As with living well, dying well is a delicate balance between control and letting go -- the concrete realities and the transcendence that we can embrace.
Death as a topic is fascinating and also repulsive.
Bodies … The Exhibition, a display of human cadavers in life-like poses that opens Feb. 1 at the Cincinnati Museum Center, has been greeted with positive local press in the same media that vilified Thomas Condon´s morgue photography in 2001.
Meanwhile, some people who are focused on a sustainable, environmentally-friendly life are finding similar options when planning funerals. Gays and lesbians denied the right to legally marry are exploring options for how to plan end-of-life issues. And alternative religious approaches to death are gaining more acceptance.
Nothing is sure in life except death and taxes, as the saying goes, but both can be managed better with a little foresight and planning.
Three Feet Under
When local chiropractor Pamela Tickel´s husband Will passed away in 2006, she was convinced that he should be laid to rest in a way that honored their commitment to the environment and a natural lifestyle. Will, also a chiropractor, was buried without embalming or a vault at Ramsey Creek preserve in South Carolina, one of just a handful of green burial grounds in the U.S.
Before Will´s tragic death in a car accident at age 60, the couple heard a radio show about the emerging green burial movement.
“We had just kind of briefly discussed it,” Pamela relates, “that it was non-invasive and it wasn´t toxic to the environment. It was a very natural process as God intended.”
In his book Grave Matters: A Journey Through the Modern Funeral Industry to a Natural Way of Burial, author Mark Harris explains that every year Americans bury enough metal coffins and concrete vaults to rebuild the Golden Gate Bridge. He writes that our cemeteries have become landfills full of toxic waste, with formaldehyde, the chemical chiefly used in embalming, leaching into the earth.
Pamela says that Will´s body was preserved using refrigeration and delivered to South Carolina by Craver-Riggs Funeral Home in Milford. Following a simple ceremony at the Ramsey Creek chapel, Will´s wooden casket -- a biodegradable crate -- was placed on top of a few slats of wood that straddled the hand-dug grave, just 3 feet deep.
The non-descript site is part of Ramsey Creek´s 34-acre conservation area, a natural woodland preserve.
“It was just beautiful,” Pamela says. “There were very brief prayers and a very brief service, and then we lowered the body in.”
The family can take part in this process, slackening the straps beneath the casket until the body is at rest. Will´s daughter worked with Ramsey Creek´s founders, Billy and Kimberly Campbell, to fill in the grave.
“My daughter really felt good about that,” Pamela says. “It´s just very, very natural.”
A field stone and a wire basket of smaller rocks from places important to the Tickels marks the grave. There are also recorded GPS coordinates. Pamela´s body will one day be interred next to her husband´s as a final statement of purpose in her life.
“When we had a home birth 25 years ago, people thought we were crazy, and now people are very accepting and interested,” Pamela says, explaining that even though green burial is foreign to most, her paradigm has shifted and contemporary burial practices seem odd to her now.
Every state allows family members to take on any or all of the roles traditionally in the domain of funeral directors, says Kimberly Campbell.
Founded in 1996, Ramsey Creek was the first conservation burial ground in the country. Campbell says the family and friends -- anyone who isn´t operating a for-profit funeral business -- is allowed under the law to claim their loved one´s body from a morgue, take it home and wash it, dress it, preserve it in dry ice and transport it to the grave.
Ohio Board of Embalmers and Funeral Directors Executive Director Ann Cunningham says that filing the proper documents are all that the law requires.
You can also bury your dead on your own land, pending local zoning laws.
In addition, vaults are cemetery requirements, not legal issues. Their purpose is to keep the ground level and ease mowing.
Campbell says that some families she works with opt to build a casket for the decedent.
“It gives people the opportunity to be more involved on a personal level,” she says. “When people come to visit the preserve, they´re not overwhelmed so much with a sense of death but a sense of life by the appearance of it.”
The green burial movement is growing, with start-ups forming around the country, including one in northeastern Ohio. At $2,000 to $5,000, green funerals are often less than half the cost of contemporary funerals.
Howard Riggs, owner of Craver-Riggs Funeral Home & Crematorium in Milford, says the Tickel funeral is part of an evolving trend.
“One of the reasons the costs are so much less is you don´t use traditional merchandise,” Riggs says.
Funeral homes charge for three things, he explains: the embalming and body preparation services; the vault and casket; and the obituary, flowers and minister´s honorarium.
“We do a lot of multimedia presentations, and we try and encourage families to be involved by bringing in things of personal significance,” Riggs says.
Families have decorated with motorcycles, fishing gear and more, he says. Some families have even held the visitation in their homes.
“It´s kind of cathartic, I think, to gather up photographs, and they´ll laugh and cry,” Riggs says. “It´s not about the casket. It´s about memories and how you choose to remember them.”
Riggs says there are many inexpensive alternatives to contemporary caskets. Simple fiberboard boxes, hand-made coffins and boxes purchased inexpensively from a second party are all possible, and by law funeral homes cannot penalize their customers for this choice. Riggs encourages pre-planned funerals and emphasizes that they need not be prepaid.
“It´s one of the best gifts they can give their family,” he says. “Whether they choose to prepay or not is secondary to the emotional gift they give their family.”
How you handle the body is just one aspect of end-of-life issues. The lives of minor children and the disposition of personal assets can become chaotic without basic planning.
Attorney Steve Black regularly works with locals to smooth the transfer of their property to heirs. He says the most important thing one can do is to designate a trusted, responsible person as the agent in end of life issues. Ideally, he says, the same individual can act on your behalf in all matters.
Black says things to consider include:
• A Living Will, which explains what you want done if you´re in a terminal or permanently vegetative state. This designates one or more individuals to say on your behalf that you want to “pull the plug” or keep going.
• Medical Power of Attorney, which names a person who will act on your behalf to make judgments about medical care if you´re unable to do so.
• Financial Power of Attorney, which gives a person you choose the right to sign legal documents and contracts for you.
• A Last Will and Testament, which clearly divides your assets among your heirs.
Black says it´s also necessary to provide for your minor children´s guardianship if you pass away and choose someone to act as your guardian if you become unable to make decisions due to illness or dementia.
“Sometimes the family steps in because Mom or Dad is not dealing with their situation,” Black says. “Sometimes it´s a neighbor or minister.”
The best way to avoid that is to appoint your own guardian, he says.
“You can make a choice as to your guardian in your Power of Attorney documents,” Black says. “If you do that before you become incompetent because of Alzheimer´s or some other debilitating illness, you´re really way ahead of the game, but it takes courage to plan for your own demise.”
If you don´t plan ahead, the courts will step in and make a decision on your behalf. If you feel like someone might question your wishes or contest your Will, you can always videotape the execution of your Will.
“That can be a very, very efficient way of persuading people not to contest your Will,” Black says. “It happens more often than you think, actually.”
Ohio has a provision against frivolous Will contests. Any beneficiary who contests a Will and loses the case also loses his or her entire share of assets disposed by the Will.
Most often, says Black, problems arise when an inappropriate person is chosen to handle the deceased person´s wishes.
“You´ve got to be careful who you pick,” he says.
Special Issues Among Gays and Lesbians
A vexing problem that sometimes occurs when a gay or lesbian person dies is the estranged family -- say a conservative parent -- swooping in and claiming the body and spiriting it away against the wishes of the surviving lover.
“You could say with certainty where your toaster oven would go but not your body,” says attorney Scott Knox.
You can get around that by making an appointment of agent -- naming a person to act as your representative -- according to an Ohio law passed in 2006.
“Grieving people do really unkind things sometimes that they wouldn´t normally do because they´re working through things,” Knox says. “That´s why the planning stuff is so important. Even people who have very nice families, sometimes the families don´t act so nice when they die.”
Knox says he tells people that even if it´s unenforceable, they should put their wishes in their Wills. The document carries not just a legal weight but also a general respected authority.
“I´m getting more and more lesbian couples with kids,” Knox says, “an artificially inseminated bio mom and then a non-bio mom who doesn´t have a whole lot of rights.”
Knox says all couples should consider the following for their children:
• They need to appoint a guardian in their Will. Ohio has no second parent adoption, but other states do. A couple can go to New Jersey to have a baby and the non-biological parent can do second parent adoption within 60 days, which yields federal rights, including social security benefits for the child.
This is important because the non-biological parent often works outside the home and is the main wage earner. If this person dies, the child and stay-at-home partner lose out. This also gives children insurance and retirement fund rights.
• Medical Power of Attorney is critical so that partners have first priority in visits and decisions. Knox mentions a case in Maryland where a hospital kept a man from seeing his dying partner because the hospital staff thought it would violate the state´s Defense of Marriage Act.
Local hospitals are enlightened when it comes to gay families, Knox says, but you never know what can happen when you travel.
“I see families who think they´re comfortable with gay relationships, but when a partner dies they can´t understand why everything is going to the partner and not the family,” Knox says. “That tells me at a deeper level they didn´t really get that that´s a marriage.”
Gay couples have a host of disadvantages in end-of-life issues because they can´t marry. They can´t collect their partner´s social security and lose out at tax time, Knox says, but thoughtful planning can correct some inequities.
Leaving your assets to a trust in the name of your partner, for instance, is a way to ensure that a closeted partner receives his inheritance and isn´t left out by the Will.
Seeking What Endures
Local minister Dave Nixon says funerals are at their best when they celebrate the life of the deceased and the hopeful message of God.
“I detest funeral homes,” Nixon says. “There is a kind of patently false hospitality that they offer, pretending to care, but it seems inauthentic to me. I detest the formality that´s associated with them and the sterile facade. It´s like the whole machine is designed to make you not think about death because everything is so clean and tidy and perfect. It´s everything that death is not.”
Nixon says he sees himself in a subversive role, speaking of the hopeful, the redemptive and the enduring aspects of this life.
“If in truth we believe in a resurrection, a continuance of life beyond the one we already know, then why are there tears of a certain kind?” Nixon asks. “You just know there are some tears that reveal that you see this as a tragic event and then there are tears that reveal, This is hard, we´re going to miss this person, but we know this person is in God´s hands.´ ”
Nixon says he asks himself how he can really love the immediate family of the person who has died.
“I also have in the forefront this desire to challenge their views and help them see things in a different light,” he says. “I think that those are not distinct goals.”
Nixon says the allegory in Genesis where Adam and Eve are told “if you eat of its fruit you will surely die” -- more accurately translating into the emphatic “dying, you will die.”
This emphasis focuses on the estrangement between people and the spiritual, he says. The goal in death, as in life, should be to bridge that gap.