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The Positive Death Movement: Putting the ‘Fun’ in Funeral

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Does the headline of this post seem sacrilegious? Some might say yes. But the “positive death” movement, far from promoting morbidity, seeks to break this last, great taboo.

What’s intriguing is that this movement has now gone a step beyond Death Cafés — which have gained enormous traction worldwide — to people who are proactively approaching their own death by holding pre-emptive funerals (pronounced FUNerals) that they can attend.

It makes a lot of sense: “life celebrations”, held in memory of a loved one, may be the best party of their lives — but they won’t get to participate.

When my friend Anne died more than a decade ago, at age 54, people from all walks of her life — friends, coworkers, relatives — gathered at her home to decorate the coffin while her body lay in another room, serene music playing and rose bouquets perfuming the air. The completed coffin was astonishingly beautiful (and later fed to the fire, as she’d chosen cremation). The life celebration that took place a month later was similarly evocative. But Anne was not there.

In contrast, a few weeks ago a woman posted on a community networking site, “I’m throwing a life celebration for my 75th birthday and culling my possessions. How can I get the things done that I want to get done before that date?” The network brainstormed a number of creative suggestions, such as:

  • Ask, “What would bring me peace?”
  • Celebrate all you’ve done for yourself and allow yourself to have pride and joy
  • Delegate!
  • Remove everything stressful from your life
  • Spend a day with a video camera following you.

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dorrwayDemystifying Death

While you might think seniors would be the last people to want to “romanticize” dying, bringing death out of the closet is actually healing. That’s what 88-year-old Shatzi Weisberger, a former nurse who has discovered a second calling as a positive death advocate, believes.

A few years ago, she sat with a friend who was dying of cancer and “so terrified she couldn’t even talk about it,” Weisberger explains. Then her friend died, and Weisberger realized they hadn’t dealt with the issue at all. So she began studying death. A few months ago, she held her FUNeral. And unlike someone who’s already dead, she knows exactly who came.

In the movie Patch Adams, based on the life of the actual physician/social activist/author/clown, Robin Williams, portraying Patch, says, “What’s wrong with death, sir? What are we so mortally afraid of? Why can’t we treat death with a certain amount of humanity and dignity, and decency, and God forbid, maybe even humor? Death is not the enemy, gentlemen. If we’re going to fight a disease, let’s fight one of the most terrible diseases of all, indifference.”

This move to bring death into life has been mushrooming in the last few decades. “There are tremendous similarities between birthing and dying,” says social worker Henry Ferski-Weiss, who birthed the idea of death doulas and later founded a training program for end-of-life “midwives” to attend to patients’ non-medical needs.

Agrees graphic designer Joanna Ebernstein, who started a blog exploring the interstices of art and medicine, death and culture, “We don’t have a set of rituals around it that contains it or gives it meaning. Ours is the first culture to pathologize an interest in death.”

Theologian and author Alan Watts summarizes the ineffable beauty of the life/death cycle in this extraordinary three-and-a-half-minute video, The Dream of Life.

Avoiding Postmortem Family Conflict

One of the most practical reasons for HECM holders to speak about death with loved ones prior to their passing is to help prevent post mortem family feuds. William Fralin, founder of the The Office of Chronic Care Advocacy, says,

“Intra-family conflict can arise between siblings and between generations, when a child who is named as the fiduciary has personal interests that are not in line with the interests of the other beneficiaries. It can arise over high value estates and over low value tangible personal property that is loaded with sentimental baggage.

“When such conflict arises, it is not uncommon for the various parties to seek legal counsel, and the conflict can land the family in court. There are things you can do to avoid conflict in your family after you are gone.”

He recommends that a senior:

  • Know your family. Who understands the realities of financial planning or wealth management, and who needs a trust to protect his or her interests? Discuss with your attorney how to draft your documents to avoid the potential conflicts.
  • Know your assets. If the senior has a HECM or is planning to apply for one, which family member(s) are best equipped to be part of this conversation?
  • Communicate clearly. It is rarely a good idea to keep your estate plan a secret from family members. If you’ve decided only one of your children should be a fiduciary or only one needs a trust, or you have made some other uneven distribution of your estate, let all of the children know. Explain, while you still can, why you have made the choices you have. Usually, even if family members do not like the decisions, they are willing to accept your say in the matter. After all, it is your money and you can do with it what you like.
  • Encourage your named fiduciary to seek legal counsel in connection with the administration of your estate. A dispassionate third party can also help reduce family conflict by explaining the process.

Whether or not your HECM clients choose to explore death as described above, taking smart steps while they are alive will ensure the post-death experience is more positive for everyone.

8 comments

The Positive Realist September 5, 2018 at 11:38 am

Judge me as a hater or whatever you want to classify me as but I can think of about a billion other things to embrace rather than death. Should death be feared? I lived during the Vietnam War and saw too many body bags to embrace it and have wept at the Vietnam War Memorial in DC too many times to embrace death or see a funeral as fun. I wish LBJ had feared it more.

Life is a precious commodity. As I watch my father pass away, the only thing I can see is human life fighting against death. The same was true with my father-in-law, a ranking officer in the largest city in the South. He refused to eat his gun despite his pain and suffering. For me life is too precious to see it wasted on trying to making death fun.

And, oh yeah, Robin Williams ended his life by hanging himself. He was no model for the living just the occasional comic who does too well in Hollywood for his own good. The movie was idiotic and a tool to escape real life. That was a severe problem for Robin, he lived too much of his life trying to escape it.

Reply
Amara Rose September 5, 2018 at 12:29 pm

Thanks for your thoughts, Positive Realist. I can appreciate your perspective. Yes, life is to be embraced; there are probably many people who fear life as well as death, and that is indeed sad.

However, understanding that death is part of life, and removing the fear most people in this culture have around dying, can also go a long way towards helping them embrace life fully.

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Dick Diamond September 5, 2018 at 12:40 pm

I think a “Celebration of Life” for an individual who is facing a life about to be cut short because of illness may not be such a bad thing. It affords the opportunity for meaningful farewells to family and friends. It also allows the time to examine one’s life’s work and how we may have affected others in so many positive ways

We all want to live a long and productive life, but there is nothing wrong with planning in advance for the inevitable. “May you live long and Prosper”.

Reply
Amara Rose September 5, 2018 at 12:48 pm

Thank you, Dick. I think the challenge for some, like Positive Realist, is that people are beginning to create such celebrations when they are not necessarily close to death (although obviously, with the exception of terminal illness, we don’t know our end date. And even then, life surprises us on a regular basis.)

As I wrote above, the key is demystifying death and dying, which actually helps us live life without fear. This is what people who have had near-death experiences report: that they no longer have any fear of death, and it frees them to live full-out.

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The Positive Realist September 5, 2018 at 11:04 pm

Dick,

My perspective is much like yours.

Planning for the inevitable is how long-range financial planning is normally done unless it is a more limited plan.

Reply
Dick Diamond September 7, 2018 at 11:45 am

The Positive Realist and I agree that life is for the living to enjoy, and that death and dying is not something to be dwelled upon.

Reply
From HECM to Hospice: Preparing for Transition | HECMWorld.com September 11, 2018 at 1:03 am

[…] week we looked at new ways seniors are demystifying rather than denying death, and how smart pre-planning can help families mitigate conflict once the HECM recipient […]

Reply
From HECM to Hospice: Preparing for Transition | HECMWorld.com September 11, 2018 at 5:54 pm

[…] week we looked at new ways seniors are demystifying rather than denying death, and how smart pre-planning can help families mitigate conflict once the HECM recipient […]

Reply

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