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Niagara Falls
Monday, May 20, 2024
Death Cafe addresses important questions in comforting way

Denise Ascenzo
Special to Niagara Now/The Lake Report

It was a Friday evening, March 22 to be exact, when I attended a gathering at the community centre in town.  The Death Café: a gathering of people to talk about death?

Truthfully I had no idea what I was walking into but I will say the title of the meeting raised some very curious ideas and questions.

Bonnie Bagnulo, executive director of Niagara-on-the-Lake Community Palliative Care, explained what a Death Café is.

The idea of these gatherings was started in 2011 in England.  It was a way for people to talk about their or a close person’s impending death.  The meetings became a place for people to ask those questions that percolate around in our minds but are afraid to ask. 

At the meeting I attended, people were encouraged to gather around into small groups and introduce ourselves to each other.  I sat with three women who I had never met but immediately felt comfortable to be with.

Bagnulo explained that there is no set agenda, just let conversations flow, be respectful and do not judge anyone there.  The main purpose of these cafés is to help people understand that you are not alone. 

One of the tools used in this gathering was a unique deck of cards called an End of Life Deck. Bagnulo likes to use these cards as a way to get discussions flowing within the small groups.

Some questions might surprise you, such as: What sounds do you want to hear when you are near the end? Nature and birds, classical music, children’s laughter were some suggestions.  

Do you want to be with many people or just close family? Do you want to be hugged, hand held or just don’t be touched at all?  

One question had our group responding with the same answer: How much do you want to know about your prognosis?  

Some possible answers were: Give me a rosy picture, tell me nothing at all or give me all the details as straight as possible.  

All four of us agreed knowledge is power — power to fight or power to accept what is going to happen.

When discussing these questions with Bagnulo she noted that the dying very seldom ask for something for themselves.  They often are concerned for children or a spouse or a pet and ask what will happen to them.  

“We climb and climb and climb all our life for external stuff, but in the end, we dig and dig and dig for the internal stuff.” explained Bagnulo.

She said one key factor when caring for a dying person is to ask what they want and to really listen to them. Do not think any desire is silly, just make it happen.  

Did they ask for a bowl of jelly beans or for a certain flower or to visit one place in particular? Maybe they need to talk with a long ago acquaintance to clear up things long unsaid.

Bagnulo said it is very important to help the dying leave a legacy for their cherished ones. It could be a simple story, or a favourite photo with a story attached, or a favourite recipe.

Maybe it is a family secret that should have been told or a treasured item that has been passed down through the generations of the family. The dying want to be remembered, they want to leave some legacy.

Then there is the practical side of dying. These are things we all must or should do regardless of an imminent death or just because it should be done now.

We all know we should have a will, as well as power of attorney for health and finances but what about all the other details that should be looked after as well?

Passwords — for bank accounts, computer access, bills, Facebook or other chat sites should all be listed and updated regularly. No one will be able to help the family if they do not have these passwords.  

Remember, this is not like any TV series where with a stroke of a few keys and bam, we have the code! This does not happen in real life.

As well directives on vehicles, boats, RVs and even pets should be written out.  

Do not keep these all in a secret place but in a secure place, possibly with your will and make sure several people know where that place is.

We also have to make it known what we want when we die. Do not leave these decisions to your loved ones to make in their grief. Tell them what you want.  

The Death Café brought all these questions to the forefront for many of us. Fight like hell to stay alive but when the inevitable is facing you square in the face, start asking questions and talk about what you want. 

Bagnulo also had representatives from Morgan Funeral Home at the Death Café to answer any questions people might have.

A few days later I spoke with Alain Gignac, managing director of Morgan Funeral Home and Anne Taylor, the financial pre-planner of Morgan Funeral Home.  

The one consistent question they deal with is: What type of funeral should we have for our loved one? The funeral home can offer several options and it is up to the family to decide.  

Besides finances, the bigger issue is what did the dying person want? If this has not been discussed, it can create a festering soup of remorse and guilt.  

Did we do it right? is this what they really wanted? Did we look cheap or did we overdo the funeral? These are all questions that the grieving loved ones will deal with many months or even years afterwards. 

My grandmother, who died at 102 years of age, told my sister and me directly what she wanted. No funeral, no prayers, no casket — just have me cremated and put my ashes next to my husband’s in the family plot.  

We had no problems making those decisions because this is what Grandma had told us. As well she threatened to haunt us if we did not do as we were told.

So what options are available for us to discuss with our families?  

There is the full traditional funeral — coffin, embalming, viewing, service and burial. Sounds simple enough but what about a few other things to be decided?   

What will I want to be dressed in? What music to be played? What words to be spoken? Who should speak those words? Who will be pallbearers and should flowers be asked for or donations sent to your favourite charity?

A funeral is not as simple as closing the casket and dropping it into the ground.

There is the cremation option. No big fancy coffin — but you do need a coffin of some sort to contain your remains. Then do you have a full service with your ashes in a lovely urn or do you bury the ashes or do you scatter the ashes and then do a celebration of life?

One thing recommended by both Gignac and Taylor was to have some sort of closure for the family. Saying just “dump my ashes anywhere” will not really help. Let the family know what you want.  

“Is it worth celebrating a life lived? Yes. Loss is like defeat. Through an organized gathering of family and friends during times of loss, you gain moments of joy and sense of accomplishment, evading defeat,” said Gignac.

I saw an obituary of one man, who requested that upon his death, that he be cremated and a celebration of life was to be held, with beer being poured and everyone wearing blue jeans. Even his grandmother came in jeans. The family got relief and closure because they knew what he wanted.

The scattering of ashes does come with a few rules. No, you cannot be scattered on the 18th hole, and you cannot scatter ashes on private lands, so rule out your back garden. Only crown lands and waterways can be used.  

If doing water scattering, you must spread the ashes out from the plastic bag. The urn or cardboard container and the plastic bag are considered hazardous waste and you could be charged for littering. Now that is not a great legacy.

Another option to be considered is a green burial. Gignac advised that Fairview Cemetery in Niagara Falls has a dedicated section for green burials.

The body cannot be embalmed, the coffin cannot have any metals and the person cannot have any metals on them such as jewellery or belt buckles or metal implants. The burial must be within 24 to 48 hours of death. Finally, no marker will be placed on the grave site.  

Fairview Cemetery also permits the planting of a native trees with your ashes poured into the hole before the tree is planted. This is what I want — a good Canadian sugar maple tree and me.  

On a side note, should you want the ashes of a loved pet put with you, make your wishes known and most times this can be accommodated.

There is another option, alkaline hydrolysis (also known as aquamation). After some research I found it difficult to explain the process. Look it up on the Smithsonian Magazine web-site for a good explanation of this procedure. 

A question asked at the Death Café — and one I brought up with Ann Taylor later — was “What is the difference between pre-planning and pre-paying for a funeral?”

“You have a financial plan, a will and powers of attorney, why would you not also plan your funeral arrangements?” Taylor asked.

Taylor explained that pre-planning opens a file at a funeral home and lets you decide what you want when you pass away. Every detail can be recorded so that your loved ones do not have to make these decisions when they are grieving. No financial arrangements are made.

She went on to explain that pre-paying is not much different. The person will make all the arrangements that they want, just like pre-planning, and then pay the full amount of the funeral.  

Taylor said the money for a pre-paid funeral is put into a registered trust fund and cannot be touched until the person dies. Interest accrued will hopefully cover inflation costs.  

Should you make arrangements in Markham, Ontario but have since moved to Niagara-on-the-Lake, this is not a problem. On your demise, the NOTL funeral home will contact the Markham funeral home and the registered trust fund agreement is transferred to the funeral here in NOTL.  

One thing Taylor did suggest is the pre-paid funeral contract be kept with your will. Do not keep it a secret. She said she has seen families torn apart because no one was advised of a will or the pre-arrangements made.

We had a rather fun question asked at the Death Café. If someone with hips or knee replacements or metal rods in their back are cremated, what happens to all the metal?  

It was explained that Evergreen Crematorium, owned by thirty funeral homes in the Niagara Region, recycles all metals with the proceeds from the sales going to local charities in the region. As the Evergreen Crematorium website states, “Since 2017, donations to local charities have exceeded $100,000.”

I found the Death Café a very relaxed and informative way to talk about our inevitable demise.  

Bagnulo plans on running the Death Café quarterly so look for the notices of the next one, hopefully in June, then make a list of questions and come for a discussion.  

Remember death should not be shrouded in mystery, only the body.

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