Making life and death choices

Knowing that your decisions for carrying out final wishes can bring peace of mind.

  • Wednesday, September 11, 2019 2:28pm
  • Opinion
Berneta Walraven (Courtesy Photo).

Berneta Walraven (Courtesy Photo).

We all want choices. It seems like there might still be too many people running for president, but I am pleased with having a variety of choices. I was also quite pleased to recently see that now Burger King offers choices in its Whoppers: traditional hamburger or plant-based burgers. I don’t know if you will live longer by picking the plant-based burger, but since you are alive now, I want to remind you of some important choices, regarding your life and your death, that you can consider today.

Unfortunately, stuff happens: You are in a car accident or lose consciousness after a fall. In these and similar situations, you can’t tell the paramedics or the hospital staff what you want. Well, who decides what medical care, if any, you receive? You do — but only if you have thought the questions through ahead of time.

A group of islanders are trained to help you prepare your Advanced Care Directive — a document that outlines your wishes regarding medical care and designates someone to advocate for you if you are unable to do so. You don’t need to hire a lawyer to make this happen. There are a variety of excellent templates to follow and free, on-island volunteers ready to help you complete the paperwork.

From both personal experience, and hearing from many of you at IGA and Thriftway, completing this document makes a huge difference. It gives you peace of mind that your choices will be communicated and respected. It also makes a huge difference to your family and friends, who are not trying to guess what you want in an already difficult time. Get the ball rolling now by sending us an email — and we will walk you through the process. It takes a bit longer than ordering a hamburger, but it is better, by far, than any full meal deal.

Another amazing choice you have, right now, is deciding what you want to happen to your body after you die. I know, some people say, “I will be dead. What do I care?” But please, do care. Your friends and family will thank you for having made this decision and taking it off their plate. And why wouldn’t you want to choose for yourself among the options?

Over the past few years, I have gotten to see some of these choices in action and also made a decision for myself. In 2018, my mother died and had written instructions that she wished to be cremated and her cremains placed in a memorial wall at her church. It was a simple process to follow and I was comforted knowing that I was following my mother’s wishes. What she had forgotten to mention was what to put the cremains in, so we used her favorite purse. Knowing my mother, she would have approved.

My father-in-law died this past spring and he opted for a traditional coffin and in-ground burial. Because he was a tall man, the coffin was massive, consisting of hardwood and metal. Throughout the viewing and graveside service I could not imagine the coffin ever disappearing. It was so evident that the man I knew was gone and keeping his body from ever disappearing seemed immaterial.

My wishes have evolved over time, based on my understanding about which methods are most environmentally friendly and have the lowest carbon footprint. Originally, I chose cremation. More recently, I wanted a green burial, where bodies are wrapped in a shroud and placed directly in the ground.

In May, a new option became available in our state that seems right for me — natural organic reduction, or human composting. Hopefully, there will be a facility for this process opening in Seattle in the fall of 2020. Katrina Spade, who developed the system for transforming bodies into soil and also led the campaign to legalize this option for Washington residents, will be speaking at Vashon High School at 7 p.m. on Thursday, Sept. 19. We are pleased to have her come to Vashon and hope you’ll take this opportunity to learn about this new option.

Everyone has their own wishes and beliefs that inform this important decision. I love the idea of human composting. It gives my body back to the earth and can be done locally. Maybe by the time I need to make my final crossing to Seattle, the WSF galleys will serve plant-based burgers. Of course, you still have the option of getting a hotdog.

— Berneta Walraven is a volunteer with A Vashon Conversation for the Living About Dying, a group that strives to encourage islanders to complete advance care directives and sponsors death-awareness events.

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