For hospice aide Dina Taylor death is a doorway. Some people pass through that doorway with grace, others struggle.
One thing Dina has come to understand after 27 years of hospice work: Too often Americans are shuttled hastily through death’s doorway. An essential component of life is missed, for both the person passing and their loved ones. To help families plan a better death, Dina has begun mentoring with a San Diego-based company called Thesholds that arranges home funerals. In our present times, when increased corporate control seems to have led to a corresponding decrease in the value of humanity, Dina is trying to move in the other direction. Much like Caitlin Doughty, a longtime friend of Funeralwise.com and a source of inspiration for Dina, she is trying to humanize death—and deathify humans.
Digital Dying recently spoke with Dina about the doorway of death, home funerals, and her most stunning moments of deathly awareness.
What’s wrong with the way people die in the United States?
I feel like death gets swept away as soon as it happens. Often the family calls the mortuary to get the body out quickly—most families think it’s weird to have a dead body in the house. One of my earliest patients was a Buddhist monk who lived in a red barn way out in the hills of Sonoma County, California. It was a gorgeous setting, on the outskirts of all the wineries, and before I could enter the home one of his friends cleansed me with a bell—a bit like using sage, you want to remove negative energy. The monk was very frail and very kind, a beautiful man. I only saw him twice, and although I wasn’t there when he died I got a call asking me to come and sit with his body for an eight-hour period. The monk believed it took three days for the spirit to leave the body, and a number of people had gathered to watch over him during that period. He was covered in prayer clothes and the bell was there, it was very peaceful, I cried because it was so beautiful. That was my aha moment, the very first time I realized you could do things differently.
When someone dies in a hospital the body is typically removed quickly—Why is that a problem?
I can actually feel that right after death people are not settled, things are still moving around. And it is shocking sometimes just how quickly they shuttle out the body. When my mom died I was able to sit with her for a day and let her settle, but it took some talking. Initially, the director of the facility came in and said we needed to remove her after two hours. I asked why, they said health code reasons. In the end, they gave us four hours, it’s a moneymaking business. I went back to my mentor on home funerals, Eric Putt, co-founder of Thresholds, and he said that those were not real laws. It is important to remember that if a family wants to stay and grieve their loved ones for a couple days’ time, that is allowed, there is no law against that. I always thought that this time with the body is wonderful, as it gives your brain time to process that someone is not there anymore. I have an 18-year-old son and a 13-year-old daughter, and I’ve told my kids not to take me away for three days.
What role does the funeral industry play in rushing people through a death?
I feel like none of us really has closure. We are always expected to get up and go, whether it is the death of a loved one or a divorce or the loss of a job. The problem with that is you never have time to process anything. In a death, one situation that can develop is grandma has already paid for a funeral service. The family wants to keep her at home, but are being told by the funeral home, ‘No, you have to embalm her.’ They make you worried that if you don’t embalm her, then you aren’t treating her right. But all that embalming fluid is chemicals that go into the earth, and then there is all the rare wood used for coffins, and the funeral director trying to sell you a teak coffin because ‘Isn’t your mom worth it.’ It’s awful, I believe everyone should have the funeral they want. If you want a big funeral service with embalming and teak coffins that’s your choice. But the fact that they’re telling people lies is wrong. And it doesn’t stop there. A coffin isn’t just a hole in the ground, most coffins are put in huge cement vaults, which is mainly to make the ground flat and look pretty. So you have all the concrete and all the metal and all the finishes, and it keeps going and going and going.
Is there a big difference between doing hospice for the young and old?
This is going to sound weird, but children seem more comfortable with death, and I find that they are more spiritual. Kids are better able to disappear into that world of fairies and gods. It doesn’t seem as scary for kids, they have it in them to believe. When they get older and become adults they are more scared. But the death process itself is all the same. You see a person declining, then they reach a point where some go quickly and some go slowly because they have unfinished business. For example, I had a young girl named Angelica who was eight and she went into a terminal coma. She was in it for two weeks, poor thing, her body was decaying around her, she was dying, but her spirit was still there. Her mother was in jail, and the social worker set up with the jail to have the mom come out. The mom was escorted into the daughter’s room to say goodbye, and once she was there the daughter let go and died. If I hadn’t seen it so many times I probably wouldn’t believe someone could hold on like that in order to have closure.
What happens to a person in that moment right before death?
In that moment, I believe people are able to talk to their dead loved ones. Before my mother slipped into the coma and died she was saying over and over that my dad was there. Whether it is the brain doing it on its own or something else I am not one to say, but I see it all the time. I believe there’s a moment right before people pass when they can connect with others who have recently passed. It is called terminal agitation. You see people pulling off their clothes, pulling out their IV’s, and then pulling off their bedding. Then they start pointing and saying things like, ‘She is right there.’ It could be something with the brain, it could be spiritual, but I see it all the time, and I respect it whatever it is.
Tell me more about the difference between a good death and a bad death?
A good death is a person that has a lot of balance in their life. They have support, a loving family. They are well palliated, no pain—palliated how they want to be palliated, not how we want them to be. Just like life can get rough if you don’t have good people around you, death is the same way. Birth is the same way too, there are good births and not so good births. I consider Angelica’s a torturous death. She was rotting with her body until her mom got there. And then there was trauma in the body, and that trauma remains even as she passes into death. I have had families arguing and fighting over someone taking their last breath, that is a sign of a bad death. For me when someone takes their last breath there should not be a struggle occurring in the room. Death can magnify the disorder and abuse in a family, or it can magnify the order.
How can home funerals help families experience a good death?
After my experience with the Buddhist monk, I realized the importance of keeping a body in the home and giving friends and family time to say goodbye in that personal setting. Since 2014 I have been working with Thresholds, in San Diego, which is one of the only companies out there focused specifically on home funerals. San Diego is pretty conservative with regards to death, but it’s slowly coming around, although the funeral industry is fighting that. There is also a good company in Los Angeles, Undertaking LA, which is where Caitlin Doughty is at—I love Caitlin Doughty! There are many reasons to do a home funeral. For one, they are more affordable, and finances play a big role in a death for most of my families. By law depending on the state, you can keep a body at home for up to five days. This allows loved ones to fly in from out of town. I think there would be more home funerals if people were aware of their rights. Funeral homes are very, very powerful. I see the trend as moving away from them, but I see it moving slowly. Some funeral homes will offer home funerals on their website but it is their corporate version of things, you won’t get the holistic version that’s for sure. I believe American funerals tend to follow a format and can be lacking some of the warmth that families want. This is just my personal opinion, based on my experiences. Of course, a funeral is whatever the client wants it to be, and their wishes should always be honored.