The nightly annihilation before I wake


“When we prepare for sleep, we strip ourselves of the accoutrements of selfhood: our clothes, glasses, make-up and false teeth. We bid goodbye to the people around us, lie down in stillness and return to our original solitary nakedness. As Heraclitus, the Greek philosophy observed: ‘The waking have one common world, but the sleeping turn aside each unto a world of his own’. Once the lights are out, and our eyes are closed, even the world as we’ve known it vanishes and the familiar ‘I’ evaporates. It is the nightly annihilation of daytime awareness, what Shakespeare called ‘the death of each day’s life’.  ….  Thomas Edison called it ‘an absurdity, a bad habit’.”  …

In The Secret Life of Sleep, Kat Duff, delves into why it is so important to get a good nights sleep.  She also reveals how some of us are having a lot of trouble coming to terms with sleep in case we never wake up.

Perhaps if we can appreciate that life is part of a greater whole, that having a sense of deep history, that knowing we are but one of billions of life forms that all transition from one form to another, we can better appreciate the need for sleep and the tenuous hold we have on life – because for a small number of people a normal nights sleep metamorphs into death and the next stage of this earths life.

“Whether we welcome or resist sleep, there is no escaping it. The longer we go without sleep, the stronger its power to overcome us …. Brief episodes of what sleep scientists call microsleep which last anywhere from a fraction of a second to thirty seconds, begin to intrude upon our waking awareness …”

Kat Duff notes that: “There is an affinity between falling asleep and dying that cannot be ignored. In fact the word sleep is commonly used as a euphemism for ‘death’; we speak of putting a pet to sleep, rather than asking a veterinarian to (kindly) kill him or her. As the Spanish writer Cervantes noted: ‘There is very little difference between a man in his first sleep and a man in his last sleep.’ Both involve lying down and staying still.”

What started out as a fascination with sleep expressed in an online blog has been expanded into this book covering all aspects of the subject.

People, Kat D Sleep Hypnos, Thanatos

Duff continues: “Death and sleep have long been linked. In the ancient Greek cosmology, Hypnos, the god of Sleep, and Thanatos, the god of Death, are twin brothers.  …. In some Hindu and Buddhist traditions, sleep is viewed as a spiritual practice that prepares us for the shifts in consciousness required after death …”

“It comes as no surprise then,” says Duff, “that bedtime prayers address the mortal dangers of sleep, like the popular poems first recorded in 1160AD:

Now I lay me down to sleep

I pray the Lord my soul to keep

If I should die before I wake

I pray the Lord my soul to take.

For those of us working in the end-of-life space we sometimes ask people to contemplate the reality of this piece of prose by taking it to heart, asking – If I should die before I wake ……  (write a short note to family and friends about whatever you think is important or words that you would like to have said but didn’t because of dying before waking).

To help us understand death it can sometimes be helpful to see it from a child’s perspective.

The Snoozeletter


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Resilience through ritual

resilience thru rituals, yes

There is a saying that goes: Failing to plan is like planning to fail.  That failure on our part has knock on effects that often results in ‘grief’ of some kind.

Grieving is a natural and to be expected emotion occurring after a death or loss of capacity.  How we do grieving, how we work through this time can greatly affect how we live going forward (to use the current jargon).

In times past it was taken as given that depending on family or cultural traditions particular rituals would be practiced to mark a death – the absence or non-presence of the person who has died.

These rituals are being shunned by families who are choosing to, as they put it, get on with life as if to suggest that this significant event never happened.  It’s a strange, somewhat odd approach when compared with the preparation and ritual (celebration) that takes place at the time of birth.   Considering that birth follows a 9 month preparation period it seems appropriate that after years – up to 80 or 90 in many cases – the extinguishing of a life is shrugged off as a non-event.  It seems disproportionate to the effort put into maintaining life over all this time.

While the reasoning for dismissing the opportunity for ritual boils down to ‘getting on with life’ the reality is that rituals actually build resilience and our capacity to cope with the stresses and strains of life. While rituals can be practised in a solitary way – sitting alone on a hill somewhere – it has its greatest benefit when practiced in community.  And part of the benefit of rituals is the act of planning and arranging such events.

people, ari honarvarThis story from Ari Honarvar Resilience Through Rituals, A grounding source for connection essential to our mental health, (Yes! No.88, Winter 2019) throws some light on why rituals still have meaning and are still  practiced across the world. “I don’t know if I could have survived seven years of my childhood without the soul-saving rituals of my Persian culture,” says Honarvar. “I grew up in the midst of the Iran-Iraq War, which ended up killing a million people. Besides the horrors of war, freedom of thought and expression were severely restricted in Iran after the Islamic revolution.”

So many rights were lost, but we .. “clung to 3,500-year-old Zoroastrian ceremonies that correspond to the seasons.”

“Rituals, which are a series of actions performed in a specific way, have been part of human existence for thousands of years. They are not habits.”  For one explanation about the difference, see: Three ways Rituals are Different from Habits.

Cristine Legare, psychology professor at the University of Texas, Austin (USA), says, “Rituals signify transition points in the individual life span and provide psychologically meaningful ways to participate in the beliefs and practices of the community.”

Honarvar goes on to report that, “While it’s not clear exactly how they help, rituals reduce anxiety, improve performance and build confidence.”

“According to Andrew Newborg, associate director of research at the Marcus Institute of Integrative Health, rituals lower cortisol levels, which in turn lower heart rate and blood pressure and increase immune system function.”

“We live in the midst of a loneliness epidemic where the lack of belonging and community has been linked to high suicide rates and an increased sense of despair.  …  while more Americans (read Australians) have become disillusioned with organised religion, as a broad and rapidly rising demographic consider themselves spiritual but not religious … many shared cultural rituals are falling away and with them a grounding source for connection and mental health.”

Honarvar provides examples of rituals that have helped sustain her through good time and bad.  “In this age of isolation, we need nourishing and uplifting means of creating community by bringing together members of different generations as our ancestors did  …  rituals can help by offering opportunities for healing and support.”

We need to build some simple rituals into our daily lives.  Planning for them, as well as participating in them, can be enriching for all concerned.

To read the full story click on:


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In a few words

book of grave humourWhat’s to be said following the death of a partner, friend, child, colleague; someone we hold dear who has died?

The job of wording a eulogy usually ends up resting on the shoulders of a close family member or friend or in some cases a faith leader or civil celebrant who is paid to write up a story to be read at the funeral.

It’s a similar story with the writing of an obituary and an epitaph. What we get in each case is a personalised reflection of a life now deceased. In each case they can take different forms:

  • A eulogy can be a spoken presentation delivered by one or more people, or it can be an audio-visual presentation from the basic slide show to movie clips and audio grabs;
  • An obituary can be a short article written by a family member or close friend, or it can be compiled by a specialist obituary journalist at a major daily newspaper – Timelines in the Sydney Morning Herald being a good example;
  • An epitaph is a different kettle of fish. In a very few words an impression is given about the person behind / underneath the plaque.  A visit to any cemetery reveals the range of aspects of a person’s life that becomes the focus for the chosen words.  We can assume that a bible quote suggests a person with religious associations, while a quotation referencing a well respected and widely known public figure suggests the person lived according to a certain principle or philosophy.  Then there is the more pointed reference to a particular event or behaviour – some of which can be cheeky or …

In The Small Book of Grave Humour, edited by Fritz Spiegl, reference is made to The Churchyards Handbook. There are some rather wise words contained within this tome ‘The object of an epitaph is to identify the resting place of the mortal remains of a dead person. It should therefore record only such information as is reasonably necessary for that purpose …’

The book includes many examples where these – shall we call them – instructions were not followed.  This one speaks of the dead man’s activities …John Jones Smith of Smoketown: He smoked his cigarette till from it came, That subtle venom spreading from its flame, Which poisoned every fibre of his frame, And laid him low, Yet whilst he smoked he languishingly sighed, It is but paper round tobacco plied, When like a flicker of a lamp he died, And rests below.’

Smokers have always been the subject of moral homilies in verse.  There is even a religious song by J.S.Bach entitled ‘Elevating Thoughts of a Tobacco Smoker.’

From The Churchyards Handbook again:  ‘All statements should be simple, eg.  “died”  rather than “at rest” or “fallen asleep”.

Here Lyeth ye body of Martn Hyde, He fell down a Midden and grievously Dy’d, James Hyde his Brother fell down another, They now lie interr’d side by side.

Speigly says: “The humour lies in the pun contained in the last line and has entered folklore with the limerick: There was an old fellow from Hyde …”  and so on.

There are some horror epitaphs in this book.  Be careful who you leave to write the last words.  Perhaps consider writing them yourself and leave them with your will or funeral papers.

Having said this epitaphs are becoming less common due to cremains being scattered in a garden or at sea.  There being no specific location there is nothing to have inscribed on a piece of bronze or stainless steel.

As a final parting observation, we would say it is unlikely that in years to come anyone will come to visit the said place. Experience tells us that future generations tend to forget rather quickly and without traditions to carry on visiting grave sites no-one will likely turn up, leaving the memorial to weather and deteriorate.  With cemeteries no longer permitting sites to be retained in perpetuity and the reuse of sites becoming standard practice due to lack of space, perhaps we ought to rethink the epitaph idea and be happy to leave the eulogy and obituary as the last words.

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New Year ritual not everyones cup of tea

Coffin, funeral_for_the_living_3_0In times past, before access to technologies like the internet, we tended to live in our somehwat isolated little bubbles believing that most other people were probably not all that much different for us.  This is no longer the case.  At the click of a ‘mouse’ a whole world of difference is revealed.  For each of these ‘different’ groups what we might consider odd or bizarre they consider to be not only normal but traditions and rituals to be cherished and practiced as if their lives depended on them.  Not unlike the traditions and rituals that we engage in. Such is the power of belief and the influence of groups to convince us to behave in certain ways, irrespective of whether or not these beliefs make sense to others.  This story demonstrates the strength of beliefs to influence our behaviour.

Thai people organise own funeral, lie inside coffins to ring in new year (Hindustan Times, New Delhi Jan 01, 2019)

“Even as the rest of the world rang in the new year with fireworks and countdowns, a suburban temple in Thailand’s Bangkok witnessed a peculiar ritual: worshippers lying inside coffins to participate in traditional funeral rituals. What may appear to be eerie to many is, in fact, a Thai Buddhist ritual held every new year.

The ceremony, worshippers believe, symbolises death and rebirth, which helps them get rid of bad luck and be reborn for a fresh start in the new year.

Participants held flowers and incense in their hands as monks covered them with pink sheets and chanted prayers for the dead.

Phitsanu Kiengpradouk, a 67-year-old retired policeman, was ready to welcome the new year with his own funeral.

“Laying in coffins means we are letting go of our suffering, from our body, and from our mind. We come here to lay in coffins, so we can have better luck and a better life,” said Phitsanu. Busaba Yookong, a 30-year-old who attended the ritual with her family said attending her own funeral was not as eerie an experience as one would presume.

The Takien Temple saw hundreds of worshippers flocking to it to take part in the Thai Buddhist ritual.

This is a ritual that has endured for years. Here we have a group of people within Thailand who believe that lying in a coffin is the right way to start off the new year.

In Thailand’s Coffin Ceremony for the Living, Roy Cavanagh (June 2, 2011) reports that: “Thailand is a country with many superstitions and beliefs and the coffin ceremony is just one example. There are some provincial temples in Thailand, such as this one at Nakhon Nayok that specialize in the coffin ceremony with Buddhist monks providing the blessings. For a fee of around 200 Baht (a merit-making donation to the temple) participants lay in the coffin holding flowers. The lid is then shut as the monks chant death rites.    Just over a minute later as the monks chant about new life, the coffin is opened and the participants are ‘reborn’ leaving behind their bad karma. If, in future years, the participant endures a spell of bad luck or misfortune, they may again opt for the coffin ceremony to bring about a reversal in their luck.     It should be pointed out that not all Thai people believe in the power of the coffin ceremony. There are plenty of Thai Buddhists who view it as a bad omen for a living person to lie down in a coffin.

Read this story at various places on the internet as well as this one from ABC News, scroll down to Thailand … Religious ceremony


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The town with a community operated funeral service

Funeral scene, Back Rds LR, ABCtv 11.18.docxWhat to do when the closest funeral provider is an hour away, when local residents can’t afford the expense of the commercial operators?  Tough bikkies, is what some people would say, but not a town that is known for its can-do approach to life.

And so it is, for 20 odd years Lightning Ridge, in northern NSW, has applied the can-do attitude to one of the greatest essential services that any community can provide – a funeral service. That it is of the people, by the people, for the people, makes it an outstanding achievement and an example of what can be done when others shy away or turn up their noses. As if to say that this is unpalatable or not normal.  It was once not only normal it was expected of everyone to be involved in farewelling those who had died. Done in-house, there was no outsourcing like we do today.  Needless to say, it cost next to nothing.

It was during the opening scenes of the ABC-tv program Back Roads with Heather Ewert (10-12-2018 and later on iView) that we find out how the Lightning Ridge community under the guidance of Mayor Ian ‘Woody’ Woodcock, do funerals with down to earth panache – nothing overly fancy, but with genuine respect and dignity as a given.

We have transcribed the spoken portion of the program here.

Lightning Ridge Funeral Advisory Service (LRFAS)

Time: 2:00 – 2:40 opening segment, then 2:41 – 5:00 min

Featuring – Ian ‘Woody’ Woodcock, Mayor, Lightning Ridge and President LRFAS

HE: I’ve got to ask the obvious question – what are we doing in a hearse?

IW: Lightning Ridge has always been a do-it-yourself community – we do our own funerals – most things are done by the community …

HE: Woody is taking me to the centre of town and would you believe it, we’re going straight to the morgue …

IW: This is where the work room is …

HE: Oh my God – what a work room … (Display of coffins)

IW: Pick your box …

HE: The nearest funeral director is an hour away in Walgett, so Lightning Ridge decided to set up its own funeral service, run by volunteers, Ormie Molyneux (OM) an Opal Miner and Tommy Urqhart (TU) the town’s retired butcher … how did you get roped into it?

OM: One of my uncles was a co-founder and we just tagged along for the ride …

HE: How about you Tommy?    TU: I was dragged in by Ormie …

IW: They just came to give us a hand – we didn’t say what for …

TU: After 38 years being a butcher, nothing really shocks me …

HE: It must be really hard because you must know most of the people that you’re burying?

IW: Yes, that’s probably one of the good things about it …

TM: It’s easier for the families – we all know each other – they feel more comfortable with us rather than the undertaker with the top hats ‘n’ tails …

HE: These men carry out about 20 funerals a year – all up they’ve buried 550 people – even built their own fridge … (Morutary with fridge)

IW: It used to be housed down at the Lions Park until we built the morgue here – they used to keep their beer cold in it, so that’s good news – so that’s what it was used for …

HE: I don’t believe it …    OM: A very versatile fridge …    HE: There’s nothing in there?

IW: No one’s in there – it’s run at 0 degrees all the time …

HE: And you actually have to prepare the bodies and dress them – you do that to …

IW: If we have to – if a family request that we dress them and do their make up or whatever the case may be .

HE: Do make up? Seriously?    IW: Yes we do …    HE: Who taught you how to do make-up?

IW: I used to watch my wife in front of the mirror …

HE: Well that’s got to be a first …..

Later … after hitching a ride back to Lightning Ridge ..

24:45 – 25:45

HE: I find ‘Woody’, Ormie and Tommy out at the cemetery – the town’s oldest resident has died at the age of 100 – there’s sadness of course – but also a celebration of a life well lived in Lightning Ridge  [Grave marker inscription:  RIP  Peter Verkroost – 26.12.17 – 15.7.18]

IW: A very good innings when you can reach 100 years – he got a letter from the Pope, a letter from the Queen, a letter from the Prime Minister – so he was thrilled …

HE: Some weeks this trio have to help bury 2 or even 3 of their friends.  Lightning Ridge is lucky to have them.

And a story that appeared in the SMH 22 June 2016.  Lightning Ridge volunteers bury the dead in town with no undertaker

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When loaf takes on a new meaning

Coffin bread, spinach dipEvolution is not only confined to the biological world, there is evolution within language as well. Who would have thought that the humble loaf would have anything to do with our discussions about dying and death?

In The Story of English in 100 Words, David Crystal explores how words have evolved from times past and how they fall in and out of favour. Loaf is still in vogue but this is not so with all the associations that have been attached to it.

When we think of loaf the first thing that comes to mind is a loaf of bread.  From this connection with food we get a connection with money as in breadwinner and we get the connection with our state of mind, knowing on which side ones bread is buttered on and level of achievement, the best things since sliced bread.

Continuing on down through the ages and we have different kinds such as white loaf and brown loaf, loaf tin and lately mini-loaf; today there is the meat-loaf and so on it goes.

“But nobody could have predicted the 20th century use of loaf in Cockney rhyming slang.  The popular sounding loaf of bread replacing head. It soon reduced to simply loaf, especially in the phrase: Use your loaf, meaning ‘use your common sense’ “, writes David Crystal.

To top off our discussion we find that one usage had loaf of bread replacing dead.  “You can find it in Auden and Isherwood’s play The Dog beneath the Skin (III.iii.123):                   Oh how I cried when Alice died, The day we were to be wed! We never had our Roasted Duck, And now she’s a Loaf of Bread.”

In the new year we will continue to post stories about how the use of words relating to dying and death have been around for centuries.  That we tend to shy away from using the D-word does us no good.  We will continue to ‘expose’ all manner of D-words ‘going forward’  as the jargon would have it.  Suffice to say that in doing a spot of research for this post we came across many images for coffin bread as it is called in many Asian countries. Another subject to explore in coming months.


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When the coffin becomes a tourist attraction

Bizarre, ridiculous, crazy, disrespectful, commercial madness, tourism gone too far.  However you like to describe it the coffin races at Manitou Springs, Colorada are something to be seen to be believed – at least for those of us not used to such antics.

The 2018 event was held on 27th October and attracted a large number of entries. The race is held to honour Emma Crawford, “a young woman seeking the mineral springs “cure” from tuberculosis. Emma came to Manitou Springs in the 1800’s. Sadly, Emma passed away in 1890. Before passing, Emma asked her fiance to bury her on top of Red Mountain. Her wish was honored, and her remains rested peacefully atop the mountain until 1912. During the early 1900’s, the Louisville and Nashville Railroad Company began building an incline to the mountain top, forcing her coffin to be moved. She was reburied on the south slope of the mountain. After several years of rain and harsh weather conditions, Emma’s remains slid down the mountain into the canyon below, where two young boys found her name plate and the silver handles from her casket.

Manitou Springs, in honor of Emma Crawford, celebrates this fun and crazy event of the Emma Crawford Coffin Races and Festival, now in its 24th year.  Up to 70 teams compete in the races.  For more: Emma Crawford Coffin Races

A similar event is held at Denton on its annual Day of the Dead Festival.  For more: Denton Day of the Dead Festival

Denton DoDead Coffin race entrant1

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