Living and Dying: A Dancing Rabbit Update

Hi friends. Alline here, with news from Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage. This past weekend Dancing Rabbit hosted 20 people in an intensive seminar we call an Ecovillage Weekend Experience. Along with the usual sessions on the things we feel are of interest to our guests — communication, decision-making, self-care, natural building, and alternative energy — I asked to give a presentation on home funerals and natural burial. While it might not be considered a happy, upbeat topic, I found that something quite profound happens when we are given the opportunity to care for those we loved, to bury them in a way that is personal and meaningful, and that feels like a true labor of love. This is something I learned here at DR.

Tamar, showing off some of her mosaic work.

I am new to this opinion. I grew up in the suburbs of California, on land that had been farms, but which were being covered over with tract housing to meet the needs of GIs returning from WWII and those seeking a rosier life somewhere with better weather. This included my parents, (my father was from Utah, my mom from Boston), and they wanted something better for their kids than their parents had been able to eke out for them during the depression and second World War. My parents taught me many things: a love of reading, a responsibility to vote, a commitment to help those less fortunate, and, among other things, a mistrust of the funeral industry. This translated into a stipulation that upon their deaths they were both to be cremated. They located a non-profit (i.e.: inexpensive) organization that did just that, and made the arrangements for when the time came. They had seen too many grief-stricken friends and relatives go deep into debt because of “wanting to do the right thing”. (Please know that this is not a blanket dismissal of everyone involved in the funeral industry.)

Fast forward to my life here at Dancing Rabbit, where my husband Kurt Kessner and I have made our home for 20 years. We arrived when we were 42 and 48 years old. We blithely and naively assumed, since we were about two decades older than most of the Rabbits here at the time, that we would be the first to die, and that we would be buried somewhere on the Land Trust that we own with the rest of the members of Dancing Rabbit.

In the saddest way possible we were disabused of that notion when our friend Tamar, then age 32, was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. We were devastated. She returned to her home in Massachusetts to seek treatment and to be with her family. While she was there she let us know that when the time came she wanted to be buried at Dancing Rabbit. Her family, in one of the first of many extremely gracious and loving gestures, agreed with her decision, and committed to help make it happen.

As is often the case here, we all went to work, doing what we could, to learn the intricacies to legally bury someone on our land. We found an excellent book, Final Rights: Reclaiming the American Way of Death by Lisa Carlson and Joshua Slocum, from an organization called Funeral Consumer Alliance. (Note: Ms. Carlson is now the Executive Director of the Funeral Ethics Organization.) The goal of Funeral Consumers Alliance is to ensure consumers are fully prepared and protected when planning a funeral for themselves or their loved ones.They do this by offering objective facts about funeral planning so families can plan a meaningful goodbye that fits their needs and their budget. (Additional recommended resources: Grave Matters: A Journey through the Modern Funeral Industry to a Natural Way of Burial by Mark Harris, Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End by Atul Gawande, Final Gifts: Understanding the Special Awareness, Needs, and Communications of the Dying by Maggie Callahan and Patricia Kelley.)

Armed with this book and a lot of gumption, we began planning. Tamar told us where she wanted to be buried, and Tony went to the county courthouse and learned what many farmers have known for generations: that because we owned the land, we could indeed bury our friend here. The requirements (here in Missouri) were that the burial ground could not exceed one acre, that we would need to deed it in trust to the county commission, and file a deed with the county clerk within 60 days. Done. When she died, we knew what we needed to do.

Being able to make the plans for the funeral and to carry these plans out ourselves changed many of our lives. Tamar did not want to be buried in a casket, so I volunteered to sew a shroud. I had no knowledge of shrouds, and there was very little on the internet at the time. When the news of her death arrived I began cutting and sewing some simple yet beautiful vintage linen fabric into a vessel for our friend. I cried as I worked. I was so angry, and so, so sad. I realized later that by being able to do something physical I was able to begin working through my grief with every stitch; it was cathartic. I began to get a glimpse into why home funerals are valuable in ways far beyond economic savings. Thomas crafted a bier out of local wood, woven together with grape vines. We dug the hole ourselves. It was difficult; not only do we have hard, clay soil, but we dug with sad hearts and tears streaming down our faces.

We found that once we had a death certificate that it was quite straightforward to acquire a transit permit to drive Tamar’s body from Massachusetts to Northeast Missouri. We worked with a kind and compassionate funeral director in Massachusetts who located a low-impact casket  (made of cardboard) and who packed her body in dry ice for the journey. When Tamar’s father Amos and friend Nathan arrived in Rutledge after their 19-hour journey, they went straight to Sandhill Farm, where the casket was placed in Sandhill’s walk-in cooler.

A few hours later the casket was brought here to the home of Tom and Tereza, where a group of friends gathered to say goodbye and to wrap Tamar’s body in the shroud. We placed her on the bier and covered her with flowers. We carried her to the burial site ourselves, stopping seven times in the Jewish tradition. Everyone was given a chance to help carry her. Friends and family stood along the pathway from the house to the burial site. We created the service ourselves. People sang and shared stories; Tamar’s mother Eva led us in the Kaddish (a Jewish prayer of praise, thanksgiving and peace); and other family members spoke; a former fiddle student of Tamar’s played; and a local business brought packets of flower seeds to hand out. When the time came, we lowered her into the grave. It was not smooth and effortless like many other funerals I’ve attended, where the shiny casket is suspended above the grave and then, with the push of a button, slowly descends. Our lowering of Tamar was awkward, but it felt important to do this ourselves as part or our mourning process. We then filled in the hole, shovelful by shovelful — many of the children helped as well. It was horrible; it was lovely; it was grief, real and raw, made manifest with every action. Every single person here at the time, and many other friends, relatives, and neighbors contributed. I hesitate to use names, because those mentioned are only a few of the dozens of folks who helped, in ways both big and small. It really did take a village.

One year later, Amos, Eva and Tamar’s sister, Sharon, had a memorial delivered. Instead of a formal headstone, and in keeping with Tamar’s aesthetic, they chose a large rock and had the front smoothed and engraved. Our friend Megan came and led us in creating a mosaic to encircle the text. Many of us pass by this memorial each day, and often leave a stone in remembrance. However, I find that I don’t need the beautiful rock, or the Asian pear tree planted there, to remember Tamar. She and her family gave us an incredible gift that really will stay with us always: they enabled us to learn to care for our own dead, to show our love and care, to work through our grief, and to understand that many of the old ways are still valuable and useful. For this we are grateful.

If you’re interested in participating in one of our Ecovillage Weekend Experiences and learning about the awesome things Alline mentioned and more, you still have a chance in September. Slots fill up fast, so don’t delay!

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