”The flower-filled field looked amazing! Bright red, shiny yellow and radiating whites cover the green field with their happy faces. A glance at my watch made me realize I had spent an hour roaming around the field, picking the prettiest and best flowers and greens. It felt like only 5 minutes. Some broken flower-stems around […]
Funeral Director, Susanne Duijvestein, has a new perspective on floral traditions.
We are always inspired by women who are on a mission to change the world. So when we first met Susanne Duijvestein, and how her work is radically changing the funeral industry, we couldn’t wait to learn more! Plus, the moment someone says, “I don’t like flowers,” our curiosity is peaked!
A month ago, we had the opportunity to sit down with Susanne at Coffee Room in Amsterdam to discuss her company and how we can be more sustainably-minded with our love of flowers.
Thank you for meeting with us! Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and your company, Susanne bij Afscheid?
Well, where to start! [laughing] I consider myself a happy, reflective, creative, ambitious person. A born enthusiast. I am a 32 year old mother, who is married, and has always been interested in transitions – on a personal level and in societal scope. And after eleven years working in corporate business with a promising prospective, I woke up one day feeling like I should use my talent for something more relevant, more meaningful. I have always been inspired by social entrepreneurs who build a business to work on societal or environmental issues, so I thought, “Why not do the same?”
And, crazy enough, I have always been interested in death! And, as a social scientist, rites, culture and economic systems. Actually, this whole world [of funerals and death] is so interesting, aesthetically and ethically, I just wanted to dive in. First, to make a difference for mourning families. I enjoy helping people organize a uniquely personal ceremony that expresses one’s personality. But I also wanted to create awareness, especially in a sales-driven world, on topics like sustainability, true price and free choice. ‘
So, voila, Susanne bij Afscheid. On a mission!
Wow! And what would you say is unique about your approach in the funeral industry?
I’ve learned that simply having this mission is unique: helping families, through fair undertaking.
My business model allows a family to choose locations, craftsmen, suppliers, caterers, etc., or do it themselves. I don’t push them into anything; my work is not driven by commissions. Of course, this model is not rocket science, but I discovered that the funeral industry has major conflicts of interest. So to me, it’s all about transparency.
Families that contact me, often are into arts, into more natural ways of living, into spirituality. Into life, I would say. Reflective and aware. And still, few people know anything about natural burial alternatives or other sustainable options. For instance, ecological material use, slow food catering, home ceremonies and no waste. It’s actually really sad that this approach is unique. But let’s stay optimistic about transition! Because there definitely is some collective awakening going on. More and more people are concerned about our environmental impact and becoming aware that we are part of this infinite and sophisticated ecology.
For instance in my business, I notice people are more and more interested in natural burying. This is a new phenomenon, different from the regular burial practice we know. In stead of being buried in a graveyard, full of mined gravestones and paved paths (and the freedom of using polluting materials like synthetic fibers and chipboard full of formaldehyde), your body becomes part of an ecology again. The graveyard is a nature reserve with trees, heath, water, animals. There are strict rules about the cloths you wear and the coffin you’re in. Only natural materials like hemp shrouds, rough wood and willow caskets are allowed. And often there is no mark on the grave, so your loved ones get the coordinates to visit your grave. And it’s a beautiful nature walk.
But opting for more natural ways can also mean getting your – possibly drugged – body out of the cycle by choosing cremation. This new way of thinking about our own ecology is slowly becoming the new mainstream. We need to decrease our footprint. Being dead is no excuse.
Well these are indeed unique approaches. I’m curious, if I say flowers, you say:
NO! [laughing] My obit would say ‘please don’t bring any flowers.’
[laughing] And please tell us why that is such a big no for you?
I feel like an alien saying this, but personally I don’t really like cut flowers. Naturally, I see their beauty. But I dislike bringing these precious beauties into my house and then watching and smelling their suffering, their decay. It’s vanitas. I prefer enjoying their beauty in the wild, while they are still alive and functioning in their biological system. So this is my personal relation to flowers.
Professionally, of course, I deal with flowers a lot. And by that, I mean A LOT. Which is the entire problem: there is so much waste. For example, it’s customary in our Dutch culture to bring flowers to a funeral. If there are, let’s say, eighty people attending a funeral, there will be about forty bouquets. When it ends, all of the flowers are left behind. Funeral directors and the crematory staff don’t know what to do with them, so they are usually placed outside which creates a second funeral: a mass grave of all the flowers left behind.
Is there something you would recommend individuals do instead of bringing flowers to show their condolences?
Absolutely. My usual message to families is to not bring flowers, and instead give a donation to a foundation in honor of the deceased; or, simply bring one flower versus an entire bouquet.
But there are so many other ways you can offer condolences and even support that go beyond a funeral. You can write a beautiful letter; be present, by listening and holding space for someone; or even drop by every once in a while. This last one is especially powerful a few weeks after someone’s loss, when everyone continues their daily lives but the family is still coping with their grief.
Great recommendations. And if people feel called to have flowers, what are more sustainable ways to include flowers at a funeral?
First of all, ask people to offer something other than flowers, or bring only one, as I shared. And if they do bring flowers, to bring them without plastic! This is such an extra, added form of waste.
For the coffin, casket, or location styling, the family can work with a florist to make an arrangement of local, seasonal flowers. This creates a single, beautiful eyecatcher.
Foraged flowers or twigs are also a beautiful offering. This can be done as a gathering or activity before the ceremony. Personally, I would like just a single twig on my casket. I like the Dutch word for it: ‘graftak’ – or, burial branch. You could collect one from the elm tree in your garden that has just been pruned, for example. It’s amazing what your environment has to give when you open your eyes.
Really, it’s about being creative. And kind. Be kind to nature.
Beautiful. Be kind to nature. What about after funerals? What are alternative ideas to do with flowers?
A lot of things! Instead of leaving them at the funeral, or placing them outside, you can bring them home. You can also pick the ones you love, and hang them upside down to dry and later create a herbarium or bring them to Field of Hope, or some other florist, to make something beautiful.
I also know this wonderful person, Elin de Jong, who is an expert in natural dying and making floral prints on textile. For instance, you can color your grandmother’s blouse or tablecloth with the pigments of the petals of the flower arrangement. It’s a beautiful, second ceremony for a family to organize after some weeks. And it’s a way to cherish and re-use objects and materials that are special to you.
It seems like there is a long-standing relationship between flowers and death. Can you tell us more about this?
Honestly, using flowers – especially lilies – at a funeral or burial ceremony probably started as a way to camouflage the smell of a decaying body. But nowadays, flowers are a way to express our feelings, show compassion or comfort us. This is why flowers are still relevant even today at funerals.
And the floral industry’s campaign slogans support our “need” for flowers. For example, ‘nothing says love like a bouquet’ and ‘we need more flowers’. But, let’s be honest, do we really need flowers to express our feelings? This goes even deeper as we ask, “Do we need stuff to comfort us?” To me, it’s obvious that the flower industry needs us, in order to spend more money to keep it alive. I was actually meeting with a Belgian colleague a few days ago and she told me bringing flowers to a funeral as a guest isn’t a custom there. So, here in the Netherlands, our “custom” might have something to do with the huge floral industry’s presence. But the planet definitely needs us to slow things down. Consume way less. Produce way less. And we human beings definitely need to learn to cope with life without buying all kinds of stuff we don’t actually need.
Why are we not talking about these kinds of subjects? Or why is tackling waste so new to this business, do you think?
It must have something to do with the general taboo of death, and the restraint we feel when considering someone else’s mourning process. We often find it difficult to advise or critique someone that is going through hard times. So, instead, we choose to not say anything, out of fear that it might upset someone.
Looking at your own values and business, what are your next steps?
I have so many ideas and so much ambition around this whole topic of death! I love breaking taboos and introducing different perspectives on the way we shape rites of passage in our lives, with death being one of them.
Recently, I started as a curator of death at Mediamatic (an institution for arts and science) where I organize all kinds of events and workshops. Many of them are conceptual, about our impermanence and mortality, but several are also creative – like making your own personal shroud.
Apart from Mediamatic, I started writing about death – life, actually – for Holistik magazine. And I also organize inspirational workshops about conceptualizing your own funeral. It’s incredibly healing to think about how you want to be remembered, and how that might change the way you make choices today and live your life.
But my main activity remains to be guiding families to shape and organize this beautiful funeral for their loved one. I think I was born to do this!