Valuing one life over another, what determines our rationale

Things are never as simple as they seem writes Waleed Aly: Inequality in death reigns as it does in life (SMH July 25, 2014). While this story is now 8 years old, the content, nevertheless, rings true. Write Aly:

Waleed Aly

“I have been thinking a lot lately about the value of human life. About the lives so cheaply lost on MH17. About the anger and grief this tragedy has unleashed.”

But I’ve also been thinking a lot about why it is these lives particularly that have earned such a response. The more I heard journalists and politicians talk about how 37 Australians were no longer with us, the stranger it began to sound. Something of that magnitude happens just about every week on our roads, for instance. In the last week for which we have official data, 29 people were killed this way. The youngest was aged two. We held no ceremonies and we had no public mourning of the fact that they too, were no longer with us.

Why? I don’t ask critically, because I’m as unmoved by the road toll as anyone. But it’s surely worth understanding how it is we decide which deaths matter, and which don’t; which ones are galling and tragic, and which ones are mere statistics. We tell ourselves we care about the loss of innocent life as though it’s a cardinal, unwavering principle, but the truth is we rationalise the overwhelming majority of it. What does that tell us about ourselves?

Waleed then goes on to discuss the terrible death and destruction in Gaza, where over 600 people were killed. He writes: “There’s grief, there’s anger, and there’s some international hand-wringing, but nothing that compared with the urgency and rage surrounding MH17, even if there is twice the human cost.”

He goes on to note that what plays out in each of the circumstances we select to focus on, “a universal principle” is at work. “It is not not merely the death of innocents that moves us, even in very large numbers. It is the circumstances of it that matter. We decide which deaths to mourn, which to ignore, which to celebrate and which to rationalise on the basis of what story we want them to tell.”

“Palestinian deaths matter more than Sudanese ones if you want to tell a story of Israeli aggression. Israeli deaths matter more than Palestinian ones if you want to tell a story of Hamas terrorism. Asylum seeker deaths at sea matter more than those on land if you want to tell a story about people smuggling. But a death in detention trumps all if your story is about government brutality. And a death from starvation matters if you want to tell a story about global inequality – which so few people do. Everyone will insist they’re merely giving innocent human lives their due. And that’s true, but only in the most partial sense. These are political stories driven by political commitments.”

Charles Darwin words of wisdom

Thought provoking and worth us reflecting on as we ponder the news events of the day and weigh up what to pay attention to and where to focus our energies as we go about each day, listen to each news bulletin, watch each news program, since much of the news is about death and dying in tragic circumstances. As for the remainder of our lives, well that is simply a compilation of all the days making up the next week, month, year and so on. Which life will matter will be determined by our worldview and the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves, and which lives matter to us and to the larger earth family of human and other than human beings,

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Not dreary, not deathly quiet, a destination for the living as well as the dead

“As the historic grounds host fewer funerals and some graves fall into decay, the Melbourne General Cemetery is reinventing itself a a tourist spot and picnic park,’ writes Robyn Dixon in Graveyard rises from the dead (Newcastle Herald, Weekender, February 14, 2015).

Melbourne General Cemetery

The most popular night tour is on Halloween, when visitors in ghoulish costumes troop between the graves. But the Friday the 13th, Midsommer and Full Moon tours always sell out, often turning dozens away.’

The people here are not mourners, ghost hunters, vandals or fans of Baker. Rather, they’re tourists, participating in one of the Melbourne General Cemetery’s popular night tours.

Celestina Sagazio, the Historical and Cultural Director of the Melbourne cemeteries trust, believes graveyards are for the living as much as for the dead, recently announced plans to cater for a range of social functions, including pre-death wakes (for people who want to be at their own wakes), philosophical lectures and weddings (a sure way to reinforce the message: “Til death do us part”)

That said the night tours started some years back “almost as part of a dare,” Sagazio says. Someone suggested the idea, half joking, but it was decided to give it a try.

“Some people thought it was unusual. But it’s got to be respectful.” The tours took off.

“It’s demystifying death, because we have this great fear of death and cemeteries. By visiting them, our fear diminishes. Exposure decreases fear. At one of the trusts newer cemeteries, Springvale Botanical, there is a restaurant with a French chef, regular jazz bands, a theatre and children’s playgrounds.

With fear and taboo surrounding death, cemetery management the world over faces a problem: How to maintain historically important monuments when no one wants to walk through the front gate?

Tour of the cemetery parkland.

We could try a little creativity and bring nature into the mix. The UNESCO World Heritage Skogskyrkogården, is a case in point. The Woodland Cemetery, in Stockholm Sweden, is a beautiful forested parkland that attracts thousands of visitors every year, including many from overseas.

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AFTER death life carries on

When the topic turns to where to go when we die, the answers can range from terror of dying to an opportunity for dealing with the corpse in a similar fashion to animals in nature, which includes leave me under the nearest tree or in the case of the city dweller, dig a hole next to the lemon tree and bury me there, as one of many examples.

In reality the choices are very limited – burial in a grave at a cemetery or incineration at a cremation facility and then depositing the cremains – ashes – at a favourite spot frequented by the deceased or kept on the mantle piece for years, or shared with family members – the list goes on.

But rarely does anyone mention a body farm as a half way stop off before cremation. That’s because it is not a widely available options and many frown at the thought.

Shari Forbes is the forensic chemist in charge of Australia’s first body farm, operated by the University of Technology, Sydney, writes Julie Power in: The woman with a nose for death (SMH April 11, 2015).

Forbes is endlessly fascinated by death and how we decay, says Julie Forbes.

“It is not because it smells like decomposition but I have no problems with bad odours,” said Forbes, a forensic chemist and professor at the University of Technology Sydney (UTS ). She is also lead researcher and the coordinator of Australia’s first body farm, the Australian Facility for Taphonomic Experimental Research with the convenient acronym of AFTER, which starts next year . (A body farm studies the five stages of human decompositon.)

At 37, Professor Forbes has spent her life trying to capture the smell of death. A much-published researcher on the science of forensic taphonomy or the rate of human decay and decomposition, she specialises in how to develop the best chemical representations of these odours so sniffer dogs can find the dead as quickly as possible.

She explains with practised ease what will happen at the site.

“The body will be placed on the soil or in a shallow grave, and we will allow nature to take its course.”

A mesh cover will stop animals from disturbing or distributing the remains. The bones are required by legislation to be returned to UTS where final wishes of the family will be carried out.

Perhaps a clue as to why she is so comfortable around death and dead bodies, is the fact that: She started life on a farm near Brewarrina, where her father was a grazier. Times were hard, and there were no euphemisms. Animals were killed or put down. Things died.

It was while she was finishing her honours at UTS that she saw human remains for the first time. She was asked to research why corpses in some waterlogged parts of some Sydney cemeteries were deteriorating much slower than in other parts of the same cemetery.

By the time she saw the remains for the first time, they were mostly bones.

Back then, she found the bleating stage of death the most confronting. Now she can deal with even the worst cases, such as extremely pungent waterlogged corpses.

Apparently that’s normal. It is the insects, the liquids and the biological waste that makes most people squeamish. These days Professor Forbes is unfazed, but remains fascinated by the intellectual puzzle.

She is also motivated by the memory of the victim and the needs of the family left behind. “Someone has to speak for the dead,” she said.

In an associated story: Thirty offer their corpses for a kind of AFTER life, Julie Power (SMH April 12, 2015), continues writing about the work of Shari Forbes: The facility is:

To be called the Australian Facility for Taphonomic Experimental Research (or AFTER for short), the facility to study the decomposition of human corpses will operate within a 48-hectare bush site owned by the University of Technology, Sydney (UTS) in the lower Blue Mountains.

The facility – the first in the southern hemisphere – will use only recently deceased corpses because it has been designed to study human decomposition in an Australian environment.

Professor Forbes said the ethical use of donated human cadavers for scientific studies was vital for the success of human death investigations here and overseas, including neighbouring countries where Australia sent emergency response teams in times of disaster.

“The scientists and police involved in this research are confronted by death on a regular basis and understand the moral and ethical significance of working with human cadavers, just like doctors and medical students,” she said.

For those who find this a rather distasteful ending, it is no more confronting than the sky burial practices of the Tibetans, where the corpse is placed on a rocky exposed site with the unspoken invitation of vultures to come and have their fill as part of the cycle of life and nature in the wider context.

Read the full stories here: A nose for death, and here: A kind of AFTER life

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Online streaming adds to funeral attendance options

Social media is encroaching on more and more of our daily lives – but only because we allow it to.  Whether it be by conscious decision or by default because we choose to pay no attention, the pushers of social media for commercial purposes are continually looking for new ways to ‘convince’ us that buying their services is worth the money.

Computer technology is making inroads into personal attendance at funerals especially at times when family and friends are not able to attend due to distance or other situations such as lockdowns.

And so this story by Simon McCarthy: In the 21st Century, data is the world’s most valuable resource – what happens to it after we die?  (Port Macquarie News, July 28 2019) reports on how the funeral industry is offering streaming services as an adjunct to the conventional funeral service.  An add-on now but will it end up being a replacement, where no one turns up in person, but rather ‘participating’ in a virtual ceremony by watching on a phone, tablet or smart tv?  Perhaps even while driving down the freeway or communting on the bus or train.

There are many aspects to this story and we don’t intend to cover them all in this brief post.  Simon McCarthy is simply reporting on the changes taking place as technology makes inroads into our daily lives.  How it all plays out over the coming centuries is anyones guess.  Live streaming is not some new fangled invention, it is simply broadcasting using the internet.  Says McCarthy in the case of a NZ company:

The video is streamed live to an invite-only cloud service provided by the New Zealand-based funeral streaming company OneRoom.

“The market found us,” OneRoom chief executive David Lutterman says. “It was such a good idea and such a good market to be in that we ended up just focussing exclusively on that. The only thing we do now is stream and record funeral services.”

The business had been registered in 2008 to service the New Zealand corporate sector, webcasting annual general meetings on demand, but in 2012 it was approached by a private crematorium.

OneRoom hosts more than 1000 password-protected funeral broadcasts each month. New Zealand had become a validation market, Lutterman says. Within a few years, the company had expanded into Australia and the United States. It doubled its output between 2017 and 2018 and is on track to grow at the same rate in 2019. 

Online funeral streaming, Michael B, 2

A word of caution comes from Psychologist Michael Bazaley, who says, the way we think about our lives and mortality has remained the same for centuries.

We grieve in groups, “we’re social beings. There is a lot of research about how we don’t do very well in isolation.

“We live in a time where there’s a lot of influences to get our attention, but I think we are still struggling with the same things: what happens when I die? Where am I going? What am I doing?’

“In this new process of grieving online, there is a chance we could become detached from that group mourning experience.”

Bazaley wonders if live streaming death rites could lead to a detachment from grief.

In summing up, McCarthy notes that: 

The first generation of digital natives are approaching middle age, literate in a unique kind of relationship with the non-physical, creating terabytes of digital estates that will broach a new cultural dilemma around death and dying. In the 21st Century, data is the world’s most valuable resource, and the new currency of inheritance.

We are creatures of nature – the earth – with a lineage dating back centuries.  It would be wise not to turn our backs on where we came from.  Internet speed is one thing, but faster is not necessarily better and placing all our eggs in the baskets of the data providers needs to be done with extreme caution.  These are strangers after all.  Not our friends or family. Their job is one business transaction after another – selling products in exchange for money.  The content is what counts.  Who owns and controls the content is up for grabs when we go online.

To read the story in full click on the link: Data and death in the 21st Century

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Voluntary Assisted Dying in Western Australia – not the slippery slope first feared

In: WA’s voluntary assisted dying laws have been in place for a year. Have they served their purpose? by Keane Bourke (ABC News 1 July 2022) a story about WA’s voluntary assisted dying laws and the doctors who look back at the year since they came into effect.

For the last year, Angela Cooney has been doing the opposite of what doctors are normally trained to do – she has been helping people end their lives.

Dr Cooney is often their first step in accessing Western Australia’s voluntary assisted dying scheme, and in many instances, also the last.

For some of the more than 171 West Australians who have used the scheme since it came into effect exactly a year ago, she has been there to help them, and their families, in their final moments.

People who accessed the scheme had an average age of 73, with slightly more men than women following it through to the end.

Of those, 65 per cent had been diagnosed with cancer-related conditions, 15 per cent were neurological-related and 8 per cent had respiratory issues.

The vast majority, 79 per cent, were in the metropolitan area, with the remaining 21 per cent spread across the rest of WA.

Those figures are roughly in line with how WA’s population is divided between the city and the country.

From opponent to advocate

About 20 years ago, Simon Towler was the state president of the Australian Medical Association, arguing on radio against euthanasia campaigner Philip Nitschke.

Now he is one of the state’s leading VAD providers, having seen both the public’s demand for voluntary euthanasia but also the distress of families who were left without a choice at the end of loved one’s life.

“There was a lot of conversation around VAD — that it’s going to be wealthy, western suburbs, ageing males who will access VAD,” he said.

“That has not been the experience in this state.

“We’ve had everything from very wealthy people through to very poor people, we’ve even had Aboriginal people who’ve accessed VAD when there were comments [saying] that would not happen.”

And while he admitted it could be “terrifying” to be involved in, he described the “absolute privilege” to be part of the process.

WA’s voluntary euthanasia laws came after a drawn-out debate, both in and outside of Parliament, with one sitting of the lower house lasting almost 21 hours.

It ended with legislation containing more than 100 safeguards, including that the person accessing the scheme be:

  • 18 years or older
  • terminally ill with a condition causing intolerable suffering
  • likely to die within six months, or 12 months for neurodegenerative conditions.

They must make three requests to die – two verbal and one written – with two independent doctors overseeing the process.

Once the requirements have been met, a person can choose to either administer the VAD substance themselves, or have it done by a qualified doctor or nurse.

Read the full article here: Doctors reflect on WA VAD

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Professor calls for better endings than in a hospital ICU

In: When the end is nigh, it’s best to avoid hospital, Ken Hillman (SMH October 31, 2009) is speaking from years of experience and first hand knowledge.

Many of us will spend the last few days of life in an intensive care unit. For many, it will be a painful and futile experience, causing unnecessary suffering for the patient and loved ones.

Once death was treated as a relatively normal and inevitable experience. It is now a highly medicalised ritual. Now, when someone who is old and near the end of their life suddenly or even gradually deteriorates, the ambulance is called. The paramedics cannot be discretionary, even when it is against the wishes of the patient. The role of emergency rooms is to resuscitate and save lives, and package the patient for admission to hospital, whether active treatment is appropriate or not.

It is difficult to get off this conveyor belt. The reasons why are many and complex. Unreal expectations of what modern medicine can offer, reinforced by everyday stories of the latest medical miracle; the inability of politicians and funding bodies to rationally limit resources for end-of-life care without accusations of neglect or even murder; the difficulty of progressing this discussion in a society with such diverse opinions; the increasing specialisation of medicine; the practical fact that it is easier for busy clinicians to continue active treatment than to undertake the difficult and time-consuming business of talking to relatives and patients about dying.

All of this is exacerbated by a health system driven by fees for services, with little incentive to embark on the difficult business of managing dying. There are the ethical issues and the fear of litigation from a predatory legal system.

All these factors mean it is increasingly likely that a patient will not be plucked off the conveyer belt until everything medical has been administered and the last few minutes of life squeezed out.

There are limited provisions for rescuing these people and providing more appropriate care. My specialty of intensive care often acts as a surrogate end-of-life service at unsustainable cost to society.

NOTE: Ken Hillman is professor of intensive care at the University of NSW. This is an extract from his book, Vital Signs. His more recent book is titled: A Good Life To The End.

Read the full article here: When the end is nigh

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From a healthy eating lifestyle to a healthy thinking deathstyle

In the program: From Lifestyle to Deathstyle, Rachael Kohn (ABC RN The Spirit of Things, Sunday 19 July 2009) speaks with a guest who knows the deathstyle subject very well.

Baby Boomers invented ‘the lifestyle choice’ but now they’re choosing a death style, the natural way of death. Zenith Virago, co-author of The Intimacy of Death and Dying, has established the Natural Death Centre in Byron Bay based on an English model, and set up a natural burial ground in Lismore, in northern NSW. Grief can be a debilitating emotion, but voice empowerment coach Ganga (Karen) Ashworth uses voice training to ease the process. More from her later, but first …

Some people are trying to make a difference in the way we cope with our demise and even our deaths and funerals. Zenith Virago is one of those Baby Boomers who decided that if life didn’t need to follow the usual patterns laid out by our commercially driven society, neither did death. She’s been living and working in Byron Bay and is at the forefront of a cultural change that may see us do death and burial differently.

Click on the links to listen and to read. Well worth the minutes in both instances.

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Setting a good example can have long lasting consequences with the potential to benefit us all

It’s at times like these, when there is so much discontent and so much inequality between those at the top and those lower down, that we need some reminders that it doesn’t have to be like this. Indeed in times past, it was very different.

A friend shared this recently …

An inspiring article from the Sydney Morning Herald is worth passing around …

PICTURE: Edward “Weary” Dunlop, as depicted in the video noted at the end of this story.

Mate ship values were enhanced in WWII, when Colonel Edward “weary” Dunlop developed a collective (socialist) approach to looking after his men, ensuring the fit looked after the sick, and the young looked after the old, especially on the deadly Japanese Burma railroad.

Tom Uren learnt those values from Weary Dunlop, and Tom mentored Albo with them, so that Albo made a great promise to all Australians on election night.

The best excerpt is:

“In 1987, he took Albanese to South-east Asia – the young man’s first trip abroad. In Thailand, Uren took Albanese to Hellfire Pass.

Albanese held the big man’s arm as they walked into the deep cutting, fearful Uren would faint beneath the storm of his memories.

All these years later Albanese, opening the election campaign that led to the prime ministership, declared: “We will look after the young, we will look after the sick, we will look after our older Australians. No one held back. No one left behind.”

It was a rewriting of Weary Dunlop’s wisdom that Tom Uren had made his own when not much more than a boy, struggling to survive in a pitiless bamboo jungle.”

A more expanded background story can be found here: Edward ‘Weary’ Dunlop, Aus War Memorial

And this story from the SMH: ‘I love the boy’: The gift our PM received from a bamboo prison

7 min video clip – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dMqfMhw5l9w&t=397s

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Blessing as greeting

Namaste is an ancient Sanskrit* blessing …

… a Hindu greeting.

* Sankrit – is an ancient Indo-European language of India, in which the Hindu scriptures and classical Indian epic poems are written and from which many northern Indian (Indic) languages are derived.

Is this another variation on the theme of stop and smell the roses? …
Of pause and take a deep breath and feel the freshness of the air envelope us? …
Of the old Christian invocation: Peace be with you — and also with you.

Depending on ones perspective we each need a time out, a way to be more civil with each other and with the earth we call home

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How to mend a broken heart, connect to the natural world

Broadcaster and passionate gardener Indira Naidoo suffered heartbreak in 2020, when during Melbourne’s first lockdown, one of her two younger sisters committed suicide. This book, The Space Between the Stars, is her attempt to make sense of it all, and her account of how nature has helped her heal.

PICTURE: Indira Naidoo – precious books include The Edible Balcony and The Edible City

For as long as I can remember, there has always been just the three of us. Three sisters. Only a year between each. Inseparable. It’s been like that for almost 50 years … Until my youngest sister walked out into her suburban backyard and took her life.

Is it possible to ever heal a tear in your universe?

After her younger sister died suddenly, broadcaster Indira Naidoo’s world was shattered. Turning to her urban landscape for solace, Indira found herself drawn to a fig tree overlooking Sydney harbour. A connection began to build between the two – one with a fractured heart, the other a centurion offering quiet companionship while asking nothing in return.

As Indira grappled with her heartbreak, an unnoticed universe of infinite beauty revealed itself: pale vanilla clouds pirouetting across the sky, resilient weeds pushing through cracks in the footpath, the magical biodiversity of tiny puddles. With the help of a posse of urban guides, she began to explore how nature – whatever bits of nature are within reach – can heal us during life’s darker chapters, whether nursing a broken heart or an anxious mind.

She marveled at the ants and the microscopic plants had the strength to make their presence known through gaps in the walls. And she found solace in the garden, which became an act of hope and acceptance. “Gardens are where we sign a pact with nature,” she writes. “Nature will do her bit, and we must do ours. Yes, something may die but something will grow as well. We can’t ask for more than that,” she adds.

The Space Between the Stars is a heart-rending, at times funny, and uplifting tribute to love and our innate need to connect to the natural world, a celebration of the reassuring cycle of renewal that sustains and nourishes us all.

As long as you can see the stars, you can never truly be lost.

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