Friday, December 26, 2008

John, a Light on My Path

In the workshops and presentation that Nancy & I give based on our book Living Consciously, Dying Gracefully: A Journey with Cancer and Beyond, we often ask participants: What makes a good death?

The answers include no pain, time to say good-bye, finishing one’s business, having those you love by your side, being free of anxiety, and being at peace.

These elements can be achieved when one is dying of disease and has the time to prepare consciously for the end, as Diane Manahan did. Her extraordinarily good death is one reason her story is so inspiring.

But what if a person does not have that time?

Last month an old friend from high school, John Osnes, stepped off the curb in Los Angeles one night, and within minutes he was lying on the pavement, having been beaten up and then run over in a road rage incident.

How could his death ever be considered a good death? That is was quick? That he didn’t linger in pain? Those aren’t very satisfactory answers. I don’t know that there are any.

A sudden death may be hardest on the loved ones, such as John’s beloved sister, Kris. How could this have happened? How can one go on when everything is changed?

Quickly come all the arrangements, the phone calls, the obituary, the finances, the notifications, the reality within the unreal situation. In a way, the tasks help loved ones get through the first few days and through the shock, but not through the grief. That will last a long, long time.

I am grateful to John Osnes for a friendship of long ago that was more important to me than I realized at the time. In our small rural Midwestern town, he was a gay teenager. He bravely wore his hair longer than any other guy in Madelia, sang beautifully, played the piano brilliantly, but was harassed by his schoolmates. I was a lesbian teenager, in love for the first time-- with his sister Kris. For a couple of years, John and I formed an unspoken bond in our isolation. Once, over pizza in the nearby “city” of Mankato, we confided our sexuality and our heartaches openly to each other.

Thank you, John, for who you were . . . and for being a light on my path.
P.S. For more information about John Osnes, visit

Monday, May 12, 2008


Nancy & I are settling into being back home in Minneapolis. It feels luxurious to have the summer stretching out before us with no big commitments. Except for local events around Living Consciously, Dying Gracefully (like last week’s workshop for 100 Metro Area Hospice volunteers), we’re hanging up our book-touring shoes. We may go camping at Minnesota state parks, but mostly we’ll be home at the keyboard, in a hammock or on long, leisurely walks and bike rides along Minnehaha Creek and the Mississippi River. Life is sweet.

In looking over the entries of the past months, we realize that we’ve strayed from one purpose of this blog—news about what’s happening with the book. Sales of Living Consciously, Dying Gracefully: A Journey with Cancer and Beyond are slow but steady. We’ve been receiving a monthly check from our publisher for between $50 and $300.

More importantly, the book has won a number of awards this spring, including USA Book News Best Books of 2007, an Eric Hoffer Award, and a Midwest Independent Publishing Best Books Award.

But the award that might have pleased Diane Manahan the most is the WOW—Women on Writing—Award for Best Women’s Literature of 2008. Given that Diane was a champion of women and a writer herself, we think she would be thrilled by this recognition.

In addition to a $100 stipend, The WOW Award also included a gift pack. Nancy and I each received a pink tote bag with a baseball cap, a timer for writing exercises, and a shirt that say “Not now, I’m writing!” We love WOW’s whimsical website, devoted to the encouragement of women writers. Many thanks to Angela, Monica, and the others at WOW for the good work they do. It is important to hear women speaking in our own voices—in print, on television, in movies and politics, and on the Internet. Write on, sisters!!!

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Green Funerals: Old Peruvian Style versus New Mayo Clinic Style

Lima, Peru's underground catacomb human bone pits 
We are spending a week in Lima, Peru visiting Nancy's brother Jim Manahan, who is on assignment here for four months.

We’ve made the rounds of several museums and historic sites including the Church of San Francisco built in 1674. This church is famous for its vast underground catacombs containing the bones of 75,000 people.

In this first cemetery of colonial Lima, bodies were laid in pits and covered with quicklime to hasten decomposition. We walked past boxes with femurs organized in herringbone patterns and deep pits with thousands of bones and skulls artistically arranged. Hundreds of skulls are stacked on shelves cut into the earthen walls.

Another museum in Lima contains twenty-five-hundred-year-old mummies from the pre-Inca era. Given the arid Peruvian climate, mummifying was a perfect way to preserve bodies. Both the catacombs and the mummies are precursors to the modern concept of green funerals. (See our earlier blog, "Green Funerals 101.")

All this put us in a receptive frame of mind for an article we discovered in London’s prestigious newspaper, The Guardian. “What Really Happens When You Die?” features interviews with six professionals who handle corpses. They detail the procedures of autopsying, embalming, burying, and cremating a body--the modern ways of death.

Resomation unit, Whole Body Donor Program, Mayo Clinic, Rochester, MN
The most interesting part of the article is a description of an environmentally-friendly alternative to conventional burial or cremation: resomation. According to Dean Fisher, the Director of the Mayo Clinic’s Body Donation Program, this new technique uses “water, potassium hydroxide and steam heat to dissolve the body.” What’s left at the end of the process is “nitrogen, phosphate, proteins, amino acids, salts and sugars,” the basic elements that comprise our bodies. Fisher says that this “innocuous fluid” can be “safely disposed of or used on land as a fertilizer”! The remaining bones are pulverized, as in cremation. There are no toxic emissions like mercury released into the atmosphere.

I had a long talk with Dean Fisher at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, MN. A strong proponent of resomation, he seemed quite proud of his unit . This method of final disposition is not used outside of Mayo's whole body donor program and some veterinary medicine schools. Fisher did not seem optimistic that resomation would be widely available any time soon, noting that “There are only a few resomation chambers in operation in the world.”

Nevertheless, this environmentally-friendly method of dealing with our bodies might be the wave of the future. For more information about this greener alternative to cremation and burial, visit Resomation Ltd.

Hundreds of years from now, tourists may pay to tour American museums formerly known as cemeteries!

Friday, February 1, 2008

Green Funerals 101

The publication of Diane’s book has opened the world of green funerals to us. Although our book doesn’t discuss green funerals, it does show a home death, the decision not to embalm, a family-arranged cremation, and a family-directed funeral.

A green funeral is one in which no embalming takes place and a body is buried without any toxic material being introduced to the earth, such as that found in standard coffins. A whole movement has sprung up in the past decade that advocates an environmentally friendly way of handling people’s remains.

I have become more and more interested in this type of burial for myself. Becky is not there yet, and has told me that she would prefer cremation—both her own and mine! I will bow to her wishes, of course, if I precede her in death (she doesn’t want to think of my body decaying in the earth). If I go second, well, I’ll see.

One of the best, most comprehensive articles I’ve read on environmentally-friendly funerals was posted 1/16/2008 in the on-line Cincinnati CityBeat. It includes interviews with mourners, ministers, and funeral directors. The journalist even considers the circumstances of gay and lesbian couples, something I haven’t seen in other reports on green funerals.

I’ve quoted two paragraphs below to give you taste. The second paragraph echoes my brother Bill Manahan's foreword in Living Consciously, Dying Gracefully: A Journey with Cancer and Beyond.


“Die the Way You Live: Befriending Death and Planning for the Inevitable” by Stephen Carter-Novotni

When local chiropractor Pamela Tickel´s husband Will passed away in 2006, she was convinced that he should be laid to rest in a way that honored their commitment to the environment and a natural lifestyle. Will, also a chiropractor, was buried without embalming or a vault at Ramsey Creek preserve in South Carolina, one of just a handful of green burial grounds in the U.S.

“When we had a home birth 25 years ago, people thought we were crazy, and now people are very accepting and interested,” Pamela says, explaining that even though green burial is foreign to most, her paradigm has shifted and contemporary burial practices seem odd to her now.

For the full article, click here.