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Caring for the Dead: A Spiritual Undertaking

Story for All Ages The Perfume of Memory by Michelle Nikly

This is a story about a girl who dreams of becoming the Royal Perfume Maker. But the law forbids it: only boys may compete for this coveted position. Almost no one can remember a time when it was any other way. This is a tale of courage & character - a tale that shows the enormous power of a person who knows - and can remember - what is right. I chose this story because it foreshadows the talk today: a girl who encounters her destiny while young, the obstacles sometimes encountered in finding our way to what we are called to do, memory and the social amnesia related to our history (in this case how we cared for our dead), power & temptation, and the motivation to do something symbolic that results from having experienced loss.

Best of all, listen at the end of the book. We can take direction from Yasmin's wish. (to appoint a Royal Storyteller so no one would ever again forget the proud history of the land and the people who lived there.)

Presentation

INTRODUCTION (where I met Aspen, why the talk today)

Hello, my name is Kory McGrath and I am here to talk to you about my spiritual journey through my career in caring for the dead. But first, for a little background on how I came to be invited to this talk. Last fall, I met Aspen and Rick while attending a talk by Jerrigrace Lyons on Death Midwifery and we had the opportunity to chat a little bit afterwards and have been in touch ever since. My talk today follows on the very subject that Aspen has discussed within these walls prior - A lively conversation on Death and the matters that surround it.

INTRO MY TALK - refer to synopsis from program (below)

[SYNOPSIS] What if you were asked to care for your own dead? Would you? What leads a person to want to care for the dead?

Some people are born into the "business" of funeral service, and the others, so they say, are called to it. And sometimes, we are just plain asked (or expected) to do it. Historically, we all cared for our own, there was no "business" about it. How have we lost our way in caring for our dead and why is it important, not only to our spirituality but also to our humanity, that we rediscover this sacred rite of passage?

In this talk, I will share my personal experiences in being "called" to caring for the dead and how I eventually chose the alternative path after having had many years to reflect on a funeral service career and intersecting spiritual journey.

· [touch on Aspen's story from 'Predicaments of Mortality']

"They wrapped Nathan in a blanket and just before they took him away my mother said she gave us “the privilege of kissing him.” So began my spiritual and cultural immersion with death." These are the words from a talk Aspen did about this time last year entitled 'Predicaments of Mortality.' I recently read the notes from this talk and was overwhelmed with emotion at her recollection of witnessing the aftermath of her young brother drowning - perhaps as a mother to young children, the story really struck a chord with me. I hope you don't mind, Aspen, but I have used some of the themes from your talk to inform my talk today - a way of quilting our stories together into a tapestry of life and death, awe, spirituality and how we have come to do the things we do.

I wanted to reflect on Aspen's story from last year because it is but one example of an early life experience that led her to her interest in death and ritual. Similar to my own childhood, there is memory of loss and intensity and the vivid pictures of what was going on in those moments of time. I believe "we become who we are because of what we've seen and done" perhaps as a way to work things out later in life, to make sense of it all. So what did I see and do as a child that I see as my influence to go the way of funeral services?

I used to make caskets out of shoe-boxes & would bury little dead birds and rodents that I would find in the field next to our house. Then I'd bury them by the stream and set stones on their graves. Why? I suppose I have come to interpret it as if I were burying little pieces of me that had broken in a turbulent childhood - loss does come in many forms. In my case I had lost my mother to alcohol and because of the alcohol, I lost my father when he left. I realize that then, and since then, I have always tried to find meaningful ways to cope with a life in transition. In wanting to be near to others who were in some walk of fear, of change, of transformation maybe became my own way of therapy, of finding my way to the surface through their journey and somehow tapping into the bigger consciousness that is humanity.

· Miwifery or funeral services? - the beginning.

When I was in high school, I learned that an older student was doing his co-op at a funeral home. A funeral home. A Mortician. An Undertaker. A place of wonder and mystery. Some kids from broken homes turn to drugs or crime. I chose death. Finally, a place of a familiar family drama and chaos. And yet, a place of untold stillness. Of other people's pain.

After my own coop a year later at a local funeral home, it was time to decide on career aspirations when the colleges and universities came to town. I thought maybe I wanted to be a midwife, to be surrounded by cries of happiness, but the representatives from the university said to go and get some life experience first. So I applied to the program that matched the only skill I had developed - the funeral program at Humber. And so began a life determined to find experience.

Here are some of those experiences:

The lady and her budgie: One of my first encounters while apprenticing at the funeral home, was with a lady who had come in on a Saturday and asked to see some urns and keepsakes, otherwise known as cremation jewellery. I led her to the "Casket Selection Room" where the merchandise was displayed and pointed her to a shelf of keepsakes. She seemed awkward. Then started talking about her dead budgie. She talked for almost an hour about how much she had loved him, some times they had together, and how she was going to have him cremated and wanted a place to keep his remains so he would always be close to her. I'm telling you about this story because it really demonstrates the gamut of what's entailed in a day in the life at a funeral home, but also because it relates to my earlier story about burying birds as a child and the irony of this. It was also my first lesson in listening. We all have our stories about loss and none are lesser than others.

The harmonica player: One day, at the conclusion of a funeral arrangement for an elderly lady, her son asked if it would be possible for him to witness the embalming procedure. A bit stunned, I thought for a moment and in a separate room shared the request with my boss. He said that as long as a waiver to protect us from him potentially experiencing 'psychological damage as a result of witnessing the embalming' was signed, that the gentleman could do as he wished. It ended up that I was the embalmer also, so one afternoon, this man accompanied me into the preparation room where we both donned our protective gear and I explained what I would be doing. With extreme dignity and the tactful placement of cloth, I washed his mother and started the embalming process. At which point, he pulled out a harmonica and for the remaining 2 hours of the process, played her favorite songs while circling her body. This was my first lesson in being open to the wishes of others in how they needed to mourn, or to ritualize, no matter how 'unusual' the request. There had to be no judgment. It ended up becoming one of the most profound acts of love I have ever witnessed.

Faith and Ritual: I cannot say how much I have learned from the worlds faiths when it comes to caring for their dead. I believe they have contributed to my spiritual development to move away from the present day model of funeral care to a more community-and family-centered approach to caring for our own. From the burial societies and their rituals for cleansing, sitting with, and sending their dead off in the simplest of ways to the more elaborate wailers and adorners - filling caskets with goods for the afterlife, there is something to say about ritual, symbols, and the proximity and attention to the dead. This was my lesson in diversity and alternatives. That we can take direction from others and that funerals need not be so closed-off and cookie-cutter in our own culture.

The auctioneer: One of the most memorable funeral arrangements I engaged in was with a family of Auctioneers. The fact that the name of their company was Love's Auctioneer's is kind of sweet too. The widow was stricken with grief. Her adult daughter took the reins while in the arrangement while her mother emptied the tissue box, but the entire process was filled with their sharing stories of him and their interest in creatively contributing to how the funeral would go. It seemed like weeks of consulting and planning and testing out different ideas, not unlike the planning of a wedding, and many more hours of tears and pleading to have one more night of visitation with her beloved husband. On the day of the funeral, the building had been transformed into a romantic, loving, perfumed room of their love for him. They had the entire room stand and hold hands in a circle around his remains and it moved us all. This would be one of many lessons in the benefits and importance of having families be as involved as they wish to be in how the services will unfold, as it was testament to their love and resolve.

Closing the casket: It might go unnoticed to some, but it affects me deeply - the final closing of the casket. Because it is me, the funeral director, not the husband, the child, the parent that has the last look. It's me. And why? There were times when I invited the widow, the bereaved to do the honour, but each request was met with decline. Why? We have become so uncomfortable with death that most of us don't want to be near it. Or our ego takes over and we tighten at having to be in front of a crowd in a tender moment. Afraid we might break down. Afraid we might feel. That others will see. I learned that this distance from death is unsettling and that I wanted to do something about it. I interpret this question of 'why me' as a sign that I am supposed to translate these experiences and educate the public to feel empowered to take charge on closing the door for the last time on their loved ones.

 The baby: This story falls on the tails of the last one, but is a little more intense. Most of us are parents or have children that we love in our life. When you see a baby in the morgue at the funeral home, life doesn't make sense anymore. Sure, adult remains are cumbersome, they need to be lifted with lifts or many hands. Sometimes deceased adults have no survivors to come and be with them, so you get used to them being alone. But babies are little. They fit in your hands. And generally, when they are new, have parents that belong to them. So why do they go to funeral homes? Again, because somehow we have learned to fear them when they stop breathing, and so we hand them over because we don't know what else to do. Being with these babies made me promise I would do something in life to ensure that they had a more intimate goodbye. It was a lesson in dedication to helping people truly be with death so they could truly move on with loving wholeness, not from a place of absence and fear and mystery.

 

The autopsy - This is not a gruesome story. It's a story about going the distance. About putting together the pieces of a mother, as if it were my own. After arranging a funeral for an older woman, her son shows up and wants to see her. Her remains have just arrived from the Coroner's office and are in no state to be seen, but her son is impatient and angry. There is something bigger going on but I don't know what it is. So I tell him to give me 2 hours (a procedure which would normally take 6 or more.) Suddenly I am carried away to the night my own mother died, and I frantically dialed the number to my brother's house, knowing the pain he would feel but that he had to be a part of. Like my brother, this man was so obviously full of anger and grief. This was my first lesson in doing what it takes, no matter how challenging, to getting the loved ones, the hurt ones - together with their dead.

My own mother: After funeral school and before the birth of my first child, my mother died. She had been in the hospital for a few months with brain and bone cancer. I would visit her and wash her hair, bring her an Iced Cap from Tim's, and watch as she talked silly, an effect from all the morphine I suppose. It was there, in her childlike innocence and suffering that I forgave her. When I got the call in the middle of the night, I didn't pick up. I had too many glasses of wine hours earlier with my brother. After several attempts, I finally decided to answer - it was the hospital. They said to come quickly. I was worried about smelling like booze, so I brushed my teeth before calling a cab. I should have picked up the phone sooner. I shouldn't have brushed my teeth. When I arrived, she had already left, the sweat on her shirt still warm and damp. But in some way, her death opened the floodgates of love I had been too afraid to give into. Our mutual suffering was over. As Aspen puts it, "In that hush of the newly dead. And in the presence of her dying and death, I felt an awe of the mystery of death, and wanted to linger in the body and soul transition taking place, and take it in, feel it fully, before the undertakers came and helped our predicament, our helplessness."

For me, this was my first lesson in the fragility of life and forgiveness. It was also my first lesson in being with a death that was mine - not someone else's.

It is with these encounters and lessons from my professional life, together with the threads from my personal experiences with death that set me on my way to where I am now. I woke up there, in the funeral home, where other souls are fast asleep.

I started to grasp that death and dying are bigger than any of us, that it gets bigger the closer you are. So I started searching for ways to get closer - closer to death, closer to that "Predicament of Mortality." I trained and worked as a hospice volunteer, looking for the pieces that fell between life and death. Simultaneously I also trained as a birth doula - knowing that here also was a place between darkness and light. And then it clicked. My swirling soul connected these two places, birth and death, and here is where I truly began my spiritual journey. I realized then that one must inform the other and vice versa. In essence, the great circle of life was showing me that the skills required in one aspect could transfer to the other. Here, I will quote Aspen again: "a predicament of mortality, in the most basic sense, would have to do with birth and death – the 2 experiences whereby we encounter what it means to be mortal, to have life, or to not have life." (Aspen) And this is where I get back to the midwifery bit.

How have we lost our way in caring for our dead and why is it important, not only to our spirituality but also to our humanity, that we rediscover this sacred rite of passage? "What does it mean in our culture when we are not permitted to see death? FEAR. We can also ask ourselves the same questions surrounding birth. I have decided to borrow from the midwifery model of care to inform my funeral education practice: Continuity of Care / Informed Choice / Choice of Death/Funeral place. I have become part of a small group of like-minded people that call ourselves death midwives (or my preference, home funeral guides) to help educate other people in how to care for their own. Presently, we are in the early stages of defining our scope of practice and forming an association for Canadians seeking guidance in home funerals, in being closer with death.

"we become who we are because of what we've seen and done" AND SO: imagine the humanity we could instill in our society if we could be near death, have the honour of caring for our own. A death midwife friend of mine said that the only way to reach people to care for their own is through education, through linking the idea with a history of their ancestry - for this is what they did only a few generations ago. It was the only way. Let's take direction from this and from our earlier "Story for All Ages": to keep Storytelling, like Aspen and I have done, about our experiences with being near death so no one will forget the honour it is to be there and how it contributes to our spiritual journey and thus, our humanity.

CONCLUSION

· Introduce & Tie the music in

Here I wish to conclude with a song, performed by my young niece, Courtney Seguin. The song is from the montage in the finale of the HBO series Six Feet Under. One of our society's only references to the funeral 'industry' is via this pop-culture HBO series, which is a bit sad. But what I love about it is how in the montage we watch as a young girl travels through a space in time where she sees how she will encounter death - both with the people that she loves and eventually her own - as she sets out on her own spiritual journey. Please enjoy Courtney's rendition of Sia's "Breathe Me" and thank you for the opportunity to speak to you this morning. 

Song "Breathe Me" by Sia (Guitar & singing by Courtney Seguin)

Kory's contact information:

Kory Prentice McGrath
Family-Centered Memorials & Events
Remember Network
416-451-6900
kory@remembernetwork.ca
http://twitter.com/RememberNetwork
www.RememberNetwork.ca

The Unitarian Congregation of Guelph -- Phone: 519-836-3443
122 Harris Street, Guelph, Ontario, Canada, N1E 5T1

www.Guelph-Unitarians.com

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