We recently chatted with the funeral planning expert, Gail Rubin. With the holiday season approaching, we thought it would be a good time to talk about ways to keep the memory of a loved one alive, as well other ways to encourage a more open discussion about death and dying.
She went from being a PR professional and an event planner to a Certified Thanatologist (a death educator), a Certified Funeral Celebrant, award-winning author and speaker, funeral profession trade journalist, blogger, and advocate for planning ahead. She’s also a pioneer of the Death Café movement in the United States and event coordinator of the Before I Die New Mexico Festival.
We talked with her about what inspired her to pursue a background in the funeral profession and how holidays are an important way to remember our loved ones.
Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and your background?
I first got into the death field because of my second wedding in 2000. My husband and I had a very creative and fun Jewish-Western wedding. People were encouraged to wear cowboy boots and Western clothing. The reception, held in a converted barn with sawdust on the floor, featured a barbeque buffet. We danced to live Western swing music and recorded klezmer tunes.
Everyone had such a good time, I decided to write a book about creative life cycle events and call it “Matchings, Hatchings, and Dispatchings.” I wrote a monthly feature by that name for the now-defunct Albuquerque Tribune. The stories focused on local weddings, births, and deaths.
Remarkably, the articles about death and funerals generated the greatest number of responses from readers. This showed a great need to be able to have this conversation. Some people are dying to talk about death, and humor is a great way to break the ice.
There are plenty of books on creative wedding planning. We didn’t need another contribution there. But at the time, there weren’t many books on creative funeral planning. So, I focused on funerals, to show the many ways a final goodbye can be done well. The first edition of A Good Goodbye: Funeral Planning for Those Who Don’t Plan to Die became an award-winning book and it changed the course of my career.
With Dia de los Muertos approaching, can you go a little into the background, origin, and history of the holiday?
The Day of the Dead celebrations held on November 1 and 2 acknowledge the culmination of the life cycle, and that death will come to us all. The Day of the Dead allows the living to honor those who have died — family, friends, ancestors, and pets. Its origins are from ancient Mesoamerican cultures, originating primarily in Mexico and Central America. Anyone can adopt this annual observance and tailor this colorful celebration to remember their own deceased loved ones.
Indigenous peoples such as the Aztec, Maya, Olmec, Toltec, and other tribes in Mexico held rituals celebrating the deaths of ancestors during the month of August. It corresponded with a festival dedicated to a goddess called Mictecacihuatl, The Lady of the Dead. The early Mesoamerican attitude was that life is a dream, and death is the awakening to real life. The dead are considered to have semidivine status, given permission to return once a year. They are to be welcomed, not feared.
When Catholic Spanish Conquistadors came to the New World more than 500 years ago, they tried to eradicate these native rituals that seemed to mock death and symbolized death and rebirth. The ancient rituals refused to die in the face of forced conversion.
To make the ritual more Christian, the Spaniards moved it to correspond with All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day, November 1 and 2. In Mexico, Dia de los Muertos as it is known in Spanish, honors deceased children and infants on the first day, and deceased adults on the second day.
What common misconceptions do you think people in America might have about Dia de los Muertos?
While Dia de los Muertos directly follows Halloween, the celebration is not meant to be scary. The pervasive skull imagery associated with the festival represents the eternal spirit that lives on after the flesh has “given up the ghost.”
The animated film Coco provides a great primer on Dia de los Muertos rituals and the reasons behind them. It’s all about family, keeping the memories alive of those who have died, and celebrating together.
What are some unique ways in which people use Dia de los Muertos to honor and celebrate their loved ones?
Today, Day of the Dead celebrations are held in Mexico, parts of Central and Latin America, in the Southwest U.S., and some European countries. In Mexico, the celebrations are elaborate, even more so than Christmas observances. Parades and profuse decorations in homes and cemeteries make this time of the year a tourist spectacle.
Families visit cemeteries to clean the graves of loved ones, decorate them with flowers and candles, and commune with the spirits of the departed. Often, they picnic in the cemetery, bringing the deceased’s favorite food and drink.
Colorful parades are held with people dressed as skeletons, a reminder that in death, we actually continue life. Skull masks and artwork of skeletons doing everyday activities, such as dancing, bicycle riding, and eating and drinking, remind us that the everlasting soul continues on, separate from the body.
The celebration continues in the home, welcoming the dead with respect and devotion. Some families will make an elaborate dinner, set out the food and not eat it until the next day, to let the spirits eat first. They may also make the bed with fresh sheets to allow the spirits to rest after their long journey to earth. And they construct ofrendas, individualized altars with offerings to maintain relations with the dead.
Do you think that Americans lack their own special cultural festivals that not only help us celebrate and remember the dead but also make death seem less taboo?
Absolutely, we need ways to celebrate and remember, and make death less taboo. In Japan, they have the annual Obon Festival in August to remember and honor ancestors. Jews have the tradition of yartzeit, lighting a candle on the anniversary of a loved one’s death and saying the Mourner’s Kaddish prayer. Many Catholics will visit cemeteries and clean the graves of their loved ones for All Saints and All Souls Days.
It seems there’ve been newer movements opening up in America, that are trying to promote a more open discussion open death and dying. Can you tell us more about those?
A flood of death discussion movements started in the U.S. over the past decade. They include:
The Death Café movement started in England in September 2011, when Londoner Jon Underwood and psychologist Sue Barsky Reid, his mother, held the first such event at Jon’s home. Based on the work of Swiss sociologist Bernard Crettaz, the Death Café objective is “to increase awareness of death with a view to helping people make the most of their (finite) lives.”
The sessions offer a group-directed discussion of death with no agenda, objectives, or themes. This is a discussion group rather than a grief support or counseling session.
Death Cafés are a “social franchise,” where those who want to hold such events agree to follow the guidelines of holding a Death Café. The guidelines include presenting Death Cafés on a not-for-profit basis in an accessible, respectful, and confidential space, with no intention of leading people to any conclusion, product, or course of action. Most events are free or donation-based. Hosts always offer drinks and food, such as tea and cake or coffee and cookies.
From the first event in 2011 to mid-2018, more than 6,700 Death Cafés have been held in 56 countries around the world. Lizzy Miles in Columbus, Ohio and I in Albuquerque, New Mexico held the first two U.S. Death Cafés in 2012.
Before I Die Festivals
Like the Death Café movement, Before I Die Festivals originated in the United Kingdom. Before I Die Festivals boldly take death out of the closet through a host of entertaining and engaging free or low-cost activities. These events help participants to think about, talk about, and plan for our eventual mortality.
The first U.S. festivals were held in Indianapolis, Indiana, and Louisville, Kentucky, in 2016. Both events drew more than 700 participants each. In Albuquerque, New Mexico, we had 600 participants at our festival in 2017. We’re excited to be holding a second festival October 30 to November 4, 2018. There’s more information at www.BeforeIDieNM.com.
Death Over Dinner
The Death Over Dinner movement launched in the United States on August 24, 2013, with more than 500 dinners in 20 countries on a single night. Since then, there have been more than 100,000 dinners around the globe.
It started with a University of Washington graduate course called Let’s Have Dinner and Talk About Death, taught by Michael Hebb and Scott Macklin. They recognized that how we end our lives is the most important and costly conversation America is NOT having. The project provides a simple set of tools to help families and friends discuss the fact that we are all, at some point, going to die.
Death Salons and the Death Positive Movement
Caitlin Doughty, founder of The Order of the Good Death, coined the phrase “death positive.” She held the first Death Salon in Los Angeles in 2013. These events “bring together intellectuals and independent thinkers engaged in the exploration of our shared mortality by sharing knowledge and art.” Annual Death Salons have taken place in Seattle, London, San Francisco, and Houston. The 2018 event in Boston at Mount Auburn Cemetery sold out within 24 hours.
Reimagine End Of Life Festivals
Reimagine End Of Life is a nonprofit organization that hosts a week of public conversations exploring life and death, living life to the fullest, and preparing for the time we won’t be here anymore. Events include art shows, film screenings and theater performances, speakers and field trips, workshops and panel discussions, and concerts.
The inaugural Reimagine End Of Life Festival in San Francisco offered 175 free and paid events all around the Bay Area April 16-22, 2018. Organizers estimated more than 10,000 attendees participated over the course of the festival.
This fall, there will be another such festival in New York City October 27 to November 3, 2018. There may also be a festival in Cleveland, OH October 8 to 14, 2018. The organization draws upon local partnerships to make these events happen.
How can a funeral home get involved in the death positive movement, and help encourage families to be more open when discussing end-of-life and memorialization?
Funeral homes can host Death Cafés in their reception centers, as long as the social franchise guidelines are followed. You can connect with people already holding Death Cafés in your area or introduce it to your market with a local death doula or grief counselor as a facilitator. The novelty of starting a Death Café in your town can be a great public relations or news opportunity.
Funeral homes also can get involved by hosting Death Over Dinner events. You can make the dinners potluck events and invite local organizations or religious groups to participate. And if there’s going to be a Before I Die Festival in your market, get involved!
With the holiday season coming up in a few months, what are some lessons from Dia de los Muertos that we can incorporate into our own holiday celebrations?
You don’t have to be Mexican or Catholic to honor your loved ones with a Day of the Dead altar in your home and welcome their spirits for a visit. Start by setting up a table with photos of the deceased, and their ashes if you have them. Don’t forget to include departed pets!
Decorate around the photos with flowers and candles. Set out foods and beverages that they used to enjoy. Play the music they loved. Put art objects they collected or artwork they created on or near the altar. Write messages to them and place the notes next to their photos. Include items from pets’ lives, such as toys, leashes, treats, and tags.
Traditional ofrendas have items that represent the four elements of earth, air, fire, and water. A glass of water is included to give the spirits a drink after their long journey. Tissue paper sheets with elaborate cutout designs, called papel picado, represent air, as they move with the gentlest breeze. Flowers and a bowl of salt often represent the earth, and candles provide fire.
Marigolds are the flower of choice for Day of the Dead decorations. Their pungent scent is said to guide souls to earth, and marigolds are often still blooming in late October. Flowers can be arranged in an arch, along with sheets of papel picado, representing the connection from earth to heaven.
Create the altar prior to Halloween and keep it up for as long as it feels right. Photograph the altar for posterity. Each year presents a new opportunity to remember and honor those who meant so much to us while they lived. Inevitably, there will be new faces to add as the years go by.
The holiday season tends to bring about reminders of our loved ones and causes our grief to surge. What suggestions for healthy holiday grieving can you share with us?
The traditions that accompany family-centric holidays make the loss of a family member much more painful. In our family, we have a tradition of prominently placing large pictures in the dining room of those who have died, so they are, in a sense, present as the whole family enjoys the holiday meal. This is an option that acknowledges the person’s passing while continuing to observe family annual events.
One Christmas season, a woman at a holiday party told me of her 56-year-old son who died of a heart attack on Christmas Day the year before. She and her daughter-in-law planned to go out of town for the holiday and do something completely different. This is a healthy response — to strike out in a new direction on a tradition-laden day when a loved one is no longer present. It recognizes the “new normal” all families face as they go through mourning, processing grief as time passes.
On birthdays, anniversaries, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, and any day special to the family, acknowledging the deceased is not morbid or unnatural. It’s okay to share memories. That loved one is already on everyone’s mind.
Are there any unique holiday rituals you recommend for families to honor their loved ones by?
I’m a big fan of candle lighting rituals. Lighting a candle on the anniversary of a loved one’s death has power. It’s a tradition in Jewish households, as well as in Catholic churches. Those without a faith tradition, or whose religion does not call for annual recognition, can benefit from this simple candle lighting tradition.
Set up a photo of the loved one and light a 24-hour memorial candle the evening before the day they died. I like to put the person’s photo and memorial candle on the kitchen table, to keep us company during meals. For that time the candle burns, it’s as if that person’s spirit is visiting on the anniversary of their death.
Remembrance candles also can be lit for the departed on their birthdays, anniversaries, holidays, or any time you want to make a special effort to call forth their spirits. The burning flame, representing the eternal, enduring spirit, can provide a sense of comfort at the times we most miss our dearly departed.
What can funeral directors do to help families spending their first year without a loved one during the holidays?
Sending a “thinking of you” card prior to the anniversary of the death is a nice gesture of support. You might include a tips brochure for addressing grief at the holidays. If your funeral home has a grief support program, a call or note to let the family know about available services might be appreciated.
Funeral homes can hold a special holiday event to remember all who died over the course of the year and the families they served. Such an event could be designed with a certified funeral celebrant who can make it a creative life celebration that also showcases your services.
To download a list of topics Gail Rubin can present to your community or state funeral directors association, visit this page at AGoodGoodbye.com.