End-of-life educators, experts demonstrate death wellness

After exiting our Uber, Duncan Aronson ’21 and I entered the brightly lit, colorfully walled space that is the Boardman Road Branch Library, not knowing quite what to expect. As college students in reasonably good health, “Before I Die…” is a tagline we are fortunate enough to not interpret with immediacy. Yet, we found ourselves accepting the invitation to join the “Conversation for Everyone” that the “Before I Die” Death Fair offered on its digital flyer, and made our way into a room tucked away in the corner of the library.

We were greeted with a warm smile as we entered, despite feeling rather out of place as college-aged students. After shuffling around the entrance of the classroom-sized space with unease and intently studying the schedule handed to us, we realized how little we knew. From “green burial,” to “end-of-life doula,” to “Death Cafe,” the jargon of a world from which we were clearly distant stunned us. However, our experience at this initially odd-seeming, but eventually enriching, event would come to remind us that we are, of course, always close to such a world, and that this closeness need not be bound up by fear.

We first shared a conversation with co-organizer of the fair Anthony Sedgman, who is also an end-of-life doula—a trained non-medical companion who respectfully and compassionately supports individuals navigating the experience of dying. When detailing the purpose of the event, Sedgman introduced to us the concept of “death phobia,” the culturally driven norm of resisting death. Death phobia shows itself in things as apparently mundane as our euphemistic word choices—we often say “loss” or “passing,” as opposed to “death” itself.

While the event did not aim to combat death phobia head-on, it did seek to provide a space for individuals to converse with experts about aspects of death—funeral homes, elder law, hospice volunteering, storytelling, to name a few—be it casually or through structured panels and activities. Sedgman hoped that participants would depart with enhanced death literacy, as well as a deeper connection to their aliveness. “Studying death makes life more rich,” Sedgman philosophized. He indicated that the practice also leads to a recognition of the preciousness of each day.

After curing some of our initial curiosities, Sedgman referred us to Dina Stander, an end-of-life navigator, writer and coach. Stander is one half of Last Dance Shrouds, a business offering simple, organic cotton burial cloths that are sustainable. As Stander discussed considerations of sustainability in death practices, such as the delays in decomposition caused by embalming, or the ideal burial depth (3-4 feet as opposed to 6) and casket material (pine rather than metal) for effective decomposition, the concept of death began to unfold as a series of tangible, real practices with intersections in seemingly disconnected fields: science, environmentalism or emotional interactions. My view of death as an incomprehensible inevitability of life stretched out, instead, into a backdrop out of which constellations of ideas and practices grew.

Duncan and I continued to listen in awe as Stander told us about the mushroom death suit, an eco-friendly alternative designed to make mushrooms grow from the corpse, Australian fashion designer Pia Interlandi’s “garments from the grave,” which are made from biodegradable fibers and Katrina Spade’s developments in “recomposition,” which converts human remains into soil and serves as a scalable, sustainable alternative to burial. I found myself in an incredibly educational and encouraging space—one that freely offered, as Stander puts it, “cultural openings” to talk about death, facilitating a process that felt normal, natural.

Though these concepts and innovations were new to us, Stander reminded us that many of these “greener” practices are simply a return to how things were prior to the evolution of human practices surrounding death. Embalming, for instance, became widely practiced during the Civil War to allow bodies to be preserved so faraway family members could have a chance to grieve.

Living in a society that lacks “death wellness,” or a mentally and emotionally healthy relationship with death, we may also find ourselves forgetting about the universality that is our mortality, Stander pointed out. She told us about a death conversation event she attended where the facilitator had everyone introduce themselves as a mortal. “Coming and owning being mortal is at a different layer,” Stander said—it is a moment of connection that is just as, if not more, fundamental than our name, gender identity or any other aspect that we tend to foreground during an introduction.

Stander also talked about the unparalleled relationship that people, especially the younger generation, now have with death because of the global climate crisis. “[We will] understand loss on a scale that’s not in human experience very early on in our lives,” which also perhaps generates compulsion to engage with death, evident in the growth of the death care world, Stander explained. She emphasized the importance of schools teaching students to cope with a rapidly changing world, and of having toolkits to handle realities that affect us environmentally and existentially. We must be equipped to confront the reality that, as Stander aptly phrased it, “The world is our oyster, but the oyster is very sick.”

Our conversation led to Duncan and I sharing how we have personally interacted with death and how it is practiced within our own cultures. Before we left, Duncan and I took a moment to contribute to the poster board set up in the corner of the room, writing down something we each hoped to do before we die. After taking a concluding glance at the black-clothed booth tables and expressing gratitude to those we had come to know, I found myself departing with peace. I did not expect to cultivate my curiosity, accept an invitation for contemplation and subsequently undergo unfamiliar personal reflection about an aspect of my existence I habitually dismiss, all on a Saturday afternoon. I found myself closer to something that once felt needlessly far away.

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