There’s no rule that says a coffin must be made of wood, that it must be polished and lined with plush fabric. That it has to have fancy gold handles and an engraved gold plaque. The funeral industry tries to push that line, but only because there can be a big mark up on these items and people feel obliged to have an expensive send off for their loved family member.
And so it’s good to know that the Ulverstone Coffin Club in Tasmania is again taking the initiative by offering cardboard coffins in a flat pack style to by-pass the big end of town and keep prices down for families, regardless of their financial circumstances.
Renowned Australian author and historian Richard Flanagan has published a new book titled: The Living Sea of Waking Dreams.
He joined Richard Fidler on ABC radio and what follows is a selection of extracts from this Conversations interview.
(The) Title comes from a poem by John Clare known as the peasant poet, who noted that ‘there were unenclosed areas of Britain, that is, there was still land that was held in common, and in his life time, they were enclosed which meant they were fenced off and became private property, and what had formerly been communal activities, became the crimes of trespass, theft and poaching. And these common lands – the people had a relationship with them, not dissimilar to the relationship indigenous people had here with their country. It was deeply felt, it was spiritual, it was clearly seen to be one. And (even today) Clare’s poems are very much about this world.’
‘ …. Under this new system, the land was destroyed and something within him (Clare) broke and he went mad. His poetry about the land, the birds, the trees, love, friends – I think it speaks very powerfully to us today, when we are seeing something similar happen once more.’
‘We are seeing much of what of our lives that hadn’t been the property of profit and loss, becoming monetised — our emotions, our feelings, our moods have become part of the profit and loss ledgers of the great internet companies — we know your nightmares and we will use them. They are being used against us and they are being used to make money.’
When we see everything in purely material terms, we end up living in a system where everything is measured materially, and unless you could be measured materially, unless what you did had an economic function, then society placed no value on you or the things that you actually value, and so we’ve come to a crisis that is existential where the very world is being destroyed, simply because it makes money for a few people. And even though people are both terrified and heart sick about this, they can’t oppose it unless they can see a new politic which speaks to larger values than the purely economic and the purely material.
Scientist Pete Davies took Richard Flanagan into the South-West of Tasmania where he wanted to show Richard that the area was dying
So much around me, so many beautiful things that I loved were all vanishing – plants, animals, birds – they were all vanishing. All these things I loved, I realized my grandchildren would never see. And I had this scream building within me that I had to respond to.
The fires of last summer have told us that we have gone to some new place.
Later the story of a fellow dying …
‘There was a rich patriarch of a very wealthy family. He was dying and had been brought into hospital. He was ready to die and the medical wisdom was that there was nothing more that could be done for him, but rather than palliate him, it offended his children somehow that he would die, and so instead of letting him die, they used all their power and influence to negate the medical advice. And to not so much allow him to live, but to condemn him to a living death, where he didn’t really live but he couldn’t die. It seemed to be a situation that speaks to us of our age. Why would people be offended by the idea of their parents dying? Why would you inflict such suffering in the name of a perverted love? It seemed to me that we no longer know how to die, because we no longer know how to live. We can no longer accept what is around us, with a sense of grateful wonder. We are no longer able to see the beauty that is everywhere, in our friends, in the small things of life. We’ve lost the capacity to see life in its vivid array. And also the passage of time, that’s also a part of life.
And later …
In a time as absurd and as unrealistic as what we are now living through, the worst way you could seek to describe it is realistically. You need a story grounded in the absurd to do justice to the times. Perhaps it’s the job of the novel to allow readers to view their world a slant, to tear the cataracts away from their eyes so they see, they pay attention properly to their world, to see that what they thought it was, it wasn’t. And really when you look around, so much is vanishing, and we pay it no heed. Not just some of us, all us pay it no heed. We return to the minutia of our lives and pretend that there’s not this extraordinary crash in animal population, in bird populations, in insect populations. If we stop to think about, most of us are aware that things are not as they were 10 or 20 years ago, that something dreadfully is changing, but we pretend that life will go on, but life won’t go on. That’s the terrible dilemma we face unless we act.
We describe things in ways that are not true and yet despite what is staring us in the face, we choose to see otherwise.
When we pay attention to things, we find that nothing is as we thought it was, because we just use convenient shorthand. But sometimes it matters to see things as they are. It matters to see what is disappearing. Because if we don’t we to will be condemned to the vanishing. Even the eminent figure Dr Thouchi, the much maligned doctor, said that coronavirus is just a consequence of the environmental crisis and that there will be more of these pandemics if we keep on despoiling the environment. So these things are not separate of us. We have to see the world as it is, and us as a part of it and not separate from it.
And later .. ‘scared of beauty’ …
‘… there’s so much that’s so beautiful, but there’s always this desire to destroy it. I feel it’s not just economic, I feel there’s something about beauty that is a truth, and in that truth is hope, because you can’t deny something that has an existence which exists beyond the purely material, which does something to help your soul, to help you live in a way that uplifts you. And beauty is a deeply unfashionable idea, and yet when we see it, and when we are within it, it moves us deeply. And I wonder why the most beautiful places and things are often the first to be destroyed. And I think it is because it shames the way we live. Because if we honoured beauty we would have to live differently. We’d have to live better. We’d have to pay attention a lot more, and so I think honouring beauty is very important.
And later … ‘City in the flank of mountain’
Gross state product can up but people can be poorer. They seem more miserable. And the pleasures and joys of the past are vanishing.
… some can’t stand the unique, the different. They want to render everything ubiquitous and mediocre. But ordinary people place a value beyond dollars and cents on places that they just want to sell off.
And later …
Everything is absurd until it happens. Once something has happened it is taken for granted as inevitable. We only see it as inevitable that the English came here and invaded and 200 years later we have this English influenced society that displaced the Aboriginals. Nothing is inevitable. Later we invent mythologies that claim that it was always going to be and there could be no other way.
In attempts to demystify the end-of-life conversations we have, the number of studies and publications covering the many aspects involved is starting to reach saturation point. How many ways can you say the same thing?
Here is another one for our consideration. Published by Cemeteries and Crematoria NSW it contains some statistics around current practices and reveals trends that we might not have known about.
It’s normal to die. Death is all around us. It’s the way nature does life. The death of one is life giving for another. Take a rainforest or the ocean. These two great systems thrive on the cycling of nutrients and that means the living and dying of plants and animals. Unseen and for the most part unreported, but taking place everyday outside the gaze of the vast majority of human society.
As Rebecca Giggs points out in her book Fathoms: the world in the whale, we are fauna, we are embedded in nature – not separate, not apart – quite the opposite, in the midst of, a part of. The sooner we understand this the better we will be able to get the stories that we tell ourselves grounded in the realities of life, which can be very different to the myths peddled by the death denialists. There is no great out there where we go. If we choose cremation then we go back into the atmosphere as vapour, and if we choose burial we go back into the earth. One way or another we end up within this finite planets influence, within the larger universe.
It’s no surprise that when it comes to dealing with death, children get it – often much better than adults. Back in the good old days, the adults of those times got it too. Sadly over the years – mainly since the early to mid 1900s – many adults have adopted the ‘we’re going to live forever’ mantra, which has been compounded by the medicalisation of end-of-life care with drugs and technology to prolong life. This has left many people thinking that with sufficient intervention, there’s a fix for everything including getting old. A consequence of this putting off, has been not being prepared, for what should be expected.
The ABC has been covering the subject of dying and death across its various platforms, one of the latest being ABC Life, where Siobhan Hegarty has posted this story: How Play School’s Little Ted is helping parents and kids talk about death and grief, ,
Key takeaways from Play School’s producers and early education experts:
Keep your language clear, don’t use euphemisms like “they passed away”
Talk about death before it happens in your family
Let your children lead the conversations, ask them what they think has happened, rather than bombarding them with information
Show your children it’s OK to be sad
Kids can’t sit with “big feelings” for too long, so plan a fun activity for after your talk
Keep memories alive — make a scrapbook about someone who died, visit their favourite place or cook a recipe they loved.
If ever there was a reason for adults coming to terms with end-of-life subjects it’s being able to be grown up about it for the children in our lives. This doesn’t just apply to parents, it also applies to grandparents, our wider circle of family and friends and beyond this the community. For many of us, death literacy is not on our list of things to get our heads around. We pay attention to television dramas, movies and sports and cars and pets, and … but death doesn’t rate, even though it’s in the nightly news with stories of murders and wars. It’s all out of proportion, but it needn’t be. We have it in our power to turn this around.
Let’s assume we can sit comfortably with talking openly and honestly about dying and death. The next step might be to have at hand some good references that we can share. One of these might be: Beginnings and Endings. This explores the concepts of birth and death for preschool-aged children. It is available now on ABC iview, to give parents and carers an opportunity to watch the episode with their children.Watch it here.
What to do with all the digital data we accumulate during our life times is becoming an issue that would best be dealt with while we’re still in the here and now, rather than leaving it all for someone else to deal with when we’ve died. Otherwise it could live on to haunt our next of kin in unforeseen ways for many years to come. Like advance care health planning, we need to do some advance care digital presence planning.
In: Ensure your digital affairs are in order before you die, researcher warns, by Emma Wynne, (ABC Radio Perth, 3 October 2019) says:
In an era when families talk online instead of writing letters, store their pictures in the cloud and have an array of digital accounts, priceless pieces of history risk being lost because most people do not understand how to manage their digital legacy.
On a similar note a more recent story discusses digital death certificates as an aid to life for those tidying up our affairs following our death.
How a digital death certificate could help sort out estate and tax matters when you pass, by Nassim Khadem, (ABC News Business Reporter, Tuesday 7 July 2020), highlights some of the issues that we leave behind if we don’t have a will. No will. How could you die without having done a will? Well as Khadem writes:
Almost half (45 per cent) of Australians die without a will. And from the time someone dies, it usually takes about three years for loved ones to sort out their legal affairs.
The long and difficult process of sorting out deceased estates could be made easier by allowing digital “death certificates” — or automatic notification using their Medicare number — which is legally enforceable and shared between all layers of government.
This is one of 10 recommendations made by Australia’s tax ombudsman, the Inspector-General of Taxation, in a new report delving into the complicated area of death and taxes.
“When you die, someone has to pick up the pieces,” Ms Karen Payne said.
“It’s not just a tax matter but about ensuring affairs are left in an orderly state.”
There was no formal requirement to notify the ATO of a death.
But in order to get the deceased person’s tax affairs sorted, the person acting on their behalf — either their tax agent or the executor of their will where there is one — has to jump through various legal hurdles before being able to access records, says Khadem.
ABS data shows almost 160,000 Australians die each year — with about 82 per cent of them aged 65 or over at their date of death and about 55 per cent aged over 80.
Most of these 160,000 Australians die with outstanding taxes.
State and territory laws determine who can represent the deceased after their death and a “grant of probate”, or letters of administration, are required before the ATO is able to freely engage with the legal representative.
Following on from our last post, the options for coffins is also on the rise with this story from South Australia by Ben Nielsen noting that: Eco-friendly coffins on the rise as Australians look to reduce their environmental footprint, (ABC News, 24 May 2020).
The story relates how Jan Abel was able to honour her husbands wishes for a green burial in an eco-friendly coffin. And it happened much sooner than she expected. We never know when we’re gonna go.
This was all made possible because she ‘and her partner Murray were among a dozen people who signed up to an eco coffin-making workshop with the hope of reducing their environmental footprint — in both life and death.’
The project is the brain child of Abby Buckley
At the first session, Jan and Murray — from Gawler, South Australia — began creating shrouds using natural fibres and designing flat-pack coffins. Murray’s sketch featured a vibrant symmetrical motif incorporating his life’s many passions.
“I’m not ready to go yet so, say in ten or 15 years’ time, what’s your role?” he asked doula Helen Roberts, who he wanted to help with his end-of-life planning.
“I hope in 20 years’ time I’ll still be there [to help],” she replied. “I don’t want to die tomorrow, but I might.”
Just days after their conversation, Murray had a heart attack and died.
“He was a lovely person. We had so much fun,” Ms Abel said.
The good folks who operate in the end-of-life, death care space, have been quietly going about their business making the point that: it’s never to early to get ready for the inevitable. Don’t put off until tomorrow what you can do today. Let’s face it tomorrow may never come. When we’re dead we don’t know about it, but those left standing have to deal with the after math and we owe it to them to get our affairs and in this case our funeral arrangements sorted, right down to the nitty gritty of the coffin.
Ben Neilson notes that the workshop organised by Abby Buckley, ‘was quickly booked out when it launched in October and has since moved online due to social gathering restrictions.’
“It’s actually worked to our advantage — having the pandemic and people being able to be in their own cocoon and own space to really think about what death is for them and how they want to their body to be treated when they die.”
Participants have shared their creations — made by crocheting, sewing, felting and painting — and received online talks from experts about dying sustainably.
“In Australia, the majority of people are really trying hard to change their ways to live a sustainable life,” Ms Buckley said. “We’re trying to move from a fossil fuel economy to a renewable economy … And yet, it’s like all that thinking goes out the window when we die.”
“We’re learning a dialogue, we’re becoming more informed so that when we are working with the professionals in this industry, it’s easier for them because they can have a more empowered conversation.”
The whole is greater than the sums of its parts, an old truth that’s been constantly overlooked ever since reductionist science got hold of our thinking. The result has been ever more specialisation and fragmentation of our thinking which has brought us to a state where we pay far more attention to individual components of the earth than we pay to the whole. The price of this thinking is being played out in our destructive economic system that is hooked on growth, and the over simplification of predicaments by thinking that if we fix one problem we have made a significant difference.
Anyone thinking outside these supposed ‘normals’ is considered unorthodox and side-lined.
Having said all this, there are always people who will not be hoodwinked by the supposed benefits of these ideas. We feature two of them here in this post.
Firstly, physicist David Bohm (1917-1992). The notion that humans are superior beings didn’t sit well with him. He considered wholeness over separation – that we have to take care of the whole. In this case the whole earth organism. He said each of us is a co-producer and that the observer is the observed; we are interdependent – we are inextricably related to everything; we are subjects not objects (which is a Thomas Berry concept); we are enfolded in the universe; overcoming fragmentation needs to be one of our primary human goals; a vision for human society must look beyond the immediate constraints of our particular specialisation. Wholeness and being comfortable with the notion that we can’t fully appreciate let alone understand all there is to know. The whole is so much larger than our limited understanding, regardless of how complete we believe it is.
Secondly, economist John Perkins, who profiles what he calls the Death Economy and then provides what would constitute a Life Economy.
A couple of years ago we flagged that we would expand our conversations about the word death to be more inclusive of the interpretations of the word. We need to factor into our discussions, other takes on death related issues, ones that might have deadly consequences for our health and wellbeing This acknowledges that there are many issues that impact on our quality of life. Being immersed in the money-go-round with so much emphasis given to economics, it is unwise, therefore, to overlook this aspect of our society, since the economy is now our primary focus rather than the society that invented it and the ecology that sustains it.
In this TEDx talk, Perkins notes that democracy only works when there is transparency, honesty. He outlines three things we can do: 1. Look for the story behind the story – that we question our leaders, what we are told so as to verify the content. Shine a light on them when they don’t live up to the rhetoric; 2. Be part of an organisation that is involved in how our laws and policies are framed such that these work in the best interests of the majority of people; 3. Help corporations understand that they must work to serve the public interest – it’s in their interest to do this.
John Perkinsis the author of 10 books, including Touching the Jaguar, Shapeshifting, and Confessions of an Economic Hit Man, which was on the New York Times bestseller list for more than 70 weeks and published in 37 languages. As an economist, he advised the World Bank, United Nations, Fortune 500 corporations, U.S. and other governments. He has lectured at Harvard, Oxford, and other universities, is a founder of the Pachamama Alliance and Dream Change, and received the Lennon/Ono Peace Prize.
Alternative ways of doing after death care have been around for a few years now, but there seems to be a little more interest lately, as indicated in this story by Wiriya Sati and Adriane Reardon: Eco-burials, home funeral options on the rise as consumers think outside the box (ABC Mid North Coast, 7 June 2020). They write:
Although many families are considering alternatives to traditional burial practices, their decision usually comes down to a matter of cost.
Not-for-profit funeral franchise, Tender Funerals, is making farewelling loved ones more affordable
The service includes cheaper options, casket alternatives including cardboard, and supports bodies to be kept in the home until the funeral
A natural burial cemetery is being proposed on the NSW Far South Coast where bodies will be buried organically and the land above reforested in the process
According to research by the Australian Funeral Directors Association, a funeral’s cost is considered more important than religion, life philosophy and culture.
A not-for-profit funeral service is now finding its way into towns and cities around Australia to provide the community with more options and take the commercial side out of death.
Denis Juelicher is helping establish the Tender Funerals franchise on the Mid North Coast of New South Wales.
It began in Wollongong several years ago in a community hall to meet the need that exists within the most disadvantaged parts of the community.
“We think it’s important that funerals and death is handled within the community and that people actually feel comfortable and confident in making the choices that is right for them and the diversity of people around them,” Ms Juelicher said.
She says Tender Funerals encourages people to think outside the square and look at cheaper options, including guests bringing flowers rather than purchasing them.
It also offers alternative caskets.
Regulations differ from state to state, but in NSW a person can be kept at home after death for several days, and Tender Funerals can provide a cooling plate to save a loved one’s body until the funeral.
Not one for beating about the bush Fran Taffel gave her daughter Jacqui clear instructions to call her death for what it would be: she had died. Not passed away, not resting in peace, not joining the choir invisible, plain and to the point, died, dead.
Jacqui Taffel writes in “I’m sorry for your loss” (SMH, Good Weekend, 19.09.2020) that she ‘dreads these five words.’ She says: ‘… they sound like the kind of bloodless corporate-speak that has colonised our everyday language.’
Says Taffel: ‘She hasn’t passed, or passed on, or gone to a better place. She is not lost; we know exactly where she is. Under a cameillia bush at the house she and Dad built and shared for more than 50 years of their 60 years together.’ And later: ‘I see her wielding a red pen, firmly crossing out “for” and “loss” and offering a simple solution for those who baulk at the D-word.’
The point of this article is to encourage us: ‘to call a spade a spade, like Harry Potter speaking Voldemort’s name out loud: “I’m so sorry your mum died.”‘
Euphemisms have their place but Taffel doesn’t think they serve much of a purpose when it comes to dying and the ending known as death. She writes: ‘So please, on her behalf [that is her mum Fran Taffel], no euphemisms or platitudes. No resting, or passing, no losing. No shuffling off this mortal coil or joining the bleedin’ choir invisible. Her name is Sue Taffel, and she is dead. Thank you, my dear mother, and goodbye.’
Just when you think that the death and dying subject has been done to death, along comes a book that is very timely considering the imposed separation that is the experience of many families with elderly frail loved ones shuttered away in nursing homes.
At a recent Die-alogue Cafe meeting held online, this book was on the agenda with the book review by Margaret Studley prompting some lively discussion.
We Need to Talk About Mum and Dad: A Practical Guide to Parenting Our Aging Parents, by Jean Kittson (see credits at the end of the review).
Here is another book that I think should be in every home where one has an elderly parent or friend for whom they will have responsibility, or is likely to have at some time. Whilst primarily focused on those with ageing parents, I think it is an excellent book for those like me to improve the plans I have in place, or may not have in place, and to ensure that my children can find any information and documents they may need when they need it.
Written as a result of personal experience it is a very practical guide and Jean covers an amazing range of issues. She writes well and with much humour, about all matters concerning the elderly as they age, including –
Advance Care Directives (a very good guide)
Looking for the signs of change
Dealing with illness and frailty
Medical, financial and legal requirements
Complexity of dealing with Government Departments
End of life care issues – Retirement villages -questions to ask
Need for residential or home care and what problems can be encountered
Later issues – nursing homes, palliative care, euthanasia, funerals, grief.
Included are some cautionary tales.
One chapter lists 10 tips for dealing with government agencies. She stresses the bureaucratic nightmares that can result from these and says it is essential that anyone looking after the interests of others should carry a notebook at all times (editors emphasis) and keep a diary that records every single meeting, email, telephone conversation, time, date, name of person to whom they speak with, reference number of the call – whilst trying to remain polite at all times! Practice can help master these skills, so best we start on lesser important issues now.
Jean lists documents that you will need, and suggests you get multiple certified copies. These are listed in the book. At the end she also lists the websites for age related organisations, departments and so on. There are several pages of questions that should be asked if considering residential care – of course these will be prompts since each situation will throw up different issues, but the principles apply regardless.
From personal experience I quickly noted her suggestion that no matter where the aged person is living there should be a medical information sheet behind their front or bedroom door to provide information for paramedics or anyone having to deal with an emergency on their behalf. Such a document should contain information about medical conditions, medications etc. and also information as to where spectacles, teeth, hearing aids may be found if applicable. In any case it is important to mention if the person has any hearing problem, otherwise they may be assessed as senile and given low priority in treatment.
This book is very well put together and at the end of every chapter she lists the key points for quick reference. For added enjoyment there are some fun drawings by Patrick Cook.
Also included there is a template of good questions to ask our elderly loved ones about their preferences whilst they can still tell us. Of interest also was the fact that 70% of everyone at the end of their lives will not be making their own decisions. This is a sobering thought and increasingly relevant at this time.
I can absolutely recommend this book. Price range is $24 to $35 depending on the retailer.
Jean Kittson, author, comedienne, radio personality, Patron of Palliative Care Nurses of Australia, Ambassador for Muscular Disease Foundation, the Australian Gynaecological Cancer Foundation, the Raise Foundation and Amb. for the Ovarian Cancer Foundation.