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
- Remove everything stressful from your life
- Spend a day with a video camera following you.
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.