Turning death into a way of life

A group of Vancouver women leads the way in making the loss of a loved one a less painful experience for all

VANCOUVER — There may be no table more full of life than the corner booth at Paul’s Omelettery on Vancouver’s Granville Street, where a group of women are talking over breakfast about death.

Three of the women are licensed funeral directors, two specialize in end-of-life planning, one is a celebrant, another an apprentice death doula — someone who assists families before and after death, the way a midwife does with a birth. They call themselves the D’Posse.

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The name is a playful nod to the word “death,” but their aim is thoughtful and resolute — to transform the way we commemorate and bury our dead, to bring death back to life.

Glenn Hodges, manager of Vancouver’s Mountain View Cemetery, has dubbed them “the disruptors” — part of what he says is a growing number of end-of-life workers, many of them women, who are quietly, respectfully, and often joyfully, working to take death out of the hands of the corporate monopolies, and give it back to families.

Although many funeral homes in B.C. still bear the names of the families that originally established them, a lot of them are owned by Service Corporation International, a conglomerate based in Texas. SCI owns 45 funeral homes in B.C., about one third of the funeral service providers in the province. (SCI, which trades on the New York Stock Exchange, has repeatedly tangled with consumer advocates over everything from its pricing to sales techniques.)

Funeral director Ngaio Davis spent 20 years working for a number of providers in the corporate funeral industry before breaking away to start Koru Cremation, Burial and Ceremony (korucremation.com), which she runs at a cheerful space on Kent Avenue in Vancouver.

Like the other women at this monthly breakfast, Davis says she was drawn to the funeral industry because she wanted meaningful work. “I wanted to do something that felt worthwhile,” Davis says.

Coming face to face with death never made Davis uneasy — but the funeral industry did. “There are a lot of wonderful, compassionate people in the corporate funeral homes,” Davis says. What bothered her, she says, was the focus on profit: “What’s the bottom line?”

Davis says one funeral home she worked for stipulated that commissioned sales staff be in every meeting with grief-stricken clients to have the “face time” to push extras. At another job interview, she was grilled on what her average sales “per call” were — this was not the work she wanted.

Despite decades of scrutiny, the North American funeral industry has changed little since Jessica Mitford’s 1963 exposé, The American Way of Death, in which she called the funeral industry a “huge, macabre, and expensive practical joke on the American public.”

A big part of that macabre joke is the cost. The average traditional funeral in Canada costs up to $10,000, according to Stephen Garrett of the Memorial Society of B.C., and GoFundMe counts funerals among its fastest-growing fundraising categories.

“From a basic cremation at about $1,200, costs range up to $15,000 or $20,000 — which is fine if it’s in line with your budget. But that’s where we get into problems with funeral homes pushing that on people,” Garrett says.

In addition to basics, such as registration of death, transportation, sheltering and disposition of the remains, costs — and funeral home profits — rocket once the bells and whistles are added: the expensive casket, which may be incinerated days later, embalming (not a legal necessity in B.C.), makeup, hairdressing, flowers, grief counselling, memorial, and follow-up house calls to sell products, such as future burial services, to survivors.

Five years ago, Davis decided to do something different.

Davis’s approach to death is informed by her Maori heritage. “Maori practices around death and dying are very strong. You are with your dead. You don’t just let them be taken away and be controlled by others. The family is the one who is crafting and planning what happens, and what will be the final ceremony.”

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Death doula Jennifer Mallmes founded the end-of-life doula program at Douglas College in New Westminster. - VANCOUVER SUN

At Koru, the reception room is simply decorated with none of the trappings of a traditional funeral home: no sombre music, heavy curtains or staff in dark suits.

Clients can plan as elaborate or as simple a funeral, ceremony and cremation or burial as they wish. Koru also specializes in green burials — a biodegradable casket or a simple shroud, and no embalming — and will facilitate DIY, family-led or “home funerals.”

“This week, I’m looking after a family that wants to take their father and husband back home to his condo in North Vancouver. They want to have him there, they want to give him a sponge bath, dress him, and let him spend his last night there with his wife,” Davis says.

Davis will transport the man and bring a special table so he can be laid out in his own home. “We will move him onto the table so it’s more comfortable for them to bathe him and dress him,” Davis says.

The next day, Davis will return with the casket, which will be placed in the condo’s common room because it won’t fit in the elevator. “They are lining the casket with sheep wool that one of the kids brought from Scotland, and then we will go to the cemetery,” Davis says.

“His wife knows what she wants. They’ve been married for 60-plus years — they want those last moments together.”

At Paul’s Omelettery, over the warm clatter of breakfast dishes, cups and spoons, Lisa Hartley, a celebrant who officiates at weddings as well as funerals, recalls meeting Davis when her father-in-law died unexpectedly in his West End apartment.

His death had come quickly and the family was unprepared. “We didn’t know what to do. Someone said, ‘Call Ngaio,’ ” Hartley says. “Her first question to us was: ‘What can I help you do?’ ”

They didn’t have to go to a funeral home, something with which Hartley was uncomfortable.

“Ngaio came over to the apartment, and sat on the sunny balcony with her checklist, and we went through all the options.”

The family chose to keep Hartley’s father-in-law at home for a short period, and her husband decided he wanted to participate in washing his father’s body. “I never expected him to do something like that,” Hartley says. “But it really helped him.”

While the family gathered in the apartment, Davis completed the preparations.

“When she had him ready, she wrapped his body in a beautiful red, velvet cloth, but she came to us first and said: ‘Peter is ready to go now.’ ”

Hartley was deeply moved by the experience, and now works closely with Davis and other alternative providers as a funeral celebrant. Hartley says her special interest is in helping people have a healthy grief process, and weaving together families after someone they love has been torn from it.

Hartley’s ceremony design process includes in-depth meetings with the client and family and friends to talk about the person. “It’s quite beautiful, and it’s often the start of the healing process. People get to tell stories about the person that has died. I recently had one person who said: ‘I feel better already,’ ” Hartley says.

When death is expected, a death doula can help the family prepare for what Jennifer Mallmes, founder of the end-of-life doula program at Douglas College in New Westminster, calls “a gold-star death.”

“Planning really does help with the death and bereavement process, even when people don’t want to die,” Mallmes says. “Barring sudden or unexpected deaths, you can have some choice in how you go. Who do you want around? Who do you not want around?”

A death doula will help individuals and families faced with an illness or a diagnosis that a death is coming plan home care or hospice care, and work with funeral services. They can also help with making what life is left fulfilling: “We can help with a life review, ask what are the things I still want to do? We might look at services to help them accomplish those things.” Garrett says that although the funeral business is slow to change, Baby Boomers are pushing the trend toward the “reclamation” of death and dying.

“The Boomers demographic changed the world they lived in — they questioned authority, lived through the Summer of Love, built the environmental movement,” Garrett says. “We’re on our way out, and that’s going to change things, if only because of the large numbers.”

About 34,000 to 35,000 people a year die in B.C. “That death rate in the next 10 to 12 years is going to head north of 45,000,” Garrett says. “We’ve got 916,000 Baby Boomers living in British Columbia with only one way off the planet.”

Although Statistics Canada doesn’t keep numbers on the kinds of funerals people hold, Glen Hodges says he has seen changes in people’s attitude toward death. Part of that has been the renaissance of Vancouver’s only cemetery.

Mountain View shut down briefly after running out of grave space in 1986, but a new master plan created more space.

Mountain View built columbaria (condos for cremains) to house niches for cremated remains, and reclaimed unused graves from families — a complex and provincially regulated process that applied to plots purchased at least 50 years ago and never used by family members in that time.

Hodges says the city has also been working to re-establish the cemetery as a place for the living.

“A cemetery is not just a utilitarian place for disposal of the dead and keeping of public records,” Hodges says. “[It is also] a sacred place to remember and commemorate, and it has a larger role within the community.”

That includes family-oriented community events, such as its annual All Souls Night, which draws up to 2,000 people.

“We invite people to wander into the cemetery to light candles and leave mementoes for their loved ones and be in a contemplative atmosphere filled with candles and music, and in a place that is safe for them to speak of the dead and talk with others.”

Mountain View doesn’t require grave liners, so green burials are possible, as well as reburials, an option that allows families to open the grave and reposition any remains still there so a new casket can be added.

Hodges regularly hosts free workshops hosted by D’Posse members Reena Lazar and Michelle Pante of Willow EOL (end of life). The workshops, Pante says, are designed to help people figure out how embracing their mortality can change the way they live.

“Our lives are limited, they are precious and finite, so we ask how does that fact affect how we live,” Lazar says.

For Davis and her growing network, death isn’t just a business — it’s a way of life. Many find their way to Koru after a negative experience elsewhere, Davis says — whether it was sales pressure that shamed them into overspending, a service that didn’t reflect their loved one’s personality, or a makeup job that made them look like a stranger.

“Here was this very important moment in their lives, and they were robbed of it.

“It could be a special time, or it could be something you never want to go through again. So I’m just doing my little bit to change that.”

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