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Posts from the ‘Musings on Death’ Category

Honesty with the Struggle

And finding a “place of rest” in the middle of things.

This theme keeps emerging for me lately: last night during Tucson Death Cafe as people shared why they came; today, while planning for a National Home Funeral Alliance board retreat; a couple of days ago during a conversation with a client about preparing for her husband’s death; or a couple of weeks ago at the International All-Choir Gathering for Threshold Choir (that I had the huge joy of attending!). Being with WHAT IS is a major thread running through all of these scenarios. Hearing people share about an experience they have had as caregiver or relative to a dying person, actively listening to their stories, bearing witness to the truth and meaning for them without trying to fix, save or advise. Being honest with the struggle and the work of it. And even still, finding a way to rest. Then continue.

Frank Ostaseski, founder of the Metta Institute speaks to this concept better than anyone I’ve ever heard:

He brings me pause.

How am I being honest with whatever struggle I face (or witness others facing)?

And how am I finding (and/or offering) a place of rest within the scene?

And naturally I wonder, how would the world be a different place if we all somehow had the courage to do this more routinely? Not only when it comes to the end of life, rather with everyday living.

Remembering our Ancestors: All Souls

This week is big for many reasons. If you are a kid and you live in North America, you are likely psyched about your Halloween costume. (I know for sure I was, back in the trick-or-treating days!) If you are a parent, you’re not so psyched because of the tidal wave of sugar about to come crashing down upon your house.

What if you are a seeker of meaning though? You might find your way to the holidays around this time of year associated with All Soul’s Day, All Hallow’s Eve and Day of the Dead. (aka: Dia de los Muertos.) All of these celebrations have very ancient european, celtic or pre-columbian roots. And the common thread?

Remembering and celebrating our ancestors . . . our dead.

Why do I think this is important as a seeker of meaning myself? Because when we respect and look with gratitude to our ancestors (and our recently deceased loved ones) their sacrifices made and their gifts to us as we survive into this day — we are more present and aware — more able to live fully in this moment. These holidays and cultural celebrations affirm the very breath we take and our collective experience as human beings throughout time. We come to realize we are all beings with a common thread of experiencing loss, sorrow, joy, laughter, connection, grief, tears and wonder. We are not ever alone.

In Tucson, we have the enormous gift of our own festal culture via the All Soul’s Procession. It happens this weekend and draws people literally from around the block and around the world. It is entirely sponsored by OUR COMMUNITY and happens due to the passion of hundreds of people driven to honor and remember our dead with fearless creativity. I volunteer as an Urn Ambassador, letting people know they can place wishes, prayers or symbolic objects into the urn for burning and release to the sky / the heavens above us. This collective experience is unparalleled in the world. Here is a little video for a peek into the celebration: All Souls Promo short from Leslie Ann Epperson on Vimeo.

The Urn Burns (All Souls Procession)

The Urn Burns (All Souls Procession) (Photo credit: cobalt123)

What will you do to remember your ancestors this week? Even lighting a simple candle with gratitude can be a powerful gesture. Please share in the comments . . . it is fun to learn the varied traditions people uphold around these often obscure holidays, when the veil between worlds feels a little thinner.

Three Questions to Ask for a Eulogy

While I professionally serve and live my calling as a Life-Cycle Celebrant® and Home Funeral Guide – I am first and foremost in my life a friend, sister, and daughter. Lately I’ve experienced many inquiries from friends and relatives about how to approach sensitive end-of-life situations for others in their lives. I am often their first call for insight and treasure these opportunities for discussion and exploration, difficult as they may feel sometimes.

Lately I’ve been reflecting on this: the questions I offer families or individuals, to help create vivid remembrance rituals or eulogize a life they celebrate, are really questions for how we live. The more I say these questions aloud and pass them along in quiet conversation, the more I see them as gifts for NOW, for how we live today. Here are my top three among a larger list:

Question Mark

Transformation (Photo credit: auntiepauline)

1) What is her/his chief legacy?

2) What adjectives most fully describe her/his presence? (both the light and the shadow sides!)

3) How did she/he face challenges in life?

See how easy these are to turn around and apply to ourselves in this moment?

1) What do I choose as my chief legacy?

2) What adjectives most fully describe me?

3) How do I face challenges in life?

I am curious: are you already asking yourself these kinds of questions? Does it make a difference for you? We broach these kinds of topics in our Tucson Death Cafe conversations . . . always a life-affirming experience and likely why I’ve had this light bulb moment about these simple questions this morning!

Thanks in advance anyone who comments . . . you know I do love to hear from you!

A Death Cafe in Tucson, really?

We gathered at the Community Room at Bookman's Used Book Store.

We gathered at the Community Room at Bookman’s Used Book Store.

Yes, it is true. On December 4, 2012 co-facilitator Cindy Whitehead and I launched a Death Cafe right here in the Old Pueblo. We had quite a lively time, the fourteen of us who met for tea and conversation about death and dying. We shared compelling, cathartic and sometimes humorous stories. We swapped contacts and resources. We all learned.

And we all left our cafe experience feeling affirmed and uplifted — because yes — talking openly about death may help you realize how life is so GOOD! As a Life-Cycle Celebrant® who works with people to help acknowledge end-of-life and after death milestones through ceremonies like memorials, I am familiar with this territory. Cindy is very familiar as well, because she currently works as a hospice nurse in Tucson.

The point of holding a Death Cafe is to open a safe and relaxed conversation about the all too often taboo ‘d’ word, so we may build awareness of impermanence and thereby make the most of our [finite] lives. Turns out all twelve of our guests strongly agreed the cafe was a positive experience. A few mentioned their relief while being in a place where people actively ‘de-mystified death’. People used words like these to describe their experience:

“surprising           interesting                fun             informative          refreshing

educational              lively              different           humorous             thought-provoking”

I do realize this is not for everybody. Facing death and dying in our western, often youth-worshiping culture is not easy. The idea may take some time to warm up to for folks; the name itself is a kind of filter so people who feel a readiness or curiosity for the topics may be relatively at ease. It is not an event meant for people who are in the processes of either actively dying or freshly navigating bereavement. These are straits where specific support groups via care networks or hospice may have a clear and actively helpful role.

I chewed on the idea of launching a Tucson Death Cafe for a few months last summer, based upon the brave work of Lizzy Miles bringing the concept to the U.S.  from Jon Underwood in the U.K. For two years prior, I held and led monthly meetings in the Meetup format, mostly considering natural and family-led death care topics. The appeal of the Death Cafe is much stronger than the Meetup format. It is open, informal, completely accessible and organic – with international momentum – which makes it such an expansive and heart-opening experience to facilitate!

Here are a few of the guiding principles we follow:

  • The event is free from ideology: It is against Death Café principles to lead participants towards any conclusions about life, death or life after death, apart from your own thoughts.
  • The event will feel safe and nurturing, which includes offering nice refreshments!
  • The event is accessible and respectful of all, regardless of gender orientation, religion/faith, ethnicity, and disability.
  • The conversations shared are confidential.  No individual stories should be retold.

And to this list I might add a Tucson dimension, where Dia de los Muertos culture is so present: whenever you find blingy shoes or accessories like these, please feel free wear them to our next death cafe . . . and please enjoy living each beautiful day in front of you, too.

My official TDC shoes!

My official TDC shoes!

To learn more about us locally please visit: We meet first Tuesdays at 4:00PM, in the Community Room at Bookman’s on Grant and Campbell. Since New Year’s Day is on the next first Tuesday, we’ll next meet January 8, 2013.

Marigolds and Festal Culture

All Soul's Day procession, Tucson AZ, 2008

All Soul’s Day procession, Tucson AZ

Have you heard people mention how the ‘veil is thin’ this time of year? Ever wondered exactly what they mean by this? You’re likely not alone. This is a time of liminality throughout many cultures and belief systems, wherein the veil between the seasons of autumn and winter or between the worlds of the living and dead are very transparent.

We have our well known and candy-obsessed Halloween, when kids trick-or-treat and grown-ups go to costume parties. All this spookiness comes from ancient traditions like Samhaim and All Soul’s Day. Our neighbors in Mexico celebrate Day of the Dead with gusto and mucho marigolds. And this is just the beginning! The end of October and Early November bring us a vast collection of world holidays and celebrations rarely known by folks in our western culture.  It seems our collective death-distancing mentality in the U.S. also distances us from a whole range of opportunities for celebrating, acknowledging and honoring our dead.

Here is one gigantic exception: The All Souls Procession in Tucson, Arizona. This is a one-of-a-kind, community based, collective festal experience founded by Tucson artist Susan Kay Johnson. She began the Procession 23 years ago with a small handful of friends, to honor her Father. Today it has become a collective experience to observe one painful thread we all have in common: loss. This definition helps describe its origins and intentions:

“Festal Culture”  is the expression and fulfillment of core human needs through public celebration, ceremony, and ritual. The All Souls Procession is an event that was created to serve the public need to mourn, reflect, and celebrate the universal experience of Death, through their ancestors, loved ones, and the living.

I’ve been fortunate to live in Tucson for the past eight years and participate in the procession every year. It is always held the weekend after Halloween, to keep it authentically true and not become a big drunken costume fest. In my entire life, I have never experienced anything remotely like it. It is a collective opening, or leaning into, the experience of loss and humility we all share because one day, we will die. Some people come with a reverence and tenderness for a person, an animal or a concept they grieve. People also come to celebrate loved ones long after making the transition from life into death. And always, some people come just to stand in awe of the mystery. I am an Urn Ambassador, acting as a voice of the Urn. Ambassadors help people throughout the procession realize the significance of the Urn and how they may actively put something into it for release to the elements of fire and air.

The Urn Burns (All Souls Procession)

The Urn Burns (All Souls Procession) (Photo credit: cobalt123)

This ‘Prayer Form’ offers a remote way to download, write expressions and send these in electronically for placement into the urn. During the procession, I’ve witnessed people of all ages and beliefs drawing pictures, writing notes, offering photos and tearfully offering cremains or symbolic objects like dog collars and so on, to be placed with reverence into the Urn and burned during the Procession’s Finale.

Trying to explain this event to someone who hasn’t attended is nearly impossible. This is why as a Life-Cycle Celebrant© and avid believer in the power of healing through collective experiences during ritual and ceremony, I tirelessly call attention toward it! What is possible to sense, whether consciously or subconsciously during the Procession, is the feeling of liminal space I mentioned earlier. Being between worlds. Being vulnerable and open to complete mystery. This space is powerful beyond words. Here’s a peek into it from last year:

And here is a new peek from this year’s event:

All Souls Procession 2012 – teaser from Willow Tale Pictures on Vimeo.

Consumer Advocacy in Life & Death

Three words: honesty + basic transparency. What do these describe? The mission motivating Josh Slocum, the Funeral Consumers Alliance national Executive Director. The FCA’s biennial meeting happened in Tucson this month. While attending a full day of the conference sessions, I heard Josh give two talks: ‘State of the FCA’ and ‘Going Green without Going Broke’. He has a dry wit that kills me (sorry), and he is wickedly intelligent. I am so grateful he strongly advocates for funeral consumers (both living and dead) across the country!

Since the late-70s, 60 Minutes' opening featur...

The state of the FCA is healthy and Josh happily reported the latest BIG news: his May 2012 interview with Anderson Cooper on 60 Minutes. The segment addresses the question: “Should you buy a plot ahead of time?” To which Josh consistently responds, “No.” If you want to learn more about his response and what kind of laws affect you locally, I recommend getting this book: “Final Rights: Reclaiming the American Way of Death.”Co-written by Josh and Lisa Carlson, it is an invaluable resource.

A new piece of Josh’s message resonated with me big time: bringing the FCA message about funeral rights to a younger crowd. By younger, I interpreted him to mean the two to four decades old crowd, rather than six to eight. I’m chewing on this idea and how I might be able to help my Southern Arizona FCA chapter achieve outreach to a younger set. He reminded us how the FCA founders were in their 30’s and 40’s with a purpose rooted in social and economic justice.

In the “going green” department, Josh says the best means is “maintaining the right to choose NOT to be a consumer.” So basic and honest, right? And so true. As funeral consumers, in nearly all states (41 to be exact) we can still be our own funeral directors. We can legally and naturally care for our own. Even in the states where a funeral director is required for some piece of the death care process, people can choose to be minimalist consumers with a lighter environmental footprint.

Knowing Death | Valuing Life

Lately I’ve shared a string of delicately expansive interactions with clients and friends. I’m continuously awed by the ways people open themselves into vulnerable space in my presence, as we co-create and enact ceremonies for their lives. It is likely because the people I serve live with great authenticity. Maybe it is also due in part to how I listen or observe like few have before. Whatever the causes, I am grateful for these openings.

My clients know themselves and their relations with a steadiness. They know they want meaningful ceremonies to acknowledge their life milestones. They want to share the experience with a close circle of people they love. Somehow together, we summon quite a lot of courage. We lean into the vulnerable places and with this leaning, we open channels of grace. Curiously enough, this happens during weddings as well as during end of life or death rites. (Yes, I lead ceremonies for the whole spectrum of life milestones!)

A continuous thread I’ve noticed during these recent interactions is this: awareness of death. Not a macabre or frightened kind of awareness. Rather, a genteel acknowledgment. A familiarity. Whether a Father or Mother has passed, a Grandfather or a sister, the death imparts a familiarity with the fragile nature of life. Kind of like knowing a certain tree that grows natively in your landscape. It is always present. It lives through different seasons; sometimes looking pleasant and other times looking bleak. No matter the tree’s state of being, it reminds you of the cycles in life. These cycles present the impermanence of life, right alongside the beauty.

Malus domestica: Flowering tree. Deutsch: Apfe...

Next to this thread of awareness, I’ve noticed a sister-thread.  These dynamic and authentic people all live and interact with a really humble love. I sense their gratitude. It is palpable. I see emotions well up in their whole bodies, as if to say, “this moment is why I am alive!” I witness how they absolutely adore each other. They are most certainly not bumbling through life on auto-pilot. They are here to fully absorb the big-juicy-joyful parts of life, yet not blithely. They don’t fear giving a nod – often in the form of remembrance – to the messiness lying directly counterpoint.

The people of whom I speak truly and consciously value life.

All this to say, I felt surprised to find two articles today, on this very topic. The research presented underscores my observations of a relatively positive pattern. In a death distancing culture, it is rare to see the topic presented in a positive light. Yet both of these articles do just this! This post speaks to how thinking about mortality may bring us to a place of discerning more of what we value in life. Beyond entertaining those values, this post points to research suggesting how death awareness may even improve our physical health.

Yes. This is fragile territory. And yet, there is nowhere else I would rather be companioning the people I serve.

Can simple = meaningful?

Yes. Most definitely, in fact! Observing simplicity while remembering a life may even foster more meaning and participation.  And these happen to be two qualities I wholeheartedly encourage families to adopt during remembrance.

When people openly speak their own final wishes to me (and what a relief when they do!), I often hear this refrain: “I just want my funeral to be a celebration. Nothing big, just simple.” And likewise, families may be following either verbal or written directions for a ‘simple’ memorial. I help guide them toward supportive and unique ceremonial elements to meet this request.

Spring flowers

Whether a funeral (body present), memorial (ashes present) or Celebration of Life (party with or without remains) is the ‘final wish’ you or your kin make known,  the level of simplicity sought is a personal decision. Someone may even want a living celebration before they transition. Honoring a life legacy while the honoree is still living can be a poignantly wonderful experience.

Amidst these choices, please remember this: simplicity need not mean no ceremony at all. Because truly, any remembrance ceremony is held in support of those grieving. It is a supportive community effort. Ceremony gives us a chance to help carry what may be too big to carry alone: acknowledging loss. And doing so in relevant, personal ways provide deeply meaningful places to begin healing.

This article — highlighting the Celebrant Foundation & Institute where I trained and now instruct — explains an array of possibilities for personal celebrations of a life well lived. Yes, for mourners of a Tarzan enthusiast, it may prove a very cathartic ceremonial element for everyone to howl like Tarzan during a memorial! Or if you loved Big Band music with a passion, why not specify an actual Big swing Band to play at your Celebration of Life?

The more we enter this kind of free and creative final wishes dialogue before a death occurs, the more we may be able to face death humbly, as a natural part of life. Challenging? Maybe. Yet it can be a very healthy and liberating conversation to hold. And the more transparency about the choices, the healthier! A great tool to help families accomplish this sometimes elusive, yet always necessary conversation: Five Wishes. This document can really help serve as a catalyst. There is even a section about funeral or memorial wishes. Properly signed, it meets the legal requirements for advance directives in these states.

Celebrating life via Day of the Dead

La Catrina – In Mexican folk culture, the Catr...

Image via Wikipedia ~ La Catrina ~ She is often a symbol of Day of the Dead festivities.

Here it is – October already – and our minds naturally turn to celebrations of harvest, Yom Kippur, Halloween, or Thanksgiving. For me, it all starts with baking loaves of pumpkin mesquite bread!

I’m adding one of my favorite holidays to the autumnal mix: Dia de los Muertos. For those of you who may already be enthusiasts or who are just now learning about this holiday, I’m excited to share ideas and resources with you.

Since I practice funeral celebrancy in the southwest and live in Tucson, I pay a lot of attention to rites, rituals and celebrations about death. I am fortunate beyond belief to live near the rich traditions of Mexico, where celebrating the Day of the Dead is central to many family and community traditions. In Tucson, we experience the holiday to various degrees.

For example, this exhibit at Tohono Chul Park is currently running until November 6, 2011. I just visited with a group last week and it is WONDERFUL. If you visit the gallery main page, I encourage you to watch the brief video. In it, I love love love how Curator Ben Johnson says:

Dia de los Muertos is a holiday of remembrance, but it is not one full of sorrow  . . . it is very much about celebrating life and offering thanks to those whom we have loved.

The end date of Tohono Chul’s exhibit is also the day of the famous All Souls Procession here in Tucson. Through a series of festal culture events the culminate in the procession, we celebrate our ancestors and those we love who have departed. (I am really honored to be volunteering as an urn attendant in this year’s procession!)

If you are curious and would like to learn more, the following links provide LOTS of background about the key ingredients for celebrating life by observing this holiday:

  • Altar building ~ creating a doorway where the lands of living and dead can symbolically meet.
  • Food offerings and candlelight vigils ~ at the altars and in the cemeteries within a community.
  • Candy skulls ~ Calaveras made from sugar mostly – or chocolate sometimes – decorate the altars and are loved by children especially.
  • Flowers ~ garlands of marigolds and other specialty flowers of gold and orange become beautiful decorations for altars and cemeteries.

This is just the tip of the iceberg, really! Let me know how you’ve experienced Day of the Dead . . . and if you’ve noticed yourself celebrating life in the midst of doing so.

Connections & Choices for Bereaved

As a Life Cycle Celebrant, I serve people at all stages of life’s milestones: new life, love and loss. I recently completed in-depth training about caring for our own at home – to help families care for their own departed. Today I found relevant articles that revealed two themes underpinning why I do this work: choices and connection for bereaved families.

One tells of the burgeoning home funeral trend, where we are returning to practices we know from our ancestors. The sobering photo in the article shows an elderly rancher looking at his coffin, handmade by his sons. It is a still shot from the film “A Family Undertaking“, which offers glimpses into contemporary family-led funerals. The other article tells how families are decreasing their funeral or memorial spending out of necessity during this slow economy. According to the independent funeral homes interviewed, families are more frequently opting out of the costliest line items and simplifying by choosing direct cremation.

Is the slow economy the only driver, I wonder? Or is this trend away from heavy spending on energy and material intensive products (steel caskets, concrete vaults and embalming) really a broader indicator? Is it a wake up call for not only Baby Boomers – yet all of us – to notice how we may return to simpler, less costly choices at the end of the road? Choices that involve deep connections through family care, support from a home funeral guide and perhaps even natural burial?

An interesting convergence of themes I think, these choices and connections for grieving families. Is a home funeral right for everyone? Well, no. Yet, with healthy planning and families holding an intention for death care at home, the end of the road may potentially become more emotionally healing and less costly in many ways.