From Compost to Compost? Katrina Spade could be racially changing after-death landscape around the world

Did you know that right here, in the Great Northwest, we have a young woman who could be radically shifting how we do after death care around the entire world? Her name is Katrina Spade; and she is a builder and designer who has a remarkable vision: A case for “sustainably” composting your dead body!

I learned about Katrina while attending an informal workshop in Quilcene on Green Burials. I learned a great deal about some new trends that are emerging around after death care in America. The most radical and profound Project I learned about is the Urban Death Project that Katrina is spearheading – right here in our own backyard! Katrina was able to raise upwards of $94,000 on the crowdfunding site Kickstarter.

Here are some statistics sited in an article on the Urban Death Project in CBC News:

Each year, in the U.S. alone, more than a million dead bodies are buried along with:

++ Enough metal to build San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge

++ Enough wood to build 1800 single-family homes

++ Enough carcinogenic embalming fluid to fill eight Olympic-sized swimming pools.

Spade noted that over half of the world’s population live in cities. City cemeteries are rapidly filling up to capacity; and currently, green burials are not available for most city dwellers.

Meanwhile, the most popular alternative to burial, cremation, emits as much carbon dioxide into the atmosphere each year as 70,000 cars driving the same length of time!

So, says Spade, her idea is a “practical one.” (For more, see this link.)

I had some questions that I wanted to ask Spade herself, but she is so busy that she referred me to some articles about her and her Project. I decided to share some questions and answers that she gave the Imprint Culture Lab in an interview on October 6, 2014. You may see the entire article here.

As a kid, what did you aspire to be?
As a kid, I thought I’d probably become a doctor, since so many of my family members are in medicine. We had plenty of conversations about death and dying at the dinner table. I guess it makes sense that I am doing this work, but from a design perspective. I love this work, but it definitely never occurred to me that I’d be doing this when I was young.

Describe how you “concepted” Urban Death Project to solve a significant problem in burial sustainability.
I was in graduate school for architecture, and I’d been thinking a lot about how decomposition is generally feared and avoided in our culture. Without decomposition – where microbes break organic materials down into soil – we humans would be toast. It’s an amazing process – turning dead stuff into soil – and I began to think about how it might intersect with architecture. At the same time, being thirty-something, it suddenly dawned on me that I was actually going to die someday. I began researching the options we have for the disposal of our physical bodies, and I found that both conventional burial and cremation are wasteful and polluting processes. So I set out to design a new method, using the process of composting as a basis for the design.

Where do you personally find inspiration?
I am excited about the work being done in my community right now around prison abolition and the dismantling of immigrant detention centers. Talk about an amazing design challenge – envisioning a world without prisons or borders!

Permaculture and whole systems design are also passions of mine. Beautiful design – the kind that is elegant in its simplicity and completely accessible – inspires me.

Where do you hope to take Urban Death Project in the long run, after the successful prototype?
Right now, we are working on the design and engineering of the system that will compost bodies, and we plan to build a prototype in the next few years. At the same time, we are creating a franchise kit to help others – municipalities, individuals, and organizations – build Urban Death Projects in their neighborhoods in cities all over the world. We’ll provide the specifications of the system itself as well as a framework for ritual and the programming requirements for each building, and different architects will design each Urban Death Project. That part is very important – each project should be specifically designed for the community which it serves.  I liken it to a library branch – each is unique to its neighborhood but you know what to expect when you enter one.

Katrina did answer one of my questions personally. The question: How can people get involved in your Project if they so desire? What is your most urgent “Message” to the world today?

Right now, the three best ways to get involved are:

1) Sign up for our monthly newsletter here.

2) Donate funds at whatever level is doable/meaningful to you.

3) Tell your networks about the idea, and talk with your friends and family about your wishes around death.

Here’s a little more about Spade’s background and credentials:

Spade has focused her career on creating human-centered, ecological, architectural solutions. Prior to architecture, she studied sustainable design and building at Yestermorrow Design Build School, with a focus on regenerative communities and permaculture. While earning her Masters of Architecture at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, she received a grant from the Massachusetts Department of Agriculture to build and monitor a compost heating system, a project which helped inspire the Urban Death Project. Katrina earned a BA in Anthropology from Haverford College and a Masters of Architecture from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. She is an Echoing Green Climate Fellow.

Welcome to the Changing World around death and after death care!

Maria will be facilitating another one of her classes – on transitions and the essential oils – on April 14 at 5:30 PM at the Brilliant Moon. For details and to register, call: 360-868-2190.



One conversation with loved one can make a huge difference

One of the most important things we can do around preparing for “the last adventure of life” is to have those important conversations with our loved ones – letting them know what our hopes and desires are around the end of our lives. All too often, people end up saving these conversations for a “rainy day,” and then end up not having them until it’s too late.

Here are some facts:

** Sixty percent of people say that making sure their family is not burdened by tough decisions is “extremely important.” However, 56% have not communicated their end-of-life wishes to another person.

** Seventy percent of people say they prefer to die at home. However, 70% die in a hospital, nursing home, or long-term-care facility. And sometimes, these deaths are much more traumatic than necessary.

I just heard about a very unfortunate situation that unfolded like this at a hospital in Tucson, AZ, even after a gentleman had his advance directives written down ahead of time. This is why, when your loved one is in a hospital or facility for any length of time, it’s extremely important that the family, physician, and staff of the facility make a point to go over the end-of-life wishes of the individual again to clarify and update, according to the situation.

** Eighty percent of people say that if they become seriously ill, they would like to speak with their physician about end-of-life care. However, only 7% report having that conversation.

** Eighty-two percent of people say that it’s important to put their wishes in writing. However, only 23% have actually put their wishes in writing.

Since those initial conversations with parents, children, siblings, and significant others are so important to have, and to be continued and updated over time, here are some ideas on how to “break the ice” with them.

1) I need your help with something.

2) Will you help me think about our future together?

3) I just answered some questions about how I’d like the end of my life to be. I’d like you to see my answers. I’m also wondering what your answers might be.

4) Do you have any particular concerns about your health? And what about the last years of your life? Have you thought about your wishes in this regard?

5) Who would you like – or not like – to support and believe in your care? Is there someone you’d like to make decisions on your behalf, if an when you’re not able to yourself? Who would you like to be your “health care proxy”?

6) Would you rather be actively involved in decisions about your end-of-life care, if possible?

7) Mom/Dad, have you ever thought about what you would do when you get ill and can no longer take care of yourself?

8) I just made some funeral plans/arrangements for myself. Have you thought about what you’d like in this regard – for yourself?

Much of the above facts and questions come from an organization called The Conversation Project of Boulder County in Colorado. They are modeled on a Project with the same name that was started in the Boston area by Ellen Goodman – who could speak with her mother about anything, but the end-of-life.

Ellen wished that she and her mother had been able to “start the conversation” around the specifics of her mother’s death much sooner than they did; and this is how she came to start The Conversation Project. You can see more about this Project at:

Another organization that works with similar end-of-life ideas and questions is The Five Wishes. I will write more about this organization in a forthcoming article.



5 tips for talking to a grieving loved one or friend

This week I’d like to share an article I received through a new online friend named Angela Tollersons. She came to my website,, and expressed an interest in writing an article on grief for me. I liked what she wrote and decided to share it with you here.

Whether it’s a family member or friend, talking about the loss of a loved one is never easy. But talking about death is an important part of the grieving process and can make the person experiencing the loss feel a bit less alone.

Use these tips to stay mindful of how you’re communicating with your friend or family member during this sensitive time.

  1. Choose Your Words Carefully

Avoid talking about religion or the afterlife, comparing their loss to yours, or invalidating their pain. Realize that nothing you can say will relieve your loved one of all the pain they’re feeling, so don’t go into a conversation expecting to “fix” them. Instead, make sure your conversation is inspired by genuine sympathy and support.

  1. Practice Patience

Since one symptom of grief is feeling detached from other people, it’s possible your friend or family member won’t want to talk about his loss at all.

When this happens, practice patience. Don’t push him to express his feelings; let him come to you on his own terms. Forcing him to talk about the situation before he feels ready won’t be beneficial for the healing process.

Refrain from passing judgment on your loved one’s behavior. Endless crying, lashing out, and feelings of guilt are natural parts of the grieving process. Be understanding of these behaviors and continue to provide your unwavering support.

  1. Listen

It’s not easy for your loved one to open up and talk about her loss, so make it easier on her by being a great listener. Listen silently and without judgment.

Giving your full attention to your loved one is just another way of saying “I care about you.”

In this way, sometimes the best thing you can say is nothing at all.

  1. Offer Your Assistance

Make it clear that you’re available to talk whenever he’s ready.

When you’re dealing with someone who prefers not to talk about the death of a loved one, the best way for you to show your love and support is by helping out with meals and errands for a while.

Tell them you’ll pick them up some dinner or that you’d like to go pick up the groceries. Offer to help out with house chores or child care.

Even if your loved one isn’t receptive to your verbal support right now, small acts of love and kindness like these will help send the message.

  1. Don’t Let Distance Stand in Your Way

If your loved one is miles away, the lines of communication can still be open with video chatting, phone calls, and email.

The responsibility of making the first move will likely fall on you, so be persistent but not pushy.

Ask if they’d be interested in a family conference call where a few of you can check in and catch up. Even if it’s a brief 10-minute exchange, they’ll appreciate your concern as long as you also respect their space.

No matter how you communicate–through words or through your actions–know that your intentions are all that matter.

It may feel difficult to find the right words to help make this time more bearable for your loved one. But if you’re reaching out with compassion and support, your loved one will know that you’re doing your best to help them through this difficult time.

Angela Tollersons has a passion for family health and wellness. She currently volunteers as often as possible in her community with parenting and child advocacy groups, especially those who focus on special education and anti-bullying.

When she is not updating her blog, she is usually exploring the great outdoors or playing a game of Scrabble with her family.

Remembering and activating the power of prayer

I was visiting a woman on our hospice at an adult family home one day. One of the women living in the home asked me if I was the “prayer giver.” I was pleasantly surprised by what I thought she’d said. After double-checking that I had heard her correctly, I responded that yes, indeed, I was the prayer giver.

Reflecting on what this stranger asked me left me pondering my role of spiritual counselor. Perhaps the most important thing I do with the people I visit is to remind them of their own spiritual power. I help them to connect or reconnect to Spirit.

At the end of almost every visit, I ask the person or people I’ve been speaking with if they’d like to close with a prayer. The response is almost always positive. Once in a while, a person will tell me that they’d rather not pray with me, usually because they feel it’s a very private matter. However, rarely have my hospice families turned me down when I offer to keep them in my prayers.

Prayer is our finest and most direct way to be in touch with the Divine. I highly recommend that you make this connection regularly. It is such a simple thing to do, too: Just open your heart and share your thoughts and feelings with the Divine, however you are comfortable doing so. Then, I encourage you to keep your heart open, and listen and pay attention to what the Divine might have to share with you.

Growing up as a missionary kid, I learned to pray as a wee little one. And I always sensed that there was a kind of special power in prayer. However, it wasn’t until I started doing hospice work and began to learn about the metaphysical that I began to discover the Laws of the Universe. It turns out that it is one of the Laws of the Universe that spirit cannot intercede in our lives without our permission. So, if you do not ask for the help of the spiritual realm, their hands are tied. They cannot help you unless they receive your permission. Or I suppose that permission can come from someone else? A friend or family member, for example.

If you would like an anonymous person to call and pray with you, I invite you to call Silent Unity at (816) 969-2000, or (800) NOW-PRAY (669-7729). They are connected to the Unity Church headquarters in Unity Village, Missouri, where they have a 24-hour hotline that anyone can call any time.

After a gentle soul prays with you over the phone, Unity also keeps praying with you for the next 30 days. I have used them on occasion, when I needed someone to join me in prayer about something close to my heart. I have never been disappointed. If you are not comfortable calling them, please contact a local church, synagogue, mosque, temple, shrine, or religious organization that you do feel comfortable calling. Or feel free to contact me about your prayer concerns! I’m happy to pray with or for someone, always. It is good that you are connected to others when you pray, and your prayers will be more powerful, too.

I will be offering her classes at Brilliant Moon again in March (Joyful Transitions) and April (Essential Oils and Transitions). Please call Brilliant Moon to register: 868-2190. I also do some powerful Auric Clearings as part of her energy work repertoire. Contact me for more information on this “Clearing out the Old” work. It will help you Welcome in the New in your life!


Some Practical aspects to plan for the end of life

Some of you more practical individuals have no doubt been desiring to read about the more practical side of the end of life scenario. I’ve done a little bit of research into this aspect of preparing for the final transition, and here’s what I’ve come up with.

First, a lovely quote from Respecting Choices that reminds us that planning for the end of life needs to be an ongoing process that is fluid and flexible – always open to the changes and vicissitudes of life:

One of the greatest misconceptions about advanced care planning is that it is a static process, a one-time event. Attempting to plan for all possibilities in a single document or at a single point in time is both impossible and unnecessary.

Every state has its own end-of-life related laws and regulations. A wonderful resource that we have here in Washington state is End of Life Washington. This is a website and an office in Seattle – formerly Compassion & Choices of Washington – which guides people in planning for the final days of their lives. They can be reached at: 877.222.2816 or 206.256.1636.

End of Life Washington provides free end-of-life counseling and client support services statewide to “qualified patients” desiring a “peaceful death.”

Staff members encourage advance planning and set a new standard in Washington state for advance planning documents with their End of Life Washington Advance Directive, one of the best advance directives available in the United States.

They promote the use of Physician Orders for Life-Sustaining Treatment (POLST form, a medical form for emergencies) for those living with serious illnesses. They provide these and many other documents at no cost.

They created and played a key role in leading the coalition that passed Initiative 1000 (the Washington Death with Dignity Act) into law in November, 2008 with nearly 60 percent of the popular vote. They now steward, protect, and uphold this law. For details, see this link.

They advocate for better pain management, patient-directed end-of-life care, and expanded choice for the terminally ill. They do not suggest, encourage, or promote suicide or euthanasia.

And there is never a fee for their services.     

I discovered through the Senior Center in Shelton that Julie Cook is an attorney in town who specializes in end-of-life related issues, including wills and estate plans. She comes to the Senior Center at least a few times a year to offer a free hour-long talk for members. She’ll be coming again in March or April, so contact the Shelton Senior Center (360-426-7374) if you have an interest in this.

The Advance Directive is basically an expression of your wishes around life support issues. There are Health Care directives that you can work on to plan ahead related specifically to your health care needs; there is also a Physician’s (Final) Directive – the “unplug me papers” – that you can work on with your physician. You may want to consider appointing a Health Care Power of Attorney as well a Financial Power of Attorney for your end of life time when you may not be able to make your own decisions. By appointing a Financial Power of Attorney, it’s sometimes possible to avoid a guardianship, which can be quite costly.

And then there are other organizations that help people begin the end of life care conversations, such as the Five Wishes – “changing the way we talk about and plan for care at the end of life” and the Conversation Project – “dedicated to helping people talk about end-of-life care.”

Finally, I wanted to mention – for those who have connections in Seattle – that a friend in Seattle was able to receive help with a will and a Health Care Directive through an attorney who she found at the Seattle Senior Services at 206.448.5720. For Seattle residents, a packet of information, including a worksheet which assists in gathering the information needed for the documents, can be requested and received. At the one-hour FREE appointment with the attorney, the following two documents were produced: A last will and testament and a durable power of attorney for health care and health care directive.

Blessings of courage and love to all as we take practical steps to face the end of life, and especially as we take the steps to have those important and necessary conversations with family and loved ones.


Could the entire world be on hospice?

The brilliance of the Heart

We are at a very interesting time in human history. The New Thought people call this the time of the Shift of the Ages. Many long-term time cycles – to the tune of 26,000 years, are merging together and a great deal of love and light frequency is coming onto the planet. This is why the entire world – and what we’re used to – seems to be “going crazy,” especially when you watch the news.

I’ve coming to see this phenomenon as though the whole world is “on hospice.” We must die to the old so that the new may come in and take shape on the planet. And many so-called “Light-workers” are here, holding the possibility for this. Many religions tell of a time of Great Peace and Healing that’s coming. There is great change at this time, but it is for a good purpose. We are moving toward a much higher and vibrant way of living. In time, Love and Peace will rule the earth, as has been prophesied by the prophets.

Because we are moving through this time of deep change and transformation, we have much to learn from the dying. They have the secrets to help us move through change in a good way. And I outline some of these secrets in my book, The Most Important Day of Your Life: Are You Ready? I will highlight a few of these points here.

I believe that the most important piece here is letting go of judgment: Many people before they die must do some kind of forgiveness work. It’s time to let go of old grudges and resentments.

Since the person is getting ready to leave the planet, if they want to connect with those they love, they must “clear the slate” in some fashion, letting go of old judgments that no longer serve. After all, when we continue to hold these judgments, we’re the ones who hurt, we lose out. And why wait, until we’re on our deathbed to do this? Why not clear the slate whenever we can – whenever we think of it?

The best way to do this is to move from the heady “critical eye” down to the open heart. When we move to the heart, we can let people off the hook, give them the benefit of the doubt. I believe that now is a good time to do that. Rather than carrying around many judgments and grudges, making others out to be the “bad ones,” we can come into the heart and love and honor everyone.

Give them the benefit of the doubt, especially in these times of great change. What if we could see that everyone is actually doing “the best that they can?” And when we send out love in their direction, this is the best Medicine we can send them.

The next important piece to me is there is so much more than meets the eye. This is something I learned through working with hospice. So many mystical things happened to those around me, those who were preparing for death and those who were on the receiving end of it, those who were grieving. I was privy to hearing so many stories that I came to understand that what we can see, feel, and touch, taste and smell on this earth is just the tip of the iceberg.

We truly do not know a lot of what is going on or who is around us, and so it’s best to humble ourselves, realize that we can’t analyze or explain it all, and simply “go with the flow” as much as possible. Life is an adventure, a miracle, really! And the more we see and bless it as that, the more it will bless us.

The third and last point I’d like to make here is the interconnectedness of everything. This relates to the piece I just mentioned, but there is no question in my mind now that on some powerful level, we are connected and there’s a magic that flows through our lives when we can let go and let the magic happen.

I’ve learned that at the Higher Self level – we all have a Higher Self that we are guided by – we are all connected. That’s why, when we pray for someone, they can feel it on some level. I remember how my sister once told me that as she was coming out of her surgery, she sensed and even saw, our dad and myself praying for her.

Do not underestimate the value of praying for someone, or simply holding them with good thoughts in your heart. This is what our pets do for us all the time, I believe.

I will be teaching a class this evening on Joyful Transitions and one on the essential oils and transitions in early February at the Brilliant Moon in Shelton. Please contact them for details: (360) 868-2190.

For those of you feeling “stuck” in your life in any way, I would highly recommend that you look into my energy work – and Auric Clearing in particular – if you’d like to clear out some of that negative energy that’s living in your field. One Auric Clearing could be life transformative! Plus, it’s wonderful preventative health care, too! See details here.

This conversation is to be continued, and we welcome your stories, questions and comments around these topics.


Is Speaking about death becoming fashionable?

Have you heard of the Death Cafe? Death Cafe is a worldwide movement that’s helping to bring out the taboo topic of death into the public arena. This movement began in the U.K. – and before that in Switzerland –  three and a half years ago. There have been many more than 1,000 death cafes by now around the world.

At a Death Cafe ( people, often strangers, in a given city or neighborhood gather at a given location that’s private and comfortable – cafe, bookstore, home, etc. – to eat something sweet, drink tea, and talk about death. The idea is “to increase awareness of death with a view to helping people make the most of their (finite) lives.”

A Death Cafe is a gathering of people dedicated to the discussion of death with no agenda, objectives, or themes. It’s a discussion group rather than a grief support or counseling session.

Death Cafes are always offered:

– On a non-profit basis

– In an accessible, confidential, and respectful place

– With no intention of leading people to any particular conclusion, product, or course of action

– Alongside refreshing drinks and nourishing foods – and cake, or sweets of some kind, of course!

I have attended my share of Death Cafes; in Sedona, AZ, I even helped to start one. My experience of them are quite varied and have always left me feeling very good. In general, they seem to attract a variety of ages and people.

Almost always, the people who attend have been touched by death or grief – sometimes recently and sometimes many years ago. They are people who are eager to share their experiences, perhaps because in many places still today, death is a taboo topic.

Two people – a friend and myself – led the Death Cafe I helped start in Sedona. We got the inspiration to start one because, surprisingly, no one had started one in Sedona. We led the Cafe in a private home once a month for about five months, through one summer. Most sessions we had a good eight to ten people attending. There were older individuals facing death themselves; there were individuals who had experienced powerful NDEs (near death experiences). We also had people and friends who were just curious attending and checking out the group. It was a most worthwhile experience. Eventually, the energy for the group dwindled, and my friend had to focus on other things, so we had to close the Death Cafe.

About the same time, another group ran a Death Cafe for just one time in a neighboring town. They used an assisted care facility and publicized it in a big way. They had a large group attending, – 30 plus – but  they decided to have it be a one-time experience. People sat at small tables in a large room to speak in small groups during the Cafe.

I invite you to look into the Death Cafe movement and see if there happens to be one in your community. If not, you could always start one, perhaps with a friend who’s interested in the topic as well. Here’s a link that will guide you in the process:

By the way, I know for a fact that there is a Death Cafe happening in Olympia. It usually meets on the last Wednesday of the month, at the Obsidian Cafe, 414 Fourth Ave. E. – in Olympia. They have a Facebook page as well:

I will be teaching a class later this month on “joyful transitions” and one on the essential oils and transitions in early February at the Brilliant Moon in Shelton. Please contact them for details. (360) 868-2190.death cafe, Olympia

This conversation is to be continued, and we welcome your stories, questions and comments around these topics.

What exactly is “nearing death awareness”?

The Last Adventure of Life

This is Maria Dancing Heart’s First Book

While growing up in Japan I used to hear the phrase omukae ga kuru, which means “your Welcome,” or “Welcome Wagon” comes.” This reference is to the spirit or spirits, typically those who are known and loved by the dying person, who come to the dying one, usually just some days or even hours before the person is ready to make the journey to the other side.

Doing the work of helping people make their final transition here in the United States, I learned that this Welcome is not just a Japanese or Buddhist experience, but universal one. Often, dying people are greeted and welcomed by those they love who have already made their transition to the other side. And as you can imagine, it is typically a very comforting, healing, and even energizing experience. I now know that this is known as the “nearing death awareness” phenomenon here in the United States.

Once, on our hospice unit, we were caring for a man who had taken very good care of his mother at the end of her life, some years ago. Now, it was his turn to be making the passage across to the other side. Just a few days before making his transition, he began to experience his mother coming to him from the next realm to say “hello.” Altogether he had three visitations from her before he died. He shared these incidents with the hospice team, and we were all grateful to know he was comforted and guided in this way through his last adventure of life.

The following is a story around this “Being in the presence of someone not alive” theme that I found in a beautiful spiritual book by two hospice nurses. In this book, Maggie Callanan and Patricia Kelley share many mystical things encounters that happened to them while doing hospice work. Final Gifts (1992), is a “must read” for all those who do hospice work.


Martha was in her early sixties, dying of uterine cancer which had spread throughout her pelvis. A widow, she’d lived for many years with her daughter and family.

Martha’s experience with unseen people was not very dramatic, but her reaction was typical. She wasn’t at all surprised or upset by it, and was even able to express her pleasure at seeing what no one else could see.

Several weeks before she died, Martha said to me, “Do you know who the little girl is?”

“Which little girl?” I asked.

“You know, the one who comes to see me,” she said. “The one the others can’t see.”

Martha described several visitors unseen by others. She knew most of them—her parents and sisters, all of whom were dead—but couldn’t identify a child who appeared with them. That didn’t bother her.

“Don’t worry,” she told me, “I’ll figure it out before I go, or I’ll find out when I get there. Have you seen them?”

“No, I haven’t,” I said. “But I believe that you do. Are they here now?”

“They left a little while ago,” Martha said. “They don’t stay all the time; they just come and go.”

“What is it like when they’re here?” I asked.

“Well, sometimes we talk, but usually I just know that they’re here,” Martha said. “I know that they love me, and that they’ll be here with me when it’s time.”

“When it’s time…?”

“When I die,” Martha said matter-of-factly.

This story can be found on p. 87-88 of Final Gifts. Another magnificent story tells about a dying daughter who was waiting for a  “necessary reconciliation” to happen with her father before her transition. You can read the true story about Theresa on pp. 142 – 143 in Final Gifts. I was given permission to share these stories in my book, The Last Adventure of Life, too, by the authors. I highly recommend both books – and all the stories and reflections shared in them – especially for people caring for their beloved Loved Ones who are aging or near their end of life.

I would very much like this Column to be relevant for you readers. And this “conversation” is to continue, so please share with us your stories, questions and comments around these topics.

Bringing Death Back to Life: A Call to creative transformation for our times

During the last 100 years, says Rabbi Schachter-Shalomi, our culture has “pathologized” death by taking it into the hospital. We have done ourselves a real disservice by separating, or “compartmentalizing” death – and endings – away from life; and this has been taking its toll on our society. There is a tremendous focus on and bias toward youth and beauty, not to mention image; and we have become dishonoring of the aging process and the grief process, too, for that matter.

Furthermore, due to the consciousness shift taking place on the planet, the issues of death, change, endings, and transitions have become even more pronounced. In a sense, at this time we are each going through our own transformative letting go process of one kind or another.

I sometimes say that it’s as if the entire world is on Hospice. And we have so much to learn from those who are going through severe change – like those who are dying, and those who work with the dying. If we can maneuver deep change by letting go of what no longer serves us, I believe this is the key!

Therefore, I would encourage you find new ways to bridge the gap between life and death.

Here are some suggestions I have to get started:

Since everything starts on the energetic level, you might start by visualizing and praying: Invite death, endings, and grief to become a more natural and friendly part of your life. You might even extend this intention out into your family, community, and the American society at large.

Find places and people in your life where and with whom you can speak more openly about these matters. Since aspects of the entire world is “on hospice” these days and many people are going through all sorts of transitions, it need not be so difficult to find ways to talk creatively about endings, letting go – of old ways, beliefs, and the “stuff” that no longer serves us. Sharing and expressing the grief that resides in our being these days is so important, too. I’ll be writing more about the Death Cafe worldwide movement (see also – a very significant emerging movement for our times.

For some time now hospices, palliative care programs, and midwives all have been helping to create new avenues to integrate life and death back together again. If there is any way you could support these programs or people, I strongly encourage you to do so.

You might consider becoming a volunteer at your local hospice. Hospices are always looking for new volunteers; and I can guarantee that however long your commitment, you will learn so much about yourself and be transformed by such an experience that you will never regret it. It’s a wonderful investment in yourself and your future. See my most recent book, The Most Important Day of Your Life: Are You Ready? to read more about the gifts that I have received through the last 20 years of hospice ministry.

Finally, I invite you to reach out in new and courageous ways to someone in your life who’s going through a transition of some kind. You could begin by praying for them or asking them how you could support them. Consider this a learning opportunity for yourself and see how you might grow from a situation you normally would avoid or choose not get involved in. See yourself being transformed by a new experience!

These are just a few pointers for you to begin thinking in ways that could help you begin a process of transformation with courage at this time. Clearly, change is needed and stands knocking at our doorstep. I encourage us all to open the door and welcome it in!

Also, please let me know other ideas you might have along these lines, to help bring death, and endings, back into our lives – where they belong.

The Rev. Maria Dancing Heart Hoaglund is a United Church of Christ minister, author and longtime hospice and bereavement counselor who has published The Last Adventure of Life: Sacred Resources for Transition and The Most Important Day of Your Life: Are You Ready? She can be reached at She continues to write and is getting ready to publish her third book in 2016. She is always looking for opportunities and places to speak and teach.

The brilliance of the Heartdeath cafe, Olympia

Understanding the Power of NDEs

One of the most profoundly loving, mystical experiences a person can have in life is a so-called “near-death experience” or NDE.

This typically happens when a person is very ill or close to death. Dr. Jeffrey Long reports that a 1992 Gallup Poll offered an estimate that 13 million Americans had experienced an NDE. The population of the U.S. in 1992 was approximately 260 million which leads to an estimate of NDE prevalence of roughly 5% – at least in 1992.

The individual is usually transported out of his or her body and into another reality that is blissful and heavenly. Dr. Melvin Morse, a well-known pediatrician in the Puget Sound area, is known for talking about and working with children who have had NDEs. I recommend Closer to the Light a beautiful book with many accounts by children about their NDEs. Many children have not only had these experiences, but they share with others that their lives have been categorically changed by their experiences. Dr. Morse has written about this in his book, Transformed by the Light (Morse 1992).

I have had the privilege of getting to know a number of people who have experienced NDEs, through both my hospice work and my life at large. One such person I reconnected with while living on Whidbey Island was Edmond Nickson. Edmond is a spiritually tuned-in, energetic man around 80 years old now. He knows who he is, and knows that he has been and continues to be guided continuously in his life.

I am deeply grateful to him for his help in editing my first book, The Last Adventure of Life. In the course of our conversations and work on my book, he agreed to write several pages that tell of his special relationship with the divine throughout his life as a result of an NDE that took place early in his life. (see pages 33-35 in the 1st edition of The Last Adventure of Life and pp. 35-37 in the 4th edition)

Recently, thanks to my work with radio show host Joseph Varley, I have come to know Sharon Milliman, a woman who has had two NDEs in her life, one when she was 13 years old and one as an adult. I was able to ask her some questions and here are her responses:

1) What was the best part about having NDEs?

My favorite parts of my NDE’s were being in the presence of God, seeing His face and feeling His all encompassing and complete love. It was a love beyond all human words. Sitting with Him and having conversation, laughing with Him, getting to experience and know that God has a personality, and know also that He never judges us. All He does is Love us. Also, learning that we are never separated from Him. Through my conversation, I found out that He made us. He is in us and when we look in the mirror we see Him.

2) What did you like least about your NDEs?

Having an NDE is an extremely spiritual experience and most people don’t understand how it can affect your life. At first I was isolated, and frightened. I had no words to describe what had happened. I had never heard of NDEs before even though I had had one earlier in my life. I had no label to put on the experience. I found people to be cruel upon my return from Heaven, they were labeling me as crazy, and I knew that wasn’t true. You can see more at this link. This is a page that explains so much about the after affects of NDEs. At this time I am in the Phase 3.

3) How have the NDEs transformed your life? What’s different?

They have changed my life in that I no longer fear death. I know life goes on and where we will go when our life here is done. And I know we do see our loved ones again. (One of big pieces in Sharon’s second NDE was that she got to meet up with her two brothers who had died while still young.) I have purpose and a mission: To spread the messages He gives me and to give people hope.

You can go to Sharon Goetemann Milliman‘s Facebook page and see more of her beautiful writings about her NDEs. (look under her “Notes”)

Last December, Sharon was interviewed for a National Geographic documentary on NDEs. This National Geographic Documentary will be featured in the up coming program called “Return from the Dead.” It will air on April 17th at 10 p.m., Eastern Time, on the National Geographic Channel.

This conversation is to be continued, and we welcome your stories, questions and comments around these topics.