Our Mortal Lives

Confronting Death and Dying

WCAI Original Reporting Series

Learning how to live with death may be the hardest lesson, but the most important.

In our series “Our Mortal Lives,” we explore how residents along the Cape, Coast, and Islands cope with end-of-life issues. How is death handled, how is it changing, and what are our choices?

As a culture we don’t like to talk about this. But we're going to, because death happens to all of us. It’s a part of life. 

"Our Mortal Lives: Confronting Death and Dying," is a 5-part series airing November 14-18. During this week WCAI's public affairs show The Point is also focusing on end-of-life issues. All of our reporting around this topic is gathered here on this page.

Elsa Partan

The Lewis family ran Nantucket’s only funeral home for 135 years. They closed it nearly 3 years ago and sold the land when nobody wanted to take over the business. Now, a small group of people is trying to open a new one as a non-profit. For some, Nantucket’s identity as a real community is at stake.

Timothy K Hamilton bit.ly/2f1cB1k / bit.ly/OJZNiI

When she first heard about hospice care, Yarmouth resident Christine Greeley was dubious.

“I mean the term ‘hospice’ was kind of scary,” she said. “It really was like, ‘That’s for people who are dying next week, tomorrow, or something. This is the end of it, it’s going to be terrible.’”

When Rachel Tinney realized her brother Josiah had moved beyond prescription pain pills to heroin, she tried begging him, using her other brother's death to reach him.

"I actually said to him, 'Josiah, people are getting bad stuff and not realizing it and they are dying, and I am so afraid that I am going to bury another brother, and I just can't do that.' And I cried," Tinney said. "And he said, 'Ray, no, you won't. I promise that won't happen.' And within days he was dead."

J. Junker

Rituals around death is the topic on The Point. We discuss some of the ways in which the living remember, celebrate, and immortalize the dead. Guests on the program are Reverend Deb Warner, pastor at the Church of the Messiah in Woods Hole; Rabbi David Freelund from the Cape Cod Synagogue in Hyannis; and Jan Buhrman, who's family chose a home funeral for their mother.  Mindy Todd hosts.

Photo by Alecia Orsini

About a dozen people are gathered at the Barnstable Senior Center, sipping coffee and eating pie. They’re not here to socialize or play games—they’re here to talk about something many consider a taboo subject.

This is a Death Café, a free-form conversation about death guided by bereavement coordinator Brooks Reinhold. If the idea of a Death Café sounds strange, Reinhold hopes people aren’t put off by the name.

Talking about death and dying is difficult, but planning can make it easier. There are steps you can take right now to get organized. In this video Kathryn Eident tells us about five important documents you can fill out now to start preparing for the future. 

Palliative care physician Justin Sanders uses the Serious Illness Conversation Guide in talking with a patient.
Courtesy of Ariadne Labs

There has been a growing recognition in recent years that patients near the end of life need a different kind of care – treatment that focuses on controlling symptoms, like pain and anxiety, rather than attempting to cure a disease. Most doctors and nurses aren’t trained to handle this transition and, until recently, haven’t had the information and tools necessary to do it well. That is changing.

Joyce Maxner sets up for a Death Cafe in West Tisbury, Martha's Vineyard.
Elsa Partan / WCAI

For most of American history, when a loved one died, family members cared for the body of the deceased at home before burial. It wasn’t until the Civil War that people started embalming soldiers’ bodies for the long train trips home. Soon after, funeral homes started offering embalming services, and an industry was born. Now, there’s a movement to bring after-death care back home.

The motivations driving such interest are varied. Some people find it more personal, more meaningful. Others want to avoid toxic embalming chemicals and reduce the environmental footprint of burial.

Courtesy Arthur Caplan

More than half of U.S. states have laws that say that a dying person should have access to any treatment, vaccine, medical device that they want. For some people who have serious illnesses, getting these treatments represents nothing less than a lifeline.

The “right to try” laws attempt to give that access. At the federal level, legislators like Ron Johnson (R-Wisconsin) have introduced bills that say that people with life-ending illnesses shouldn’t be stopped from trying treatments by the FDA or any other regulatory body.

Alecia Orsini

Roger Kligler loves to walk. 

Every day, he takes his five-year-old golden retriever, Bodie, out along the paths near his Falmouth home. It’s one of Kligler’s favorite activities since retiring as a physician. He covers five miles or more a day, and logged about 3,000 miles last year.

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