The following is an excerpt from ‘My Year of Living Spiritually’ by Anne Bokma, published by Douglas & McIntyre.
On October 31, death will come knocking at my door. It will take the form of goblins, ghosts and ghouls, along with small, hooded creatures carrying dollar-store plastic scythes up my front steps. I will open the door, laugh in its face and hand it some candy. I won’t be scared at all, because it’s nothing like the real thing.
Halloween celebrates death. Skeletons become set decoration, hanging from trees and propped up on front porches, looking like the last guests to leave the party. The trick-or-treat season lands in autumn when fading leaves perform a final pirouette, twirling to earth to decompose into mulch. Just as we will one day.
At 56, I’m in the autumn of my life. According to Deathclock.com, an online calculator that predicts the date of your demise, my expected death date will be April 9, 2047. I will be 84 years old. At the time of this writing, I have 10,777 days, 20 hours, 27 minutes and 54 seconds left on earth, barring a sudden accident or an early diagnosis.
The boomer generation is creating a death boom. Five thousand of us die every day in the U.S. In Canada, 235,000 people over age 60 die every year. Most of us want to die at home, in our sleep or surrounded by loved ones, but about 75 percent of us will die in a hospital or long-term care setting, often hooked up to feeding tubes and ventilators, tended to by strangers. We are watching our aging parents die this way, and we don’t like it one bit. Just as our demographic had an outsized influence on the civil and equal rights movements, we’re now at the forefront of a death acceptance movement that’s transforming the topic of dying from taboo to a normal part of life. We’re seeing the rise of death cafes, green cemeteries, home burials and legislation for medically assisted dying. Death is our last great spiritual experience. We want it to be meaningful, and we want as much control over it as possible.
Death Over Dinner is another initiative. Participants are encouraged to gather friends and family to break bread and talk about what constitutes a good death—and a good life. Death Over Dinner was founded five years ago by entrepreneur Michael Hebb, and since then 200,000 dinners have been hosted in 30 countries. “The way we die in Western society is broken,” Hebb said in an interview with the Guardian. “I had a hunch that open conversation about our end-of-life wishes could be the most impactful thing we could do to heal that system and to heal the way we die. We are death-illiterate, and when we don’t discuss death, we are not empowered to make decisions.”
The organization’s website offers useful resources for hosting these dinners, including an invite to send to guests (“This could be the strangest dinner invitation I’ve ever sent, but read on—I think we are in for a memorable experience”), conversation prompts and readings for guests to mull over in advance of the meal. These include “Charlotte’s Last Day,” a chapter from E.B. White’s beloved novel Charlotte’s Web, in which Charlotte faces her death and tries to console Wilbur, as well as the raw and poignant self-written obituary of Jane Lotter, who died of cancer at 60 after taking advantage of Washington state’s compassionate Death with Dignity Act. It reads in part: “I was given the gift of life, and now I have to give it back. This is hard. But I was a lucky woman, who led a lucky existence, and for this I am grateful.”
I ask Rochelle Martin, a Hamilton nurse and death doula, to facilitate a Death Over Dinner for a gathering of women friends at my house. Martin is known for helping to start One Washcloth, a hospital-based project that invites family members to tenderly attend to the body of a loved one by wiping their face and hands with a washcloth. This creates a positive, tangible connection to the person who has died and helps bridge the gap between life and death. People have told Martin how this gesture has profoundly affected them in their hour of grief: “We cared for him, after the accident.” “I was there. I loved her to the end.” “I washed his beautiful face, for the last time.”
As a death doula, Martin teaches people how to become comfortable with death. And as an emergency room nurse, she’s had a lot more experience with death than any of the guests around my dining room table. Our dinner has a Last Supper feel: twelve of us are gathered together and the menu includes fish, loaves of bread and plenty of wine. There’s lots of laughter, despite the seriousness of the topic, and a certain lightheartedness too—I’ve ordered a cake in the shape of a tombstone from a local bakery and placed a plastic skull at each place setting with the guest’s name written in Magic Marker on the forehead. Six tea lights glow in the black candelabra that serves as the centrepiece. In Eucharistic fashion, we eat and we remember. Martin facilitates the discussion, encouraging us to go around the table and share a significant death we’ve experienced.
My friend Ruth fights back tears when she remembers how she felt pressured to observe the strict visiting-hour schedule of her father’s nursing home—she and other family members were asked to leave just a few hours before he died alone. Karen shares the haunting experience of visiting a relative in a ward where everyone was brain dead—their bodies hummed along while their minds were long gone. Nancy says she is thankful she was in the room when her father, who had been a difficult man when she was growing up but had softened in old age, took his last breath. Another friend shared her frustration at having been appointed executor of a relative’s estate, only to find that a second executor had also been appointed and given much different instructions.
Jill’s story is touching. When her 77-year-old father, a United Church minister, died at home, she helped wash his hands, feet and face after his death. “It felt like the stories I’d heard of Mary Magdalene washing the feet of Christ with her tears,” she says. Just before he died, her father shared his vision of seeing his recently departed wife in the room. His breathing slowed, and he looked up to the ceiling. “It seemed to take some effort for him to pull himself away from where he was focused. He looked at me and said, ‘It’s beautiful.’ Those were his last words; his last sermon, perhaps.”
A good death—even a beautiful one—is possible.
But we have to plan for it. Rochelle Martin says there is much to consider. How do we hope to die? What do we want done with our body? Who will speak at our memorial? How much money do we want to spend? Where will our funeral be held? Who will be in charge? Who will speak for us? What music will be played? Have we conveyed our last wishes to anyone? If not, what are we waiting for? Most of the women around the table are in our 50s. Few of us have contemplated these things until now.
Buddhists used to stare at images of decaying corpses, and Trappist monks would wear scapulars with skulls and crossbones as a reminder of the inevitability of death. Thinking about dying enhances our appreciation of life. It keeps us alert to the transitory nature of our existence. Studies show that people who regularly contemplate their mortality actually have a less depressed mood (yes, downloading WeCroak could make you happier). In his book 59 Seconds, Richard Wiseman writes that considering what might be said about us after we’re dead can help us prioritize things in the here and now. “Asking people to spend just a minute imagining a close friend standing up at their funeral and reflecting on their personal and professional legacy helps them to identify their long-term goals and assess the degree to which they are progressing toward making those goals a reality.”
Talking about death can also bring us closer to one another. “People experience a real sense of spirituality in having these conversations because this is a topic that touches us deeply, and it’s one we haven’t been able to explore together,” says Martin of the death dinners she’s facilitated.
My friends linger at the table long after the tombstone cake is served. It’s almost midnight, but we are reluctant to part company. Much has been shared that had not been spoken out loud before. The candles flicker and fade. Who among us will be first to go? Who will be the last? We have a better sense now of how we might help each other when the time comes. There are long hugs at the door as we say good night.
Instead of outsourcing our deathcare, Martin encourages people to take greater control of it themselves. She sets a fine example. She’s only 43, but she’s already purchased and stored the dry ice packs she’ll need to keep her dead body chilled during the funeral she’s planned to have for herself in her own home. There’s a $125 cardboard casket ready for assembly in her basement. She’s measured it to ensure it will fit nicely in her Audi minivan. She’s also told her three teenage children she would like them to help dig the hole at her pre-purchased plot in Union Cemetery, a green burial site in Cobourg, Ontario. “The digging has to feel like hard work, because then it will be meaningful for them,” she says.
She’s left no stone unturned.
I’ve made a will, but no other preparations for my own death. Time to change that.
I start with shopping for a coffin, looking for less expensive options. Turns out Costco sells a “serenity cherry” model for $1,799 and even promises expedited shipping (although who wants to chance a last-minute snafu with the courier?). At Hamilton’s Affordable Burial & Cremation, Josh, one of the sales clerks, shows me the dozen or so models on display, including a $350 particle board box most often used for unclaimed bodies and a perfectly respectable eco-friendly casket made of honeycomb cardboard with a plush white interior. It starts at $895; the price increases if your body exceeds the 300-pound weight restriction. The shop also has an “end-of-the-line” sale on miniature urns ($69) and cremation jewellery, including a keychain with the thumbprint of the deceased ($190) and a silver ring with a heart-shaped locket that holds a pinch of “cremains” ($230). A dark willow wicker casket catches my eye. It looks as cheery and cosy as an oversized picnic basket. Lifting the lid, I half expect it to be lined in red gingham. Josh says I can put it on hold with a $585 prepayment, but I’m hoping I’m still a few decades away from needing it. I take a picture instead. My oldest daughter squirms when I show it to her. “Seriously, Ruby, this is what I’d like,” I tell her. “Okay, okay,” she says, impatient to move on from any talk of death. I mention that she could toss in a gingham tablecloth. “That would be kind of cute,” she concedes.
Next, I talk my husband into a day trip to Niagara Falls to check out Section 16 of the new 736-plot Willow’s Rest green burial site at Fairview Cemetery, one of North America’s largest and most beautiful burial grounds. One Thomas Whittaker, age 56, was the first person to be buried here on July 20, 1883. Ever since, the cemetery has embraced innovation in burial ground trends, with a tissue donor memorial recognizing those who sacrificed their bodies to science and a remembrance garden where loose ashes from human remains are buried.
Mark Richardson, the city manager of cemetery services, gives us a tour of what’s essentially a two-acre wildflower meadow framed by weeping willows, their branches sweeping the earth. Green burials aim to return a body to the earth as naturally as possible with the least amount of environmental impact. To that end, certain rules apply: no headstones, embalming or cremation, and only biodegradable caskets or shrouds are permitted. “Why try to reduce the impact on the environment by composting and recycling your entire life only to spoil all those efforts at the end?” Richardson asks. He makes a good point. Most graveyards project a serene landscape, but underground there’s a churning stew of noxious embalming chemicals (more than 800,000 gallons of embalming fluid are buried every year in the U.S.) as well as tons of non-biodegradable cement vaults and varnished coffins.
This simple woodland lot seems a fitting final resting place. My husband and I stand side by side in the middle of it. Century-old trees and well-tended garden beds add to the tranquil setting. It’s quiet here, but if you listen carefully, you can hear the far-off sound of traffic, people coming and going, busy with their lives until they aren’t anymore.
I wonder—is this where we will end up? “Whaddaya think?” I ask my husband. “Sure, doesn’t really matter to me,” he says.
As usual, he’d be content anywhere.
Excerpt from My Year of Living Spiritually: From Woo-Woo to Wonderful – One Woman’s Secular Quest for a More Soulful Life, by Anne Bokma. ©2019. Douglas & McIntyre. Reprinted with the permission of the publisher.