Preparing for end-of-life: practical implications
by Marion Van Driel
Benjamin Franklin said, “Nothing is certain except death and taxes.” It is true that we are compelled to deal with taxes annually. Death only comes once for each of us, though. So unless we take time to consider the practical implications of our death (and that of our loved ones), it’s not hard to avoid the subject. Indeed, many do. It’s not exactly your go-to topic of dinner conversation.
Two or three generations ago death was as much a part of life as, well, living. The inevitability of death seemed more prevalent, with grief more openly expressed. People died at home whenever possible. Loved ones prepared bodies for burial. People came to the house over a period of a few days to pay their respects and say goodbye. A cemetery in the local churchyard made provision for families to be buried together. Funeral homes were often smaller, family-run affairs. The end-of-life process was much more integrated with everyday living. This is still the case in many other cultures around the world.
Our practices in Canada today are far more sterile and at arms’ length. Death is a taboo subject for many who hold a ‘we’ll cross that bridge when we get to it’ philosophy. People often die in hospital, after which their bodies are transferred to a funeral home for embalming. This is also where, sometimes, grieving loved ones make wrong choices. In a vulnerable state, they associate the amount of love they had for the deceased with the amount they spend on the funeral. And with time pressure looming, sometimes grief-stricken mourners may not be aware of all the options.
Cost-effective, stewardly options are sorely needed – solutions that treat the family, the community (faith or otherwise) and the environment with integrity.
Partners In Care Alliance (PICA) was founded more than 23 years ago, to address ethical and professional issues at a time when funeral homes were being purchased by large corporations, and there was no standard code of conduct in the field. “PICA involves a number of care-giver organizations including hospice, hospitals, funeral homes, churches,” says a founding member and current board chair, Darrell Peregrym.
He explains that anywhere care is provided to those passing or grieving, PICA wishes to ensure ethical conduct, and caring compassion – so that no one is taken advantage of. PICA continues to influence end-of-life care throughout North America, setting a standard code of ethics and seeking solutions to the shortage of burial space and the ensuing (if unnecessary) price escalation of plots.
As a pastor, Peregrym often experienced situations in which the bereaved felt manipulated to spend an inordinate amount on funeral arrangements at a time when they were emotionally vulnerable. He believes that the church needs to represent “stability in the midst of chaos”, which is why PICA is so important in engaging the marketplace through servitude. It is about providing pastoral care for families in grief, walking them through options and choosing what is best for them, and to prepare all generations well for end-of life situations and beyond.
Partnering with PICA, Heritage Gardens in South Surrey’s Campbell Valley is modeled on historic church and community cemeteries; churches, ethnic groups and families are able to purchase a section of the cemetery for future burial of their community or family members. The cemetery is operated by a family whose experience with a similar model has been a long and successful one. Kearney Funeral Services has provided burial services for Vancouver’s Catholic Archdiocese, among others, for over a century.
Trevor Crean, VP of Operations at Heritage Gardens began working for his father’s funeral services (Kearney) at age 16 and received his license at 24. Referring to their partnership with PICA, Crean says, “Not only does it provide burial space for the community, but it shares with the community. It’s the ‘for profit at all cost’ model that we have an issue with.” He says that’s what they’re hoping to change with Heritage Gardens; their goal is to be a model for other cemeteries.
For a number of years, availability of burial plots in the greater Vancouver area has been an issue. The relationship between supply and demand, along with real estate prices has sent gravesite prices soaring. The cost of plots at Heritage Gardens is not set at market value; rather, Crean is able to set affordable prices by considering the investment to purchase and prepare the property, and future maintenance costs. In addition, part of the gravesite purchase price is allocated to PICA to reach their goals, and part is donated back to the church or organization for its members’ benefit, or to a charity of the family’s choice.
Reflecting the values of their clients and operating from a standpoint of environmental responsibility, Heritage Gardens encourages natural burials (casket vaults are not a legal requirement) to let the body return to the earth organically. Instead of focusing on long-term preservation, natural burial promotes decomposition of the body, alongside the natural materials housing it. This simpler practice saves the family considerable expense of purchasing a vault and allows families to reuse plots in future generations.
This year, Heritage Gardens will also open a green burial section (the first in the Lower Mainland), which encompasses the same goals as natural burial but as a certified process, involves strict criteria. “We want to act as stewards of the environment; part of that is educating the public on available options, and what are the conversations you can have with the funeral home to make less of an impact on the environment,” says Crean.
Both Peregrym and Crean emphasize the importance of education for any organization that deals with the dying or the bereaved. PICA is available for presentations to church groups or other communities. For more information visit www.partnersincarealliance.org. For information on natural burial, visit heritagegardenscemetery.com or call 604-538-0074.