Our Weekly Tip: A Cherish Ornament

You don't have to celebrate Christmas to create an ornament that can help you work through your grief this holiday season
glass ornament, fill glass ornament

Credit: refunkmyjunk.com

Our Tip of the Week: For those experiencing fresh or old grief from the loss of a loved one, the holidays can be a particularly difficult time to get through. Creating an ornament that can help you cherish and visualize your love for someone can be a comforting activity.

How-to Suggestion: You can buy clear empty ornaments at local craft stores (glass or plastic). Find small photos, lines of a favorite poem or other memorable items to fill the ornament. Keep in mind that the ornament, while particularly fitting for a Christmas tree, is not reserved for Christmas or even the holiday season: hang this reminder of your loved one all year-round to help you feel supported during grieving.

Explore other end-of-life tips through our Practical Tips column.

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What is an Eco Funeral? An Interview with Deb Cairns, Part Two

Deb Cairns of State of Grace in Auckland, New Zealand breaks down the home funeral experience

This is part two of SevenPonds’s interview with with Deb Cairns (read part one here) of State of Grace: Family Directed Funerals in Auckland, New Zealand. After her dear friend died of cancer, she was inspired to create in-home or family-directed funeral services that provide a “caring, compassionate and highly personalized approach to death care and funeral arrangements.”

Deb Cairns, home funeral, home funeral consultant, state of grace

Deb Cairns.
(credit: State of Grace)

MaryFrances: On a practical level, what are some of the cost differences between a traditional and home funeral?

Deb: Home funerals are significantly cheaper. There is no cost of embalming nor any cost of having the person transported and then stored at a funeral parlor.

In terms of emotional cost, having the opportunity to fully care for the one you love, in a place you know they would be happy, is huge. As is having unrestricted access to them; to sit quietly and grieve, to talk, to hold their hand and lie next to them…this can all happen at home.

MaryFrances: Have you seen a rise in the public’s acceptance and desire for home funerals?

Deb: There is a very slow rise in the numbers of people who choose them, and we can expect that to increase as they spread the word about their experience.

MaryFrances: What are some of the biggest fears and anxieties of your clients?

Deb: The most common fear is the fear of actually being responsible for the physical body of their loved one. Ironically, this is often from people who have cared for them for months at home in circumstances of much greater responsibility and risk!

We do our best to allay the fears, talk them through any concerns and reassure family that we will visit as often as they need us to. We have only once had to come to the home to transfer someone to our cool room – there was one family member who was not comfortable having the person at home, so the decision was made. We occasionally recommend that we take the deceased person with us if we are concerned about their physical state.

We will keep an eye on them while they are with us and then usually take them home after we are confident that there will not be any unpleasant complications. Sometimes, too, we arrive at a home where family are exhausted and often in these situations we will suggest we take their loved one with us just for a night, to settle them and cool them and bring them home the next day.

State of Grace, Deb Cairns, New Zealand funeral

The women of State of Grace (Deb: second from left).

MaryFrances: Do you have a memorable experience about your work that you could share?

Deb: Probably over 1,000! We experience something pretty wonderful with almost every family. With our funerals, we experience great joy, great sadness, laughter—you name it. But there was one family in particular, some years back: one daughter had given up her career to care for her elderly mum. When the mum died, the five sisters had to work together to plan the funeral and initially could not sit in the same room as there was so much bitterness. We began planning the ceremony, and they reverted to their place in the “sibling order” with comments such as, ‘she always makes the decisions,’ ‘don’t bother asking me’ or ‘they never take any notice.’, etc., and literally had their backs to each other.

Eventually, I persuaded them to come upstairs to their mum’s room to help dress her. There was a small exchange, a little conversation, a palpable thawing. We drew up a roster of who would change the ice packs on their darling mum and left. The next day, we gathered together again, and they excitedly told me about how well they had done with the care of their mum through the day and night – they really needed me to tell them how wonderful they were and it occurred to me that these professional women, in their late 50s, needed to be reassured and mothered! They had not spoken for over 25 years and it was their mother’s death that actually brought them together again.

Deb’s 3 Tips:

1) Do your research well ahead of time.
2) Find out who will be willing to care for your family and establish a relationship with them ahead of time.
3) Make key decisions, such as casket and venue choice now.

MaryFrances: What are some of the biggest misconceptions associated with death and end of life?
Deb: One of the most common fears is that the body of the person who has died is somehow filled with germs and could cause disease. Now and then, we meet a family who is afraid to touch the body of the person they love, so we gently work through that process too. People often have fear around having the person brought home – not once has anyone regretted having their loved one at home and we have cared for over 1,000 families.

MaryFrances: How has your relationship with death and dying changed since your work with home funerals?

Deb: I am none the wiser about what happens after we die, but I have had too many experiences over the past seven years to think that the body becomes an empty shell. There is a real air of peace around most of the people we care for, something sacred that is difficult to articulate.

MaryFrances: Thanks, Deb!

Deb: Thank you.

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Famous Last Words

What better time of the year to bring insightful quotes or laughter to the bedside of the dying

Screen shot 2014-12-18 at 8.27.36 PMAs we near the end of the year preparing our final New Year’s farewells, what better time to review Famous Last Words; Fond Farewells, Deathbed Diatribes and Exclamations Upon Expirations compiled by Ray Robinson, a collection of final farewells from the bed of the dying.

A precious itty bitty hardcover book, I have had a copy at my desk since the launch of SevenPonds. I refer to it every now and then for a good laugh or some SevenPonds inspiration.

“I knew it. I knew it. Born in a hotel room- and God damn it- died in a hotel room.”

-Eugene O’Neill

Beautifully bound, its retro feel harks back in time with a slew of great famous last words throughout history. As the cover indicates, the quotes are a mixture of humor and memorable words, most being from the flavorful 19th and 20th century. It’s the kind of book you casually pick up to drink up, or toast along with, each quote.

“You get on with your life. I’ve got to go.”

- Seattle Slew

Each page has a short description to both set up and spice up the famous last words, As the author notes:


Madame De Pompadour
Credit: en.wikipedia.org

“So here they are, the parting words of poets, philosophers, athletes, scoundrels, politicians, gangsters, movie stars, lawyers, soldiers, pilots, tycoons, and the condemned, plus a handful of epitaphs and eulogies – not strictly last words, I know, but too good to pass up.”

- Ray Robinson

Ray recalls after his father’s death, opening his father’s big black safe in his Manhattan office to discover only an empty Coca-Cola bottle, torn long johns and a piece of paper with a quote. He learned something more about his father and thus began his preoccupation with compiling this book.

“Wait a second.”

- Madame De Pompadour

What better way to exit life then with a good hearty laugh or a profound statement. And judging by the many famous authors in this book, this is a well-embraced idea. This would make a great gift for a person dying who is able to openly talk about dying and would love some good laughs too.

Be it exit lines at last breaths, this book is a gem.


Check out our book reviews here.

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Adventurous Wilson Mizner is reported to have said to a priest just before he died:

"Why should I talk to you? I've just been talking to your boss."
priest, man laughing, pope

Credit: stpeterslist.com

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Traditional Czech Christmas Dinner Customs and Superstitions Surrounding Death

An exploration into some of the Czech Republic's Christmas dinner customs and superstitions surrounding death
walnut shell boats, floating of walnut shells, Czech Christmas tradition

Walnut Shell Boats
(credit: praguemylove.blogspot.com)

Christmastime is a time for families to enjoy each other’s company, usually over meals. For those in the Czech Republic, December 24th is the day for their traditional Christmas dinner. Nowadays, however, many of the customs and superstitions are not practiced as often as they used to be. This is most likely because it would be very challenging to have to follow everything precisely, just to be able to enjoy a dinner together.

To add to the superstition about leaving the dinner table, everyone must depart at the same time due to the superstitious belief that the first person to leave the table will be the first person in the family to die in the following year.

These customs and superstitions revolve a lot around the fear of death for family members. Similar to how many people believe the number 13 is unlucky, the Czechs believe that the table must be set for an even number of guests. If it is not, then bad luck or death is bound to happen. Another one of the Czech superstitions during the Christmas dinner is that the Czechs frown highly upon anyone departing the dinner table before dinner is completed because doing so would also bring bad luck and death to the whole family. To add to the superstition about leaving the dinner table, everyone must depart at the same time due to the superstitious belief that the first person to leave the table will be the first person in the family to die in the following year. An additional superstition that the Czechs believe in is that no one must cross any fields after the dinner. Otherwise, he or she will die within a year.

kuba, dried mushroom dish, Czech traditional food for Christmas

The Czech dish, “kuba”
(credit: macromagician.wordpress.com)

When it comes to foods served at the dinner table during the Czech Christmas dinner, some specific foods are staples on the dinner table every year. Garlic and honey play crucial roles for Czechs to ensure protection and strength as well as guarding against the evil in life. In both cases, a bowl of garlic and a pot of honey usually rest on the dinner table. A main meal that used to be traditional for Christmas dinner involved mushrooms—givers of health and strength—and called kuba. In addition to dried mushrooms, kuba consisted of barley, garlic, onions and spices. Nowadays, people in the Czech Republic utilize mushrooms in a soup before dinner rather than eating kuba.

cut apples, stars, four-pointed crosses, Czech Christmas tradition

Cut halves of apples
(credit: pinterest.com)

Two Czech customs that are based around foretelling the future—particularly focusing on whether death will come sooner rather than later—are known as “the Floating of Walnut Shells” and “the Cutting of the Apple.” For the walnut shell tradition, families make little boats out of walnut shells and place small burning candles into them. The boats then float on bowls of water. If the shell survives the floating, that family member is guaranteed a long and healthy life. If not, bad luck will befall him or her. As for the cutting of the apple, all family members cut an apple in half (from one side to the other and starting with the stem) at the dinner table. Afterwards, the two halves are shown to everyone. The shape displayed on the core determines the outcome for the future of familial bliss. When the core is shaped like a star, everyone will reunite the following year in joy and good health. When it is shaped in a four-pointed cross, however, it means that one of the family members at the table will either become ill or die within the year.

Learn more about different cultures’ perspectives about death and the holidays here.

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On Serial and Society’s Fascination with True Crime Stories

What this podcast reveals about our obsession with murder mysteries
Sarah Koenig

Sarah Koenig
(credit: Meredith Heuer)

Before television screens were a staple in every home, people huddled next to the radio to hear the latest entertainment. These old time radio shows thrived on our curiosity about mysteries, especially if they were of the murderous variety. Serial is a modern-day version of this classic genre. The difference is: this story is real.

As Serial‘s narrator Sarah Koenig explains, the story of Adnan Syed and Hae Min Lee has it all. Star-crossed lovers defy their traditional religious upbringings to be together. Like most high school relationships, their love is tumultuous and passionate. Like most high school relationships, it doesn’t last.

Here’s where Adnan and Hae’s story takes a dark turn. In 1999, Hae Min Lee is found dead, and Adnan is convicted of her murder. It took a jury less than a few hours to send the 17 year-old Adnan to prison for the rest of his life. He insists he’s innocent.

That’s where the story ends, right? Well, maybe not.

There’s the matter of a strange phone call Adnan supposedly makes when he said he was at track practice. There’s his alleged accomplice Jay’s inconsistent confession to police. There’s a witness who swears she saw Adnan at the library when the murder was supposed to have been happening.

In short, there’s a lot we don’t know.

This is what makes Serial so rabidly popular among its fans. As Koenig digs through the details, the story only gets murkier. One minute, you are convinced that Adnan never could have been capable of murdering his ex-girlfriend, and 15 minutes later you are convinced he’s the only one who could have been responsible.

Adnan in high school holding a football and wearing a football uniform

Adnan in high school
(credit: serialpodcast.org)

It’s maddening, but that’s why we love it. Our brains experience a phenomenon called the Zeigarnik Effect. It says that we are more likely to remember a task that’s unfinished than we are to remember something that’s been satisfied. When you combine this effect with our curiosity about death, you get the super glue of true crime stories.

Murders force us to think about sudden deaths, our own mortality and human nature itself.

Death isn’t a topic we’re used to discussing in Western culture. We speak about murders in especially hushed tones. Murders force us to think about sudden deaths, our own mortality and human nature itself. What would drive one human being to forcefully end the life of another? We can explain specific cases away with motives, but there will never be a clear-cut answer to this question.

Adnan’s case makes no sense when we examine the alleged motive. The prosecution says Adnan was hurt after Hae broke up with him, but the facts paint a different picture. Friends claim Adnan had already moved on to see other girls after their breakup.

Listeners are left in a mental tug-of-war only a real-life Sherlock Holmes could sort through.

Adnan says he did not kill Hae, while Jay says Adnan absolutely killed her. Jay doesn’t have a reason to lie, but Adnan also doesn’t have a convincing motive against Hae. Listeners are left in a mental tug-of-war only a real-life Sherlock Holmes could sort through.

As the Serial podcast comes to a close this week, no one is sure whether we’ll get a definitive answer about this case. Everyone listening to the podcast wants closure for Hae’s family. The stakes are high. A truly guilty verdict for Adnan would mean the right person is behind bars, but if he’s innocent, two young lives will have been lost.

The one question no one wants to hear on the last episode is “If not Adnan, then who?” But life doesn’t always end like a crime novel. Sometimes, no one has the answer.

To read up on this case, take a look at this article.

Check out our blog post about how authors portray deaths in thriller novels to learn more about our fascination with this genre.

If you or someone you know has experienced the sudden death of a loved one by homicide, you have resources to heal. Read our interview about families coping with a child’s murder.

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