Nine weird and wonderful facts about death and funeral practices


It might not be something you want to think about very often, but it turns out that the way we treat our dead in the modern age is heavily influenced by the way our ancestors treated theirs.

When you look at death and funeral practices through the ages, repeated patterns of behaviour emerge, making it easy to see where some of our modern ideas about death – such as keeping an urn on your mantelpiece or having a gravestone – have come from.

So here are nine surprising facts about death and funeral practices through the ages:

1. Some prehistoric societies defleshed the bones

This was done with sharp knives. And we know this because human skeletons buried during this period show the traces of many cut marks to the skulls, limbs and other bones.

During the medieval period, bodies that needed to be transported over long distances for burial were also defleshed – by dismembering the body and boiling the pieces. The bones were then transported, while the soft tissues were buried close to the place of death.

2. Throwing spears at the dead

During the Middle Iron Age, “speared-corpse” burials were a pretty big deal in east Yorkshire. Spears were thrown or placed into the graves of some young men – and in a couple of instances they appear to have been thrown with enough force to pierce the body. It is unclear why this was done, but it may have been a military send-off – similar to the 21-gun salute at modern military funerals.

3. The Romans introduced gravestones

As an imported practice, the first gravestones in Britain were concentrated close to Roman military forts and more urbanised Romano-British settlements.

Back then, gravestones were more frequently dedicated to women and children than Roman soldiers. This was most likely because Roman soldiers were not legally allowed to marry, so monuments to their deceased family members legitimised their relationships in death in a way they couldn’t be in life.

After the end of Roman control in Britain in the fifth century, gravestones fell out of favour and did not become widely popular again until the modern era.

4. The Anglo Saxons preferred urns

During the early Anglo-Saxon period, cremated remains were often kept within the community for some time before burial. We know this because groups of urns were sometimes buried together. Urns were also included in burials of the deceased – who were likely their relatives.

5. Lots of people shared a coffin

During the medieval period, many parish churches had community coffins, which could be borrowed or leased to transport the deceased person from the home to the churchyard. When they arrived at the graveside, the body would be removed from the coffin and buried in a simple shroud.

6. And rosemary wasn’t just for potatoes

Sprigs of rosemary were often carried by people in the funeral procession and cast onto the coffin before burial, much as roses are today. And as an evergreen plant, rosemary was associated with eternal life. As a fragrant herb, it was also often placed inside coffins to conceal any odours that might be emerging from the corpse. This was important because bodies often lay in state for days and sometimes weeks before burial, while preparations were made and mourners travelled to attend the funeral.

7. Touching a murderer could heal

Throughout early modern times, and up until at least the mid 19th century, it was a common belief that the touch of a murderer – executed by hanging – could cure all kinds of illnesses, ranging from cancer and goitres to skin conditions. Afflicted persons would attend executions hoping to receive the “death stroke” of the executed prisoner.

8. There are still many mysteries

For almost a thousand years, during the British Iron Age, archaeologists don’t really know what kinds of funeral practices were being performed across much of Britain. And human remains only appear in a few places – like the burials in east Yorkshire. So for much of Britain, funeral practices are almost invisible. We suspect bodies were either exposed to the elements in a practice known as “excarnation”, or cremated and the ashes scattered.

9. But the living did respect the dead

Across time, people have engaged with past monuments to the dead, and it is common for people to respect older features of the landscape when deciding where to place new burials.

Bronze Age people created new funeral monuments and buried their dead in close proximity to Neolithic funeral monuments. This can be seen in the landscape around Stonehenge, which was created as an ancestral and funeral monument – and is full of Bronze Age burial mounds known as round barrows.

And when the Anglo-Saxons arrived in Britain, they frequently buried their dead close to Bronze and Iron Age monuments. Sometimes they dug into these older monuments and reused them to bury their own dead.

Even today, green burial grounds tend to respect preexisting field boundaries. And in at least one modern cemetery, burials are placed in alignment with medieval “ridge and furrow”. These are the peaks and troughs in the landscape resulting from medieval ploughing.

Complete Article HERE!

A good death

Yong Nie had no papers, no contact with family – and one last wish.

By Kate Legge

[F]or 20 years Yong Nie dodged Australian authorities by lying low, staying out of trouble, earning cash in hand through odd jobs, sleeping rough and keeping to himself. But when he developed an aggressive cancer, the game was up. Gaunt, jaundiced, his once dark hair streaked grey, the 68-year-old illegal immigrant turned up at the emergency department of Sydney’s St Vincent’s Hospital doubled in pain and fearing deportation. But instead of being thrown out, locked up and shipped off, he was welcomed by palliative care staff who took him in as one of our own.

The good death at the heart of this story confirms the generosity of ordinary people performing exceptional acts of compassion without triumphalism or reward because this is what they do every day. Few of those who crossed Nie’s path during the two months he spent at the inner-city hospital founded by the Sisters of Charity will forget him. They couldn’t cure his disease-ridden body but they worked tirelessly to heal a terrible burden in his soul. Those drawn to fulfil his dying wish came from different faiths and countries. There were doctors, nurses and social workers employed in this Catholic health service; monks and volunteers from the Nan Tien Buddhist temple near Wollongong; a Chinese community cancer support agency and Australian Embassy officials in Beijing. Racing against death’s advance, they embraced this fringe dweller who had fallen foul of officialdom with gracious gestures that celebrate the humanity of frontline carers while reminding us how lucky we are to live in a country where goodness thrives.

Yong Nie had not spoken to his wife or ­daughter since leaving the sprawling Chinese port city of Tianjin two decades ago bound for Australia, possibly on a business visa. It was a mission that went awry, humiliation eventually driving him to a flimsy existence with no fixed address, floating on the margins of a society he failed to join. The longer he hid from his family in silence, the harder it was to bridge the distance. He had no Medicare card, no identifying papers, no tax file number, no information about next of kin, and savings of $72.46 when he was admitted to palliative care in May. “There was nowhere else for him to go,” says ­Professor Richard Chye, director of the Sacred Heart palliative care unit at St Vincent’s. “We could not put him on the street. His cancer had spread to his liver; it was too late for treatment.”

Amid grim accounting of refugees around the world as well as those in offshore detention centres closer to our shores, here is an oasis where generosity of spirit is blind to colour, creed and ­citizenship. It doesn’t matter where you’ve come from, since everyone in these wards is contemplating death and energies are focused on journeying comfortably and peacefully to this end. “From a healthcare perspective we were not obliged to report him as an illegal immigrant,” Chye insists. “We provide spiritual care and support and if we reported him to the authorities he would have a lot more emotional angst and worry.”

With only a smattering of English, the patient spent the first week alone, sick and scared as social workers and nurses tried to gently tease out details that would help them look after him. “His biggest fear was that he would be kicked out of hospital,” says Michelle Feng, a Chinese-born nurse who speaks Mandarin. “But I reassured him that was not going to happen.” As luck would have it, her husband emigrated 16 years ago from Nie’s home city, southeast of Beijing. Concerned mainly with alleviating his physical duress, she did not pry. “He told me he’d lost contact with his family, that he had not spoken to them since he came to this country. I was curious,” Feng concedes.

“How can you have a father or husband and no contact? Maybe he was afraid to contact them,” she wonders before dismissing these niggling thoughts. “For me, a patient is a person. They all have their own needs and we have to adapt to them. He is a ­person who has been living underground but I didn’t ask the reason. I don’t know why. At the end of life everyone deserves to be treated as a human being. Really, we don’t have a lot of time.”

Prof Richard Chye with St Vincent’s Hospital palliative care unit staff; at right, Michelle Feng (white shirt) and Trish McKinnon (in black).

Social worker Trish McKinnon arranged for Mandarin-speaking volunteers from the Chinese community support group CanRevive to visit “Mr Nie” so they might better understand his circumstances and needs. Although he had inhabited a shadowland of sorts, he counted a few as friends. He’d helped a single mother in the Chinese community and for many years he’d served as a volunteer at the Nan Tien Buddhist temple, an hour from Sydney. There he got to know Stanley Wong, who came here from China 24 years ago. They cooked together for temple functions. Wong speaks limited English but tells me “we help each other”. Informed of Nie’s rapid decline, he arranged a roster of hospital visits with another Buddhist so that there would be bedside company for him almost every day.

Dr Kate Roberts, a passionate young member of staff, recalls witnessing the turnaround in the patient’s demeanour as the threads of connection were drawn together. “In the first week he had zero visitors. He was severely jaundiced, hardly speaking, and a ­little suicidal. He used to say, ‘Send me back to China or send me to a train station and I’ll sit there until I die’. But then people from the Nan Tien temple began to trickle in and he began to smile. He did a 180-degree switch.”

Michelle Feng says the presence of the Buddhists calmed him. “He’d been so worried and anxious and not able to sleep. But from the first time the Buddhists came to pray around his bed he told me, ‘The worry is gone’. ” He began to eat, requesting white rice congee — a simple dish of boiled rice with no seasonings — for every meal. Feng brought him pickles from home to flavour his food. Stanley Wong arrived with nourishing broth. Gradually Nie gained the confidence and courage to express his urgent desire to reconcile with the family he’d left behind.

Before coming to hospital he had approached the Red Cross for help in contacting his wife and daughter but the search had drawn a blank. Wong says Nie was “too scared” to approach any other agency. But the longing to make amends troubled him deeply. “He realised he was coming to the end of his life and his final wish was to contact his ­family,” says McKinnon. “He was too ill to travel and he had no passport so everyone went out of their way to achieve the goal of a man who was going to die. A reaffirmation of family began and there was this wonderful confluence of palliative care principles and Buddhist acceptance.”

The notion of “existential resolution” is ­central to the Sacred Heart unit’s philosophy of minimising pain and discomfort in the dance towards death while resolving emotional agitation and distress. “We try to ensure patients are physically and emotionally calm and prepared, ensuring peace at the end of life, so we try to assess appropriate information without being intrusive,” says McKinnon.

Once members of the palliative care team became aware of how much a reconciliation with his family meant to Nie, they enlisted the support of Wong, who had a friend who knew somebody in Tianjin, a vast metropolis with a municipal population of more than 15 million. Feng told Nie the city had grown and developed like topsy since his departure but hopes were pinned on the location of his elder brother, a secondary school physics teacher. Wong’s messenger found him within four hours of posting an alert on a missing person’s site.

This breakthrough led to an exchange of phone numbers for Nie’s wife and daughter, as well as news of a granddaughter, now four years old, and the revelation that Nie’s sister, who is based in Hong Kong, was visiting her son in Melbourne. She tells me through her English-speaking granddaughter that she had no idea of her brother’s whereabouts for the past 20 years: “He disappeared.” Those intent on facilitating a reunion stayed clear of the details that had conspired to keep members of this family apart. Feng set up the Chinese version of Skype so Nie could communicate with his wife and daughter. “It was quite amazing,” she recalls. “His wife and daughter were in tears. Everybody was crying. I didn’t want to intrude.”

A plan took shape for getting them to ­Australia. Wong shared the view of Sacred Heart staff that reconciliation would not only console the patient but also salve the heartache and bitterness of relatives bewildered by his unexplained absence for two decades. “He left his ­family. No contact. No money,” Wong says, still perplexed, even though he knows a little of the gambling problems that beset his friend. “He lost money. He couldn’t face them.” Now was not the time for recriminations. “They were very upset, very angry. It was very difficult. I told his daughter, ‘You should come and see your father otherwise you will never see him again’. ”

Wong collected money to help with the reunion. He pleaded with Nie’s wife and daughter to make the trip, convinced they would feel lighter for this rare chance to say goodbye. “I told them this was a time for forgiveness. Now was the time to put everything away, all the unhappy ­stories to one side so they could feel peace.” As Nie’s health deteriorated, hospital staff wrote to the Immigration Department to hasten visitors’ visas issued by embassy staff in ­Beijing. “It was absolutely amazing,” McKinnon says of the frantic efforts to expedite their journey before Nie took his last breath. Wife and daughter arrived at the hospital and were accommodated in a room near his. “We were so anxious about it. From my point of view this was unfinished business and I was sure that a reaffirmation of the family connection would help enormously … I walked them along the corridor to the room, explaining his physical state to prepare them. It was quite ethereal. When they walked in, he introduced them to us. He said, ‘This is my wife. This is my daughter.’ It was an absolute statement of connection,” she recalls.

“There were tears. They were quite overwhelmed by the face-to-face intimacy but they were pleased this had happened. There was not a lot of discussion about the intervening years. This was not the time to trawl through the past. Obviously there was grief from the missing years but there was no castigation at all, just a real sense of solidarity at the end of life.” Nie’s wife brought with her a yellow cloth inscribed with Chinese characters and laid it under his head. Wong explains this Buddhist tradition encourages serenity in death. “This releases the body and brings peace and silence before people pass away.”

Nie died the next morning. A senior monk from the Nan Tien temple was called in to lead prayers and chanting in the room where he lay. “It was very beautiful,” Wong says of his friend’s final hours. “I think we should all become Buddhists,” laughs McKinnon. “It was a wonderful outcome in every way.” Nie’s daughter accompanied the body to the temple for cremation and before their return to China they visited Nie’s sister in Melbourne. Another link mended in this long broken chain.

Complete Article HERE!

In death reunited: 75 years after Pearl Harbor attack, Anderson brothers of Dilworth, Minn., will rest together in USS Arizona

By Helmut Schmidt


[J]ohn Anderson somehow survived the bloody mayhem of the Dec. 7, 1941, Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

But in that attack, Anderson, a crewman on the USS Arizona, lost his twin brother, Jake.

Jake was among 1,177 sailors and Marines from the battleship who died, many of whom were entombed when the ship sank in minutes after a bomb touched off a massive explosion in one of the magazines.

Throughout an active and full life, Anderson carried the guilt of not being able to find his brother.

Now, in death, the brothers from Dilworth, Minn., will be reunited.

Anderson’s cremains, along with those of another man who survived that attack 75 years ago, will be interred by Navy divers in the No. 4 turret of the Arizona on Wednesday, Dec. 7.

Their cremains will join those of about 1,100 sailors and Marines entombed in the wreck.

“When you grow up in the shadow of a hero, you don’t always realize a hero is there,” one of his sons, Terry Anderson, 53, of Roswell, N.M., said Friday, Dec. 2. “We have a great sense of pride.”

Karolyn Anderson, 73, said that it’s been a difficult year since her husband’s death Nov. 14, 2015, at the age of 98.

“This is what John would want. I want to do that for John, and Jake. It’s very sad for me, but I’m honoring his wishes and his memory,” the Roswell woman said of her husband of 47 years.


“For years, John was hesitant to even talk about Jake, He always carried a guilt burden that he couldn’t get Jake. And finally one day, I said ‘John, you never really mention Jake, why is that?’ And he said. ‘I always felt funny that I lived and he didn’t. I always wondered why I was spared and he wasn’t.’ He just felt like he let himself down, and Jake down as well as the rest of the family.”

John and Jake Anderson were born Aug. 26, 1917, in Verona, N.D. Their family later moved to Dilworth, where the twins grew up and graduated from high school.

Both joined the Navy in March 1937.

John Anderson began his Navy career on the USS Saratoga, then transferred to a destroyer. He was in China when it was attacked by the Japanese.

“That left an impact on him. He had pictures of a Chinese refugee column machine gunned by the Japanese. Pretty graphic stuff,” Terry Anderson said.

Pictured from left are the battleships USS West Virginia, USS Tennessee, and the USS Arizona, after the attack by Japanese aircraft on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on Dec. 7, 1941. (U.S. Navy photography provided by the Naval Photographic Center)
Pictured from left are the battleships USS West Virginia, USS Tennessee, and the USS Arizona, after the attack by Japanese aircraft on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on Dec. 7, 1941.

In 1940, he was transferred to Hawaii and eventually to the Arizona.

John was a member of a crew manning one of the ship’s 14-inch turret guns, and Jake’s station was an anti-aircraft gun. John Anderson also had the duty of setting up chairs for Sunday morning worship services on the Arizona’s deck. After setting up the chairs on Dec. 7, he went below deck to have breakfast when he heard a “kaplunk,” looked out a porthole and saw planes bombing nearby Ford Island, he told columnist Bob Lind of The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead.

“They started hearing machine gun fire and explosions going off, and Dad went to the porthole of the ship out of the mess hall and that’s when he saw the Japanese planes flying by and he saw the orange balls and he knew the Japanese were there, because he had seen them in China,” said another son, John Anderson Jr., 47 of Carlsbad, N.M..

John Anderson said in accounts after the war that he then headed for his post, all the while looking for his brother, Jake. He made it to his gun turret, but before he could help load it, a bomb hit the turret’s top, bounced off and penetrated the deck. The resulting explosion killed many of the crew.

Shortly after, the forward ammunition magazine with 1.5 million pounds of gunpowder blew up, virtually splitting the Arizona, and leaving dead and dying men everywhere, he told Lind.

As the ship began sinking, a senior officer ordered Anderson onto a barge taking wounded men to Ford Island, and they picked up wounded men on the way.

Once on the island, Anderson commandeered another boat to go back to the Arizona with a shipmate, Chester Rose. On the way, they pulled survivors from the harbor, but then the small craft was hit and wrecked, and all but John perished.

“He talked about this guy Rose many many times, about how he lost his life trying to help, go back to the ship. After (many) years, he was able to locate the family and tell the family what happened to Rose,” John Jr. said.

John Anderson was wounded, but swam to land and grabbed a rifle and two bandoliers of ammunition. He then jumped into a bomb blast crater on Ford Island and told Lind that he thought, “Let ’em come!”

In a 2014 article, he told the Stars and Stripes newspaper that the next day a Marine patrol told him survivors of the Arizona were to gather on a nearby dock for a head count.

“Everybody I saw there had rags around their heads,” Anderson said. Bandages covered their arms, skin was scorched and hair was burned off. “Beat up something awful.”

Travis Anderson, 45, of Kurtistown, Hawaii, said his father passed on a very memorable lesson learned on that horrible day.

“I don’t remember what we were doing, but he said there’s a reason for rules and doing things the right way, and I kind of smarted off to him and he told me to listen,” Travis Anderson said. “He told me a story about a man locked up on the Arizona. He was in the brig and no one could find the key. Boy, that just hit me like a ton of bricks. That they were trying to get that guy out of there and they didn’t have the key. Pay attention to what you’re doing and do things right. I carried that with me the rest of my life.”

John Anderson joined the destroyer USS Macdonough, and fought in 13 major battles across the Pacific.

After his discharge in 1945, he worked as a movie stuntman and took night classes in meteorology. A friend later convinced him to join the Navy Reserves, where he served for another 23 years.


While in Hollywood, he met and worked with John Wayne and also worked on the set of the Jimmy Stewart Christmas staple, “It’s a Wonderful Life.”

Anderson moved to Roswell, where he was “Cactus Jack,” a disc jockey playing mostly country music. He met Elvis Presley and Eddie Arnold in that job.

Anderson later became a television meteorologist and a real estate agent.

“He went after it. He lived life to the fullest. It was like reading a Hollywood book. He really lived. I could just go on and on,” Travis Anderson said.

“He was a wonderful man, very charismatic. He was bigger than life,” Karolyn added.

The interment ceremony on the Arizona is unique in that it is the only ship in the U.S. Navy where the cremated remains of a survivor are returned.

“It will be a chance to say goodbye to dad and a chance to reflect on Dec. 7. A day we should never forget,” John Jr. said. “It will be a time … to thank God for all he did.”

Complete Article HERE!

Ancient Americans Mutilated Corpses in Funeral Rituals

By Tia Ghose

A skull exhumed from the Lapa do Santo cave in Brazil shows evidence of modification such as tooth removal. Hundreds of remains from the site show that beginning around 10,000 years ago, ancient inhabitants used an elaborate set of rituals surrounding death.
A skull exhumed from the Lapa do Santo cave in Brazil shows evidence of modification such as tooth removal. Hundreds of remains from the site show that beginning around 10,000 years ago, ancient inhabitants used an elaborate set of rituals surrounding death.

Ancient people ripped out teeth, stuffed broken bones into human skulls and de-fleshed corpses as part of elaborate funeral rituals in South America, an archaeological discovery has revealed.

The site of Lapa do Santo in Brazil holds a trove of human remains that were modified elaborately by the earliest inhabitants of the continent starting around 10,000 years ago, the new study shows. The finds change the picture of this culture’s sophistication, said study author André Strauss, a researcher at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany.

“In reconstructing the life of past populations, human burials are highly informative of symbolic and ritual behavior,” Strauss said in a statement. “In this frame, the funerary record presented in this study highlights that the human groups inhabiting east South America at 10,000 years ago were more diverse and sophisticated than previously thought.” [See Images of the Mutilated Skeletons at Lapa do Santo]

The site of Lapa do Santo, a cave nestled deep in the rainforest of central-eastern Brazil, shows evidence of human occupation dating back almost 12,000 years. Archaeologists have found a trove of human remains, tools, leftovers from past meals and even etchings of a horny man with a giant phallus in the 14,000-square-foot (1,300 square meters) cave. The huge limestone cavern is also in the same region where archaeologists discovered Luzia, one of the oldest known human skeletons from the New World, Live Science previously reported.

In the 19th century, naturalist Peter Lund first set foot in the region, which harbors some of the oldest skeletons in South America. But although archaeologists have stumbled upon hundreds of skeletons since then, few had noticed one strange feature: Many of the bodies had been modified after death.

In their recent archaeological excavations, Strauss and his colleagues took a more careful look at some of the remains found at Lapa do Santo. They found that starting between 10,600 and 10,400 years ago, the ancient inhabitants of the region buried their dead as complete skeletons.

But 1,000 years later (between about 9,600 and 9,400 years ago), people began dismembering, mutilating and de-fleshing fresh corpses before burying them. The teeth from the skulls were pulled out systematically. Some bones showed evidence of having been burned or cannibalized before being placed inside another skull, the researchers reported in the December issue of the journal Antiquity.

“The strong emphasis on the reduction of fresh corpses explains why these fascinating mortuary practices were not recognized during almost two centuries of research in the region,” Strauss said.

The team has not uncovered any other forms of memorial, such as gravestones or grave goods. Instead, the researchers said, it seems that this strict process of dismemberment and corpse mutilation was one of the central rituals used by these ancient people in commemorating the dead.

Complete Article HERE!

Festival of dying: is your ‘death literacy’ lacking?

Lying in a satin-lined coffin or wearing a bondage hood may help you face up to your inevitable demise


The Sydney Festival of Death and Dying aimed to spark conversations about mortality.
The Sydney Festival of Death and Dying aimed to spark conversations about mortality.


[N]othing could evoke more gut-wrenching melancholy than Syrian musician Adnan Baraké playing the oud in a dimly lit boat shed at a festival of death. At least, that’s what I’m thinking right up until the moment a foghorn bellows ominously from some distant ocean liner, swamping us entirely in a sombre aura of doom.

It’s the opening ceremony at the inaugural Sydney Festival of Death and Dying – and it’s only going to get more macabre.

Held this past weekend, the festival was billed as three days of workshops, lectures, and performances that “do justice to the full spectrum of what is at stake in mortality”. Presented by Dr Peter Banki, he has compiled a line-up of peers such as anti-death-phobia advocate Stephen Jenkinson, designer of posthumous fashion Pia Interlandi, and president of Dying with Dignity NSW, Dr Sarah Edelman.

Together, they aim to illuminate all angles of death and dying: living with grief, dying at home, the afterlife, visions, suicide, and voluntary assisted dying, among others.

Nobody close to me has died, and my “death literacy” is lacking – I have a lot to gain from a weekend like this. In curatorial advisor Victoria Spence’s terms, I’m here to “build muscles in relation to mortality”.

Death is and perhaps always will be taboo, but it’s something we need a lot of help preparing for. Before we become a parent, we have months to get ready: we read books, we go to classes, we shop, we see a counsellor. When someone dies though, it’s often unexpected – but there are ways we can make the process easier, and they usually begin with a conversation. Or in this case, a festival.

Victoria Spence is a civil celebrant, consultant and former thespian. She begins her session – Developing Your Mortality Muscle – by explaining her objectives: to help us be aware of, and understand, our physiological responses to loss.

Death may cause us to fight, flee, freeze or submit, she says, but one response is pretty much guaranteed: shock. We react to death by abruptly drawing in breath; and in the rituals that surround death, we metaphorically hold it in. But if we’re prepared, if we learn to breathe, we can be properly present.

“When somebody dies, you put the kettle on,” she says. “That’s how you be with your dead.”

Having physical proximity with the deceased – being privy to their new smells, witnessing physical changes – activates a physiological response, changing the way we view our dead and encouraging the grieving process.

The Sydney Festival of Death and Dying allowed participants to get up close and personal with the accoutrements of death.
The Sydney Festival of Death and Dying allowed participants to get up close and personal with the accoutrements of death.

Victoria says being physically intimate with death can be crucial: bathing your dead person, or clothing them. Another way to be intimate is through language. We sit in groups to exercise our vocabulary of condolence: “I’m sorry”, “You’ll get through this”, “You will heal in time” – my phrases seem to avoid the moment, while others engage with it: “How does her death make you feel?”

Next we’re given the chance to get up close and personal with the accoutrements of death. I slink into a satin-lined coffin, and as the lid is repositioned I imagine the sound of dirt raining down on me. This experience builds no bridge to death, the same way being wrapped in toilet paper for Halloween brings me no closer to the experience of mummification. But it does make me wonder about alternative burial rites.

In another session, Dr Sebastian Job creates a simulation where participants “face the worst” ahead of time. By inflating a balloon until it bursts we experience a symbolic death, he says, allowing us the opportunity to process death anxiety and life regret. He hopes this jolts us from social paralysis into affirmative action.

Have you ever thought about what song you want played at your deathbed? Peter Roberts is a music thanatologist; he plays music for people who are at the end of their life. In this session he discusses how music can help dying people to let go – and several have during his service.

Tempo tempers breathing, and tone and timbre can quell fear, he explains; his use of vowel sounds, not words, can offer uncomplicated companionship, and provide the dying an opportunity to abandon their pain-riddled bodies and follow with their mind, travelling peacefully with the harp’s melody.


Palliative care physician Dr Michael Barbato has devoted a significant part of his life to the exploration of dreams and visions at the end of life. He believes that we overlook the mystic elements of death and dying simply because they appear too “fringy”.

He quotes a study that found up to 50% of respondents believed their dying loved one was experiencing unusual visions. The study quoted was his own – the Palliative Medical Journal refused to publish it because, he says, it was too fringy. His talk is entertaining and peppered with emotive stories, but it lacks the scientific substance I require to get into the moment.

Dr Peter Banki, the festival director, believes proximity to death can make us feel alive. He says we often use words such as pain, fear and submission when describing death. One of his workshops, Thresholds and Lust, is an intersection of both his festivals – this Festival of Death and Dying, and his prior Festival of Really Good Sex. It is designed to playfully evoke death-related emotions from willing participants.

A bondage hood is placed on my head, suffocating my senses. My partner manipulates my head and body, she runs her hands over my arms and head (submission). I can’t help but wonder what everyone else around me is doing – are they watching (fear)? The heat bakes my gimp head like a potato jacket, while my body is uncomfortably contorted on the pungent floorboards (pain). I tap out.

I’m not yet ready to yield to the vagaries of dying, whether real or imagined, by the festival’s end – but I do notice I’ve begun cultivating a relationship with death that I’m thankful for. Perhaps more importantly, I’ve also observed friendships forming, information exchanged, and future plans being made – the festival of death has facilitated the birth of a community. We are all dying, after all.

Complete Article HERE!

Dia de los Muertos (Day Of The Dead) 2016

[M]ore than 500 years ago, when the Spanish Conquistadors landed in what is now Mexico, they encountered natives practicing a ritual that seemed to mock death.

It was a ritual the indigenous people had been practicing at least 3,000 years. A ritual the Spaniards would try unsuccessfully to eradicate.

A ritual known today as Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead.

The ritual is celebrated in Mexico and certain parts of the United States. Although the ritual has since been merged with Catholic theology, it still maintains the basic principles of the Aztec ritual, such as the use of skulls.

Today, people don wooden skull masks called calacas and dance in honor of their deceased relatives. The wooden skulls are also placed on altars that are dedicated to the dead. Sugar skulls, made with the names of the dead person on the forehead, are eaten by a relative or friend, according to Mary J. Adrade, who has written three books on the ritual.

The Aztecs and other Meso-American civilizations kept skulls as trophies and displayed them during the ritual. The skulls were used to symbolize death and rebirth.

The skulls were used to honor the dead, whom the Aztecs and other Meso-American civilizations believed came back to visit during the monthlong ritual.

Unlike the Spaniards, who viewed death as the end of life, the natives viewed it as the continuation of life. Instead of fearing death, they embraced it. To them, life was a dream and only in death did they become truly awake.

“The pre-Hispanic people honored duality as being dynamic,” said Christina Gonzalez, senior lecturer on Hispanic issues at Arizona State University. “They didn’t separate death from pain, wealth from poverty like they did in Western cultures.”

However, the Spaniards considered the ritual to be sacrilegious. They perceived the indigenous people to be barbaric and pagan.

In their attempts to convert them to Catholicism, the Spaniards tried to kill the ritual.

But like the old Aztec spirits, the ritual refused to die.

To make the ritual more Christian, the Spaniards moved it so it coincided with All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day (Nov. 1 and 2), which is when it is celebrated today.

Previously it fell on the ninth month of the Aztec Solar Calendar, approximately the beginning of August, and was celebrated for the entire month. Festivities were presided over by the goddess Mictecacihuatl. The goddess, known as “Lady of the Dead,” was believed to have died at birth, Andrade said.

Today, Day of the Dead is celebrated in Mexico and in certain parts of the United States and Central America.

“It’s celebrated different depending on where you go,” Gonzalez said.

In rural Mexico, people visit the cemetery where their loved ones are buried. They decorate gravesites with marigold flowers and candles. They bring toys for dead children and bottles of tequila to adults. They sit on picnic blankets next to gravesites and eat the favorite food of their loved ones.

In Guadalupe, the ritual is celebrated much like it is in rural Mexico.

“Here the people spend the day in the cemetery,” said Esther Cota, the parish secretary at the Our Lady of Guadalupe Church. “The graves are decorated real pretty by the people.”

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Can sheer willpower keep patients alive in their dying hours?

By Bob Tedeschi


Marjorie Severance had lived 91 years, five months, and two weeks when, if you believe such things, she decided she could let herself die.

She had completed all of her funeral and memorial service plans. Her finances were set. “Gramma Marj,” as she was known to her many grandchildren and great-grandchildren, spent the last weeks of her life sprucing up her jewelry collection and choosing beneficiaries.

Her granddaughter, Jan Schultz, who was helping with the jewelry, was dragging her feet getting the two last rings fixed.

“I had a feeling that as soon as this was done, she’d be done,” Schultz recalled.

When a great-grandson visited her for supper at her assisted-living facility in Madison, Wis., earlier this month, Gramma Marj ushered him out early. The family laughed about it, but the next day she barely woke.

Schultz called Gramma Marj’s son in Texas and told him to get there fast. Then she told her grandmother that her son was on his way and would arrive the following day. Gramma Marj’s eyes stayed closed; she was alive but largely unresponsive.

The next day, her son arrived. She opened her eyes for him. And then, not long after, in the solitude of her room, Marjorie Severance passed away.

The question of whether Severance somehow prolonged her life will forever remain a mystery. But it is hardly a mystery that stands on its own.

Hospice and palliative care clinicians routinely see cases in which people who are nearing life’s end seem to will themselves to hold on until a certain point, after which time they let go.

And while some people hold on long enough to see a loved one, others seem to do the opposite, clinging to life until they are left alone.

Dr. Toby Campbell, an oncologist and palliative care specialist at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, said patients tend not to have a lot of control at the very end of their lives. But that doesn’t mean they don’t have any.

“People in end-of-life care wouldn’t bat an eye if you asked if they think people can, to a certain degree, control those final moments,” Campbell said. “We’d all say, ‘Well, yeah. Sure.’ But it’s inexplicable.”

If these well-timed deaths are anything but coincidental, medical scientists appear unlikely to be able to provide an explanation anytime soon. A body of scientific literature called “the will to live near death” explores questions at the fringe of this topic, but the research focuses more squarely on how one’s will to live might affect life expectancy.

When it comes to extending one’s life by hours, seemingly through sheer will, Campbell believes the dying “probably have some kind of hormonal stimulus that’s just a driver to keep them going. Then, when whatever event they were waiting for happens, the stimulus goes away, and there must be some kind of relaxing into it that then allows them to die.”

In one memorable experience, Campbell recalled three sisters who had gathered in the hospital room of their elderly mother after she’d suffered a stroke. One sister lived nearby and the others joined from out of town, holding vigil for several days.

The mother was unresponsive, and though her prognosis was grim, she wasn’t actively dying. “They were having really a lovely time bonding together, but then life was kind of moving on and in truth they were ready for mom to die,” Campbell said.

One morning, he told them that their mother might actually want to die — but not with them present. Some people deem the dying process too personal to share, while others don’t want to expose family members to the trauma of watching them go.

The sisters, Campbell said, ” immediately grabbed onto the idea, and right then, they said, ‘Mom, we’re going out for breakfast. We’ll be gone for two or three hours, and then we’re going to come back and see you. So if you need to be alone to do this, now’s a good time.’”

Campbell left the room. The sisters left soon after. Their mother died while they were gone.

“They were sad, of course,” he said. “But they felt like they had done right by her.”

Jan Schultz felt that way too. Her grandmother had worked her way from bank teller to vice president over a 40-year career in finance. She was a proud matriarch, both loving and deeply beloved. Schultz said it would have been out of character for Gramma Marj to die before her son arrived, and it would have been equally out of character for her to burden him or anyone else with the sight of her death.

So in retrospect, it was little surprise that when Gramma Marj’s son arrived, her condition noticeably changed.

“I could almost see a sense of calmness over her when he arrived,” Schultz said.

Gramma Marj opened her eyes for him. She heard him leave. And then, after he was gone, her heart went quiet.

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