Before I die I want to share this awesome book with you

As 2013 draws to a close, we’re taking some time to pay homage to Idealists who’ve made a commitment to doing good across 365 days.

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A page featuring South Korea from the Before I Die book.

What do you want to do before you die?

It’s a question that can make even the most certain of us uncomfortable. It makes us reflect on both what we’ve done with our lives and what we haven’t, and forces us to confront our mortality. We won’t be here forever.

But artist and urban designer Candy Chang knows it’s a question that can also make us do something about all of our unfulfilled dreams and desires.

Inspired by a mother figure who passed away in 2011, Candy stenciled “Before I die I want to _____” on an abandoned house in her home city of New Orleans. Anybody who walked by could pick up a piece a chalk and make their personal aspirations public. The results were heartfelt and humorous—and the project exploded around the world.

Candy says:

At their greatest, our public spaces can nourish our well-being and help us see that we’re not alone as we try to make sense of our lives. They can help us grieve together and be alone together. Each passerby is another person full of longing, anxiety, fear, and wonder. With more ways to share in public space, the people around us not only help us make better places, they can help us become our best selves.

Knowing that there were vacant lots, campuses, construction sites, and more waiting to be transformed into community spaces around the world, Candy created a toolkit so that anyone anywhere could do the same. Walls that took months to plan and build started going up from South Dakota to Capetown to South Korea. To date, there have been 400 walls in over 60 countries. 

It was a beautiful example of an idea spreading. And people continue to pick up chalk and write.

This past year, Candy compiled some of her favorite walls and the stories of how they came to be into one book. It’s a breathtaking account of our humanity in all its hope, humor, sorrow, joy, and longing. I read the entire book on a recent flight across the country. Not even 30 Rock reruns could make me put it down.

Before I die I want to dance in every country in the world. What do you want to do?

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New card game brings death to the table

This week’s spotlight: all things death.

 

Can’t make it to a Death Cafe? Try talking about end-of-life issues in the comfort of your home with My Gift of Grace.

“We spend most of our lives avoiding thoughts of mortality, which means that when we have to talk about illness and death, we’re unprepared,” say the folks at The Action Mill, a design firm who recently produced a conversation game that encourages people to talk about end-of-life issues. Called My Gift of Grace, it’s part of the firm’s “contribution to the growing movement to unhide death.”

So how does this game ‘unhide’ death and how could doing that benefit us?

My Gift of Grace is a set of cards that come in three categories: Questions (“If you could plan three things about your own funeral, what would they be?”), Statements (“The worst part about being at the end of my life would be…”), and Activities (“Visit your local cemetery. If you see an employee, ask them what it’s like to work there.”).

Players use the cards to start short discussions with others in the group and to keep notes on; when the game is over, participants are encouraged to keep the cards handy as reminders of the conversations they had.

As for the benefits, the designers cite encouraging giving, better focus on the present, and increasing understanding, for starters:

Anyone can get the game and play it, but we’re designing My Gift of Grace to be given as a gift. Giving is good for us. Generosity makes us happier and healthier and creates social connections.

The game itself is just one part of the social support network we’re designing to help people get unstuck and have important conversations that can help us get perspective and focus on the things that are most important to us in the here and now.

Sharing how you think about the end of your life is also one of the most important gifts you can give to the people who are close to you. Letting them know how you feel about end-of-life issues can save them from a lot of guilt, trauma, and expense down the road in the event they need to make decisions for you.

Read more about the purposes behind and development of My Gift of Grace on The Action Mill’s Kickstarter page. For info about ordering the game when it becomes commercially available (hopefully this month), see MyGiftOfGrace.com.

Have you opened conversations about end-of-life issues with your community? Did the experience help get you unstuck?

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Seeing beauty in dying: Why volunteering at a hospice is perfect for this cosmetologist

This week’s spotlight: all things death.

On Monday mornings, hair designer Rose Stephens donates her time to help the sick at the Heartland Hospice in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

“If improving their looks with a haircut or style can give them a boost, then I love to help out,” she says. “While I’m there, I try and make them forget about their problems and treat them with the respect they deserve.”

A Milwaukee native, Rose has been doing hair since she was in high school. Having four sisters to pamper and experiment with helped Rose develop her craft.

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Rose in action. (photo courtesy Rose Stephens)

“I love talking with people and I knew I had a special talent early on,” she says.

Volunteering with Heartland appealed to her precisely because of this: they needed someone to make their patients feel rejuvenated and cared for as they approached their final days, and she knew she had a skill to offer.

With her children grown and out of the house, Rose wanted to do something meaningful with her time that scouts and soccer had previously occupied.

Now, she looks forward to her Monday trips to Heartland, as do the patients there. Though she considers them to be more than that—they’re also friends who have impacted her more than she ever thought they would.

“I visited my first client on her birthday and we all sat around and listened to her tell her story,” Rose says. “She was a little girl in the Holocaust and a survivor. Years later when she and her husband came to America by boat in the 1950s, they decided on that voyage they were going to forgive and not live life bitterly. She was really inspiring. I’ve never met anyone like her before.”

Drawing out people’s stories is something Rose is good at. The minute she meets a patient, she’s talking with them like she’s known them forever, putting them at ease. Anyone’s who’s ever been to her salon knows that the human connection with the hairdresser is every bit as important as the haircut or style itself.

It’s what keeps Rose going.

“Now it’s a part of who I am,” Rose says. “As long as Heartland needs me, I’ll be there.”

In Milwaukee and want to volunteer with Heartland? Contact Danielle Ferguson: 4658officestaff9@hcr-manorcare.com.

Do you know someone who’s taking a small step toward making their community better? Email celeste@idealist.org.

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How to slay your self-doubt

This week’s spotlight: all things death.

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Illustration by Jan Hyrman

When you think about why you’re having trouble getting started on or continuing with a project, do the reasons ever sound like, “I just don’t have any good ideas,” “No one will believe this is going to work,” or “I’ll never be able to see this through.” If so, you may have some self-doubt dragons to slay!

Check out these ideas and tips from Authentic Coach Samuel Collier on how to boost self-confidence and turn obstacles into stepping stones.

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While some of us are already living a life filled with confidence, many of us only ever fantasize about being sure of ourselves. More often than not, we are plagued by an annoying, nagging voice inside our heads telling us we aren’t capable of or worthy enough to do the things we want to do.

So how do we get over our self-doubt and claim the life we’ve always dreamed of?

The answer is by “growing up.” This is not the same type of growing up we all went through during childhood where our parents and schools raised us, taught us how to survive, and how to be good people.

This growing up is about reclaiming our childhood and our natural birthright of confidence and curiosity. It’s also about redefining our relationship to fear through the choices we make.

Growing up is a process. It takes time to transform from being a person who doubts him or herself into a self-realized person of courage, curiosity, and confidence. But this journey is possible, and it’s all about the choices you make.

Courage may come easy for some, but both courage and confidence can be generated in everyone. All it takes is the commitment to begin changing with small steps towards the life you want and building a state of mind that will sustain it.

We should first recognize that fear is a survival mechanism, not a character flaw. Most anxiety and belief systems are an adaptation to stressful situations we learned in childhood. So we just need to upgrade our systems. How do we do that?

1. Redefine all fear as positive.

Courage does not mean the absence of fear. Courage means being afraid, but doing it anyway. Without fear, life would be dull, drab, and static. Fear is a core emotion for a reason and it gives life much of its color. If we had no fear, there would be no potential for growth.

2. Remember that real fear has a purpose.

Ninety nine percent of the time the fear you’re feeling is a false fear, meaning one that is not based on any immediate physical danger. When you are feeling afraid you should gauge the likelihood of your worst fear coming true. Most of the time, you will see that it is unlikely ever to happen.

3Face fears gradually and gently.

Break down insurmountable tasks so they become manageable. Use baby steps and follow a schedule that isn’t overwhelming. A more gradual process will strengthen your resolve and I guarantee the sense of power you begin to feel will be enough to keep you going.

4. Become friends with failure.

You alone have the capability to start facing your fears, so don’t give up when you fail. Recognize that when you fail, it’s not permanent—it’s part of the process of learning how to do better.

Befriend your failures, your fears, and the process and you will be rewarded!

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Samuel Collier is the Authentic Coach, helping people awaken to their self-confidence and activate their hidden potential. Visit his blog and website, or email him at samuelbcollier@gmail.com.

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Try this! Devour your fear of dying at a Death Cafe

This week’s spotlight: all things death.

Death Cafe is not the title of a new heavy metal LP, nor is it the name of a restaurant where skeletons are served. (Well, maybe it is, but that’s not what we’re writing about today!)

Death Cafe is an idea, a movement, and a series of meetings where, according to its hub website, “people—often strangers—drink tea, eat cake, and discuss death. Our aim is to increase awareness of death to help people make the most of their (finite) lives.”

Jon Underwood of London got the idea when he read a 2010 newspaper article that mentioned Swiss sociologist and anthropologist Bernard Crettaz, who started hosting the first “cafe mortals” in Switzerland in 2004.

He’d already been at work on a series of projects about death, and decided to try organizing his own “death cafe” with the help of his mother, Sue Barsky Reid. It was a great success. The mother-and-son team began hosting more events and in 2012 published the guide “Holding Your Own Death Cafe“, which quickly spread around the world.

To date, over 3,000 participants have discussed end-of-life issues at 396 Death Cafes in Europe, North America, and Australasia.

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Death Cafes help participants explore all the faces of this universal event.
(photo courtesy Shutterstock)

How it works

The meetings are run on a purely voluntary basis, with each led by different facilitators and attended by groups of different sizes. Most meetings begin with a facilitator sharing what led them to the group and asking others to share their reasons.

The group might then split into smaller chunks to answer more conversation-starting questions like: What do you want your funeral to be like? Is there such a thing as living too long? What do you most want to accomplish before you die?

And there are a few ground rules that hold the concept together:

  • No one should try to lead participants to any particular conclusion, product, or course of action.
  • Death Cafe should not be treated as a bereavement support or grief counseling setting.
  • The meetings should happen “alongside refreshing drinks and nourishing food—and cake!”

As for what the experience is like, a few Death Cafe leaders and participants sound off:

  • “There was a sense of something profound being shared. A woman living with a life limiting illness who was quite ill but looked very well said, quite firmly and calmly, in response to one comment: ‘I am not JUST going to die! I am going to DIE!’ For her, dying was not a far off theory. It was much closer to home.”  —Josefine, London, UK
  • “Our last Death Cafe was wonderful. We even had a couple who didn’t plan to attend but joined us anyway. The man remained standing the whole time because he ‘wasn’t really interested in the topic’ but he ended up talking the most!”  —Merilynne, Ann Arbor, MI
  • “We often end up with a group interested in discussing more practical things like funeral planning or completing advance directive forms, while other table participants might be dialoguing about the spiritual aspects of death. Every month brings new people and new topics of conversation. There are small cards scattered about on tables and face down just in case the attendees need a question to boost their conversation. Did I mention we had not one, but two cakes?”  —Jo, Austin, TX

Is this piquing your interest? Look for an upcoming cafe taking place near you.

Also, it doesn’t take much to try hosting your own event. DeathCafe.com offers information, instructions, and support for new facilitators, and hosts a a “Death Conversation” section where participants can share experiences and info.

Sue and Jon claim “organising a Death Cafe is enjoyable, easy and life-enhancing.” Who knew death could have such an upside?

Have you hosted or attended a Death Cafe? Did the experience help you deal with your fears?

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How the Natural Burial Company is putting old ideas about death to rest

Each day, people like you have ideas about how to make the world a better place, but don’t know how to put them into action. To help you take the first step, we’re profiling individuals tackling issues that are important to them, one step at a time.

This week’s spotlight: all things death.

Cynthia and some of the wicker coffins and acorn-shaped urns which break down easily in the soil.

Cynthia with a selection of her company’s biodegradable woven coffins and urns.
(photo courtesy Cynthia Beal)

Two weeks after she registered the Natural Burial Company name, Cynthia Beal was diagnosed with cancer. Worried that she might be her first and last customer, Cynthia walked in the footsteps of future clients by writing out her wishes to be laid to rest under a cherry tree in a biodegradable coffin.

She never made it to the cherry tree, but she did take another journey.

Through the process of planning for her own death, Cynthia says she reached a deeper understanding of how being in the business of natural burials could help customers and families like hers through the somewhat misunderstood process of being buried in this way.

“I realized my friends and family knew what I’d meant about natural burial, but no one—not they or the professionals—really knew exactly what to do,” she says.

Founded in 2004, the Natural Burial Company sells biodegradable and eco-friendly coffins, caskets, and ash burial urns. Constructed mostly from wicker, wood, and recycled newspaper, the coffins are designed to break down quickly in the earth, returning the elements of the body back into the surrounding soil system and the plants and trees that rise above.

These coffins, woven from seagrass and sugar cane, break down easily in the soil.

Seagrass and cane coffins.
(photo courtesy Cynthia Beal)

As she slowly worked to build her business, Cynthia was challenged by the public’s general lack of knowledge about end-of-life options and rights, as well as by dominant end-of-life industry monopolies on distribution.

Many existing cemeteries and funeral homes didn’t know how to offer natural services like a vault-free burial with biodegradable coffins. They didn’t believe there was any demand for this, either.

Working as a natural and organic grocer for 14 years, Cynthia knew this wasn’t the case. She planned to use the same strategies employed by the organic food movement to promote natural end-of-life products and services.

“Because of my natural products experience, I knew customers would want to have this kind of option. But I could also tell that the cemetery was the main bottleneck to going forward—sort of like when we needed more organic food choices but didn’t have the farmers to grow them yet.”

Giving new life to old cemeteries

Supplying natural coffins was relatively easy, but providing natural graves for her customers was a lot more complicated.

The newly emerging natural burial movement needed more information about sustainable burial practices to get cemeteries on board for this kind of management practice. Cynthia partnered with the soil sciences department at Oregon State University to build the curriculum for a first-of-its kind online course focused on sustainable cemetery management.

By teaching current and future cemetery business operators as well as policy makers, she hopes to change the dominant narrative of cemeteries today.

Trees mark the graves of the dead at a natural burial site the UK. (Photo credit Cynthia Beal)

Lush, young trees mark graves at a natural burial site the UK. (photo courtesy of Cynthia Beal)

“Without knowledge, we can’t make wise group decisions. Without research, we won’t ever know the potential for cemetery pollution, or be able to compare the post-burial costs of buried materials, or transition them to sustainability.”

And what would a sustainable cemetery look like exactly?

“Not all of us value highly manicured lawns and sterile, wildlife-free ‘zones of vegetation,’ and we don’t have to do cemeteries that way, either,” she says.

So, more like a park with flowering trees and bushes instead of a golf course.

“Cemeteries are the places we go to honor the lives of others we care for, to remember the people who helped build our communities. Cemeteries shouldn’t be just uninteresting parking lots for the dead that get abandoned to the taxpayer someday.”

On death and dying

Ultimately, Cynthia hopes to change the way we think about the bodies of our dead.

“I think one of the main challenges for us is that we don’t really see death in our daily lives the way our grandparents once did. And because we don’t encounter it, we don’t talk about it,” she says.

Changing our somewhat squeamish attitudes about death and dying is also an important step to building safer and more sustainable burial practices.

“When we realize that we’re walking around in bodies that were soil before they turned into us—and that we’re just borrowing the elements while we’re alive, and that we should return them in good condition when we’re done with them—we’ll have come a long way toward understanding the real cycle of life.”

Would you consider a natural burial? Why or why not?

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