A sudden realization that she wanted to care for the dead changed Michelle Pante’s life. After years of working in international and community development, — and accumulating three degrees along the way — Pante took a complete change in direction, training to become a licensed funeral director. This career switch led Pante to play a key role in launching the Green Burial Society of Canada, which focusses on sustainable death care, and co-found WILLOW Personal Development and End of Life Planning Services with friend, and fellow mom, Reena Lazar.
Despite the inevitability of death most of us know next to nothing of what happens after we take our last breath., The work that Pante and Lazar do through WILLOW is an attempt to change the conversations around end-of-life care from taboo to typical, and turn advance planning from an uncomfortable chore to a “rich and meaningful experience.” Intimately familiar with death on a personal level, Pante does this important work while raising an 11 year old daughter, and honouring the spirits of her two other children who died during pregnancy, and “soar through the universe.” This parent with purpose offers fascinating insight on death and dying, and how she balances entrepreneurship with motherhood.
What made you decide to become a funeral director?
After I had my daughter I went back to work coordinating community projects part time. I was sitting on a yoga ball in a community centre on a Saturday morning making a contact list and thought, “For f&@# sake. I don’t want to be an administrator. I want to touch the feet of dying people,” quickly followed by “I do? Where did that come from?”
I had a great boss at the time and I told her about this and she introduced me to a wonderful landscape architect who did work around community memorials, as well as green burials, and sustainable cemetery design. So I started to learn about that and I became a hospice volunteer. I chose to volunteer not with the dying, but with the bereaved.
During that time, I learned about an amazing organization in Vancouver called Callanish.org. They basically provide amazing holistic support for people who have cancer. And I was so drawn to what they were doing. So I met the executive director, and I just really felt like this world of grief really needed to get out of our collective closet. I just thought, “Holy shit, this grief stuff is really powerful, how do I get closer to that?” And that led me to become really curious about the world of funeral service, and I just started learning about it and learned about concepts like home funerals, reclamation of community and family-led death care, green burials, lightening our footprint at death, just as we do during life.
But you didn’t go to work at a funeral home?
I had to in order to get my license, because you have to put in enough hours to get it. Becoming a funeral director is a really onerous process. You study, it’s mostly online learning, but it’s a full course load. It’s not particularly challenging, it’s just very time consuming, and you work full time. So it’s not like becoming a plumber where you work for 3 months, go to school for 6 weeks, work for three months — you study and work at the same time. You have to work full time, so it’s very inaccessible to many people. And I worked with one of the corporately owned funeral homes. While there, I met some wonderful people who were really opened-hearted, doing their best, and really wanting to be of service. But, there are limitations when you work in a publicly owned company — in terms of the financial goals of the company and the sales approach.
Being a funeral director is like being a licensed realtor your have to have your license hung in a company that has it’s own license. So there was nobody around that I wanted to work under, and I didn’t have the energy to do what it took to open my own, because I was really fried, and I just said, “I’m done.” I had entrepreneurial ambitions of starting a kind of hip, modern funeral home. I thought all you have to do is shop at IKEA and you’ll do better than most .
So what did you do instead?
I needed to find my tribe. I didn’t care if my tribe were making chairs, or widgets, so long as they were not harming the earth. Ideally they were doing good for the earth, but I really didn’t care. And I went back to that landscape architecture company that specializes in green burial, and basically recruited them. I kind of just pitched, “You need me,” and I had been meeting with the owner there once and awhile since I first learned a bit about him, and he agreed, so they created a part time position for me, and during that time, which was very healing for me, the company had a key role — and I was the point person, for launching the Green Burial Society of Canada.
Then a few years ago Reena, who I’ve been friends with for close to 20 years, was folding the award winning peace building organization that she’d founded. She told me, “I really want to do something innovative, I’m fascinated by all these things you’ve told me over the years — green burial, do it yourself stuff. I want to start a for profit company and do you want to do that? Do you want to talk about it?” And so we met for over a year. That was unusual for me because I’m quite impulsive. We met for over a year, every two weeks and just talked about all all the ideas we had — what people needed, what we could offer. And then in April of 2016, we launched our website and ran a pilot project called Love Letters and Heart Wills. It was a pilot workshop series, and we realized we were onto something.
What do the workshops cover exactly?
We have two core curriculums. One is called Legacy, Love Letters, and Heart Wills and that’s about identifying who and what matter most to you and writing lasting messages for the people you love and future generations, so people have something that you’ve written specially for them when you die. The process of writing them is really transformative for the writer and some people choose to share those heart wills now, after they write them, or they might share them in their dying days. Because nobody knows when we’re going to go — that’s the imperative. I have a love letter for my 11 year old daughter. I have a heart will, and I want to revise my letters already, I want to change them. And I know as time goes on what I want them to say as lasting messages will evolve, but if I die next week I have something to give the ones I love.
The other curriculum is called Departure Directions which is about is articulating your wishes for how you’re cared for after you die. It could be talked about as old-fashioned funeral planning, but we do it from a very value-based and heart-centered approach. So where you start with your experiences with death and dying, your experiences with funeral rituals, your hopes & fears about your inevitable death. You identify your values.
So those are our two core curriculums and we offer those in public education seminars. It’s taken us a little while to figure out this formula. Our current model is we offer the workshops for free, and we find a sponsoring organization to pay us to deliver them. Right now we’re in a series of Legacy, Love Letters, and Heart Wills with Mountain View Cemetery, which is a very progressive cemetery in Vancouver. We’ve offered them through KORU; Cremation, Burial, Ceremony, which is again a progressive funeral provider. We see ourselves also developing online products, so that people that can’t attend workshops have access to this material. We’re in the works now creating a Departure Directions workbook for sale online.
Are most people that come to WILLOW at a point where death is imminent in some way?
Most people are not coming to us knowing that they have a terminal diagnosis. Most people have somehow been touched by death, either maybe they, or someone in their life had a life-threatening illness, an accident, or perhaps now disabled. Or they have loss, they have grief and they find that there’s very few places, except maybe formal bereavement programs, where they are welcome to open themselves up to whatever emotions they have.
We ask participants, “What draws you here?” And people have all sorts of things, like they had an experience with someone’s death and dying that was very positive, or they’re totally panicked because somebody died and they didn’t have any of their estate planning or funeral planning in order and it was a mess. People come to us for all sort of different motivations.
We believe that our challenge in life is to know who we are and have that essence reflected in everything we do. So, that includes how we die. Many people have no idea what those closest to them want when they die, but they will be the one trying to take care of it, which is incredibly stressful.
Is death something that you can plan for though? Or is making a death plan like a birth plan?
Exactly, like a birth plan. You have intentions, and you hopefully have in place the support and self-compassion to accept however it goes. But if you have some awareness about the scope of your choices, for which most people have no idea, around death and dying.
People still ask us if embalming is required. If you’re going to view a body, or have a body stay at home, do they have to be embalmed? Absolutely not. You can transport your own dead, if you like. You need to get a particular permit, which is not onerous, and a responsive funeral provider — funeral home, should be able to help you with those things. And they need to be in a rigid, leak proof container, which could be a box that you’ve made. Could be a hardwood box, could be made out of plywood or pallets, or anything. And they need to be in a vehicle so that the container or casket is not seen. So a van, or something with darkened windows.
Whoa. I had no idea. You are talking here about things that I don’t think most people know much about.
There is a growing community of people all over the world who are keenly interested in this whole area of community and family-led death care, which is really just a return to what we used to do. So those people are like, “Oh thank goodness, a place where this is not brand new.” But most people who attend are not aware of that kind of stuff but find they feel enriched, energised, and connected when they come. People are lit up by their life when they contemplate their death. It’s fascinating.
We live in a culture that is to a degree death-phobic. We push it away, we isolate it, we get other people to take care of death. But we might be more dying phobic than death phobic. Now we have medical assistance in death. MAiD (which stands for Medical Assistance in Dying), where people in certain conditions can have assistance to have their death occur. So that communicates to a certain degree that it’s not the death, it’s almost the dying that’s more taboo.
What does this work bring to your life?
It’s great. I’m so proud, and I’m so grateful to Reena for inviting me to explore with her and having the patience to keep meeting with me while I built up my resilience and strength to take on something entrepreneurial. So grateful to my husband who — he doesn’t work fulltime in his job, but he does a lot of home stuff — and I never hear from him,”Oh, you’re not home for dinner again, You have another workshop?” So I have a lot of support to make this happen, and it feels great. And I do feel like, I’ve always — my work has always been inspired by making a difference, and really wanting to affect big change, and this is a realm that is ripe for transformation
Are there other innovators in this field?
Yes, and they’re not all outside of the conventional realm. There are people inside traditional or conventional funeral homes, there are people in healthcare settings. I think it’s pretty obvious there some issues that need addressing. And that’s one of the things that we want to do too, we want to have a bigger impact in supporting the estate planning professionals and those in health care that deal with death.
We’re speaking at the BC Notary conference in the spring. But health care professionals, the people that touch the public when they deal with their funeral planning, or life limiting illnesses — they almost have a degree of secondary trauma from dealing with death and the dying. Who is supporting them to explore their own mortality? And how is their lack of awareness about how they feel about their own mortality, or undertaking their own end-of-life planning? How is that impacting the way they’re available, or not, to support others?
What do your daughter think about what you do?
I think she thinks it’s pretty great, though starting a business like this means sacrifices for us all. There are times when I feel her resistance, like when she asks why we’re not going to Hawaii for Christmas like some of her classmates, and I talk about things like making choices so that we can have more time together. That means that she doesn’t go to before school care or after school care — and we have one car, but it means she gets driven to school, and picked up by one of us almost everyday.
What do you think you have in common with other moms?
Not having enough hours in the day, and knowing that the important parts of parenting take time. You can’t just say to your daughter, “Tell me how are you really doing, what’s going on?” This is the stuff you find out when you’re in the car for awhile, or you’re slowly getting ready for bed, or you’re puttering in the kitchen together, so it’s the reality of the the time that it takes to have the quality of relationships that I want to have.
What’s been hardest about what you do?
Not being able to slow down and be present to the beauty and joy in life. I really would be so much better and holistically well if I had vigorous exercise everyday and I would like to get back to being a regular church goer because that is really important to me.
Back when I was more of a spiritual seeker I was part of founding something called the Interspiritual Centre of Vancouver, and while doing that I was inspired to return to my tradition of the Catholic church. And my daughter goes to Catholic school, I met my husband at church, and I was the coordinator of the children’s liturgy program, so faith has been very important to me. My faith is evolving and I’m really drawn to and wish to be part of the church community that Beth Hayward leads. I have been trying to get back to her church for a year, but my daughter has basketball on Sunday mornings.
What other moms do you admire?
I’d like to say some of my friends, who are also mothers and have their own businesses. I admire my friend Danielle LaPorte, author of The Desire Map and The White Hot Truth. My friend Lee-Anne Ragan has a company called Rock, Paper, Scissors. She lives in Kenya and she’s a good friend. She’s fascinating in that she moved from Vancouver, worked for the United Nations, does a lot of international consulting, and she’s been an entrepreneur for about 20 years, and her work is totally about making a difference. And I admire my business partner, Reena Lazar.
My women friends are everything. I would be dead in the water without them. Yes, the support I have at home from my husband, and having a business partner makes a big difference, but it’s having a solid community of women friends that gets me through. It was as I began to explore what I was passionate about that I met these women and developed these strong friendships.
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