End-of-life conversations are becoming more common as the overall population grows older. Usually, those discussions are confined to individual families. But two weeks ago, a group of Sandpoint residents extended the conversation to their entire community and made a week of it.
There was a time when talking about and planning for death was considered ghoulish. Some people think it still is. But Nicole Pelly says the topic is gaining traction. Pelly is a palliative care physician in Coeur d’Alene.
“Across the country, I think the baby boomers are really driving the conversation on the dying process because many of them are beginning to face it," Pelly said. "And as they’ve taken control of many other things throughout their lives, they’re taking control of the end of their life process now and they’re wanting to have conversations about that.”
Pelly and a few colleagues at the hospice at Bonner General Health thought about how and where to extend the discussion in north Idaho and they thought Sandpoint might be ready. So they scheduled a weeklong series of events in mid-October called “Conversations on Living and Dying.”
“So we said, ‘Let’s go to the Arts Council and see what the Pend Oreille Arts Council could offer into the framework. What could the Music Conservatory bring into the framework?" she said. "So we invited community members of all types to come in and it’s been amazing to see what they bring.”
I met with Pelly and Lissa DeFreitas in a downtown space that served as the project’s hub. DeFreitas is the volunteer and bereavement coordinator at Bonner General Health community hospice. The hub was a space where anyone was welcome to walk in and ask questions or talk about death and dying.
“There’s some people that go by and they look at the sign and go, ok, and walk on by. But for those that open the door and they step in and they’re greeted by our team, to say come on in, everybody’s welcome. Let’s tell you about what we’re doing here," DeFreitas said. "And one of the first things we draw people to is the casket and weaving the casket.”
Yes, “weaving the casket.” On one side of the room, volunteers take turns weaving thin strips of wood to create the top of a structure that looks like a casket large enough for a human body.
Heidi Hampe is a holistic health care practitioner who advocates for natural ways of treating the bodies of people who have passed.
“Five years ago, coming into the community, I was talking to people about green funerals and home burial ls and I could tell there was an uncomfortability around that, even in my own age group, which is the mid-40 range," Hampe said. "I started talking to them about the possibility of weaving a casket and what did they think about that?”
She went to people in a local group that practices what she calls ancestral skills and asked if it was feasible to build a woven casket. They said yes. One man built a base for it.
“We had locals harvest some willow and harvest some vines and some clematis and bring in some yarn, some wool yarns, different colored yarns that represented things important to them and we just started the process of allowing them to explore what it would mean for them to weave a casket," she said.
At time of its weaving, the casket wasn’t destined for any particular use. But Hampe says its presence sparked new interest in green burials.
Hampe is also involved in monthly events in Sandpoint that she calls “Death Cafes,” that allow people to explore living and dying. Organizers included one of these on the week’s agenda.
They also scheduled something called “Death Over Dinner,” organized by licensed social worker Ginna Moss. She says the “Death With Dinner” model has been used in more than 30 countries, more than 100,000 discussions. She says table leaders ask focused questions to start a conversation and see where it goes.
“Whether it be how you want to die or what life isn’t worth living or what are some interventions that you want at the end of life or what do you want to be remembered for?” Moss said.
That night she said she was scheduled to lead an intimate conversation about death with 80 people.
Sandpoint’s week-long discussion about living, dying and death could become an annual event. Organizers are already planning for next year and they may even try something similar in Coeur d’Alene.