Before COVID-19, funeral and burial arrangements were fairly straightforward—a hands-on process handled by an afterlife professional. But as we watched families quarantined at home with the bodies of their loved ones and New York streets fill up with makeshift morgues due to hospital overcrowding, we couldn’t help but ponder the truth of own mortality, dramatically shifting how we perceive—and care for—the dead virtually overnight.
While the novel coronavirus pandemic rages on, Americans are left with no choice but to prepare for what we will face in the coming weeks, months, and, possibly, years. “I think that people are highly sensitive to the topic of death right now, becoming more acutely aware of how precious life can be and how fragile it is,” says John Christian Phifer, a Nashville-based certified end-of-life doula and the executive director of Larkspur Conservation, a nature preserve in Tennessee’s Highland Rim promoting the revival of traditional, natural burial practices in designated areas.
Phifer’s work as a death midwife, or death doula, involves acting as a bridge between the person dying, family members, primary care physicians, the funeral director—everyone involved in the care of the dying individual. “We convey all of the information to the living family and those important individuals, such as creating an end-of-life plan, just like you would for a newborn. We create a death plan for the last three months so It makes death a much more hands-on and intimate process between the individual and their loved ones,” Phifer explained.
Rituals Around Death
As public health concerns postpone funerals for weeks or even months, how we traditionally say goodbye to our loved ones through burial and funeral gatherings has invited us to rethink how we honor the dead. Just because a physical gathering is not an option right now, doesn’t mean you can’t be in ritual and ceremony after a loved one is gone. Phifer suggests setting up a home altar as a memoriam to those who have passed or having a virtual service. “I’m currently doing all my end-of-life planning sessions digitally. I’ve noticed many funeral providers focused on creating a more adaptive work via technology, like churches who are using livestreams. We’ve seen a bit of that prior to this pandemic, but I really see an increase in the way people are creating new rituals, and letting go of the others,” he added.
His work doesn’t end with the dead. Part of Phifer’s work as a death doula involves supporting the living as they cope with loss and helping them to see death as a cyclic ritual of life. “As humans, we’ve become disconnected to the natural cycle of life, shying away from the topic of our own mortality. With the current daily barrage of news, it’s almost like we’re watching not only the growth of a virus, but also our death becoming closer to us. Death is a part of life just like the seasons in nature. When we disconnect from nature, we disconnect from ourselves that we are natural living organisms that are part of the ecosystem,” he added.
In Hinduism, the cycle of life is represented by the Sanskrit word Samsara. A precept of Samsara is maya, or the illusion of existing and behaving as if we are infinite beings. When we act out of alignment with nature, we are in disharmony. In order to achieve liberation or moksha, we have to return to a state of harmony, by accepting things as they are, rather than how we want them to be.
Ashtanga Yoga teacher Tim Miller says the concept of drastuh in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras gives us the opportunity to practice the art of non-attachment by allowing us to be the Witness or Seer to our own mortality and understanding our true nature as eternal beings. “The mind, the body, and the emotions are all part of the seen, which has only a temporary existence and is highly conditioned by our experience. If we attach ourselves to these things, wittingly or unwittingly we are inviting suffering because they will all come to an end.”
Phifer hopes we take this time in history to reconnect with the sacred. “If you look at how we’ve distanced ourselves with nature, we’ve gotten away from the historic practices that were so secondhand before the technological boom. In our isolation, we have the opportunity to tap back into the reality of what is, nudging us closer to the natural unfolding of death and developing a more interconnected relationship with it.”
4 Ways to Deal with Death
If the news cycle surrounding discussions of COVID-19’s death toll has triggered you into a state of anxiousness, here are Phifer’s tips to lessen the grip of fear.
1. Talk about it
“As individuals, our avoidance of death in culture and society has really complicated how we die. The lack of conversation surrounding the topic has gotten in the way of understanding and knowing what to do when illness arises or death occurs,” Phifer noted. “We fear that which we don’t know, so the first thing I always suggest is to simply bring awareness and give a voice to whatever is surfacing for you. Give yourself permission to speak about the taboo.”
2. Create an ethical will
An ethical will, or a Tzava’ot, is rooted in Jewish tradition. This document is traditionally written by the dying person in the final stages of life, serving as an opportunity to pass down legacy and tradition, wishes for their loved ones after they’ve transitioned, and appreciation for the lessons and experiences they’ll take with them. “It’s almost like a gratitude journal. Just that simple practice can ease us and calm us to be in tune and prepare us should something happen. Even if you aren’t towards the end of your life, creating an ethical will as a practice can not only help us face our mortality, doing so while showing appreciation and taking stock of the present moment.”
3. Go to a virtual death cafe or join a grief group
A death cafe is a community where people come together in an informal setting to discuss the topic of death in order to increase awareness of death with a view to helping people make the most of their (finite) lives,’ according to the Death Cafe website. “Most people feel more comfortable having these types of discussions when it doesn’t directly affect them personally. Death cafes are about disarming death in a way where we’re not avoiding it.
4. Rely on your yoga
Consider incorporating some yogic practices into your routine, such as a meditative kriya that practices the art of detachment from the body, adding more mantra meditation when things feel incredibly tough or a gentle flow from Jordan Smiley to help you get out of your head and into your body.
Join Monica, alongside Dayana Mendoza, Daniel Verdad, and Natalia de la Rosa for Honoring Dia De Los Muertos, a virtual celebration and re-remembering of our sacred legacy through the wisdom, teachings, and celebration of our Abuelitos and Abuelitas. Join us LIVE Monday, October 26, 5-7pm PST or you can register for the event until November 3rd, the last day of Dia de los Muertos. Included is a bonus workshop, called Decolonizing Death, on October 31 5-7 pm PST. Together, we will learn how to set up a Dia de los Muertos altar and learn about the specific pieces and why they are significantly meaningful. Then, once we decolonize our relationship with death and give ourselves permission to transcend to a better association with this sacred life path, we can truly celebrate and honor the legacy and divine remembrance of our ancestor’s purest essence. Register by clicking the link here.