Death has been in our faces a lot the past year, thanks to Covid-19. Even in Aotearoa, we can't escape headlines announcing that three million people no longer inhabit the earth, thanks to the novel coronavirus.
It's a sobering reminder that putting our affairs in order is not something we should postpone until we're very old, or very sick.
We need a death plan as much, or more, than we need a life plan. While our life plans experience seismic disruptions or deviations, death is certain.
The life plan allows you to design a year or 10 where you winter in Bali, taking up ceramics and practising yoga. Death's plan for all of us is simple: one day you'll draw breath; the next, you won't.
It's worth considering, discussing, then writing what your bewildered family should do with your body once you're no longer using it. The topic is easier to explore when neither you nor your loved ones are critically ill. Now could be the perfect time.
The good news is we have many options for how our earthly shell should be handled, and for our final resting place.
Earlier this week, I read a story about an Auckland-based company that makes custom caskets. Dying Art has created a variety of body boxes with motifs including Lego, fire engines, yachts, a piano, chocolate bar and even a cream doughnut.
Founder Ross Hall got the idea for the business 15 years ago. "One of the things that came into my mind is I didn't want to go out in a brown box. So, I thought to myself I'm going to write in my will that I want a red casket with flames on it." Hall says the caskets are built using sustainable materials.
With sustainability in mind, the Whakatāne District Council late last year authorised natural burials.
The Council announced last week the first of those burials has happened.
Natural burials return the body to the earth without interfering with or polluting the environment.
Whakatāne councillors voted to allow them last September after requests from the community.
A body buried naturally is placed in a shallow plot, in an environmentally friendly coffin made of soft, untreated wood or cardboard or a shroud.
Compost is placed with the body and a native tree planted on top. Eventually, the natural cemetery becomes native bush - a permanent living memorial to those buried there.
Bodies in a natural cemetery cannot be chemically embalmed.
Human ash remains also cannot be buried there. Experts say though standard cremation is slightly more sustainable than a traditional burial with embalming and casket, the energy required to run crematories and the pollutants they release harm the environment.
The Guardian reported in 2019 cremation discharges 400kg of CO2 on average into the atmosphere per body.
"Cremation fumes also include vaporised mercury from tooth-fillings, accounting for 16 per cent of the UK's mercury emissions in 2005, along with other toxic emissions from burnt prosthetics and melted bone cement used during common surgeries such as hip replacements."
Data from Auckland City Council showed 70 per cent of Kiwis choose cremation. The practice is gaining popularity in te ao Maori, where tikanga surrounding ashes continues to evolve.
Also evolving is our willingness to talk about death and to explore newer, more sustainable options for handling a body as technologies change and environmental awareness grows.
Though natural burials in a council-owned cemetery are usually more expensive than cremation, the natural method is gaining popularity.
There are ways to care for our dead ourselves. Consumer NZ says you can legally transport a body and host a memorial service at home.
Personal experience has taught me how difficult it is to make decisions about your dearly departed during the initial shock stage of grief, especially if it's your first intimate encounter with death.
Too often, we panic buy, picking the easiest option that doesn't make us feel like a cheapskate. Those choices may not be the kindest ones for the environment.
We need to tell our loved ones about our wishes for after we've shuffled off this mortal coil. Write it in your living will (advance directive) or put it in a folder.
Think about environmental impact when considering how you'll leave. Your selections could be a final act of grace for an ailing planet.