Let’s talk about death for a moment.
You will die. Maybe not anytime soon, but the one guarantee life offers us is death. It’s comforting, in a way. Our world is so entrenched in uncertainty—politics, relationships, health, the environment, economy – that anything that comes with a guarantee is a relief, even if that relief is the simple fact that one day, we won’t be here anymore.
It’s a chilly day when my phone rings and a Nova Scotian area code pops up on my screen. My heart races. I have been a huge death-positivity advocate for the last few years, since reading Caitlin Doughty’s Smoke Gets in Your Eyes, and watching her web series, Ask a Mortician. I am nervous and excited to speak with Roxanne Walsh, a funeral celebrant and end-of-life planner.
‘Celebration’ and ‘planning’ are not words most people associate with death. Death is a sombre, subdued affair, and almost always described as ‘unexpected;’ something nobody planned for.
“Birth is the opposite of death,” Walsh states, matter-of-factly, “and so the fact that we were born means we’re going to die. I think it’s something we don’t think about when we’re younger.” I try to recall the moment, or age, when I first became aware of my own mortality. Am I actually aware of the fact I am going to die, or do I just pretend I am? “I asked a question at a networking event recently about who thought they were going to live forever,” Walsh continues, “and I was shocked by how many people put their hands up.”
Logically, we know we are going to die. It’s unavoidable. But in the age of ever-expanding technology, I think we often hold out hope that the secret to immortality might be discovered before we’re gone. When we think about the future, how often do we think about the future continuing without us in it? How often do we plan out what we want to accomplish in our lifetimes – how we want our weddings to look, how we want our careers to progress, how many children we want to have – without ever thinking, “What if I don’t get to do any of that? What if I die?”
Roxanne Walsh has a jubilant voice. She is warm and kind and very outgoing, and I can see how she would be a light for a family after the death of a loved one. She speaks like I imagine a marriage commissioner might: With joy, hope, and clarity in her voice. Our conversation is focused, yet still excited and fun. The tone of our conversation doesn’t give any evidence that we’re speaking about death.
Roxanne can’t stress enough that it doesn’t matter what your age is, you need to plan for your death. Her advice is to embrace the fact that you’re going to die. “Do the plans and get it done in writing,” she says. “You’re really doing a favour for your loved ones in understanding your values and what you want [post-death]. Don’t spring it on your executors that they’re going to be your executors.”
A death executor is your representative after death, and Walsh emphasizes the importance of choosing one and planning for your death, even if you don’t have any assets or you don’t have kids. You still need a plan to ensure that things will go smoothly once you die.
It was both an accident and the death of her mother, who didn’t have a legal will, which propelled Roxanne to change careers and begin working in the funeral industry. She saw a need for a more organic approach to death and mourning, and a lack of understanding about the need to be prepared for one’s own death.
“When I had my accident, I was struck by how fragile human bodies are, and since life is terminal, how can I help people connect with that reality and be better prepared?” Roxanne looks to her past work placements for her business philosophy in the death industry:“When I look back at my past, [I did] therapy work and approach[ed] healing from a holistic perspective. It was more than just a business practice – it was a service, and I do that now.”
“It doesn’t matter what your age is, you need to plan for your death.”
A critique of the funeral and death industries that often comes up is the ‘upselling’ of coffins and funeral services, and Roxanne doesn’t want to be a part of those predatory practices: “I don’t do any sales techniques. It’s really important to me to offer something that may be more fitting within the relationship the client had with the [deceased], and to offer something that speaks [to] their heart more than something they might find while shopping for services through more traditional channels.”
Roxanne doesn’t see her work in the death industry as depressing or sombre. In fact, she speaks about it with enthusiasm and reverence. Over the phone, I hear the voice of a woman who has found her passion doing what she loves for a living. “I love the opportunity to co-create a service with a family to go along with their journey in grief. I really find it satisfying to be there, [and] to be involved in the healing journey that they are on.”
“There’s so many elements to end of life,” Roxanne continues. So much, in fact, that she has written a book on how to sort all of these details out in a straight-forward manner. “The book is 16 modules on how to make it easier, and how to have these conversations with lawyers, estate planners and especially family. When you self-reflect and understand your own life and your own meaning, it makes the process easier.”
While Roxanne acknowledges how this process can help an individual have piece of mind, she emphasizes how this planning affects surviving family members. “When people don’t have their things in order and haven’t communicated what they want, it becomes a very expensive undertaking for the family to put all the pieces together. They can be easily manipulated in grief to spend more money and not stay true to the deceased’s wishes.”
Thinking about planning for your own death can be overwhelming, but Roxanne encourages people of legal age to reflect on what they want after their death, because it can come at any moment. Who do you want to be in charge of your affairs? What do you want your funeral to be like or to not be like? What do you want to happen to your body? Where do you want your possessions to go? What about your assets? Who do you want to take care of your pets and/or children? If you have a partner or are close with your family, can you do anything to ensure they have the ability to take time off of work to grieve and process? Roxanne’s work and books exist to show people that these things are all in your control. There’s something extremely empowering in that.
Buy Roxanne’s book and workbook, Planning for a Good Death, or contact her for a consultation on her website, www.roxannewalsh.ca
Published in the Fall 2018 issue. Get it in digital or print here.