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The Story of Death is the Story of Women

(Photo by Ryan Orange)

On a summer day in 2014, guests arrived at Mitch Metzner and Gabriel Gelbart’s home surrounded by the natural beauty of Topanga, an area nestled in the Santa Monica Mountains that has a reputation as a bohemian haven for Los Angeles artists. The couple had purchased the property with the intention of turning it into a residential hospice where people could spend their final days in a peaceful and supportive environment. A few weeks before, guests had come to celebrate the pair’s marriage, but today they came to attend Gelbart’s funeral.

Gelbart died suddenly of a heart attack, leaving a community of family and friends shocked and reeling with grief. Now they had come together to say goodbye. “It was stunningly beautiful and agonizingly sad,” says Olivia Bareham, a former geriatric nursing and hospice assistant who organized the funeral. “A collision of heaven and Earth.”

Gelbart’s body was brought home, to be washed and wrapped in a golden shroud by Bareham and Metzner. For Metzner, caring for his husband’s body was a natural continuation of the love and care Metzner provided him in life, allowing for a “healing journey through grief that the funeral industry wants to deny us,” he explained. For the next three days, mourners could spend time with Gelbart at the couple’s home.

Bareham has long sought to ease some of the fear and suffering surrounding death and dying that she observed among her patients and their families. In 2005, she founded Los Angeles-based The Sacred Crossings Institute for Conscious Dying, where she educates and empowers families to care for their deceased loved ones and create home funerals like the one she created for Gelbart.

Throughout the couple’s house, Bareham and friends provided a variety of activities for mourners, including the opportunity to decorate the casket with art supplies, or inscribe river rocks that would be used to build a memorial wall on the property. With this funeral, Bareham created a way for people to be truly present, bearing witness to the end of a life, and a space to process the enormity of their thoughts and emotions. Friends played music; dogs wandered among the bereaved, offering comfort. Food, drink, and collective pain were shared among all. For Metzner, it was “one of the most profound and beautiful experiences of my life.”

This is not your typical American funeral, though.

Bareham is just one of many women who are disrupting the death paradigm by challenging our traditional funerary practices and advocating for transparency, eco-friendly options, and family involvement. While White patriarchy has spent the past hundred years shutting the doors and pulling the curtain—obfuscating and profiting from one of life’s most significant milestones—modern women are questioning whom our current system is serving and telling the funeral industry that its time is up.

Make no mistake, the future of death is a feminist one.


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