News Column

Natural Transitions cinema, workshops embrace dignity of dying

October 5, 2013

YellowBrix

Oct. 05--When Karen van Vuuren, founder of Natural Transitions, was looking for ways to mark the organization's 10th anniversary, she searched for the best way she knew to educate people -- through film.

Van Vuuren, a filmmaker herself, started Natural Transitions to help people make greener, more sustainable choices for burial, since both embalming chemicals and energy-intensive cremation have harmful environmental impacts. That meant going back to the way funerals were previously conducted, where the body was taken care of by family members and viewed in the home before being buried in a shroud or pine box.

In 2008, van Vuuren made a film called "Dying Wish," about a local surgeon, Michael Miller, who was terminally ill with metastatic pancreatic cancer. He chose to stop eating and drinking to hasten his death.

"It's a very gentle way to go," van Vuuren says, explaining that hunger and dehydration are not experienced in the same way they would be for a healthy person. "The benefits to the dignity of the person are quite considerable."

Her film will be one of five shown at the Natural Transitions Film Fest: Embracing our Living and Dying.

"The film festival is our vehicle for education," van Vuuren says.

She admits the topic is weighty.

"It's kind of a bold thing to put on a festival about a cultural taboo," she says.

But, she adds, the festival breaks the material into digestible chunks with four short films, including "Dying Wish" shown in the afternoon, interspersed with "epilogues" by local performers such as Len Barron and Hospice Chaplain Holly Laudaul, who will do improv. While comedy might not seem like something one would expect in a film festival dealing with death, van Vuuren says it is a key element in dealing with the end of life.

"It's a form of release. Humor opens us up," she says, adding that she sometimes uses it when dealing with loved ones planning for the home funeral of a family member.

"They relax and can hear a little more what you're saying," she says.

One of the shorts that might be of particular local interest is "Vultures of Tibet," which shows how the traditional Tibetan sky burial has become a draw for tourists. The short films are followed by a panel discussion with the filmmakers.

In the evening, the showcase film, "A Will for the Woods," will be shown. That film deals with a dying man who seeks a green burial that helps conserve land, which leads to the establishment of the first natural burial ground in North Carolina.

Festival director Robin Truesdale came to the event as a filmmaker rather than as a green burial advocate. She says she was particularly impressed with "A Will for the Woods," which she says is uplifting and hopeful even as a man faces his death.

"You really see him living the best moments of his life," she says.

The second day of the festival, which includes classes and workshops, deals with more specific aspects of green burial and end of life care.

For the general audience, Truesdale adds that film is an effective way to deal with the subject of death.

"(Film is) so accessible," she says. "I think people are less guarded."

She adds that the modern way of death in which a funeral home takes the body away and handles all the details can rob people of an important experience.

"It's so removed from us. We do miss that final connection with a loved one," she says.

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(c)2013 the Daily Camera (Boulder, Colo.)

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