It's traditional to have a funeral or memorial service when someone dies. But why? What purpose does a funeral serve? Check out my top 4 reasons for why we have funerals.

When a friend experiences a loss, it's hard to know what to say. Writer Mary Elizabeth Williams intimately understands the challenge, and in response has put together a list of really helpful advice. She writes, "Though I still frequently find myself stunned and stammering for the right words with every fresh death, I’m trying to improve at the art of consolation. So I recently asked my friends for their counsel about what they’ve appreciated most in the worst moments. The main tip? Just be a friend. Just stick around. It’s so simple, and so needed."

Some of the tips she gathered from her friends include:

Don’t press too hard for details. Let the griever decide the narrative.

Don’t ask questions that sound like you’re looking for a way to make this OK. Don’t ask if he smoked or didn’t wear his seat belt or if he’d been very depressed lately or why he didn’t do that last round of chemo. Don’t judge him.

Be empathetic without one upsmanship. It’s OK to mention your own experience of loss, especially if it’s similar...But if this thing is ripping open your own old scars, you do not have a right to put that on the other person right now.

This is not radio; you do not have to fill the dead air. It’s OK to be quiet and thoughtful. Silence is not by definition awkward, not when you establish that you’re present and you’re supportive.

Stick around. Remember. For a long time. Grief is a chronic condition. So look at your phone. It has a reminder function, right? Set it for a month from now. Set it for the first Father’s Day after the death. Set it for the dead person’s birthday. And then check in with your friend.

If you've got any tips to add to this list, we'd love to know. Please leave them in the comments section below. If you're supporting a friend who's experienced a loss, take a look at Williams' piece in Salon and check out our articles How to Express Sympathy: What to Say and What Not to Say and How to Write a Condolence Note.

via Salon

The task of planning a funeral often falls on the younger generation: children plan funerals for their parents; adult grandchildren plan funerals for their grandparents. In many cases, the younger generations are also the less religious generations, and the task of planning a religious funeral for one of our elders can feel challenging if we don’t know the traditions.

Planning a traditional Jewish funeral, which has so many specific rules and rituals, can feel like a daunting task if you don’t know where to begin. But if you follow these few steps you can rest assured you’ll appropriately honor the deceased.

(Be aware that the steps I’ve listed below are all the traditional features of a Jewish funeral. Depending on how religious your family is or how religious you’d like the funeral to be you might find that you don’t need or want to follow all of these requirements.)

1. Opt for burial rather than cremation
Traditionally, Jews choose burial over cremation. The Jewish people believe that, “For out of it [the earth] wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return” (Genesis/Bereshit 3:19). That is, the body should be returned to the earth whole, as it was created. 

2. Bury as soon as possible!
Ideally the funeral should take place on the day of death. These days, with family and friends often living far away, it has become acceptable to delay the funeral a bit. That said, you should make an effort to bury as soon as you can. (There are exceptions to this rule, including if there are any legal issues surrounding the death that must be investigated, if the body must be transported from one city or country to another, or to avoid burial on Saturday or another holy day.).

3. Refrigerate, don’t embalm
Unless required by law, Jews usually avoid embalming the body or applying cosmetics to the body—the idea being that the body should return to the earth pure, clean, and naked as it came from the earth. In some situations it may be legally required that the body be embalmed, in which case the secular law trumps the religious practice.

4. Choose a simple all-wood casket
In order to return the body to the earth as naturally and quickly as possible, Jewish custom dictates using an all-wood casket, usually made out of pine, with no metal parts. By using a wooden casket, both the body and the casket are biodegradable, and will disintegrate into the ground and become one with the earth. (Some Jewish caskets will have holes in the bottom to accelerate the rate of decomposition of the body.)

Select a simple casket. Jewish tradition dictates that this is not a time for over-spending. The only embellishment that is usually acceptable is a Star of David on the top.

5. Dress the deceased in a shroud (“tachrichim”)
It is traditional for Jews to be buried in a plain white linen or muslin shroud, rather than fancy clothes. The shroud is meant to symbolize purity and equity, as all are equal in the eyes of God. Also, there are no pockets in the shroud because it is believe that one cannot take any possessions into the next world. (In Hebrew, the process of dressing the body in the shroud is called “tachrichim.”) Men may also be buried in prayer shawls (“tallit” or “tallises”) and skullcaps (“kippah”).

6. Hire a “shomer”
Jewish people believe that the deceased should not be left alone before burial, and so someone must stay with the body from the moment of death until the body is in the earth. The person who says with the body is called a “shomer,” or “watchman.” A friend or family member may serve as the shomer, or a professional shomer can be hired to sit with the deceased and recite psalms. If the person who died belonged to a synagogue, the community may have members who volunteer to serve as shomer, so it’s a good idea to be in touch with the temple.

7. Contact a Chevra Kadishha
A Chevra Kadisha is a Jewish burial society that can oversee the preparations of the body and make sure that all Jewish rituals and laws are properly followed. If your community has a Chevra Kadisha, you may want to reach out to them, as they’ll have a good sense of the resources in your area and may be able to help you plan the funeral.

For more information on Jewish funeral traditions, be sure to check out our article Jewish Funeral Traditions. And if you have any questions that I haven't answered here, please ask in the comments section below!

This month marks the first anniversary of my mother’s death. Even though she’s been gone for a year, in many ways I’m just beginning to mourn her. My mother and I were both sick with cancer at the same time, and my mother died while I was still in treatment. In some ways, our concurrent illnesses served as a point of connection between us—and ultimately as something that permanently separated us. It wasn’t until I was cancer-free that I was able to begin to grieve for my mother in a real way, perhaps because I needed my strength to help me get well, perhaps because I needed my mother to help me get well. And once I was well, I could begin to let her go.

In the last few months of my mom’s life, I was undergoing chemotherapy for my invasive molar pregnancy every other week. One week, I’d have an injection every-other day, which would leave me drained and out of it. I’d then have a week to recover, and then another week of treatment. I spent months in this cycle. We would schedule weekends with my parents whenever I wasn’t in treatment, but mostly I missed out on my mother’s last months.

To make up for not being there to support one another in person, my mother and I spent much of our time tethered to one another on the phone. I’d quietly chat with her while I waited for my injection. I’d lie in bed talking to her after her chemo, until one of us felt too tired to speak. I called her on my good days after walking my son to school, while she was resting in her own bed at home. Each day was marked with our phone calls.

When she finally entered hospice care, I knew that I’d need to make arrangements to be at her side while I continued my course of chemo. I envisioned getting my treatment and then just sleeping next to her in bed, and holding onto her hand. I called her doctor to see if his office could administer my chemo while I was there, and made plans to be treated in Washington, DC. 

I never expected that my first day of treatment in DC would be the day of her funeral. My treatment was first thing in the morning, which gave me just enough time to make it to the late-morning service. I walked into the doctor’s office bolstered by my best friend and my cousin. I was dazed and dreading the inevitable questions about my mom. The phlebotomist checked my chart as she prepared to draw my blood. “Sachse?” she said. “Are you…?” She trailed off, knowing she couldn’t ask if we were related. “Yes.” I replied, “Ellie was my mom. She died on Tuesday.” After that, everyone treated me like a precious feather, afraid that with the wrong word I’d blow away. And most of that day, most of that week, I did feel like I could blow away.

On New Year’s Eve, I received my last infusion. I thanked the nurses who had helped me for nine months, drank a glass of champagne, and broke down crying. I cried about losing my mom. I cried that I went through the hardest part of my illness without her. And I cried that she didn’t get to see me in remission and cancer-free. That moment was when I really began to grieve for her.

I had mourned when she died, and I had mourned when we sat Shiva. But after that I turned all my energy and attention to my own health and healing, and I didn’t allow myself to feel the pain of losing her. I needed to be strong enough to fight my cancer, and I couldn’t do that and fully accept her death.

Throughout those last months of treatment my mom would come to me in dreams. In these dreams she would come back to life, and we’d talk about how it was possible that she’d come back to life. I found solace in these dreams. I loved feeling my mom’s presence nearby. And even though I knew she wasn’t coming back, it was comforting to think about the convoluted paths to resurrection she described in my dreams. Since I finished treatment, since I have been living without cancer, I haven’t dreamed about her once. I guess it took being cancer-free to really let go.

This morning, TMZ.com released a story about two things that rarely get mentioned in the same sentence: Rihanna and funerals. Here’s the story: the funeral home that planned Rihanna’s grandmother’s funeral charged Rihanna $150,000 for the funeral, which the superstar singer is refusing to pay. Rihanna claims that she’ll happily pay one-quarter of the amount, but that she didn’t approve the remaining $112,500. The funeral home is suing her for the full amount. 

Although celebrity gossip attracts our attention, there’s more to this story than just a big name. Many people reading this story might wonder, “Could this happen to me? If I plan a funeral, will I unwittingly get stuck with an exorbitant bill?” The answer, briefly, is “no.” And, if you follow my advice, the answer will be “absolutely not.”

1. Know Your Rights

In 1984, following public scrutiny of the funeral industry, The Federal Trade Commission established a law known as the Funeral Rule. The goal of this law was to dictate certain procedures that funeral homes have to follow so that consumers are protected from coercion, unwanted charges and purchases, and fraud. A key provision in the Funeral Rule is that funeral homes have to provide consumers with a detailed price list before starting any conversation about funeral planning. So know that the funeral home is legally obligated to provide you with a General Price List (GPL) that breaks down all the costs of the funeral. The GPL must cover every item that will appear on your bill. If the funeral director you’re talking with doesn’t give this to you, ask for it! It’s your right.

2. Bring an Advocate

Planning a funeral is emotional. But it’s also a big-ticket purchase, so you want to be on the ball. Bring someone with you to hear details that you might miss, help you make rational decisions, and advocate for you on your behalf.

3. Check the Bill

Funeral directors would rather get paid than sued. They will want your signature on any agreements before they begin to make the funeral. So take the time to review the paperwork and be sure it is to your satisfaction before you sign anything. If there's anything on the bill that you don't want, be sure to bring it up with the funeral director before you sign the contract.

via TMZ.com

For many parents, talking with children about death is a daunting task. Death is a scary topic for a lot of us, and we want to make sure that we "do a good job" when we talk to our kids about this sensitive subject. But the conversation doesn't have to be so hard. To help you talk to your kids about death, I’ve come up with a few helpful tips to make this conversation easier.

Have you talked with your kids about death? What did you say? Do you have any advice based on your experience? Please share in the comments section!

Jane Lotter was a writer, mother, wife, and long-time Seattle resident. She died of uterine cancer last month at age 60, with her husband and two children by her side and George Gershwin’s “Lullaby” playing in the background. With the help of hospice and her state's Death with Dignity Act, Jane orchestrated the event to be the send-off she wanted. And one of the last things she did before she died was write her own obituary

Published on July 28 in The Seattle Times, Jane Lotter's obituary began:

One of the few advantages of dying from Grade 3, Stage IIIC endometrial cancer, recurrent and metastasized to the liver and abdomen, is that you have time to write your own obituary. (The other advantages are no longer bothering with sunscreen and no longer worrying about your cholesterol.)

She spoke directly to her husband and her children:

I met Bob Marts at the Central Tavern in Pioneer Square on November 22, 1975, which was the luckiest night of my life. We were married on April 7, 1984. Bobby M, I love you up to the sky. Thank you for all the laughter and the love, and for standing by me at the end. Tessa and Riley, I love you so much, and I'm so proud of you. I wish you such good things. May you, every day, connect with the brilliancy of your own spirit. And may you always remember that obstacles in the path are not obstacles, they ARE the path.

And she reflected on life:

I believe we are each of us connected to every person and everything on this Earth, that we are in fact one divine organism having an infinite spiritual existence. Of course, we may not always comprehend that. And really, that's a discussion for another time. So let's cut to the chase:

I was given the gift of life, and now I have to give it back. This is hard. But I was a lucky woman, who led a lucky existence, and for this I am grateful.

You can read Jane Lotter's obituary in its entirety here. And we suggest that you do, not only because it's moving and meaningful and personal, but because it makes us think: If I were to write my own obituary today, what would I say? How would I explain my life in 500 words? What would I say to the people I love who I'm leaving behind? What would I want them and the world to remember about me?

We'd love your thoughts on this. What would you be sure to include in your own obituary?

via New York Times

Hidden in the back of my closet is a yellowing plastic bag filled with AquaNet-crusted, faded pink, partially broken hair rollers. I have cherished them for the last decade. These were the rollers that my grandma, “Gram,” wrapped her graying blond hair in every night before bed. Although her clothing, appearance, and health changed over the years, the rollers were a constant.

Gram had a will. She meticulously divided her valuables to be sure that everyone received an equal share. Needless to say, the rollers were not included in the breakdown. When I found them left on her night table, though, free for the taking, I thought I had hit the jackpot! To me, these old pink rollers were more valuable than Gram’s jewelry. Because these rollers weren’t just items that Gram owned; they were pieces of her.

It’s interesting to think about our possessions and their “value.” Of course, there is the monetary price that any appraiser can quote. But then, there is the sentimental value, which is arguably more important than any dollar amount.

For me, the value of Gram’s rollers only revealed itself after she was gone. Had she decided before her death that she was done rolling her hair and the plastic was going in the garbage, I wouldn’t have cared, really. But now that she is gone they’ve taken on a whole new meaning. These gems instantly reminded of the nights I stayed at my Gram’s house when I was little, eating Entenmann’s crumb cake in our pajamas as we watched my favorite movies, Gram’s hair up in those rollers.

And so these crappy pink plastic rollers have come to stand for the moments that Gram and I shared when we were alone. I keep them in my closet, rather than prominently on display, because they’re private to me, and they have meaning only to me—no one else in my family is interested in the rollers. And that makes them all the more precious.

I know, from talking to friends and hearing other people’s stories of loss, that I’m not the only one holding on to the seemingly insignificant possessions of those I’ve loved. Do you have any material things from the people you’ve lost that mean the world to you? I’d love to know! Please share your story in the comments section below.

George Saunders, a writer best known for his excellent short stories, delivered the 2013 commencement speech at Syracuse University earlier this year. Yesterday, the New York Times printed the speech in its entirety, and there are some powerful and moving lessons worth sharing:

So here’s something I know to be true, although it’s a little corny, and I don’t quite know what to do with it:

What I regret most in my life are failures of kindness.

Those moments when another human being was there, in front of me, suffering, and I responded…sensibly. Reservedly. Mildly.

Or, to look at it from the other end of the telescope: Who, in your life, do you remember most fondly, with the most undeniable feelings of warmth?

Those who were kindest to you, I bet.

It’s a little facile, maybe, and certainly hard to implement, but I’d say, as a goal in life, you could do worse than: Try to be kinder.

...

One thing in our favor:  some of this “becoming kinder” happens naturally, with age. It might be a simple matter of attrition: as we get older, we come to see how useless it is to be selfish—how illogical, really. We come to love other people and are thereby counter-instructed in our own centrality. We get our butts kicked by real life, and people come to our defense, and help us, and we learn that we’re not separate, and don’t want to be. We see people near and dear to us dropping away, and are gradually convinced that maybe we too will drop away (someday, a long time from now). Most people, as they age, become less selfish and more loving. I think this is true.

This advice feels at once idealistic and practical, grandiose and mundane, ambitious and imminently do-able—which is to say, the type of advice that we can follow in large and small ways. As we think about the lives we want to lead and the way we hope to someday look back on the lives we have led, practicing kindness seems like a good place to start.

via New York Times

“You are invited to my pre-mortem wake and roast, a somewhat morbid, deeply irreverent, but joyous celebration of me. This is time for celebrating my life, loves, and dark, twisted sense of humor. Bring your stories (hysterical, at my expense), your tasteless jokes, and any and all expressions gleefully macabre. Come party with the man who has never passed up the chance to poke cancer in the eye and laugh about it.”

This was the invitation that friends received for Jay Lake’s wake (a ceremony traditionally held before a funeral, after someone has died). In case the phrase “pre-mortem” didn’t tip you off, it was an unusual event. Because, like everyone else, Jay Lake will someday die. Unlike most, however, Jay threw himself a wake before the end of his life.

Jay is a science fiction writer, avid blogger, and cancer patient. He’s been living with colon cancer since 2008, and earlier this year received a diagnosis of nine to twenty-four months to live. But “the man who has never passed up the chance to poke cancer in the eye and laugh about it” didn’t take this sentence lying down. Instead, he threw himself a wake while he was still able to attend—and turned what could have been a morbid affair into a beautiful, humorous, and personal celebration of his life.

Jay wasn’t only alive at his wake—he was the life of the party! 

I love the idea of a “live wake,” and this isn’t the first one that I’ve heard of. While “live funerals” and “live wakes” aren’t exactly commonplace, I hope that the idea of celebrating life and accepting the inevitable will become more conventional. By acknowledging our own mortality, honoring the lives we’ve led, and doing it all while we’re still here, I think that we, as a culture, can have the lives and deaths that we want and deserve. As a speaker at the JayWake pointed out, “We are all terminal, after all.” 

via Metafilter