DEATH FAIRE 2019
Saturday, Nov. 2, 12–6 p.m.
The Plant, 220 Lorax Lane, Pittsboro
abundancenc.org, $15 (advance), $30 (door), $5 (12 and under)
In a different setting, Sara Williams could pass for an elementary school teacher dressed up for a macabre theme day.
It’s Wednesday evening, about six o’clock, and Williams, a recruitment coordinator for a UNC breast cancer study until her retirement in 2016, is seated at the head of pushed-together tables in the middle of the Hillsborough United Methodist Church’s fellowship hall. The hall is a small, old white house, and she’s in what was probably once a living room and, before that, a parlor.
She’s cheerful and smiling, with cropped silver hair and a drawl that strings out words forever. There are grinning skulls on her shirt and silver skeletons dancing from her ears.
In a way, she is a teacher, just not for children. Instead, for the next two hours, she’ll guide the adults who are filtering in—carrying containers of muscadine grapes and grocery-store baked goods, placing them on a table against the wall that’s already stocked with pizza and wine—in a conversation about death.
The subject of mortality has always fascinated Williams. As a girl, she was drawn to cemeteries. In high school, she was told she was obsessed with death, which she calls a defining moment in her life. She and her husband host annual Day of the Dead parties. She became a funeral celebrant and a board member of the National Home Funeral Alliance. She believes that caring for the recently deceased is her ministry.
And in 2014, Williams, who lives in Alamance County, founded and still hosts Death Cafe Mebane, a gathering a lot like this one, except it takes place at a taco and tequila bar instead of a church. There’s another death cafe in Raleigh, which meets at a funeral home. The Hillsborough Death Cafe, founded in 2018, has met monthly at the Hillsborough UMC for almost a year, and a few times before that at a Mexican restaurant.
Williams doesn’t usually lead the Hillsborough group’s meetings. But people who work in the death positivity movement aren’t immune from needing a break from it. So she’s subbing for founder Neidra Clark, an end-of-life doula and, like Williams, a funeral celebrant.
“I know most people are uncomfortable talking about death—and it’s not just in the United States, it’s worldwide, although there are a number of cultures who honor death as a part of life,” Clark says. “I like to say you were born, so you’re going to die. None of us are getting out of this alive.”
Talking about that fact is healthy, Clark believes.
The idea of group-led conversations about death and dying has been around since 2011, when a British Buddhist named Jon Underwood started one in England. He died suddenly six years later at the age of forty-four, by which point there were nearly five thousand death cafes in more than fifty countries, safe spaces in which to question everything about death, including the industries that profit from it and the rituals that surround it.
It’s September 11, a fitting night for a death cafe. After Williams lights a rosemary and lavender candle to set the mood, the Hillsborough group begins, eyes downcast, with a prayer for those killed eighteen years ago and the families left behind.
There are about twenty people here, mostly baby boomers: home funeral attendants, death doulas, a woman who works with the elderly. There’s a former social worker who buried countless students. A man introduces himself as Coffin John. Several people are caring for aging parents and thinking about the day they’ll have to bury them. Most are eager to talk, though some shift in their seats, quiet and uncomfortable. They’re first-timers, not used to casual conversations about dying, even when leavened by frequent gallows humor.
Much of the discussion is practical, logistical: How do I write a will? What’s an advance directive? There are also questions of morbid curiosity: Why don’t bodies smell during home funerals? What’s the ice called that keeps the body cold?
You can buy a coffin at IKEA, someone mentions. A Google search doesn’t reveal one, but it shows a build-your-own model that comes in a flat-pack box much like most IKEA products (about $350, plus shipping).
Legally, a funeral home has to use the coffin you provide, Williams says.
Discussion abounds. A coffin from Amazon or purchased directly from the supplier will cost less, but in the fog of grief, people don’t comparison-shop.
We spend enormous amounts of time preparing for major life events—births, graduations, marriages, retirements—but the one thing we all know is coming seems to catch us by surprise.
Still more questions: Can Aunt Bessie be buried on my property? (Yes.) Do I have to disclose that to potential buyers? (Of course.) If someone purchases the land, can they dig up Aunt Bessie if they don’t want her there? (No one’s sure.)
If you don’t want Aunt Bessie, don’t buy the land, someone suggests.
In North Carolina, Williams points out, you have the right to determine where your loved one is laid to rest. And you can transport a dead body, though people get nervous about that.
“There is no funeral police,” she says. “What’s the odds that you’re going to be stopped with a body in the car?”
By 2030, the last of the baby boomers will have reached sixty-five, and the earliest boomers will be well into their eighties. Twenty-one percent of the American population will comprise seniors, up from 15 percent now, the U.S. Census Bureau projects. By 2034, there will be more seniors than children. Fast-forward a generation, to 2060, and a quarter of the population will be over age sixty-five, and something like twenty million people will be over age eighty-five, about ten times as many as lived that long a century earlier.
Two things are happening simultaneously, and both have profound implications for America’s future. The first is the boomers—and, after them, Gen Xers and millennials and Gen Zs—are making the inexorable march toward old age and the grave. The second is that the birth rate in the U.S. and across the West is declining, which means we’re not replacing people who are aging out of the workforce. That puts at increased risk programs like Social Security and Medicare; eventually, this will require an influx of migration to take up the slack in the labor pool or an overhaul of our economic system.
But that’s a story for another day.
The story for today is that baby boomers—a quarter of the country’s population, a generation raised on The Beatles and Woodstock, that fought the Vietnam War and lived through the civil rights movement—are reaching their twilight in a youth-obsessed culture that goes to extraordinary measures to deny death and aging, to act as if dying is a failure of medicine instead of a natural process that took hold almost immediately after the evolution of life itself.
But across the country—and in the Triangle—some boomers have chosen to face their looming mortality head on, to reframe conversations about the way we grow old, the way we die, and the way we bury people. The death-positivity movement, as it’s known, aims to teach us how to die well—or, at least, to show us how to talk about it.
After all, our stories all end six feet under.
In 1973, when Anne Weston first got married and wanted to cook fried chicken for dinner, she went to the store. She didn’t like wings or legs, so she purchased breasts. She took them home, tore off the skin, and fried them.
When her mother was a newlywed, she went to the store and bought a whole chicken. She took it home and tore the chicken apart to prepare it for frying.
And when Weston’s grandmother wanted to serve fried chicken for dinner, she went outside, selected a live chicken, chopped off its head, pulled out the feathers, and cut it into pieces to fry.
Now, Weston says, you go to Bojangle’s, order at the drive-in, and buy fried chicken. You don’t need to know how to kill and cook the bird, so that knowledge has largely disappeared.
The same is true of the dead. Even if you want to dispose of your deceased loved ones’ remains at home, you don’t know how.
In 2015, that idea prompted her to found the Green Burial Project, a Hillsborough nonprofit that informs people about natural burial options.
Weston stumbled into green burial when she was estate planning with her husband.
“For a long time,” Weston says, “I wasn’t fully recognized to the whole notion [of mortality]. I was just assured by my own life force that there would be an exception made for me. Let me just say that my dad, who’s been dead for twelve years now, also had that same assurance. It didn’t seem to work out for him, so I don’t think it will work out for me.”
The basics of natural burials are the same as those of everyday ones, except there’s no embalming, burial vaults or grave liners, and no impervious containers to hold the bodies. You put the body in the ground in an unfinished pine box or a quilt and let nature do its thing.
Ahead of the funeral service, rather than decorating with hothouse flowers, you cover the coffin with dried petals pulled from a wedding bouquet. Skip embalming and preserve the corpse with packets of reusable Techni Ice, which will keep the body cool but the skin feeling like skin.
Not everyone wants to touch the skin of a dead person. Nor does everyone want a dead body lingering around the house. There’s a reason the U.S. funeral industry accounts for about $20 billion a year in economic activity. (The average funeral costs about $8,000.)
Embalming is engrained in American burial traditions, a way to keep the body looking as if it is suspended in time. It’s been that way since the Civil War, when field embalmers spilled onto battlefields to embalm corpses so they could be shipped home. As more and more people moved into cities and died in hospitals as opposed to family homes, the funeral industry became big business.
“Why are there a zillion websites and references to being sex-positive and nothing for being death-positive?” Caitlin Doughty tweeted in 2013.
Two years earlier, the Los Angeles-based, appropriately raven-haired mortician-turned-death-positivity-activist had created a movement when she started The Order of the Good Death. Its founding members included the kinds of are-these-really-real professionals that you’d expect to emerge from a lazy sitcom-writing session: a mushroom decomposer, a grave garment designer, an international corpse explorer, a conservation burial pioneer, and a morbid cake maker, along with the more usual cadre of writers, professors, and forensic scientists.
The Order sought to bring death out from the shadows, arguing that “by hiding death and dying behind closed doors we do more harm than good to our society.” That’s also what Doughty tries to do through the Order and her own death-positivity work. She’s penned three books, her latest called Will My Cat Eat My Eyeballs? Big Questions from Tiny Mortals about Dying.
Her first book, the best-selling Smoke Gets in Your Eyes & Other Lessons from the Crematory, unsparingly pulls back the veil on the funeral industry. But in her morbidly funny way, Doughty also argues that readers shouldn’t fear their own mortality.
J. Dana Trent agrees. The year after she graduated from Duke Divinity School, she became a grief chaplain, earning the title of grief guru after helping people navigating their final journey. Her newest book, Dessert First: Preparing for Death While Savoring Life, chronicles that work and interweaves her own story of grief and loss.
“Whether because we view it as un-American, or consider it to foreshadow a ‘Grim Reaper’ tea party, most of us would rather die than talk about dying,” Trent writes. “The English language uses hundreds of euphemisms for death for this very reason—because we’d rather not even utter the ‘D Word.’”
Before her parents died—first, her father, during an estrangement with Trent, and then her mother years later—and before she was a grief chaplain, Trent was a kid growing up with two parents who battled mental illness. They had a hard time holding down regular jobs and became drug traffickers. As a child, Trent was dragooned into packaging weed into dime bags. Preschool hands, her parents found, were perfect for holding razor blades.
She worked on their assembly line, separating the seeds and stems from the bud.
“Blade up, handle down,” they’d remind her.
“It felt powerful,” she says.
She had a job. Her parents called her Budgie, and she was a lookout for her father’s drug runs. That ended—probably for the best—when she was six. Her mother left her father and took Budgie with her.
Still, she thinks being needed by her parents at such a young age led her to chaplaincy. She was valued, and she had to be attentive. She learned to be empathetic.
Most people in death care are.
Even before her own run-in with tragedy, Tami Scherwin—the executive director of Abundance NC, which incubates nonprofits in Pittsboro and strives to build a resilient community—understood how uncomfortable American culture was with dying.
In April 2016, a late-night knock on her door delivered the news that her nineteen-year-old son, Zafer, who was living in Colorado, had died of a heroin overdose. Scherwin’s community in Pittsboro rallied around her. Z’s wake lasted a week. People kept showing up, Scherwin says. They drove and flew into town from all over the country and the world.
There was laughing and dancing and crying. People painted each other’s toenails and used spreadsheets to organize Z’s funeral. Nine hundred people attended. Scherwin and her family dug the hole for Z’s pine coffin.
“There were hundreds of people there that covered him up themselves, and that, to me, was part of the healing,” Scherwin says.
Scherwin had already been exploring the culture’s death phobia. Abundance NC had hosted events about dying. Her neighbor was battling ALS; his family planned to bury him in a new graveyard on Scherwin’s family’s property in the woods of Chatham County. Zafer ended up being the first one buried there.
Scherwin thought she needed to do more.
That year, Abundance NC launched its first annual Death Faire. Six hundred people showed up. The event has grown, and Abundance has partnered with El Vinculo Hispano to tie it into Day of the Dead celebrations. Abundance NC’s fourth Death Faire, on November 2 at The Plant in Pittsboro, will feature workshops, DED Talks (i.e., talks from local death gurus), kids’ activities, vendors, music, and a cash bar. You can lie in a pine coffin for a selfie—probably after a visit to the cash bar—leave tokens or pictures of deceased loved one at an interactive altar, scrawl dreams on a “Before I die” wall, and sit in a phone booth to call the deceased and say whatever needs saying.
“We need to talk about these things,” Scherwin says. “There are so many people that I’ve seen that just kind of go into that denial or just act like this isn’t important, and I think it’s probably one of the most important things.”
The first person in Joshua Bujaski’s life to die was his great-grandmother.
He remembers the large white Virginia farmhouse on hundreds of acres of rolling hills, where she lived with his great-grandfather and great aunt and he spent summers as a boy. He remembers how they purchased him a plastic Fisher-Price doctor set after he reminded them to take their medications, with a light blue and yellow stethoscope and a plastic syringe.
Bujaski watched her die in a hospital room when he was eleven. He remembers how her breathing became agonal and laborious as her family circled her bed. He remembers feeling her hand at the viewing, how cold it was, and thinking that people shouldn’t die alone.
He became curious about death, but his parents steered him toward nursing. When he grew up, he became an ICU nurse, trying to pull people back from death’s clutches. But in his twenties, his world collapsed around him: He lost his partner to complications from diabetes, then his best friend to a car accident. His grief was deep, and he felt alone it in. He fell headfirst into addiction.
When Bujaski finally checked himself into rehab, he wore a collared shirt and slacks and felt like he didn’t belong there. His addiction did. When he got out, he knew he couldn’t back to nursing.
So he went to mortuary school in Pittsburgh. He wanted to help the bereaved not feel alone. This was how he could save lives: by having lunch with widows who had buried husbands, by answering phone calls from family members months after their loved ones’ deaths, by writing letters to the despondent, by confronting grief with compassion.
Four the last four years, Bujaski, now 37, has worked at the 115-year-old Hall-Wynne Funeral Service in Durham, spending his days speaking with families of the deceased, collecting bodies and taking them to the funeral home, embalming them and taking them to their final resting place.
When he embalms, he says, the stainless steel table on which he works is a sacred space.
“This is someone’s body that they used as a vehicle to maneuver in this world, and now you are given this intimate opportunity to prepare them and touch them,” Bujaski says. “The mouth that I’m closing is the mouth that someone intimately kissed, and this is the mouth that kissed the kids and grandkids. These eyes, what have they seen? These are the hands that touched and cared for someone else, and now my hands are touching and caring for them. For me, it’s like a touch to humanity. It’s our duty as humans to take care of each other not only in life and but in death.”
And when he gets off work, he goes to death cafes.
He wants to talk about death. He wants to help other people talk about the process, to answer questions. He wants to help green-burial advocates partner with funeral directors, who can provide transportation or embalm with environmentally safe fluid.
When Bujaski dies, he says, he wants to be encircled by his close friends, like when he circled his great-grandmother’s hospital bed and heard her last breath. There won’t be an obituary or fake grass covering the pile of earth that was dug out for him. His energy will dissolve back into the earth, consumed by the moisture, insects, and bacteria.
There won’t be a party. He wouldn’t want to miss it.
Comment on this story at firstname.lastname@example.org. Correction: Due to an editing error, an earlier of this version incorrectly identified Sara Williams’s job before her retirement.
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