Conversation with Catherine - Death Project Manager from the US
Kasia - I'm truly fascinated by your profession name. Who is a Death Project Manager and what do you do exactly?
Catherine - This is something that I made up myself. I've been interested in death and mortality as someone who, among other things, is a child of immigrants. My family and I live far away from a lot of our relatives and from our dead. I also come from a culture where there’s a lot of silence and shame and there is no willingness to discuss awkward topics directly. So it’s something that’s been on my mind for a long time especially when I was thinking about my parents and how I will care for them when they age and pass away.
I was thinking about this in the context of death doula work, along with my own health challenges, and I realised that becoming a death doula is maybe not my strength as I am more focused on logistics and operations in my day to day job than on feelings.
As a Death Project Manager I'm here to ensure that you have access to your paperwork, your finances are set up and you are able to take away a burden at a time when people are exhausted, grief-ridden and their executive function is weakened.
Thoughtful planning before your death is a way of showing that you care about another person's experience, that you care about them as a person, and that you don't want them to suffer unnecessarily. Grief and suffering are inevitable, but leaving behind a big mess is not, so I'm trying to take care of that.
Kasia - On your website, you say that you believe that having difficult conversations more frequently opens our lives to greater vulnerability and connection in daily life.
Catherine - Having difficult conversations and being vulnerable is a skill like playing the clarinet or doing acrobatics, but of the spirit. I think the more we have experience and exposure to challenging conversations, the more we can model that for the people we love. A question that people frequently ask me is: ‘How can I make my parents do this?’ And my answer is always that you can't make anybody do anything, particularly if you don't have that kind of relationship or conversation setup in the first place. But I find that people sometimes when given the opportunity to respond to a model of conversation that is honest and vulnerable, they rise to meet it with their own version of honesty and vulnerability. That might not be your version of honesty and vulnerability but it creates new possibilities.
Kasia - And who are your clients? And by this question I would like to find out who is more eager to have those very often difficult and challenging conversations.
Catherine - It's everybody from people in their 20s, up to people in their 50s and 60s who are thinking about mortality for themselves. I work with many people who have experienced loss in their own lives and through this are recognising the value of my service because they know what it's like when some guidelines weren't left behind.
I also work with people like artists or death doulas, who are already in a mind space where death is not a thing to be afraid of. More women approach me and that's due to the fact that women tend to take on the mental load of organising and being responsible for the emotional states of their families.
There's also a fair number of people who come from backgrounds where they might be immigrants, queers or people who can't rely on their birth family or their birth family is far away. So in this case they are relying on a chosen family, neighbours or a built community.
Kasia - I was quite surprised when I read on your website that your service is also designed for new or recent parents.
Catherine - When you have a child, there's a different set of considerations for inheritance, but also who will care for this being materially and financially when you are gone. And also, having a child really illuminates what people actually think and believe and how they support you or don't at a critical time. But then when it's actually time to offer support, people can behave differently from how you expect, or maybe their own lives change and their own life circumstances are different in a way that you couldn't have anticipated. So it's also a time to think that your death as a parent can impact someone else in a way that it hadn't before.
Kasia - What do you normally talk about during your sessions?
Catherine - There are a few questions I always ask: What are your goals? What do you hope to get out of this session? Who is the intended audience? When you're filling this in, who do you expect to pick up the booklet or the electronic toolkit when you're done? And what would be most useful to understand about communicating with them in a time of crisis?
Your death shouldn't be the first time the intended audience finds out about the documents you have prepared for them in case of your death. Ideally, you should be telling people about your plans. That's also a way to open up conversations so that you can be discussing your wishes and other important aspects of your life in real time.
The toolkit I published covers a variety of topics from your funeral, advanced health directive should you become sick, things people should know about your medical care to your social media and insurance and what happens with your pets.
Kasia - Do you also teach your clients how to talk with their families about death and dying?
Catherine - That's a challenging one. I have some recommendations of tools and card games. I know and work with the creators of The Death Deck, which is a way to have conversations about death. So there are ways to approach it from a more playful or just a less threatening perspective and in consequence people can respond to it a little bit more positively especially when there's a sense of creativity and no wrong answers. But it also depends on whether we are talking to somebody who is relatively young and healthy, or to someone who's more advanced age. That also informs the urgency of the conversation and the kind of conversation that you have. But it just varies family to family.
A piece of advice I often give is to start with the people who you think will respond most positively to your need to talk about death. It will help you see if you can build a coalition with them first, to then have a conversation, perhaps with some people who are more resistant.
Kasia - And have you noticed any changes in your work pattern because of the Covid-19 pandemic? Do you have more clients or do people bring up different needs and topics to their conversations with you?
Catherine - For a lot of people, death became much more real and much more tangible. Generally, there's more of an understanding of how quickly circumstances can change.
Many people started to ask themselves questions: Who are the people in the community that I can rely on? Who can I trust to have good judgement? Who can navigate bureaucratic and difficult situations? The pandemic was a time that has really expanded our understanding of grief. It's also really illuminated, how many people are not capable of grieving or allowing themselves space to grieve, how our institutions and workplaces aren't set up for people being sick or passing or having space to grieve. It's also made people reflect on what they actually value and how they actually want to spend their time. I am seeing that a lot in terms of changing attitudes towards work, in terms of people, in some cases, moving to be closer to
family or further away, depending on what you discovered about yourself during the pandemic.
Kasia - You are a founder of the Silent Book Club of Death. What is it?
Catherine - I actually host a couple of different kinds of events and one of them is the Silent Book Club of Death. So the Silent Book Club, in general, is actually an international movement that was started by two women, I believe, in San Francisco a few years ago. The idea behind Silent Book Club is that you get together at a library, a bar or a restaurant, and everybody brings their own book, chit chat for a little bit and then there is 30 minutes to an hour set aside and you just quietly read together. Everyone is reading whatever book they want to bring so you're not forced to read the same book. You're just there because you're enthusiastic about reading and quiet time.
I really resonated with this idea and I set up the first Silent Book Club in the state I was living in. But late last year I moved to California and once I had been here a couple of months, I wanted to bring this idea of the Silent Book Club to the death work that I was doing.
So this is happening once a month in a North Hollywood bar, although we're getting interest from people all over the country. I always tell them that they can host their own Death Book Club and provide them with all necessary information to do so.
We bring decorations and books in case people don't have their own. There are some people who don't even read a book about death, they just want to hang out and quietly read with death positive people. It's also been a way for people who are death doulas or have experienced grief, or just people who are curious to come and hang out together in a brewery. There are really, although it sounds ironic, very lively and enthusiastic conversations during this time. And everyone is very polite and curious and those are values that I try to model. It's also a nice way to be social and antisocial at the same time. So the way I describe it is, come meet people and then ignore them.
We also collect a list of what everyone is reading, and then post it afterwards so that people can get ideas on what to read next.
Kasia - Since I started working in the death field, I've also been reading many, many
different books on death and dying so the list of recommended books on this topic would be very much valued by me.
Catherine - What have you read recently that most resonated with you?
Kasia - One week ago I finished From Here to Eternity by Caitlin Doughty. What about you?
Catherine - So this one I actually just got from the library. I haven't started it yet because on Wednesday is the next chapter of the Silent Death Book club. Its title is: All the living and the dead from embalmers to executioners, an exploration of the people who have made death their life's work written by Hayley Campbell. So it's just all of the death professions. So I'm excited to explore it.
Kasia - And how have your culture, religion, life experiences and the way you were brought up shaped your attitudes towards death and dying? I know that your parents emigrated from Poland to the States during communism and you were born and raised there.
Catherine - I was raised very Catholic and I think these influences are lasting. It is funny because today is Halloween and in two days in Poland it will be Zaduszki (All Saints and All Souls Days) which I actually have never been in the country to experience. In my family there has always been a preference for paying attention, love and respect to the dead and culturally there’s also a heavy wave of grief and trauma and so much of it is unspoken. As an immigrant family disconnected from my relatives there’s also been that sense of all the people who would be in your family if not for World War II and the absence of the people who are no longer here or who only exist in memories. I think that those senses of absence informed my worldview and my work.
Also my parents told me stories about funerals which were at home. They would have to stay with the body, and there was less of a reliance on funeral homes and much more of reliance on family. These shared memories of being with the bodies of your loved ones shows me how different that is from the deeply American experience of a funeral home. Catholicism is not the way in which I choose to engage with the world, but that lack of fear around the realities of the body is something that I can appreciate.
I would say that those are some ways of approaching death and dying by me but I also know that there are many ways that have impacted me that I'm not even conscious of and will be difficult to articulate because they are so deeply a part of me and my worldview.
Kasia - Theoretically, what might we lose if we don't prepare ourselves for death and don’t engage with professionals like you?
Catherine - Spirituality, religion, beliefs are not huge portions of my life. But a search for meaning is something that I do resonate with. I think that if you are choosing only to engage with the positive and the happy parts of life, and you are neglecting the dark, the scary, the painful, it just leaves you unprepared for when you meet those moments. And it means that you operate from a place of fear, reactivity and panic rather than acceptance. I think it's really vital that we engage with the dark and the scary, not through a place of necessarily fetishizing or romanticising but from a place where we admit that this is true and this is a part of the human experience. And if I run away from this, usually it means that other people are
left to pick up the pieces after me.
Catherine (Death Project Manager) believes logistics are a way of showing care, and wants to help you organize your documents and your life, so that you can rest in peace. She offers a Mortality Workbook zine and Digital Toolkit in her shop. She also hosts events in LA and elsewhere, including Silent Book Club of Death. Upcoming events can be found on her Instagram, @deathprojectmanager.