Thinking outside the Coffin: Life and Stimp Hawkins
podcast by Deonna Kelli Sayed
Stimp Hawkins remembers the woman with esophageal cancer. She was one of the people who taught him the most.
“I can still see her. Like it was yesterday,” he says, a smile spreading, a certain light in his eye.
He’d left a great living selling pharmaceuticals and, after a religious experience at age 33, he’d entered seminary, dragging a wife and four children with him. He completed the studies but found the experience too academic.
He’d spent 20 years as an Associate Pastor in what he calls the institutional church. “I did what people do, I went into the ministry. But I was still seeking hard.” While a pastor, he discovered Zen Buddhism and remained a ‘closet Buddhist’ until he left his job at the church.
At 54, he’d had three heart attacks and quintuple bypass surgery, which left him with six stints. He remembers counting the lights in the ceiling from his hospital bed, terrified to sleep because he was terrified to die.
“Spirituality went out the window when I thought I was going to die. I had to discover it in a new way. Before it had been external. I had to find a way to bring it inside.”
Once he recovered from the surgery, he started support groups for heart patients, but soon found himself in the ICU and AIDS wards. He didn’t want to work with the dying.
“I had to force myself up to the seventh floor. I took the stairs because it took longer to get there.” But, that’s where he met the woman.
“She was about 70 years old,” Stimp said. “She couldn’t speak so we just sat together. She was communicating to me how peaceful she was with her decisions. She was telling me she was ready to die. She was teaching me how to live.” Stimp leans back in his chair, relishing the memory, his long legs canted beneath the table.
Dying is what Stimp’s all about. It’s been that way for nearly 30 years. After his experiences at the hospital, he became a Hospice chaplain. When he retired, he simply took on education about death and dying with a renewed focus. He’ll talk about death with anyone, from the curious to the disinterested.
Stimp is 82 now; death seems closer and that much more important. He’s tall, lanky, with bright eyes, a wide smile, and a wicked sense of humor. He has strong feelings about a lot of things, but you only have to ask him about death to get him going. Usually you don’t have to ask him.
He believes we all need to talk about dying, both with our loved ones and as a culture; we need to bring death out of the closet. We need to discuss it before we’re sick or incapacitated, before we’re grieving and stressed, before it’s too late.
“Hell,” Stimp tells me, leaning forward across the table, “you can’t eat an elephant all at once. Death seems like such a huge thing to most people. So, you start with small steps. You eat the elephant one bite at a time.”
The first bite is putting together your Advanced Directive, a notarized legal document outlining the medical procedures and interventions we approve or refuse. Do we want to be resuscitated? Put on life support? Kept alive when we are brain dead? These are questions, Stimp says, we want to think about before we, or a loved one, must make the decision.
The next bite is talking with our family, not only about our Advanced Directive, but also about funeral arrangements and everything after. We plan extensively for every other life event: weddings, births, new houses. Why can’t we plan for death?
As with other life events, talking with those around us, planning, relieves them of having to guess at, or argue over, what might have been our wishes. The discussions mean decisions don’t have to be made in the throes of grief. Next, we talk with our doctor and other health care professionals.
The main thing is to talk, to begin a dialogue with those around us, to make the knowledge of death a part of living. “The more comfortable someone is with their own death, the more comfortable they are being with someone who is dying.” This conversation can begin anywhere, and is sometimes easier to start with strangers.
Stimp was instrumental in setting up the first Death Cafes in Greensboro. Swiss sociologist and anthropologist Bernard Crettaz held the first in Neuchautel in 2004 and the concept has gradually spread worldwide. At a Death Cafe, there is no agenda and only a nominal leader. At a Death Cafe people, often strangers, gather to eat cake, drink tea, and discuss grief and dying.
The objective is to increase awareness of death with a view to helping people make the most of their finite lives. A Death Cafe is held in a social setting and is open to anyone. Currently there are two groups in Greensboro operating a Death Cafe model. Both meet at Scuppernong Books: Cafe Mortal in the morning and Death Cafe in the evening, once a month.
We feel powerless before death. We have little choice over when we die. We do, however, have a choice in how we die and the world we leave behind for our loved ones. We do have a choice in how we approach the fear and uncertainty of dying. Stimp believes that considering our own deaths also allows us to be more present with those around us in their everyday suffering and grief.
He’d be a one trick pony that way if the subject weren’t so deep and wide. But prophets always have just one thing on their mind: “I’m on a mission. I can be obnoxious at times, overbearing, but I believe strongly in what I’m doing,” Stimp said.
Before the turn of the century, the American funeral was simple “to the point of starkness,” said Jessica Mitford, the acclaimed muckraking journalist who published The American Way of Death, an investigation of the country’s funeral business, in 1963. The book was an expose of the commercialization of dying that had taken place in America since the early 1900’s. This was a change that shifted the focus away from personal loss and grief, and even death itself, to a commercial and formalized ritual overseen by strangers. Her book created a stir at the time and many began to consider alternatives.
When Elisabeth Kubler-Ross published On Death and Dying in 1969, it helped American society begin to consider other ways of dying. The concepts of Hospice, dying with dignity, dying at home, entered the discussion. It was a way of reclaiming death as a personal life decision, not simply a medical or commercial one where others often assumed the final say.
Sue Sassman believes the next revolution in death is afoot. She’s certain that, especially as the Baby Boomers begin to confront death, there will be a renewed interest in how we take our leave from this planet. For the last few years, she’s watched her friends and family deal with the loss of loved ones and their funerals; she’s seen the need for something else.
“Things are changing about how we look at the end of life,” Sassman said. “We’re starting to realize that quality of life is more important than simply being alive. And we’re starting to consider the quality of our death.”
Sue calls herself a ‘serial entrepreneur’ and she’s been on the Greensboro social and business scene for a long time. She founded the Women’s Resource Center 20 years ago and has initiated a number of businesses since. Currently, she’s an event planner, responsible for, among other things, the Summer Solstice Party in the Park. Her new venture is Celebrations of Life, conceived as an alternative, or addition, to the traditional funeral.
“A Celebration of Life is exactly that: a time for friends and family to get together and rejoice in the life of a loved one; to tell stories, share memories,” Sassman said. “It’s an honoring of who that person was and what they meant to those around them.”
The Celebration is usually held 2-6 weeks after death but is planned long before. The lead time after the death allows people to make travels plans which can be problematic or expensive within the 3-5 days of a funeral. The planning means that the deceased has had a chance to discuss every wish both with Sue and their family.
“It’s a customized and personal experience,” Sassman said. “I have multiple sessions with each client where we talk about how they see their death and dying, zeroing in on their concerns and the things that are important to them.”
They choose objects, photographs, and keepsakes for the Memory Table at their Celebration. They may record interviews, stories, or jokes. The family gets involved, allowing for another avenue of conversation about the end of life. Sue also talks with her clients about wills, Advanced Directives, Do Not Resuscitate (DNR) orders, MOST (Medical Order for Scope of Treatment) forms and the logistics of funerals.
Sue met Stimp at a Death Cafe and of course, the two of them hit it off famously. Almost immediately they began to discuss Stimp’s Celebration of Life and they’ve been talking about it ever since, planning a Decoration Party for January.
“I think what Sue is doing is wonderful,” Stimp said. “As a Hospice Chaplain, I officiated at a lot of funerals and much of the time folks are just dazed with grief. Often I wouldn’t know what to say and they couldn’t hear me anyway. With a Celebration of Life, we have the opportunity to honor a life, not simply mourn the death.”
Both saw the event on Jan. 7 as a warm-up for Stimp’s final celebration. On that Thursday, as a part of the Cafe Mortal meeting sponsored by the Center for Creative Aging, a cardboard box the size of a coffin was delivered to Scuppernong Books. Friends, family, and well-wishers decorated the box that Stimp will be cremated in with pictures, quotes, drawings and poems.
Once the decorations were complete, Stimp lay down in the box to try it on for size. “It fits!” he exclaimed with a grin.
Stimp’s actual Celebration of Life is still in the early stages. “We haven’t yet decided whether to hold it in a phone booth or the Coliseum,” Stimp says with a laugh.
They’re sure about a few things. There will be dancing, big band music, and lots of stories. There’ll be a Memory Table with objects that meant a lot to him; his diplomas, some photos, a football signed by a team he coached. His favorite ice cream will be served and there will be time to listen to Rhapsody in Blue, his favorite piece of music.
“I get so excited talking about it, I want to do it now,” Stimp said. “But if you do it before you die, people will just lie. I want folks to be able to talk about what a pain in the ass I was too.”
After seminary and into the ministry, Stimp continued to ‘seek hard.’ Discovering Buddhism shifted his life again and he felt, in some sense, he had found a home.
It helped him come to accept questions over answers.
“What happens after we die? Nobody knows the answer,” Stimp said. “We have theories, beliefs, but no one knows. It’s that Unknown that gets to us.
Fear is so much a part of our culture. We’ve sanitized death by handing it all over to funeral parlors. We’re afraid of suffering. We’re afraid of our own resentments and fears, but the time to deal with those is before we’re sick or dying.”
It wasn’t always easy. Buddhism and his history with Christianity have taught him we have to confront ourselves every day, but we confront ourselves with peace and grace. “I’ve had a lot of things I had to work through, some relationships I really messed up. Therapy was a big help for me. You know, the only thing we can really change in this world is ourselves.”
“Those first days in the ICU/AIDS units, I had to drag myself up the stairs,” Stimp recalled. “I didn’t want to be with the very sick and dying, I wanted to avoid it. But there was a thread running through my life that led me there. I had to face it.”
When Stimp is dying, no one will call an ambulance.
Not if he can help it. That’s why he tells everyone, his friends and family, those at the shops he frequents, those at the gym. He won’t go to the hospital. That’s why he carries his MOST form everywhere with him. “I have it right here in my pocket.”
“If I kick over right now,” he tells me, “call Martha, my wife. She’ll come and collect me.”
His body will be taken home where it will be cared for by Martha and other members of his Crossings group, who have trained for home funerals and vowed to assist each other in this way. Crossings is a home funeral and green burial resource. It’s still legal in North Carolina to prepare for a body at home before the funeral or cremation. The group will wash and prepare the body while telling stories, crying, and sharing memories.
After three days, the funeral home will come to collect Stimp’s body for cremation. A few weeks later, his celebration. In the meantime, his life is full: he’s always meeting new people, he’s always engaged in conversation.
“I’m going as hard as I can,” Stimp said. “I think of that George Bernard Shaw line: ‘I want to be thoroughly used up when I die.’ I’m still learning; that’s what living is. We all have to work at it. I meditate every morning and that’s part of the discipline.”
The second time he met with me for an interview, he was on his way to talk about death with Frank Stasio at WUNC’s The State of Things. He was excited about a new chance to spread his gospel, to follow that invisible thread just a little further. While, his mission remains firm, in the end it always returns to people: the people he’s met, the people he’s learned from.
“That beautiful woman who couldn’t speak. She was hooked up to all these machines with a tube in her throat,” Stimp said. “Her nose would run and she’d be embarrassed about it. I’d wipe her nose for her.
We communicated without words, with our eyes.
She taught me so much. About dying. And a lot more.” Stimp’s voice trails off a little, then his eyes return to me: “She was beautiful, just beautiful.”
“All we have is the moment,” Stimp tells me, his gaze clear and direct. “That’s all we ever have. All our fears and resentments, all those things we hold on to—” A wry smile spreads across his face. “We got to let them go. Just let them go.”