Having just turned 26, I’ll admit that thinking about my death, and what I would like to happen to mark the end of my life, hasn’t really featured highly on my agenda. I sense that this isn’t just an age thing, rather, it’s often not until we’re confronted with the imminent death of either ourselves or a loved one that we stoic Brits think about what will be the natural conclusion to all our lives. Even when we do think about it, there’s often a sense of vagueness to our plans, just in case we are that one special person who does manage to cheat death (I’m personally still hoping to come back from a cryogenic freezer, Austin Powers style). For those with faith, the discussion seems (somewhat paradoxically) even more difficult. If you believe in an afterlife, you may chastise yourself mentally for focusing on the logistics of your own death and what will happen to your earthly body, rather than looking forward to the life of your spirit after death.
It’s this ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ mentality that secular minister Emma Curtis sought to challenge in her talk on alternative funeral arrangements, Thinking about Death Differently. Through her work as a non-religious minister and CBT therapist, Emma first talked about her experience of clients carrying a sense of shame about their grief. She pointed towards our modern society as one that teaches us to avoid talking about death and aging through our obsession with youthfulness and productivity. Emma therefore suggested that in order to have a better relationship with death, that we also need to learn to develop ‘a relationship with eldership’, by learning to accept that we, as living things, will eventually go through a period of decline and death, as nature intends. There is nothing wrong or shameful about this decline, even if our current cultural belief system tell us that death amounts to failure and should be avoided at all costs.
Emma also challenged the audience to ask questions about death, about why we have funerals, and what we would do differently as individuals if we knew when our lives would end. As well as showing us some of the wonderfully different and personal funeral services she’d overseen in the past (the funeral with ice cream service went down particularly well with the audience), what I enjoyed most about Emma’s talk was the attention she drew to the words we use to shut down conversations about death and dying. In particular she pointed towards the word ‘morbid’ as one that often gets used in discussion about death, and the powerful negative connotations of that word being associated with abnormality. What I took away from this was, that however much we’d like it not to be, death is of course normal, and that it would be worthwhile spending some time thinking about your own wishes for your funeral or burial service whilst alive, and making those wishes known. She spoke alternative funerals as a way of expressing your personality and choosing how you’d like to be remembered, rather than a task to be avoided at all costs. If you’d like to look at some more resources about how to start these conversations around death and funerals, I recommend you visit https://www.dyingmatters.org/.
At this point I should mention that I wasn’t alone at the festival yesterday, but also brought my auntie and uncle along, who had traveled up from Devon to come and see the church. This is important because our next activity polarised opinion between us, but was nevertheless incredibly thought-provoking and interesting experience. We were immediately led by Judith Miller, the creator of Companion Voices, to proceed through song to a smaller area of the church where we could all gather in a circle and experience harmonising together, just as Companion Voices volunteers offer to do at the bedsides of sick and dying individuals. My auntie, who has previously worked in a crematorium, immediately recognised the need for quiet reflection as we we went as a procession through to the other room, whereas my uncle and I were a bit more awkward about getting into that zone (that’s what happens when you keep tripping over someone’s backpack!).
Once gathered together, Judith explained how she came to set up the project in the UK based on similar groups she’d seen in the U.S. She and fellow volunteer Kay Ashton took us through a few exercises of humming and singing simple words of peace, such as shalom and salaam, so that we could see how simply an atmosphere of love, reverence, and protection could be created by voices combining together for someone who might require comfort around the time of death. Judith, who is herself Jewish, brought with her a sense of openness about combining songs and messages of faith from around the world, as we saw through her introduction, a Nigerian lullaby. As companions, Judith and Kay demonstrated through their songs that wherever we are from, we can all be soothed by shared ideas of peace and returning home at the end of our lives, ideas that transcend cultures and religions and can provide immense comfort to those in need. Their exercises echoed the important message that ran throughout the day’s events, that we are not alone through our experience of death and grieving, and that reaching out to a wider community is a vital step in processing what has happened to us. One way this can be achieved is through song.
So, as I said, opinions we were split amongst my family. Although grateful for the experience, my uncle immediately knew that this singing wasn’t for him, whereas my auntie loved the idea and said how much she’d like to have companions signing for her when she dies. I was somewhere in the middle, as it takes me a while to switch off and let go of any preconceptions (despite Judith’s assurances that there’s no such thing as a bad singer). What I did get however, was a sense of appreciation for what the Companion Voices volunteers do, and respect for what a profoundly simple, yet lovely gift, they are able to give to those who are dying.
You can find out more information about Judith’s work and get involved with the Companion Voices project via their website: https://companionvoices.org/.
Finally, Erica Buist gave a personal, heartbreaking, and at times hilarious, talk about how the sudden death of her father-in-law led her to travel to death festivals around the world and write about them in her upcoming book, This Party’s Dead. Erica started with some funny yet raw anecdotes about how her inability to process not only her father-in-law’s death, but the knowledge that his body was left alone for a week, resulted in her agoraphobia and culminated in a trip to Waitrose unlike any other (it’s better when she tells it, honestly).
As the other speakers of the day had suggested, Erica had to find her own unique way of coping with her grief, and reaching out and travelling to international communities where death is more openly acknowledged has become hers, having already seen the Dia de los Muertos festival whilst living in Mexico. In all, she intends to visit seven different worldwide festivals, each chosen to represent the number of days which her father-in-law was left unfound, again showing that symbolism and ceremony in the face of death can be incredibly cathartic, even years after the event.
Erica’s book is scheduled for publication in 2020, however if you’d like to support her project you can pre-order through her crowdfunding page: https://unbound.com/books/deathtivals/.
So, yes, I did show my relatives how to live by taking them to my own ‘deathtival’, but as the day went on this became much less ironic. After all, if we can’t talk about dying and faith whilst we’re still alive – when can we?