The Rev. Jose Luis Garayoa survived typhoid fever, malaria, a kidnapping and the Ebola crisis as a missionary in Sierra Leone, only to die of covid-19 after tending to the people of his Texas church who were sick from the virus and the grieving family members of those who died.
Garayoa, 68, who served at El Paso’s Little Flower Catholic Church, was one of three priests living in the local home of the Roman Catholic Order of the Augustinian Recollects who contracted the disease. Garayoa died two days before Thanksgiving.
Garayoa was aware of the dangers of covid, but he could not refuse a congregant who sought comfort and prayers when that person or a loved one fought the disease, according to retired hairstylist Maria Luisa Placencia, one of the priest’s parishioners.
“He could not see someone suffering or worried about a child or a parent and not want to pray with them and show compassion,” Placencia said.
Garayoa’s death underscores the personal risks taken by spiritual leaders who comfort the sick and their families, give last rites or conduct funerals for people who have died of covid. Many also face challenges in leading congregations that are divided over the seriousness of the pandemic.
Ministering to the ill or dying is a major role of spiritual leaders in all religions. Susan Dunlap, a divinity professor at Duke University, said covid creates an even greater feeling of obligation for clergy, because many patients are isolated from family members, she said.
People near death often want to interact with God or make things right, Dunlap said, and a clergy member “can help facilitate that.”
Such spiritual work is key to the work of hospital chaplains, but it can expose them to virus being spread in the air or sometimes through touch. Jayne Barnes, a chaplain at the Billings Clinic in Montana, said she tries to avoid physical contact with covid patients, but it can be difficult to resist a brief touch, which is often the best way to convey compassion.
“It’s almost an awkward moment when you see a patient in distress, but you know you shouldn’t hold their hand or give them a hug,” Barnes said. “But that doesn’t mean that we can’t be there for them. These are people who cannot have visitors, and they have a lot they want to say. Sometimes they are angry with God, and they let me know about that. I’m there to listen.”
Still, there are times, Barnes said, that the despair is so profound she cannot help but “put on a glove and hold a patient’s hand.”
Barnes was diagnosed with covid near Thanksgiving. She has recovered and has a “better understanding” of what patients are enduring.
Dealing with so much suffering affects even the most hardened doctors and nurses, she said. Billings Clinic staffers were devastated when a beloved physician died of covid, and rallied behind a popular nurse who was seriously ill but recovered.
“We’re not only taking care of the patients; we are also there for the staff, and I think we have been an important asset,’’ she said of the hospital’s chaplains.
In Abington, Pennsylvania, Pastor Marshall Mitchell of Salem Baptist Church said he believes part of his spiritual duty is to persuade his congregation and the broader African American community to take precautions to avoid covid. That is why Mitchell allowed photographers to capture the moment in December when he received his first dose of a vaccine.
“As pastor of one of the largest churches in the Philadelphia region, it is incumbent on me to demonstrate the powers of both science and faith,” he said.
Mitchell said he might have credibility in convincing other African Americans, who have been disproportionately affected by covid, that a vaccine can save lives. Many are skeptical.
The politicization of covid precautions such as masks and social distancing has put many pastors in a difficult position.
Mitchell said he has no patience for people who refuse to wear masks.
“I keep them the hell away from me,” he said.
Jeff Wheeler, lead pastor of Central Church in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, said that his church encourages mask-wearing and that most congregants comply. However, the underlying tension is reflected in his message to members on the church’s website:
“As we move forward, we simply ask you to avoid shaming, judging or making critical comments to those wearing or not wearing masks,” it reads.
Sheikh Tarik Ata, who leads the Orange County Islamic Foundation in California, said that the Quran calls for Muslims to take actions to ensure their health and that congregants largely comply with covid guidelines
“So, our members don’t have a problem with mask mandates,” he said.
Covid has hit the Orange County Muslim population hard, Ata said. Religion has become an important source of comfort for members who have lost their jobs and struggled with illness or finding child care.
“Our faith says that no matter how difficult the situation, we always have access to God and the future will be better,” Ata said.
Adam Morris, the rabbi at Temple Micah in Denver, said he has turned to online video to meet with congregants sick with the coronavirus. When meeting with his congregation members in person, such as during graveside services, he worries that with his mask on people might miss seeing the concern and compassion he feels for their plight.
He conducts in-person graveside funerals for a small number of mourners but requires all participants to wear masks.
Observant Muslims and Jews believe it is important to bury the dead quickly after death, Morris said.
“Some traditions and rituals must go forward,” Morris said, “covid or not.”
For many years, Muslim funeral rituals have attracted attention from Christian counterparts mainly because of their simplicity.
Yesterday, two high profile octogenarians, who played key roles in Kenyan politics and civil service, were laid to rest.
One, ex-minister Simeon Nyachae, a Christian of a Seventh Day Adventist (SDA) faith and Senator Yusuf Haji of the Muslim faith. The two funeral services sparked debate on social media with a section of Christians seeking answers on Muslim funeral rites.
Nyachae, who died on February 1 at the Nairobi Hospital aged 88, was laid to rest two weeks later at his Nyosia village in Kisii County. His remains had been preserved at the Lee Funeral Home for 14 days before being flown to Kisii on Sunday.
On the other hand, the late Garissa Senator, who died on Monday morning, was interred at the Lang’ata Muslim Cemetry, in Nairobi, miles away from home, less than 24 hours after his death. He was 80 years old.
The cost of giving a loved one a decent send off took centre stage on the social media debate, with many Kenyans agreeing that Muslim burials cost way less.
Mohammed Hersi, a hotelier and vocal commentator on social media, took to his Facebook page to explain what happens when a Muslim dies.
In Muslim, Hersi said, the burial of a loved one should take place as quickly as possible after death and preferably within 24 hours.
Where the cause of death is uncertain this may and should be determined prior to burial.
The person who has died is washed as quickly as possible after death and wrapped in a simple white shroud For men, up to three pieces of cloth may be used for this purpose, for women, five.
In many countries, a coffin is not used, but in the UK, where this is often forbidden, a coffin is permitted.
Hersi revealed that the Muslim rarely transport a body.
“You get buried where you passed away…For us your burial is where death (maut) will find you, ” he wrote.
The Muslim burials timings are mainly dictated by prayers times.
The Muslim community prays five times a day: Fajr at 5am, Dhuhur at 1pm, Asr 4pm, Maghrib 6.30pm and Isha 8pm.
“Most of the burial prayers would coincide with the 1pm or 4pm prayers for various reasons ranging eg to allow immediate family like children to arrive etc, ” he said.
“We try and avoid evening or nighttime burial unless it is a case of an accident and departed ought to be laid to rest as quickly as possible.”
Preparation of the body
The body is prepared either at home or even at some mosque.
Ghusl is the full-body ritual purification mandatory before the performance of ritual and janaza prayer.
The remains are wrapped in a simple plain cloth (the Kafan) which costs less than Sh500. After that, instead of a coffin, the deceased is transported to the mosque in a Janaza that is returned after use and reused by another family.
“Our mosque in South C does that very well and a few masjid in Mombasa, ” he added.
When a Muslim passes on in town, it becomes the responsibility of fellow muslims to give the departed brother or sister a decent burial.
The body is then carried away in a Janaza and is placed at the back of the mosque awaiting the normal prayers to happen.
Immediately after the normal prayers, an announcement is made informing worshippers of the presence of a body of a departed brother or sister and requested to join the family in burying their kin.
“It is considered a blessing to take part in such even if you were not known to the departed. We then bring the body to the front of the congregation, ” he added.
Before the body leaves for its final resting place, the family led by the eldest son and the Imam ask if there is anyone who owed the departed anything or if the departed owed anyone anything.
The son or immediately male family member are expected to take responsibility for the debt.
“We then all stand behind the Janaza and final prayers are led by the imam. Sometimes we have more than one body so they are all laid out in a line, ” he said.
The service takes less than 10 minutes and thereafter the body is picked by young men, who mostly are not even known to the deceased, and taken to the final resting place.
Once at the graveyard immediate family members preferably sons and brothers to the deceased will go inside the grave which is always ready.
The body is removed from the Janaza and placed inside a grave that has a mould of mud which acts as a pillow where the head of the deceased is placed. Additionally, the body faces the right side towards Mecca (the Muslim community faces Mecca when praying).
Wooden planks are used to enclose where the body is placed and if there is no wood, concrete slabs can be used.
Once done the family members step out, the grave is filled with soil.
Unlike in Christian funeral rituals, Muslims don’t observe protocols as everyone is considered equal regardless of their status.
“Once done a quick sermon is given hardly 5 to 10 minutes and we are done. We make no speeches and there are no protocols at the mosque or at the burial site based on your worldly position, ” he said.
“At the mosque and burial site we are all equal.”
In Muslim funeral rites, women are not allowed at the gravesite. If they attend, they can only watch from a distance.
Irish society has a responsibility to offer the choice of medically assisted dying to those suffering with a terminal incurable illness, a network of 100 doctors has said.
In its submission to the Oireachtas justice committee which is considering Dying with Dignity Bill, the Irish Doctors supporting Medical Assistance in Dying (IDsMAiD) group writes that medically assisted dying can be introduced in a “safe and fair manner”. It argues that in cases of terminal illness, “patients deserve to have their choice respected”.
The Bill tabled by People Before Profit TD Gino Kenny, which seeks to legalise assisted dying, passed to committee stage last October after a vote in the Dáil.
Members of the Irish Palliative Medicine Consultants’ Association (IPMCA) have criticised the wording of the bill saying its definition of what constitutes a terminal illness is too broad.
IPMCA chair Dr Feargal Twomey said “the bill as it stands was very open to significant misuse and abuse”.
However, the IDsMAiD submission, signed by 100 doctors across Ireland, states the bill’s criteria for qualifying for assisted dying is appropriately “conservative and restrictive” and that the safeguards proposed are “conservative, balanced and fair”.
Comprehensive regulation, monitoring and reporting of assisted dying must take place if the Bill passes to ensure accountability, transparency and to foster trust in the public, says the group.
However, it argues that the “hypothetical fears” that such legislation would harm Irish society are “insufficient reason to condemn people with terminal illness to unnecessary suffering”.
While palliative care can control and alleviate the symptoms of many patients, it “cannot eliminate all pain and suffering for all patients”, states the submission. “MaiD should be seen as complementing palliative care rather than any attempt to diminish it,” it states.
The group supports the bill’s provisions which state that assisted dying would only apply to competent adults, residents in Ireland and people with a terminal illness that is “progressive and incurable”.
It notes that a person should not qualify for assisted dying on the basis of a mental illness alone and further research is required before this is considered. Legislators should follow Canada and Victoria in Australia by excluding mental illness as qualifying as a terminal illness to “eliminate any doubt or confusion on this issue”, it says.
Access to assisted dying for patients with advanced dementia remains an “evolving issue due to the need for advanced consent”, it adds.
Dr Brendan O’Shea, a Kildare GP who helped draft the submission, says assisted dying will never be relevant to most people who die in Ireland but that for a small number, it is a “vitally important” option. Dr O’Shea, assistant adjuvant professor in public health and primary care at Trinity College Dublin, said the Bill was currently “short on detail” but that he believes all missing elements would be drafted in as the legislation passes through the Oireachtas.
“We feel most strongly that details around regulation need to be discussed,” he said, adding that medical practitioners, scientific experts and the public should be consulted during the process.
Ireland should be guided by evidence from other countries who have had similar legislation in place for years, said Dr O’Shea. The Canadian model is “well-funded, well regulated and conservative in its approach” while the Dutch approach should also be carefully examined, he said.
Dr Brian Kennedy, who was also involved in the submission, says his views were shaped by his time working as a palliative care doctor. “For the vast majority it is enough and most people in most circumstances can reframe to coping with live with their illness. But there are circumstances the patient, family and healthcare workers have to deal with which are simply too terrible for all concerned.”
Dr Kennedy believes offering the choice of assisted dying to terminally ill patients would help with Irish people’s “death anxiety” and is about putting the patient “front and centre”.
In other submissions to the committee, both the Catholic Church and the Presbyterian Church in Ireland have come out strongly against measures in the Bill.
In its submission, the Catholic bishops said the Bill failed “to recognise the reality that many patients who request assisted suicide are depressed and “to require care givers to provide adequate palliative care for the terminally ill person.”
This meant “someone might decide to end his or her own life without ever having experienced what palliative care has to offer and, thus, making this decision without being fully aware of the other options available to them,” they said.
They found it “unsatisfactory” that the Bill “gives more weight to the irreversibility of the condition than to treatments which, even temporarily, relieve the symptoms. This leads to an unacceptably loose understanding of terminal illness.”
In their submission, the Presbyterian Church said the Bill would “leave vulnerable members of our society open to abuse, duress or the weight of a perceived expectation that they will relieve others of the burden of caring for them.”
Former moderator of the church Rev Dr Trevor Morrow, who had been minister at Lucan Presbyterian Church in Co Dublin for 31 years, said “our experience as pastors is that the components that contribute to a peaceful and dignified death are social, emotional, financial and spiritual. By focusing so restrictedly on the physical aspects of dying, this legislation fails to take account of these factors which can help to mitigate, or exacerbate, human suffering and distress”.
Long-term-care staff are so swamped with COVID-19 protocols that end-of-life discussions aren’t occurring with residents and families, says a McMaster University professor.
Sharon Kaasalainen, a professor in the school of nursing, says she’s hearing from families that they’re feeling excluded from decisions about their loved one’s care.
“Compassionate care is missing because it’s all around public health protocols,” she said, noting the absence of these conversations is causing “serous concerns.”
Kaasalainen recently met with the Ontario Long Term Care Association and other long-term-care leaders to raise the issue. The point of compassionate care, she says, is to help people become more comfortable talking about death and supporting families through that process.
Kaasalainen’s research involves helping facilitate conversations about end of life in long-term care. She recently received funding to adapt her research for COVID-19, including by developing online tools to support those discussions. The goal is to help residents, families and staff prepare for decisions at the end of a patient’s life.
While COVID-19 poses major staffing challenges, Kaasalainen says palliative care also has to do with education and a home’s priorities.
Her study will pilot online tools at homes in three provinces. Locally, that includes St. Peter’s Residence at Chedoke on the west Mountain, where she expects to roll out the online resources in spring.
The tools in the study include pamphlets on conditions common to long-term-care residents to help both residents and families learn what to expect as a disease progresses.
Pam Holliday participated in an earlier part of Kaasalainen’s research. She says the tools taught her to ask care providers more specific questions about the health of her elderly mother, a resident at Shalom Village in Westdale.
Holliday says palliative care conversations can help even before a person’s death. In her case, her mother got sick multiple times, but bounced back.
“You try to make them better, but you try to make them enjoy what they have,” Holliday said about the approach.
She adds that the resources are particularly helpful during COVID-19, when there are restrictions on visits to long-term care.
“We’re totally reliant on staff communicating any changes with us,” Holliday said. “It’s (about) asking the right questions.”
Kaasalainen says care conversations can also include the type of music a person would like to hear when they’re dying and which loved ones are with them. But avoiding the discussions affects the quality of care during a patient’s final days and how families cope after a death.
“We’re seeing families very distressed, having to make decisions unprepared, and it leads to poor bereavement,” Kaasalainen said. “They have these lingering feelings of guilt and stress.”
In March, Kaasalainen is also planning to launch a national community of practice with the Canadian Hospice Palliative Care Association. It would bring together researchers, care providers and families in long-term care to discuss palliative care.
Her hope is to see families involved in care decisions feeling better prepared.
“The goal really is good death, peaceful death and families feeling guilt-free and prepared for death when it happens.”
One of the biggest challenges any songwriter faces is how to turn their own story into a universal story that an artist and millions of his or her fans will like. Most of us find it relatively easy to write OUR story, but much more challenging to write our truth in that universal way.
Early in my career, I wrote a song that I thought I crafted very well. It was called “She Stopped Livin’ The Day He Died”. It was the sad but true story of my grandmother who was so dependent on my grandfather that, when he passed away at age 51, just spent the next 25 years of her life in a sad place.
I painted beautiful pictures of their life together before he passed away. I described his job at the factory and her life as a homemaker. I even used their real names in the song. When I played it for my family, they cried. I thought I had a masterpiece.
So, I confidently walked in to my publisher’s office and told him I “thought I had one”. That’s what we said when we thought we really nailed a song. He listened carefully to my song all the way to the end. I was ready for the “Way to go!!! Garth will love this!!”
It never came. Instead, his response was “That’s the saddest crap I ever heard.” He wasn’t one for sugar-coating anything. I was so upset. I couldn’t imagine why he didn’t love my song.
I asked him what was wrong with the song and he simply said “Garth doesn’t want to tell his audience YOUR grandmother’s sad story night after night.” He went on to explain that the key to writing a hit song was telling MY story in a way that millions of people relate it to THEIR story.
It took a while to sink in, but I finally realized that there is a difference in a great, well written song and a great, well written hit song. What’s the difference? Universal emotion.
My publisher challenged me to take my song about my grandmother and find the universal emotion behind it. So, I spent weeks playing and studying that song until I finally thought I had it figured out.
The universal idea or emotion behind my song was that losing someone sometimes makes us feel like a part of us died. So, I started working on song ideas that would express that feeling in a more universal and less personal way.
First, I decided that writing about someone dying might limit my chances. Not many artists are searching for songs about death. There’s no better way to bring a crowd down at a concert than to start singing a good death song. That idea led me to a more universal (and positive) thought.
I realized that losing someone you love doesn’t have to be talking about dying. In fact, more people would relate if I wrote a song about losing a love interest just because the relationship ended. Armed with that knowledge, I looked through my title database and found the perfect title!
It just so happened I was headed to my publisher’s cabin to write with him (Kim Williams) and Danny Wells. Both Kim and Danny already had hits. I did not! So, I came armed with a bunch of strong ideas. The first one I threw out was “While You Loved Me”. Here’s the lyric we wrote.
While You Loved Me
If I ever write the story of my life,
Don’t be surprised if you’re where it begins
Girl I’d have to dedicate every line on every page
To the memories we made while you loved me
I was born the day you kissed me
And I died inside the night you left me
But I lived, oh how I lived
While you loved me
I’d start with chapter one, love innocent and young
As the morning sun on a new day
Even though I know the end, I’d do it all again
‘Cause I got a lifetime in while you loved me
I was born the day you kissed me
And I died inside the night you left me
But I lived, oh how I lived
While you loved me
Copyright 2000 Sony/ATV Music
That song expresses the same universal emotion as my song about my grandmother, but in a MUCH more universal way. Almost everyone can relate to being broken up with by someone you love. Only my family can relate to my grandmother’s story.
Rascal Flatts cut an amazing record, “While You Loved Me” went on to sell a million records and it became my first top ten hit, landing at #7 on the Billboard chart. And, it was inspired by the story of my grandmother.
All of that to say, the key to writing a hit is finding YOUR truth and then finding the UNIVERSAL truth behind it. That universal truth is the ticket to success as a songwriter.
Filmmaker Jack Dunphy makes personal films. His shorts Serenity, Chekhov and now Revelations, tell stories from his life with a dash of fiction. He uses construction paper as a base material for his animated films and seemingly does detail work with whatever bachelor-pad rubbish he has on hand. These stop-motion worlds are grubby and handmade; there’s no handsome veneer getting between us and Jack’s emotions, though they’re beautiful in their own right. In Revelations, now streaming as part of the Slamdance Film Festival, he combines animation with video footage and photos from his past to tell the story of his high school relationship with Selene Bennet. To win her attention from the “30-year-old rockstar Jared” and “squidboy,” Jack’s friend Ian, he asks her to star in his movies (footage of which is weaved throughout the film). His plan works, and the two start dating. They’re happy together. Jack learns what it’s like to be happy, for what he thinks is the first time in his life. But then Jared’s mom dies, and he begins to come over while Jack and Selene hang out together. Jared leans on Selene for emotional support and introduces her to oxycodone and morphine, getting her hooked.
In a “last ditch effort” to save their relationship, Jack and Selene do acid together for the first time. This sequence introduces hand-drawn animation, present-day footage from the real world and breaks from the film’s two-dimensional plane. Jack has revelations about his father on his acid trip, realizes he’s a guy like any guy, and that he should probably tell him he loves him more. Revelations, like many of Jack’s films, centers on a relationship with someone in his life, or a particular memory, but reveals itself to be about how these people and events connect to his growing understanding of his father, who passed away.
Even before the credits roll on a Jack Dunphy film, which is often when they confirm their autobiographical nature (assuming you haven’t read about it beforehand), you know the films have no capacity for bullshit, and no reason to pretend or to lie to you. Watching Revelations, I was reminded how rare it is for me to immediately trust a film and what it has to say. The film disarms you from the get-go.
Dunphy talked with me about his DIY animation process, what it feels like when an audience cries in reaction to his films, and the portrayal of death in the movies.
Revelations streams at Slamdance from February 12th to the 25th. Dunphy also has an upcoming podcast of the same name, where he interviews subjects, including addicts and convicts, about addiction and loss, and a feature film in the works called Dear Mo.
Filmmaker: I cried a lot the first and second time I watched Revelations. Have you witnessed someone cry in reaction to your films? What does that mean to you?
Jack Dunphy: I take it as a compliment. Laughter and crying are both involuntary responses, as opposed to applause, so it’s nice to know that something I made can—occasionally—provide people with that kind of emotional release. Once at Sundance, a man started crying while telling me how much my short Chekhov, which also deals with my dad’s death, affected him. His dad had died too. It was an intense and honest moment. All the markers of status that preoccupy us—the acceptance from festival programmers, the Instagram likes—all these lizard-brain things fall away when I realize I’ve really touched someone and maybe even helped them a little. Everything else is bullshit.
Filmmaker: Did you cry at any point in the process of making the film?
Dunphy: The tedium of editing numbs you up pretty good. But when I was animating the acid sequence alone in what used to be my dad’s office, manipulating the cutout photograph of my dad, which hovers above my head in the short, I was listening to a symphonic version of Warren Zevon’s “Keep Me In Your Heart.” It was intense. When you’re emotionally prepared to lean into that kind of pain it can be cathartic and healing. I probably teared up.
Filmmaker: Filmmakers like David Lynch and Paul Schrader encourage others to make their craft their therapy. Lynch thinks going to a therapist would dilute his creativity. Yet neither filmmaker really bares their soul in their work, and their films still exist in a movie world vacuum. They don’t feel therapeutic, but yours do. Are they therapeutic to you?
Dunphy: A movie-world vacuum, that’s such an interesting idea. I know what you mean. Lynch and Herzog both put down psychotherapy, and they’re both full of shit. But I do think making art, for me anyway, is more necessary than actual therapy. It’s more revelatory. It’s what I need to do to survive. The problem is after you make the thing, you’re still alone with the feelings. The girl doesn’t come back, your dad doesn’t come back to life, but the process definitely moves you closer to accepting the events and actions that make up your life.
Filmmaker: How did you come to this tactile style of animation, which we first saw in Serenity? Something about it makes the other elements of actual, live action footage and other styles blend seamlessly.
Dunphy: You’re very kind. It’s not like I worked at being an animator, I kind of stumbled into it. Cutout stop motion seemed really self-explanatory from South Park and Terry Gilliam’s Monty Python cartoons. I liked the collage aspect. Serenity was the first thing I animated—as an adult, anyway. I’ve stuck with stop motion because as you say, it has a delicate, tactile feel. A character in Bluebeard, a Kurt Vonnegut novel, says, “People don’t come to art for perfection, they come to it for imperfection.” So with stop motion, especially the kind of DIY stop motion that I do, you can definitely feel the imperfection.
Filmmaker: Why do you think people gravitate towards imperfection? Why are people turned off by it?
Dunphy: Because they can relate to the vulnerability, the messiness —Daniel Johnston’s original lo-fi tapes are timeless because they’re raw. You’re hearing a kid wrestling through personal pain through an artform he’s navigating as he goes. The hiss in those tapes transports you into his basement—you can almost touch him. Then his squeaky clean, later-in-life studio albums produced by other people—I mean overproduced—are just lame. There’s too much crap getting in the way of the songs. Daniel Johnston is too raw for mainstream audiences. But mainstream audiences aren’t looking for art. They’re looking for entertainment—not that art and entertainment are mutually exclusive. But it’s people who are just looking for entertainment that might have a problem with imperfection. If a Pixar short looked like my shit you’d have crying children and confused parents all over the country demanding their money back.
Filmmaker: Do you animate in your home? What’s the lighting setup look like?
Dunphy: When my co-animator Gus Federici and I were making what became Revelations—which was originally supposed to be part of a feature I’m still making—we were working out of my dad’s office. It was available because he had recently passed. Working in the room he worked in all my life probably had some impact on my mindset. We just used the overhead light in the room. That simplicity helped us.
Filmmaker: Can you talk about the making of the acid-trip sequence, which breaks into all sorts of styles and perspective shifts etc.
Dunphy: I like playing with form and pushing form. I realized a great way to express that moment when you see deeply into someone’s soul, or at least think you do, was to have my girlfriend Selene go from a crude cartoon to a realistic, highly detailed illustration, which Gus made. I can’t draw like that. I couldn’t have done the acid trip or anything else in the film without Gus. His rendering of outer space for the moment that closes out the acid sequence, where I float through space as a literal turd—that background was so surprising and impressive. He just splattered white-out on a black piece of construction paper to make the stars. I was like, “Woah. This fucker’s a savant.”
Filmmaker: To my understanding, you can kind of make these films (the animated and archival ones) on your own. Was it challenging to bring other people into the room?
Dunphy: Roger Miller said songwriting is like having kittens, you just go under the porch and do it yourself. That’s how I approach most of what I do. But occasionally someone like Gus comes along who fits into my little world and elevates everything. We don’t talk about the emotion behind things—we don’t talk much at all. I don’t think we’ve once had a “theoretical” discussion about anything.
Filmmaker: What has the process been like in lockdown?
Dunphy: I hate to say the pandemic was good for me because it was and still is bad for so many people. But it was good for me. The mandatory isolation forced me to stop running with the wrong people and going to the wrong places. I started getting healthy and learned to be alone with myself again. When you’re not scared to be alone with yourself there’s no end to what you can get done.
Filmmaker: Is the work sustainable?
Dunphy: Like financially sustainable? No. You get a check here and there but it’s not a living wage. I have to take on other jobs. It’s funny, the thing you work hardest at, your own work, doesn’t pay shit. But the jobs where you barely have to work at all—like video editing or voiceover work—pay. But it’s not like those gigs grow on trees. There’s a fair amount of luck involved. I’m always grateful for them when I get them.
Filmmaker: How do you feel about the general portrayal of death in movies and media? Can you think of an example that resonated? One that didn’t?
Dunphy: Oh, so many movies are disingenuous about it and it pisses me off. The Hollywood version of death and dying, where the dying man gives a great big speech on his deathbed and his children get closure and everything’s wrapped up in a neat bow—that’s not how it goes. It’s like how Hollywood presents love. It creates unrealistic expectations. It’s such a disservice. I thought Michael Haneke’s Amour got it right. Death’s gruesome, let’s not kid ourselves.
Filmmaker: The ending scene, where your dad asks you if you had any revelations during your acid trip, and you think about the loving revelation you had of him during it, but decide not to tell him, gets me everytime.
Dunphy: I’ve been on acid so many times and decided, “I’m gonna write my grandpa a letter and tell him how great he is!” Then you sober up and you never do. Now my grandpa’s gone. If you do a harmful drug like coke, it’s probably best to forget the plans you made on it. That idea for a screenplay you jotted down after your fifth line probably doesn’t need to be written. But with psychedelics—if you do them right—you come up with some good shit. Life shit. Then you make the mistake of saying, “Ha! those crazy drugs. What crazy thoughts I had on those crazy drugs. Okay, back to living my life exactly the way I lived it before I had those great revelations—put the blinders back on, hop back on the hamster wheel.”
Filmmaker: My partner also lost her father but cried less than I did watching Revelations. She said it’s impossible to live in that regret space of “sentiments left unsaid” for someone who lost a parent (or both) without going insane. She felt that the ending might feel more emotional for people who have both their parents because they still have an opportunity to say what they regret not saying, but don’t. They have the privilege of being able to let themselves feel that regret.
Dunphy: I’m sorry for your girlfriend’s loss. And I’m happy you have a girlfriend. I always tell people who haven’t lost a parent: it’s unfathomable until it happens. Then you realize life really does go on. Don’t get me wrong, it will throw you way off balance. But it’s natural. Our parents are supposed to die before we do. There can be relief in finality. Meanwhile, it’s terrible living in fear that you’ll never be able to tell your parents what you really want to tell them before they die. Why are we so emotionally constipated? I don’t know. My grandpa and I never once said we loved each other. If I ever told him I loved him he would probably just break eye contact, hand me a dollar and walk away. It was a generational, Irish thing, I guess. So I figured my way of showing him I loved him was to interview him. He was on the news once and he loved it—some old people like to be reminded that they’ll have a legacy to leave behind. So I was in a perpetual state of anxiety, like, “God, I have to get around to interviewing my grandpa. But not this Thanksgiving, I’m too fucking miserable. Next Thanksgiving. Next Thanksgiving—and so on.” Finally, he literally died on Thanksgiving. And I never interviewed him. So what am I going to do? Dwell on that regret? I already have so many regrets about things I never told my dad and other folks in my life who have shuffled off this mortal coil. So I can’t take on new ones. I’m busy trying to rise above the ones I already have.
Filmmaker: Your films often show real people from your life shockingly unfiltered. Do you prepare them for it? Are there rules?
Dunphy: I mean, legally there are rules. I got sued once. I used to think the way to go about making personal work was to be a bit of a bully and just plow through boundaries and other people’s feelings. I don’t think that way anymore. But no matter how gentle you want to be, if you want to tell a story honestly, or at least in a way that you perceive to be honest, you occasionally have to choose between protecting someone’s feelings and the work. I lost a close friend because I chose the latter. But 90% of the time no one’s pissed about the way I represent them because they see the love. And the way I represent them is not completely unfiltered. I don’t like to give away what’s real and what’s not. It’s not all factual but it’s all true. There are many Selene’s. I’m planning on bracing the one that’s still alive.
Not a day goes by that speakers of the Yoruba language do not make mention of death as both a phenomenon and a certainty.
By George Yancy
This month’s conversation in our series exploring religion and death is with Jacob Kehinde Olupona, a professor of African religious traditions at Harvard Divinity School. He is the author of “City of 201 Gods: Ilé-Ifè in Time, Space, and the Imagination” and “African Religions: A Very Short Introduction.” In this discussion we focused on the religious tradition of the Yoruba people. Previous interviews in this series — with scholars from the Buddhist, Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Jain, Taoist and atheist traditions — can be found here. — George Yancy
George Yancy: Here in the West, where a few monotheistic religions dominate the culture, knowledge and understanding of Indigenous African religious practices is rare. Is Yoruba monotheistic or polytheistic? Or is it something else entirely?
Jacob Kehinde Olupona: Yoruba religion manifests elements of both. It differs from many world religions that define their cosmology primarily in theistic terms. Yoruba religion focuses on the lived religious experience of the people rather than on systematized beliefs and creeds as we see in other world religions such as Islam and Christianity. Yoruba religious traditions are woven around oral traditions and practices. The spiritual realm exists parallel to the human realm and it accommodates the Supreme Being, gods, ancestors and minor spiritual entities who interact with the human realm at different levels.
Central to the Yoruba religious worldview is the notion of (Ase), which Rowland Abiodun has characterized as “the empowered word that must come to pass,” “life force” and “energy” that regulates all movement and activity in the universe. Religious activities are mostly communal and are guided by specialists, custodians and leaders of the traditions: sacred kings, diviners, priests, priestesses and healers, all of whom are integral to maintaining the balance in the cosmos.
The Yoruba conceive the world as two halves of a gourd — the one we live in and the one where the deities and ancestors live. In between these two spheres, there are forces, mainly malevolent in nature (ajogun, or warriors), as Wande Abimbola calls them, who must be constantly placated, sometimes with sacrifices, to prevent them from wreaking havoc on earth. In short, human devotional practices play a central role in regulating the activities of ajogun and in keeping the Yoruba universe in equilibrium.
Yancy: In the West, Indigenous African religions are often dismissed as “primitive” or “superstitious” by those who don’t know them. Can you give readers unfamiliar with African religious traditions some sense of the history and complexity of the Yoruba people and their culture?
Olupona: The Yoruba people, who live primarily in southwest Nigeria, are one of the largest ethnic groups in West Africa. Yoruba people are also found in the Republic of Benin, Togo, Sierra Leone and several other countries. As a result of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, between the 16th and 19th centuries, a large number of Yoruba were taken to the Caribbean, North America and South America, where they had significant influence on the culture and religion of the New World.
Yancy: So in some sense, influences of Yoruba culture and sensibility are already here in the West, and have been for centuries. What about the main population in Nigeria?
Olupona: The origin of the Yoruba in Nigeria is slightly more complex. According to the Yoruba origin myth, the world was created in the sacred city of Ilé-Ifè, where the Yoruba civilization blossomed in the ninth century and grew to become one of the largest empires in West Africa. While the Yoruba Empire Oyo is now acknowledged as the source of the standard and contemporary Yoruba language, culture and value system, it is to Ilé-Ifè (the ancient and sacred city of the Yoruba) that scholars now believe all other Yoruba settlements owe their unrivaled urban culture and robust cosmopolitan city states. Other origin myths allude to Yoruba migration from distant places to their current homes, but that has not been substantiated by archaeology or in the Yoruba culture more broadly.
Yancy: How do Yoruba believers think about the reality and meaning of death?
Olupona: Death as a palpable force looms large in the Yoruba religious and social consciousness. From cosmology to various ritual practices and genres of oral traditions such as proverbs, poetry and short stories are all brought to bear on the reality of death. Not a day goes by that speakers of the Yoruba language do not make mention of death as both a phenomenon and a certainty.
Among the Owo Yoruba people, Iku (death) is likened to the hippopotamus (eyinmi/erinmi), whose heavy weight no person can carry and whose presence one cannot run or escape from. This conveys the dilemma of a bereaved child who can neither carry the body of a deceased parent nor is courageous enough to abandon it, highlighting the helplessness of one when confronted by death.
In Yoruba folk tales, death is also portrayed as an old haggard man who carries a heavy club with which he kills his victims. No one is spared. The young, the old, kings, chiefs, commoners and the rich can all be his victims. It is assumed that at creation, and before individuals leave Orun (the otherworld), the preconscious mind is made aware of when death will strike in Aiye (this world), and when they will return to Orun. The appointed date, however, is never known.
Yancy: According to Yoruba, should human beings embrace death? And if so, how or why?
Olupona: It is assumed that death doesn’t end a person’s life, but instead marks a passage from one realm of existence to the next. Hence, the Yoruba believe there is an afterlife (or an “afterdeath”) in which the living dead exist as part of the sacred cosmos.
There is also an ambiguous response to death, depending on the circumstances surrounding the event. Death in very old age, for example, is welcomed as a fulfillment of one of the cardinal life quests. This form of death is celebrated by the community as a necessary transition to the ancestral world. On the other hand, deaths that occur in infancy, childhood or young adulthood are frowned upon and not often celebrated, because the deceased was yet to accomplish his or her mission on earth.
Deaths involving unnatural causes fall into the same category. It is by tradition a taboo for older people to participate in young people’s funerals, to ward off the malicious knell of death. This is also because the death of a younger person is considered “bad death,” not worth celebrating by the elderly. It is a taboo for kings (Oba) to witness funeral celebrations or behold a dead body.
Yancy: Is there an account within Yoruba that explains why we fear death?
Olupona: Absolutely. Yoruba personal names reveal a lot about why they fear death. Consider the following: Ikubamije, “Death has ruined me”; Ikubileje, “Death has wreaked havoc on our family”; Ikugbeye, “Death has taken away our dignity”; Ikumone, “Death is no respecter of persons”; Ikumofin, “Death does not recognize any law”; Ikupakin, “Death has killed the hero”; Ikupelero, “Death has killed a socialite”; Ikusika, “Death has committed acts of wickedness,” and so on.
The dead must also be called upon to avenge his or her own wrongful death. My maternal grandmother once told me a story of a great-uncle who was murdered on my grandfather’s farm while he was working and whose body was brought home for burial rites. My grandfather, being a devout Christian, was opposed to the rituals of “oku riro,” preferring to leave everything to God. Somehow, before the seventh day of the burial, the deceased avenged his own death by pursuing the murderer in his sleep. The murderer was said to have suddenly woken up from his sleep screaming as the deceased spirit “chased” him. Not long after, the murderer was reported to have collapsed and died!
Yancy: Are there specific circumstances under which we should fear death, according to Yoruba?
Olupona: Yes, especially when deaths are unusually frequent or inexplicable. The Yoruba are accustomed to finding causes of death and ensuring their non-recurrence. For example, they fear death of children known as “abiku” who are associated with “spirit children.”
These are children who are reincarnated to be reborn and die no matter what. These children are stuck in a perpetual cycle that prevents them from growing into adulthood. Death of spirit children defies the Yoruba mind so much so that abiku are said to confound even the most knowledgeable medicine men and women.
They also fear death that occurs in mysterious circumstances such as when a couple dies the day after their wedding, a very experienced swimmer drowns and dies, a ruler dies shortly after ascending the throne, a perfectly healthy individual dies suddenly without any apparent signs of sickness, or all of one’s children or siblings dying on the same day, even though they are all located in different places. All of these examples make one reflect on the significance of Yoruba personal names like Ikudefu, “Death has become a wind”; Ikuosunwon, “Death is not nice”; and Ikujaiyesimi, “O Death, let the community have a breathing space” and Ikudabo, “O Death, please stop.”
Yancy: Is there a relationship between how we live our lives here on earth and what happens after we die?
Olupona: In traditional Yoruba cosmology, there seems to be no explicit reference to final judgment as in Islam and Christianity; humans are enjoined to do well in life so that when death eventually comes, one can be remembered for one’s good deeds. One’s character may be measured in terms of virtue and vice, or in deeds that are worthy of reward. For the Yoruba, this is the core essence of religion.
For example, a prosperous and successful individual can be said to be reaping the good deeds of his/her deceased parents during their lifetime. Likewise, an individual who suffers may be said to be reaping the bad deeds of his or her deceased parents. So, it is assumed that the descendants of a wicked individual may live to reap the punishment meant for his/her parents. Yoruba religion shares this idea with Christianity as in the account of a worthy man of note in the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes, Chapter 44.
Yancy: How do the Yoruba let go and grieve those who have died?
Olupona: The Yoruba spend an awful lot of time and energy on burying their dead. It is assumed that a “proper” burial is required, not only to ensure the deceased’s peaceful transition to the world of the ancestors, but to ensure that those of the living are not affected by death’s visit. Burial ceremonies and rituals may take up to an entire week and involve the deceased extended and immediate family, their lineage and clan, residents of their town and ultimately the whole community.
In certain places, it is also assumed that the dead must be encouraged to depart quickly and visit the open market (Oja) where they may make appearances as spirits. Among the Owo Yoruba people, it is believed that the dead, through a journey back home, must first return to the sacred city of Yoruba creation, Ilé-Ifè, on their way to the ancestral realm.
In the Owo Yoruba tradition, where age groups are well established, burial rituals and ceremonies are taken seriously. The members of these age groups are responsible for digging the graves of their peers or their peer’s parents who have passed on to ensure that they are properly buried. Hence, the Yoruba would say, “Eni gbele lo sinku, eni sunkun ariwo lo pa.” Literally — “It is the gravediggers who are the real mourners; relations who shed tears are merely making loud noises.”