Enabling conversations on legacy during end-of-life planning.
In a “death-denying” culture, being open about feelings around loss and grief can almost feel taboo at times, making end-of-life preparations difficult to navigate for many families — Christa Ovenell, founder of Death’s Apprentice, is working to change that. Speaking with Root & Seed, Christa shares how we still have a lot to learn as a society about death, and that more meaningful memories can be passed down when we are willing to have deeper conversations with loved ones.
Letting Go of Perfection
Christa was drawn to the deathcare field for decades, and starting on this path a little later in life wasn’t going to deter her. Coming from a family that values lifelong learning and education, Christa finally decided to make a radical but rewarding career move. “I was initially very shy about admitting I was a 50-year-old apprentice, but now I know that the ‘beginner’s mind’ is one in which the best learnings can happen. I am proud to be Death’s Apprentice.”
With her holistic approach to end-of-life planning, Christa has a unique view into the common challenges and barriers people face when confronting the deeply uncomfortable topic of death.
“The most common concern I see is a sense of ‘overwhelm’ … One of the most difficult things is getting folks to THINK about passing down important items and memories. Because we live in a death-denying culture, it can be extremely challenging (and may be seen as morbid) to incorporate conversations about legacy into our day-to-day lives. This is MY mission — to help folks understand that death is just one more PART of life — because when that happens, these conversations will be easier.”
For those who don’t know where to start, or for friends and families who must plan on behalf of a loved one, the idea of capturing a life “legacy” can be daunting — but it doesn’t have to be: ”Something that I work with folks on all the time is letting go of perfection.”
Finding Beauty in the Little Things
Diving into a larger-than-life commemorative project might sound like a scrapbooker’s dream, but this certainly isn’t for everyone. Christa invites us to focus on small things that can hold significance for loved ones when we think about how we hope to be remembered.
“What about a single recipe or annotated cookbook, a framed sheet of music, a 5-minute writing exercise designed to capture meaningful messages?”
Values and knowledge can even be passed down through more intangible means. Reflecting on her own family and Ukrainian-British roots, Christa finds that many treasured moments in life with her children, nieces, and nephews have revolved around cultural food traditions (like eating Paska at Easter, perogies, and cabbage rolls), and sharing it all with a spirit of generosity.
“I have a Ukrainian Canadian cookbook that makes my heart melt … I share my recipes with my children and nieces and nephews. Even through COVID, we virtually baked the Easter bread together. For me, it's about the ‘making do,’ the welcoming people to your table, the hospitality of a people who have little but still share.
. . . I once asked my nephew how he would remember me when I am gone. He said, ‘I'll make perogies from scratch for the first time.’ It made me cry. I hope they cook and think of me. Eat the bread at Easter.”
Speaking Between Generations
But for many, these kinds of open conversations between generations are too few and far between before the passing of a loved one. “Concerns turn into regrets because it really can be ‘too late’ one day — and we never know when that day might be.”
Sometimes, regrets stem from misunderstandings around a loved one’s values and wishes. “There can be a real mismatch between what an elder wants to pass on and what the next generation wants to receive . . . Conversations are SO important in this regard. Getting to someone's VALUES is key here.
My mother was a music teacher for 7 decades. When she was downsizing and had to go through her music room, it was SOOOOOO hard for her, and caused a lot of strife for us. We had some really beautiful conversations to get to the root of what actually mattered to her: bringing music to kids mattered.”
These simple (but intentional) acts of communication can have powerful impacts that might even provide peace or a sense of closure.
“We found the right place to make the donations of music and instruments: [mom] began to calm down. Then, my sister had the idea of asking mom to select one sheet of music for each of her kids to have framed--mom LOVED that idea. The pieces she chose were her favourites to teach or to play, and had wonderful annotations on them. We now each have a beautiful piece of music as ART on our walls with her writing on them...it's truly such a representation of her legacy. And it wasn't that expensive, not overwhelming from a project perspective, and it reflected HER, through and through.”
There’s no time like the present to open up a dialogue with loved ones and discover more about what holds special significance in their lives, and yours too! If you’re looking for inspiration for good conversation starters, we invite you to explore Root & Seed’s Conversation Tool — you may just find that some of the stories you capture here become treasures of their own to pass down.
To discover more about Christa’s valuable work, be sure to check out Death’s Apprentice.
Are there special items, knowledge, or heirlooms that help you remember those who have passed away? What would you hope to impart to your loved ones? Share in the comments!