Earlier this month, I wrote about local entrepreneur Justin Crowe, whose innovative plan to revolutionize cremation won him this year's top prize at BizMIX and just may shake up the entire "death industry." I figured that article would likely suffice in terms of writing about innovation in the death industry—at least for the year. Like most people with arrested development, I prefer to not think about death and, moreover, how many innovative death industry stories are there in one small to midsize town?

At least one more, as it happens.

This week, in addition to the midterm elections (Nov. 6, please vote) and Halloween (if you happen to be dressed as a unicorn on Wednesday afternoon, please stop by the Reporter office so I can see you—I could use some cheering up), the Before I Die New Mexico Festival is coming to town. Well, several towns, actually. The festival began Oct. 30 and runs through Nov. 4 with more than 30 events in Santa Fe, Albuquerque and Belen.

Events include a fair amount of frank conversations about death—the emotional, physical and financial realities thereof; a cremated remains committal service (free but must be pre-arranged); and a brewpub gathering with millennial morticians (that's in Albuquerque, natch), which also features a round of The Newly Dead Game. Also on the festival schedule: a tour of the Office of the Medical Investigator (registration required), films (Defending Your Life among them) and, of course, the chance to purchase urns and caskets, as well as tour cemeteries. Plus: Attendees can win two free burial plots. Check out beforeidienm.com for the complete schedule.

Festivals such as these are less common in the United States, but part of a growing social movement intended to help society face issues about mortality with honesty and humor. Festival coordinator Gail Rubin is a certified thanatologist, or death educator, whose work has pioneered different ways of helping people plan ahead to "help minimize the grief and the strife," she says. "We all have a 100 percent mortality rate, but less than 30 percent of adults do any end-of-life planning. So that's going to leave 70 percent or more of our loved ones scrambling to pull together information, make expensive decisions under duress or grief … and it doesn't have to be that way."

Last year's festival, limited to Albuquerque, drew 600 people. This year increases both the number of cities for events, as well as sponsors and speakers. The event also innovates in the field by combining discussions, films and other types of interactive activities for people to explore a topic that often goes undiscussed.

Rubin's work in the field began in 2000, she says, when she married for the second time and had, as she describes it, "a creative Jewish Western wedding." She decided she wanted to write a book about  "creative life cycles events." She began writing a monthly feature for the Albuquerque Tribune, and her stories about deaths and funerals received the most response. From there, she dug in further. "I approached it as the party no one wants to plan," she said.

Rubin is the author of three books on end-of-life issues, including A Good Goodbye: Funeral Planning for Those Who Don't Plan to Die.

Certified death educator Gail Rubin’s Before I Die New Mexico Festival is part of a movement to help people plan for the inevitable in an approachable way.
Certified death educator Gail Rubin’s Before I Die New Mexico Festival is part of a movement to help people plan for the inevitable in an approachable way. | Courtesy Gail Rubin

I found Rubin's frank and humorous take on these issues refreshing, particularly during a week of unremitting horror. She acknowledges she's been "an innovator in this field," but says "people in the funeral industry are recognizing that things are changing and people want information, but they don't want to be sold. I think the funeral industry is finally starting to come around to realize, 'Gee, I guess we have to try something different.'"

I had spoken with Rubin about the festival prior to the Oct. 27 mass shooting in Pittsburgh, but I circled back Monday morning to ask her how such horrific events impacted the work she does. She expects the topic to surface this week during the festival's discussions.

"One of the elements you realize when you talk about death on a regular basis is that a lot of people are carrying grudges, and that becomes a heavy weight that is detrimental to yourself and to the people in society," she says. Tragedies provide an opportunity, she says, to "appreciate every single day," and to talk with others. In her own private reflections on the shootings, she said, "I was stunned; I was angry, sad, and not sure what to do with it." Coming together to share "our thoughts about death and how it can happen so unexpectedly can actually be a healthy thing for us all to do."

Before I Die New Mexico Festival
1 pm-7 pm Thursday Nov. 1. Free. Santa Fe events are held at Berardinelli McGee Event Center, 1320 Luisa St.; additional events in Albuquerque and Belen through Nov. 4. Full schedule at beforeidienm.com.