Lee Warren on End of Life Transitions
At first glance, it may seem odd for a school originally founded around homesteading to branch into training for home funerals and death care. But School of Integrated Living co-founder Lee Warren explains that those two subjects are really just different sides of the same sustainability coin. For those reconnecting with the cycles of the Earth, it's just as important to embrace death as it is to learn the living arts of regenerative agriculture — both are part of the whole system that is nature.
"As we move toward a land-based life, we start to see that death is inherent in everything we do. We respect death and decay in the composting process and the cycles of giving death to animals or in the cycles of the seasons changing." Lee says. "As we get more familiar with those cycles, we turn towards the idea that human death can be sacred also, an important and even meaningful part of our lives."
To that end, Asheville's Center for End of Life Transitions has partnered with SOIL to offer its Home Funeral and Death Care Midwife Training course at Earthaven Ecovillage, June 15–17. Read Lee's interview below to learn more about the relationship between death work and sustainability, the concept of "death phobia," and the way Earthaven handled the recent passing of an elder.
SOIL: Why should sustainability advocates care about end of life transition work?
Lee Warren: Sustainability advocates are whole-systems thinkers. Part of the mess that we’re in in the world, with rampant poverty and totalitarian government systems and ecological devastation, is that we’re disconnected from the natural cycles of our lives. If we see that as a root cause of these problems, then when we start to really reconnect with the natural world and food system cycles, the cycles of life and death inevitably come as part of the package.
How do you define a "death-phobic" culture?
LW: A death-phobic culture sees death as a failure — as something preventable, rather than inevitable. There’s almost a magical thinking component to it, like if we talk about death or we put our attention on it, we’re going to bring it towards us. We tend to shield children from death, we don’t have death ritual woven into our culture in rich and meaningful ways, and we don’t necessarily involve the community in the process. The further we get away from those connections to sacred and honorable dying practices, the more foreign they become.
Where do you find the best places to start when addressing this death phobia?
LW: Communities of color tend to have more connection to indigenous and traditional ways of being: The Creole cultures of New Orleans, for example, really know how to combine celebration with death and burial. We can also learn from other, more intact cultures elsewhere in the world. The Dagara tribe of West Africa, which I studied through Sobonfu Somé, has powerful grief ritual practices, and a lot of Eastern cultures have traditions like the Tibetan Book of the Living and Dying that are woven into death rituals.
How has Earthaven Ecovillage begun changing its culture around death?
LW: Because we’re a residential community at Earthaven, we get the opportunity to get to know each other over such a long period of time. When our friend and elder Kimchi entered her dying process, she had a community of people who could really honor her decisions and support her. It was such a gift to have her let us in close, let us be of service, and hold her and support her as she declined and died. We were able to care for the body at home and have a home funeral as well. It was one of the most profound experiences of my life — there's some portal that opens into whatever we want to call it, the source or spirit world or the great beyond.
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
LW: I went to see the teacher Stephen Jenkinson in Asheville in November 2017, and he gave a really profound talk about end of life transitions. He said, “Your death is entrusted to you,” which means that just as you have this gift of a life, you also have this gift of a death. You can make a profound impact on your loved ones, community, and world around you by how you move into and through your death. It's about the whole community, not just you, and I really loved that. What are you going to do with your death? How amazing are you going to make it?
Learn more about the Home Funeral and Death Care Midwife Training, offered by the Center for End of Life Transitions through SOIL June 15–17, at this program page. Remember to subscribe to SOIL’s newsletter for the latest program announcements, sustainability tips, and radical inspiration.