On this page, you will find a variety of articles related to the end of life.
Please scroll down to see them all. We hope they will inform, console, relieve, and reassure, offering perspectives that will lighten the way ahead.
These articles are included below in order:
Health News from NPR: For Many, A Natural Death May Be Preferable than Enduring CPR
When Someone Dies by Dr. Sarah Kerr, PhD
Homesick for Ourselves – The Hidden Grief of Aging by Carol Lefevre
My Own Life ~ Oliver Sacks on Learning He Has Terminal Cancer
If You Want to Give Something Back to Nature, Give Your Body ~ A New York Times Article by Caitlin Doughty
The Ultimate Compostable: You... Green Postmortem Possibilities Abound by Heather Smith
Human Composting: California Clears the Way for Greener Burial Method by Kari Paul
Reef Ball Burials: The New Trend for Becoming ‘Coral’ When You Die by Abby Young-Powell
In Memory of Dr. Steven Goodman, PhD ~ Remembering Mysteries of Death
Health News from NPR -
For many, a 'natural death' may be preferable to enduring CPR
May 29, 202312:17 PM ET ~ By Clayton Dalton - TO VIEW, CLICK HERE.
When Someone Dies - By Dr. Sarah Kerr, PhD - The Centre for Sacred Deathcare
When someone dies, the first thing to do is nothing. Don't run out and call the nurse. Don't pick up the phone. Take a deep breath and be present to the magnitude of the moment.
There's a grace to being at the bedside of someone you love as they make their transition out of this world. At the moment they take their last breath, there's an incredible sacredness in the space. The veil between the worlds opens.
We're so unprepared and untrained in how to deal with death that sometimes a kind of panic response kicks in. "They're dead!"
We knew they were going to die, so their being dead is not a surprise. It's not a problem to be solved. It's very sad, but it's not cause to panic.
If anything, their death is cause to take a deep breath, to stop, and be really present to what's happening. If you're at home, maybe put on the kettle and make a cup of tea.
Sit at the bedside and just be present to the experience in the room. What's happening for you? What might be happening for them? What other presences are here that might be supporting them on their way? Tune into all the beauty and magic.
Pausing gives your soul a chance to adjust, because no matter how prepared we are, a death is still a shock. If we kick right into "do" mode, and call 911, or call the hospice, we never get a chance to absorb the enormity of the event.
Give yourself five minutes or 10 minutes, or 15 minutes just to be. You'll never get that time back again if you don't take it now.
After that, do the smallest thing you can. Call the one person who needs to be called. Engage whatever systems need to be engaged, but engage them at the very most minimal level. Move really, really, really, slowly, because this is a period where it's easy for body and soul to get separated.
Our bodies can gallop forwards, but sometimes our souls haven't caught up. If you have an opportunity to be quiet and be present, take it. Accept and acclimatize and adjust to what's happening. Then, as the train starts rolling, and all the things that happen after a death kick in, you'll be better prepared.
You won't get a chance to catch your breath later on. You need to do it now.
Being present in the moments after death is an incredible gift to yourself, it's a gift to the people you're with, and it's a gift to the person who's just died. They're just a hair's breath away. They're just starting their new journey in the world without a body. If you keep a calm space around their body, and in the room, they're launched in a more beautiful way. It's a service to both sides of the veil.
Learn more about healthier ways of meeting death, and download a free Holistic Death Resource Kit at www.soulpassages.ca
Homesick for Ourselves – The Hidden Grief of Aging
By Carol Lefevre ~ Published in ‘The Conversation’, an online periodical
Anyone parenting young children will be familiar with the phrase “there’ll be tears before bedtime”. But in a quieter, more private way, the expression seems perfectly pitched to describe the largely hidden grief of aging. Not the sharp grief that follows a bereavement (though bereavements do accumulate with the years), but a more elusive emotion. One that is, perhaps, closest to the bone-gnawing sorrow of homesickness.
Sarah Manguso evokes this sense of having travelled further from our younger selves than we could ever have imagined: Sometimes I feel a twinge, a memory of youthful promise, and wonder how I got here, of all the places I could have got to.
Historically, the phenomenon of homesickness was identified in 1688 by the Swiss medical student, Johannes Hofer, who named it nostalgia from the Greek nostos, meaning homecoming, and algos, meaning an ache, pain, grief and distress. It was the disease of soldiers, sailors, convicts and slaves. And it was particularly associated with soldiers of the Swiss army, who served as mercenaries and among whom it was said that a well-known milking song could bring on a fatal longing. (So singing or playing that song was made punishable by death.) Bagpipes stirred the same debilitating nostalgia in Scottish soldiers. Deaths from homesickness were recorded, but the only effective treatment was to send the afflicted person back to wherever they belonged.
The nostalgia associated with old age, if it occurs, appears incurable, since there can be no possibility of a return to an irrecoverable youth. But as with homesickness, how badly those afflicted suffer seems to depend on how they manage their relationship with the past.
The Phantom was Me
American writer Cheryl Strayed describes deciding to transcribe her old journals. On reading one of them from cover to cover, she is left feeling kind of sick for the rest of the day, as if I’d been visited by a phantom who both buoyed and scared the bejesus out of me. And the weirdest of all is that phantom was me! Did I even know her anymore? Where did the woman who’d written those words go? How did she become me?
I’ve experienced a similar rush of bafflement and grief upon opening a letter I’d written some time before I turned 50. My mother had saved it and returned it to me 20 years later. Within its pages I found a younger, more energetic and vibrant self. The realization this woman who inhabited the letter so vividly was no longer available to me came with a jolt of emotion that felt like a bereavement.
I was so knocked off-kilter by this ghost-like encounter that the letter (along with others I had been planning to transcribe) had to be set aside for a day when I might be able to muster the necessary courage and detachment. Whether that day ever comes will depend, I suppose, on how I navigate my own relationship with time, and on reaching a calm acceptance of the distance travelled. Disbelief at the distance between the young self and the old self is one of the factors in this late-life grieving. At its root, perhaps, is an internalized ageism: innate, or else massaged into us by the culture we spring from.
Carol Lefevre found a ‘younger, more energetic and vibrant self’ in old letters. In a series of recent conversations with people over 70, I encouraged them to tell their stories and to reflect on the effects of time on their lives. Childhood sometimes emerged as a place they were pleased to have left behind – and occasionally, as a place to be held close.
Trevor emigrated alone to Australia when he was just 18. I asked him how often now, at 75, he thinks about his childhood. “Do you have a sense of who you were back then, and is that person still part of who you are?”
“I think about my childhood quite a lot, especially putting some distance between where I was then and where I am now,” he told me. “I didn’t have a really happy upbringing, and coming to Australia was a way of getting away from home and experiencing a new culture.”
In response to the same question, Jo, at 84, led me to a framed photograph, enlarged to poster-size, which has hung on the wall of both his homes. It shows him aged three, in a garden – a radiant child wearing a plain white shirt and dark shorts, arms out-flung as if to embrace the natural world. He bursts with exuberance, curiosity, and joy.
I relate to that as an idea, as a concept of my life. I want to maintain that freshness, that child-like freshness. You’ve got no responsibilities; every day is a new day. You’re looking at things in a different light, you’re aware of everything around you. That’s what I wanted to maintain, that feeling through my life – I’m talking age-wise. My concept of my ageing is there in that photograph.“
While older voices are often absent in the media, and in fiction they are too often presented as stereotypes, in conversation what arises can both surprise and inspire.
‘How can I be old?’
As I approached my own 70th birthday, I realized I was about to cross a border. Once I was on the other side, I would be old – no question. Yet the word "old”, especially when coupled with the word “woman”, is carefully avoided in our culture. Old is a country no one wants to visit.
Penelope Lively’s novella-length story ‘Metamorphosis’, or ‘The Elephant’s Foot’, written when Lively was in her mid-eighties, explores this evolution from youth to old age through the character of Harriet Mayfield. As a nine-year-old, Harriet is reprimanded by her mother for not behaving well on a visit to her great-grandmother.
“She’s old,” says Harriet. “I don’t like old.” When her mother points out that one day Harriet, too, will be old, like her great-grandmother, Harriet laughs. “No, I won’t. You’re just being silly,” says Harriet “how can I be old? I’m me.”
Towards the end of the story, Harriet is 82 and must somehow accept that she is “in the departure lounge. Check-in was a very long time ago.” With her equally elderly husband, Charles, Harriet ponders what they can do with the time remaining. Charles decides, “it’s a question of resources. What do we have that could be used – exploited?” Harriet replies, “Experience. That’s it. A whole bank of experience.”
“And experience is versatile stuff. Comes in all shapes and sizes. Personal. Collective. Well, then?”
If distance travelled is a factor in late-life grief, so too is a sense of paths not taken: of a younger self, or selves, that never found expression.
In Jessica Au’s recent, much-awarded novella ‘Cold Enough For Snow’, there is a scene where the narrator explains to her mother the existence, in some old paintings, of a pentimento – an earlier image of something the artist had decided to paint over. “Sometimes, these were as small as an object, or a color that had been changed, but other times, they could be as significant as a whole figure.”
Art historians, using X-rays and infrared reflectography, have identified pentimenti in many famous paintings, from the adjusted placement of a controversial off-the-shoulder strap in John Singer Sargent’s ‘Portrait of Madam X’, to the painted-over figure of a woman nursing a child in Picasso’s ‘The Old Guitarist’, and a man with a bow-tie concealed beneath the brushwork of his work ‘The Blue Room’.
Singer Sargent’s adjustment was his response to an outcry at the perceived indecency of Madame X’s lowered shoulder strap, which both the public and art critics of the time declared to be indecent. By contrast, the model’s icy pallor caused only a ripple of interest.
Picasso’s hidden figures are assumed to be the outcome of a shortage of canvas during his “Blue Period”, but shortages aside, the word pentimento, which derives from the Italian verb pentirsi, meaning “to repent”, brings to these lost figures a sense of regret that resonates with the feeling in old age of having lost the younger self, or of carrying traces, deeply buried, of other lives one might have lived. In Cold Enough for Snow, Au’s narrator remarks of her mother that, “Perhaps, over time, she found the past harder and harder to evoke, especially with no-one to remember it with.” The mother’s situation references another source of grief: that of the person who becomes the last of their friends and family still standing.
Carol’s interviewees in their 70s all feel the presence of a ‘younger self’. In childhood games of this nature there would be a prize for the survivor. But for those who reach an extreme old age, having lost parents, siblings and contemporaries who knew them when they were young, even the presence of children and grandchildren may not entirely erase this “last man standing” loneliness. There is, too, the darkness of a projected future where there is no one still living who remembers us.
In Jessica Au’s book the narrator occasionally speaks of the past as “a time that didn’t really exist at all”. And yet in my recent conversations with people in their seventies and above, every one of them admits to feeling a vivid sense of the past, and of the continuing presence of a younger self. As one of them wistfully remarked: “Sometimes she even seeps through.”
Memory and Detail
Perhaps part of the problem is the mass of ordinary detail that disappears from memory on any given day. Life is made up of so many small moments that it’s impossible to hold onto them all – and if we did it might even be damaging. Imagine someone casually asking how your day had been, and responding with the tsunami of detail those hours actually contained.
After opening your eyes at first light, you’d describe your shower, your breakfast, and how you slipped your keys into your handbag as you left the house; in the street you’d passed two women with a pram, a child with a small white dog on a lead, and an elderly man with a walking stick. And so on. If our minds swarmed with the trivia of daily life, more important events might be forgotten, and possibly the neural overload would even make us ill. Yet with the realization of the loss of these minutes and hours arises the anxiety that in time, the things we do want to remember will slither away from us into the dark.
I imagine this fear is what compels people to fill social media with photographs of their breakfasts, and of their relentless selfie-taking. It is surely the impulse behind keeping a journal. The fear of losing time must be what compels things like ‘relentless selfie-taking’. The anxiety of losing even the passing moments in a day afflicts the author of ‘Ongoingness: The End of a Diary’. In it, the American writer Sara Manguso describes her compulsive need to document and hold onto her life. “I didn’t want to lose anything. That was my main problem.”
After 25 years of paying attention to the smallest moments, Manguso’s diary is 800,000 words long. “The diary was my defense against waking up at the end of my life and realizing I’d missed it.” But despite her continuous effort, I knew I couldn’t replicate my whole life in language. I knew that most of it would follow my body into oblivion.
Is it possible that women experience grief around aging earlier, and more emphatically than men? After all, by the age of 50, the bodies of even those women who remain fit send the implacable signal that things have changed. In Alice Munro’s story Bardon Bus, from her collection The Moons of Jupiter, the female narrator endures dinner in the company of a rather malicious man, Dennis, who explains that women are forced to live in the world of loss and death! Oh, I know, there’s face-lifting, but how does that really help? The uterus dries up. The vagina dries up.
Dennis compares the opportunities open to men as opposed to those available to women. Specifically, with ageing. Look at you. Think of the way your life would be, if you were a man. The choices you would have. I mean sexual choices. You could start all over. Men do. When the narrator responds cheerfully that she might resist starting over, even if it were possible, Dennis is quick to retort: That’s it, that’s just it, though, you don’t get the opportunity! You’re a woman and life only goes in one direction for a woman.
In another story in the same collection, Labor Day Dinner, Roberta is in the bedroom dressing for an evening out when her lover George comes in and cruelly remarks: “Your armpits are flabby.” Roberta says she will wear something with sleeves, but in her head she hears the harsh satisfaction in his voice. The satisfaction of airing disgust. He is disgusted by her aging body. That could have been foreseen. Roberta thinks bitterly that she has always sought to remedy the least sign of deterioration.
Flabby armpits – how can you exercise the armpits? What is to be done? Now the payment is due, and what for? For vanity. Hardly even for that. Just for having those pleasing surfaces once, and letting them speak for you; just for allowing an arrangement of hair and shoulders and breasts to have its effect. You don’t stop in time, don’t know what to do instead; you lay yourself open to humiliation. So thinks Roberta, with self-pity […] She must get away, live alone, wear sleeves.
As with most emotions that arise around our aging, it can usually be traced back to a fraught relationship with time. French philosopher and Nobel Prize winner Henri Bergson says: “Sorrow begins by being nothing more than a facing towards the past.” For Roberta, as for many of us, it was a past in which we relied on those “pleasing surfaces”, perhaps even took them for granted, until they no longer produced the desired effect.
But the truth is that our bodies are capable of more severe betrayals than mere flabby armpits. In time they may cause us to be exposed in skimpy, front-opening or back-opening hospital gowns under the all-seeing eye of the CT scanner; they may deliver us into the skilled, ruthless hands of a surgeon. Our very blood may speak of things we will not wish to hear.
Glimpsing Our Mortality in Middle Age
Middle age is sometimes referred to as The Age of Grief. It’s when we first glimpse our own mortality; we feel youth slipping away into the past, and the young people in our lives begin to assert their independence. We have our mid-life crises then. We join gyms, and take up running; we speak for the first time of “bucket lists” – the term itself an attempt to diminish the sting of time’s depredations. None of this will save us from the real Age of Grief, which comes later and hits harder because it is largely hidden. And we’ll be expected to endure it in silence.
In my conversations with people aged 70 and older, grief has surfaced from causes other than what might be called “cosmetic” changes. Following a severe stroke, 80-year-old Philippa describes the pain of having had to make the decision to relinquish her home and move into residential care. It’s when you lose your garden, which you’ve loved, and you’ve got to walk away from that. I’ve got photos of the house, and I look at them and think, oh, I just love the way I did that room, decorated it, things like that. But change happens. “Somehow change always comes with loss, as well as bringing something new,” I said. “Yes,” she replied, “I just had to say to myself: you can’t worry about it, and you can’t change it. That sounds hard, but it’s my way of dealing with it.” Tucked away in residential care homes, largely invisible to those of us lucky enough to still inhabit the outside world, elderly people like Philippa are quietly raising resilience to the level of an art form.
In her poem, ‘One Art’, the Canadian poet Elizabeth Bishop advises losing something every day.
Accept the fluster
of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
Lose something every day.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.
Bishop goes on to list other lost items – her mother’s watch, the next-to-last of three loved houses, lovely cities, two rivers, even a continent. While the losses elderly people commonly accumulate are less grand, they are no less devastating. One by one, they will relinquish driver’s licenses. For many there will be the loss of the family home and their belongings, save for whatever will fit into a care home’s single room. Perhaps they have already given up the freedom of walking without the aid of a stick, or walker. There may be the dietary restrictions imposed by conditions such as diabetes, and the invisible disabilities of diminished hearing and eyesight.
A failing memory, one would think, must be the final straw. And yet, what seems to be the actual final straw is the situation, reported time and again, where an old person feels “unseen”, or “looked through”, and for indefensible reasons finds themselves being “missed” in favor of someone younger. It might, for example, be a moment when they are ignored as they patiently wait their turn at a shop counter. The final straw, for most older people, is when they feel ‘unseen’. In my conversation with Philippa, she remarked that old people are often looked through when they are part of a group, or when they are waiting to be served. “I have seen it happen to other older people, as if they don’t exist. I have called out assistants who have done that to other people.” Surely the least we can do, as fortunate beings of fewer years, is to acknowledge the old people among us. To make them feel seen, and of equal value.
Ageism, Healthy Life Expectancy and Population Aging: How Are They Related? is a recent survey conducted with more than 83,000 participants from 57 countries. It found that ageism negatively impacts the health of older adults. In the United States, people with a negative attitude towards ageing live 7.5 fewer years than their more positive counterparts.
In Australia, the National Aging Research Institute has developed an 'Age-Positive Language Guide' as part of its strategy to combat ageism. Examples of poor descriptive language include terms such as “old person”, “the elderly”, and even “seniors”. That last term appears on a card Australians receive shortly after turning 60, which enables them to receive various discounts and concessions. Instead, we are encouraged to use “older person”, or “older people”. But this is just another form of age-masking that fools no one. It would be better to throw the institute’s energy into destigmitizing the word “old”. What, after all, is wrong with being old, and saying so?
To begin the process of reclaiming this word from the pejorative territory it currently occupies, old people need to start claiming their years with pride. If other marginalized social groups can do it, why can’t old people? Some activists working against ageism are beginning to mention “age pride”. If we become homesick for who we once were as we age, we might remind ourselves of the meaning of nostos and consider old age as a kind of homecoming.
The body we travel in is a vehicle for all the iterations of the self, and the position we currently inhabit is part of an ongoing creative process: the evolving story of the self. From the 1980s, psychologists, philosophers and social theorists have been calling it narrative identity. The process of piecing together a narrative identity begins in late adolescence and evolves across our entire lives. Like opening a Russian doll, from whose hollow shell other dolls emerge, at our center is a solid core composed of traits and values. It’s also composed of the narrative identity we have put together from all our days – including those we cannot now remember – and from all the selves we have ever been. Perhaps even from the selves we might have been, but chose instead to paint over.
In ‘Metamorphosis’, or the ‘Elephant’s Foot’, Harriet Mayfield tells her husband, “At this point in life. We are who we are – the outcome of various other incarnations.” We know our lives, and the lives of others, through fragments. Fragments are all we have. They’re all we’ll ever have. We live in moments, not always in chronological order. But narrative identity helps us make meaning of life. And the vantage point of old age offers the longest view. The story of the self carries us from the deep past to the present moment. And old age sets us the great life challenge of maintaining balance in the present, while managing the remembered past – with all its joys and griefs – and the joys and griefs of the imagined future.
My Own Life ~ Oliver Sacks on Learning He Has Terminal Cancer
A MONTH ago, I felt that I was in good health, even robust health. At 81, I still swim a mile a day. But my luck has run out — a few weeks ago I learned that I have multiple metastases in the liver. Nine years ago it was discovered that I had a rare tumor of the eye, an ocular melanoma. Although the radiation and lasering to remove the tumor ultimately left me blind in that eye, only in very rare cases do such tumors metastasize. I am among the unlucky 2 percent.
I feel grateful that I have been granted nine years of good health and productivity since the original diagnosis, but now I am face to face with dying. The cancer occupies a third of my liver, and though its advance may be slowed, this particular sort of cancer cannot be halted.
It is up to me now to choose how to live out the months that remain to me. I have to live in the richest, deepest, most productive way I can. In this I am encouraged by the words of one of my favorite philosophers, David Hume, who, upon learning that he was mortally ill at age 65, wrote a short autobiography in a single day in April of 1776. He titled it “My Own Life.”
“I now reckon upon a speedy dissolution,” he wrote. “I have suffered very little pain from my disorder; and what is more strange, have, notwithstanding the great decline of my person, never suffered a moment’s abatement of my spirits. I possess the same ardor as ever in study, and the same gaiety in company.”
I have been lucky enough to live past 80, and the 15 years allotted to me beyond Hume’s three score and five have been equally rich in work and love. In that time, I have published five books and completed an autobiography (rather longer than Hume’s few pages) to be published this spring; I have several other books nearly finished.
Hume continued, “I am ... a man of mild dispositions, of command of temper, of an open, social, and cheerful humor, capable of attachment, but little susceptible of enmity, and of great moderation in all my passions.”
Here I depart from Hume. While I have enjoyed loving relationships and friendships and have no real enmities, I cannot say (nor would anyone who knows me say) that I am a man of mild dispositions. On the contrary, I am a man of vehement disposition, with violent enthusiasms, and extreme immoderation in all my passions.
And yet, one line from Hume’s essay strikes me as especially true: “It is difficult,” he wrote, “to be more detached from life than I am at present.”
Over the last few days, I have been able to see my life as from a great altitude, as a sort of landscape, and with a deepening sense of the connection of all its parts. This does not mean I am finished with life.
On the contrary, I feel intensely alive, and I want and hope in the time that remains to deepen my friendships, to say farewell to those I love, to write more, to travel if I have the strength, to achieve new levels of understanding and insight. This will involve audacity, clarity and plain speaking; trying to straighten my accounts with the world. But there will be time, too, for some fun (and even some silliness, as well).
I feel a sudden clear focus and perspective. There is no time for anything inessential. I must focus on myself, my work and my friends. I shall no longer look at “NewsHour” every night. I shall no longer pay any attention to politics or arguments about global warming. This is not indifference but detachment — I still care deeply about the Middle East, about global warming, about growing inequality, but these are no longer my business; they belong to the future. I rejoice when I meet gifted young people — even the one who biopsied and diagnosed my metastases. I feel the future is in good hands.
I have been increasingly conscious, for the last 10 years or so, of deaths among my contemporaries. My generation is on the way out, and each death I have felt as an abruption, a tearing away of part of myself. There will be no one like us when we are gone, but then there is no one like anyone else, ever. When people die, they cannot be replaced. They leave holes that cannot be filled, for it is the fate — the genetic and neural fate — of every human being to be a unique individual, to find his own path, to live his own life, to die his own death.
I cannot pretend I am without fear. But my predominant feeling is one of gratitude. I have loved and been loved; I have been given much and I have given something in return; I have read and traveled and thought and written. I have had an intercourse with the world, the special intercourse of writers and readers.
Above all, I have been a sentient being, a thinking animal, on this beautiful planet, and that in itself has been an enormous privilege and adventure.
Oliver Sacks, a professor of neurology at the New York University School of Medicine, is the author of many books, including “Awakenings” and “The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat.”
*Green Burial and Alternative Interment
On this website under the heading 'FREE TLC VIDEOS' you will find a program recorded in 2022 called 'New Choices: Alternative Interment & Green Burial' - with Ed Bixby and Seth Viddal. The excerpted articles below provide additional information about these practices. We at TLC feel this may be helpful for some people - modern interment methods provide protection for the environment while maintaining the integrity of the deceased and are an honorable way to disperse remains after death. We hope this information is helpful to you.
To watch TLC's free video 'New Choices: Alternative Interment & Green Burial', click here and scroll down.
If You Want to Give Something Back to Nature, Give Your Body
by Caitlin Doughty ~ New York Times
Caitlin Doughty is a mortician and the author of three books on death and the funeral industry. She founded the Order of the Good Death, a nonprofit that promotes end-of-life alternatives.
Eight years ago, panting heavily in the humid summer air, I carried a pair of orange work buckets full of wood chips up a leafy hill in rural North Carolina. Although these were ordinary wood chips, the pilot study I’d come to observe was planning to put them to an extraordinary use: composting a dead human being into soil.
The deceased gentleman I saw that day, lying on the forest floor in dappled sunlight, had donated his body to science in order to be useful to society after death. Now that gift and the study, by the Forensic Osteology Research Station of Western Carolina University, have borne fruit. With human composting technology, our dead have the chance to become nutrient-rich soil that can be used to plant trees and regrow forests.
As of today, five states — Washington, Oregon, Vermont, Colorado and, most recently, California — have either legalized or set a date for legalizing human composting as a means of disposition after death. In New York, one such bill has passed the Assembly and Senate. It now awaits Gov. Kathy Hochul’s signature. Human composting — or, as it’s sometimes referred to, natural organic reduction — fulfills many people’s desire to nurture the earth after dying. It owes much of its present form to Katrina Spade, a Washington-based designer and entrepreneur who told me that her goal is to see “composting overtake cremation as the default American death care in the next couple of decades.”
In 2015, as an architecture student, Ms. Spade started a nonprofit called the Urban Death Project, envisioning strolling past the brownstones of Brooklyn and coming upon a municipal human composting facility. There, passersby would reflect on mortality and the cycle of life, feeling a sense of connection to the earth, past and future — the way urban cemeteries like Green-Wood were designed to make repose in death a harmonious part of city life...
The process takes place inside a cylindrical vessel — they remind me of a Japanese capsule hotel for the dead. A bed is made of plant materials like straw, brown wood chips, sawdust and alfalfa. The body is then wrapped in a cotton shroud and laid in place. During the ceremony, loved ones can add flowers and other meaningful organic materials. Air (and in some cases, moisture) is pumped into the vessel to ensure that conditions are ideal for decomposition. The microbes naturally found in the body and plant material will begin to break everything down. Temperature and airflow are monitored and controlled, and the vessel is intermittently rotated for aeration. Fragrant gases such as cadaverine and putrescine are treated with a bio-filter before being released.
After six to eight weeks, the body has undergone a complete transformation. Near the end, all that is left are bone fragments, any medical implants (like artificial hips) and nutrient-rich soil. Remaining bones are ground into powder in a cremulator, a machine commonly used after cremation, before being returned to the soil to further break down. Medical implants are hand- sifted out and recycled. The soil is also tested for any harmful chemicals such as lead, mercury, arsenic and even fecal coliform. The soil is left to dry out and cure. Once the process is complete, there will be approximately one cubic yard of new soil created from the mixture of what was, at the start, human remains and plant matter. This special earth can then be scattered in a cemetery, placed in a grave or given to the family to use as it sees fit. Tanya Marsh, a professor at Wake Forest University and a leader in human remains law, said that in the New York bill the final product is defined as soil, with no restrictions placed on its use.
After working for years in the American funeral industry and founding a nonprofit to promote acceptance and legalization of new green funeral options, I felt the need to warn Ms. Spade that with death, change comes slowly. The new composting process would have to be approved state by state, one by one.
The Urban Death Project is now shuttered. In its place, Ms. Spade founded Recompose, a new for-profit company designed to bring human composting to the public. (She and I have been friends and have advised each other’s work for years but have never had any type of financial relationship. I have no stake in Recompose or any other human composting company.) The business is up and running in Washington, alongside several other new companies like Return Home, Earth Funeral and the Natural Funeral, which serve other states where human composting is legal.
There are environmental and financial reasons this process makes sense for New York. In the city, we’re running out of space for burials. Plots in New York City typically range from $4,500 to $19,000 — and some plots in Manhattan can cost up to $1 million. This price doesn’t include the additional tens of thousands of dollars it typically costs when a funeral home prepares and transports a body for burial.
The usual way to save on these costs has been cremation, which can be available in the $2,500 range. But cremation has drawbacks. The cremation process uses as much fossil fuel per body as a 500-mile car trip. And releases harmful air pollutants like dioxins, mercury and fine particulate matter into the surrounding neighborhoods. Human composting, by Recompose’s reckoning, uses just an eighth of this energy and falls in total price between cremation and conventional burial, at around $7,000. This process also saves around a metric ton of CO2 for every person composted, compared with conventional burial or cremation.
Besides these practical reasons to re-examine our way of dying, there are emotional reasons. We humans value our relationship with the planet we live on. It’s natural to want to give something back and, in a deep way, to return to the elements — to return our atoms to nature... The process was so important to one Brooklynite, Michelle Miller, that when her mother died, Ms. Miller had her body transported to Seattle to be composted. “It was moving, quiet and meaningful,” she said. After the process, “members of my family called to say the experience was healing for them in ways they had not expected.”
Sean Ovens was an officer in the Tacoma, Wash., police department and an instructor at the local police academy. After he took his own life in July, his mother, Roberta Vollendorff, had his body composted at Return Home and brought the soil from his remains to a Sitka spruce tree on her property. “Not everybody has as much land as I do, but almost everybody has plants that they can go to,” she said, adding, “I can walk out to the tree that I’ve walked out to all these years, and my son is there. It’s so comforting.”
There are also those who fear their own eventual decay. It has been a century since America’s dead have regularly returned to the organic life cycle. The American funeral industry has promoted the idea that the “dignified” dead body should be preserved by formaldehyde embalming, placed in a sealed casket and lowered into a heavy concrete vault under the ground. This is a valid choice, but it treats the dead as something to be vigilantly protected. Human composting reframes the dead body: not something to be protected from nature and the elements but something meant to return to them. It requires facing the reality of a changing climate and our place in the life cycle — no small existential feat.
Our society continues to search for new rituals and new ways to affirm that we’re all dignified in our mortality, that dust will be dust. We ought to respect everyone’s choices for their dead and realize that no one group can define for the rest what a dignified death might look like.
Six years after carrying those wood chips through the North Carolina forest, I visited another forest, in southern Washington. After decades of depletion by logging, this forest had been taken over by a conservation organization with a special mission. A golf cart drove me along a rewilding logging path, up to a field of dark-brown compost. The soil in this compost was once the bodies of 28 humans: now all were one, part of the woods around them. These 28 people chose to donate their soil to help regrow native trees and eventually bring shade to a salmon- spawning stream. The soil in this field testifies to a group of pioneers who wished, as a last gesture, to help repair some of the damage we’ve done to nature. It’s a gesture everyone in the country should have the legal choice to make and many in New York would like the opportunity to make. If Governor Hochul signs the bill into law, New Yorkers will have the chance to use their loved ones’ soil in any way they find meaningful: scatter, plant a tree, take to a cemetery, fertilize a garden or donate to a conservation organization.
At Recompose in Seattle, Ms. Spade has composted the bodies of over 200 people. Other states are following suit, with new practitioners sprouting up to offer the service to their communities. There is a broad desire in America to expand our death care choices and to align them with our hopes and dreams for a healthy planet. New York can light the way.
The Ultimate Compostable: You... Green postmortem possibilities abound.
September 24, 2022
The typical US funeral ends with cremation or burial in a coffin sealed inside a concrete vault. But new, greener after-death possibilities have emerged. Alkaline hydrolysis is now available in most states, and Colorado, Oregon, Washington, and Vermont allow the composting of human remains. Or there's always a nice hole in the ground.
Composting - How It Works
It's like regular composting but more dignified. Recompose, a facility in Washington State, surrounds the deceased with alfalfa, wood chips, and straw in stainless steel capsules and periodically rotates them at temperatures between 130°F and 160°F. The result, after 30 days (plus a few more weeks of curing), is "a cubic yard of soil amendment."
Getting composted is cheaper than being buried, largely because it doesn't require real estate. But the long composting period requires a lot of maintenance, so it will still set you (or, rather, your heirs) back around $7,000.
Alkaline Hydrolysis - How It Works
The body is placed in a stainless steel container filled with 95 percent water and 5 percent alkali (i.e., lye) that is then pressurized and heated to 300°F. After three hours, all that's left are a brittle skeleton that can be crushed into powder and a liquid safe enough to be discharged into a municipal waste system. It costs $1,500 to $4,000, but boosters note that it results in 20 to 30 percent "more ash remains returned to the family."
Alkaline hydrolysis uses less energy than cremation, which requires temperatures well over 1,200°F (usually involving gas heat), but more than a natural burial. You may also need to spring for a bigger urn.
Natural Burial - How It Works
While "six feet under" is the classic grave-digging metric, the Green Burial Council recommends 3.5 feet to accelerate decomposition while still discouraging scavengers. "Animals are much more interested in living prey above ground," reads the council's FAQ. "We're just not that delicious." If the soil is warm, loamy, and well drained, most bodies decay completely in 12 years. Flourishes meant to speed the process, like mushroom suits, are more for fashion. Plenty of organisms already present in the soil and in our own bodies are ready to tackle the job.
Natural burial has to happen quickly—ideally within three days of death and often involving a judicious use of dry ice before then. Plots are usually less expensive than for conventional burials but are still in the realm of $10,000. Geography is important: If you live in an area with a high water table, like much of Louisiana, earth burial is a challenge.
You'll generate the highest posthumous carbon emissions by being buried in an energy-intensive concrete vault. Cremation comes next, followed by composting and alkaline hydrolysis, with natural burial creating few, if any, emissions. Remember that the carbon you can save after death is nothing compared with what you're capable of while still alive. Plan for your eventual demise, but make your impact here, working to leave the climate better than you found it.
This article appeared in the Fall quarterly edition of ‘Sierra’ The Magazine of the Sierra Club, with the headline "The Green Reaper."
Human composting: California clears the way for greener burial method.
by Kari Paul / September 19, 2022
California is the fifth to legalize environmentally friendly process that allows for natural reduction of human remains to soil. California lawmakers have approved a new way of returning those who have died to the earth, after Gavin Newsom signed into law a bill allowing human composting on Sunday. Cremation, which accounts for more than half of burials, is an energy-intensive process that emits chemicals such as CO2 into the air. Through human composting, or natural organic reduction (NOR), the body is naturally broken down into soil.
Assembly Bill 351, drafted by assembly member Cristina Garcia, allows for the natural organic reduction of human remains to soil, as a more environmentally friendly alternative to traditional burial methods.
“With climate change and sea-level rise as very real threats to our environment, this is an alternative method of final disposition that won’t contribute emissions into our atmosphere,” Garcia said in a statement.
The process involves placing the deceased in an 8ft-long steel box with biodegradable materials such as wood chips and flowers. After 30 to 60 days, the body breaks down into soil that can be returned to relatives.
California is the fifth state to legalize human composting, after Washington, Colorado, Vermont and Oregon. The demand for such after-life care has been growing in recent years said Micah Truman, founder and CEO of Return Home, a funeral home in the Seattle area that specializes in human composting.
“With cremation, instead of sitting with our person and saying goodbye, we are very divorced from the process,” he said. Not everyone is supportive of the new California bill, with the California Catholic Conference saying the composting process “reduces the human body to simply a disposable commodity”.
“The practice of respectfully burying the bodies or the honoring of the ashes of the deceased comports with the virtually universal norm of reverence and care towards the deceased,” it said. But Truman said there was such a large demand for human composting, and so few states that allow it, that people from 12 different states have brought their loved ones over state lines to be composted at Return Home. Truman said that when a body is composted, it is returned to the family to do with it as they wish. Customers have planted trees and flowers, or spread soil into the ocean.
One farmer requested before dying that his body be returned to the farm he spent his life tending. “There is no limit to what can be done with the soil after death,” Truman said. Composting runs at about $5,000 to $7,000, compared with the median price of $7,225 for casket burials and $6,028 for cremation in California. Garcia, who had tried to pass the bill for the past three years, emphasized the environmental argument for composting in a statement.
“The wildfires, extreme drought and heat dome we just experienced remind us that climate change is real and detrimental and we must do everything we can to reduce methane and CO2 emissions,” she said.
Reef Ball Burials: The New Trend for Becoming ‘Coral’ When You Die
Do underwater cremation memorials help people regenerate marine habitats in death or are they a ‘greenwashing’ gimmick? By Abby Young-Powell
February 21, 2022
Janet Hock is a former dentistry professor who lives in Indianapolis. She is also an avid scuba diver, with a long love of the ocean. “We plod around on Earth, but there’s this whole other world that teems with life – or used to,” she says. So when Hock, 77, updated her will in 2020, she added that she wanted to become part of a coral reef when she died. The unusual request means her cremated remains will be mixed into a perforated concrete dome, known as a reef ball. She will then become part of an artificial reef, having a second life on the seabed.
“You’re providing structure for fish to swim through and a place for plants to grow,” says Hock. “My first impression was that they’re really ugly. Then I thought: ‘Oh, it would be so nice to be down there, with little orange fish darting through the holes in my ball.’”
The service is provided by Eternal Reefs, a Florida-based charity that says it offers a “way to give back after life by replenishing the dwindling natural reef systems”. It places reef balls made of pH-neutral concrete, along with human ashes, in regulated areas of the seabed around the US. Family and friends are given the GPS coordinates of where their loved one’s “grave” is located. Reef balls can attract a host of marine life to largely barren seabed. One near Florida is now home to 56 species of fish, as well as crabs, sea urchins, sponges and coral. The charity says it has seen the number of requests triple during the pandemic, mostly from people who love the sea – and the notion that in death they can help regenerate marine life.
A desire to return to the ocean goes back millennia, with evidence of sea burial in ancient Egypt and Rome. In the South Pacific, bodies would be placed in canoes and pushed out to sea, while scattering ashes in the ocean has long been widely practiced in Asia. And tales of fallen Viking heroes’ boats set ablaze have persisted in popular culture. Today, the idea of an ocean burial chimes with a search for eco-friendly alternatives to traditional burial and cremation. While the reef model still requires cremation, the idea is that the structures will help restore marine habitats by mimicking some characteristics of a coral reef.
Most of the world’s reefs are at risk – from ocean warming and acidification, pollution and overfishing – according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Reefs are essential to protect shorelines and maintain marine ecosystems, as well as providing work for local communities and even helping scientists to produce new medicines. Eternal Reefs works with the Reef Ball Foundation and Reef Innovations, which constructs the balls. At more than a meter high and two meters wide and weighing 250kg-1,800kg (550 lb.-4,000 lb.), the balls have a rough surface that allows marine plants and animals such as corals and algae to grow on them. The organization has so far sunk close to 3,000 memorial reefs across about 25 sites, from Texas to New Jersey.
There was a real diversity of invertebrates covering the stones. Murray Roberts, professor of marine biology at Edinburgh University’s school of geosciences, thinks it is a good idea. “Corals and all sorts of animals grow better on structure,” he says. “I can’t see an obvious downside.” Roberts says incorporating human ashes into artificial reefs could help shield them from destruction, as well as highlighting the damage we do to the ocean. “When you have artificial reefs that contain human remains, imagine the consternation there would be if that area was trawled up,” he says.
Dr. Ken Collins, of Southampton University’s National Oceanography Centre, agrees. “It is a designated bit of seabed which remains undisturbed,” he says. Collins, whose specialism is artificial reefs, sees no problem with marine concrete and is involved in a UK memorial reef himself. “Any impact disappears within days,” he says.
Eternal Reefs says the money people such as Hock pay for reef balls – which cost between $3,000 and $7,500 (£2,200-£5,500) – helps fund more artificial reefs. “We consider ourselves to be reef-builders. [That’s] what our goal is,” says George Frankel, chief executive of Eternal Reefs. “And we’re using memorialization as the tool.” Incorporating human ashes into artificial reefs could protect them, as well as highlighting the damage done to the ocean, says a marine biologist.
It is not the only such project in the ocean: the company behind the Neptune Memorial Reef, in Florida, says it “creates life after life” in the ocean and also provides memorials made of concrete and cremated remains, which cost from $1,295, to generate funding. “Building a reef costs money – lots of it,” says Jim Hutslar, its operations director. Hutslar says the artificial reef is home to 56 species of fish, as well as crabs, sea urchins, sponges and coral. When complete, it will comprise 250,000 memorials covering more than 6.5 hectares (16 acres), making it one of the world’s largest human-made reefs.
The idea has also been adopted in Dorset, as part of a scheme to attract divers to the county. Two local divers, Marcus Darler and Sean Webb, gained permission from the Crown Estate (the monarchy owns the UK seabed) to obtain a square-kilometer site off the coast of Weymouth and Portland for a reef to help regenerate the local lobster population, as well as act as a dive site. “To help with funding, we came up with the idea of Solace Reefs,” Darler says.
With Collins’ support, they created perforated domes out of crushed Portland limestone and human ashes. Since 2014, they have deposited 16. After diving around the site, a marine biologist reported: “There was a real diversity of invertebrates covering the stones […] it has become a new ecosystem.”
It appeals to me – the thought of regrowing something that’s been destroyed. Both Frankel and Hutslar say many people are interested in replicating the model. “I get calls on a regular basis,” Frankel says. “The problem is they all think it’s a get-rich-quick scheme.” Still, he says there’s “no question in my mind that it will be mainstream”.
Not everyone is convinced, however. The model still involves cremation, which, on average, releases 400kg of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere for each body. “If people want to seriously make a difference, then don’t choose cremation,” says Rosie Inman-Cook, manager of the Natural Death Centre charity. “Cremation is a disaster.”
The artificial reefs also use concrete, the manufacture of which is responsible for up to 8% of global CO2 emissions. Concrete has a huge environmental cost, says Michael Steinke, a marine biologist at Essex University, “so from that point of view it might not be the best idea, if you’re really environmentally minded.”
In Memory of Dr. Steven Goodman, PhD
When Steven Goodman passed away our Sangha did a Vajrasattva puja for him via Zoom. Steve was a "vintage" student of Venerable Gyatrul Rinpoche who called him "Pigeon" in the old days. Steve's mind was in flight and his heart was all about sharing Dharma. He gave so much to us and to Buddhism in America, and among many other offerings, he formerly taught at Orgyen Dorje Den Temple in Alameda, CA. His many hats included being an advisor to the Khyentse Foundation since it's inception in 2001. He was Director of Research and Core Faculty of the Asian and Comparative Studies program in the Philosophy and Religion Department at CIIS, where he taught Buddhism and comparative philosophy. He was a former Rockefeller fellow and visiting professor in religious studies at Rice University, and taught and lectured widely on Buddhism, meditation, and Western psychology for 25 years. He was also the coeditor of 'Tibetan Buddhism: Reason and Revelation' and a contributor to 'Mindfulness and Meaningful Work'. Among his writings is a book 'The Buddhist Psychology of Awakening', and the wonderful piece we share here, 'Remembering Mysteries of Death: Personal Encounters with The Tibetan Book of the Dead'. We will always remember Dr. Goodman with great heart and bow to him with gratitude and faith, knowing his path is leading him on to realization. Please click the link below to see the article.