Hello readers! This site is undergoing a shift. It will still be the online home for all matters related to my yoga teaching, but now I’ll be offering more than just yoga.
Over the past year I’ve dedicated myself to the study of community deathcare and I’m ready to put myself out into the world as a community deathcare educator.
I’m sure you’d agree that this is wonderful news, if only you knew what I was talking about…what’s a community deathcare educator? Let me explain.
Community deathcare is a grassroots movement working to empower families (biological or chosen) to care for their dying and dead loved ones. The goal of community deathcare is to normalize deathcare in every home, so that families can return to doing what they have done for centuries, care for their own. The work of caring for people before and after death used to be a family- and community-led endeavor, and still is in many parts of the world. However, in the west, the professionalization of deathcare via long-term care facilities, hospices, and the funeral industry has all but removed families from the important and healing work of deathcare.
There’s a widespread misunderstanding that the law prevents families from being more involved in post-deathcare, but this isn’t the case. While laws governing such matters are decided provincially, in most Canadian provinces, hospitals are legally obliged to release a dead body to the next-of-kin and not, as is commonly believed, to a funeral director. While a next-of-kin can designate a funeral director to act on their behalf, they are not required to do so. Except under unusual circumstances, once a death has been registered with the local authorities and a burial permit has been issued, the next-of-kin is legally entitled to transport their loved one’s body to the location of their choosing (within provincial lines) and may sit vigil with the body for a period of time before burial or cremation.
Perhaps you’re wondering why a family would choose to go this route when there are willing professionals on stand-by. I won’t try to speak for everyone, because there are many reasons why a family would choose DIY post-deathcare, but here’s why I would choose it:
To support grief and healing: I’ve had the opportunity to speak with a number of people who’ve explored family-led deathcare, and there’s reason to believe that being involved in post-deathcare helps to move grief along. For some, post-deathcare is a final act of love and tenderness. For others, spending time with a loved one’s dead body helps to make real the truth of their death. There’s a marked difference between seeing the still-warm body of a loved one zipped into a plastic bag and wheeled away, when compared with sitting with a loved one’s body as it grows cold and transitions into a corpse.
Environmental impact: A step toward community deathcare is a step away from the earth-degrading practices that are the gold standard for conventional funerals. Practices such as embalming, meant to slow decay, expose soil and groundwater (and the embalmers themselves) to toxic levels of formaldehyde, a known carcinogen. Burial practices such as hermetically sealed coffins of steel and hardwood, and vaults lined with reinforced concrete, mean that millions of tonnes of resources are buried each year, largely in the name of slowing down the natural process of decomposition. Cremation, widely thought to be a greener option, releases carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, and heavy metals (such as mercury from dental fillings) into the air. A return to community deathcare is an invitation to question these practices and ask how our great-grandparents buried their dead: a hand dug grave and a pine box or shroud was good enough for them, could it be good enough for us?
High cost of out-sourcing deathcare: The cost of a conventional funeral in Canada can swell to a small fortune, with statistics ranging from $5,000 to $15,000. As with most things DIY, the costs are reduced considerably when you do the work yourself, for example, hosting a backyard memorial or throwing a cremation urn on your potter’s wheel. Other costs can be eliminated entirely, such as the cost of embalming. While industry profiteers may encourage you to believe that the amount you spend correlates with the amount you loved, you can choose to see that for the flimflam it is.
I’ve covered the “what” and the “why” of community deathcare, now I’ll say something about the “how”. How do you practice community deathcare? Well, if you’re the kind who likes to figure things out as you go, roll up your sleeves and begin! But if you’re the kind who prefers to have a guide or a teacher, that’s where I come in. I’m a community deathcare educator, and I can help.
I’ll be posting more about community deathcare over the months and years ahead, but before I wrap up this already very long blog post, I want to mention one more thing.
I’ve explained what community deathcare is; I also want to be clear about what it isn’t.
It isn’t all or nothing. To participate in community deathcare, you don’t need to eschew all help and services from professionals. Whether your loved one dies at home or in hospice, whether their body is placed in the care of a funeral director or brought home for a vigil, there are opportunities, big and small, to reclaim family-led deathcare. For some, the act of taking a warm wash cloth and tenderly cleaning their loved one’s face and hands after death can be a powerful gesture. For others, building a casket or decorating a cardboard cremation box can be meaningful. The point is to leave the sidelines and get involved, no matter how clumsy you feel, trusting that your loving hands can offer something that a professional’s hands can’t: the intimacy of family caring for their own.
Image © 2018 Erin Bidlake