YOUR FINAL RESTING PLACE
When choosing a cemetery, bear in mind that it will not only be your final resting place, but it will also be the locale where family and friends come to visit and remember. With this in mind, it is important to decide whether the place you choose will be close to your home and family or in a place that has sentimental meaning for you. Deciding on the type of burial you want can help narrow down the choices. While many cemeteries offer both traditional and “green,” eco-friendly burials, some may only offer one or the other. If cremation is preferred, it may be best to consider a small mausoleum that can serve future generations as well.
QUOTE: “The cemetery is my sense of comfort, my sanctuary in a world of darkness, the one piece of light that I have in my life.”
A FINAL ARRANGEMENTS DOCUMENT
A will isn’t a good place to express your death and funeral preferences because it is not likely to be read until several weeks after you die, when important decisions have already been made. Without a document that outlines your final decisions, your surviving relatives will be left on their own to make the difficult decisions surrounding your funeral and burial. In that case, grief-stricken family members may well choose the most expensive goods and services out of feelings of obligation. By making your own final arrangements in advance, you can relieve your family of this unnecessary stress and direct them to follow your wishes. A final arrangements document sets forth the necessary details in an accessible and appropriate manner.
QUOTE: “It is the secret of the world that all things subsist and do not die, but retire a little from sight and afterwards return again.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson
MAKING THE ULTIMATE CONNECTION
Although spirituality may contain some elements of religion, it is generally a broader concept. Religion may set forth a set of standards and beliefs accompanied by religious practices, while spirituality seeks to answer questions about our existence and our relationship to living things. Spirituality is often a primary component of religion, but it can also exist in the absence of religious beliefs. If so, it may be music, art, reading, praying, meditating, or some other impulse that helps the dying get in touch with their spiritual sides. With this in mind, family and friends should talk to the dying about how they can help address their spiritual concerns and ease them through the transition to death.
QUOTE: “Happiness cannot be traveled to, owned, earned, worn or consumed. Happiness is the spiritual experience of living every minute with love, grace, and gratitude.”
A FRIENDLY WORD
Anyone facing the loss of a loved one is urged to seek emotional support from friends and family. While this recommendation will always be appropriate, it seems that one means of support may be preferable to another, at least according to recent research conducted on the matter. Researchers report that people who confided in their friends after the death of a spouse were less likely to become ill and depressed than those who turned to family members. The analysis went on to point out that those choosing to grieve with friends emerged from the experience just as emotionally and physically healthy as they were when their spouses were alive. Perhaps the words and emotions flow more freely among friends.
QUOTE: “One of the most beautiful qualities of true friendship is to understand and to be understood.”
Lucius Annaeus Seneca
When words fail, flowers can speak volumes about the way we feel and where our sympathies lie. Flowers, which are traditionally displayed during the viewing and the service, are symbolic of the beauty and continuity of life. Friends and family of the bereaved can expand upon these themes by sending flowers to the homes of mourners in a display of care and support. Although the initial outpouring of sympathy is a great comfort to a family who has lost a loved one, many people experiencing such a loss appreciate being thought of in the weeks and months after the funeral. With this in mind, consider sending flowers or a plant with a personal note to the home of the bereaved.
QUOTE: “Flowers grow out of dark moments.”
Not all cultures subscribe to embalming, nor is it necessarily prescribed by law. However, it may be a requirement if a body must travel across state lines or certain distances. Aside from postponing the inevitable decomposition of the body, embalming also restores the body to a more pleasing appearance. This is a distinct advantage for those families who wish to view the body prior to burial. Embalming dates back to at least ancient Egypt, where the body-preservation technique was undertaken to help the dead enter the afterlife. In 1867, the modern age of embalming began when it became necessary to preserve the bodies of Civil War casualties for delivery back to their homes and families.
QUOTE: “All men think that all men are mortal but themselves.”
THAT WHICH REMAINS
Those deciding to be cremated may embrace a romantic notion of having their remains scattered across a favorite location. If so, they may want to give some consideration to their surviving family members, who may prefer to retain some tangible remembrance of those who have passed. For instance, having a container of remains in a place in the home or columbarium enables friends and family to come to a physical place to visit and remember. With this in mind, it is advisable to discuss your plans with your family. A discussion of this type should be honest enough that family members feel comfortable to explore and share their feelings. They may even have suggestions or wishes that you may have not anticipated.
QUOTE: “After your death you will be what you were before your birth.”
DOWN TO THE LAST DETAIL
When it comes to planning a funeral, one might think the whole matter can be distilled down to a few decisions that can be left to surviving family members. In actuality, however, there is more to planning a funeral than deciding between cremation and burial and selecting the type of service. For instance, if cremation is preferred, should the cremains be scattered, buried, stored in an urn, or distributed among loved ones? If burial is the choice, which casket and cemetery are preferred? Other details include plot selection, choosing an officiant for the ceremony, selecting invited guests and pallbearers, and many other important decisions. Funeral pre-planning places these matters in the hands of the person most capable of making them.
QUOTE: “While we’re mourning the loss of our friend, others are rejoicing to meet him behind the veil.”
A GLORIOUS SEND-OFF
A formal “visitation” provides friends and family of the deceased with the opportunity to pay their last respects and help them come to grips with their loss. This custom has roots in the Irish “wake,” which is the well-known tradition of giving the deceased a glorious send-off. While viewings once took place at the home of the deceased, today the funeral home is the preferred location, one or two days before the funeral. This viewing can be less formal than the funeral and provides family and friends with an opportunity to reminisce about the deceased loved one. To personalize the viewing, we encourage playing music and displaying photographs that were meaningful to the deceased.
QUOTE: “As a well spent day brings happy sleep, so life well used brings happy death.”
ETCHED IN STONE
From the earliest years, tombstone symbolism has reflected the prevailing beliefs of the time. The recurrent theme of the skull and crossbones among the Puritans was based upon their contempt for mortal existence. Over time, with increasing hope of a desirable immortality and faith in the Romantic notion of perfectibility, there came a shift to a portrayal of winged cherubs on gravestones. As grief became the primary emotion, tombstone art shifted toward willow trees, ornate urns, and grieving angels. Now, technology and changing perceptions are giving shape to new notions about the symbols and artwork we see carved in stone. Today, heightened interest in Internet imagery has led many people to display realistic laser-etched portraits on headstones.
QUOTE: “Perhaps they are not stars but rather openings in Heaven where the love of our lost ones shines down to let us know they are happy.”
ACTING ON YOUR OWN BEHALF
Few decisions in life are more important than the ones that must be made concerning death. In the final analysis, the decisions revolving around a funeral and burial are among the most important to be made in life. At some point, you must ask if you want to make the decisions regarding your funeral and burial yourself or have someone else make them. Aside from these considerations is the matter of whether you want to burden your family with the emotional and financial responsibility of attending to your final needs. Much as you prepared for milestones in life such as births, graduations, weddings, and retirement, doesn’t it reasonably follow that you would also prepare for death?
QUOTE: “O Death! Thou comest when I had thee least in mind!”
The end-of-life care known as “hospice” provides medical, psychological, and spiritual support to terminally ill patients. This compassionate service is offered in the belief that death is the final stage of life, during which dying individuals should be able to maintain their dignity and happiness. Toward this end, hospice endeavors to enable the terminally ill to remain alert and pain-free by managing their symptoms in a loving home environment. Instead of treating the disease, hospice focuses on treating the patient to the highest possible quality of life, as he or she is surrounded by loved ones. Hospice care is appropriate when one can no longer benefit from curative treatment and life expectancy is about six months.
QUOTE: “A life-threatening illness or two… heightens your sense of gratitude for things that previously, if you've not taken them for granted, you perhaps never appreciated how precious they were.”
A REASON TO LIVE
Individuals with religious affiliations are more likely to have moral objections to suicide that prevent them from acting on suicidal thoughts. According to a survey of people suffering from severe depression, those who professed to have religious beliefs were both less likely to have suicidal thoughts than their non-religious peers and also less likely to give in to these thoughts if they did have them. There is also research that shows that religious countries tend to have lower rates of suicide than secular nations, while other research indicates that a higher degree of religious commitment is associated with less suicidal behavior. Clearly, subsisting within a religious context gives people more reason to live.
QUOTE: “Sometimes even to live is an act of courage.”
Funerals are ceremonies that have the singular ability to help us come to terms with the death of loved ones. The ceremony confirms the reality of death and helps us express our feelings of loss. It gives the living the opportunity to remember the person who died and to say good-bye. With all these important expectations in mind, a funeral should be as unique as the life it remembers. It is the funeral director’s job to do everything possible to incorporate any ideas into the service and burial that will most fully evoke the spirit of the departed. This includes the use of video and audio presentations or any element that serves to personalize the funeral or memorial service.
QUOTE: “I have seen death too often to believe in death. It is not an ending, but a withdrawal.”
Cremation is a means of body disposal that can be traced to the Hindu funeral “pyre.” This ancient custom dictates that the eldest son of the deceased light a ritual fire upon which the body of the deceased would be cremated. Now, as then, cremation is viewed as the most expeditious means of disposing of the body, necessitating neither land for burial nor labor-intensive plot preparation. Cremation also affords greater flexibility when making funeral arrangements. For instance, it may be decided to have a funeral service before the cremation, a memorial service at the time of cremation or after the cremation with the urn present, or a committal service at the final disposition of cremated remains.
QUOTE: “To us, the ashes of our ancestors are sacred and their resting place is hallowed ground.”
The Baby Boom generation is known for challenging conventional wisdom, including that surrounding death and funeral traditions. At the same time, recent waves of immigrants have also made people feel more comfortable with diverse funeral customs. As a result, the funeral industry, which has long been regarded as quite staid, is undergoing a transformation. As people increasingly leave behind the traditional ceremonies of their parents and grandparents, they are coming to view funerals more as a means of celebrating a life than mourning a death. In response, funeral directors are taking on more of the responsibilities of event planners, whose role it is to conduct a joyful observance of a life well lived.
QUOTE: “Let no one weep for me or celebrate my funeral with mourning, for I still live as I pass to and fro through the mouths of men.”
Among Jews, it is traditional to cover up all the mirrors in a house of mourning. This conspicuous custom, which dates back to the Middle Ages, is steeped in spiritual values. To begin with, the use of a mirror is shunned during mourning because it is used for personal grooming and cosmetic purposes, which should have lost their importance to the mourner. Those who are stricken with grief do not want the comfort that the use of a mirror can bring. In addition, during “shiva” (the mourning period), it is customary to hold daily services in the house of the mourner, who is prohibited from praying in front of a physical image, even one’s own face reflected in a mirror.
QUOTE: “Say not in grief ‘he is no more’ but live in thankfulness that he was.”
A FINAL SUMMATION
A eulogy is among the most significant of personal statements in that it gives summation to a life by making mention of loving relationships and accomplishments. In an effort to imbue the eulogy with the most meaning possible, family members may wish to write eulogies as their contributions to the memorial service. As difficult as this challenge may be, writing a eulogy is also very rewarding. It provides a means of proclaiming love and sharing in the laughter, joys, tears, and sorrows that marked a life that has passed. By committing these remembrances to paper and uttering them before assembled mourners, survivors give a gift both to others and themselves that they can cherish in their time of grief.
QUOTE: “His life was gentle; and the elements so mixed in him, that Nature might stand up and say to all the world THIS WAS A MAN!”
William Shakespeare, Julius Caesar
Choice of your final resting place is a deeply personal matter that may well go beyond a traditional cemetery featuring upright gravestones arranged in rows. Originally situated near churches and other places of worship, traditional cemeteries are likely to be rich in monuments, wrought-iron gates and fences, and other architectural features. There may also be mausoleums for above-ground burial. More recently, memorial parks began to make their appearance about 75 years ago. This type of cemetery is known for its vast expanses of lawn, flowering beds, and trees. Burial places are marked by bronze memorials that lie flush with the ground. The resultant effect is that of a green park that invites quiet contemplation of nature and life.
QUOTE: “To fear death is to misunderstand life.”
FACTS OF LIFE
While most funeral homes and newspapers will write an obituary, some family members take it upon themselves to write the death notice, including a personalized account of a loved one’s life. If so, mention should be made of the deceased’s full name (and nickname), dates and locations of birth/marriage/death, the names of pre-deceased and surviving loved ones, schools attended, military service, places of employment and positions held, and memberships in organizations. Mention should also be made of the time and location of a funeral, visitation, and burial, as well as preferred charities for donations. Further detailing of the deceased’s hobbies, favorite passions, most oft-heard quotes, and preferred pursuits help make an obituary more meaningful and memorable.
QUOTE: “To himself everyone is immortal; he may know that he is going to die, but he can never know that he is dead.”
Amid changing expectations, it is more desirable than ever for families to have frank discussions about body disposition and funerals. As more Americans (50.2%) have, for the first time, chosen cremation over burial, those making choices for themselves must inform other family members of their wishes. With so many options available (such as body donation and “green burial”), there is no longer a single script to follow when it comes to deciding how the body will be disposed of and how the deceased will be remembered and celebrated. As funeral norms change, there is more room for creativity. In the end, it’s important to impress upon family members what the people planning their own funerals want and the reasons behind these wishes.
QUOTE: “It is possible to provide security against other ills, but as far as death is concerned, we men live in a city without walls.”
ASSISTING WITH DEATH
Just as a “birth doula” provides physical and emotional assistance during pregnancy and childbirth, a “death doula” provides support to the dying and their families during all the stages of death. A doula, which is the Greek word for “woman who serves,” may discuss a dying person’s wishes and concerns, organize vigils, coach relatives on the signs of dying, organize paperwork, run errands, create memory books, and even help plan funerals. Doulas are fast gaining popularity as efforts grow to improve end-of-life experiences for terminal patients and their families. Doulas provide a way to bridge the gap in time and resources that busy hospices cannot always provide, particularly when death is not sufficiently close to qualify for hospice care.
QUOTE: “Life and death are one thread, the same line viewed from different sides.”
LIFE AFTER DEATH
It is interesting to note that, although young adults’ affiliation with religious institutions may seem to be on the decline, the vast majority of younger adults believe in an afterlife. A survey involving 58,000 individuals showed that four out of five younger adults between ages 18 and 29 believe in some sort of afterlife. Over the past fifteen years, the percentage of those in this age group who identified themselves as religious fell from 49 percent to 38 percent. Over a longer 40-year period, the percentage of those believing in an afterlife increased from 73 percent to 80 percent. In fact, those in younger generations were more likely to believe there is life after death than older ones.
QUOTE: “All goes onward and outward…nothing collapses, And to die is different from what any one supposed, and luckier.”
It is important to remember that death ends a life, not a relationship. With this in mind, the goal should never be to “move on” or “get over” the death of a loved one. If the deceased mattered to you in life, he or she will continue to matter to you after death. Not only does the grieving process build to a stage of acceptance, but it also invites the living to amplify their relationships with the dead. Our feelings toward the dead should not fade, but they should expand as we grow emotionally. At this point, we can use our memories to propel us ahead in life, always mindful of the encouragement, love, and support that we received.
QUOTE: “What we have once enjoyed deeply we can never lose. All that we love deeply becomes a part of us.”
ACKNOWLEDGING YOUR FEELINGS
There is no doubt that the death of a loved one will prompt those left behind to experience a variety of feelings ranging from disbelief to yearning and resentment. These emotions are a natural response to loss, which helps us cope and make sense of death. At the same time, we may feel so threatened and vulnerable that we try to bottle up our feelings in an effort to go forward. As we experience this conflict between deep sorrow and self-preservation, it is important that our emotions be given full expression. Crying is not only an appropriate expression of grief, but it is soothing and necessary for relieving stress. Allowing oneself to feel vulnerable is an act of strength.
QUOTE: “We need never be ashamed of our tears.”
Many older adults do not have a legal document known as an “advance directive,” which tells healthcare providers what their preferences would be if they became incapacitated and needed end-of-life care. According to a review of studies involving nearly 800,000 participants, fewer than half of those age 65 and older had completed a living will, health care power of attorney, or both; slightly more than a third of adults of any age had completed one. If you are among those who have neglected to draw up an advance directive, bear in mind that it is critical for preventing treatments and/or life-saving measures that you don’t want. Having an advance directive can spare your relatives from making difficult medical decisions.
QUOTE: “By acknowledging my impermanence, I can consider if there is anything I can do now to help my loved ones who will be left behind to cope with losing me and to facilitate healing.”
Lisa J. Shultz
OPEN TO DISCUSSION
As old taboos fall away and people become more accustomed to talking about issues that previous generations might have avoided, increasing numbers of individuals are feeling more comfortable about discussing death and funerals. By preplanning their own funerals, thoughtful individuals assure themselves of the peace of mind that comes with knowing their wishes have been made known and that the details will be taken care of. Those who make advance plans can draw great comfort from the fact that their loved ones will not have to make important decisions during the emotional turmoil that often accompanies initial grief. From a practical standpoint, funeral preplanning also controls the cost of the funeral and protects insurance payouts to beneficiaries.
QUOTE: “A goal without a plan is just a wish.”
Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
To honor the memory of their service to their country, the casket of deceased veterans is draped with a U.S. burial casket flag. This custom, which began during the Napoleonic Wars, was accorded to the dead, who were carried from the battlefield on a caisson. When the U.S. flag covers a casket, it is placed so that the union blue field is at the head and over the left shoulder. It is not placed in the grave, nor is it ever allowed to touch the ground. The flag is presented to the next of kin at the end of the funeral, usually by the military chaplain. The flag may be presented to the veteran’s close friend or associate if requested.
QUOTE: “Better than honor and glory, and History’s iron pen, was the thought of duty done and the love of his fellow-men.”
COFFINS AND CASKETS
While the terms “caskets” and “coffins” are often used interchangeably, they are not the same. The term “coffin,” derived from the Old French word “coffin,” describes a narrow, hexagonal (six-sided) container that largely conforms to the shape of the body. With their narrow headspace, wide shoulder design, and tapering shape down to the feet, coffins are less popular in North America than in the rest of the world. The word “casket” was adopted in the late 19th century by the North American funeral industry as a synonym for the word coffin. It has four sides, a rectangular shape, and a split lid. Both caskets and coffins can be customized in a variety of ways.
QUOTE: “Whoever is not in his coffin and the dark grave, let him know he has enough.”
A MATTER OF PRESERVATION
The practice of embalming became widespread in this country during the Civil War for the purpose of transporting the dead long distances to their homes for burial. Elsewhere, motives for preserving human corpses vary according to time and place. In ancient Egypt, citizens were mummified with the goal of gaining eternal life. In the Andes, the bodies of Incan emperors were preserved so they could continue to play key roles in society. In Japan and Tibet, holy men were mummified and revered ancestors were preserved for eternity so they could be consulted on important community matters. Mummies of prehistoric Britain were mummified out of respect for their protective powers and ability to intervene with the gods.
QUOTE: “To the well-organized mind, death is but the next great adventure.”
HOW DO YOU WANT TO BE REMEMBERED?
When it comes to her wedding, a bride chooses the dress she wants to wear to an occasion that won’t be forgotten by any who attend. Marrying couples also want to have their say when it comes to choosing the venue, flowers, food, and type of ceremony. These are personal details that cannot be left to others to decide for them. The same may be said of a funeral, a ceremony of equal importance; however, many people are reluctant to take control of their funerals in the same way that they plan weddings, birthdays, anniversaries, vacations, graduations, family reunions, and other momentous occasions. Preplanning your funeral enables everyone to make sure that you will be remembered exactly as you wish.
QUOTE: “Don’t cry because it’s over, smile because it happened.”
A Chinese funeral rite that dates back hundreds of years calls for the family of the deceased to burn joss paper (also known as “ghost” or “spirit” money), which takes the form of paper replicas of items that the deceased will need in the afterlife. These paper offerings may include money and facsimiles of such things as cars. This notion of preparing the dead with material possessions they will need in the afterlife is nothing new, as ancient Egyptian custom attests. If nothing else, providing the dearly departed with significant gifts and offerings provides survivors with a measure of comfort that they are able, at least symbolically, to demonstrate their care and love for the deceased.
QUOTE: “Each time we embrace a memory, we meet again with those we love...”
MOVING THROUGH GRIEF
The grief process is likely to begin with shock and move through various phases toward the final stage of acceptance. People know when they reach this final stage, when they are able to recall memories of their deceased loved ones fondly and pleasantly instead of painfully. Once acceptance has been reached, planning for the future becomes more realistic, and a new and wiser individual will have emerged. The rate of acceptance often depends on the grief-stricken person’s ability to feel and express his or her grief openly. Doing so requires making oneself vulnerable and surrounding oneself with people with whom one feels comfortable. It is important for grieving individuals to reveal how they feel and what they need from others.
QUOTE: “The darker the night, the brighter the stars, the deeper the grief, the closer is God!”
BEGINNING AND ENDING WITH YOU
While the first chapter in your book of life may have begun with you as a completely innocent participant in your own affairs, the final pages will likely have your fingerprints all over them. With birth comes the inevitability of death. It certainly behooves us all to recognize and respect this fact of life, along with all of the implications it has for those who will survive us. With this in mind, it is better to plot the script for the final chapter than to leave the end for someone else to write. Funeral prearrangement enables you to choose the specific terms of your funeral and burial or cremation. Because these decisions are deeply personal, only you should make them.
QUOTE: “I love those who can smile in trouble, who can gather strength in distress, and grow brave by reflection.”
Leonardo da Vinci
The rituals and customs surrounding death, burial, or cremation demonstrate the universal urge to exert some degree of control over uncontrollable natural forces. Because it’s difficult to accept the reality of death, most of us like to believe that we can, at least, maintain some degree of control over the physical challenges that stretch between birth and death. Only through faith can we confront the ultimate mystery of existence without despair. There are many forms of faith, all of which promise some form of continued existence, from an exaggerated sense of worldly bliss to union with the Supreme Being. Within this promise is a glimpse of what we want to believe lies beyond the terrestrial realm awaiting humankind after death.
QUOTE: “Faith is taking the first step even when you don’t see the whole staircase.”
Martin Luther King, Jr.