Rehearsing your own death: not your typical night in Oakland

Becky Palmstrom practices her funeral.

Becky Palmstrom practices her funeral.

There’s a tradition at Alcoholics Anonymous meetings: everyone introduces themselves to the group and declares oneself an alcoholic. Last Friday night a small circle of women, myself included, introduced ourselves not as alcoholics, but as “mortal.” “Hi, my name is Becky and I am going to die,” I said as we went round the circle.

For the record, when I say I am going to die, I don’t mean (touch wood) right away. I do not have a chronic illness, I do not smoke, both my grandfathers lived into their nineties, I love my life and I take vitamins when I remember. No one else in the circle looked ready to kick the bucket just yet either.

We were at a three-day workshop run by Chris Zydel and Sharon Pavelda called a “death rehearsal,” a therapeutic workshop designed to help people envision and accept the eventuality of their own deaths. From writing our own six-word obituaries to plotting the details of our own funeral services to painting a coffin and getting into it to perform our deaths, it was not going to be a typical weekend.

Sharon Pavelda is a drama therapist who turned to Chris Zydel’s wild art workshops five years ago to come to terms with the suicide of her 20-year-old step-daughter. This fall, the women teamed up to irreverently confront the idea that they—and everyone they have ever known—are going to die. “We were both aware that it wasn’t necessarily going to be an easy sell,” Zydel said with a laugh a week before the workshop.

The front door at which Mortina DeKay knocked.

The front door at which Mortina DeKay knocked.

“We’re working to break down some of the denial” about death, Pavelda added. “Maybe it doesn’t have to be morbid and scary, but a celebration of life through confronting death.”

For the first death rehearsal that they’d opened to the public, they chose the weekend of November 6, to be close to the Dia de los Muertos celebrations and Halloween.

But who would be interested in rehearsing their death? Based on the group gathered at Zydel’s North Oakland art studio that weekend, the concept appeals to women in their fifties who have watched a loved one die.

Stella Allison, a 57-year-old California native and mother, was here because she has become frustrated with the American medical view of death, particularly after her father passed away a couple of years ago. “Watching him go through the process of dying was a real education in how we tend to feel like the ultimate goal is to fix people, no matter how worn out their bodies are and no matter how tired they are, no matter how ready they are to die,” Allison said.

For a 56-year-old hospice worker from San Francisco, who didn’t want her name published, it was the personal aspect of the workshop that drew her. “It was really wanting to increase my awareness and consciousness about what death means to me,” she said. “In my daily life or my work life, I am confronted with death all the time. It’s wanting to take time and an opportunity to reflect, not in my professional role, not as an observer or a witness, but personally.”

For others, it was a stirring awareness of their own mortality. “I had a little scare this year,” said 51-year-old Mego Johnson, who works at an affordable housing organization in Sacramento. “I got the lightest form of skin cancer there was. I sort of made light of it and then I realized that it did scare me. And it made me aware that I was going to die.”

And then there was me. As a 26-year-old journalist, I’ve reported on death, and as a granddaughter, I’ve lived through it. But my parents are still very much alive and I have never had a close friend die. Cultural understandings of death fascinate me, but there is a difference between contemplating death as an abstract concept and facing my own mortality.

Pavelda and Zydel had offered to let me write about their workshop if I was willing to fully participate in it. In the days before the workshop, I joked with friends about my fear of having a spiritual crisis in the midst of the weekend.

I was only half-joking.

*****

On the first night of the workshop, Pavelda picked me up near the Lake Merrritt BART station and whisked me to the well-worn Victorian that is Zydel’s studio. The house has a personality of its own, absorbing treasures the way plants absorb sunlight. An overweight pumpkin sat on the front steps and as we leaped out of the car a sprinkling of rain chilled us. A painted skull on the door grinned “Welcome to the Death Rehearsal” and golden light fell out into the night from the doorway.

Sunday afternoon and the wreckage of six rehearsed funerals.
Sunday afternoon and the wreckage of six rehearsed funerals.

“Good evening, sweetie!” called Zydel, offering me a hug of the all-engulfing variety. The kettle had just boiled and row upon row of herbal teas waited alongside bowls of voluptuous grapes and chocolate-covered pretzels. The other women, gathered in the hallway, were making small talk.

Pavelda invited us into the living room, which was all cushions, patchwork quilts and sofas that consume their occupants. The room was like one of those shoeboxes children fill with their most precious trinkets: seashells and stones with pretty swirls, fresh flowers, pottery.

There’s a warmth about both Zydel and Pavelda, vital for jobs like theirs. Zydel’s white hair is smartly cut at shoulder length, and she is the taller of the two. Pavelda’s hair has a white streak from the crown of her forehead; her eyes are iridescent and in certain lights turn a haunting blue. Both are quick to laugh and to listen; Zydel listens with her whole neck and shoulders and laughs loudly, while Pavelda listens with her eyes and laughs in delighted spurts.

Zydel is originally from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; she moved to California when she was 24. She trained as a counselor and psychotherapist in her twenties before discovering the therapeutic power of art in her thirties. She studied the expressive arts, which she describes as “art without thinking, planning or having a goal.”

“The focus is on the process of creative self-expression and not on the completed creative product or outcome,” Zydel explains. “It’s art that comes from the deep self, the soul, the unconscious and the dreamtime. ”

Pavelda was born in Ohio, then moved with her family to Arizona and then on to Seattle where she met her husband. Her background is in special education. She wrote and performed monologues throughout her twenties, before learning about using expressive art for therapy. “When I went into training as an expressive art therapist, I knew I didn’t want to see clients in the traditional way,” she said. “I knew it had something to do with performance.” She has forged a career that involves playing “characters” that help people engage with parts of themselves they don’t usually express.

I had certainly never expressed what it would be like to confront my own death, and by the look of the other participants that Friday night, neither had anyone else. There was a moment of discomfort as we mingled in the living room, fidgeting as we talked about the weather, not looking each other in the eyes.

The alter of objects brought by the participants.
The altar of objects brought by the participants.

Pavelda sensed the mood and invited everyone to take a seat. She gave a brief welcome speech that highlighted how rehearsing death might in fact help us to live more fully and about how glad she was that we were all there, before steering the group into our Alcoholics Anonymous exercise and a game that seemed designed to make a journalist crazy. Each person began their story with “I could tell you about…” and mentioned a few choice words—but no one could finish because the game insists you move around the circle continuously. Each tantalizing half-story was interspersed with declarations that “I am going to die.”

I’d never before had an occasion to speak those particular words in that particular order. My voice turned squeaky and high. I felt a strong desire to throw salt over my shoulder and douse myself in four-leaf clover and lucky heather. But, Zydel said, this was precisely the point.

“I was hoping to bring death out of the closet,” she said. “It’s one of those subjects that’s really taboo—we don’t talk about death, because it feels like it’s not something that you should talk about in polite society. The only time it ever gets talked about is at a funeral or when someone is actually dying.”

Next, we were each invited to light a large church candle on an altar of dried leaves and brightly-painted skulls and bones. Each of us had previously been given a list of “things to bring,” ranging from our own shroud to a death plan laying out our funeral’s details to a plate of food that one would bring to a family in mourning. Also on the list: an item to put on the altar. Most of the women had brought smiling photos of the dead—grandparents, parents, friends, children, pets. My item was a photograph of a monk.

The photo of a monk stood in front of the monastery he is trying to re-build. Picture by Christopher Davy (www.christopherdavy.com)
The photo of a monk standing in front of the monastery he is trying to re-build. Picture by Christopher Davy (www.christopherdavy.com)

I met him last year when I was living in Myanmar, sometimes known as Burma. When Cyclone Nargis struck in May, a fifteen-foot tidal surge swept homes, livestock and family members out to sea. People clung to the tops of the coconut trees to survive; the storm often ripped their clothes from their backs leaving them literally with nothing. Some 138,000 people, mostly women and children, are thought to have died in a single night. Altogether some 2.4 million people’s lives were upended by the storm.

I met the monk on an outcrop of land that had been stripped bare of plants and foliage by the force of the wind and the sea surge. The sky was bluer and bleaker then anywhere I have ever been. I could count his possessions on two hands: his saffron-red Buddhist robe, a plastic tarpaulin sheet given to him by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, a plate of chilies drying in the sun, a small bag of rice and two bananas, which he tried to give to me. He was visiting a nearby village when the cyclone struck. Upon returning to his monastery there was nothing left; all but two of the 97 monks had been swept away.

In the photograph the monk is standing before the skeleton of the monastery he is rebuilding; the driftwood structure looks as flimsy as the tarpaulin sheet under which he slept. He spoke about death as though it was just a door behind which all his friends were waiting. In Myanmar last year, talking about death was not just normal but impossible to avoid; literally, as bodies clogged the rivers in the Irrawaddy delta, and psychologically, as communities wrestled with what happens when half your village or your family passes away.

Secretly I think I hoped a death rehearsal might help me understand why the deaths in Myanmar last year were so sudden, unfair and full of suffering.

*****

Zydel and Pavelda are realistic about what the workshop offers; they make no promises of concrete answers, but rather offer a space in which it is safe to pose questions.

“Death brings us face-to-face with those questions that we don’t know how to ask because we don’t know how to answer them,” Zydel said. “The only thing we can do is cry and grieve and allow the transformation to happen.”

Dinner is served. Each member of the workshop brought a dish they would give to a grieving family.
Dinner is served. Each member of the workshop brought a dish they would give to a grieving family.

The idea of collectively rehearsing one’s death, she says “is just an attempt to approach the mystery of it with some questions, with some art, with some camaraderie, with some good food and with laughter.”

Art, of course, is what brought these two women together. They met in 2001, but their friendship took on special significance when two years later Pavelda moved to California to be closer to Zydel’s studio to seek solace after her step-daughter’s suicide. She says during that period she did nothing but “paint and paint and paint my grief.”

“I was looking for a way of unclenching my spirit, and reaching those things that are too deep to speak,” she said. She sees art as a tool for facing incomprehensible realities like death. “Embracing impermanence is a huge part of art,” she said. “That sense of legacy and of what is left when we’re gone.”

Pavelda first came across the idea of rehearsing death 15 years ago when she heard of a 90-year-old man who insisted on practicing his funeral with friends and family every year on his birthday. He rehearsed his funeral four times before he died. When his last funeral took place his loved ones said they knew they would get it right, Pavelda said.

Since then, Pavelda has run various “purple tea parties” or “purple passages” where people are invited to dress up at the table, drink purple grape juice and embody a character that they choose, as well as role-play with characters Pavelda constructs and acts out. Purple or lavender was the second color of mourning in the Victorian age, but the tea parties are not as much about death as they are about allowing people to interact with Pavelda’s characters. “These characters come forth out of very meditative places in me, from my own angst and deepest questioning and they lead me very organically into offering specific opportunities for people to play, to deep play with them,” she said.

Three years ago, she invited a select group of friends to rehearse their own deaths; the experience was so powerful, she says, that she wondered if it could be replicated by a group of relative strangers. She felt that other people would be hungry for a new way of understanding their own deaths: As the Baby Boomers reach old age, Pavelda thinks they are going to change the way death is experienced in America.

“It’s somehow seen as un-American to get old,” Pavelda said. “There’s all these products to make you forever young. But death is one of the few certainties, and how many preparatory exercises are offered for us?”

The white coffin in the front studio, before we began painting.
The white coffin in the front studio, before we began painting.

Let us be clear: At this workshop, preparation means painting a coffin and climbing inside. “What’s the most powerful symbol when people think about death?” Zydel asked. “The thing that would scare the bejeezus out of people would be getting into a casket.”

But can we ever really rehearse for death? The people in the Irrawaddy delta certainly had no preparation. Is a “death rehearsal” workshop just a valiant but futile attempt to control something that, by its very essence, is uncontrollable?

“Of course you really can’t rehearse for death,” Zydel said. “The experience itself is so much beyond what you can really plan for. But the workshop is an attempt to try and approach something on a symbolic and emotional level, with a little bit more consciousness and awareness, in a spirit of exploration. The whole point of the workshop is how to live, not how to die.”

It’s a subtlety not lost on the workshop’s participants. “‘Death rehearsal’ may not be a very good name for it,” mused Allison, who pointed out that there are limits on how well one can control the circumstances of their death. “It’s more a process of playing and exploring issues of death and dying.”

Stella Allison's summer fruit pie. The crust forms the words R.I.P.
Stella Allison’s summer fruit pie. The crust forms the words R.I.P.

Like several of the others, for Allison attending the death rehearsal was also an acknowledgment of another uncontrollable natural force—the aging of her body. “For me,” she said, “just the process of being in a female body and going through menopause two years ago, that’s a huge letting-go process. It’s not so much the issue of fertility, but watching my body start to deteriorate makes me confront that process.”

Zydel and Pavelda are both influenced by the “good death” movement, which aims to make death more intimate for the dying and their loved ones, despite a medical and funeral industry that can make death seem clinical and abstract. The movement’s supporters do not believe in medical treatment at all costs, focusing instead on the quality of the final moments of someone’s life. Similarly, the hospice movement, which began in the United Kingdom in the 1960s, works to support people who prefer to die in their homes. Its supporters originally set out to reject the use of “all possible means” of medical treatment to save someone no matter how ill they have become.

Many supporters of the good death movement also embrace home burials, which allow people to decide how they wish to be cremated or buried and, like home births, allow important life passages—both the death itself and later burial—to happen amongst family and in familiar surroundings.

“It’s about bringing back the intimacy, bringing back the experience of being with your dead, washing the body of your loved one and dressing them and have them in your home,” Zydel said. “That’s the way that people in the world have done it for forever. The corporatization and commercialization is so new. It’s one of the reasons people can go into denial about death.”

For Stella Allison, this disconnect between what family and doctors sometimes want resonated with her when her father was dying. “He got the message over and over again that it was wrong for him to just give up. The medical profession told him to submit himself to this test and that test,” she said. “They are in the business of fixing people—and at what point do you stop trying to fix people? The message over and over again: If you give up, if you stop struggling to be fixed, then there’s something wrong with you.

“There’s a kind of violence about it against the human body in the name of saving it,” she continued. “I mean, what is saving it?”

*****

It was Saturday afternoon and we had been asked to sit and meditate, but we could hear shuffling and moving noises coming from upstairs. When we came out into the hallway, an enormous white coffin stood at the top of the staircase.

With a certain ceremony mixed with clumsiness, the four of us at the foot of the stairs stretched up our hands and carried the coffin into the front room. Sunshine poured through the front windows and across walls that were covered in paint. The white coffin took center stage, its lid leaning against one of the brightly enflamed walls. There was no mistaking that this box was meant for a human being to lie inside. Tomorrow, we would each take our turn in it.

A bowl of shells and beads to be stuck onto the creative art-work.
A bowl of shells and beads to be stuck onto the creative art-work.

Zydel explained that we would all be painting the coffin and so it belonged to all of us. She pointed out the glue gun, the tiles for mosaics, the hundreds of different sized brushes, the palettes for mixing, the box of old magazines for scrap-booking and the whole rainbow of acrylic colors laid out in the hallway.

We would paint in silence, she said. It’s a meditative approach, she believes, that helps bring attention to one’s inner feelings and intuition, without the distractions of conversation.

For Johnson, who has attended Zydel’s other kinds of art therapy workshops for 15 years, the silence is an important part of the workshop. “It makes it safe,” she said. “And when you’re silent like that, we are engaged in the creative process, next to each other and bumping into each other, we’re communicating in a completely different way.”

One by one we slowly moved away from the box to fetch our first mix of paint. We returned to wander around the outside to decide which would be each person’s spot. The vast empty canvas intimidated me.

“I was actually surprised I was a little bit scared to paint it,” Johnson said, about the moment of first raising brush to cardboard. “It was a different kind of fear [than the fear] of a blank sheet of paper. We’re painting this sacred thing, we’re painting something profound. With all these wishes and journeys and faiths and myths and all that stuff … it became more like a boat than a coffin.”

Chris Zydel paints the inside of the coffin.
Chris Zydel paints the inside of the coffin.

It was only when the stereo was turned on that I first put my paintbrush to the white surface of the crate. Rushing, joyful music sang out from the stereo and we began. As we painted we relaxed and the enormity of the vast white box became more manageable. At first we worked on our own individual sections, but as we expanded inside the coffin everyone’s paints mixed and vivid patterns and swirls wrapped themselves around each other. One or two of them became worms and the roots of trees.

“When I started it I thought I had a sky,” Johnson said. “But as I kept going I realized it was a sea. I’d paint a ship or a boat and a sea monster. I’m not sure why I did the sea monster—I just thought of those old-fashioned maps. Here’s the edge of the world, this is what we know, and the sea monsters [are] painted on the edge.”

For some, this was one of the most powerful exercises of the weekend. “When we were actually painting on the cardboard container, it was quite heavy for me,” the hospice worker said. “It brought up a lot of questions about how fully am I living my life and what it is to have a life well-lived. Would mine be one?”

For Zydel and Pavelda, too, the experience was significant. “Something happened for both Chris and me when we were painting the white primer paint. It was like we were praying for each member of the workshop,” Pavelda said. “Chris and I entered into an almost ritual state as we prepared it.”

But not me. I got carried away with painting the white face of someone being cremated and then had a great time painting flames in various shades of red and orange before I realized that this was supposed to be an exploration of my feelings about death. Trying to think about death was tiring. Half of the problem was that I felt a self-made pressure to be sad about it. In truth, I lacked the imagination to contemplate the reality of death for more than minutes at a time.

It was, instead, the simplest exercise that I found the most powerful. One assignment was to write in a notebook answers to a series of questions. I was amazed by my answer to the rather innocuous question: “What are you strangely unashamed of?”

On Christmas Day three years ago I was sitting at the breakfast table with my grandfather when he collapsed and stopped breathing. As we waited for the ambulance to come I sat beside him breathing life into him, pushing with my whole arms and hands and body to try to keep him alive. His death was as intimate and discreet as any English man could have hoped for. I knew he was dead by the time the ambulance men came and tried to move me away from his body.

Sitting on the rug in front of the fireplace at the workshop, I wrote about my memory of my grandfather’s death: “Half an hour later the emergency workers burst through with their equipment and their scissors to cut open his clothes and revive him. I was strangely unashamed when I reached out to try to stop them. I am ashamed that they cut open his Christmas church service waistcoat and shirt to leave him lying cold and naked in the hallway while they passed an electric current through him. But I was unashamed when hours later my brother and I laughed uncontrollably at the absurd comedy that ensued as we turned the Christmas guests away with small talk and tea, while the body of my grandfather blocked the front door. A lifetime of etiquette had left us completely unprepared for the situation, because we don’t talk about death.”

*****

But even if we don’t often speak about death, we all still have questions we are sometimes afraid to ask. At the start of the weekend Pavelda showed us a black box, which held small pieces of black cardboard and a silver pen. We were to use them to write down questions for her friend, Mortina DeKay, who would be visiting us later.

Sharon Pavelda models as Mortina DeKay.
Sharon Pavelda models as Mortina DeKay.

Mortina DeKay is a character Pavelda plays, a sort of sassy, straight-talking mortician created to help people confront and celebrate death. She answers questions that we normally can’t ask anyone, but she has a tendency to answer questions with more questions. Pavelda came up with the idea around the time of her step-daughter’s death. “One of the seeds of her was my experience at the mortuary,” she said. “With the death of my daughter, our step-daughter, it felt almost like violence to me. The energy of the young, corporate, crisp mortician who was there to guide us through the choices we had to make—I was so shaken by her chirpy energy. I was appalled by her and the whole morgue.”

“So I had this idea of a mortician,” Pavelda said. Mortina, however, is not your ordinary mortician. Her catchphrase is “Decay is okay.” She says things like, “Gravity welcomes us back to the earth.”

“Mortina is not afraid of death in the way that I still am,” Pavelda said. “She has a great respect for it and she somehow has touched the beauty of it. And I do believe that she also knows how to ask some light-hearted questions that lift my heart. One of the favorite questions that she asked was, ‘What if the Reaper wasn’t grim? What if when death knocks at the door it is a party?’”

On Sunday afternoon we were about to imagine just what kind of party that might be. Pavelda wasn’t there and the gap left by her absence added to the anticipation as we waited for Mortina to arrive. We gathered tea and plates of scones and settled into our sofas, looking around expectantly. As if by agreement, each of us had fetched our shrouds. They lay on the sofa beside us or we wrapped them around our shoulders.

I had not thought out specific questions beforehand, but knowing that Mortina was on her way I took pen and paper and instantly two came to me. I added them to the box.

There was a knock at the door. Like a group of children on Christmas morning, we all rushed to the door to open it.

“Good morning,” Pavelda’s voice called, but instead there stood Mortina DeKay.

She was all in black, with huge black and white feathers in her black hat, and skulls around her wrist and emblazoned on the scarf that floated around her face. Around her neck hung six knives; the handles of each were three skulls stacked one on top of the other. They glittered and knocked into each other as she moved, with large dramatic plays of not just her hands but her entire arms.

Pavelda seemed more at ease with her body when she played Mortina. The way she stood and moved was more regal and upright. She luxuriated in the limelight, floating rather than walking between rooms. She shook our hands, asking for each of our names. Allison, introducing herself, added: “I’m going to die.” Mortina loved that and laughed, her head flung backwards.

Mortina asked us if we had received her gifts—a handkerchief and a beautiful glass bottle filled with sea salt. We were told we could fill the bottle with our tears and that when they evaporated our grief would be over.

The wall of the Zydel's studio in the mid-afternoon sunshine.
The wall of the Zydel’s studio in the mid-afternoon sunshine.

Mortina settled herself by the altar, looked each of us in the eyes, and told us she would now answer our questions. She reached her long fingers into the box, unbuckling the clasp before removing and shuffling cards.

“Do the worms really play pinochle in your snout?” asked the first card.

Mortina laughed, which set the rest of us laughing, too.

“Yes,” Mortina said. “They do indeed.”

Mortina picked up another card.

“Is it wrong to speak ill of the dead?” it read.

“Not speaking about all of the person dishonors them,” Mortina said. “To pretend that that wasn’t a part of them is to dishonor them. It can be instructive to us to talk about the bad as well as the good.”

“Where do we go after we die?” read another. Mortina looked thrilled. “Where do you want to go?” she said, with a glint that made it seem as though she had the power to make it happen.

We went round the circle: “To the light.” “To my loved ones.” “To a place of truth.” “To Tahiti!” Everyone knew.

One of the cards was mine.

“How do we understand suicide?” Mortina read. There was a glitter at the edge of Mortina’s eyes, which were really Pavelda’s. She sighed before speaking.

“The thorny, painful gift of suicide is asking to whom do we belong?” Mortina said. “Whose life is it? Do we belong to each other? Do we belong only to ourselves?”

Our tongues loosened and each of us threw in our own thoughts about the question of belonging. Mortina listened and pushed us to answer or to expand on our answers. When the room at last fell into a comfortable silence Mortina looked around. “Shall I go on?” she said, picking out the next card.

It was my other question, the one I had secretly come here hoping to ask: “Why is death so sudden, unfair and full of suffering?”

Chris Zydel puts the finishing touches to the lid of the cardboard coffin.
Chris Zydel puts the finishing touches to the lid of the cardboard coffin.

There was a long pause. In that moment round the fireplace, death itself did not seem so frightening. The frightening part was all that comes before it: the violence associated with it, the suffering that partners it, the decay and grief that it exemplifies, the separation it signals. How do we understand death without understanding suffering, and how do we understand suffering without bringing in religion?

The others leaned forward too. Mortina’s grey-blue eyes sparkled in the candlelight of our altar. The coffin lay at her knees, covered in the bright colors of our painting.

“Who decides what is fair?” Mortina said. There was a pause as the question hung in the air. Finally, she said decisively, looking at me, “Perhaps we would all be better off if someone had told us a long time ago, ‘You know what, sweetie? Life is not fair.’”

“I don’t know the mystery of suffering,” Mortina continued, in a quiet voice. “But when pain comes to my door I can meet it.”

*****

The workshop was almost over. After Mortina’s visit, we were all feeling a little heavy-hearted. And now it was time for our last act.

Each of us would get into the coffin, listen to our obituaries, wrap ourselves in our shroud and—how do I put this?—hear the trumpet call, pop out for a while, lose the race, expire, go beyond the great divide, be put out of our misery, give up the ghost, pass over, bite the dust, meet our Maker, come to the river’s end, cross over Jordan, go with the wind, ride into the sunset, push up daisies, kick buckets. Die.

A skull on the wall of the living room.
A skull on the wall of the living room.

When I described this weekend’s planned activities to friends, this was the part that had usually created a visible shudder among my listeners. Getting into a coffin and listening to your own funeral service: How much more creepy can you get? But after Mortina’s questions I wanted to get my funeral service over with as fast as possible before I could think about the “deeper” meaning of anything. I volunteered to go first.

In stockinged feet I climbed into our beautifully painted casket. I wrapped my ragged shroud around my shoulders and took a breath. This was it.

I lay down in the coffin, head hard against one end. Allison pressed play on the stereo and the room filled with a beautiful chorus. I closed my eyes and sank into the cushion that had been placed under my head. I could feel the presence of the others as they moved to kneeling positions next to me, handkerchiefs at the ready. I thought about my funeral and about all the people I loved and would miss. I thought about the letters I write on sick bags to tell people that I love them when I’m on an airplane and feeling aware of my own mortality. Mortina began to speak about “our dearly departed Becky” and how sad it was that I had died so young. I felt a shiver go up my spine.

But my somber thoughts didn’t last.

Suddenly in my mind’s eye I saw the scene as a passerby might. I was lying in what was essentially an over-sized cardboard shoebox, surrounded by mourners who had known me for all of two days. My desire to laugh felt distinctly un-corpse-like, yet I maintained sobriety while Mortina anointed my forehead and hands with homeopathic oils. I was quite proud of myself when I made my arms go all floppy and limp when Mortina placed a single white rose between my hands. I even held the smiles back when the sobbing began. Think sadness, I kept saying in my head. Corpses don’t laugh.

Usually, when pressed to be serious, I tell myself to think of funerals, but under the current circumstances there didn’t seem much point. The women clustered closer to the coffin and the fake sobbing and wailing started in earnest. I overcame the desire to reach out my hand and grab somebody’s wrist and growl, but I knew I was on a slippery slope. It can’t go on much longer, I thought. Just don’t do a zombie rising out the coffin impersonation.

Becky Palmstrom practices her funeral.
Becky Palmstrom practices her funeral.

My good resolve lasted another minute until Mego Johnson, with whom I had been carpooling every morning, began sobbing over the tragic manner of my death. In many ways Johnson is the most serene of people, but put her behind the wheel of a car and pass a bicyclist without a helmet and she becomes rather demon-like: She yells, she swears, she sees red.

And how sad it is that she died in a biking accident, Johnson wailed. I always told her to wear a helmet.

It was too much. My face and entire body broke into giggles.

Wow, doesn’t she look so alive–even now that she’s dead? someone said. A group wail of fake weeping rose in the air. It set me off again and suddenly I realized everyone was laughing in between the sobs. Finally the group began singing. Mortina lifted me to my feet and we hugged.

Four more times we rehearsed deaths, for Johnson, Zydel, Allison and the hospice worker. Four more times we all collapsed into laughter in the midst of our fake weeping. Allison commented that as each person emerged from the coffin their faces looked different, more relaxed.

“It was funny, I was surprised,” the hospice worker said later. “Stepping back up and out–I totally felt something had shifted. I was lighter then when I came on Friday than I’d been in long time. The weight of the world and the other sorrows–I felt as though that had been dissolved and I was stepping out fresh and clean and bright and born again.”

Even Allison, who had dreaded stepping into the casket and had begged us to speak about both the bad and the good things about her, burst into laughter over our weepy coffin-side discussions of how seductive her dancing was and the number of hearts she had broken. “It felt like a bunch of girls sitting around the coffin gossiping—it brought it down to a level that was human and playful,” she said afterwards. “Death was like any other series of moments in a life. It has the potential to be a really interesting and playful experience, which I think makes it manageable for me.”

As for me, well, I began to think that whoever said that laughter is a shortcut to the truth might be right. Yes, my name is Becky and I am going to die. But right now, I’m alive and it doesn’t feel half-bad.

3 Comments

  1. Thank you for this article! We have women in their 80’s doing more than rehearsing for death at our improv studio in Oakland. InterPLAY AT 23RD AND Telegraph hosts groups of people who dance, sing, tell big body stories, and more. Out of the box living is almost as interesting as rehearsing for death.

    Sharon is in one of these groups.

  2. khara

    I would like contact Sharon Pavelda for the death rehearsal. I can’t find her anywhere else on the internet could you please give me a way to contact her. thank you

  3. Becky Palmstrom

    Hi Khara,
    I’m so sorry not to have got back to you before now. I just saw your comment.

    You can contact Sharon at sharonpavelda@gmail.com

    I am sure she will be more than happy to hear from you,
    All the best,
    Becky

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