Tag Archives: death

The afterlife of trees

Humans have a strange obsession with tidying up fallen trees. Fair enough if you need to move them off a footpath or out of a road, but a fallen tree is a gift that keeps on giving. Taking fallen wood for fuel or make something can also make sense, but taking it away because it’s deemed untidy is ridiculous.

First up there’s the should-be-obvious point that if you leave a tree to rot down it will slowly return nutrients to the soil, feeding everything else.

A fallen tree provides a home for fungi – sometimes many different kinds. It also provides homes for insects, and as the holes in it get bigger it may provide a refuge for small creatures as well. The insects homed in a dead tree in turn provide a food supply for birds and the aforementioned small creatures, who in turn provide food for predators. Things eating each other is the basis of how the natural world gets things done.

In parks, gardens and managed woodlands, I think the problem is that humans try to impose weird beauty standards on nature. Decay is part of nature. The urge to impose human values is a very human problem. Nature tends not to grow monocultures in straight lines. We train ourselves to tidy up all signs of death and decay and it is an unhealthy and destructive urge. Dead seed heads feed small birds through the winter months. Long, straggly grass provides insects with homes. Dead trees have an amazing afterlife that, even as decay is underway, is full of new life.

Out there in the real world, decay and growth go hand in hand. One thing dies and another thing rises. Beautiful fungi forms emerge from the rotting wood. Dead trees are a key part of the life of the forest. Humans too often treat decay as something to fight and try to control. It offends us. It reminds us that our faces won’t stay smooth and unblemished. It reminds us that we are mortal. We don’t like being reminded that we are mortal, and so we go to great lengths to hide mortality from ourselves. We worry about afterlives we can only imagine, while failing to recognise the beauty and power of the physical afterlife that turns our remains into something new.

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Talking to children about death

Not so long back, a neighbour spelled out the word ‘dead’ to us in a conversation so that her small daughter would not understand what was being talked about. It’s normal not to talk to small children about death, and I remember being young enough that there were things so terrible no one would explain them to me. I remember how frightened I felt about the things I was not allowed to know, and how unreasonable and threatening the world seemed.

Normal people don’t take children to funerals. My son was four when his great grandmother died. I took him to see her at the funeral parlour, because I wanted him to understand what was going on. I took him to the funeral and to her burial. For quite a while thereafter, she was the great granny who went in a box in the ground, and he was ok with that. We talked a bit about how no one really knows what happens when you die, and that it’s ok not to know, and nothing to be afraid of.

That autumn featured a dead crow – hit by a car – which proceeded to decompose at the end of our road, on the pavement we walked down to get to school. He dealt with this by writing a song about it, and we talked about why it isn’t a good idea to get in the way of cars. He’s always been very, very sensible about traffic.

When a friend of ours died, too young, and I was asked to be the celebrant at her funeral, my son stepped up to help where other adults were unable to – unafraid by the size of the gathering for a start.

We’re able to talk about death. He knows my funeral preferences. (In order of preference, air burial, eaten by a vulture, naked in a foetal position and covered in ochre, shroud, cardboard coffin).

My philosophy has always been that if a child asks a question, then they need an answer. They need a good, solid sort of answer that won’t set them up for confusion later on. Whether it’s sex, death, infinity, terrorism, or anything else big or scary, they need something that makes sense in a language that does not overly distress them. By normal parenting standards, I’ve been an outrageous over-sharer. But I’ve got a teenage son who has known about menstruation for so long that it’s no big deal to him.

I’ve also got a teenage son who trusts me, because he’s not at the moment going through the process of establishing just how much I lied to him when he was growing up. I’ve got a teenager who can take my authority when I need to pull rank, because he knows I won’t bullshit him or fob him off with answers that are more about my comfort than his. It turns out that’s worth a great deal.


Sex, Death and Blame

Trigger warnings – nothing graphic but the territory is unpleasant.

The idea that it might be appropriate to kill someone because of their sexual activities, or imagined sexual activities, has been with us for a long time. It may be one of humanity’s fundamental problems, that all too often we are happier to deal with violence and murder, than we are to let people get on with shagging people in the manner of their choosing. The control of female sexuality, and the eradicating of any LGBTQ expressions tend to be at the heart of this.

The need to respond to sex with death tends not to be a reaction to rapists, or child molesters (people talk about it, I grant you, but it tends to be all noise). So there’s no grounds here for suggesting that this sort of violence is born of moral outrage, there’s nothing logical or natural about it. Where adultery is more offensive than rape, where consenting adult sex is more offensive than child abuse, we’ve got something seriously wrong. This is not about disgust, clearly.

My theory is this. People who kill in response to other people’s sex lives, may be doing it as an act of control and keeping power over others. Another possible explanation is that some repressed urge is being projected outwards. How often do apparently homophobic politicians get caught with rent boys? It’s become a cliché. If we think about what other people do, and feel things that we can’t deal with, blaming the person who ‘caused’ that feeling is a way of not dealing with desire, or fear of the power of the other. People perhaps kill not to eradicate the other, but to try and eradicate the feelings in themselves that they are unable to own. And when you get down to it, that’s pretty fucking tragic.

For a long time now, many of us have been saying that a person’s body, their clothing, how they dance, how they walk – these are not invitations to sex. We need to get clearer that a person’s sex life is not an invitation to violence and death. It doesn’t matter how promiscuous and unfaithful a person is, there is no justification in this in killing them. Dump them if you need to, but that’s all the entitlement there is. It doesn’t matter who a person is shagging, who you think they shag, or what you think that means. It is not a motive. We have to do away with the idea that a ‘crime of passion’ is in any way a thing.

We have to name these hate crimes for what they are. It was painfully obvious around the Orlando shootings of 2016 that many people didn’t want to deal with this as a hate crime against gay men. So many people were so quick to talk about how mentally ill the killer was. If we don’t name these acts as what they are – acts of violence carried out by people who think that sex justifies death – there’s a kind of complicity. It’s a silence that enables. We’re going to have to keep saying this one: What people do consentingly with other people’s genitals is not a justification for violence at all ever under any circumstances. What people do unconsentingly to others with their genitals, or to the genitals of others is not justified, or acceptable, ever, at all, under any circumstances.


No one gets out of here alive

As far as I can tell, I have always had a consciousness of mortality. As soon as I had the words available to me, I started asking awkward questions about death, and god, and eternity and all that stuff. As a three year old proto-existentialist, I was sent to Sunday School. If anyone had taken me seriously, I’d probably have signed up in earnest. I needed answers. What I got was fuzzy felt and things to colour in.

During my childhood I managed to make some peace with the idea that everything dies, the distance between stars, and what it would mean to go on forever. Sometimes these things kept me awake at night. I hit my teens determined to live as though any given day might be my last. It’s a philosophy that has, on the whole, stood me in good stead. That ‘might’ is important because it creates room for long term thinking, too. Along the way I have buried friends, and watched friends suddenly bury loved ones as well. Disease, and accident can come out of nowhere. We do not know how long we have, and we don’t know how long anyone else has, either.

That consciousness of death stops me from taking anything or anyone for granted. It hardwires gratitude into my awareness, because every day I get to the end of without having lost something or someone precious to me, is a bit of a win. I tell the people I love that I love them, because I won’t take the risk that no further opportunities to say it may arise.

Death has taught me that the things we regret not saying and not doing can really stay on and haunt you. It’s not the mistakes that hurt, it’s the failing to sort them out afterwards. The questions not asked, the words left unspoken.

Being afraid of death may make a person wary of acting, nervous about living. To be oblivious to death can be to make poor risk judgements, or to fail to really grasp the moment. A consciousness of death keeps life in perspective. It shows up the petty dramas for what they are, and it also throws a thwacking great spotlight onto the bits, the people, the things that really matter. It means not putting off until tomorrow anything that can be done today, in case the opportunity doesn’t come round again. It means squeezing as much out of living as is possible.

I don’t always get this right of course. Some of my priorities haven’t been too clever, and there are still things I regret not saying, and things I cannot fix. But on the whole, my consciousness of limited time has served me well. It colours every choice I make, everything I say yes to and everything I decline. I have an awareness that you can turn out to be saying ‘no’ forever if someone dies, and not know when you said it, that it would be such an absolute. I take my smaller decisions seriously as a consequence. Often, the little things are all any of us has, and they become the big things by dint of timing and context.

It’s not a dress rehearsal, this, so far as any of us know. We might be collecting points towards a shiny afterlife, but then again we might not. I prefer to live as though this is all I’m getting – it focuses the mind somewhat. I know there are some schools of thought that without a sense of afterlife and consequences, we will live irresponsibly and without virtue. I don’t find that to be the case, but instead feel that the desire for a life lived well is motivation enough to try and do the right things for the right reasons.


R.I.P. Off! or The British Way of Death

By Ken West

In the 1960’s I killed barn owls. It was not a conscious decision. The people in control instructed me to spray the new wonder chemicals, invented by the Americans, over the old cemetery. The weeds and long grass disappeared, as did the voles, the food source of the owls. Nobody noticed – or cared!

This happened all over the UK. Ten years later, less ignorant and in control of cemeteries and crematoria myself, I introduced conservation management in cemeteries. The results were astonishing. Acres of rare pignut, a plant that once fed the poor, appeared, followed by voles; the owls returned.

Years later, and offering a Funeral Advisory Service, two women, possibly pagans, wanted advice on burial in their garden. I told them it was feasible, but that it would depress the property sale price. I discovered that they sought garden burial because this was the only way that they could be buried under a tree and thereby satisfy their environmental and spiritual philosophy.

Because of these events, I wrote a feasibility study for natural burial, the first time that human burial was integrated with conservation. This was accepted by Carlisle City Council and we opened the world’s first site in 1993. It was a traumatic time; funeral directors hated the idea, not least the prohibition of embalming. They were apoplectic when I first mentioned cardboard coffins. Natural burial was also a threat to cremationists because it highlighted the energy and pollution problems with the process. Increasingly labelled a weirdo, I was grateful for the support from pagans, environmentalists and the artistic community.

There are now more natural burial sites than crematoria in the UK (270+) and the idea is going universal. It has created the market for green coffins and reinvigorated burial. It also gave greater emphasis to the emerging funeral celebrant, expanding options for more spiritual and earth centred services.

After 45 years in the work, I retired with new purpose; to get people to discuss death and dying (see www.naturalburialcreator.co.uk). My first book, a specialist title, was ‘A Guide to Natural Burial’ published in 2010.

Based on my experience introducing natural burial, I wrote “R.I.P. Off! or: The British Way of Death” to show how the funeral market is stitched up; how it shuts out innovation. I wanted to convey information, without the dry blandness of a self help book, so that the reader could take control of a funeral themselves, even to the point of doing one without a funeral director. But, as nobody wants to read about death, how could I appeal to readers? Bookshops welcome writers on children’s stories and romance, but not death. I opted for black humour, and a series of cameos based on true events; an expose of the funeral world.

Getting to the other side has never been easy; or cheap! The Egyptians needed their ornate tombs; the Romans to cross the River Styx and the Vikings to sacrifice an entire longship. The Americans renamed this palaver the death care industry and set new rules; the funeral director became a salesman in a black suit, the coffins were given fancy names like ‘The Balmoral’ and nobody was allowed to mention the word death.


Tales of a cat

10347718_736056113125649_1543153868636724075_nI had thought today I would be writing an elegy for a much loved cat. It is not quite as I had anticipated.

Mr Cat, also known sometimes as Mason Rumblepurr and a whole host of other titles, gave up on being a corporeal cat last week, having had several strokes. He was nearly 17 and had lived a good life. He came to me aged ten, from a happy home because his people were emigrating. He travelled with me, to cottage, narrowboat and finally this flat. He loved boat life, and was happiest there with the woodstove and an abundance of opportunities for sunbathing, and beating up dogs. He was a glorious and eccentric cat, partial to chilli, and with a veritable fetish for balls of wool. He was excellent company; a friendly chap who regularly won hearts.

And at this point, I was expecting to say how much we are going to miss him.

To miss something, you need to feel its absence. He was such a strong presence, and he remains that. What we have instead is the strange journey of coming to terms with a physical absence, along with a keen sense that we remain a family of four, one of whom is just a bit less tangible than previously.

I have no coherent stories about what happens when we die. I have a suspicion that it isn’t a single event, just as being born means very different things for different people. Perhaps death is as individual as life. I hope so.


Funeral Urns

Here’s something a bit different for you: Funeral urns.

DSC_0303I met artist Varda Zisman through Stroud’s Death Cafe’s, and then during the Clocking Off Festival I became aware of her work around urns.

 

For those who have loved ones cremated, the keeping of ashes can be a tricky thing – what do you keep them in? I think these pieces are a perfect answer – something beautiful, personal, life affirming, something that can convey stories and feelings and hold the remains in a good sort of space.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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You can find out more about Varda’s work here www.vardazisman.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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All images in this blog post copyright Varda Zisman and re-used with her permission.


End of days

We are all of course only heading in one direction, and as Jim Morrison put it ‘no one here gets out alive’. However, there’s a lot of difference between that less immediate sense of mortality, and dealing with a much more imminent prospect.

There comes a point when people and creatures alike either realise they have run out of options, or just lose the will to keep going. People who have had enough and have little to live for often do not continue long. Animals are more obvious about it, going off to some quiet, dark corner where they can get on with the business of leaving, uninterrupted.

It’s a tough one for those who will stay. The desire to keep a loved one with us does not always make for good choices. With pets and people alike, we can fight to extend life without much consideration of what that life is worth to the one who must continue. We can force life to continue even when really everything that made a person is gone. Leading to complex decisions about what really constitutes death and when to turn off the machines and let go.

“Saving lives” sounds all very noble and heroic, but sometimes those lives do not want to be saved. This is not terribly visible in our human populations, because we tidy our elderly, fragile and infirm people up and hide them in care homes and hospitals. I remember visiting my Nan in her last years. A place full of lost, unsmiling people and the background noise of television to drown out the absence of human interactions. Life at any cost is perhaps not worth having.

All this is on my mind because a few feet away from where I type this, an elderly cat is winding down. He’s in no obvious discomfort, but his body isn’t working very well and he can’t do much. He still purrs when stroked – and that strikes me as being very important. He grooms a bit when he can, and likes when this is done for him. He’s still eating a bit. Every day there’s a process of checking with him, to see how he’s doing, and if it’s getting too much. I’ve watched animals dying before, and watched people unable to take the decision for them. I think there comes a point when you can see it in their eyes, when there is too much pain and not enough to live for. We aren’t there yet.

The cat in question could continue, comfortable enough but rather limited, for months to come. Or he could slip away quietly – and I would wish that for him because I think that’s the best sort of death. To go gently in a familiar place, without anxiety or distress would be ideal. I do not relish the idea of taking him to an unfamiliar place and the company of strangers, to die frightened. I feel much the same about people. For myself, I would rather a shorter life, and a death on my own terms, than to be extended indefinitely by medical procedures. Like the cat, I think I could be happy enough with small things for a while if winding down at my own speed, and I suppose I will not know until I get there, at exactly what point I would decide to quit.


Writing about dying

We praise the dead with elegies and obituaries, send cards of condolence and put loving memories on their gravestones. We advise each other not to speak ill of the dead, but we also speak ill of them and some of them undoubtedly deserve that. Some we remember, and some we forget. While some people manage to be clever about famous last words, mostly death is a step into silence, and it will fall to someone else to frame our lives in retrospect.

In some ways this seems more comfortable, because it spares us from having to think about our own mortality too much. Thinking about the writing-up of a life, we have to ask if we will be written off. Do our actions stand up to scrutiny? Did we do anything worth commenting on? Would anyone care if we went? Who would mourn us, and how? Who would remember us, and how? Asking such questions may be comforting if you are loved and successful, but if you have any doubts about your life, then framing that with ideas about your death will not be an easy business.

My impression of our heroic ancestors – the Celts, and the Vikings, especially, is that they did think about these things. A good life, a heroic death if you can manage it, and something people will tell stories about for years to come. We tend not to think in terms of the heroic life any more or to imagine it as widely accessible. What does heroism mean in this day and age? Then there’s the Egyptians, with their elaborate funeral arrangements, their lives obviously very much informed by their ideas about death.

There are other options aside from the heroic. We can think about the love that we have brought into the world, and what of that remains after we have gone. Will the work we do outlive us? In small ways, as ancestors of place to future generations, we have all kinds of impact. Is that something to be proud of, or embarrassed about? How is history going to judge us, individually and collectively.

These are sobering thoughts, which is why the perspective of death is so greatly needed right now.


The ultimate punchline

Nothing puts life in perspective like death. Other people’s deaths can give us a lot of perspective on what matters and doesn’t in our own lives. An awareness of our own mortality will get us thinking about how we really want to use our time. Death-aware people make very different choices (there was a study, it was in New Scientist) tending to lose interest in consumerism and becoming more concerned about quality of life. So, from a practical perspective, one of the easiest ways to get people engaging with greener approaches to living, is to get them thinking about dying.

On Friday, as my contribution to Stroud’s Clocking Off Festival I will be encouraging people to consider their own demise.  As that’s not a wholly comfortable subject, there will be every encouragement to joke about, write things in terrible taste, big yourself up and otherwise not be too serious about it. I’m a big believer in using the ridiculous to help tackle the painfully difficult.

So, if you fancy coming and talking about death, thinking about death, taking a sideways look at your own journey down the curtain to join the choir invisible in a context that will provide both cake and giggles do join me!… And yes, that means cake or death…

Or possibly both. But the cake is very good, because we will be in Black Books Cafe  from 7.30 on Friday the 11th July. £2.50 on the door, all proceeds going to the funding of the Clocking Off Festival.