Until he cared for his dying daughter two years ago, Said Osio could not have imagined having a conversation about death. As her caregiver, he realized, “There is a belief in our culture that if we talk about death with someone who is ill, it’s in a way acknowledging defeat.”
Osio co-directs Third Messenger, an informal community of Asheville-area death activists. “Acknowledging death is celebrating life,” he says. “It is just part of the equation.”
Fear of death and dying is the second-most common phobia in the United States, second only to fear of public speaking, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. So it may be surprising to learn that growing numbers of people are embracing death, contemplating it and planning for its inevitable arrival. There are weekendlong Death Salons springing up around the United States and the United Kingdom. And this September in Texas, there will be a death-themed film festival.
In Asheville, consumers and advocates are championing everything from home-based funerals and eco-friendly burial grounds to death-themed classes, a radio show and even an improv troupe dubbed the Dying to Live Theater. With a little laugh that belies a sense of humor, Osio says of Third Messenger and other informal groups, “We’re death purveyors.”
Death is not just about dying but an opportunity to cultivate the sacred art of being with dying, which involves a willingness to enter into our practice of consciousness, having compassion with ourselves and one another, says co-director Gregory Lathrop. “We find that one of the most powerful places to dive in is the realm of death and dying,” he says.
For the past three years, Third Messenger has been hosting “Death Cafés,” which invite people to come together and talk about death. The gatherings have become an international phenomenon. To date, more than 3,000 death cafés have been held in 35 countries.
In Asheville, Osio estimates, Third Messenger has hosted close to 30 cafés at a variety of locations, including Dobra Tea, Mountain Area Health Education Center, and The BLOCK off Biltmore. For the most part, the gatherings are unscripted, although Osio and Lathrop say that prompts in the form of questions can be helpful.
“We find synchronistic things happen,” says Lathrop, a certified holistic nurse. “In one particular circle, several women were all dealing with the fact that their husbands had terminal illnesses and were dying,” he says. Three of the four women had difficult marriages that were headed towards separation or divorce before their husbands became ill, Lathrop says.
In another case, a man who had just learned that his grandfather had died was wandering around downtown Asheville in a state of sadness and grief; he decided to go into Dobra Tea, where he stumbled upon a Death Café taking place.
For a longer and more structured approach, the Center for End of Life Transitions in Asheville offers a yearlong “Planning for Your Own Good Death and Life” course. Participants meet for three hours a month and explore a number of topics, such as planning your funeral, accomplishing what you want before you die, and letting go of fears, possessions, attachments and resentments.
Center director Caroline Yongue, a death-care doula and midwife, leads classes and helps officiate home-based funerals. She’s been working with people on death and dying for 20 years, long before the conversation attracted a wider audience. “I’m 60 years old, and in this age group, we’ve dealt with our parents’ death, our friends are dying, and so we’re becoming more aware of our own mortality and the need to be prepared for it,” she says.
As interest grew, End of Life began to educate people, Yongue adds. In addition to its yearlong course, the center offers Home Funeral and Death Care Midwife training, a class in advance care and after-death directives. This fall, End of Life will host a four-session workshop in shroud sewing, in which participants will sew by hand and in silence as an exercise in meditation.
End of Life also recently opened the Carolina Memorial Sanctuary, a conservation burial ground and multiuse park located in Mills River — the first one of its kind in North Carolina, says Yongue. The 11-acre sanctuary “looks like you’re at a park,” she says. “The trails and pathways are not paved, and along the side there will be somebody buried.”
Those being buried there cannot be embalmed and must be in a biodegradable casket or shroud, Yongue notes.
Yongue, Osio and Lathrop all note that their groups attract people of all ages. “In our yearlong classes, the ages range from 85 to [the] late 20s.” Whatever their age, participants “have the same kind of questions,” says Yongue.
The yearlong class helps participants learn what is meaningful in their lives, she continues. “If I really understand that tomorrow could be my last day, if I live my life in that way, I am going to be a kinder person, and some of the things I do might not seem as meaningful if I had a week or a month to live,” she says.
At the start of the class people are afraid of death and afraid of losing things, but by the end of it, “they are fearless,” she says.
Kathy Nelson, who attended the course last year, says she found the spiritual content of the yearlong course helpful. In one practice called the “bowl of acceptance,” she explains, class members offer their regrets or sometimes gratitude to the bowl. “It’s a way to prepare for death when any regrets you have might cause you to linger unnecessarily,” she says.
“I do have [death] in mind a lot. I think I’ve become a little less attached to my regrets,” Nelson says.
Her husband, Bruce, also attended the class. They both learned that getting their end-of-life documents together was important for making things easier for their children, says Kathy. Downsizing their possessions was also part of the equation. The couple asked themselves: If we have a finite amount of time, “how many picture frames do we really need? How many vases do we really need?” she says.
Embracing the inevitability of death changes how one lives. “In Buddhism, the greatest chance for enlightenment is in the dying process and at death,” says Yongue. “It’s an understanding about impermanence. If you can understand impermanence, you can live a happy life,” she says.
“To paraphrase some great teachers in this realm of conscious dying — Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, Stephen Levine, Ram Dass, and others,” says Lathrop, “if we are willing to look into the mirror of our own death and dying and if that mirror is a teacher for us, what we see reflected is the beauty of our life and our living.”
Said Osio and Gregory Lathrop, Third Messenger
Caroline Yongue, Center for End of Life Transitions
Carolina Memorial Sanctuary