each other?

What type of graveside ceremony do you want to have and what roles will the guests play? (See Designing a Graveside Service for more ideas about this as well as how to include people who won’t be physically present)

IF you live in Vermont, things to keep in mind:

Per The Vermont Department of Health, people who travel to Vermont must self-isolate for 14 days prior to interacting with community.

Social distancing regulations mean that groups that have been in isolation together may stand together, those that have not must maintain at least 6 feet of distance between them.

If you are planning on live-streaming a service, internet connections can vary widely so you may need to record the ceremony instead. 

If you simply cannot limit the number of people who want to attend consider organizing a car parade. People can decorate their cars in honor of your loved one and drive past the gravesite before returning to their homes. If you choose this option please remind people that they must stay in their cars.

4. Supporting a Grieving Person

Because of the gathering restrictions in place due to the COVID-19 pandemic supporting someone who is mourning the death of a loved one can feel especially difficult.

One thing we can do for people who are grieving is to see and be present for their grief and be supported in their mourning. I encourage you to reach out and share your stories of the person who has died with their loved ones. It is a wonderful way to honor the life they lived and acknowledge how hard it must be for the family to be without them.

In the face of grief, it is hard to know the right thing to say or do but it is ok to admit that. The worst thing you can do is not say or do anything at all. 

Reach out!

  • Send an email or card.
  • Make a concrete offer to help
    • Offer to drop easily frozen meals off at a specific day/time
    • Offer to go to the grocery store and leave groceries on the steps
    • Offer to make a trip to the Laundromat or Post Office
    • Offer to help with garden and yard work
    • Offer to organize an online memorial page or another way to collect stories, memories, and photographs that can be shared
  • Leave a book, magazine, puzzle, or Netflix idea in the mailbox
  • Send flowers or a plant. If you know a favorite color or object ask the florist to incorporate it. Try and support your local florist when you do.

Get creative with your friends and neighbors

  • Organize a drive-by parade at a time when you know the family will be home
  • Put candles in the windows of nearby houses along with the name and/or things that symbolize the person who has died
  • Have a socially distanced picinic in the neighborhood where people can gather on their own lawns but share food, drink, and memories. Perhaps all while wearing a favorite color/sports team of the person who has died
  • Create a shared calendar to make sure that the people who are grieving are getting the support they need over the days, weeks, and months when a kind phone call or offer to run an errand can really make a difference
  • Collect stories, memories, and photos of the person who has died and make a physical or virtual memory book to share

Recognize that you may be grieving too

When someone dies, it isn’t just their family and loved ones who grieve- their loss ripples throughout their community. Reaching out to support the family is one way to address the loss you are feeling.

On Mediating Grief During The COVID-19 Pandemic

I haven’t had a chance to write about why I chose to become a funeral director in 2019. Or, how it has felt to do the work as an apprentice, which I started in July of 2019. Or fully licensed, which I am as of December 2019. Or my (mixed) feelings about mortuary school and studying for my embalmer’s license, which I hope to earn in December 2020.

But now a pandemic has come and I am a funeral director. Below is a guest post I wrote about my experiences here in Vermont that was first posted on the blog for  The Institute For The Study of Birth, Breath, and Death

~

“More than a funeral service: meditating grief during COVID-19″

Although I am not a medical professional, I am on a different front line of the COVID-19 crisis: as a funeral director, my role is caring for those who die and supporting their families. I write from my heart, sharing my direct experiences, questions, concerns, fears, and hopes. I speak for my own experience and hope that my words bring insight to all called to serve the dying and the dead at this time. 

One of the things I am struggling with is that there simply are no clear directives. We have a stay at home order, and yet we also have guidelines for gatherings (in VT 10 people maximum). Does that mean a gathering of essential workers or gatherings for essential work? We have been explicitly told by the Health Department that funerals are non-essential gatherings, and yet an amendment to to the stay-at-home order made on 3/28/20 said that funeral directors could continue to conduct face-to-face meetings. Is this only for funeral business (contracts for services) or for small gatherings?
Logically, if people are already leaving home to enter the funeral home for business why not also offer them a limited family viewing? And, if we do that can they be allowed to touch the body? Each other? Then, from the public health perspective, we should all stay home, even essential workers, except for essential work. In many ways the only essential work of a funeral director is body removal and disposition. My boss would certainly argue that the essential part also includes getting paid for our services. And, in my heart the most essential work is allowing families a chance to say goodbye.
There is simply no way to compare the heart work of mediating grief through final goodbye and ritual, with the necessary public health work of containing a pandemic through isolation, with the need in a Capitalist system to make money for services. I am conflicted because there is a right answer for every possible perspective I can think of and no answer to fit the needs of the whole individuals I serve.
All I know is that is is physically difficult to breathe under the weight of supporting families navigating this.

In a time when protective gear is both expensive and scarce, and their necessity is met by disbelief from many others in my own field, I have done what I can to prepare the necessary physical resources to safely handle the bodies of those that die to limit any risk of transmission in the immediate aftermath of a death from COVID-19, as well as to protect myself and my coworkers from transmission from the families and staff we meet when we come to take the body.

I have been thinking about how to best have the sensitive discussions with families who will witness the bodies of their loved ones placed in body bags. This is a practice I avoid under normal circumstances because it can be distressing to families as it feels as though the body they so dearly loved is now a dangerous object. Even families whose loved ones do not die with any symptoms of respiratory distress will most likely see me wearing a mask and I can’t help but wonder, “how can I have sensitive conversations when half my face is obscured?”

And so, I also find myself on the front lines of mediating how people interact with their dead and with each other in times of grief.

Because of the risks large gatherings pose for transmission, even people whose loved ones die of something other than COVID-19, there are many restrictions/recommendations against the regular comforting gathering rituals that are so crucial in times of grief. While each state is different, in Vermont where I practice, funerals have been deemed “non-essential” gatherings- and most cannot take place with even a limited number people physically present. I believe that seeing and saying goodbye to the body of a loved one is an essential part of mourning. But now I am the gatekeeper of that ritual, put in the position of having to deny it.

We have so few common rituals in US American culture- perhaps as few as high school graduation, weddings, and funerals. And all have been suspended due to the pandemic because all involve gathering, all involve touch, and all—for different reasons—involve tears.

Commingling the mucus that comes with crying is thought to be an excellent transmission pathway. If I followed the spirit of the guidelines for gatherings,  families would only be able to say goodbye over video links and not be allowed a final personal goodbye at all. In the rare circumstances where people might be allowed gather in the presence of the body of one who has died, I must discourage them from touching the body. The dead themselves pose little risk, but their bodies become a surface where virus can be transmitted. In the rare circumstances where people are able to interact with the body, best practice dictates that I must limit them to doing so one at a time and must disinfect the body between visitors. I must remind grieving people that social distancing means staying at least 6 feet apart even when they are crying and in most need of the comfort of touch.

In order to protect myself and my community, I must ask these difficult things of families without the use of touch myself, which often communicates so much more empathy than any words.

I know our mourning customs must change to protect our communities and it falls, in part, to funeral directors to help families find healthy ways to mourn with respect for social distancing. And yet, I do not feel as though I have the support of other funeral directors in navigating how to have these conversations with compassion and humility. At the moment I am still struggling with finding ways to allow families, in limited numbers, to continue to have the chance to say goodbye to their dead even though there are risks. My background as a scientist tells me that my many, many colleagues who have suspended all but the business of funeral service—signing contracts for services, and even doing that over email or through car windows—are not wrong to do so.

In order to contain COVID-19, flatten the curve, and try and hopefully decrease the overall number of deaths, we are better off the more isolated we are. And yet, and yet, to deny families the chance to say goodbye to their loved ones seems such a direct denial of their humanity. To have only extremely limited contact with families even in the wake of death when they most count on funeral directors to support them seems like a failure in my work. Families are suffering because of these difficult restrictions on their expected normal mourning routines. To many this pandemic does not seem real, or far less real than the immediate death they are grieving. The fact that these restrictions are in place to protect them and their community makes mediating any sort of discussion feel patronizing.

I do not know what the right way forward is.

As a funeral director, I remain on call 24/7 for all deaths. Deaths from causes other than COVID-19 are also increasing as access to medical care becomes difficult and/or scary. I must work.

I work for my community whenever and however death arrives. I work at the bequests of families; of hospices, nursing home and long-term care facilities; and of the police, State’s Attorney, and the State Medical Examiner. I travel into nursing homes and hospitals, homes, and any place a dead body needs to be removed. I do so with dignity and respect for the body I am there to care for and now also do so at the risk of exposure to COVID-19. Funeral directors are the people often forgotten because no one wants to think about death. And yet, we are there for everyone who dies regardless of cause of death, race, sexual orientation, creed, economic status, or anything else that made them a unique human.

I work in death. It is my calling and my chosen field. But that does not give me mental super-powers to withstand the sadness of my work. I stand on the ever-changing ground of what I can offer families as I wait for the death toll from COVID-19 to spike in Vermont and I find myself scared and worried I will not have the emotional strength to do what I must do.

I recharge through my connection with families and it is very daunting to see the way I interact with families change so radically right as I face the time when COVID-19 deaths are expected to rise, and while other deaths continue to impact families. I might work with some families and never meet them face to face, knowing them only through the body of one they loved, a voice on the phone, or words on a screen. And yet I know I will do it.

I will not fail my community or falter in my work. My first responsibility is to the dead and those that love them, but I will do all I can to serve my community safely. Even when how I will continue to treat every family I serve with compassion and respect, and the bodies of those they love with dignity and care, has become less clear.

I have been called upon to serve my community in their time of grief and will continue to do so in this time of crisis, and in the time when the crisis has passed. Death, like life, goes on.

~

I’ll also be doing a live interview with The Institute’s founder, Amy Glenn, this Tuesday: March 31st at 7pm EST.  If you’d like to listen you can make a one time donation of what ever you can. If you are inspired to join the Institute, mentioning my name along with a donation of $30 will grant you lifetime membership to the Institute (a discount from the current discounted $130 rate!).

To make a donation or join please email Amy.

6 things I am doing to help build death informed communities

(Did you know I am currently pursuing a degree and career as a funeral director? Keep an eye out for some posts about that in the near future!)

Focusing on community building is one of the most important things you can do to prepare for your own good death. Here are six things I am doing to build a death-informed community in Vermont and beyond:

1. Talking about death and asking you to do the same.

Talk about death, talk about dying, talk about your thoughts and feelings, hopes and fears, any questions you have when you think about the end of life. Explore how death relates to other transitions in your life- like changing careers- and how these can offer a chance for us to practice what we need for dying. You can find me doing just that at most Thursday night meeting of the Montpelier Death Cafe. You can learn more about Death Cafe at DeathCafe.com The Montpelier Death Cafe meets on the 2nd Friday and 3rd Thursday of each month. To learn more email the Montpelier Death Cafe

2. Planning for death.

By now most people have heard of advance directives and how they allow you to plan for your own death. In Vermont, the Vermont Ethics Network (VEN) an advance directive form and resources that includes medical, personal, and social decisions you should consider. It is often helpful to work directly with someone to complete an Advance Directive that is reflective of your values for living well includes plans for after you die. Coming into relationship with your own mortality is a necessary step before you can plan for your own death. If you want support for values-based end of life planning explore what VEN offers, or email me to help you find someone.

3. Promoting different models of end of life support.

End of Life Doulas now exist to serve as a non-medical compliment to hospice care. There are many definitions and training programs for End of Life Doulas. Make sure the person you find is comfortable with the “core competencies” defined by the National End of Life Doula Alliance (NEDA) so that you not only find someone who is the best fit for you, but can be confident that they will help support you in the best way for you. Birth and Bereavement Doulas are specially trained to support families through the loss of pregnancy. The Institute for Birth, Breath, and Death is an excellent source of doulas trained to support families at any stage of pregnancy, loss for any reason, and the difficulty of saying goodbye before you have had a chance to say hello.

4. Challenging the concept of “good death.”

Many people talk about a good death. But what does that mean? An important question to ask is “a good death for whom?” The Collective for Radical Death Studies is a group of scholars, death work practitioners, activists and students who view death work as synonymous with anti-racism work, and are actively working toward dismantling oppression as a way to validate cultural and social life among marginalized groups. I am honored to be a founding member of this group and contributing to its work to decolonize death practices. I have always believed we define our own good death, now I am working to make that accessible to all.

5. Remembering the environment.

In a time of climate crisis it is easy to overlook that something as simple as our disposition choices can have a positive impact on the environment in addition to contribution healthy social and emotional mourning. At Green Burial Vermont we strive to educate Vermont individuals, communities, and cemeteries about socially and environmentally responsible burial practices. If you’re considering cremation, or the mushroom suit, be sure to visit our website or email Green Burial Vermont and schedule a by-donation workshop for community- often given by members of your community- and learn how you can play a role in making green burial an accessible option for all Vermonters.

6. Writing.

Here my blog “Your Own Good Death.” I reflect on working with death, share some of my experiences, review books I’ve read, talk about my journey and what I am learning about how I want to live and die. I don’t write as often as I would like so please subscribe to make sure you never miss a post. I encourage you to write to- whether for yourself, on a blog, or for a publication writing helps us better understand and share our own experiences.

This Winter I got to talk about Green Burial on VPR

Listen, read, and see pictures here

There are so many benefits to green burial, by returning the body to the earth you are providing the soil with essential nutrients it needs to be healthy, you are limiting using practices that negatively impact the environment and you are actively participating in a ritual in service of the body of your dead loved one- something that has been shown in clinical studies to reduce the possibility of prolonged and/or complicated grief.

But there is also the bigger picture of conserving, creating, and protecting habitat. Cemeteries (at least those for white people) have long been considered to be sacred ground, and protected from development. Even as the definition of sacred moves from religious to secular, the benefits of combining conservation and rewilding efforts with natural burial grounds is substantial.

On January 17th, I talked with Jane Lindholm of VPR about Spirit Sanctuary a private, conservation-style cemetery in the Split Rock Wildway in Essex, NY which offers enrollees the opportunity to make a bequest to one of their conservation partners, allowing members a significantly reduced cost of burial. By asking enrollees to do with their money for the conservation groups that steward the land what their bodies will do for the health of the land itself, Spirit Sanctuary has created a unique approach conservation through burial.

The Split Rock Wildway connects the rich valleys along the western edge of Lake Champlain to the High Peaks of the central Adirondacks. This wildlife
corridor is considered highly resilient according to The Nature
Conservancy’s Resilient Land Mapping tool, and therefore a high
priority for targeted conservation efforts in an era of climate
uncertainty. The land is protected for conservation in perpetuity by
the Eddy Foundation, a private family foundation whose highest
priority is protecting linkages in critical wildlife corridors. Read this amazing article (including fantastic drone footage) to find out more about Spirit Sanctuary.

Assisted Living is Often the Best Choice- That Might Indicate a Problem.

Recently an older family member of mine had a health crisis and decided they could no longer live independently. In their words “the work of daily living” (cooking, managing medication, doctors visits, and errands) was just too much for them to do any of the things they actually enjoyed about living (socializing, going for walks, reading). So, they chose to give up their apartment and move to an assisted living facility.

I have no doubt that this was the best choice for them. But, I also have no doubt that that fact is an indicator of a bigger problem- our society is not equipped for helping people age at home. We’re not even talking about the challenges independent living brings to people as the age.

These past two months have taught me that we as a society need to confront the myth that it’s easily possible for people to die at home. If for no other reason than it’s nearly impossible for people to age at home.

There is an unnavigable gap between when aging people start to need extra help and imminent dying.

1. To be eligible for hospice a doctor must feel its reasonable to expect a person to die within the next 6 months. (And, even then hospice itself is not enough for any person to die at home).

2. There are few to no support programs for help with aging before a person is eligible for Hospice.

3. Most palliative care programs require an acute diagnosis. “Getting old” doesn’t count.

4. As people become more and more dependent on their care-giving community, members of those communities most balance their ability to be there with managing their own lives, the lack of paid leave from work, and the knowledge that once death is imminent they’ll be even more needed.

5. As the tasks of daily living become overwhelming aging people must take on the additional burden of coordinating their care, including any home support services via private pay or medicare, food delivery, medication delivery, and housekeeping. All these things are designed to help people stay independent, but the reality is they are exhausting and often expensive to organize.

I’ve said before that a #DeathPositive Movement (normalizing talking about dying and designing how to meet the needs of the dying) should be concurrent with a #AgingPositive Movement (normalizing talking about aging and designing how to meet the needs of the aging).

The #SilverTsumani is almost upon us, when 65 million people in the United States will be over the age of 65. We’re talking about being ready to support them as they die. When will we start talking about how to support them as the age?