Changing Perceptions: Ways to Get Families to Think & Plan for Their Death

Posted October 12, 2016

7 min read

Funeral Directors know that preplanning a funeral has multiple benefits. To start, a person who preplans their own celebration of life can have peace of mind about the details, and they will know their family or loved ones are not left having to take on the arrangement decisions themselves.

Certainly that’s just part of planning for one’s own death, which is why we sat down with Olivia Bareham, a certified Death Midwife and the voice behind the popular blog, Diary of a Death Midwife, to talk more about “conscious dying” and how Funeral Directors can start to change families’ perceptions about death. Bareham is a Home Funeral Guide and is Founder and Celebrant of Sacred Crossings, a Los Angeles-based company that provides education, support, and guidance for conscious dying and home funerals. On a daily basis, you can find Bareham helping people move towards a conscious dying experience, as well as guiding families in after-death care and preservation of loved ones’ bodies.

What is ‘Conscious Dying’?

Conscious dying can be seen as a process in which someone is able to move towards death with an accepting and informed approach. “Conscious dying [occurs] when someone has thought about it for months—hopefully years—ahead of time. This is when a person has really asked the question of themselves: What does it mean to die?” says Bareham.

A conscious dying experience means someone not only acknowledges that they are going to die, but it also educates a person about the dying process, and it addresses and embraces any fears they have around their own death. It also involves asking and seeking answers to questions such as: what do I need to do to put everything in order and in place so that I can surrender to this process? Someone who is able to answer and be at peace with these questions is able to move towards their death in a more relaxed, open, accepting, and knowing way, explains Bareham.

The opposite would be someone who has not given dying much thought. This could be called unconscious dying: “They’re struggling to unravel what’s happening. They’ve got relationships that are not complete. They haven’t put their things in order,” Bareham explains.

The Art of Dying

But, as many funeral professionals know, it’s common for many people to avoid thinking about death entirely. Death can bring on feelings of fear and dread, which is why many people end up denying death or simply focus on prolonging life at all costs. But with the right preparation and approach, people can be more ready, at-peace, and even find joy in their natural, end-of-life transition, argues Bareham.

“What we’re trying to do is encourage people, as early as their 20s, to begin to really think about this, and to open their hearts to practice what I call the art of dying.” The benefits of preparing for one’s death like this include living a life more aligned with one’s mission, not acting out of denial, fear or anger, and living with full awareness on a day-to-day basis.

“Most people begin to think about their own mortality very early in life,” says Bareham. “Some consciously choose to not think about it again because they fear the feelings that may arise or the changes they might be prompted to make,” she says. “Others become obsessive about their death, living in fear of the event occurring and try to avoid it at all costs.” And, another segment of people are those that will become curious, educate themselves, and learn to consciously embrace death as a way to give their life more meaning.

“Facing and embracing the end of our life is natural, healthy and wise. Funeral Directors can help those who are in denial or fearful about death by offering conscious dying education, by encouraging families to complete advance directives for health care and death care, by offering a natural, peaceful environment for families to share in the after-death care and vigil process, and by actively encouraging and assisting families to create personal and deeply meaningful funerals.”

Bareham says if funeral homes are able to utilize conscious death and dying educators, for example, it can be helpful and could potentially change public perception—helping them to see a funeral home as a place they can go to for emotional and spiritual support. It can also help people see funeral homes as a “place that empowers them to care for their loved one themselves, in their own way, in their own time.”

Funerals as a Way to Start Dispelling Myths

Just as Funeral Directors know, thinking about or planning for one’s death does not bring death on any faster, which is what Bareham points out as well: “A lot of people are afraid that if they begin to think about it, then they’re magically making it happen, which is not the case.”

“I’ve actually found that those who become comfortable with it in their 20s can then put it where it belongs—something right next to them on their path of life. Then they move forward without this gorilla chasing them down the road, because they’ve befriended it. Now they can have a more relaxed and rich experience of what it means to be alive.” Being more conscious about death puts them in a very different place than someone who is dreading death.

What else can help people become more comfortable with the idea of death from a younger age? “I think the only way for people to become more comfortable talking about death is to have death and dying become a familiar, natural part of life so they can begin to embrace it without fear and dread,” says Bareham. “Some ways to do this might be for death and dying to become part of the basic high school curriculum where students are taken to nursing homes, ICUs, funeral homes and the coroner and the conversations and education would ensue.”

Bareham says it’s important to be able to look for and find ways to make it possible for younger adults to take care of their aging relatives. “As we witness death in its natural state, not as the result of violence, we feel safe to think and talk about it and plan for it…When people are present to a loved-one’s dying and death they naturally want to commemorate them in some way, to celebrate them and remember them. By actively participating in the after death care of a loved one which might include preparing the body, building the casket, planning the funeral service and/or digging the grave, one is given time to fully accept the event, integrate it into their life and begin the grieving process.”

Bareham says practices such as these help people to think about their own death, the meaning of their own life, and also how they would like to be remembered at their own funeral.

When a Funeral Director interacts with grieving family members, that’s also another opportunity to change perceptions and dispel common myths that exist: “When Funeral Directors empower families to get closer to death and participate in the rituals, they will gain their trust and have the opportunity to inspire people to plan their own death and funeral.”

Meet Families’ Ongoing Needs

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About Rev. Olivia Rosemarie Bareham

Rev. Olivia Bareham is founder of Sacred Crossings. She is a certified Death Midwife, Home Funeral Guide and Celebrant. She holds bachelor’s degrees in Education and Natural Theology and Sacred Healing and is an ordained Inter-faith Minister. Her experience as an auxiliary nurse, hospice volunteer and her mother’s end-of-life caregiver, inspired her to investigate more meaningful and personal alternatives to traditional funeral practices.

Bareham is also a writer, producer and public speaker. She is an active member of the National Home Funeral Alliance, and past President of the board for Anam Cara – The Compassionate Care Center in Topanga Canyon.

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