Tag Archives: death

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.








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













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.




Honouring the dead

Today is the anniversary of the end of the First World War. Here in the UK we will be honouring the soldiers killed in armed conflicts. I’ll be very clear up front: I take no issue with people who are soldiers as a general premise. Individual conduct is a different thing. I am not questioning honouring the war dead in any way (emotive topic after all) but I am questioning the things we don’t do alongside that.

The desire to serve and protect has always brought people to armies. Propaganda and tales of glory, cultural pressure and politically nurtured fear: Honest reasons to defend hearth and home that no individual should be blamed for responding to. Formal drafts and recruitment by force mean that many who have fought and died were not there by choice. Poverty and lack of other opportunities has always been a great army recruiting officer, too. I do not blame anyone for doing what they had to, to survive. Thinking about soldiers dropped into disaster zones, and the way these trained and disciplined people can be mobilised in any emergency… there’s a lot of good work you can do with an army that is not about killing people.

Wars have always been about people in power wanting more power and more resources. If you are obliged to fight to defend your home and way of life, you have every right to do so, but never forget this only happens because some power hungry bastard has started a thing.

War does not just kill soldiers. We do not talk about the medical folk, men and women alike, who died trying to save lives. We do not speak of the men and boys who died in the merchant navy, trying to keep countries supplied with essentials. Their work is no less heroic – and arguably more so because it is simply directed towards preserving life, and often undertaken with no arms or armour.

In the First World War, one fifth of the casualties were civilian. By the end of the 20th century, your typical war inflicted a 90% civilian casualty rate, while wars in the 20th century accounted for some 187 million lives worldwide. (Figures taken from John Keane’s The Life and Death of Democracy). Wars kill off countless animals, both those used to facilitate it, and those who are ‘collateral damage’ alongside their civilian human neighbours. Landscapes and eco systems are destroyed by bombs, alongside culture and heritage. War destroys.

It is simply not enough to honour those who fought and died. We need to start talking about what war actually means, and what it actually costs. The best tribute we could pay to the many victims of war, and especially those who fought, would be to cease this madness. World War One was supposed to be the war to end all wars. It wasn’t. We failed them. We owe our war dead more than that. We owe each other more than that and we owe it to the future. Killing people is not the answer, the ‘collateral damage’ of murdering civilians is not acceptable, and there is no excuse.

All Hallows Read

It is Neil Gaiman’s most splendid idea that Halloween should be the time to give someone a spooky book. (You might consider Hopeless, Maine as a good candidate, if you know someone who doesn’t have a copy.) Mr Gaiman himself is the author of The Graveyard Book, which is a fine piece of child-friendly creepiness, and ideal for the season.

Talking about death and fear is important. Acknowledging the unknown and the anxiety of living. We don’t do it enough, our culture preferring to drown out the dread with ever louder background noise and bright shiny things. People who get to grips with death are a lot less afraid to live. A creepy book can be a good way into that, a safe place in which to explore and encounter fear and come to terms with it.

I’m fascinated by the fake and unfrightening ‘scares’ that Halloween puts on the supermarket shelves. Made of plastic, brightly coloured and sanitised, they can scare environmentalists, destined as these objects are for an early burial in landfill. Otherwise what commercial Halloween mostly does is turn horror into something safe and unthreatening. That’s rather counterproductive. We need to fear and respect death in order to live well. We need to look into the darkness now and then so that we can properly appreciate the light. We need to own our fears rather than trying to bury them. If horror stories can tell us anything it is that trying to bury alive things (like fear) is not actually a very good idea. They always come back, the gnarled hand reaching up through the piled earth of the grave, ready for another go.

I love gothic work. I’m not a huge fan of more visceral and bloody forms of horror – it gets dull after a while. There’s only so many severed body parts and unspeakable monstrosities a person can take before apathy floods in. A good creepy story sneaks in, and does not allow complacency. It turns the mundane into the uncanny and unnerving. It reminds us that mystery lurks around every corner and uncertainty abounds. Creepy fiction encourages us not to get too comfortable in our assumptions. Anything could turn out to be other than it is. If we can balance that with the art of not getting too paranoid and frightened, it’s a good lesson to learn.

By way of a contribution to All Hallows Read, I have a free story for you. It’s short and available as a PDF from http://www.lulu.com/spotlight/NimueBrown I wouldn’t give it to a younger child, but it’s no worse than the later Harry Potter books for overt scariness, (children tending to miss the layers…) although there are a few rude words in it! You were warned.

Death in high places

Yesterday when I was out on low ground, I realised I could see my local hilltop barrow. There were at least four round here, down the edge of the Cotswolds. Most are hidden a bit by trees, but I’ve been told that, when the barrows were first here, the hilltops were bare. I’m going to be exploring to see just how far away I can spot my local barrow from, but my guess is, a fair distance.

Back in the day, they would not have been grassed over, but exposed Cotswold stone. The light would have caught them, especially at dawn and dusk, and they would have stood out. My guess is that the ancestors who lived on the Severn plain would have been able to see these barrows every day. The dead, high on the hills in their shining tombs, would have been present.

Thinking about death affects how we think about life. There is some solid research out there around this one, it’s not just a philosophical statement. You can hunt it out if you are fussy. People who are aware of death tend to shift their priorities, usually away from materialism, money and status and towards that which actually makes them happy. There’s nothing like a keen sense of mortality to sharpen your perspective.

We went through this with the boy a couple of weeks ago. There was nothing particular to trigger it, just a sudden realisation that everything passes, he would die one day. What threw him most was facing up to accepting that his beloved cat would not live forever, either. Of course he’s known about the idea of death most of his life, but there’s a big difference between knowing the theory and grasping the implications. There was an immediate and very dramatic consequence: He has almost entirely stopped playing computer games.

While we were on the boat, with limited electricity, computer games could not feature much, but this summer has made all normal things more available, and there was a bit of a splurge. Then he stepped away. Realisation of his own death made him decide that computer games simply were not a good use of his time. We talked about this, and he said as much. He’s retuned to reading and being sociable, which is lovely, and I’ve not had to attempt to reason with him.

The dead speak to us, if we give ourselves chance to listen. They say ‘you too are coming our way, and so is everything else’. They promise absolute uncertainty. We might like to believe that our beliefs about what happens after death can be trusted, but I think we all also know that until we get there, all we really have is a best guess. Death brings every aspect of life into question. The dead remind us, any time we let them, that there is much to be said for getting on with living. Live well, passionately, drink deeply from the cup because you do not know how many days remain to you.

Looking at the prominent barrows, and how they would have been visible in the past, I think our ancestors were on to something. We, on the other hand, have grown far too used to death as a throwaway element in visual drama, the actor bound to be rapidly reincarnated to some new life before our very eyes. We might see a phenomenal amount of fictional death, but it serves mostly to take us away from real death. In our heads, we are never the bit part who bleeds to death in the background, we are the bullet dodging hero bound to survive to the closing credits. It is bullshit.

In living with our mortality, we are more likely to do a good job of the whole being alive side of the process. Those who are in denial about it, may not get round to living very much at all before the opportunity to stop living entirely catches up with them.