Monday, November 17, 2008

Death Preparedness Continued


October 2008

Death is a democratic master, coming eventually to all of us; almost always before we are ready to accept its immutable claim. In the lottery of death’s scenarios we usually play out our parts unaided by script, often unaware of its imminent embrace. In many families, death is treated like the black sheep, long forgotten relative; that person no-one will talk about, whose name will shut down a conversation with censorious looks. But death is only the certain last act in our lives; the claimant who returns inevitably for the final bows as the curtain falls..
Discussions with your loved ones on your death and theirs, before you perceive the need, will lighten the load your survivors must carry. For thousands of years people have known the roles they must assume in the presence of death, according to their own cultures and religions. Indeed, entire communities understood their roles and yours and deviation from the traditions was not often countenanced. However, in 2008, in our egalitarian society, we have a number of personal choices that we can make when it comes to funeral arrangements and the disposal of human remains.
Below are some options, please think about them, embroider them or pare them down, decide how much is appropriate to spend or how ecologically or humanitarian minded you are prepared to be and discuss your wishes with your loved ones. Conceive a plan that will be make the transition period of your demise easier on your loved ones and commit it to your will, if you feel strongly about your exit strategy.

The traditional western European method involves the injection of embalming fluids to slow the rate of decomposition, internment in a casket and burial in an approved location.
Embalming fluids are a mixture of formaldehyde, methanol, ethanol and other solvents, they are considered extremely carcinogenic. Obviously not a problem to the deceased but something to be aware of when making your choices, studies report that funeral home workers can be at increased risk of leukemia and asthma. The casket can range from simple, unadorned pine to ornate, exotic woods with satin linings and expensive metal hardware. They can be constructed of steel and lined with copper and zinc. The casket is then encased in a cement liner, to facilitate cemetery maintenance and safety. All wooden caskets are available to conform to some traditional religious requirements.

Green Burial
Reducing our human footprint has become the new mantra as people struggle with their conscience and their relationship to our environment. Royal Oak Burial Park in Saanich has determined there is a public desire for green burial sites. They are establishing what might be the first green burial park in Canada; a small area within the Park where the body will be allowed to decompose naturally and give life back to the earth. Grave markers will be native wildflowers, trees and shrubs. Burial remains in this area will not be embalmed, they may be placed directly in the ground or wrapped in a biodegradable material or container. There will be no individual markers but there will be an opportunity to have the deceased’s name placed on boulders placed throughout the area. Visitation to individual graves will not be encouraged as the gravesites will eventually become part of a forest mosaic. This innovative departure from traditional North American internment is on schedule to open the last week of October and they have received tremendous public response to the concept.

This option has been embraced by over 50% of Canadians, with BC leading the way. In 2005, 79% of BC deaths were followed by cremation. There are statistics for everything and it appears that 39% of us keep the ashes (or cremains) at home, 37% have them buried in a cemetery and 22% are scattered. I don’t know what happens with the remaining 2% but maybe they are like my mom, who wants her ashes to be shot into space on a rocket!
A 2007 report by a UBC medical resident suggests that smoke from crematoria can be high in particulate matter that can aggravate respiratory conditions and has been linked to heart attacks. It recommended that crematoria not be located in residential neighbourhoods.

Many people live on the brink of death, desperately waiting for new life saving organs. Consider donating your body to help others if it is appropriate for your situation and you are comfortable with the concept. It is not an easy decision but it can be life affirming at a difficult time. In BC, over 684,000 people have registered to become organ donors and there are 301 people waiting for organs, 229 of whom are waiting for a kidney. In 2007 the average wait time for a kidney was five years, way up from 1998 when it was (only!) 28 months. 450 people are waiting for cornea transplants, imagine being able to give the gift of sight. After the organ donation process is completed the body is released to the family for their funeral arrangements.
You can find organ donor registration forms at motor vehicle offices, all London Drugs locations, ICBC Autoplan brokers, ICBC claim centres, doctor’s offices, Overwaitea and Save on Food pharmacies and online (see links at end of article).
Another way you can make a valuable contribution to your community after death is through the UBC body donation program. Medical teaching universities also need bodies so they may teach their students the fine arts of surgery, medicine and dentistry. 80-90% of the bodies are used for teaching purposes and the remainder are used in research. On the mainland the university pays for transportation of the body, embalming and eventual cremation. On Vancouver Island there is a $450.00 transport fee that you must absorb. If wanted, the cremains will be returned to the family after two to three years. Not only can you give back to your community after death, but you can save a lot of money on funeral expenses. There are restrictions on when a body can be accepted, including having infectious diseases and other problems. If you are interested in contributing in this way, please contact the Anatomy Department at the University of British Columbia at 604-822-2578.

Memorial Society of BC
Since 1956, the Memorial Society has helped BC residents obtain “access to simple, dignified, reasonably priced funeral options” as well as “performing a significant role as consumer advocate”. There is a one time membership fee of $40.00 to join. The society runs on volunteers and memberships, they do not accept payment of any kind from funeral providers and their clients receive a 15% discount from providers. In Victoria the only Memorial Society approved funeral provider is Sequoia Gardens Memorial, located next to Royal Oak Burial Park. For more information on the society please call 604-733-7705.

Funeral Services
Funerals can be anything you wish at any time that suits you. You can have a service at a funeral home or church, with a graveside viewing, if you prefer. You can have it at home or rent the local community hall or if the crowds are huge, you can use a lacrosse field and bleachers, you can restrict the attendees to family and a few friends or you can invite everyone who would care to come. There are no rights and wrongs, call it a celebration of life, a memorial service or a funeral, serve food and alcohol or not, request flowers or donations or ask people to bring nothing at all. Have it days after the death or months or years, whenever the time is right for you. Don’t feel hurried or obligated, take the time to do what is important to you and your loved ones.

Beware that prices can vary widely and when you are deeply grieving you are vulnerable and susceptible to expensive options you might not otherwise have chosen. The cost of my husband’s cremation was about $1350.00, when my sister’s husband died suddenly last January, I took over the disposal details for her. The operator at her local (and only) funeral home quoted me a price of about $1300 but quickly started adding on a couple of hundred for this, a couple of hundred for that, so it soon escalated to over $2000.00. When I pointed out that I had the same service preformed here for only $1350, he did an about face and said that is all he would charge. If you are unprepared, there is a chance you will be overcharged.
The green burial option at Royal Oak Burial Park is approximately $2600-$2900 for the lot, which includes the provincially mandated perpetual care cost that is 25% of the lot costs. There is an additional fee for opening and closing the grave ranging from $735-$795.
Traditional burials can be quite expensive with additional costs for a casket and liner, rental begins around $1300, with prices ranging from $1000 to multi thousands to buy the casket. The mandatory cement grave liner is approximately $675.00.

Please try to make these decisions now or in the days to come, well before you can even dream there will ever come a time to need them. Commit your plans to paper or in a computer document, send a copy to your executor, your kids or a dear friend, then put them away and forget about them. Take comfort in knowing your eventual death will be a little easier for your loved ones to experience because of this thoughtful gift.

BC Organ Donation
UBC Body Donation
Memorial Society of BC
The Centre for Natural Burial:
Royal Oak Burial Park:

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