Loaded with resources, and easy to use tools for end of life planning, Farewelling is a one-stop online shop that lets users create meaningful memorial websites and live-stream ceremonies. Today I am delighted to be talking with the co-founders. Karen Bussen who came to the project with a solid career as a successful celebrity event planner. And Elizabeth Meyer Karansky a funeral industry superstar. Together they are transforming the experience of end-of-life planning. You can check out their website at MyFarewelling.com after the podcast!
Johanna Lunn: This is the When You Die podcast. If it has to do with death and dying, we’re talking about it. I’m Johanna Lunn, your host today.
Today, I’m delighted to be talking with Karen Busen and Elizabeth Meyer Karansky, the cofounders of Farewelling. Farewelling is a one-stop online shop that is loaded with resources and easy to use tools for end-of-life planning. It helps users create meaningful memorial websites and live stream ceremonies.
Karen came to the project with a solid career as a successful celebrity event planner, and Liz has been a funeral industry superstar. Together they’re transforming the experience of end-of-life planning. You can check out their website after the podcast at: https://www.myfarewelling.com/
So Liz, Karen – welcome! I’m so happy to be talking with you today, straight from New York City! Live! [laughter]
Karen Busen: Thank you so much for having us, we’re happy to be here.
JL: I love your website, I love what you are offering people, and it would be great if we started right off the top to get some idea. Give us a little tour of what you’re offering on Farewelling.
KB: Farewelling is a website and the website itself is MyFarewelling.com. And it’s a place that we are building to create a one-stop set of resources and tools to help people as they are thinking about end-of-life issues. As well as, if they’re dealing with loss and/or grief. It’s a place where you can find many, many articles about all aspects of everything death-related, from, “Why should I think about my own death,” to, “How to plan for it,” to, “A checklist for what to do if someone dies.” Because that’s just a situation where you find yourself and you may not be sure what the next step is. So, we’ve put those things together. The most important things that we’re trying to create are a place of inspiration around celebrating a beautiful life beautifully. We are some of the first designers to come into this space and to look at transforming how we think about paying tribute. And so, we’ve created for example, beautiful memorial website templates. So, you can go on the site and create a free memorial website for someone you love. You can choose from beautiful designs, and you can add all kinds of details, stories from their life, photographs, and you can share messages with friends and family. And so, that’s what we’re doing: brick by brick, we’re trying to build out this world where people can find comfort, they can find resources, and they can find new perspectives and attitudes around this most essential of our life experiences. Which is often somewhat underserved or overlooked.
Elizabeth Meyer Karansky: We’re very big on providing community. Obviously in the times we live in, when we’re forced to meet virtually this way, our memorial sites provide a space for people to come together and to have their words seen and heard, when they’re not able to do so in person.
KB: And just touching on that, just to add one more thing, we have recently partnered with a digital live streaming technology company to create a special platform where we can help families to host a virtual tribute. Obviously, during these particular times it’s been difficult for people to gather. But I do think going forward, with this new digital component to our lives, there will be times when more people who would like to participate in tribute can do so because of this technology that’s available. So, we’ve spent a lot of time creating something that is a little bit more polished. And it feels like a tribute that is affordable, and it’s very easy to put together. We’re trying to be there and meet families wherever they are in their journey.
JL: Right. It seems like there are a number of things in there. One is that you are coming into this scene at a time when this kind of service is most needed. Covid created so much disruption to basic family structures. How do we mourn? How do we be together with a loved one when we can’t be with those people to support them? So, you really have this amazing solution to a lot of those issues, where we’re forced to be separated. And I just love that because I know at the When You Die project, one of our big mandates is to really help people think, plan, and grieve in the healthiest way. Without fear, with as much support as possible. So here is this beautiful Farewelling. I love what you’re saying about this online platform because you know, Facebook was kind of serving a purpose like this. But it’s Facebook. They are profiting from your grief [chuckles] and not in a good way. Also, you don’t have control of your family’s legacies in the way that you might want to.
EMK: That was one of the first things that we talked about when Karen and I met. And then obviously Covid just exacerbated the need for it.
KB: And it’s true too, that we’re not the first to create an online memorial website. There are a lot of options from a funeral home, where you could place an obituary site up. But after the services are over, and my thinking (and I know Liz feels the same way) is that it may be great for communicating the details of the event, and the basic obituary. But is that where you want that memory and tribute to live? Or do you want it to live on a place where it’s more your own space? That was one of the key elements to create something that people can manage. They can go in and edit it any time they want. They really are the creators of their tribute. And it’s so amazing what people are doing with it. We find that between 400 – 20,000 people come to every single one of those memorial sites that are put up on our platform. We’ve had these incredible tributes where people are posting story after story after story, and it’s amazing.
EMK: We live in a digital age, and it’s easy to upload photos. We have the photos, so to have somewhere to do that, is simply necessary.
EMK: It’s helpful and it’s meaningful.
KB: We have so much more planned. You know how it is. I’m sure you feel the same at When You Die, there’re just so many other things that you want to build and add and give people the ability to do as much as they want. And they’re always writing to us and saying, “Oh, can I do this and this?” And so, we’re being inspired by the people who are coming and using MyFarewelling.com to help us with what we should do next.
JL: Yup, that’s perfect, just perfect. I just want to throw in this other thing: My daughter is a historian, and we had a conversation about the fact that I would like a green burial. And in a place that becomes more of a park. So, the issue of a marker came up. Well, we could have a marker, but as a historian she feels it’s important to leave some kind of footprint that can be found for future generations. So, a site that has memorials like this are so important because not only do you get a name and maybe a nice little, “I was here, and date of birth and death,” but you can have stories. For a grandmother, I can imagine, it’s important to having a much more robust view of, “Who was I?” I also know from my own losses that often it’s at the funeral where people share these stories, that you get to learn new things. “I had no idea my father blah blah blah.” You know? [laughter]. There’s so much that you learn about these people that you love that are 360 degrees from what you thought. And you did not know, because you knew them in this way, you didn’t know them in that great way.
EMK: And at the funeral, I know my mind isn’t 100% there. So, you hear these stories, but you go home, and it’s a blur. You want to remember, but you can’t reach out to them. This way it’s there, and you can process it on your own time. You can go back, and you can see the photos. If everyone brought photos to funerals, it would be lovely to look.
KB: And isn’t that such an interesting question about why. Why, sometimes, it’s at that particular moment that all these things are shared.
JL: Again, I feel it’s about healthy grieving. I also believe that the grief journey begins well before someone dies. That’s when the planning element comes in. And that’s when you can sit down with your loved ones and say, “You know, this is what I’m thinking about….” And often you get, “I don’t want to talk about that; you’re going to live forever, blah blah blah.” It’s the mentality, “We’re going to beat this thing,” and all of that.
KB: It’s interesting, because Liz wrote an article for the blog on the subject: “My mom and I talked about death, and it didn’t kill either one of us.” You get to a point where you can have that conversation. Sometimes that conversation is triggered by someone else dying and you see how chaotic and disorganized and unprepared they were. And that sparks you to say, “Well, I don’t want to do that to my family.”
I was just going to go back to something you [Johanna] said about wanting a green burial. If you never told anyone that, then you might be buried in a traditional casket, or you might be cremated. What I think we’re seeing now, where there are so many new options and alternatives that are coming out, is that people have a choice. And they can align even this aspect of their experience with their values and their style and their personality and with what they want. So, we created this thing that we call the MyFarewelling Five. What are those five things? What are the five most important things that you want? Is it a green ceremony? Is there certain music that you want played? Is it a vibe that you want there? We asked one woman and she said she wanted a boho (Bohemian) festival vibe, where people come, there’re guitars, people play music, there’s a fire. And it’s interesting, you ask some people, and they say, “I don’t care what you do with me, just put me in a garbage bag and throw me away.” [laughter] And I think, “Really?” Because if I said, “I’m going to do this,” they’d be saying, “No, no, no, no, no, don’t do that!” So, our goal is to try to create a personalized way to break that huge concept, or conversation, down into digestible chunks that you can work on one by one. That’s the next thing that we’re really trying to work on: how can we really personalize this experience based on where you are in your life right now? Because if you’re a young mother who just had a child, you might be thinking about making sure your children are protected and that you have your will in place, and you know you’ve organized your documents. If you are a single woman, as I am, maybe you have different priorities. If you are older, and you’re just trying to get things together, maybe you have more assets, maybe you’ve got more to consider. We want to try to be able to personalize it and just make it a little bit more modern, so it doesn’t feel quite so lawyery. The approach of a lot of resources is, “Get your affairs in order.” No.
JL: Right, right.
KB: Do it as a gift for yourself, because it’s a gift to yourself as much as it’s a gift to your family.
EMK: It’s challenging. It’s emotionally challenging. I think with Karen’s point too, it’s not lawyery, but there is emotion to this. And we want to break down that barrier and say, “We understand that this is hard for you, but (as Karen said), it’s gift to yourself and it’s a gift to those you love.”
JL: Liz, especially because you have this background as, well, a lot of things: a funeral director, an MBA, a thanatologist, and the author of Good Mourning, a great book. So, for you, how does coming into this virtual space change the way that you functioned in the past, in the traditional funeral home?
EMK: I believe this is where I, and all of us, are meant to be, and that this is a wonderful change to the world. I entered the industry primarily to change it. And this was 15 years ago. Karen will say the same thing. It used to be like how weddings were set up. You used to go to the church and have a reception downstairs. For funerals, you showed up. If you were having flowers, which flowers did you want? Ok, you say some prayers and done. Maybe you have shiva. Whatever it happened to be was very dictated. Now, obviously, personalization is everything. For years I worked in the industry, and personalization meant, “Do you want corners on your casket” [laughter], you know? Different flowers? etc. I think what Karen and I have done is highly personalized. And as you’ve said before, that’s not just at the time of the funeral. That’s the journey, and it’s making sure that continues throughout the process, as you’ve said, whatever stage you’re at. I’m a new mom. I’m creating a new will, and it’s really hard. And this is what I do! And I think that’s the most important part, that we both come to this place for personal reasons. As most people in the industry do, and to make sure that at the heart this matters, and this is serious. And every step of the way matters. The planning has an effect on the funeral, the funeral has an effect on the grief. I think the holistic aspect is what’s so important to us and making sure that each step of the way we are there to support. Maybe it’s just checking out the website and reading some articles and saying, “Ok, well, I’m comfortable doing that.” Maybe I’m comfortable enough looking at our checklist. And then to realize that this is an event, and that this is worth planning. And I think that, to me, as I’ve said with the memorial site, it’s that we’re where we’re supposed to be. Are we 100% there yet? No. Because we are still a select group of people who are comfortable having this conversation, and we’re not where weddings are yet, where it’s complete personalization, and you plan and you plan and you plan. But we should be. I think that, personally, I’m on board. I think the more ways we can meet people and assist with what makes them comfortable, the better. As you said, you talk with your daughter about what your plans are. That’s fantastic! I talk to my mom all the time. I talk to everyone, and because I’m a funeral person people are comfortable talking to me. But the important thing is not just that they talk to me, but that they write it down. Because when the time comes, raising my hand and saying, “I had the conversation,” is meaningless. And something we always push for is writing it down. Get your wishes out there. Have it be known. Take the time to think about it, because it is a gift to yourself and to those you love.
KB: I just want to put in a little plug: we do have a downloadable Farewelling worksheet in the planning section at MyFarewelling.com, where you can download a whole document. You can print it out and put it in a folder. It really walks you through many, many steps of not just gathering practical information, so that someone would easily be able to access that. But it also asks questions, like thought exercises, not only what do I want, but how would I tell somebody why I want this, so they could understand what is most important to me. So, people can download that. You don’t have to do it all at once. You can start on any page you like and just do a little bit here and there. You can keep it and just add to it as you like. We hope to have a fully digital version of that sometime soon where you can do it all online and save your information. It’s like with weddings, as Liz said, some people want to get married, but they want to elope to a mountain top, they want to be by themselves, and that’s their perfect wedding. Other people want to get married at the Pierre Hotel and wear a ball gown covered in crystals and tulle. Those are both amazing. And we want to let people know and understand and empower them to do all those different things for themselves based on what they want and what’s important to them. And for me, that’s the joy and beauty in what we’re doing. That’s where the meaning is: holding space for that personal aspect of things but then also knowing it’s not like a wedding, in that it’s not filled with the kind of easy joy that you have in that sort of celebration. But it is such an important life event.
JL: Right, right.
KB: As Liz said, it’s worth considering.
JL: Well, we’re all worth it.
JL: Ok, so I want to ask you, you’ve been what, four years with this company now?
EMK: Two years, we just had our two-year anniversary.
EMK: Yeah, at the end of November.
JL: Very good! So, what is your biggest surprise? What did you not expect when you opened up this great big can of wonderfulness?
KB: Liz, I’ll let you go first there.
EMK: I think, well, we were obviously all shocked by Covid and the change that made. Karen and I used to say, working next to each other every day, we have an amazing staff with us, and we get inspiration from each other every day working together. I think what Covid did was that it not only made us speed up how quickly we got memorial sites out and worked on, but also changed the entire landscape of the industry that we’re working in. I think that for us, it made us take a step back for a second, and home in on how to assist people, not only in the best way, but in the fastest way. And realizing that suddenly this was a topic that was front and center for people who weren’t planning on it. For the longest time, death happened to seniors, and it was natural. There were obviously outliers, but all of a sudden, we have a world in which death is the front and center topic. And so, for me, that was obviously the biggest challenge, but also the most fulfilling.
JL: Right. And so, Liz, was it overwhelming for you in those early days of Covid, where there was such an uptake?
EMK: I think it was an overwhelming time for everyone. I think for me the challenge was that I had a one-month-old baby, and I wanted to be on the front lines. And it was, as Karen has said as well, based on the need to help people. And as Karen also said, this is a vocation for me. I think anyone in this field has an overwhelming need to help. So, for the two of us, we’re not going to be on the front lines, so how do we help? And that’s grief, that’s making sure that even if you can’t be standing next to the person, and you can’t be physically hugging that person, you are making sure they are supported.
JL: Right, right.
EMK: And so, that was something. We had a hotline, a free hotline for a while, to help people. We were trying to do everything we could figuring this world out. It was really important for us to be there.
JL: Mmmhmmm, mmmhmmm. How did you take care of yourself?
EMK: [chuckles] That was challenging. I had the support of my family. I actually moved to the Berkshires to be with my senior mom, whom I was worried about as well. And I think what that time did was to teach all of us the importance of being with the family that you could be with. And the finiteness of life. I think it put into perspective what a lot of us are living with on a daily basis, which is tempus fugit [Latin for “time flies”], and it brought that front and center. For me, it is helping others that keeps me going.
JL: And Karen, what kind of self-care were you practicing?
KB: I live alone. I had just moved to Brooklyn three weeks before this all happened, and I didn’t really know my neighborhood. So, suddenly I was just in confinement. But I don’t really have a problem with working in a solitary way. I’m a writer, I can think deeply about things. So, I found sometimes that the solitude was helpful to me, as I was envisioning things for the company. But just personally, I got into a daily meditative practice, and I found that to be really helpful. I just tried to create calm around myself as much as I could. And I decided that I was going to make my life as small as I possibly could in that moment; to try to be like a good citizen. So, I really did not leave my apartment. I mean, I live in a big apartment building, so I just stayed inside. There’s a beautiful book, I can’t remember the name of the author, but it’s called, Wintering. I took that idea of just cocooning myself. There were sirens going off all around my apartment all the time, so I just tried to do the things that I can. I would exercise. I think exercise is really important, as well. There may have been a time where I didn’t hoard toilet paper, but I did hoard Rosé. [laughter from everyone]
JL: That’s your priority there! [laughter]
KB: I did want to say, on the surprise question that you asked: I think I come to it from a different perspective. Liz was already a veteran in the industry, but I was really coming from a completely different world, and I was afraid of it. And I was intrigued by it, and I knew that something needed to be done, and I thought that I could use my skills. But coming into it, I had to talk to myself for months to say, “Karen, are you going to want to wake up,” and I mean, this is way before Covid, “Are you going to want to wake up every day and think about dying? Is that something you want to make the center of your work?” I was basically a bon vivant running around designing celebrity weddings. And so, I let myself take a few months and I started getting to know people. Liz was one of those people. Liz introduced me to some other people in the funeral industry. And you know I had all the same misconceptions about people in the funeral industry that almost everyone else does: That they’re going to be scary, that you’re not going to want to talk to them, that if you get too close to them something bad is going to happen. [chuckles] I remember the first time that I met Liz, I thought she’s so vibrant and charming and such a positive person. And that is by and large what I have encountered. It’s like a spirit of openness, of help, of people who’ve served their community, and also brilliant. Brilliant, brilliant people who are thinking about these problems. So, I was just blown away by the surprise, and by the amount of meaning that I have found in my work over these last few years. It’s transformed my life.
EMK: A funny tidbit that I just realized I did when Karen said exercise, was that I walked around cemeteries. That was my exercise. I had this little baby in a pouch, and my exercise was in places that were vacant and safe. And almost every day I would walk around cemeteries, and it was so great for my mind, not only to be out and about, but also to remember that these lives matter. Sorry to interject, but I just thought, everybody should go take a walk in a cemetery. It’s good for the soul.
JL: I couldn’t agree more. I like walking in cemeteries. They’re very quiet, peaceful, and beautiful. Alright, Liz, I’ll ask you first because this is your calling and you’ve been in this world and immersed yourself and decided to disrupt the industry (which is the best). Are you afraid of dying? Are you afraid of death, I should say.
EMK: It’s interesting you say that. I wasn’t until I became a mom. I lost my father when I was 21, and he was my favorite person on the planet. And for a while I felt invincible in some way because if you lose that person, then nothing else matters, right? That’s a very common thought after losing someone. And I always figured when I died, I would be reunited with him. And I will say, after having a child my mind did a 180. I struggled. One of the things that we provide on MyFarewelling.com are guides to funeral homes. I’m responsible for writing those, and early on I would find myself reading obituaries. It used to be that I would read them because I was interested in the historical part of it, and honoring lives, and suddenly it became very real to me. Am I afraid of dying? I’m not, because I think that’s an irrational fear. I simply pray and hope that everyone around me is ok afterwards. And that I’m able to go through it peacefully and naturally and that’s a hope. I will say, I think that’s healthy. I think that it makes me a better mom, a better wife, a better human, and a better part of civilization. I think that part of it is that I do cherish each day and that’s been true forever. I’ve said this from the beginning: when I wake up, I’m grateful that I’m vertical, each and every day. By the way, that story is 21 years old, which is rare. So, I do think of having some thought about death. Fear is not the right word, but awareness of it. So, I don’t have a fear, I have an awareness. And I think that keeps me quite grounded. Does that answer it? [chuckles]
JL: Yes, that’s beautiful. That’s great. Karen, what about you? What’s the journey with that question been like?
KB: I don’t think I can top that one. I would say that the origin story of Farewelling comes out of the fact that my younger sister had a very serious bout with a rare cancer. She’s fine now, thank God, but when that happened, I was thrown into a tailspin. I was like, “Whoa, mortality!” We’re all going to die. I was living with a lot of fear at that time. Now I would say, I think because intellectually, I explored it, and I’ve explored it with my experiences with other families, it’s less a fear of dying than it is, maybe a fear of being ill for a long period of time. Or having a difficult journey at that point. But also, it’s a sadness because I love life so much, and I feel like I have so many things I want to do. And so, I do have that same sense of really cherishing life. But if I really sit and think about it, it’s poignant to me. I get a little wistful about it, because I’m thinking, “Ok, ok, I won’t be afraid, but can I just stick around forever?” [chuckles] So, maybe I don’t think about it in such a clear light as Liz is able to do. I’m a little fuzzier around the edges, but I’m doing the best I can. [chuckles]
JL: I feel like it’s the journey really. That our relationship to death shifts and changes all the time. It’s about making friends.
KB: One of the most inspirational books that I read in the beginning, when I was thinking about Farewelling was called, Advice for Future Corpses (and Those Who Love Them) by the brilliant hospice nurse, and intellectual giant, Sallie Tisdale. That book changed my life. I ended up interviewing her for our podcast, and she said something that has always stuck with me. And it’s not a quote, I’m just paraphrasing here, but it was that she wants to remain awake and curious until the very last moment as much as she possibly can. And to live that moment fully. Live the moment of dying as fully as she can. And I thought, “Oh my God; that blows my mind.” I’m aiming for that.
EMK: It’s the journey. It is going to come and go and both Karen and I feel that this moment, well, I’m not ready to leave that part of me. I mean, this isn’t as good as it gets. We’re both happy, and I speak to a bunch of my friends who have lost parents, and again, it’s the same as grief. It’s ebbs and flows. I sat with my grandmother, and she said, “I’m ready to go. Let’s chat.” And she passed shortly thereafter. And that’s beautiful to me. And to be honest, it’s not that I don’t grieve her, but I grieve her differently because I was able to have a conversation with her that she was ready. It’s sad for me, but it’s not sad for her, as opposed to those that were taken too soon. In both their and our opinions.
KB and JL: Yeah, yeah.
JL: Well, thank you both so much. Like I’ve been saying all along, I love what you’re doing. I think it’s incredibly beneficial to people. And keep going. Keep going.
KB: Thank you so much. You know we feel such a synergy with what you’re doing and thank you for having this conversation with us. And helping us to spread the word, and to help more people.
JL: That’s great.
EMK: Thank you so much.
JL: Thank you!
Award-winning producer, director, and writer, Johanna has crafted, and assisted in crafting, many compelling, entertaining, and profoundly thought-provoking programs during her 20+ years in the business. Her work has received eight Gemini (Canadian equivalent of an Emmy) nominations and taken home three awards. In addition to producing more than 150 hours of television series and one-offs as an in-house executive producer, she has made independent documentaries for her own companies, Wild East Productions and Centre East Media, and won best documentary at Hot Docs International Film Festival for her moving and timely film, Forgiveness: Stories for Our Time. She has worked as Director of Programming for Alliance Atlantis and played a key role in the launch of IFC—The Independent Film Channel Canada. Prior to that, Johanna was Head of Independent Production for CTV, Canada’s #1 network. She created View-finders, the first competitive international children’s film festival in English-speaking Canada, and was Artistic Director of the Atlantic Film Festival. Years of programming and producing have honed her storytelling talents. Johanna’s most recent documentary, An Uncommon King, is still making its way around the world through festivals and iTunes.