As part of our “In My Experience” series, we talk with people who work with the dead for a living. A crematorium director, a woman who specializes in at-home funerals and a student who dissects cadavers all join us to share their stories. How has working with the dead changed their own views on life?

KQED Science Explores Green Burial

Jerrigrace Lyons, executive director of Final Passages, a nonprofit that focuses on at-home funerals and green burials; she has assisted with at-home burials for 17 years
David Arnold, crematory grounds manager at Santa Rosa Memorial Park, where he has worked since 1994
Lucas Freshman, graduate student teaching a human anatomy class with cadavers at San Francisco State University

  • thucy

    I was always intrigued by how colleagues in the healthcare industry were so respectful of the occasional corpse. There was this whole solemnity about prepping a body for the morgue.
    But these same colleagues could be pretty harsh to living patients who were “different”: the morbidly obese 34-y.o. female, patient; the psych patient who thought hospital staff were “aliens”; the black pimp patient with two amputated legs who was in for dialysis.
    It almost seemed like the more respectful individual staff members behaved toward a corpse, the more likely they were to bully “odd” patients and underlings. It would be funny, if it weren’t plain sad.

  • tess

    i have a green burial plot pre-purchased with forever fernwood on the mill valley side of the marin headlands. i bought it because it made sense to me not to be filled with formaldehyde just so loved ones could view me (even though i would not resemble myself at that point).

    moreover, i loved the idea that the land for the cemetery has a conservation easement to keep the space open & free from future development– and that headstones are replaced with trees or simply a rock.

    one thing: wish they could do green cremations — but evidently that is STILL an oxymoron — because i would rather speed up the process of decomposition and get my minerals and carbon in to the earth faster.

  • tess

    btw, i do not think at home funerals are “out there” — after all, this is how we did it for as long as we’ve bothered to bury or burn our dead — remember, it wasn’t until the civil war that the rise in funeral directors and cabinet makers alike forged the modern day funeral–i think it’s weird to pump one’s body with formaldehyde & have a stranger make up one’s face to make it “appear” more life like. i think it’s really weird that people spend ten of thousands of dollars just on a “cadillac of caskets” such as the Xiao En Centre casket which costs 36,000 dollars and has an adjustable headrest!

  • kim shepard

    I don’t work with the dead, but I watched my husband die, and was with his body for awhile before he was taken from our home, and that one experience has changed me and my relationship with life and death, and made me realize how more connected the two of them really are. I am not afraid of dying now, because when you’re dead, your are free of this world. I am more afraid of dying at the wrong moment.

  • Joey B.

    Please ask your guests if they have tales to tell about ghosts and hauntings while they work with dead bodies?

    • Shroudwoman

      When I began working in California’s first green cemetery in 2004 it had fallen to rack & ruin and was completely overgrown. There were thousands of Ravens that would come and sit in the tree across from the huge perfectly round window and screaming at me alone there on the weekends. Sometimes gigantic spiders would weave huge round webs in the round window. The bodies came into the same building as the office at the time (before it became a green cemetery and was beautifully re-designed) right after they had passed away. This office , on the other side of the wall from the crematory retort and the corpse refrigeration unit had alot of odd sounds, cold spots, doors would slam , become locked or unlocked when no one could have possibly have done it. Burning incense , saying mantras and praying for the freedom of these recently deceased beings helps alot to”clear the space”.

  • I am a rabbi, and helped establish a “Hevra Kadisha,” a “holy society” in my former congregation in Virginia. These used to be part of every Jewish community, where members of the congregation, men for men, women for women, ritually wash and dress the deceased, wrap them in a prayer shawl and cloth, place them in a plain pine box, cover the box, and sit with the body until burial. Jewish tradition considers burial a part of basic respect for the deceased, but we like to get them in the ground as quickly as possible. Cremation, for Jews, is too reminiscent of the holocaust. We consider the body the vessel of the soul, to be treated with respect. The whole process is all green, more green than cremation.

  • Enrique Pallazzo

    The Jews have a funeral component where the family helps bury the deceased. It’s considered the “last mitzvah” you can do for your loved one. My friend who is a mortician thought of his job as an avenue where he could do the last favor for so many families in his community. I would venture that these jobs are not morbid, but magnanimous.

    • Shroudwoman

      Jews and Muslims are able to be buried within 24 hours without a vault with a shroud directly into the ground for religious purposes. GREEN BURIAL is different because it is specifically for environmental reasons which in most cemeteries is still “illegal” (its the cemetery laws that require vaults NOT state or federal law). The green burial pioneers, like myself, ( have paved the way for secular natural burial.

  • mimmpatterson

    The late writer John O’Donohue writes in Anam Cara that waking the dead, keeping the dead near and in familiar surroundings, helps the soul transition from life to death. When I first arrived in Ireland in 1994 (I lived in Donegal for many years) I had the honor of attending a wake for an elderly woman who had been a young, rebellious girl around the time of the partition. It was loud, raucous, drunken, smoke-filled and wonderful. A party to celebrate an amazing life. When it’s my turn, I want to be waked.

    In 2010 I attended a week-long cadaver intensive taught by philosopher/anatomist Gil Hedley. We lift each layer as if lifting a veil. By the sixth day, when I held the brain and spinal cord in my hands, I had no fear of death.

  • Few years back, at my mother-in-law’s cremation, I met a 85 year old person, who accompanies the priest for the last rites. During our conversation, he said he has been to almost 1500 such rites in his life and always the crying and sadness is the same. However in a few months the same folks recover and start again with reuglar life, keeping death and mortality in the background. His quiet, deep eyes have still left an impact on me.

  • Kristen

    I birthed my son at home and definitely hope, when it is time, to try to approach the process of death in a similarly natural way. Partly this is because it just makes so much sense to me to not try to medicalize and chemicalize these natural life processes. But the other reason is because of the experience we had when my brother died as a teenager. I sat with my parents in the funeral home, in a daze. The window behind his desk looked out on a park. The director of the funeral home came in the room, and closed the ceiling to floor curtains, shutting out light, and it seemed, all life. And then he proceeded to try to sell us a selection of tacky, unnecessary, expensive death tchotchkes. I felt trapped and taken advantage of by the death industry and will avoid it myself to the extent that I can.

  • Elizabeth Newton

    My mother died at home of cancer and had arranged to donate her body to a medical school, a place she had great respect for. We assumed that we would eventually get her remains and didn’t know until the very day she died that the school shields all information about what sort of research will be done with your loved one’s body, how much time that will take, and that the family does not get any remains after the body has been used. We respected her wishes to be donated, of course, but it would have been much better and less traumatic for us if the process were more transparent, if we knew more about what kind of research her body would be used for, and especially if we got her remains after the research was over. We had planned to leave her ashes in the ocean over Big Sur, her favorite place where we all went camping together, but not having any ashes meant we didn’t get to have a ceremony of that kind.

  • I want to say that being involved with washing the dead and ritually purifying them with water, I walk out and wonder that my own arms lift by themselves, that I am alive, that life is so precious and wonderous.
    Rabbi Me’irah Iliinsky

  • I work with people when their animals are dying, and the issues brought up by the guests come up with my clients quite consistently. Losing an animal is often the first time people deal with death. It’s usually the first time they’ve observed any part of the dying process, and lots of time fear colors their decisions. There is often concern about burying or sending the body for cremation immediately after they believe their animal is dead. I attended Jerrigrace Lyons’ presentation in Petaluma, California years ago and it has influenced how I developed my practice. I don’t advocate natural or euthanasia, I strive for informed decisions not made in moments of fear, and that carries over to caring for the body. Alleviating the fear by providing information and a non-judgemental atmosphere makes space for thoughtful decisions, both for the client and their animal. Clients often send cards after their loved one has died expressing how much approaching the dying process and caring for the body changed their experience and their view of death. I hope you’ll have more interviews regarding this subject. Thank you!

  • Shroudwoman

    In 2000 my mother died in a nursing home and I instinctively washed her, shrouded her In silk and put all the flowers in the room over her.It was a profound experience and changed my life. In 2003 I first saw the TV show “Six Feet Under” and was fascinated.In 2004 I changed careers from being a costume designer to working in California’s first green cemetery. There I designed the first constructed secular green burial shroud which was used on the green burial episode of “Six Feet Under” for Nate’s funeral in 2005!

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