The dry wit of New Yorker cartoons takes on the toughest topic of all: death. We picked out some of our favorites. Check them out below.
Welcome to the Everplans Blog where we cover everything from Duck Dynasty to Death Over Dinner.
Last year, I was getting my MBA in London. There, I met Oded, a pastry chef from Israel, who would become a dear friend to me. Each week, Oded and I would take a break from our studies and spend Sundays in the kitchen. As he measured out ingredients, I would anxiously write the recipe in my notebook, hoping to be able to recreate his yummy concoctions when I no longer had my teacher near me.
Often, we would speak about how recipes are passed down through generations. I told him that right before my father passed away I was able to make his famous chopped liver with him (and write down the recipe, of course). Now, I bring my father’s chopped liver to all the Jewish holidays, thrilled to feel that, in some way, my dad is still present.
Oded then showed me a picture of a famous gravestone he’d seen in Poland. He translated the engravings for me: it was the recipe for “Grandma Ida’s Nut Cookies.” Apparently, friends and family had always asked Ida for her cookie recipe and she wanted to be sure that her family continued to bake the cookies after she was gone.
I love the idea of using the gravestone to memorialize a recipe! And what a wonderful legacy! An epitaph of a few words rarely does justice to a life well lived. By leaving friends, family, and even strangers this recipe, a bit of Grandma Ida will remain forever. Oded and I never got around to making Grandma Ida’s nut cookies, but we’ll always have the recipe.
Coimetrophobia is the official term for a fear of cemeteries. This word doesn’t describe those who have a mere dislike of cemeteries, but rather those for whom cemeteries bring on an actual negative physical reaction. The symptoms of coimetrophobia may include:
- Shortness of breath
- Heart palpitations
- The inability to speak or think clearly
- A full-on anxiety attack!
Not your common side effects! So why does an inanimate place elicit such strong emotions? What can someone suffering do to accept this as simply a final resting place and understand that there is nothing to fear?
To be fair to those who suffer from this phobia, cemeteries have a bad reputation. Most of us are first exposed to cemeteries in the movies, where cemeteries serve as backdrops for terrifying scenes. Whether zombies are coming up from below the ground or ghosts are flying around headstones, we learned not to enter a graveyard alone!
In the modern era, cemeteries have been moved away from urban life, which means that most of us aren’t interacting with cemeteries on a daily basis—a reality that only serves to make cemeteries seem more foreign, strange, and scary. By distancing ourselves from cemeteries, we’re blocking ourselves from realizing that the image in our minds (zombies, ghosts, etc.) is has nothing to do with the reality of the cemetery. Therefore, this creepy image of the haunted cemetery remains in many minds and only perpetuates the irrational fear.
Now, that last part is important: this fear is irrational. Cemeteries will not hurt you! I learned early on, “You only fear that which you don’t know.” So, go and “know” cemeteries!
If taking a trip to a cemetery seems too daunting (or simply too weird) of a task, then start off easy: Google image “cemeteries.” (I tried this myself before suggesting it; there are actually some really beautiful images online!) Once you’ve gotten comfortable with the images, take the big leap and go to a cemetery. You can do it!
Once you’ve walked though the peaceful space, you will learn that there is nothing to fear. Cemeteries are tranquil and lush with all sorts of beautiful greenery. Take a few minutes and enjoy them and be thankful that you’ve overcome your fear.
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.
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.
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?