Innovation, celebration, community, and end of Life.
Updated: Sep 29, 2020
I am travelling to the UK to attend the annual Living Well Dying Well Doula Gathering where I will present on my End of Life Doula research, then I return to Australia to attend the fifth annual Broken Heel festival in Broken Hill NSW. This festival was inspired by the iconic Australian film Priscilla Queen of the Desert in case you didn't know - so I will be sporadic in writing new blog entries until the second half of September.
As always, I am interested in community and change at end of life, so this post is no exception. Every idea I present here for you today is, at it's heart and core, about community. Sometimes this is nation-state, (see wool coffins and New Zealand's design awards), sometimes this is about changing law, see (hemp coffins and human composting), and sometimes community is about identity, visibility, and loving inclusion, (see Broken Heel festival). Fundamentally, communities are the only true driving force for change - and fundamentally, at end of life community is what brings us together, supports us in grief, and helps those who come after us to have a (hopefully) better time of it because we stand up to help make change happen. Many end of life workers, including End of Life Consultants and end of life doulas like myself, are working hard to form supportive, compassionate, and innovative communities to help those at end of life, their family, friends, and carers, and our networks in general be better informed and more resilient in terms of end of life preparation and awareness.
While I am away I thought it might be fun to stimulate your own conversations and cogitations by offering you all some food for thought in terms of innovation at end of life. It is always important to bear in mind that all innovation begins with mavericks and those amongst us who are prepared to blaze a new trail and stand out against the tired old 'but we just do it this way because!' thinking. So, while I mention a few new ways to be more ecologically appropriate with body disposal, and give you some food for thought for funeral and memorial project planning, I do invite you to also consider what tickles your innovation and personalisation fancy in terms of your end of life wishes. It's never to early to be glam with your advance planning Gentle Reader!
Innovations in coffins include an Australian initiative from the Hemp Embassy. Coffins made from hemp are available in Nimbin and created from a pressed hemp board manufactured in Germany. As with all death furniture, your hemp coffin can be bought well in advance of need, then used upright or horizontally for shelving, storage, and decoration as hemp board coffins can be painted and embellished to personal taste. At the time of writing these coffins cost less than $1000 AUD, however shipping or collection may need to be factored in for those at a distance to the NSW Northern Rivers area. The Hemp Embassy has been working at the community level for decades, and much of the awareness we have today in Australia around hemp and cannabis and the benefits of these products is due to the grassroots efforts of collectives and initiatives like the Hemp Embassy.
Coffins that are a combination of willow and hemp are also available in the USA.
Hemp is an incredible resource, but there is some long-standing misunderstanding of the benefits of this plant in our cultural narratives - if you remind me later I'll write a post about Hearst's publishing empire and his contribution to the demonising of hemp paper in favour of cotton. Happily for those of us in Australia, there are sensible and effective people working towards reasonable legislation and access. The Hemp Embassy (see above) has been working for decades to see law and regulation become inclusive for hemp, and now Reason Australia's leader Fiona Patten has secured the first inquiry into cannabis; there is a good chance that Victoria may well lead the way in terms of access not only to medicinal products (good for pain relief, not only for end of life) but commercial hemp which could stimulate a new branch of the death furniture industry. We may not be far away from hemp board manufactured domestically, rather than imported, which would be a win for local jobs and industry.
Across the ditch the wonderfully inventive New Zealand wool industry celebrates the concept of a coffin made completely from wool. This year's winning idea comes from industrial designer Bec Bartells, who is now going to the USA to work with innovators there to further develop her design. You can read about this new concept coffin, and hear a radio interview with Gretchen Foster from NZ Merino Company here. As I am a fibre and textile artist with a life-long passion for natural fibres, and as New Zealand has some of the finest merino in the world, I am particularly excited about this latest inroad into helping death be more environmentally-sustainable. Woolen coffins are not unknown, in fact the UK (pictured above) does have some for funeral director's local use - but the general public may struggle to find coffins of this kind for their own purchase.
I talked to Issac Leung, founder and director of Scienta Coffins at the Association of Independent Funeral Professionals conference in Melbourne earlier this month, where a new Scientia patent has just been approved for a slimline, lightweight cardboard that is a game-changer for those who like the idea of cardboard coffins. Issac's new tech cardboard material is both slender and white, combining the best of both worlds in terms of sustainability of product and aesthetics. For those of you who don't know, the regular cardboard coffin is extremely heavy and a fairly dingy brown colour (see image here), which does not show off artwork and personal decoration to best effect. The white of this new material will set off decorations beautifully, so stay tuned for updates on consumer availability.
What I would be particularly excited about is the NZ wool coffin design being accepted by mainstream funeral directors throughout New Zealand and Australia and being made available for individual purchase; ditto coffins made from hemp board and new tech cardboard, making sustainable and ecological funeral options readily accessible for all. It is not all coffin news in terms of innovation at end of life, however. Washington State in the USA pioneered human composting for legal body disposal on May 23rd this year, and this is one sustainable innovation I would love to see happen here in Australia also, along with an increase in green burial ground options around the country. A community body of many end of life workers, headed by founder and CEO Katrina Spade, formed an organisation called Recompose to advise and advocate for this groundbreaking change which uses only an eighth of the energy that cremation does. The Recompose team includes high-profile end of life workers Alua Arthur and Caitlin Doughty, and offers a comprehensive spectrum of funeral and end of life community practices. I think it will be interesting to see how rapidly this technolgy and community-positive option will take to be adopted by other countries - and I am willing to bet that the fastest adopters will be the places with the strongest communities of support. Let's see how rapidly this will unfold as sustainability and conservation of energy and resources are gaining ground as priorities in communities around the world.
Speaking of community, I am now going to write about one of the most inclusive collections of communities I can think of: the LBGTIQA+ | Queer | Drag communities.
When I return to Australia I have one night at home with Cully and Hubs, then I leave on the Stiletto Express for Broken Hill's fifth annual Broken Heel festival where I will have the incredible pleasure of working off my jet lag surrounded with glamour, foamy wigs, sequins and all flavours of drag fabulousness! Some Gentle Readers may not see a link between end of life and an internationally-renown drag festival event, however to me it makes sense to discuss innovation and celebration of both acceptance and community in the same piece of writing. Many performers, activists, and celebrities from the drag and queer communities have been responsible for true, inclusive and ground-breaking social change - and a broad scope of social change is what we are currently seeing unfold in terms of end of life and public awareness, so I acknowledge my indebtedness to social trailblazers. As a proud Ally, too, I consider it essential to be inclusive and appropriate in recognising that many societal changes and innovations we enjoy today were made possible because courageous mavericks stood up and insisted on change and recognition - and all too often change has been led by members of the LBGTIQA+ communities, often at great personal cost.
Are you unsure of what kinds of social changes have been spearheaded by LBGTIQA+ community members? The Stonewall fight was begun by the incredibly community-minded New York activist and drag queen Marsha P. Johnson. The Sydney Mardi Gras was begun by an incredibly brave group, known today as "The 78ers", who marched although their event was deemed illegal and many were brutalised by the police. We now have an international awareness day on May 17th called IDAHOBIT - International Day Against Homophobia, Biphobia, Interphobia & Transphobia, which, along with other days of recognition, help to make visible and included members of our communities who have been othered in the past. And you know me - I encourage you to do your own research and find out about some of the most important figures in social history, some may even be local to your own area. Learn names and histories, and help increase respect and awareness in the wider community of the hard work and sacrifice of those who have gone before us. For example, arguably the modern end of life doula movement was begun by an Arkansas woman named Ruth Coker Burks who cared for gay men dying of HIV/AIDS for three decades starting in the 80s. Burks' work as a carer, provider of medicines, and vigiller extended at times to burying dozens of men at her own expense, earning her the nickname 'The Cemetery Angel'. Burkes is now an educator, helping younger generations of the LBGT community in the USA better understand their own cultural history - I would say that this is community-building at it's finest, and what we need in terms of a full reclaiming of death literacy.
A good deal of change in the end of life arena is being bottlenecked and resisted by the corporate funeral home and funeral director business sector - as many long-time Gentle Readers are aware there is a good deal of money in death, $1.6B AUD at the time of writing, see previous blog posts here on my site for further information. So, if you are a member of the public who is interested in seeing positive change - including transparency of costs for funeral directors - then I urge you to become involved and active in helping social change happen. Talk to your local member, make friends with independent funeral professionals in your area - if you are not sure how to do this, you could start with the Association of Independent Funeral Professionals, a well-networked organisation with a steadily-growing number of interesting members.
To be frank, much of what I see in terms of end of life innovation right now is people better understanding their rights and choices in terms of law rather than tradition which benefits business rather than personal taste and preference, and if you are curious about what that might look and feel like I invite you to take a look through my earlier blog posts. I will always write about the latest changes as I learn about them, but I have a solid body of writing that already considers many options for people looking to do end of life, death, after-death body care, rituals and funerals on their own terms. Community is always the best way to go, and inclusiveness yields the strongest and most resilient outcomes in my experience - and I am happy to share stories and ideas about how best to make this happen for you.
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