Monday, December 28, 2009

Online Funerals

While working in the field of hospice and palliative care, I'm frequently hearing about family rushing in from out of state or even from out of the country in a time of family crisis. Sometimes they are arriving to say goodbye, but often they won't make it until the funeral. So, what if they can't make it? What if financial hardship, illness, or a very long distance prevents them from making it to the funeral? Not that long ago, the answer would have been to just send flowers or a card. As technology makes our world smaller, more options arise.

This thought came to me a few days back when I heard a story of a very interesting funeral/memorial service held online via the World of Warcraft (abbreviated WoW to the savvy gamer). The World of Warcraft is a massively multiplayer online role-playing game (a computer game to those of us who are unsavvy). Someone in California can be playing with players in New York, Japan, or Italy, anywhere in the world. Literally thousands of players can be logged on playing in the same worlds at any given time. One is limited only by ones time zone and his/her preferred times of playing. Mostly players play with a set group. There are real life friendships that form in these groups.

When one of the players died in real life, her group of WoW friends decided to hold a funeral for her in the game. It was apparently quite moving for her fellow players until a rival group of players took the funeral as an opportunity to attack. The mistake was that they highly advertised the funeral service and asked to not be bothered. Naturally the group was outraged by the attack during this solemn occasion so it made news. Strange, I know, but a very interesting idea (minus the fighting). People coming together from all over the country, maybe even the world via the internet to hold a memorial service.

Is there anything out there for those who want to attend a more peaceful service from the comfort of their home offices? Apparently, some funeral homes offer live funeral webcasts. One website I found offers package deals which includes the live ceremony (password protected to prevent lookie loos), a dvd of the service and a memorial page on their site. For a price, of course. Some funeral homes offer this as a free service and it seems to be growing in popularity. (A brief search did not reveal any in my area. I guess my funeral will just have to go undownloaded.)

While I'm intrigued by the concept, it did make me ponder what is the purpose of the funeral anyway? Are we essentially voiding this purpose by just viewing it online? Is the need that draws the grieving to a funeral fulfilled by a live webcast? (And would you really want a dvd of your dearly departed's graveside service?) It's probably a personal preference thing and would be good in a dire situation (too sick to make the funeral, deployed overseas etc.) but I don't think it could/should replace the real thing. But, who knows? Maybe one day a funeral will be just a lonely open casket displayed in front of a green screen pulled up on my Dell.

Monday, December 28, 2009 by Amber Wollesen, MD · 0

Monday, December 21, 2009

Spring Awakening: "Left Behind"

There's a contemporary Broadway musical making it's way across the country this season, having closed on Broadway January 2009. Spring Awakening won 8 Tony's in 2007, including best score and best musical. Set in Germany in the 1890's, it's been referred to as a folk-infused rock musical.

The plot involves an adolescent cast that deals with very controversial themes such as sex, suicide, physical abuse, abortions, as well as education and spirituality. The musical score by Duncan Sheik with lyrics by Steven Sater is really outstanding, and I actually enjoyed the music more than the plot itself.

One of the more mellow and beautiful pieces in the musical comes after the death of one of the characters. Moritz Stiefel is an innocent boy with high expectations placed on him by his father. When he fails his finals at school, his father reacts harshly and with disdain. Moritz ultimately commits suicide and at his funeral the song "Left Behind" is sung.

There are many layers to the idea of being left behind. Traditionally you think of the people who are alive still, as being the ones "left behind", but this song incorporates a concept that it's the parts of the deceased that are left behind. The hopes, wishes, even sadness and fears of people can linger as a part of them, even when they are physically gone.

Here are the lyrics with a YouTube video of the song at the end of this post.

You fold his hands and smooth his tie, you gently lift his chin.
Were you really so blind, and unkind to him?
Can't help the itch to touch, to kiss, to hold him once again.
Now to close his eye--never open them.

A shadow passed, a shadow passed, yearning, yearning
For the fool it called a home.

All thing he never did are left behind.
All the things his mama wished he'd bear in mind,
And all his dad had hoped he'd know.

The talks you never had, the saturdays you never spent.
All the 'grown-up' places you never went.
And all of the crying you wouldn't understand.
You just let him cry, 'make a man out of him.'

A shadow passed, a shadow passed, yearning, yearning
For the fool it called a home.

All things he ever wished are left behind.
All the things his mama did to make him mind.
And how his dad had hoped he'd grow.

All things he ever lived are left behind.
All the fears that ever flickered through his mind.
All the sadness that he'd come to own.

A shadow passed, a shadow passed, yearning, yearning
For the fool it called a home.

And it whistles through the ghosts still left behind.
It whistles through the ghosts still left behind.
Whistles through the ghosts still left behind.

Towards the end of the musical there is another lovely bereavement song. Similar to "Left Behind", the sentiment is remembering those who've died by keeping them alive in the memories of those living. The song is called "Those You've Known" (follow link for full lyrics)

The song is an overlapping melody sung by 3 characters, 2 of which have died. The chorus states, "Those you've known/And lost, still walk behind you/All alone/They linger till they find you." As the song concludes, the living character Melchoir promises, "I'll walk now with them/
I’ll call on their names/I’ll see their thoughts are known. They walk with my heart/And I'll never let them go."

A good promise for those of us living to remember.

Monday, December 21, 2009 by Amy Clarkson · 2

Monday, December 14, 2009

Love in a Time of HIV

December 1st is World AIDS Day. Throughout the month of December, Showtime is airing a a one hour documentary, Love in a Time of HIV. The directors Beth Jones and Nicky Lankester set out of make a documentary showing what it's like to live with HIV today. In an interview, Beth Jones commented "You remember from the press all the doom-and-gloom stories about having HIV, and the idea actually now is that it’s not about how do I live or die but it’s about how do I go about living my life, how do I go about getting married and having children?"

The documentary tells three different stories. The first is about Susan and Christina Rodriguez, a mother and daughter living in New York with HIV. Teenage Christina (pictured above) was born with HIV and diagnosed at age 3. She is now in high school and looking forward to going to college. Some of the issues she brings up are dating, wanting to have children, dealing with the perceptions of her peers. Christina's mother, Susan, runs a non-for-profit organization, SMART University, teaching women with HIV how to better take care of themselves.

The second story is about 25 year old South African Idols finalist, Tender Mavundla. Tender was voted off of Idols two weeks after she revealed her HIV status to the country. The media also picked up the story of the death of her premature infant daughter (a complication of Tender's illness). Tender lives in a community with a 40% HIV infection rate. She worries about her 17 year old sister (that she will follow in the footsteps of Tender and Tender's older sister, who is also HIV positive). She worries that there won't be a next generation in her community as those who are HIV positive are not having children or children are born with HIV. She still dreams of being a singer and adopting a baby. Below is a clip from Tender's story.

The last story is about a British couple, Andrew and Michelle. Their story centers around their attempt to safely have a child. Andrew is HIV positive and Michelle is not. Andrew talks about his frustration with having to turn to the medical community for something that he could otherwise (if not HIV positive) have done naturally. One of the reasons he wants to have a child to be able to leave something of himself behind.

What I found very interesting about this documentary is that it's not really about illness. It's about people trying to do the things that everyone else does: fall in love, go college, get married, have a family, fulfill a life long career dream. None of those featured look or act ill. The documentary really looked at HIV in a different way. As Andrew pointed out, as HIV moved from more of an acute to more of a chronic type illness, it has become "a forgotten illness". This film reminds us that there are still many out there living with HIV. They're not really thinking about dying. They're just trying to live normal lives.

Monday, December 14, 2009 by Amber Wollesen, MD · 2

Monday, December 7, 2009

Gallery: "Stillness"

Since the last gallery exhibit was entitled "restless", I wanted to explore the opposite notion of stillness.

There are moments when I walk into a patient's room that the stillness is so prevalent I have to check to see if the patient is still actually breathing. While the traditional thought of stillness is an absence of motion, stillness also refers to a quietness or calm that can actually occur in motion. I've experienced this form of stillness in dying patients' rooms as well.

It seems the most traditional way of depicting stillness in art is to display water. It is easy to capture the idea of non-movement with still water. Add some mist and a boat and you've got the most common symbol for stillness, as this photograph from unknown source depicts.

The following 3 photographs I've collaged together for better formatting, but to see the originals follow the title links. On the upper left is a variation of the water concept, sans boat and instead lovely grass sprouting from perfectly still water and reflected below. This work "Stillness" is by photograph Gunther Dippe. The next, in lower left is a photo by Kris Schirmer entitled "Stillness- and the sun shines in my heart." A fallen flower petal symbolizes an ending to me, thus this piece resonated the type of stillness I feel in the room of someone dying. Finally from a Flikr photostream by Qmanes is "Stillness" shot with an extremely long shutter speed. The motion of the water and clouds is perfectly juxtaposed to the stationary object in the lower right.

I found this abstract work to the left by Linda Cole of encaustic wax on screen entitled "Stillness in Motion" To me the motion is symbolized with the circle, while the stillness is represented by the linear portion.

Finally, sticking with the tradition of finding a sculpture, I found a digital print series that at least looks like sculpture. The series can be found at Gladys Triana's website. Of the four listed, it is "Stillness XIII"2007 that is displayed on the right.

Looking back at the art work from "restless" and comparing it to these is an exercise in itself. The emotional response the art evokes seems synonymous to the titles.

Monday, December 7, 2009 by Amy Clarkson · 2