The Healing Potential of Casket Construction by Cassandra Yonder

It was a thrill to discover the lovely work Jeremy Burrill of Fiddlehead Casket Co is doing to provide beautiful, hand-made, biodegradable caskets for families.  His products are wonderful!  I'm especially keen on the casket kit that can be delivered most anywhere in North America and assembled by families for their loved one who has died (see www.casketkit.com for more information).  

As an advocate of the community deathcare movement, I am passionate about reclaiming care of our dying, dead and bereaved in families and communities without professional intervention as desired.  Prior to the industrial movement, death was primarily a cultural event and most things were handled in a practical way at home.  In recent times, end of life care has been handed over to public health and post death care has been undertaken by the private funeral industry.  
As a society, we conspire to protect one another from the suffering that accompanies death by alienating ourselves from the practices that put us in touch with dying and the dead.  We have come to believe myths about legal limits and physical dangers about deathcare which prevent us from providing care for our own at the end of their lives and after they have died.  Unfortunately, alienation has resulted in a death denying society that is generally ill equip to cope effectively with death and loss.  
A contemporary "death positive" movement is burgeoning now, the focus of which is an attempt at a cultural reconnection with death.  It takes many forms; from a surge in advance planning, to "momento mori" art installations, to a growing profession of "Death Doulas", to a public interest in Medical Aid in Dying, to Green Burial and environmentally sustainable deathcare practices, to innovation around Funeral Service including an interest in DIY post death care.  It is this final aspect that reflects a growing interest from families and communities toward "Home Funerals" that is of particular interest to me.  
It makes sense to me that some folks are eager to reclaim the care of their own dead.  As a homesteader, we do most everything for ourselves, and handing over the care of our loved ones who have died to professionals seems absurd!  Our inclination is to care for our loved ones after death in practical and hands-on ways that don't seem that far off from other life and death matters which arise daily on the farm, which we handle personally in order to sustain a sense of integrity and connection with nature.  When our neighbour, friend and organic farmer Jeremy Frith died unexpectedly at home in 2009, our ability to care for him ourselves in community without professional assistance felt normal, natural and healing because it grounded us and gave us something to do as we were grieving.  
The benefits I felt from the practical experience of caring for my friend align in profound and obvious ways with my theoretical and clinical experience as a grief and bereavement support provider.  My clients find that attempting to hold grief at bay is rather ineffective and often seems to lead to greater emotional distress.  Many therapeutic interventions begin with helping bereaved people to fully realize that the loss has occurred.  It seems silly, but in our alienation from dying and the care of our dead, we cease to have any tangible experiences related to the death of our loved ones.  Bereavement has, in some ways, become an intellectual exercise because the practicalities are handled professionally by strangers. 
I believe that grief asks for opportunity.  The experience of bereavement is so different from one person to the next that I would hesitate to go so far as to make statements that suggest that "folks need to see their loved one for closure" or "everyone benefits from providing hands-on care of their dead loved ones", however; I am confident that participation in caring for our dying, dead and bereaved in a myriad of unique ways can offer an opportunity for meaning-making that can lead to healthy grief.  I think that visceral involvement with the care of our dying, dead and bereaved helps most people to process the changes that are taking place.  
One way to get involved with care is by taking part in disposition by participating in community centered post death care.  There is lots to be done!  Paperwork, transportation, body care, vigil, creating rituals and ceremony, making caskets, shrouds and/or urns, digging graves, placing headstones, planting trees, etc are all acts that carry potential meaning.  When my friend Jeremy died his friends and family built a casket for his body with his own materials in his wood shop.  It was an act of love that felt healing for those involved and the casket itself seemed to be imbued with care.
Many families have the resources and skills needed to build such things, but many do not.  The casket kit being offered by Fiddlehead offers families without construction skills an opportunity to take part in this meaningful and potentially therapeutic aspect of caring for their own dead.  I'm moved personally and professionally by how much this sort of doing can facilitate healthy grief.
-Cassandra Yonder www.deathcaring.ca

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