Dying Is Radical: Talking Taboo with a 'Death Doula'
Bodhi Be explains what it's like to make a living off dying.
Sometimes it freaks me out that we're all just walking around, ignoring the strangeness of existence and the reality of inevitable death. I feel crazy to be plagued by these thoughts, while the people around me are discussing an episode of Game of Thrones and what they are going to eat at Chipotle. I don't fault these people. It would be difficult to live in a state of constant obsession about one's impending death. I too have buried many existential questions under the Cheesecake Factory menu or in the fraught love affair between Chuck and Blair on Gossip Girl. But when the reality of death is upon me, it feels lonely and isolating that no one else seems to want to "go there" verbally.
But some people in America are going there. Bodhi Be is a "death doula," coffin maker, and executive director of Doorway into Light, a nonprofit organization on Maui, providing advocacy and educational programs for those approaching death and their caregivers. Doorway into Light seeks to "re-invent and revolutionize the funeral home and the funeral industry, transforming the 'business of dying' and returning it to 'sacred service'" in environmentally sustainable and spiritually inclusive ways. Be is also the founder and president of the Death Store, Hawaii's first certified green funeral home, which features a library and bookstore, biodegradable urns and wooden caskets, as well as a three-body refrigerator.
I spoke with Be about the relationship between death aversion, consumerism, and the destruction of our planet.
VICE: How did you get into this?
Bodhi Be: I wonder sometimes. I'd been an ordained minister for 30-odd years and started running into people who needed counseling if they were dying or someone else was dying. I didn't feel that I was skilled enough, so I went and became a hospice volunteer and took their training and then started being asked to go sit with dying people in their homes. That was a tremendously powerful learning line for me, and it still is. And as a business person, I studied and looked around and researched the funeral industry and the cemetery industry—which is a billion-dollar business—and they're often using quite toxic practices. They're thinking of their bottom line, It's the last present you'll give to Grandma, don't you want to give her the most expensive coffin? Even hospice had become a billion-dollar industry dependent on insurance money, which really limits what they can do. So then I thought, OK, I wanna do something. I asked [spiritual teacher and author of Be Here Now] Ram Dass if he wanted to do something, and we put on an event that drew more than 100 people for three days, because I wanted to find out who in this community was interested in caring for the dying in a more conscious way. And the rest grew out from there.
Has doing this work affected your relationship with your own mortality?
I'd say it's changing my life every day now, because being around death makes it more real to me. Of course, most of us don't really know we're going to die. We don't act like it. We treat the world like we have plenty of time. When people are dying, we tell them they are going home, and of course I question that, because that has implications that may be connected to why the Earth is in such terrible shape—because many of us don't think this is home. I don't take the time I have here as much for granted. I know I'm going to die, and I don't know when. I don't procrastinate anymore. My relationships to the people in my life have become way more important. I say we're constantly leaving a trail behind us, and that trail is either filled with love, respect, and appreciation or anger, jealousy, resentment, and unforgiveness. I see how hard dying people are working cleaning up that trail, and the best time to clean up that stuff is today and not when you're dying.
What differentiates a green funeral from a regular funeral? I know you don't use any toxic chemicals like formaldehyde but what else?
Everything we sell, all of our caskets and urns are made out of materials that don't have any chemicals, toxins, or poisons. I'll make a simple plain wood-box coffin that doesn't use any screws or nails. I sell a bamboo casket and urns that dissolve in the ocean. Under the Green Burial Council, we're certified as a green funeral home.
What about the custom funerals that you do. If someone wants to do a burial at sea, you're allowed to just put the body in the ocean?
If we weren't, you'd be interviewing me from my prison cell. There are laws regulating body burial in the ocean, but there's no law against it. People have been buried in the ocean as long as there were ships. The armed services still buries people in the ocean. So yeah, I've been doing that for years, and we're one of the only ones doing that here in Hawaii.
What are some of the other more creative or unique funerals that you've done?
I think the one that stands out was that of a well-known artist died, and she had a community of artists and crazy people who came over and dressed her up and made her up, and it was a burial in costume. They had a coffin from the Death Store, and in fact if you go to our Facebook page, the cover photo is from that funeral.
So what exactly is the Death Store?
The Death Store is what I call a community-education space. We provide our services, counseling, products, and resources for people who are dying and their families, people who work in these fields, and people who just want to educate themselves and explore the fact that they might die one day. There's a library, a bookstore, a reference library. There's a bedside notary. We have a minister there, a couple of counselors, and then in the midst of that we showcase our biodegradable caskets and urns. We also sell things like candles and oils to help you have your own home funeral so you don't need us.
What happens if you don't embalm the body? I know that in California you don't have to embalm the body, but you have to refrigerate.
You don't have to embalm anywhere in America. You can't put a body on an airplane or travel between states with a body—there may be certain laws about that—but it's a common misunderstanding that there's any law that says anyone must be embalmed. Nobody needs to be embalmed. In Hawaii, a body needs to be buried, cremated, or refrigerated within 30 hours. It's different in every state. And actually in California I don't think there's any time limit on how long you can keep a body at home.
But people embalm Grandma so their last image of Grandma is some kind of made up, beautified picture. People have a lot of resistance and aversion to seeing Grandma looking dead. I think that's a real problem in our culture, that we aren't used to seeing what people look like dead. And I've heard some things like, "Well, I don't want to remember Grandma from the last picture I saw of her being dead." So I think there's a lot of work to be done in terms of our aversion to what death looks like and the fact that we're going to be dead at some point. I mean, we don't even say, "Grandma died." We say the car died and the tree died, but Grandma always seems to pass away or transition.
What would you say to someone who has a lot of death anxiety?
That's everybody. Just about everybody.
So how do we find more peace about the fact that we're going to die?
I guess that's the million-dollar question.
I give presentations about it: making friends with death. Sometimes I walk around in my skeleton suit. That's why I have a store called the Death Store. People say I can't call it the Death Store. They want me to call it the Until We Meet Again store. That's why some of my work is very bold: to try and bring death out from under the taboo we've turned it into in this culture. And I would say that's connected to why what's happening in the world. Because we're so disconnected from our place in the natural world and the importance of death and dying. If you watch nature, you see there is no life without death. And that's true for us. There ought to be a Death Store next to every Starbucks as a way to help people wake up and see that life is so precious and fragile. When people die in other parts of the world we think, Oh well, that's just a statistic. It's not me and my family. We don't think it will happen to us. It's just other people.
How do you feel about your own death? Do you feel like you have a certain amount of peace around it?
Yeah, sure, because I'm around it a lot, death is a great teacher to me. Most people, not excluding me, have been walking around sleepwalking in a hypnotic state. But when you find out you're dying or your friend just died, it's the most radical thing I've seen. I've been to big funerals where hundreds of people have been shaken out of that hypnotic state, and it's some of the most spiritual experiences I've ever had, because people have cut out all of the crap and bullshit.
It can feel scary to be shaken out of that sleepwalk, but maybe it's just because we've spent so much time hypnotized that we're just not used to being awake.
Well if we don't get shaken out of it soon, we're all gonna be asleep for a bit.