How a Grieving Mother Set Out to Reclaim Death

Zafer's coffin is carried to the stage by his friends. . Kevin Bobal

"My dear friends, our lives are changed forever. My beautiful hard-headed, hilarious, sweet, sweet son Zafer made a huge error."

On April 17, 2016, my friend Tami Schwerin posted this message on Facebook. That's how we learned that her son Zafer — "Z" for short — had died after taking heroin while away at college in Colorado. On Nov. 5 of that same year, Tami, her husband Lyle, and her rural community of Pittsboro, North Carolina, came together with people from across the region for the 2016 Death Faire. The promotional materials for the event included this intriguing promise:

"This does not have to be a deep dive into the darkest corners of your soul. But if you want to go there, we welcome you! Come curious. Leave with peace of mind."

The program for the Death Faire featured workshops on DIY funerals, green burials, ancestral healing, a circus show, DED talks (instead of TED Talks) and copious amounts of cocktails and food. The idea was to explore ways that we can retake ownership of death — something that for many people has become a clinical, outsourced experience. Through that process, says Tami, the hope was that we could learn something about how we live our lives too.

shrine photo
A Dia De Los Muertos shrine to people we've lost at the 2016 Death Faire. Cam Carrithers/Sidewalk Digital Media

An exclamation point to an ongoing story

While Z's death added a weight and poignancy to the faire, it was a journey that had begun long before. As the founder of a nonprofit called Abundance NC — an organization that focuses on renewable energy, local food and community resilience — Tami had already been hosting death-related events.

"My neighbor, Chris, was dying of ALS," she explained. "We had been exploring ways that we could accompany him on his journey. In December 2015, we hosted an event with Stephen Jenkinson, author of Die Wise. We had people travel here from Georgia and Tennessee, and we sold out 130 seats. We had to book the local church because it was the only space in town big enough to seat so many people."

funeral procession photo
A New Orleans-style funeral procession at the Death Faire. Cam Carrithers/Sidewalk Digital Media

The success of that event led to an ongoing series of discussions and gatherings, entitled Death & Cupcakes, and hosted by local poet, realtor, preacher and friend Gary Phillips. It also led to a realization about the work that Tami was doing:

"So many people were drawn to our gatherings because of losses in their lives. I was sort of a holder of other peoples' grief. Truthfully, I also saw this as an opportunity for Abundance. We've become so disconnected from death, there's a hunger out there to rethink how we approach this experience that touches us all. And then Z died in April."

Following Z's death, friends and family traveled to Pittsboro to help organize his burial. Tami and Lyle hosted what they now describe as a nonstop party for seven days straight. There were committees to discuss everything from catering to the ceremony to burial. Given the imminent death of their neighbor Chris, Tami and Lyle had already been exploring the legality of burial on their own land.

Lyle documented the process of identifying and preparing a grave site in a heartbreaking blog post:

"Arlo [Zafer's younger brother] pulled in with our little backhoe. I walked up with a shovel. He did most of the work. I admired his fluidity at the controls given the tears running down his dusty face. There was a small holly tree that was marked for deletion. I saved it and transplanted it down at our house. My brother Glen pitched in. And so did Joe Kenlan. In no time we had a grave dug for Zafer. Check. I was walking home with a spade over my shoulder when I fell apart."

A gathering of hundreds, a coffin made of pine

family around coffin photo
The family gathers to bid farewell to Z. Kevin Bobal

When the funeral followed a few days later, hundreds of people gathered at The Plant — an old aircraft manufacturing facility that has been converted into an eco-industrial park. Speakers, officiants and musicians were all friends and family of Z, and he was carried by a young posse of pallbearers in a simple, pine coffin from Piedmont Pine Coffins. His younger brother drove him to his final resting place in the old pickup truck he loved so much. Even the truck became a reminder of how little many of us know about the practicalities of death, says Tami:

"At one of our planning meetings back at the house, we talked about how we'd get Z to the grave. Did we need a hearse? Was just anyone allowed to drive him? The committee soon began to insist that the truck was the one and only option, and I knew immediately that it was right. But still, was it even legal?"

coffin in pickup truck photo
Zafer's younger brother, Arlo, drives him to his resting place. The legality of transporting a body was just one of the details the family was forced to research due to lack of common knowledge. Kevin Bobal

By taking control of the basic tasks at hand — washing, bathing, transportation, planning — a funeral becomes very, very real. And it was this realness that Tami believes helped the family to move forward:

"This wasn't about closure. I didn't want closure. But I did need to keep my grief moving, and all of these little things we were doing helped us to spend time thinking about what Z would have wanted. There were many times I could feel him looking down on me and rolling his eyes, or laughing along with us. But it was frustrating that we knew so little about what was and wasn't allowed."

A primal recognition of grief

It wasn't all about the practicalities and legalities, though. Tami also credits a large part of her healing to a friend who introduced her to keening, the ritual of wailing or singing in grief for a dead person:

"We went out to Z's grave site and just wailed. It was surreal, but just letting go and grieving so primally was incredible. I felt my grief shift inside me."

lyle and tami photo
Lyle Estill and Tami Schwerin at the Death Faire. Cam Carrithers/Sidewalk Digital Media

Indeed, the idea that we can separate the practical from the spiritual is part of the dominant paradigm that the Death Faire sought to change. In many cultures, there really is little separation between the physical and emotional or spiritual elements of grieving for the dead. That's why a large focus of the Death Faire also came to be about intercultural exchange and understanding.

A local group called El Vinculo Hispano (Hispanic Liaison) became a co-host, and much of the program was organized around Dia De Los Muertos (Day of the Dead) festivities and traditions.

"Everyone came to the party for the Death Faire. It was an incredibly diverse crowd — we had babies, we had 90-year-olds. We had Black, White, and Hispanic. Organizers of a local 5k 'Day of the Dead' run and street faire donated their alter for the day. I guess everyone experiences death, so it's as good a topic as any to bring communities together."

Death Faire 2016 photographs
Children enjoying the festivities (and facepaint) at the 2016 Death Faire. Cam Carrithers/Sidewalk Digital Media

How do we get a better handle on death?

In closing our conversation, I asked Tami what she thinks are the most important things we can do to prepare ourselves to better handle death:

"Build tight community, that's number one. Our community was already tight, and has only gotten tighter. I don't know what I would have done without them. We also need to be more open about death: talking about our own wishes, asking others what they want when they die, and educating ourselves on the incredible power and autonomy we have to make our own arrangements. But you don't want to wait until you're grieving to start those discoveries, because that's when you're at your most vulnerable. Humor was crucial too — it's OK to laugh even when your heart is breaking. In fact, that's when you need it the most."

And finally, she suggests, referring back to her experience of wailing at Z's gravesite:

"Keening. I recommend lots and lots of keening."

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This article is dedicated to Zafer Estill, and all who loved him. It's also dedicated to everyone seeking to reverse the epidemic of opioid use that is destroying so many lives.