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Parting Ways

Parting Ways: New Rituals and Celebrations of Life's Passing

Copyright Date: 2011
Edition: 1
Pages: 328
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  • Book Info
    Parting Ways
    Book Description:

    Parting Waysexplores the emergence of new end-of-life rituals in America that celebrate the dying and reinvent the roles of family and community at the deathbed. Denise Carson contrasts her father's passing in the 1980s, governed by the structures of institutionalized death, with her mother's death some two decades later. Carson's moving account of her mother's dying at home vividly portrays a ceremonial farewell known as a living wake, showing how it closed the gap between social and biological death while opening the door for family and friends to reminisce with her mother. Carson also investigates a variety of solutions--living funerals, oral ethical wills, and home funerals--that revise the impending death scenario. Integrating the profoundly personal with the objectively historical,Parting Wayscalls for an "end of life revolution" to change the way of death in America.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-94941-6
    Subjects: Anthropology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. Prologue
    (pp. xiii-xvi)

    I opened our front door to welcome a procession of family and friends to my motherʹs wake on a brilliant winter afternoon in February 2002. Her last wish was to die at home in San Dimas, our quiet suburban oasis near Los Angeles. The doctors predicted she had seven days or less to live following her choice to end intravenous feeding. That decision came as a surprise to me on the evening of our homecoming from a demoralizing stay in the hospital.

    And so the countdown began on a Monday.

    Tuesday, Day Two, hospice arrived.

    It was Day Three when...

  5. Introduction
    (pp. 1-8)

    My motherʹs living wake inspired an exploration to find other families involved in similar parting ways rituals. That day, we eclipsed her imminent death by bonding together to celebrate her life. The social gathering turned out to be preventive medicine for all the ʺsurvivorsʺ left behind. Together we orchestrated the kind of deathbed experience that we Americans view as the ideal.

    Eighty percent of Americans wish to die at home surrounded by family members, yet only 25 percent of the 2.4 million Americans who die every year do.¹ I realize a number of factors stamp out this possibility, but the...


    • ONE Her Choice: Two Paths Leading to the Same Destination
      (pp. 11-32)

      In the waning last year of the twentieth century, I followed my mother through the double glass doors of Kenneth Norris Cancer Hospital on the University of Southern California campus. The wilting figures seated in the lobby assaulted my senses. Weʹd entered a departure terminal for death. I choked back my horror and threw my arm around her instead of turning to run for the exit. She made many solo journeys in her life, but this wouldnʹt be one of those.

      ʺThanks for coming with me, my love,ʺ she said. Mom appeared vigorous as she reverberated the lobby with the...

    • TWO Living Funeral: Celebrating the End of Life
      (pp. 33-59)

      In the opening years of the twenty-first century, my search for families participating in rituals that celebrate the end of life landed me at a natural starting point in West Orange, New Jersey. Marty and Zella Geltman, a couple in their sixties, captivated me with a new kind of exit strategy that centered on inviting their family and community to cast a shining spotlight onto life in the shadow of death.

      On the big day, Marty inspected the tuxedo hanging in his bedroom closet that Zella pulled out and laid on the bed. The occasion called for a regal appearance....

    • THREE Her Life Review: Reliving the Past in the Present
      (pp. 60-78)

      My mother granted my wish to return to England—just not in the way Iʹd envisioned. Our pilgrimage to her birthplace began the chilly October evening after Dr. Garcia breathed the word ʺhospice.ʺ I nestled into a rocking chair by Momʹs bed and pushed the record button on my tape recorder. Retracing her lifeʹs journey felt increasingly more valuable than moving forward at this juncture. We were in no rush to get to hospice.

      You often hear that when you lose your parents, you lose your past, which could explain my growing anxiety to learn about my roots and the...

    • FOUR Legacy of Memories: Telling Life Stories and Last Wishes
      (pp. 79-102)

      Elizabeth Vega, a life review guide and ghostwriter for the dying, invited me to a legacy celebration for a hospice patient in St. Louis, Missouri, around Thanksgiving 2004. Elizabethʹs mission of leading hospice patients on a tour of their past life to create life-story books for posterity and, more important, to rewrite the last chapter of their life, deepened my quest. I couldnʹt resist the invitation upon learning about her first encounter with death a decade prior.

      It was January 1994, and she was pushing through her contractions on a bed at Norton Hospital in Louisville, Kentucky, breathing in ʺone-two-threeʺ...

    • FIVE Her Season of Lasts: Traditional, Seasonal, Communal Rituals
      (pp. 103-122)

      On a still, overcast afternoon in November 2001, I noticed my motherʹs life cycle had strangely begun to mirror the annual changing seasons. The sun-filled days dimmed, giving way to longer, drearier nights. Winter, natureʹs end, and the rapidly approaching holidays sparked me to contemplate her lasts. We often celebrate a personʹs firsts—the first cry, the first word, the first step, the first birthday. Thoughts about a personʹs lasts are often reflections rather than plans of action, but if you knew, as we did, then logic or intuition told me her lasts must be momentous. How do you celebrate...

    • SIX Oral Ethical Will: Video Recording Valuable Last Words
      (pp. 123-143)

      The last words video recorded of John Marting, a member of our Greatest Generation, resembled an oral ethical will delivered to his sons surrounding his deathbed on a rainy afternoon in Irvine, California. As the clock ticked loudly toward his eleventh hour, he reminded me of a modern-day Jacob poignantly sharing what was most important to him, his regrets in life and how he wished them to live on after his death. I sat in awe realizing that here in the early years of the twenty-first century, John, a true man of his generation, short on words, shorter on compliments...

    • SEVEN Her Living Wake: Reminiscing and Farewell Party
      (pp. 144-159)

      On our way home, I stretched out on the front seat of the ambulance driving east on Interstate 10. The Los Angeles skyline receded from view. As the white divider lines blurred by, I contemplated the parallels in my parentsʹ lives and their polar opposite approaches to death. In my fatherʹs last hours, an ambulance crew entered our home. They lifted him onto a gurney, loaded him in the ambulance, and raced, sirens blaring, to the hospital. Isolated in an antiseptic chamber of a hospital, he died. Fourteen years separated their final days. The sirens were silent on our ambulance,...

    • EIGHT Vigil: Holding Hands at the Eleventh Hour
      (pp. 160-180)

      On a midsummerʹs day in 2005, Megory Anderson, a death doula, waited at Alex Cameronʹs home in San Raphael on the northern coast of California. Sheʹs not a medical professional or connected to a hospice. Sheʹs a spiritual escort to deathʹs door.

      That week the cardiologist had announced that the pacemaker regulating Alexʹs heartbeat had been recalled. The replacement would mean another surgery, a protracted recovery, and one good year of life. Alex weighed the twelve months of medical dependence that would take him to age seventy-six. Although he lived alone, home seemed like an infinitely better option. The faulty...


    • NINE Her Twenty-First-Century Memorial Service, His Twentieth-Century Funeral
      (pp. 183-205)

      Around ten oʹclock on the morning of February 10, 2002, two men dressed in black suits arrived in a white Ford Expedition from Forest Lawn. They parked their SUV in my garage and carried in a gurney. Before entering the living room, they handed me a stack of stapled papers to sign. My eyes blurred when reading the print. Essentially, I was releasing my mother into their power. I cringed when reading the line ʺCheck the boxʺ indicating if I wanted her cremated with her clothes on or off. Blinded by the sunlight bouncing off the white counters, I looked...

    • TEN Home Funeral: Eco-Friendly Way Out
      (pp. 206-227)

      The perpetual chill in my closet-sized Manhattan apartment waned as I feverishly typed out an email to Jerrigrace Lyons, a death midwife in Northern California. It was autumn of 2004, yet searing flashes of that morning when those two men from the funeral home whisked away my mother terrorized me. I had tried desperately to prevent consciously tainting the last seven days of her life by erasing her undignified departure from my memory. After learning that Jerrigrace, like a midwife in a home-birth, coached families in preparing the body for a wake and funeral at home followed by a procession...

    • ELEVEN Holistic Approach: Design-It-Yourself Funeral and Cremation Witnessing
      (pp. 228-257)

      In the still heat of July 2004, Barbara Kernan, a death midwife, and her funeral director partner, Eric Putt, responded to a house call in an exclusive neighborhood known as Floral Park in conservative Orange County, California. Barbara eyed the street lined with double-headed vintage gas lamps, wide front lawns, and driveways leading to two-and three-car garages. She was a long way from tree-hugging Northern California, yet she exuded the air of Mother Natureʹs daughter with loose chestnut tresses, olive eyes, and a saunter that swept the floor with her long flowing skirt.

      They climbed the stairs of the bricked...

    • TWELVE The Living Unveiling: Technology Innovates Memorializing
      (pp. 258-273)

      Instead of waiting for their monument to be unveiled at their deaths, the healthy Orin Kennedy and Bernardo Puccio chose to invite all of their friends and family to a living unveiling at a cemetery to celebrate their lives and their thirty years spent together. The invitation for this unprecedented event read:

      You are selectively invited to attend a very special event to honor the longtime partnership of Bernardo Puccio and Orin Kennedy at the dedication of their monument and red carpet premiere of the personal documentaryTwo Hearts,Two Souls, Sunday, June 11, 2006, at 5 p.m.

      Cocktails and...

    • THIRTEEN Her Truth: Finding Life after Death
      (pp. 274-294)

      In the spring of 2006, I instinctively returned to the place where my grief began to start a new life, like a sea turtle returning to her birthplace, the very same beach, to give birth. Nineteen years ago, a wooden cross washed up on this beach in Hanalei Bay, Kauai, the day my father died. I was twelve years old then. Now Iʹm thirty. I asked Simon to return to this paradise with me. Just as I remembered, majestic mountains covered in rain forest and cliffs gushing with waterfalls surrounded the pristine crescent-moon sandy beach. Gray rain clouds brimmed in...

  8. Notes
    (pp. 295-304)
  9. Bibliography
    (pp. 305-310)
  10. Back Matter
    (pp. 311-312)