Archaeologists in southern Siberia have unearthed a remarkable find – the mummified remains of a woman, carefully adorned in silk and buried with riches. Miraculously, her resting place was unscathed after being underwater for many years.
The team spotted the grave on the bank of the Yenisei River upstream of a giant dam – in a region that had been periodically underwater for decades.
She’s been nicknamed “sleeping beauty”, and was probably buried sometime in around the first century CE, archaeologists from St Petersburg’s Institute for the History of Material Culture believe.
Her burial place is near the Sayano-Shushenskaya Dam, which powers a hydroelectric power plant, and had been underwater for a great deal of time since the 1980s, when the reservoir began to be filled.
But her burial was unusual – she was laid to rest in a stone coffin – which is how her remains managed to survive being flooded.
“The mummy of a young woman was found inside a grave at the burial ground Terezin on the shore of a water reservoir. The lower part of the body is well-preserved,” explained archaeologist Marina Kilunovskaya of the Institute to Russian news agency TASS.
“It is not a classical mummy, though. The grave remained tightly sealed under the stone cover all along. The body underwent natural mummification.”
The waters recede every May and June, which allows archaeologists a short period of time to access the archaeological sites that were covered by the reservoir. They opened the tomb in May this year.
Inside, the burial was exceptionally well preserved. Soft tissues, skin, clothing and even grave goods were all found intact.
And the clothing and grave goods hint that the lady was a nomadic Hun, young and highly regarded by her people, possibly a noble.
“On the mummy are what we believe to be silk clothes, a beaded belt with a jet buckle, apparently with a pattern,” the Institute’s deputy director, Natalya Solovieva, told The Siberian Times.
“Near the head was found a round wooden box covered with birch-bark in which lay a Chinese mirror in a felt case.”
There were also two vessels buried with her, one of which was a typical Hun vase, both containing a funeral meal, and on her chest was a pouch of pine nuts. Ceramic utensils in the grave were typical of Hun burial practices, the archaeologists said.
Accidental mummification is not uncommon.
Ötzi the Iceman‘s body dehydrated, mummified by the ice of the glacier in which it resided for 5,000 years. The Gebelein mummies were naturally mummified by the heat, salinity and dryness of the Egyptian desert.
Further work will need to be undertaken to determine exactly how the Sleeping Beauty was so well preserved. It’s also expected that analysis of her body and grave goods will reveal a lot about her culture, and her own life in particular.
The artefacts and body have been removed from the grave, and restoration experts have already started work to preserve them for posterity.
Death doulas: the end-of-life guides who are recreating the dying experience
By Isabel Bird
When Rebecca Lyons’ great aunt died, her body remained with the family.
Her aunt’s body was kept cool with the use of dry ice for four days, and the family washed and dressed her for service, held ritual, and prepared themselves for saying goodbye.
“We had candles, we burnt frankincense … it was a gentle process because there was no loss of ownership. It was about coming together and having that time, to laugh and cry, and it wasn’t all doom and gloom,” Ms Lyons said.
“You have looked after this person in life and now you are going to look after this person in death … the whole experience is precious.”
It was a personal death-care experience for Ms Lyons that was also connected to her new role as a death doula.
Doula in Ancient Greek translates to “woman of service” and is traditionally used in the birthing sector, but has been adopted by the death-care movement.
A death doula, end of life doula, deathwalker or death midwife can be hired by a dying person or their family to offer support in a multitude of ways, which can include organising alternatives to conventional funeral home offerings.
Their services ultimately depend on individual need and choice but can range from pre- and post-death planning, assistance with wills or advance care directives, bedside vigils, and the organisation of counselling, respite or other therapies.
Planning options may include dying at home, keeping the body at home for one day or more before burial or cremation, or holding family-led funerals in alternative spaces such as in the home, in the backyard, on a beach or in a forest.
Ms Lyons, a former funeral director, became a qualified death doula four months ago, offering the service as part of her death-care advocacy business You n Taboo.
She said a death doula helped people to make informed decisions, and then worked with families to help carry out those decisions.
“There is so much involved in the death and dying process, yet there is a lack of community knowledge about it,” Ms Lyons said.
“From the point of death a nurse might say ‘which funeral director should we call?’ The question should actually be ‘do you want a funeral director called?’ Right from the start, there is a lack of information given (in the institutional space),” she said.
“When someone dies the family can legally take the body home. Funeral directors are not mandatory, there doesn’t need to be embalming or temporary preservation, coffins are not necessary, and there are choices about the funeral and where it is held, or if they even have one.”
Ms Lyons said planning for death can be beneficial for families because it takes the guess work out of wondering what their loved ones want, and can be beneficial for the dying as they can focus on spending time with family.
Zenith Vorago is the founder of the Natural Death Care Centre in Byron Bay, which has offered deathwalker training for 12 years.
She started working with dying people 25 years ago after dissatisfaction with the conventional way of doing death, which generally involves hiring a funeral home director and relinquishing control of the body.
“We didn’t want to give our people to the medical system, or to funeral directors we didn’t know,” she said.
Ms Vorago explained that the funeral industry in Australia is led by one corporation that had a monopoly over various links in the chain, from funeral homes and crematoriums down to coffin makers.
“There is a lot of money to be made and in my experience people don’t mind paying for a service but they don’t want to get ripped off.”
Ms Vorago also said the health care system would soon not be able to cope with the ageing population, and more people in society would need to care for their own dying.
“What we are doing is skilling people up, so they can participate in that role with some awareness about how to do that well and how to do it with the system (such as) using community nurses,” she said.
“We are empowering people to know what their options are, to consider what is best for them and their people, to make decisions that are right for them, so people die well.”
Social worker Lynne Jarvis has completed Ms Vorago’s deathwalker training, and runs JUMAVE on the North-West Coast.
Her business adopts a holistic, social justice approach to death, offering a range of pre- and post-death services similar to that of a death doula, including funeral celebrancy and the use of cooling blankets for at-home funerals.
Ms Jarvis is also responsible for organising the Coffin Club at Ulverstone, where people can make their own coffins and have open, end-of-life conversations.
She said increased family involvement in the death care process can lead to highly meaningful experiences, and provided the example where an individual held a wake before their expected death.
“It ended up being really beautiful experience for them, it was well planned and simple. As sad and painful as it was, there was still beauty and joy in that process on reflection.”
Ms Jarvis stressed that early planning was important.
“I am focused on training the after-death care (family and friend) network to make sure they know what they need to do,” she said.
“It does take more energy and time … but there is great value and healing, and that healing is really important for the longer term bereavement of those left behind.”
Alternative options, such as taking the body home, will never alleviate grief but it can ease the process.
Ms Lyons said that when someone dies people often feel a loss of control, which is heightened when the body is taken away.
“It brings a massive, massive trauma that adds to the grief … what we are saying to people is that you don’t actually have to do that,” Ms Lyons said.
“For those who suit the conventional processes there are funeral directors out there who do an absolutely almighty job, but, it is a choice.”
She added that alternative options are actually a return to the old way of doing things.
“My grandmother would tell me stories where Mrs so-and-so from three doors down died, and everyone turned up with casseroles, and the body was in the lounge room. People gathered, they mourned and grieved together. The community used to own it. We are reclaiming this lost knowledge,” she said.
“Death has an amazing way of pulling people together, and the process that my family went through, looking after my great aunt – that was truly beautiful.”
“The road to death,” the anthropologist Nigel Barley wrote, “is paved with platitudes.”
Book reviewers, I’m afraid, have played their part.
The robust literature of death and dying is clotted with our clichés. Every book is “unflinching,” “unsparing.” Somehow they are all “essential.”
Of course, many of these books are brave, and many quite beautiful. Cory Taylor’s account of her terminal cancer, “Dying: A Memoir,” is one recent standout. But so many others are possessed of a dreadful, unremarked upon sameness, and an unremitting nobility that can leave this reader feeling a bit mutinous. It’s very well to quail in front of the indomitable human spirit and all that, but is it wrong to crave some variety? I would very much like to read about a cowardly death, or one with some panache. I accept, grudgingly, that we must die (I don’t, really) but must we all do it exactly the same way?
Enter “Advice for Future Corpses (and Those Who Love Them),” by the writer, palliative-care nurse and Zen Buddhist Sallie Tisdale — a wild and brilliantly deceptive book. It is a putative guide to what happens to the body as it dies and directly after — and how to care for it. How to touch someone who is dying. (“Skin can become paper-thin, and it can tear like paper. Pressure is dangerous.”) How to carry a body and wash it. How to remove its dentures.
But in its loving, fierce specificity, this book on how to die is also a blessedly saccharine-free guide for how to live. There’s a reason Buddhist monks meditate on charnel grounds, and why Cicero said the contemplation of death was the beginning of philosophy. Tisdale has written extensively about medicine, sex and faith — but spending time with the dying has been the foundation of her ethics; it is what has taught her to understand and tolerate “ambiguity, discomfort of many kinds and intimacy — which is sometimes the most uncomfortable thing of all.”
It should be noted that this book is not for the queasy. Frankly, neither is dying. Tisdale writes calm but explicit descriptions of “the faint leathery smell” of dead bodies and the process of decomposition. “A dead body is alive in a new way, a busy place full of activity,” she writes. She offers paeans to the insects that arrive in stately waves to consume the body — from the blowflies that appear in the first few minutes of death to the cheese skippers, the final guests, which clean the bones of the last bits of tendon and tissue.
This is death viewed with rare familiarity, even warmth: “I saw a gerontologist I know stand by the bedside of an old woman and say with a cheerleader’s enthusiasm, ‘C’mon, Margaret. You can do it!’” Tisdale writes. She walks readers through every conceivable decision they will have to make — whether to die in the hospital or at home, how to handle morphine’s side effects and how to breathe when it becomes difficult (inhale through pursed lips).
To the caretaker, she writes: “You are the defender of modesty, privacy, silence, laughter and many other things that can be lost in the daily tasks. You are the guardian of that person’s desires.”
“Advice for Future Corpses” also offers a brisk cultural history of death rituals and rites, from traditional Tibetan sky burials to our present abundance of options. You can have your ashes mixed into fireworks, loaded into shotgun shells or pressed into a diamond. You can ask to be buried at sea (but don’t — too much paperwork). You can be buried in a suit lined with micro-organisms and mushrooms to speed decomposition, or let a Swedish company cryogenically freeze your remains and turn them into crystals. If you’re in Hong Kong or Japan, you have the option of virtual graves, where flowers can be sent by emoticon.
Tisdale’s perspective is deeply influenced by her Buddhist practice, never more so than when she considers how the mind might apprehend death as it nears: “Consciousness is no longer grounded in the body; perception and sensation are unraveling. The entire braid of the self is coming unwound in a rush. One’s point of view must change dramatically.”
Tisdale does not write to allay anxieties but to acknowledge them, and she brings death so close, in such detail and with such directness, that something unusual happens, something that feels a bit taboo. She invites not just awe or dread — but our curiosity. And why not? We are, after all, just “future corpses pretending we don’t know.”
[F]or many modern Pagans, there is a somewhat different philosophy on death and dying than what is seen in the non-Pagan community. While our non-Pagans see death as an ending, some Pagans view it as a beginning of the next phase of our existence. Perhaps it is because we view the cycle of birth and life and death and rebirth as something magical and spiritual, a never-ending, ever turning wheel. Rather than being disconnected from death and dying, we tend to acknowledge it as part of a sacred evolution.
In The Pagan Book of Living and Dying, author Starhawk says, “Imagine if we truly understood that decay is the matrix of fertility… we might view our own aging with less fear and distaste, and greet death with sadness, certainly, but without terror.”
As the Pagan population ages – and certainly, we are doing so – it’s becoming more and more likely that at some point each of us will have to bid farewell to a fellow Pagan, Heathen, Druid, or other member of our community. When that happens, what is the appropriate response? What can be done to honor the person’s beliefs and send them on their way in a way that they themselves would have valued, while still managing to maintain sensitivity in dealing with their non-Pagan family members and friends?
Views of the Afterlife
Many Pagans believe that there is some sort of afterlife, although that tends to take varying forms, depending on the individual belief system. Some followers of NeoWiccan paths accept the afterlife as the Summerland, which Wiccan author Scott Cunningham described as a place where the soul goes on to live forever. In Wicca: A Guide for the Solitary Practitioner, he says, “This realm is neither in heaven nor the underworld. It simply is — a non-physical reality much less dense than ours. Some Wiccan traditions describe it as a land of eternal summer, with grassy fields and sweet flowing rivers, perhaps the Earth before the advent of humans. Others see it vaguely as a realm without forms, where energy swirls coexist with the greatest energies – the Goddess and God in their celestial identities.”
Members of non-Wiccan groups, particularly those who follow a more Reconstructionist slant, may see the afterlife as Valhalla or Fólkvangr, for those who adhere to a Norse belief system, or Tir na nOg, for individuals who participate in a Celtic path. Hellenic Pagans may see the afterlife as Hades.
For those Pagans who don’t have a defined name or description of the afterlife, there is still typically a notion that the spirit and the soul live on somewhere, even if we don’t know where it is or what to call it.
Tawsha is a Pagan in Indiana who follows an eclectic path. She says, “I don’t know what happens to us when we die, but I like the idea of the Summerland. It seems peaceful, a place where our souls can regenerate before they reincarnate into a new body. But my husband is a Druid, and his beliefs are different and focus more on the Celtic view of the afterlife, which seems a little more ethereal to me. I think it’s really all just different interpretations of the same place.”
Deities of Death and the Afterlife
Cultures have, since the beginning of time, honored deities associated with the process of dying, the act itself, and the journey of the spirit or soul into the afterlife. Although many of them are celebrated during the harvest season, around Samhain, when the earth itself is slowly dying, it is not uncommon to see them called upon as someone is approaching their last days, or has recently crossed over.
If you follow an Egyptian, or Kemetic, path, you may choose to honor Anubis, the jackal headed god of death. Anubis’ job is to determine whether the deceased is worthy of entering the underworld, by taking the individual’s measure. To help ease their passing, you may choose to sing or chant to Anubis about the dying or dead person’s accomplishments.
For Pagans who follow an Asatru or Heathen belief system, prayers and chants to Odin or to the goddesses Hel and Freya might be appropriate. Half of the warriors who die in battle go to spend the afterlife with Freya in her hall, Folkvangr, and the others go to Valhalla with Odin. Hel takes charge of those who have died from old age or sickness, and accompanies them to her hall, Éljúðnir.
A Maryland Heathen who asked to be identified as Wolfen says when his brother died, “We had this huge ceremony with a big bonfire, lots of drinking and toasts, and song. My brother had already been cremated, but we added his ashes to the fire, and we sang a song honoring him and his accomplishments, and introducing him to Odin and Valhalla, and then we continued it by calling upon our ancestors, going back about eight generations. It was what he wanted, and probably the closest thing to a Viking funeral that you can get in suburban America.”
Other deities you may wish to call upon as someone is dying, or has crossed over, include the Greek Demeter, Hecate, and Hades, or the Chinese Meng Po. Be sure to read more about: Deities of Death and the Afterlife.
In many countries in the modern world, the practice of burying the dead is common. However, it’s a relatively new concept by some standards, and in some places, it’s almost a novelty. In fact, many of today’s contemporary funeral practices might be considered a bit strange by our ancestors.
In other societies, it is not uncommon to see the dead interred in trees, placed on giant funeral pyres, closed up in a ceremonial tomb, or even left out for the elements to consume.
One trend that is increasing in popularity in the Western world is that of “green burial,” in which the body is not embalmed, and is simply buried in the soil with no coffin, or with a biodegradable container. While not all areas permit this, it is something worth looking into for someone who truly wishes to be returned to earth as part of the cycle of life and death.
Memorial and Ritual
Many people – Pagans and otherwise – believe that one of the best ways to keep someone’s memory alive is to do something in their honor, something that keeps them alive in your heart long after theirs has stopped beating. There are a number of things you can do to honor the dead.
Rituals: Hold a memorial ritual in the individual’s honor. This can be as simple as lighting a candle in his or her name, or as complex as inviting the entire community together to hold a vigil and offer blessings for the person’s spirit as they cross over into the afterlife.
Causes: Did the deceased person have a favorite cause or charity that they worked hard to support? A great way to memorialize them is to do something for that cause that meant so much to them. Your friend who adopted all of those shelter kittens would probably love it if you made a donation to the shelter in her name. How about the gentleman who gave so much time to cleaning up local parks? What about planting a tree in his honor?
Jewelry: A popular trend during the Victorian era was to wear jewelry in the deceased’s honor. This might include a brooch holding their ashes, or a bracelet woven from their hair. While this may sound a bit morbid to some folks, bereavement jewelry is making quite a comeback. There are a number of jewelers who offer memorial jewelry, which is typically a small pendant with a hole in the back. Ashes are poured into the pendant, the hole is sealed with a screw, and then the friends and family of the dead can keep them nearby any time they like.
Be sure to read the following articles on death, dying and the afterlife:
Caring for Our Dead: Every society, throughout history, has found some way to attend to the proper care of their dead. Let’s look at some of the different methods in which various cultures have said farewell to their loved ones.
Ray Buckland on Death and Dying: Wiccan author Ray Buckland recently did a presentation on a Pagan view of death and dying. He has graciously allowed us permission to share that presentation here on the Pagan/Wiccan website.
What Happens to Your Magical Items After You Die? Since so many members of the Pagan community work as solitaries, and may never come into contact with other Pagans during their lifetime, one issue that comes up as our population ages is that of what to do with magical tools and other items after death.
A Pagan Blessing for the Dead: This simple memorial ceremony can be performed for a deceased loved one. It invokes the powers of the earth, air, fire and water to send the departed off to their next destination.
Prayer for the Dying: This prayer is one which may be said by or on behalf of a dying person, and addresses the need we have to feel at home in the last moments of life.
Prayer to Hel: In Norse mythology, Hel features as a goddess of the underworld. She was sent by Odin to Helheim/Niflheim to preside over the spirits of the dead, except for those who were killed in battle and went to Valhalla. It was her job to determine the fate of the souls who entered her realm.
Prayer to Anubis: This prayer honors the Egyptian god of the underworld, Anubis. He is honored as the god who takes our measure when we cross from this life into the next.
Prayer to the Gods of Death: At Samhain, the earth is growing cold and dark. It is a time of death, of endings and beginnings. This prayer honors some of the deities associated with death and the underworld.
[F]orget long-faced funeral celebrants and bodies in their Sunday best – the ‘death positive movement’ is shaking up the way we die.
My grandma was 93 years and nine days when she died in April. She’d had a long and good life but her final years were severely compromised. By the end, she could neither walk nor feed herself, she could barely hear and most of the time she did not know who we were. Her world had shrunk to the size of her room. Then it shrunk some more, to the size of her bed. Was she happy? I don’t know. But I can’t imagine that this was the ending that she had in mind.
Dying used to be a typically brief process. Up until our most recent history, if you survived childhood illness, childbirth, plagues and famine, you generally got sick and then you died – often just days or weeks later. In the absence of today’s scans, tests, and life-prolonging drugs, by the time a person was really feeling poorly, their disease was advanced and they succumbed quickly. People died at home, families cared for the body, death was common.
Thanks to advances in modern science and economic growth, we are living longer than ever. In New Zealand, a female born in 1906 could expect to live till 66. Fast forward 100 years and a baby girl born in 2016 gained another 27 years, with a life expectancy of nearly 93. Now, for the majority of us the end comes after a long medical struggle (cancer and cardiovascular disease are our two biggest causes of death) or the combined debilities of very old age.
With a long life can come a long death, and over time we have unwittingly turned aging and dying into a medical experience. Our final stages have become largely obscured – even to ourselves – as we delegate death to the ‘professionals’. Today, it’s not uncommon for a recently deceased person to be collected from hospital or a rest home, taken to a funeral parlour where they are embalmed, washed, dressed and covered in make-up and kept there until the service, which might be conducted by a funeral celebrant who has never met the person they are speaking about.
The entire process is outsourced, sanitised and distant. As a result, we have become increasingly unfamiliar with death and consequently more frightened of it – particularly in Pākehā culture.
But a quiet revolution is taking place, according to many in the death industry. They’re calling it the ‘death positive movement’, and adherents say it’s about encouraging people to speak openly and frankly about death and dying, pursuing a “good death”, and pushing for more diversity in end of life care options.
Tea, cake and death talk
American mortician Caitlin Doughty, self-described “funeral industry rabble-rouser” and the person responsible for the phrase “death positive”, has found herself the face of the movement. In 2011 she founded the LA-based The Order of the Good Death, which describes itself as a group of funeral industry professionals, academics, and artists exploring ways to prepare a death phobic culture for their inevitable mortality.
A smell-of-death researcher, an end-of-life activist, a conservation burial pioneer and a grave garment designer are among some of The Order’s members. Doughty also runs Undertaking LA, a progressive funeral service whose emphasis is on placing the dying person and their family back in control of the dying process, including educating families on how to care for the dead at home.
She’s published a couple of books – a bestselling memoir Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: And Other Lessons from the Crematory, and From Here to Eternity: Traveling the World to Find the Good Death – while continuing to host her wildly popular ‘Ask a Mortician‘ YouTube series. Much of her time is now taken up with travelling the world speaking about the history of death culture and rituals, and working to address the death anxiety of modern secular culture.
Closer to home, Graham Southwell runs a monthly Death Café in the Waitakere suburb of Titirangi. Billed as an evening to drink tea, eat cake and talk death, Southwell says the aim is to raise awareness and get people to talk about death and dying. “It is like the last taboo. There is a great lack of understanding, a lack of knowledge, but also a huge fear around it. So when people can hear about good deaths, and some of the experiences people have had, I think it can be really helpful.”
The first Death Café (which is a not-for-profit social franchise, meaning anyone who signs up to the Death Cafe guide and principles, can host one) was held in London in 2011. They’re now popping up all over the world; currently there are 65 Death Cafés listed for New Zealand. Southwell, who has trained as a psychotherapist, has been running the Titirangi Death Café, together with celebrant Kerry-Ann Stanton, for the last three years.
He says their job is to act as facilitators and guide the group’s conversation in whichever direction they wish to go. Topics might include the meaning of life, grief, near death experiences and advanced care directives (a document detailing actions you want to be taken for your health if you are no longer able to make decisions because of illness or incapacity). “The idea is that if we start talking about death and dying it helps people to live more consciously, because it just puts everything in perspective.”
When asked whether he thinks New Zealanders are any good at dealing with death, Southwell, who is from the UK, mentions the tangi, the traditional Māori ceremony to mourn the dead. Usually held over three days, the body lies on a marae while people come to pay their respects. It is an occasion full of ritual and emotion, of oratory, song and storytelling. “They seem to have a very good way of dealing with death, that is rich and about celebrating someone’s life and I like that.”
Every Wednesday morning on Rotorua’s north side of town, a crew of senior citizens gather together to catch up, connect, and construct their own coffins. They’ve been meeting like this since 2010, when former palliative care nurse Katie Williams launched the inaugural Kiwi Coffin Club in her garage, with no tools, no volunteers and no clue how to build a coffin. But after roping in some handy local men who helped with the carpentry, the club took off. Now there are around 200 members at clubs throughout the country.
If coffin construction isn’t your thing, for $350 you can purchase a ready-made one and go to town decorating it. But if you’re thinking of purple sparkles, or pictures of Elvis, or turning your coffin into a racing car with wheels fixed to the side, then I’m sorry to say someone’s beaten you to it. Of course, it’s not just the coffins people come for; it’s also for the safe and supportive space where death and loss can be discussed. The Rotorua club, who describe themselves as “Makers of Fine, Affordable Underground Furniture” also construct baby coffins for their local hospital and memory boxes, which they donate for free.
Death doula, deathwalker, death midwife, end-of-life midwife, soul midwife, companion to the dying. These are all names for the same role; someone who supports the dying and the grieving. And while it’s hardly a new concept – for thousands of years people have done this for one another – there is now an industry springing up to meet the demands of our increasingly secular and death-anxious population.
While death doulas can make a living from their work in the UK and the USA, here in New Zealand, those who are drawn to the role seem to be doing it on a volunteer basis. Strictly a non-medical role, a death doula might help to create a death plan, advocate on a person’s behalf, and provide spiritual, psychological and social support. They may also provide logistical support; helping with services, planning home funerals and guiding mourners in their rights and responsibilities in caring for someone who has died.
Carol Wales, who prefers to describe herself as a companion to the dying, has supported a number of people in their final weeks of life through her work as a volunteer at Auckland’s Amitabha Buddhist Hospice. Her role can be varied. She will visit the person in their home, take them out if they’re feeling up to it and offer massage and aromatherapy. “Some people want to talk about their life and what it means to them. That it does mean something. There might be issues with family members, siblings arguing about money, possessions. It can be very difficult for the person who’s dying to be in their process, because it is a process. Families can be protective, they can be in denial. One of the skills, I believe, is navigating all of that. Being on the periphery when you need to be, and being close to the person when you need to be. It’s like a dance.”
‘Nobody’s got out alive yet’
It’s a beautiful, still Wednesday morning at Dove House hospice in the Auckland suburb of Glendowie. A low-slung modest building, it’s hard to imagine that for some, this is where they come to spend their final days. Designed to support patients with life-threatening illnesses, and their families and caregivers, Dove House is based on a holistic model with a focus on empowering people to understand their own process and look for alternative ways of feeling better. It offers patients and their families counselling, support groups and workshops, as well as body therapies including aromatherapy, massage and reflexology.
Dove House’s doctor and medical counsellor Dr Graeme Kidd says while they do see extremely sick people at the end of their life, they also have a large number of patients who, despite being diagnosed with a terminal illness, may go on to live for a number of years. And while we’ve made huge scientific improvements in understanding diseases like cancer, Kidd, a GP for 40 years, thinks one of the key things missing in the medical model is humanity.
“A patient will finish their treatment and say ‘What do I do now?’ And the doctor will say, ‘Just get on with your life, be grateful you’ve got to a good place.’ And the patient’s thinking, ‘I was getting on with my life when this all happened, but now I’ve got this neon sign saying ‘I have cancer’. A common experience is being frightened of the diagnosis and feeling a victim of the illness, you feel diminished by what you’re living with. So it’s trying to reframe that; ‘You’ve had your treatments and you’re doing really well and how do we now get the rest of the show on the road?’ That there’s still a life to be lived.”
Kidd thinks we are getting better at death. “We’re certainly having some incredible experiences with families where it feels like the death is a positive experience, and people come out of it feeling almost proud of what they experienced. And to me, to experience death sets you up for your own process. Nobody’s got out alive yet and it’s a certainty that we’re all going there.”
Family involvement and personalisation
My grandma was very explicit about how she wanted to be farewelled; a cremation, specific locations to scatter her ashes, a small family-only gathering. No-one was to make a fuss. Her memorial service was two weeks after she passed, so that family coming from overseas could be there. It was a perfect autumn day, she would have approved. The service was held in a restaurant we knew she liked and there, we ate and drank and talked and laughed and remembered. Songs were sung, anybody who wished to say something could, and did. It was not in any way a sombre affair and collectively, as a family, we felt in control of the entire process. The only people that spoke of her knew her, had known her, our whole lives.
Chris Foote, owner of the Natural Funeral Company, says she is seeing many more of these types of services, like my grandmother’s, where the family opts to run it themselves, instead of using a celebrant. “People don’t like the idea that someone speaks about their person and doesn’t know them.” There’s a shift away from formality and tradition with many of their clients explicitly stating they don’t want religion and prayer to play any part in the service. Instead, “it’s just a whole bunch of people getting together and talking about that person and playing music.”
Increased family involvement is extending beyond the service, too. More families are wanting to assist with the washing, dressing and placing of the body in the casket, which Foote says they encourage. “We used to be community based around our care of the dead, we’ve gone away from that experience, and now we’re simply coming back to it.” She’s also witnessed an increase in families choosing to have the body at home until burial or cremation. In around a third of the deaths they deal with, she and her colleagues will make daily visits to a private residence to care for the body and keep it cool.
The Natural Funeral Company, as the name might suggest, specialises in natural organic body care. They do not embalm, a process involving the use of chemicals to preserve the body and forestall decomposition, instead they use essential oils, homemade restorative creams, minimal make-up and then ice bottles to keep the body cool. Most bodies can last around a week, although there are instances where things need to move reasonably quickly, and the odd occasion where they will recommend embalming. Says Foote: “Part of the reason that I don’t like to embalm is because I think we should see that natural process of the decay of the body. I think it’s quite a beautiful process actually.”
Self-expression in death, as in life, has become one of the hallmarks of our time. Where once our funerals followed the same format, now there is almost nothing that can’t be customised to reflect our personalities. There are legal requirements for paperwork to be completed, deaths to be notified and bodies disposed of, as for the rest it’s your party and you can do what you like.
Fran Mitchell, co-founder of funeral home State of Grace, says the funerals they are involved with are all about best representing the person who has died; from coffins and venues to music and clothing. They are being held in all kinds of places; boat clubs, community halls, RSA’s, vineyards and people’s homes. “Wherever people had an association with, and not only in a church or a chapel where that person may never have gone.” The range of coffins on offer at State of Grace is staggering. From the Departure Lounge range, which includes floral designs and coastal sunsets, through to handwoven willow caskets, cardboard caskets, and simple calico shrouds. For the budget conscious, they can rent a coffin – and given the average New Zealand funeral costs around $10,000 that’s likely most of us.
Among their most popular coffins is a plain casket upon which families can write notes, draw pictures and fix photographs to. “It’s a really nice way to get the children and grandchildren involved. It can be quite therapeutic really.” Their range of urns is equally impressive; ceramic, wooden and hand painted.
As for coffin dress code? There isn’t one. Gone is the Sunday best, now people are putting their loved ones in whatever they think they’d be most comfortable in; pyjamas, no shoes, there aren’t any rules. They have had some people opt to wear nothing at all. Depart in the manner they arrived, you might say.
Mitchell is optimistic about the future of death. “I think things are changing for the better. People are talking about death more and accepting it as a part of life. Celebrating a life well lived instead of mourning a death.”
Body disposal: Mushroom death suits and sky burials
There are four options for body disposal in New Zealand. Cremation (70 per cent opt for this), burial, burial at sea and donating your body to medical science. But many are looking to alternative options. Recently, there’s been a growing demand for natural burials, which sees the body placed in a biodegradable casket or shroud and then into a shallow plot to allow for speedy decomposition (the body cannot be embalmed). The plot is then overplanted with native trees, a living memorial to those buried there. Currently, only a handful of councils in New Zealand offer natural burial sites.
Overseas, the death positive moment is actively endorsing more eco-friendly methods – some of which are still in development.
There’s liquid cremation (which involves dissolving the body, currently only legal in Australia and in eight US states), promession (freeze-drying the body, not yet legalised) and sky burial (a Tibetan funeral practice involving exposure of a dismembered corpse to scavenging vultures – very environmentally friendly). Finally, there’s the Mushroom Death Suit, an outfit embroidered with thread that has been infused with mushroom spores, which grow and digest the body as it decomposes following burial.
[I]n order to solve what could be called a worldwide shortage of dead bodies, researchers at Montpellier university’s medical school in France have created a virtual cadaver using 3D scanners. The process involved dissecting the chosen area of a real cadaver down through eight levels, and taking a 3D scan at each level thereby enabling it to be recreated on a computer screen for a novice student to dissect, virtually.
The use of virtual cadavers in place of the real thing is not a new concept: from the beautiful wax Anatomical Venuses of 18th-century Italy, popularised by Clemente Susini, to the intricate papier-mache anatomical models of Louis Auzoux in 19th-century France, there has long been a need to supplement dissection with less friable analogues made of paper, wax, plastic and soft metals. Even recently we have seen the increase in usage of plastination in medical schools (as well as on public display), virtual dissection tables and the synthetic cadaver – or SynDaver – made from a variety of complex realistic tissues. But the question remains, are these substitutes as effective as the real thing? Not really.
In order to work on humans – alive or dead – one has to become familiar with the huge variety of physical differences. And, of course, a clean, silicon cadaver, minus slippery adipose tissue and blood, is very different from the reality of the human body in all its glory. That said, cadavers donated to medical schools are heavily embalmed and also lack a certain element of realism: they are far paler and solid than flesh and don’t bleed. In addition, one of the reasons many people who would like to donate their body to medical schools don’t have their wish fulfilled is because the acceptance criteria are very stringent.
However, one of the often-overlooked benefits of using real cadavers during study is that they have a power and an agency that fakes and fabrications do not. They teach potential doctors to revere the human body and to treat the dead with dignity, something that plastic or pixels cannot.
Ultimately, these tools are useful to supplement learning, but they will never fully replace the real thing. And a donated cadaver is a precious gift indeed.
Here’s a question we all have to answer sooner or later: What do you want to happen to your body when you die? Funeral director Caitlin Doughty explores new ways to prepare us for inevitable mortality. In this thoughtful talk, learn more about ideas for burial (like “recomposting” and “conservation burial”) that return our bodies back to the earth in an eco-friendly, humble and self-aware way.