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The Funny Side of Death: A Conversation Starter

Death and taxes, the two things said to be inevitable for everyone, are also the most dreaded, difficult and avoided topics of conversation.

Gail Rubin, who speaks at the Funeral Consumers Alliance of Vermont’s annual conference in Norwich on May 4, probably can’t help you with taxes. But the Albuquerque, N.M., resident and so-called “Doyenne of Death” might inspire you to confront mortality with a dose of humor. Her talk, titled “Laughing in the Face of Death: Funny Films to Start Serious Funeral Planning Conversations,” incorporates clips from movies such as The Big Lebowski and Undertaking Betty to get people laughing and help spur that all-important but oft-delayed funeral planning discussion.

“There are so many choices to make that if we don’t talk about it, you leave your family in a lot of trouble. You’ve got stress in a time of grief. You’ve got family conflict. And you might end up with some kind of ritual that doesn’t mean anything to anyone,” Rubin said this week in a phone interview from Los Angeles, where she was attending the Association for Death Education’s annual conference. “The benefits are many of planning ahead and talking.”

One of her favorite aphorisms, Rubin added, is that “talking about sex won’t make you pregnant, and talking about funerals won’t make you dead.”

The FCA-Vermont holds its annual conference at a different location in the state each year. This year, it will be held at the Norwich Congregational Church thanks to Annie Ross, a West Fairlee resident who sits on the board of FCA-Vermont. Rubin’s visit to the conference comes after she won over the crowd at the Funeral Consumers Alliance of Western Massachusetts’ annual meeting last fall. By injecting humor into an afternoon dedicated to end-of-life matters, “we’re hoping a lot of new people will come who have thought that funeral planning is the last thing in the world they want to talk about,” said Mary Alice Bisbee, the outreach coordinator at FCA-Vermont.

During her talk, Rubin will also address the changing nature of end-of-life rituals. In recent years, more people have moved away from traditional faith-based funerals in favor of a more personalized memorial service, mamy of which Rubin has presided over as a certified celebrant. Some people are even choosing to keep their deceased loved ones at home for a few days following death. That’s what Annie Ross did after her mother died several years ago, because “I didn’t want my mother whisked away by strangers,” she said. And the options for what to do with one’s remains have grown. Beyond the traditional burial and cremation, ideas such as eco-burials and dissolving the body into liquid fertilizer have become more popular.

The FCA-Vermont is a watchdog organization for the funeral industry in Vermont, and Bisbee said another aim of the conference is to inform the public about the many options available beyond high-end caskets and expensive services. “We believe that people should keep their money for the living, rather than to spend it on expensive funerals,” she said.

After successfully executing her own wedding that combined Jewish and western themes, Rubin was drawn to helping others celebrate life’s milestones — weddings, births, deaths, and the loss of a beloved pet — in creative ways. While there were plenty of books on one-of-a-kind weddings, Rubin found there was a dearth of offerings on making one’s funeral a special affair. So she decided to dive head-first into planning her father-in-law’s funeral while he was still well. “I was amazed how much information we needed that we didn’t have when we went to pre-plan for it, and I was glad he was still alive to get that information,” she said.

At the time, Rubin’s mother-in-law was a somewhat reluctant participant in the funereal conversations. She changed her mind, Rubin said, after her husband’s funeral went off without a hitch.“She said, I didn’t like it when you were pre-planning, but now when we needed it, I’m glad it was done,” Rubin recalled. “And she smiled.”

Gail Rubin will give her talk “Laughing in the Face of Death: Funny Films to Start Serious Funeral Planning Conversations” at 1 p.m. on May 4 at the Norwich Congregational Church. The talk is free and open to the public.

Katie Beth Ryan can be reached at kbryan@vnews.com or 603-727-3242.