The meaning of death

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Flowers found blowing in the wind from the Karoola Cemetery

A couple of weeks ago an elderly man knocked on the front door and handed me a leaflet with the title “Millions will attend – Will You?” Inside, an invitation to the Memorial of Christ’s death at a Good Friday service and a meeting of the local congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses.

In the era of social media it’s amazing how anyone still knocks on doors as a way of getting out their message. A neighbour says when they call he tells them he’s a Satanist. It’s one way of ensuring they don’t come back.

I told the caller I don’t believe in organized religion, that I do my own thing and that it is personal to me.

“Well, if you decide to come along, just ask for Leo,” he said, leaving the leaflet that also carried an invitation to a special Bible talk on “A Promise of Perfect Family Happiness”.

I don’t believe in perfect family happiness, or even the promise of it, so his god was not for me.

My father died on Easter Saturday ten years ago and although the date is different every year, that’s the day I think of him. Which is contrary and wrong, and of course I remember him at other times, too. But Easter Saturday is when his memory rises most in me.

It is a bit odd that I know more about the attitudes towards death of famous men who are dying than I knew about my own father’s who seemed immortal. Like playwright Dennis Potter, who, when approaching death said in a televised interview, “We’re the one animal that knows that we’re going to die, and yet we carry on paying our mortgages, doing our jobs, moving about, behaving as though there’s eternity in a sense, and we tend to forget that life can only be defined in the present tense. It is, and it is now only.”

Lessons on death, too, from comedian Billy Connolly whose TV program Billy Connolly’s Big Send-Off was a masterpiece in life and death lessons. In the end, the 71-year-old comedian who is diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease mused: “This is death…” Then, breathed out… leaving just silence and no breath.

Last year I had a cancer scare that proved to be nothing more serious than a stress related illness. I stopped doing things for a while to absorb the reminder of my own mortality. I felt little anxiety about death – it happens to us all – just that it might be a bit soon.

It’s not something families tend to talk about openly until someone has died. Having raised the subject on Facebook since then, clearly there’s a death conversation to have. Jillian wrote that ‘Death is evidence of life. You cannot have one without the other. My husband died suddenly when I was 30 and our sons were 2 and 9. Life goes on.’ While Jane wrote that she and her husband are more afraid of getting old than of dying, not having children to look after them as they age. And Grant said, “consider how much more scary endless life would be”.

When Radio National’s Natasha Mitchell invited a panel of five young people aged between 9 and 13 to talk about death last year, these were some of the answers she was given:

– The only thing we know is that everyone is going to die.

– Death is the end of your life.

– You will never see them again. Sometimes to reassure yourself you can think about them and you can feel that they’re there, but they’re not coming back.

– Death is when you don’t live.

– Death is like saying goodbye forever and you never say goodbye again.

And adults think death is difficult to explain to children…

Discussions about death have been made possible by the Death Café movement established by Jon Underwood in London a couple of years ago. Death Cafés aim to create an environment where talking about death is natural and comfortable. “We don’t claim to have answers,” explains Underwood. “We provide a place for people to come and explore their own attitudes to death and dying if they want to.”

And they do it with cake and tea.

Death Cafés are now a social franchise with 3000 participants in over 400 cafes. The only rules: the conversation happens on a not-for-profit basis that doesn’t lead people to a product, course of action or conclusion, and respects other peoples’ views and confidentiality.

Discussing death then becomes a useful way to ask what’s the best way to use the time we have left, instead of simply repeating our lives as we age, and being oblivious to the obvious. In this way, end of life care becomes as important as praying to god.

In Australia, a feisty Port Kembla community group has determined to take back the responsibility that most of us leave to someone else – to care for their own dead. An award winning documentary, Tender, was made about the group’s fight to arrange community-based funerals. You are invited to host a community screening in your area by emailing info@scarlettpictures.com.au

In Hobart, architect Robert Morris Nunn and Julie Payne, in their expressed desire to improve the process of dying, have put a proposal to the Calvary Hospital board to establish an independent hospice that would “help celebrate life in the midst of death”. (Tasweekend Jan 31-Feb 1 2015)

So, this past Easter, I have remembered my father, reflected on death, and reminded myself to have those important conversations about dying – while looking on the bright side of life, of course.

First published in Tasweekend, 11 April 2015

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3 thoughts on “The meaning of death

  1. I am really interested in death, an interest that is half based on fear, and half intrigue and so I take every opportunity to ponder it, that I might die well when it is my turn, and live well until then. I enjoyed this post, esp. in the context of dominant Australian culture where discussing death is not a cultural norm. I have lived in communities where death is a much more visible part of life both in India and Indigenous Australia. In the remote indigenous community where we lived funerals were a constant feature of community life, with individual ceremonies going for up to two weeks and it was common for there to be a funeral queue as there could never be more than one funeral running at a time (thus giving all families the opportunity to attend). This is a tragic indication of the struggle for life in these communities where life expectancy is so much lower than our own. At the same time however, funerals were the most vibrant and wonderful spaces that fostered community and culture. Families would often camp out for the duration, celebrating the departed and taking it in turns signing their family song lines, reminding each other of their place and their connection to each other and the land. Our rituals seem so inadequate in comparison and I am glad that there is a shift to change this. The idea of the Death cafe movement is interesting – do you know if there have been any held in Australia?

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