Tricycle: The Buddhist Review

Creating the New American Buddhist Funeral

Amy Cunningham at Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn. Photo by Bess Adler.

The last time death rites became a matter of national interest was in the 1960s, when journalist and civil rights activist Jessica Mitford dealt a heavy blow to the unscrupulous, multibillion-dollar funeral industry. Since then, there has been a steady pulse of distress over the idea of allowing businesses to dictate how we care for our dead. Today’s undertakers may no longer be charlatans trying to upsell fancy caskets, but as a service industry, it has failed to meet the emotional and spiritual needs of a graying demographic.

One of the most influential voices for reform is Amy Cunningham, who is working to bring dignity, reverence, and intimacy back to the end-of-life experience. Cunningham, who was lauded by The New York Times for her back-to-basics, family-centered approach, is a New York State-licensed funeral director and death educator trained in overseeing at-home funerals. Coming off the coattails of a 35-year editorial career, she’s emerged as an earnest advocate for making memorial services more hands-on, personal, affordable, and sustainable.

Tricycle recently cozied up with Cunningham at Green-Wood Cemetery’s historic crematory chapel in Brooklyn to discuss her latest pioneering endeavor, the New American Buddhist Funeral, and how methods and attitudes toward end-of-life disposal should honor faith-based principles, which will lead to more meaningful send-offs.

There is a faint but growing movement in the U.S. to reclaim the home funeral. What have we lost in the dying process that leads more people to seek at-home services?
We’ve allowed death and the whole dying process to become a medical event. In our communal sadness, we’ve become very insecure in hospital settings and often forget to think of our own wishes and demands, letting ourselves be buffeted about by hospital policies or funeral home pronouncements. Before we’re even cognizant of it, we find ourselves moving mindlessly along the conveyer belt that is the $14 billion funeral and death care industry.

Buddhist funeral rites vary significantly by region, culture, class, and lineage. Which aspects of these time-honored rites do you draw from?
[According to the Maha-parinibbana Sutta] the historical Buddha was cremated. When it comes to the Buddhist funerals I’ve overseen, there is an assumption that there will be a cremation. Also, most Buddhists prefer to wait three days after death before the deceased is transferred and disposed of, so that the one’s consciousness has enough time to lift out of the physical body [for Tibetan Buddhists, the period is 49 days]. This type of request—to spend more time with your now-dead loved one at home—shouldn’t bother funeral directors, but in practice it does make them uncomfortable. Most directors are so caught up in worrying something will go terribly wrong . . . they see themselves being pinned in a New York Post headline that reads “Dead body kept in house for three days.”

Related: Death Is Not an Emergency

Sensei Robert Chodo Campbell, co-founder of the New York Zen Center for Contemplative Care, recently asked me whether Green-Wood would allow families to take bones as relics for altar pieces, which is customary in Japan. In the U.S., we cremate bodies at 1,800 degrees Fahrenheit, and most crematories maintain a strict policy to mill our bones. In Japan, where funerals are almost always conducted as Buddhist ceremonies, bodies are cremated at a much lower temperature so that more bones are left intact. Japanese families will use chopsticks to remove certain bones once they’ve cooled. The hyoid bone in the throat, or zetsukotsu, is especially prized in Japanese Buddhist communities because it resembles a seated Buddha. When I wrote to Green-Wood broaching the possibility of honoring his request, they were hesitant, and seemed to think that grinding bones into coarse sand is a state regulation. I’m planning to investigate this!

Tibetans have traditionally disposed of their dead in one of five ways: earth and water burials, cremation, mummification, and vulture disposal. When Americans ask me for a funeral that closely resembles a Tibetan sky burial ceremony [during which the deceased are dismembered by a rogyapa, or “breaker of bodies,” and are laid atop mountains to be picked apart by birds of prey], they are usually inquiring somewhat playfully. I try to redirect them toward the possibility of donating to a body farm so that their physical deterioration after death can be researched by college students, forensic experts, and others who might benefit from the knowledge your body would lend. Funeral directors have teamed up with scientists at research facilities like the Urban Death Project, where they are working on the future of human composting.

Amy Cunningham at Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn. Photo by Bess Adler.

What might future funeral rituals for practicing American Buddhists look like, especially as Baby Boomers age?
Two years ago, I got together with my teacher, Lama Surya Das, to start thinking about what an American Buddhist funeral protocol might be—a ceremony that will combine, meld, or juxtapose Buddhist practices and rituals with more conventional American home funerals, processions, burials, and cremations. It’s not that there will be one right American Buddhist funeral practice. Buddhism, of course, affords families the freedom to choose the rituals or practices they want. There is no set “way” of disposition.

Generationally, I think we’re reaching a turning point. Seminal Buddhist teachers are getting older, so who will cater to these aging customers? Which Buddhist centers across the country might be willing to accept caskets and host funeral services? Why go to a strange place like a funeral home when the person we’re honoring has made a spiritual home in a certain community? Many retreat centers are concerned with the legality of hosting a casket when, in fact, there is nothing unlawful about it.

Coming from a 35-year career as a magazine writer, you’ve made quite the professional pivot. Was there an aha! moment when you realized funeral work was for you?
Well, there is a truer, deeper story, and then there is the story that I tell. The latter begins with the death of my father in 2009. We held his funeral at a Presbyterian church in South Carolina with an old-fashioned folksy funeral director. It was a small-town experience with a memorable service—there was a jubilant dirge down the aisle and bawdy Dixieland music—and I thought to myself, I could really be good at this.  

While I had that epiphany after my father’s funeral, grief had been an integral part of my life for a long time, which leads me to the truer story. I was born into a grieving home, and quite literally, into my mother’s grieving womb. She had just lost a 13-month-old son a year before I was born. My father, too, had experienced his share of untimely deaths. When he was just 12, his father, a convert Christian scientist, died of tuberculosis, and his brothers had been killed in World War II. Pictures of our family’s dead lined the hallways in my childhood home. Growing up in this kind of environment, surrounded by the living and the dead, had a profound influence on me.

Has working with the dead been an invitation for you to prepare for your own death? Are you any closer to understanding what it is that makes a good death?
I have always been interested in the idea of dying well. I remember watching my father go through the entire process, embracing death with such courage. He had many flaws as a parent, but he died courageously. Whether or not they are at my bedside, I hope to give the gift of a graceful, courageous death to my children and grandchildren.

My foremost concern is that I not be over-medicated, because I’d like to go into the process as consciously as possible. The journalist in me wants to be able to report back to others what I’m dreaming and experiencing during my final moments. More than anything, I want to be aware of my dying. Now that I think about it, I’m likely setting myself up for the same kind of performance anxiety I felt 23 years ago as a laboring mother giving birth to my first son. In the delivery room, I kept worrying that I wasn’t “doing it” right. At the time of my death, I hope to silence those chattering thoughts about not doing it right or well, and simply be free to die as I die.

I admire your religious eclecticism. You’re a self-proclaimed Kundalini yogi and Buddhist-Presbyterian. You’re married to a Jewish man, have sat on the board of Brooklyn Heights Synagogue, and have two bar mitzvahed sons. What does your practice look like?
I am a more faithful Bhakti yoga person than I am a daily meditator, but I bring as much mindfulness to my funeral practice as I can. While I may berate myself for not sitting in the sacred room I set up for the sole purpose of meditating, I remind myself that I spent most of my day sitting in a hearse. When accompanying the dead from one place to the next, it’s all too easy to forget they are there and let your life take center stage. When I’m driving caskets, I use these moments to contemplate and honor the essence of the person in the back. It’s an opportunity to refrain from letting my thoughts wander to my own life and problems. My job as a funeral director is to serve the deceased. My spiritual practice has allowed me to serve their families, too, encouraging them to stay fully engaged in the face of great loss.

Related: Tricycle Talks: Learning to Live Fully

Does the act of staying present as we bury or cremate our dead have relevance for all grieving families, not just those who meditate?
Absolutely. At a recent National Home Funeral Alliance conference, Frank Ostaseski, a Buddhist teacher and leading voice in end-of-life care, told us that it all comes down to the bathing of the body. Why release your mother’s body to a funeral director so he can bathe her and wrap her in a shroud? Families are now asking, “Can we do that?” I even encourage them to witness the casket’s entry into the retort [cremation chamber].

Usually, the first death in a family can be bungled; I’ve met with families who have had a few funerals and are pretty knowledgeable about what they want. The more you do in the event of a death in your own family, the more you will help yourself remain present to the reality of what has occurred. If you’re able to wash a loved one, comb their hair, feel the sheer weight of their body as you help pick up the casket, you’ll find that you’ve come closer to having real experience with death without running away from it. “When you put your hands on death,” Frank shared, “you learn things the culture needs.” I truly believe that.

What do you wish more people knew about alternative funeral options?
After a hospital death, you generally have three hours in the room to use as a family—you can share stories, meditate, chant, pray, sing . . . whatever your custom may be. When hospice is in charge, death is never an emergency. Take a breath; take time. You don’t have to lunge for the phone immediately to ask that the deceased be removed from the bed.

The unfortunate oversight of cremation, and something I would like American Buddhists to consider, is that our bodies are very useful, even after we die. Why use natural gas to burn away the soft tissue from our bones, rendering it inert, when we could surrender our bodies to the ground and nourish living matter instead? Green burials remind us that on a molecular basis, we are all one. By foregoing the trappings of a conventional funeral—embalming, metal-lined coffins, concrete vaults, lavish headstones—and opting for a simple shroud or pine casket, you can find tremendous joy without burning a hole in your pocket.

Conventional burials not only undervalue the potential of our bodies but also place an enormous strain on our environment. What many New Yorkers don’t know is that our backyards are rich with rural-yet-accessible cemeteries where a green burial is possible.

Walk me through a recent home vigil that you oversaw; what did it look and feel like for the family?
Last summer I supervised a Tibetan funeral in Bushwick, where Popo, an elderly Tibetan man well into his nineties, went to his daughter’s apartment to die. His last wish was to have a three-day vigil in the bed where he died. He seemed very ready, and it was as if he knew how to die. He had been beautifully cared for but hadn’t eaten in some time. His body had grown thin and frail, almost like he was trying to mummify himself. I remember noticing there were no “issues” with the body—issues being funeral parlance for odor, body decomposition, and other things that a Westerner would normally find repulsive. In Tibet, bodies are left in the home for over a month. I imagine the smell of death becomes part of the practice.

We held a gorgeous service at Green-Wood, where Tibetans from all over the metro area gathered—we even served butter tea and chickpea curry out on the lawn. You can call it personalization, but it runs even deeper than that. It is a bowing to honor who the person was and offer families what they need to take death into their own arms.

What are the kinds of questions we should be asking ourselves?
Funeral planning can be its own spiritual practice. There’s a worksheet I hand out during my workshops on new possibilities in end-of-life rituals that involves jotting down “kitchen sink” wisdom. What do you believe with all your heart? What has your life taught you thus far? What matters most? What is your credo? We cover everything from the practical (tips on running a household, finances, fixing stuff) to the personal (relationships, personal integrity, politics) and the spiritual (musings on what life’s all about, God, goodness, meaning-making).

You don’t need to talk directives with an attorney to plan the end of your life. Instead, take stock of where you are, do the preparatory work, and encourage others to do the same.