Dancing with death not everyone’s cup of tea

Can you imagine the reaction we’d get if we said that tomorrow night we were going dancing – not the usual quick step or barn dance or waltz kind of dancing, but rather we were going to do The Dance of Death. Hang on a minute. What’s that? Are you serious?

“Every era responds to crisis in its own way,” writes John McDonald, in Mortal Masquerade, Jigging with skeletons in The Dance of Death was an antidote to morbid brooding (Spectrum, SMH 9-10 October 2021).

“Our answer to COVID has been to bunker down, trust in science, and wait out the worst of it. In the Middle Ages, when Europe was devastated by the Black Death, it was believed that illness was sent by God to punish human depravity”

“The average lifespan from 1200-1300 was 43 years, but it fell to 24 years from 1300-1400 because of the Plague, which killed up to a third of the population in some regions, along with the high rate of infant mortality and the primitive medicine.”

“Death was ever present. Rather than brooding on their fate, people embraced it in ways that provided a release from tension and anxiety. One outlet was the Dance of Death – In Danse Macabre – in which, at carnival time, people would dance around with characters dressed as skeletons,” reports McDonald. “The Dance of Death was one of the truly egalitarian things in a rigidly hierarchical age. Death did not discriminate between kings and commoners.”

John McDonald goes on to provide a history of how death has been depicted in art and dance across the centuries.

But, as he notes, we are a long way from the carnival atmosphere of the medieval Dance of Death.

Writes McDonald: “I thought I’d find a few memorable works made in response to the pandemic, but while there are plenty of skeletons very few of them are dancing. The lack of such images is symptomatic of the way we see ourselves. For us, the pandemic is not an excuse for wild abandon but seclusion. Parties and dances are strictly forbidden, and there’s nothing celebratory about mindless demonstrations by militant anti-vaxxers.”

“Despite the perpetual furore generated by religion, the virus reveals the thoroughly secular nature of the developed world. We are not throwing ourselves on God’s mercy and embracing fate but resisting the very notion of death. In the Middle Ages, people lived with death and thought about it every day, but today we put it out of our minds, wishing it would go away. It’s almost axiomatic that as a society beings to believe in its own perfection, it wants less and less to do with this intractable subject. When Death comes knocking on the door and invites us to dance, we pretend there’s nobody home.”

This story kind of leaves you hanging out for answers. It raises questions and deserves thoughtful conversations.

Our next post, which will be a short review of the book Mortals, How the fear of death shaped human society, by Rachel and Ross Menzies, might be the go.

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What do contemplation and ecological diversity have in common?

Let’s start the month with a good news story that embraces a number of subjects we are passionate about. Life – death – protection of planet earth. From life to death and back again, the cycle goes on as it has done since time immemorial. This is the story about a memorial site in the form of a cemetery that’s been given a new lease on life as a park – a place of contemplation for all who visit.

Georgina Reid in: This Park in a Former Cemetery is Designed for Contemplation (Planthunter, Issue 78, Gardens, 30.09.2021) reports how tninking outside the square can produce a place of calm and contemplation from what some might seem ab unlikely landscape. She writes …

‘This is a place of death, historically, and now it is a place of life. It is full, full, full of life.’ Thomas Woltz, principal of Nelson Byrd Woltz landscape architects (NBW), is referring to the Naval Cemetery Landscape, a piece of ground with a busy history; it was once a wetland, then a shipbuilding yard, then orchards, followed by an unmarked graveyard for over 2000 people, and ball fields (the graves were exhumed in the 1920s). Nowadays, it’s one of the many public spaces that form part of the Brooklyn Greenway Initiative. But, unlike most parks, it’s designed not for recreation but contemplation.

Contemplation? Contemplation, it turns out, can be grown from seed.

‘What we did was to create a site for the contemplation of the collective human condition of death. But we made something reassuring, not depressing, that reminds us of the powerful circle that life offers us. We created an ecology that draws the most life to it, as a positive reminder of our own existence.’ A native meadow, due to the diversity of life it supports – fungi, invertebrates, insects, humans – was planted,

A raised boardwalk winds through the space, built on special footings requiring no excavation, and referencing early maps of the wetland that once existed on site. ‘Everything has an origin and a meaning,’ Thomas says.

The park is a hotbed of abundance, and a place of respite for all creatures ­– two-legged, ten-legged, no-legged. It’s also a place of learning. Research by urban nature organisation Nature Sacred is being undertaken in the park to better understand nature’s effects on stressed communities. In each of their gardens, according to Thomas, Nature Sacred install a bench with a weatherproof box containing a journal. Everyone is invited to contribute. The entries in the book have made Thomas weep more than once.

‘I have cried hot tears on reading that book. People who are facing terminal illness, abuse, psychological trauma – they come and they sit on the bench and they are immersed in the fecund life of this space and they get it. Their bodies get it.’

Link to full story here: Park for contemplation

Georgina Reid is a writer and designer, and the founding editor of The Planthunter. In addition to editing The Planthunter, Georgina contributes to a range of design and culture publications and speaks regularly about her work. Georgina’s first book, The Planthunter: Truth, Beauty, Chaos, and Plants was released in Australia by Thames and Hudson in 2018, and in the USA by Timber Press in 2019.  

Note: If you describe something as fecund, you approve of it because it produces a lot of good or useful things.

More here about the: Brooklyn Greenway Initiative, and another program here: Nature Sacred

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Lament, loss, exile and oblivion

How many different ways can you approach a particular area of interest? Well if the call for papers for this symposium in any indication, heaps. We came across it n the latest newsletter from the The Centre for Death and Society (CDAS), University of Bath, in the UK..

It’s going to be a packed program with over 33 topics covered. It just goes to show how many ways you can come at an area of interest when you take an academic approach to it. Gone are the days of the overall general holistic ways of knowing. Now, as with many aspects of science and technology it’s all about drilling down into the minute detail and for us getting overwhelmed to the point of paralysis and then being at the mercy of those who have a commercial interest in simply getting on with the job – we take a pain out of painful situations they say.

There can be some merit in examining the components that go to make up the whole, but let’s not get overtaken to the point where we have to hand everything over the professional undertaker. Here’s some of the notes about the symposium … with the list of 33 topics.

Cultures of Lament, Exile, and Oblivion: A Symposium – Fri 28th Jan 2022

The Fellows of St John’s College, Durham University, in collaboration with the Department of Theology and Religion, warmly invite your interest in this one-day symposium on Cultures of Lament, Exile, and Oblivion.

While papers on each theme in relation to specific data, texts, or research questions will structure our proceedings, the Symposium Committee particularly encourages proposals on the nuances and opportunities of their thematic relationship by teasing out expressions of their mutual configuration in the complexity of human lives.

What might lament, exile, or oblivion – and their venerable histories of experience – convey to us today? What are their hermeneutical and ethical implications for our grasp of the human condition? These great themes of existence lie at the heart of our Call for Research and how, across diverse cultures and eras, they are experimentally pursued in the rhyme and reason of ritual-symbolism, narrative, myth, art and architecture, and the dramatic textures of politics and poetry, faith, music, identity, and ethics not least. Why, then, do some human cultures, religious or otherwise, persist in depictions of a world of ultimate oblivion for its mortal inhabitants? What might this declare about our epistemologies, our cultural classifications, our emotional or psychological adjudications of the world into which we are thrown? How might oblivion illuminate discussions in our contemporary age, so often diagnosed with social fracture, amnesia, and malaise, and spring forth the hope of their opposite in belonging, memory, and rootedness?

What kind of truth might exile speak to the human condition at large as well as to the displaced of our own day, the marginalised, those in flight from their homeland? And how or why do these experiences often issue in songs of lament, in ritual weeping, in social action and petition, and in philosophic schemes that bid to reveal or conceal the depth of our vulnerable exposure? In short, how have these brute facts of mortal life aided the pinch or push of intellectual, artistic, architectural, and musical creativity? Wherein lies the longevity of these forms in communicating what so often seems to trouble our words in the throes of lament, exile, or oblivion?

Themes of Interest: We welcome creative interpretations of the following topics in relation to our principal themes (N.B. this is not an exclusive or comprehensive list):

• Identity and/or narratives of belonging and resistance
• Protest and/or prophecy
• Environmentalism
• Sectarianism
• Ritual-Symbolism
• Diaspora, migration, refugee crisis
• Force
• Therapy and clinical approaches/experiences
• Theories of knowledge
• Escapism
• Desire
• Language, crisis, paradox; meaning making/breaking
• Technology, consumerism, and the periodization of being
• Existential angst/fear, philosophies of extinction
• War and peace; terror and offensive death
• The attention economy
• Qualities of relation, perception, and action
• Networked identities and the opacity of the self
• Mythic genesis and/or rupture
• Traditional-Secular spiritualities
• Scriptural and theological approaches
• Pastoral contexts
• Embodiment and/or emotion
• Time, temporality, tenses, and tonalities
• Altered states of consciousness
• Theories of culture and the human person
• Ethics, pain, suffering; theodicy and threnody
• Death, mortality, and grief
• Tangibility and material culture

We strongly welcome presentations across a range of textual, historical, philosophical, musical, literary, artistic, and social-scientific disciplines as well as experience-led practitioners in the therapeutic and clinical sciences.

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More choices for body disposal is a good thing

The choices on offer for body disposal is on the rise and not before time.

Not that burial was a poor option for hundreds of years. But as space for cemeteries runs out the need for other methods is exercising the minds of a few enterprising people.

We have reported on the Recompose method over the last couple of years, but it’s a business and requires the building of a substantial piece of infrastructure. While claiming the eco-friendly tag, these two new offerings are worth noting …. read on.

North Queensland is the setting for this story by Sally Rafferty, Jessica Naunton and Michael Clarke in Eco-friendly cremation technique leaves behind half a cup of liquid DNA instead of ashes (ABC North Qld, 21 September 2021).

Jeff Boyle says the technology produced no fumes or pollution and was totally carbon neutral.
“The energy used for a cremator is equivalent to lighting up a football field, while the energy used by The Gentle Way lights up a small office,” he said.

The system, developed by Jeff Boyle, a funeral director from North Queensland, is based on what he claims is a world-first water-spray alternative to cremation that leaves half a cup of liquid DNA instead of ashes, the ABC journalists report.

is not unlike acquamation (alkaline hydrolysis) – a method that’s been around for many years, but not widely used for a number of reasons that we won’t go into here. It mimics the process of alkaline breaking down the body in the ground.

“The water is sprayed over the body, much like a shower head does, for approximately 10 hours,” Mr Boyle said.

“The water goes through a specialised filtration system and it takes the DNA of the person out of the water and cleans it back like new again.”

The alkalinity reduces the body matter to bones.

The bone fragments are then processed and stored in an urn that, along with the liquid DNA, is given to the deceased’s loved ones.

The technique differs to alkaline hydrolysis offered in New South Wales, where bodies are put in a stainless steel drum filled with hydrogen peroxide and water and heated to 93 degrees Celsius.

The technology was successfully used for the first time last week, but it is already proving popular. Forty prearranged funerals have booked it in North Queensland and 10 funeral homes across the country have pre-ordered their own machines.

“We’ve had inquiries from France, we’ve had inquiries from Germany because they’re all about environmentally friendly,” Mr Boyle said.

More at this link: Eco friendly cremation

In a suburban warehouse tucked between an auto repair shop and a computer recycling business in Denver, Colorado, Seth Viddal is dealing with life and death.

Body composting a ‘green’ alternative to burial and cremation (ABC / Associated Press, 26 September, 2021)

“Composting itself is a very living function and it’s performed by living organisms,” he said.
“There are billions of microbial, living things in our digestive tracts and just contained in our body, so when our one life ceases, the life of those microbes does not cease.”

Key points:

  • Body composting reduces human remains through a natural organic process over months
  • Colorado has become the second US state after Washington to allow human body composting
  • Young people motivated by sustainability are expressing interest in the process.

The insulated wooden box is about two metres in length, 90 centimetres wide and deep, lined with waterproof roofing material and packed with wood chips and straw.

One of the drawbacks is that it’s not quick. It takes three months for the process to work, which might be much longer than people are prepared to wait. Sot this one is indeed a wait and see.

The good thing is that we are being offered more choice and smaller operators are challenging the limited options previously available, mostly controlled by the larger corporate funeral providers.

Read more here: Could body composting be the new way to go?

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Coffin club community delivers quality endings

It’s one of the longest running Coffin Clubs in Australia and it’s one of the most vibrant. Not the kind of word one tends to find associated with an end of life group, but it’s an accurate description for this hands on practical method of dealing with the inevitable.

Some coffins made at Ulverstone’s Community Coffin Club have been by friends and supporters. This one is Care Beyond Cure secretary Lynne Jarvis’s own woven model.(ABC Northern Tasmania: Rick Eaves)

This is the story about Community Coffin Club members at Ulverstone, northern Tasmania, who have come together to celebrate five years of a club and a concept that has inspired many others facing their mortality around Australia and the world.

In: At the Community Coffin Club at Ulverstone, living and dying well are part of life, Rick Eaves (ABC Northern Tasmania, Wed 11 Aug 2021) tells how “At this coffin club, laughter, music, food, cute dogs and shared experience lay the foundations on which to build a serious understanding of “death literacy”.

It’s all about knowing what happens when you die, what happens before and after you take your last breath, and what it all means for family and friends.

Organiser Lynne Jarvis says it’s all about educating, supporting and empowering people. 

“The idea is that individuals can make their own coffin and family and friends can help with that. In itself it is a beautiful, empowering process,” she said.

“But we also have our art and death literacy space where anyone can come — they can bring their knitting and just say ‘hi’.”

Lynne is also secretary of Care Beyond Cure, a group that organises therapy and respite days for chronically and terminally ill people and their carers.

She said the group aimed to ease the financial and emotional burdens of those facing the challenges of severe illness or life’s final chapter.

Care Beyond Cure is also in the process of establishing Tender Funerals Tasmania, the first not-for-profit, community-owned and led funeral home for the state.

Good news stories are worth passing around the traps, and this is one them. Read all of Ricks news post here: Community Coffin Club for living and dying well as part of life.

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The NORM and the NORO

Here are a couple of new acronyms for us to get our heads around.

A clue or two probably won’t be sufficient to provide the four words involved, but the image will go a long way towards giving us a good idea.

A NORM is a Natural Organic Reduction Manager and a NORO is a Natural Organic Reduction Operator. They are both positions within the Recompose business which is offering the service of body composting in the USA.

Death – though heart-wrenching – can be beautiful. Its rituals can be meaningful, and disposition of the body can be gentle and natural.

Recompose is an ecological death care company based in Seattle, Washington. When we open Recompose will offer the service of natural organic reduction (NOR), where human bodies are converted into soil. We are building the Recompose model to be an alternative to the existing funeral industry, offering an authentic, participatory experience for families and a natural return to the earth for the dead.

Natural organic reduction is a managed thermophilic biological process used to convert organic material, including human remains, into a more stable earthy organic material that is unrecognizable as human remains.

More information at the link: Become soil when you die

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Conversations best had well before an emergency

We recently received an email from The GroundSwell Project with this reminder message:

Picture credit: The GroundSwell Project

We believe that end-of-life conversations are best done WAY BEFORE Emergency.

We advocate for pretty much any other place.

Lounge rooms. Over dinner tables. During long walks. Over soup. With cake.

A hand-written note, delivered with love, will also get the job done.

All this is good stuff, provided we get around to it. Good intentions are not sufficient. Putting off won’t get the job done. Resolve is what is needed and then taking the opportunities when they arise.

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Decision making for dying with dignity and for care in later life

There’s a new campaign to introduce voluntary assisted dying in NSW.

Alex Greenwich, the independent Member for Sydney, (pictured here with Greg Piper, the independent Member for Lake Macquarie), has released his draft Voluntary Assisted Dying Bill 2021 for consultation before he introduces it into parliament later in August or in September.

A lot has changed since voluntary assisted dying failed to pass the Legislative Council by one vote in 2017.

“Four years ago, no other state had progressed with voluntary assisted dying, now every other state has,” Mr Greenwich told AAP.

That drastically boosts the chances of success this time, he says, as NSW has “tried and tested” laws interstate to model theirs off.

“(They have) been able to show that a lot of the concerns of opponents are actually not borne out in reality,” he said.

Under Mr Greenwichs’s bill, voluntary assisted dying will be accessible to adults with a terminal illness that will cause death within six months – or 12 months for neuroegenerative conditions – and where suffering cannot be tolerably relieved. A person must have decision-making capacity and be acting voluntarily, without coercion, and must undergo two independent eligibility assessments by two doctors.

The draft bill has the support of Dying with Dignity NSW and Go Gentle Australia. A survey of 2344 Health Services Union members found 89 per cent supported the union joining the NSW Voluntary Assisted Dying Alliance to help advance the draft laws. Council of the Ageing (COTA) NSW has also stated its support.

For more check out these articles: NSW to consider assisted dying legislation and Plans for new law in NSW

On a not unrelated note, it’s worth thinking in a holistic way about life, especially those end times, that many of us think will never come. So it’s disappointing to report that: Talking about these end of life (EOL) issues is still a subject that is avoided by many people.

Seventy per cent of Australians aged 65-plus are sidestepping the opportunity to control their EOL care, with men less likely to plan than women. This is perhaps surprising when we consider that many men spend a considerable amount of time and effort working on other aspects of their lives, such as retirement planning and wills.

We really should consider EOL planning as part of a total Advance Health Care Plan (AHCP) package and all of this as part of wills and what happens next, regardless of what age we are.

There’s no lack of information to help get started. All that’s needed is a call to Advance Care Planning Australia on 1300 208 582 or log onto advancecareplanning.org.au

The Booklet with a template form at the back is available here: Health Advance Care Directive

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Compassionate end-of-life care: Go Gentle Australia strategy success

We’ve been keeping an eye on progress with Voluntary Assisted Dying in Australia, for a long time. We’ve reported on the mixed success made by various groups, but none more successful than Go Gentle Australia.

The efforts by many hundreds of people over many years while raising public awareness were unsuccessful in bringing about change at a policy or legislative level. Enter Go Gentle Australia, and things began to change – for the better. This post taken from a We’re 5 report, highlights how important it is to think outside the square, to bring ‘new eyes’ to the existing situation, to adopt strategies that are known to work in other quarters.

This is how we understand the Go Gentle Australia approach works: a 5 fold strategy that focuses on the core issues, ensuring that the time and energy devoted to the campaign is not wasted.

  1. Law-makers — politicians, who vote on legislation,
  2. Advisors to decision-makers — public officials who politicians receive advice from,
  3. Advocates and Lobbyists – people who are influential in presenting a case for or against a particular policy or policy change (in this instance medical and religious leaders),
  4. Opinion leaders — media and feature writers who can impact on public opinion,
  5. Community at large — public voice who need to be on-board and in favour of the policy such that it will be broadly accepted and that politicians know will be supportive if they vote in favour of the proposed new legislation

Join us in celebrating our 5th birthday!

At this critical juncture in the campaign for Voluntary Assisted Dying in Australia, we’ve been reflecting on how far we’ve come – and how much you’ve helped us. Thank you!

Five years ago, Andrew Denton founded Go Gentle. His vision was to have better conversations about end of life choice, including the option of voluntary assisted dying.

Prior to 2016, there had been 50 attempts to pass VAD laws – but none was successful. MPs were reluctant to change the status quo, despite overwhelming public support for the reform. This meant no Australian had access to legal Voluntary Assisted Dying.

Andrew said at the time: “I wanted to inform the debate and I wanted to inflame the debate. I wanted politicians and doctors to stop sitting on their hands while Australians needlessly suffer.”

New tactics were needed.

In Victoria, Go Gentle adopted a new approach to elevate the public debate:

We directly challenged medical and religious resistance to change; we amplified the voices of dying people, too often ignored; and we provided meticulously researched, evidence-based resources to MPs to convince them to support this law. These inlcuded the book The Damage Done, describing the trauma across Australia in the absence of a VAD law; Ebooks that distilled the growing body of evidence from around the world about why voluntary assisted dying legislation is needed and safe; and, the influential Better off Dead podcast.

The new approach worked.

In 2017, Victoria made history by passing its landmark assisted dying law.

Fast forward to 2021 and almost 12 million Australians in Victoria, WA, Tasmania and SA have seen their governments pass laws for compassionate end of life choice.

We’re getting closer – but our work is not complete. Your unwavering support and generosity have helped us transform this debate in Australia.

Yet in our fifth anniversary year, we need your help more than ever to get legislation over the line for the other half of Australians still waiting on these laws.

NSW and Queensland will debate bills later this year – with pressure building in the Territories. These campaigns are set to be the toughest.

Overall, it is a good news story as we mark our fifth anniversary – MPs attitudes are shifting and more doctors and medical groups are coming out in support of end of life choice. Together we can keep the momentum going.
We are very grateful for your support — Kiki Paul, CEO.

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Expanding our understanding of grief to include nature and the earth

Grief and loss can involve more than the human species. In this story Let’s Talk About Reef Grief, Marta Zaraska (Discover Magazine, May 2021) shares her concerns about loss as it relates to nature and the earth – in particular coral reefs.

Scientists already have several terms for what she is experiencing. Some call it climate anxiety. Others call it pre-traumatic stress disorder or solastalgia – distress over seeing the natural environment negatively transformed.

One thing is clear; worry and fear surrounding global warming is sharply increasing, taking a toll on many.

Through various studies scientists have found that some people ‘are deeply affected by feelings of loss, helplessness and frustration due to their inability to feel like they are making a difference in stopping climate change.’

Scientists have also found that there is almost zero correlation between ecological worry and general anxiety or any specific personality traits. Susan Clayton, environmental psychologist at the College of Wooster in Ohio, compares it to anxiety felt before a job interview – it makes perfect sense, simply because there are plenty of real reasons to worry.

So how do climate researchers cope? They often use dark humour and develop a thick skin to keep going. They also play up the positives – focusing on the meaning they get from their jobs, being part of a community and their love for science.

Neville Ellis, environmental scientist at University of Western Australia investigated ecological grief among farmers in rural Australia and Inuit communities in Canada.  He discovered that eco-grief often comes in three varieties: grief over physical losses (like flood devastation or deforestation), grief associated with loss of identity, and grief over anticipated future ecological losses.

“People might feel the grief but it’s not legitimized in society”, Ellis says.

There are no monuments for the Amazon forest, no last rites for extinct species.
Picture at right: Clearing trees for a Palm Oil plantation in Malaysia.

Coming together is important and talking to like-minded people. Having mourning rituals as they did in Iceland in 2019 when the community came together for a funeral for a melted glacier.

Other ideas are to: write letters to decision-makers; engage in the community to make it more climate-friendly; express your emotions; take pleasure in nature; focus on your own health and engage in wishful thinking – hoping that things will somehow work out.

And we need role models for how to talk about our climate worries and how to deal with them. ‘We also need to start discussing these issues openly, admitting our fears without shame.  We should do it together, almost like group therapy.  So, I’ll go first: Hello, my name is Marta, and I have climate anxiety.  I’m scared about the future of our planet.  I’m grieving.’

Read the full story at: Let’s Talk About Reef Grief

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