Tag Archives: dying

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.

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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.

 

 

 


Why death is good for you

It’s generally claimed that awareness of our mortality is what sets humans apart from other animals. I’m wholly convinced elephants have some pretty good ideas about death, and I’ve no reason to think any species of mammal entirely oblivious. I find it harder to make any kind of guess about what creatures other than mammals are thinking, there’s so much less to go on.

Thinking about people though, most of us, most of the time clearly do not live with a consciousness of our own mortality. As the saying goes, no one lies on their deathbed wishing they had spent more time at the office. Come the end of your innings, all the material wealth is of little account. I do not believe the culture I live in is particularly aware of death. We see it as something to delay and avoid (although we won’t drive slower to avoid it for ourselves or others). I think mostly we assume death is for later, or for someone else, and we act accordingly.

I gather (New Scientist article last year) people who are conscious of their mortality tend to move away from rampant materialism and towards a more spiritual way of life. Thinking about death, properly, will make you more willing to enjoy each precious moment you have, not squandering it on worthless things. Death makes you care for your loved ones more. The death consciousness can bring life into focus, making us work out what matters and what does not.

Looking at the consumerist culture I live in, where politicians preach long work hours and adverts sell materialism at every turn, I do not see an intrinsic awareness of our own mortality. Quite the opposite. I see a lot of distractions designed to help us forget that we were all born to die. We’d be so much better off if we gave a bit of thought to how we might feel in that death bed scenario. What might we regret? What will we look back on joyfully? That’s one of the best guides to living you could find. If anything, the animal kingdom is more death conscious than we are. They don’t go around repeating actions that are likely to kill them, whilst convincing themselves that it will be fine. (Binge drinking, drug taking, driving too fast, too tired, to drunk, never getting any exercise, courting heart attacks and diabetes etc).

If you feel the overwhelming need to raise your awareness of death, or someone else’s, I’d like to try and sell you a thing. (Yes, I know what I said before about materialism, and that there may be some irony here, but we all need to eat and I promise, this is a good thing!) It’s the tale of a girl who murders her family for money. This does not go well for her. http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1412864360/clemency-slaughter-and-the-legacy-of-death

Clemency Slaughter and the Legacy of D’Eath: A Grim Gothic Tale without a Happy Ending, written by Steampunk author Jonathan Green and illustrated by gothic artist Tom Brown. (Tom being my other half). Having read it and seen the art in progress, I can vouch for this being both lovely, and full of dead people.


Speaking of the dead

For many of us in Western cultures, it can be the case that we get into our thirties before even losing grandparents. We’re a long way from the ancestors who would have lost siblings and friends as a normal part of growing up, and from a world in which death was a normal part of life. The Victorians had a huge culture around the etiquette of mourning. So many older cultures had complex rituals of death and grief, but we’ve lost that. And so, when death comes into our homes, it comes as a shock, with little framework to support you and little information about how to cope.

My friendship circles have always extended well beyond my age group, and I’ve always had a lot of people in my life – at least as casual acquaintances, which I think is part of why I’ve had more contact with death than many people my age. There are a number of things that can be surprising in the aftermath of losing someone, but which are entirely normal. If you can think of more, please do put them in the comments.

Shock and disbelief are very normal reactions, and they can come and go. You think you’ve got to grips with the idea of the person being gone, and then you imagine telling them about something, and the enormity of grasping that you can’t have that conversation, comes back. This just takes time, unpicking your life from the life that is over, and rebuilding a sense of reality in which the lost one is no longer a physical presence. There can be a sense of guilt, sometimes especially when a younger person dies. There can also be a sense of being abandoned or in some way betrayed. This is really hard to acknowledge because, suicide cases aside, it seems irrational. The person did not choose to die and leave you, and yet it can so often feel as though they did. Why couldn’t they wait for you? Why couldn’t they still be there when you need them? It’s part of what death does to us, and the best advice I have is work it through, and don’t beat yourself up for feeling it.

Somewhere after the bereavement, you may start thinking about the future, all the things you won’t get to do, or share, all the things they will never see. These hurt, and again, there is a process of reconciliation to go through. I’ve found I also think about the past, the things I got wrong, the things I never thought to ask about. All the stories, knowledge and life history that I didn’t absorb, gone forever now, lost to me. I regret the things I never said, and never did, and I think we all do. Death tends to bring that into focus. The best thing to do with that focus is not to obsess over what cannot be changed, but to look to the living, to the people you still have and those other lives where there is room to do more. Older relatives, the ones who were always there, are easily taken for granted, death can teach us to do differently and view the time we have as precious.

When a younger person dies, the sense of unfairness is crippling. All the things they will never do, and the sheer lack of justice in it can make you question everything. For people who believe in benevolent deity, this can make for a very testing time. Why did it happen? Why did the benevolent deity not prevent it? People have been facing this one since the dawn of humanity. Standard answers include the gods having a plan we do not know about, the gods gathering the best ones to them, and so forth. Deep grief is probably not a good time for this kind of soul searching. Try and hold a space in which you can grieve, do whatever it takes to get you through and consider your relationship with reality later, if you can.

It can be hard to know how you are ever going to laugh, or smile, or feel good about anything, ever again. The idea of even being happy can feel like a betrayal of the dead one. Looking around, you see the potential for death in everybody else, and the certainty of loss. The world is terrifying when you can see death in everyone’s eyes. In many ways, this is a good sort of fear. It makes us hold more tightly and love harder. Take that fear and turn it into love, because that really is the only thing you can wield against death. Love survives, and what we carry of a person within us survives, and something goes on.

Tell stories. When you are in pain, tell stories about the person you lost. Find other people with stories and get them to share. Keep telling those stories. Even if you do it with tears streaming down your face and a lump in your throat so big you can hardly speak, keep talking. You honour the dead by remembering them, and you will ease your own heart by speaking in this way.

The most important thing to remember is that it is a process. It’s often not a coherent process, it seems to throw you back and forth. Grief is something that happens to your body and your mind, and that needs to be allowed to work through. Fighting it makes it worse. The deaths of people we care for are an inevitable part of life, and we do not talk enough about what happens to the living at that point.


Being Judged

Modern Paganism doesn’t do much in terms of imagining post-death judgement. This is one of the things I happen to like. The idea of someone keeping score, and judging me against an unknown set of rules or criteria has never felt like a comfortable thing. There are so many religions that know that one true way to guaranteed passing the end of your life test. Unfortunately many of them are incompatible, and don’t even agree about what the ultimate goal is.

I rather like the ancient Egyptian take on this one. After death, the heart of the dead person is weighed in the underworld, the Gods providing the equipment and seeing the process through, but not actually judging anything. It is the heart of the individual that provides judgment.

We are what we do. We are constantly in the process of becoming the sum and total of our actions. Flawed, striving, learning, we make mistakes, some of them terrible. The weight of the heart will not depend entirely on those mistakes, but also on what we did after them. The person who apologises, makes amends, seeks to redress the wrong done, will have a much lighter heart than the one who carries that guilt and the weight of wrongdoing. In this system, our delusions and fantasies shouldn’t turn out to count for much. The person who is joyfully evil should not come to the final reckoning with a light heart. But then, having been neither joyfully evil, or consciously dead, I can only speculate and there’s no knowing if the Egyptians had it right.

In interesting parallel, I read a book about consciousness back in the summer (title eludes me). It talked about how we construct our own minds, through thoughts, actions, beliefs, until at last we end up with the consciousness we die with. The writer felt that a consciousness in harmony, one that loved, sought truth and lived well, would be better placed to either survive death, and continue in a meaningful way, or voluntarily dissipate and join once more with everything else. A consciousness built of hatred, greed, selfishness and other such negative traits would simply go on to create its own hell. It’s a vision that calls for no external judgement at all, and simply makes our outcome the product of our own actions. Hell is something we may, or may not, choose to make for ourselves, both in this life and, potentially, in whatever comes after.

It brings us back again to the interesting issues of how death shapes life, and how beliefs about death inform what we choose to do. Are you expecting judgement from an eternal source that has the potential simultaneously to bestow meaning and reward?  Do you believe there is nothing beyond life and that you may as well please yourself in every regard? Do you believe that there is nothing else and that the only option is to live well and do the best with what you’ve got? If your heart went on the scales today, how would it weight?

There’s a lovely mediaeval song called Lyke Wake Dirge, about going through purgatory after death. “If ever thou gavest hosen and shoon… sit thee down and put them on… if never thou gavest hosen or shoon… the whinnies shall prick thee to the bare bones’. There’s another pair of verses about meat and drink following on from the shoes and socks. I like the idea that in the afterlife, all that we will have to help us on the journey to the next stage, will be what we gave to others. That’s a judgement I could live with.