Folk U: Natural Burial & Community-Led Deathcare

Natural Burial & Community-Led Deathcare: FolkU Radio@89.5FM

Where we ask our neighbours: What do you know?  It’s that time of year when the light is short and the natural world around is  in its big rest, preparing for transformation. I feel particularly appreciate to be spending this season in this strange and tumultuous time, here on this island, surrounded by the natural world and by this community. Margaret Verschuur helped bring together the Cortes Island Deathcare Initiative and has served as a death doula on Cortes and Quadra Islands. In this episode she and Emma Tius, the new contact person for the Death-Care Collective, to discuss what community death care are and what natural burial looks like on Cortes and Quadra Islands. 

Margaret Vershuur

This isn’t an easy subject, one that many shy away from:

  • it is a very challenging topic and one that brings up a lot of strong feelings, including grief
  • death illiterate and grief illiterate
  • you are navigating death, or have had a loved one die that weighs heavy on your heart, I’m sorry
  • best to talk about when we are healthy and when death isn’t staring us in the face

Could you start by telling us what you mean by a Natural Burial and Community-Led Death Care?

  • Cortes DeathCaring Collective & Quadra Way-to-Go (Dale Presleym Joyce Baker, Ray Grigg)
  • Intention – have conversations, learn (each month a topic – Organ Donation, Customs in other Cultures, Norm Gibbons, Bruce Ellingsen on MAID, Downsizing, Natural Burials), and take our learning into the community
  • from these groups and with their backing, some of us started looking into Natural Burials and Community-Led Death Care

What is a natural burial?

  • the folks on Denman have a lovely natural burial cemetery – green burial – terms used interchangeably
  • body returned to the earth as simply as possible
  • no embalming, a simple biodegradable box or the body wrapped in just a cotton, linen, or wool shroud
  • shallower grave to encourage decomposition
  • RESONATES rather than the area be maintained, the wild forest is invited to reclaim the land – I like to imagine a tree getting really excited to find my body
  • not individual tombstones, but a communal memorialization area – In Cumberland a rock, on Denman a circular cement wall

Is this possible on Quadra Island?

Quadra has a natural burial section in the cemetery – it’s at the South? end of the existing cemetery – once there have been people buried there they will be open to talking about how to memorialize those buried – perhaps a bench with plaques or a small gazebo have been mentioned·        

On Cortes Island?

  • Manson’s the SCCA has approved an area in principle, we are about to start the application process
  • Whaletown – Carrington Bay and Sawmill Roads – Ron Kroeker managed a substantial expansion, and we are looking for community landscape type designers who might be interested is laying out the types of burial – conventional, natural, cremated remains – in a way that is aesthetically forever … or at least a very long time. In Tideline
  • Both cemeteries – wanting to create a structure of some sort to place the names of those buried there on, again, looking for community involvement
    •   we can raise money, and some has been donated
    •   the CISS has kindly agreed to take our loose organization under their wing for now, so people can donate through them
    •   Once we have a design in Whaletown that the community and WCC approve of, we will start that application process

What is Community-Led Death Care?

  • last year on Quadra Island we put on a Death Education Fair
  • asked the folks from Denman to set up a table and talk about Natural Burials, asked for an additional table – Friends and Neighbours – we call Community-Led Death Care
  • that struck a chord in many of us – we began to have meetings about how we could create that on Quadra
  • many people don’t know that here in BC loved ones can take care of their own at death – wash, dress, prepare the body, take care of the legal paperwork, transport the body to the cemetery or crematorium, build a casket, basically do everything we normally ask funeral homes to do for us
  • knowing that you can, it is difficult to know how, and even know how, a challenging time and it helps to have support
  • a group of volunteers who assist a family to do things themselves – whatever part they have the courage for
  • for example, if a person comes home to die, or dies of an expected cause in the home, the body can stay at home. Loved ones can tend to it. It doesn’t need to go to a funeral home in Campbell River. There are ways to keep it cool. Family can visit with the body, kids can come and go, in a familiar environment. When the time comes, the family can transport the body to the cemetery themselves, lower it into the grave, and re-fill the grave.
  • these tasks can be excruciatingly difficult and may take a lot of courage. But they are also real, and related to the death itself, and it gives us a chance to process our grief.
  • gives us opportunities to help each other, to grieve together
  • not a choice that everyone can make, or that suits everyone, but unless we know what is possible it isn’t really a choice at all

Have you had personal experience with having a body at home, the way you’ve described?

  • Yes. My nephew died at the age of 25 – a car driving south on the Inland Island Hwy crossed the grassy median and entered the northbound lane, hitting Trevor’s van head-on. The driver of the car and Trevor both died. some of us just gathered in Comox a month ago on the 3rd year after his death.
  • I had been travelling in Europe and was thinking – this is fun, maybe I don’t want to be involved in death and dying – but the day after I came back, Trevor died
  • He had been born in the family home, and my sister and her husband knew they wanted his body to come back to the home
  • his body was on his bed, and his bedroom became a sacred space. Sometimes the rest of the house was in chaos – people coming and going, tea, food brought – but in that room there was a deep reverence.
  • his mother brought the books he had loved as a child and these were read aloud. Music came into the room. There were tears. There was laughter. Kids came into the room with their parents to say good-bye. It was a terrible, beautiful time.
  • In the workshop, his casket got built. someone brought a wood engraving kit, and words and pictures were etched into the box
  • eventually, his body was transported to the crematorium, we accompanied it right to the chamber, and pressed the button to start the process
  • it was so hard, and there is no easy way through, but it was real, and we did it with each other. I honestly don’t know how we would have gotten through it if a funeral home had done it all for us
  • after that experience I was motivated to keep my hand to the plow and continue letting others know that what is possible when someone dies

I like what you said about doing it together. I can understand why it makes sense to have the help of a community?

  • this being human isn’t easy, but it is our common ground, something we all share
  • I like the quote from Ram Dass “We are all just walking each other home.”

So on Cortes, if there has been a death, people just call you?

  • what would be preferable is if people called on Community-Led Death Care well before a death, or a difficult diagnosis. It is far easier to explore options and decide what we would like our final days to look like, where we’d like to be, who we’d like to have with us, while we can think clearly. And then what we’d like to happen to our bodies after we die. In the workshop this spring on Cortes we needed a dead person for our training and I volunteered. This turned out to be a profound experience for me. I had written out what I would like to happen after death, and my body was laid in a casket of cedar boughs, with song, with such beautiful loving attention.
  • so many people say the body is just a shell, it doesn’t matter. I would have used those words myself, thoughtlessly repeating what I’d heard, 10 years ago. And the terms used – I dislike even saying these words – is the disposition of the body. How will the body be disposed of, as if it is  garbage? This body, our bodies, our small piece of magical earth that has served us for what might be 60 or 70 or 80 years, should it not be treated with respect and thoughtfulness even after death? I sometimes see the way we treat our bodies as a reflection on how we treat the earth – as just something we use, to serve us.

Which is a Segway into my next question – what is the most environmentally sensitive way to deal with our bodies after death?·        

  • many people think that cremation is more sustainable than burial, but for those who have the option of being buried in a natural burial cemetery, this is the only way that has a positive impact on the environment. Not only is the body returned to the earth to nourish a forest, but because this happens in a designated cemetery the wild space is also protected
  • it takes a lot of energy to reduce a body to a box of cremated remains, and the toxins are going up into the atmosphere
  • also what I’ve learned recently is that cremated remains – often called ashes, but really ground up bones, don’t easily decompose, and are too alkaline and salty to be of benefit to new growth
  • personal choices – compelling reasons to choose one or another – for one person thought of a fire is more appealing, and for another a burial feels right. But you asked about this from an environmental point of view, in which case a natural burial, where the body contributes to new life, is the best choice.

What about economic?

  • burials tend to be more expensive than cremations, but on Quadra and Cortes, where the graveyards are so economical, a simple burial, again in a green burial cemetery as tombstones are also pricey, is the most economical choice
  • a burial with a funeral home involved, however, may be more expensive than a cremation

Back to my question, if there has been a sudden death and people don’t know what to do, can they call you?

  • on Cortes, they can call Community-Led Death Care. There is a brochure with several names of people who can be contacted – Emma, Ayton, Samantha, or Carina. These are the volunteer coordinators, and they will help a family determine what is needed. If, for example, the family wants some guidance in washing or dressing a body, the coordinator calls on that set of volunteers to help. Or perhaps they need help with transportation, or paperwork or moving the body, or someone to arrange meals – the coordinator contacts the other volunteers and connects them with the family.        
  • and funeral homes play an important role and I’m not saying – don’t use them. But if you would like to do things yourselves, there is help.

Why do you encourage people to do things for themselves? What motivates you to do this work?

  • if we really are to make death a part of life, I think that starts right here in our homes, in our communities. I think about birth – when I was born 60 years ago it was considered a medical procedure done in a hospital, I was fed sugar water while my mother was on bed rest for a week – and now people have the option to use midwives and birth babies at home, and have more natural births – in the same way people are reimagining death, and perhaps going back to an older, simpler way of dying
  • if we can’t make death a part of life, if we can’t see our lives as finite – how can we possibly see that the world we are living in is also finite·         another equally honest answer is – I don’t know exactly what motivates me, there are people who think I’m weird – I think I’m weird – but I am motivatedHas Community-Led Death Care been used in the community? You said it was launched in June of this year?
  • yes. We helped a widow bring her husband’s body home from the hospital, where he died, to Cortes, where her and their son prepared it for burial. Her grandson built a coffin, and one of our volunteers helped them transport it to the local cemetery, where he was buried.·         another man died this summer on Cortes, and was buried on Cortes, his body never leaving the island
  • we helped a family with a cremation – they picked up the body from the hospital and again, we helped with the transportation to the crematorium. They were with his body right to the end
  • recently on Quadra we helped a family, also with a cremationAnd did everything go smoothly?
  • No. We are pioneers and we are learning as we go along. Each situation is unique. I won’t say things went badly, just differently than expected. Thankfully the families we worked with were flexible.

Can you give me an example?        

  • yes. When picking up a body from the hospital, I thought the morgue would use their mechanical lift to set the body in the box, and we could simply wheel it to the waiting vehicle. We learned that they can only use the mechanical lift when dealing with licensed people, and since we don’t have that sort of license, we had to lift the body into the box ourselves. We managed, but this man was heavy and now we can tell people to make sure they have enough strong people with them
  • in another situation we learned that paperwork is far easier to do correctly the first time
  • I think we will keep learning, and making blunders, as we go along

How many volunteers?

  • On Cortes, there are 20 volunteers involved in Community-Led Death Care. On Quadra, anyone interested in volunteering, please get in touch with me.
  • We do ongoing training sessions, and on the job training as well. Of course Covid has made this more difficult, as we can’t get together. We have set up a series of training sessions that we will offer over Zoom. We will keep trying to find ways to engage the volunteers, keep us all active.

Who do you mean by we?

  • On Cortes, the steering committee. There are seven of us who have taken on the role of keeping Community-Led Death Care engaged and active.How long have you been involved in death and dying? What brought you in?
  • my dad died in 2009, and that introduced me to a world I hadn’t known existed
  • he had a massive stroke, and 3 weeks later he died
  • I watched my reserved, upright, strong 81 year old father lose his inhibitions – he basically lost everything in the first week, to the point that he couldn’t remember my name any more – but he remembered who I was, and that he loved me – it was actually quite beautiful, all the layers dropping away until it was just his essence left – I sat beside his bedside and wrote poetry, and one line still stands out – I have never seen love naked before
  • what happened to his body after death – the embalming and make-up, I found distasteful and disrespectful
  • immediately after that I phone CR Hospice and said – I’d like to be a volunteer. They have a policy that it there has been a recent death, wait a year. I took the training a year later, and had the absolute privilege of being with a few people on their journeys.
  • that resonated with me, and when I thought about what kind of work I wanted to do in the world – my children able to take care of themselves now – I decided to work in a funeral home, which I did for several years
  • but I really think we need to bring death back into our homes, so here I am
  • I make it sound like a straight path – it wasn’t

How can people prepare for death?·         the first thing is mental – I read that even though people around us are dying we don’t think it will happen to us. I’m guilty of that. 

Margaret can you tell us a bit more how you came to be interested in helping others with death?

  • You use the term death illiterate and grief illiterate, what do those concepts mean to you?
  • Today’s topic is community-led deathcare and natural burials: what are those things?
  • —Natural Cemeteries
  • —Quadra and Cortes possibilities
  • —Are we allowed to take care of our own dead?
  • How realistic is this Folk-Burial for people today?
  • Have you had personal experience with having a body at home, the way you’ve described?
  • What does a person do on Cortes or Quadra if someone dies… is there a central number?
  • Which is a Segway into my next question – what is the most environmentally sensitive way to deal with our bodies after death?  —Cremation vs burial   —economic, environmental, 

If there has been a sudden death and people don’t know what to do, what then?

  • Emma, Ayton, Samantha, or Carina

Has Community-Led Death Care been used in the community? You said it was launched in June of this year? Did everything go smoothly?

  • No. We are pioneers and we are learning as we go along. Each situation is unique. I won’t say things went badly, just differently than expected. Thankfully the families we worked with were flexible.

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