Why is it that we have lost our connection with death?
Whilst other cultures embrace, normalise and ritualise the death experience, we in the Western world do everything we can to distance ourselves from it. In the past centuries death was seen and felt. Corpses sat in family homes until they could be prepared. Death was intimate, localised and supported by the community. In ancient times people were born and died in a village surrounded by friends and family. Family support is often not available in death today and people are more disconnected from neighbours and community so it can be a very isolating experience.
We live in a society that adores, worships youth. It leaves no place for ageing, multigenerational honour or death. Probably the biggest fear in the western world apart from getting old is death. Death is seen as ugly, awkward, and we keep it at arms length. Funerals are hyper monitored. They are a huge money making industry. It can become depersonalised. We can become alienated and disconnected.Our view of death is institutionalised and sanitised. We don’t see it, touch it, smell it. Death is a disconnected experience. Best dealt with as quickly as possible. Bodies even in death are embalmed, made up, sanitised, stylised.
In Tokyo today people live in small apartments and don’t have space to be with the body so they have developed ‘corpse hotels’ where people can come in and stay with the body. Caitlin Doughty is a mortician and is an advocate for “families hanging onto their dead” to prepare them for burial themselves. Caitlin is working on setting up something similar in New York.
Do you want to be buried or cremated?
If you want to be cremated where do you want your ashes scattered?
I think that its vitally important that we include these topics in our conversations.
I have a friend, who since her mother has died, has taken on the task to travel to as many countries as she can. In each place she scatters the ashes of her mother. Her mother never got to travel. She figures better late than never.
My husband insisted as he was dying of cancer that he wanted to be cremated. In fact for as long as we had been married he had wanted to be cremated and his ashes scattered over the Murray River. Then weeks before he died he insisted that he wanted to be buried? He changed his mind. So we buried him.
My mother is 84, she has led a very creative and colourful life. Her great grand children call her ‘super gran’. When she dies she wants me to assemble the grandchildren and great grandchildren and have them paint her coffin???
Is this making you uncomfortable? It shouldn’t.
These are all examples of how our death should reflect how we have lived.
We should have a say in our death, we certainly had a say in how we lived. We should demystify death and begin a journey of embracing this next stage of our lives at the very least be prepared for it.
“Cultural practices surrounding death combined with ideas about what happens after death form the basis ofreligion, which is one of the cornerstones of all civilisations”.
The cornerstone of religious belief is that the concept of death is intricately tied to the human body. It is the body that dies. The body is corruptible; the body is the recipient of disease and subject to decay. It is the physical corpse that rots away, whereas the soul, according to many belief systems, is set free and lives forever.
Death is a natural process which none of us can escape. We need to allow time to walk with grief, to process loss, and to accept that for all of us grief involves an understanding that when someone dies there is a place in us that is broken and can never be fixed. We need to become familiar with the language of grief.
Remembering well can mean grieving well. Its important to put sorrow into words, or music, or some other form of expression. It means feeling the pain, not so that you can keep it, but so that you can let it go.
Shakespeare’s words in Macbeth are quite insightful:
“Give sorrow words. The grief that does not speak, whispers to the broken heart and bids it break.”
The grief that does not “speak” can remain unresolved. We can hope that as we demystify death and grief we address the important suggestion of Shakespeare to “give sorrow words.” To give it language, to give time for reflection, grieving and a place in our own journeys.
Death is normal. We can’t and shouldn’t sanitise it. Instead we need to become a community who understand the process and who can show empathy. To be able to sit with people in their grief even if they don’t know what to say. In my community of friends and family I would hope that we can become a people who can walk with compassion and who understand how to comfort and how to speak about death and loss and to not avoid it.
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