Tag Archives: death

A Good Death

Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve been killing people on The Hopeless Maine blog as part of the kickstarter we’re doing. People who backed early get obituaries, as though they had been residents of the imaginary island, now deceased. It’s been an exercise in asking what would make for a good death. Most of us won’t read our obituaries in real life, so it’s interesting thinking about what a person might want from a fictional obituary. This may not be quite the same as what you’d want in a real one, but it does raise interesting questions.

Without a doubt, everyone wants to be remembered fondly and have some sense that someone, at least, is sorry they are gone. Whatever form a death takes, the feeling of a life lived well, and fully is important. That bit at least, we may get some kind of control over, whereas the time of our departure is beyond our control.

There’s a definite charm in dying as you lived, or in a way that has a poetic quality to it. This may well be more true of fictional deaths. A comedy death is more appealing in an imaginary setting perhaps, than a real one. There are no doubt people as well as me though, who get a kick out of uncomfortable humour and might enjoy the prospect of our final moments leaving people unsure whether to laugh or cry. I have a fondness for the preposterous, and departing in a way that would have people shaking their heads and laughing has definite appeal.

Good deaths are quick, and perhaps unexpected. I’m not going to write any scenarios in which people die slowly unless I can make that both painless and funny. Long, slow, painful deaths are awful, and take a toll on anyone who has to live through watching that. No one wants to watch someone they love suffering. Most of us don’t even want to watch people we despise suffering in that kind of way.

 


Grief and religion

One of the things that religions have in common is that they offer answers to human suffering. It may be in the form of strategies to relieve that suffering by living in certain ways. It may be through stories of divine oversight, grand plans, or afterlife recompense. This is one of the ways in which I’ve always found organised religions problematic. Not least because so often, those consolations don’t turn out to be that helpful for people experiencing grief and trauma.

When you have to ask why your God wasn’t there for you and why terrible things were allowed to happen, you either undermine your faith or start having to believe that terrible things are somehow part of a grand plan for your own good. It’s a bigger issue for omnipotent Gods who are supposed to be benevolent.

We suffer in so far as we care. Love and grief are two sides of the same coin. Everything in our world is finite, and will end, or die and if we care about that, or about ourselves we are bound to be hurt by this. To care is to be vulnerable to loss.

In my late teens, I first encountered existentialist thinking, which responds to the grief of life and the apparent meaninglessness by owning it. We may have to make our own meaning. There may be no other meaning. It was the first approach I’d found that genuinely comforted me and it did so because it let me own what I was experiencing. This may be all we have. There may be no grand plan. Everyone dies. If you care, it hurts.

Rather than follow a path that has anything to offer by way of more conventional comfort, I’ve lived with this on my own terms. I see loss and grief as part of life. I see them as intrinsic parts of my caring and loving. I’ve not sought a path that would free me from pain, rather, I’ve tried to embrace it as part of what it means to be human. I find more comfort in the idea that there isn’t a plan, that terrible things happen for no real reason at all sometimes, and that we certainly do not get what we deserve. I think it’s kinder not to assume we get what we deserve.

When we try to protect ourselves from pain, we may close our hearts to what’s around us. We may delude ourselves. We may not do today the things we will no longer have chance to do tomorrow. When you live knowing that everything and everyone is going to die and you let that colour your world view, it becomes more necessary to live fully. It becomes more important to tell people you love them. It becomes more important to try and sort things out here and now, and get them right in the first place.

I’m never very sure what I believe when it comes to deity and afterlife. What I am sure is that it works better for me to live as though there is nothing else but this life and this body I have to experience it with. To love as much as I can and to accept what that means and to embrace grief as an aspect of love makes the most sense to me.


The joy of dead trees

One of the problems with humans is that we like to ‘manage’ trees, parks and woodland by taking the dead trees out. This is fair enough if they’re dead, upright and at risk of falling onto a path at no notice. Otherwise, it makes very little sense. Wherever possible we should leave dead trees where they are.

A dead tree is an amazing habitat. All kinds of insets will make homes beneath the bark. Birds will feed on those insects, and also use holes in the tree for nest sites. Small mammals, bats, slow worms and lizards can also find homes amidst the decaying wood. Mosses, fungus and lichens can all make their homes here, too.

It is all too easy to see death as untidy, or unpleasant. However, a dead tree remains a great source of beauty as it goes through the decay process. Out of its death, comes life.

In pine woods, it is usually the dead trees that let the light in. You may have miles of dense trees (usually a plantation) with nothing but old needles underneath, and then come to a place where there is light, intense green plant life, ferns, mosses, saplings – invariably because a tree has died here and let in a possibility.

The death of a tree is very much part of the life cycle of a tree. It is a good thing to witness. It gives us stories about longevity and life after death that are a lot more sustainable.

 

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Find out more about ancient woodland here – http://www.woodlandtrust.org.uk/about-us/ancient-woodland-restoration/ancient-woodland/what-is-ancient-woodland/


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.


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.