A frank look at mortality with ‘Death Cafes’ and ‘death midwives’

By Jean Lotus Staff reporter

Death midwife Linda Belan holds two photos of her son, who died at age 40. (Courtesy Linda Belan)

Did more beloved celebrities die in 2016, or did we notice their deaths more? And what does it mean when we mourn celebrity deaths?

Dan Bulf, host of Death Café events in the Chicago area, believes celebrity deaths help us come to terms with our own mortality — and that’s a not bad thing. Bulf, an Evanston golf-course manager in his day job, has facilitated more than 24 Death Café events, a free, small gathering where people drink tea, eat snacks and talk about  death.

Death Cafés were started in London in 2010 by Jon Underwood and his dying mother. They have become a viral popup movement with more than 2,400 Death Café events held all over the world, according to the group’s website.

“You should see the eye-rolling when I tell strangers I get people together to talk about death, but in a few minutes they are telling me all about how their mother died. People want to talk about it. It’s a forbidden taboo,” Bulf said.

As for celebrity deaths, “people put themselves into these celebrities,” Bulf said. “It’s projection, how we transfer our own values onto others. People who have been so pivotal in our culture are aging and dying.”

Bulf brings people together to face their fears about death in a non-threatening, walk-in setting.

Consider, Bulf said, that most people never tell anyone their end-of-life wishes.

While 75 percent of people told a Time/CNN poll they would prefer to die at home, only 25 percent actually do, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

Participants range from senior citizens, whom Bulf calls “very realistic” to baby boomers wondering what to do for their parents, to “edgy 20-something types.”

Bulf also hosts Death Café discussions as part of an ongoing study for the University of Missouri Department of Gerontology.

“The research is showing that this interaction does have positive outcomes. It does make a positive difference in people’s lives.”

He calls what he does “life-affirming conversations about death.”

“What I work towards, is start with death, end with life. Everyone leaves with a legacy how they want to be remembered.”

With interest in green funerals and ecological body disposition options, a generation of baby boomers are asking for death memorials and the funeral process to more closely align with their beliefs and personalities, said the Rev. Angie Buchanan of Lake Forest. Buchanan calls herself a “death midwife” and has worked with the dying for many years helping families and individuals face the end of life.

The word “midwife” is appropriate because birth and death are both thresholds, Buchanan said. Preparations are made for a birth in the family, but we don’t really think of death as what it is, a rite of passage.

“We don’t prepare ourselves, or our families, for the event of our death. Instead we fear it,” she said.

Buchanan has taught workshops for four years to share research and best practices.  The death midwife’s tasks are flexible, but include consultations with the person who is dying to determine their wishes. These wishes might include special plans for disposition of their remains and legal paperwork such as power of attorney, or medical directives. The death midwife can also stay with the client while he or she is passing out of this life.

“This movement is growing,” Buchanan said. The New Jersey-based International End of Life Doula Association also hosts workshops around the country.

Death midwives are neither medical professionals nor funeral directors, Buchanan said. “We think of ourselves as the water that runs between and around the medical industry and the funeral industry.”

Baby boomers asking for an authentic death are, the same generation that demanded more natural changes in birth practices, Buchanan said.

That means more curiosity about historic folk practices that were common until the U.S. funeral industry became so entrenched in the death process. These include laying out a loved one at home and bathing and dressing the deceased.

“Death midwives do not bathe the body, we teach the family how to do it, as an act of respect and love,” Buchanan said.

Buchanan said some more enlightened funeral directors are willing to consider a home funeral, and consumer demand is bringing more options, such as the eco-pod burial that “feeds the trees and turn cemeteries into forests,” according to marketing materials.

But in Illinois and eight other states, including New York and New Jersey, no death certificate can be issued without a funeral director taking possession of a loved one’s body.

“We believe we can work with funeral directors and existing laws to make the death experience better,” Buchanan said.

When Linda Belan’s son died of ALS in the prime of his life at age 40, she felt her goodbyes were cut short.

“[Funeral personnel] just whisked him away, and his family, his wife, his beautiful daughters didn’t get the chance to be with him, or really say goodbye.”

Belan, of Chicago, is Buchanan’s student and also a death midwife. Belan believes a change of perspective is needed to separate death, which is inevitable, from the manner of death, which can range from serene to tragic.

“If someone died of gun violence or a car accident, that makes you angry and makes you want to do something. But you do something about guns or cars,” she said. “Making clear the difference between death and the manner of death is very important.

“Everybody’s going to die, but not everybody’s gonna die of violence. [The fact that] they died needs to be separated from that. Gun violence we have control over, but we need to separate that from acknowledging death is a natural process. We need to know how to grieve with gratitude for having that [person].”

Belan said, “[We should be] accepting death as part of life, not as separate from life.  People who are most afraid to die are most afraid to live.”

“We are a death-denying society,” Buchanan said. “We send get-well cards to people we know darn well aren’t going to get well. We’re robbing ourselves of precious moments of bearing witness to rite of passage. We are denying them the comfort in the end.”

Buchanan believes celebrity deaths can shake people up because “many of these people are from our childhood. It’s like our childhood is dying.”

It is said that David Bowie, who died in 2016, created a tribute to death in his final performances, even encrypting references to his impending end in his last album and music videos.

Death is, after all, the ultimate celebrity, recognized by everyone.

Watching celebrities acknowledge their mortality can help us with our own, Bulf said.

Bulf’s free events resume Tuesday, Feb. 21 at the Gorton Community Center in Lake Forest with a screening of the documentary “Being Mortal” which shows the interaction of a doctor with his cancer patients. For more information email Lydia@mylifeanddeath.org.


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