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Shatzi Weisberger: Meet The 91-Year-Old Death Educator

shatzi weisberger

If you're reading this, you're going to die. It's one of the only certain things in life — something Shatzi Weisberger knows well. At 91-years-old, the retired nurse now works as a death educator, helping people to dismantle their fears and worries about dying. She also helps people figure out what they want their dying process to look like. Just like in life, your death can also be approached with intentionality. 

A lifelong activist, Weisberger has been a fixture at marches and protests in New York City. Whether marching against police brutality or with Jewish Voice for Peace, Weisberger is there with one of her famous signs. 

On the LGBTQ&A podcast this week, she says, "I was a political lesbian for many years. I just loved being around lesbians...one of my earlier demonstrations was here in New York City and we did a die-in along with other people lying on the ground. And I started to cry because I felt that I was in the right place, doing the right things with the right people. I felt very together about it. I have been an activist ever since." 

You can listen to the full interview with Shatzi Weisberger on Apple Podcasts or read excerpts below. 

Jeffrey Masters: Have you always been interested in and comfortable with death, or has that only come with age?
SW: Well, I was a nurse for 47 years and my main interest was birth, coming into the world, and death, leaving the world. I wasn't comfortable with death. I was interested in it. And about five or six years ago, I was bored. And I said, "I have to have a project." And I thought "I'll become a death educator." So I took a five-month, 70-hour course at the Open Center on thanatology, the art of dying, and I took a hospice course with the New York City visiting nurse service, and I started doing workshops on the art of dying.

And as I was doing the workshops and as I was learning all about it, I did become much more comfortable, yes.

JM: Was it something you specifically learned that made you more comfortable with it or was it just the exposure?
SW: I think it was a combination of both of those things. I actually came to somewhat of a different perspective than the mainstream art of dying, though it's becoming more popular.

The mainstream perspective deals primarily with palliative care. I totally, totally support lessening pain and anxiety. But that goal, it is often achieved by drugging the dying person at end of life, and therefore the person is semiconscious, sometimes even unconscious. If somebody wants that to be their end of life, I totally support it. But I would like people to know that there are other options.

JM: What are those options? 
SW: This is what I hope for my end of life. I hope that I will have time to experience my dying process. I want to be home in my own bed. A friend of mine has offered to be with me. I want to be able to have my friends come and say their goodbyes.

And for many years now I have been creating a bequeath list and whenever my friends came to the house, I told them, "Look around. See what you like because when I die, I want it to be yours." Because I love my home and I'm very attached to my stuff. I really love my stuff, so I want it to go to happy homes. And so all around the house, I have little tags on different items as to who it's going to go to.

At my end of life, I want people to come, say their goodbyes, pick up their bequeath items, and I don't want to be drugged. I don't want morphine, but I don't want to be in pain. So I have arranged for an acupuncturist to come if I am in pain.

JM: Is science good enough that you'll know for certain when it's the end? I would be afraid that your friends say goodbye and take all your possessions away, then you're here for three more years.
SW: That sometimes does happen. But if I have a terminal illness and my organs are failing, it's not likely. When I do die, my friend who I mentioned that's going to be with me and two other dear friends are going to prepare my body. They're going to bathe me and wrap me in a shroud because I am going to have a green burial. I'm not going to have a coffin. I could if I wanted to, as long as it would be biodegradable. Either cardboard or wicker, even pine. Jewish burials, which are in pine coffins, are actually green burials, although we don't think of it that way. Or most people don't, but it's actually a green burial.

I'll be wrapped in a shroud and Amy is going to drive my body upstate. I have a spot in the woods upstate and I'm going to be buried there in the woods. At some point, my body will start to deteriorate and something will grow. It might just be weeds or it might be a bush or a flower. It might be a tree. So I perceive my end of life as bringing life into the world. That's what I'm hoping for. Whether or not it happens that way, who knows? We'll have to see, but that's my desire.

JM: Where does the discomfort around death come from? The fact that we don't know what happens? Is it about pain? 
SW: Actually, up until quite recently, there wasn't much people could do in terms of pain and pain relief and I think perhaps people weren't as afraid of pain as we are today. We really don't want to have any pain whatsoever, as if pain is not part of life, as if dying is not part of life.

JM: My fear is that if I'm 90-years old and can't walk or talk, if my mind has completely deteriorated, that I would be kept alive by medicine and hospital machines for another 10 years like that. 
SW: I totally understand that. Absolutely. And of course, there's a big movement around that. It's called medically assisted end of life. There aren't that many states that actually do have that as the law. I prefer VSED: Voluntarily Stopping Eating and Drinking. To me, that is a much more intimate, personal decision.

A good friend of mine chose VSED. It took her 10 days and then she was dead. But it can take longer. It can take a few weeks. But people think, Oh, I couldn't go without food. It's not a big deal. You get a little thirsty. My friend occasionally would ask for a sip of ginger ale, but that did not hydrate her.

JM: And for something like Alzheimer's, that is defined as fatal but affects your brain and so many are not able to ask for a medically assisted end of life. 
SW: Oh, definitely. Definitely. It's quite a complicated procedure. It differs from state to state, but in general, you have to have two doctors who will ascertain that you will die within six months. That is generally the case.

Now some people who can afford it go to Switzerland, although it is a little complicated there as well. It could be at any point in your life. It doesn't have to be just a confirmation end of life.

JM: Moving on from death, what has been the hardest part of aging for you?
SW: I'll be 92 in June, which is coming up real soon, which I think is amazing. And only very recently, I started to experience quite a bit of pain in my right foot. I do have a deformity there, but generally, I wasn't in much pain.

It's hard for me to walk, even not walking, even just sitting, the foot does pain me. So when I think of it, I think how lucky I am that here I am almost 92 and I'm experiencing chronic pain for the first time. It's amazing. So many people suffer so much, and I have been very blessed, very lucky. Aging has been pretty easy for me. I have been very lucky.

JM: You've been a lifelong activist. What were those early causes you were fighting for? 
SW: I was a political lesbian for many years. I just loved being around lesbians...I was very much into arguing against nuclear technology. My first demonstration, one of my earlier demonstrations was here in New York City and we did a die-in along with other people lying on the ground. And I started to cry because I felt that I was in the right place doing the right things with the right people. I felt very together about it. I have been an activist ever since.

Click here to listen to the full interview with Shatzi Weisberger

This is part of LGBTQ&A's new LGBTQ+ Elders Project. Click here to listen to an interview with the 87-year-old trans elder Barbara Satin.

LGBTQ&A is The Advocate's weekly interview podcast hosted by Jeffrey Masters. Past guests include Pete Buttigieg, Laverne Cox, Brandi Carlile, Billie Jean King, and Roxane Gay. 

New episodes come out every Tuesday.

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