Dr. Ronald Bayne was one of Canada’s first geriatricians and spent much of his long career as a passionate advocate for better care for the elderly, working to solve the problems in long-term care homes.
At 98, and racked with chronic pain, he turned his advocacy to another cause critical to the elderly: planning the end of life.
Bayne, who was a professor emeritus of McMaster University, died on Friday after deciding to take advantage of the opportunity for medical assistance in dying.
Before dying, he shared his story with the media and produced a compelling video urging seniors and their families to take control of the end of their lives.
The 12-minute video is a powerful demonstration of Bayne’s passion for the cause to the very end, part reflection on death and dying, part rallying cry for better health care and autonomy for the elderly.
“I’m 98 so I am near the end of my life. Fortunately, my mind is still clear though my body is exhausted,” he says in the video.
“I want the vast majority of the population, and seniors in particular, to realize that they have far more control at the end than they realize they do. Every Canadian has the right to control their own bodies. There’s no question about it. You are legally entitled, and you must insist that your voice is heard.”
In the video, Bayne is eloquent and passionate, referring to Dr. William Osler and Shakespeare and his long experience in health care.
“I had a long career as a physician and over these many years I’ve been struck by the fact that increasingly people are fearing death and dying. I think it’s become almost universal,” he says. “People themselves have become fearful about what may happen at the end of their lives, and if they’re going to be suffering great pain, if they’ll get relief.
“I want people to get over this fear of the unknown and make it known. Discuss it openly, realizing that death is inevitable.”
He says everyone has the right to end their life if it has become unbearable. “Some people say that’s promoting death. Of course it’s not promoting death. Death is inevitable, you don’t need to promote it. No, this is to reduce suffering and pain. And if you as a person are not likely to pass on soon, you should be able to control your own end of life.”
Trained at McGill University, Bayne was a professor of medicine at McMaster’s Michael G. DeGroote School of Medicine from 1970 until he retired as a professor emeritus in 1989.
He received an honorary degree from McMaster in 2006 for his advocacy and work raising awareness of the need for better care of the elderly and chronically ill people, and his initiation of programs that work to prevent the warehousing of often marginalized populations.
It is clear from the video that his passion for this work continued through the very end of his life.
“We must have our voices heard. That’s what I’m urging people to do in later life,” he says in the video. “Take that responsibility. Let us ensure that the health-care system for long-term care is properly organized and managed and supervised.
“We know, from recent experience with COVID, that these long-term institutions were very poorly managed, and in a way, the general public is justified in their fear of what will happen to seniors in those places,” Bayne says, suggesting the seniors need to realize they have more control than they think they do.
“We as seniors should be working with our families to discuss the end and how we wish it to occur and building up their [family’s] feeling of confidence that it will be peaceful for us and bearable for them. So instead of focusing on the end, build up great memories, happy memories that the family will treasure afterwards.”
Bayne had a close relationship with the university over the years, and 13 of his family members have McMaster degrees, including the honorary degree awarded his son-in-law, Michael Hayes, in 2017.
Bayne and his wife Barbara have made several donations to the university, establishing the Ronald Bayne Gerontology Award for a graduate student conducting aging research; and the Barbara and Ronald Bayne Award to provide support for senior students in the Department of Health, Aging and Society who are engaged in practical learning experience as part of their undergraduate studies.
“Dr. Bayne has been a wonderful teacher for all of us from his days at McMaster helping create geriatrics as its own discipline in Canada, to just before his death,” said Paul O’Byrne, dean and vice-president of the Faculty of Health Sciences. “I am very grateful for all of his lifelong contributions to improving the health of Canadians.”
Parminder Raina, scientific director of the McMaster Institute for Research on Aging, added: “One of Canada’s first geriatricians and a physician at Mac, Dr. Bayne founded the Hamilton-Wentworth Group on Aging, the Gerontology Research Council of Ontario (GRCO) and led the Canadian Association on Gerontology in the ‘80s. His tireless work in the area of geriatrics and gerontology drove the infusion of a lot of provincial funding into research and training in aging at a crucial time.
“His powerful messages around death and dying are inspiring and important.”
A great way to get under the skin of a living culture, especially a little-known one, is to learn about their thoughts, beliefs and rituals around death. Conversationsaboutreincarnation, reunions with departed spirits, and the manner in which they send-off their loved ones might surprise you and lead to fascinating discoveries.While most rituals are rooted in ancient philosophies, modernscience and technology is helpingto develop sustainable optionsthat can turn our lifeless barks into useful nuggets.
Whisperings of death are all around us. Statements of grief and love take form in flower bouquets and roadside memorials where a person might have lost their life in an instance. The names of loved ones are inscribed on park benches. They live on in academic scholarships,wings ofhospitals, places of worship and most of all, in our memories. Their photographs are hung in our homes, shops and offices.While these may be familiar to us, in far-flung lands, other practices are thriving.
Wandering the lanes of the Old Quarter inHanoi, Vietnam, my friend and I came upon Hang Ma street with shops selling things made from paper.The stallswere festooned with rather unique paper replicas of houses, cars, motorcycles, washing machines, refrigerators, clothes, cell-phones, shoes, wallets, eye-glasses and wads of cash. These, it turns out,are bought by relatives of the deceased and burned onWandering Soul’s Day. People believe that on this day the gates to the afterlife are opened for spirits to come back to the earth, and their ancestors can accept and enjoy the offerings. From their vantage point, death is by no meansa final departure and the next world bears a strong resemblance to the present one.
Driving through the countryside in Kyrgyzstan, the captivatinglybeautiful hills reared up all around me and my guide Kuban. We stopped to explore curious clusters that looked like giant birdcages. Kubanexplained that these airy domeshoused tombs. Influenced by Islam and nomadic traditions, the Kyrgyz have uniquely adapted their grave coverings to look like yurts, with viewsof the open skiesthat are close to their hearts.While the Soviet occupation saw many mosques razed to the ground, the graves were left alone, and they continue to tell the story of the people held deep within their wombs.
High up in the folds of the Himalayas, several Tibetan Vajrayana Buddhists still opt for sky burials. In accordance with their beliefs, after a person’s passing, while the spirit is in transition, the body is a mere empty vessel to be given back to nature. In an extreme act of compassion, the naked body,often chopped into pieces, is left out in the open as food forscavenging vultures and predators. When full, they sparesmall creatures such as the mice, marmots, weasels and hares.
The respected priests, the Lamas, encourage people to confront death openly, and to feel the impermanence of life. Many a ritual object in the monasteries is made from human bones. The harsh, treeless landscape has also had a role to play in eliciting this practice, with the lack of wood for pyres orcoffins and the earth being too hard to dig graves.
In Ladakhand the villages of the hinterland, if a baby dies before its teeth are cut, the dbon-po (astrologer) might recommend putting it in a small coffin and walling it up within the house to retain its g-yang, or good fortune and hoping its soul will re-enter the mother’s womb.
According to the ancient Zoroastrian faith, dead bodies must not defile the earth, water or air. Traditionally, they are cleansedin accordance with rituals and left in the ‘towers of silence’ to be consumed by vultures.The practice continues in a handful of places such as Yazd, Iran. In Mumbai and Hyderabad, the lack of vultures (many died from eating cow carcasses that contained the drug diclofenac) has made the community pivot to solar concentrators, where intense sunlight desiccates corpses as it passes through a fresnel lens.
In Longyearbyen, Svalbard, the northernmost town on the planet, it has been illegal to die since 1950. As the temperatures dip down to –43°C,there is constant permafrost in the ground. The archipelago belongs to Norwegians, who are mainly Christians, but they can’t bury their dead here, as the permafrost will preserve the bodies forever. Anyone expecting to die must fly to the mainland.
Over time, several polar explorers, whalers and scientists have lost their lives in Antarctica, where they might remain hidden forever, or make a macabre appearance as an iceberg calves and melts in the ocean.Similarly, as Everest melts, bodies of trekkers and Sherpaskeepemerging from the ice.
On a trek through Mantadia Rainforest in Madagascar, as we looked out for creatures such as lemurs, indris and sifakas, our guide Eric Michel chatted with us about life on the island, describing the famadihana or ‘turning of the bones’ tradition. “We (Malagasy) believe that our dead ancestors influence our fortunes and fertility from the afterlife. Every 5-7 years, when enough money has been saved, our family plans a famadihana where the entire village comes together. Alcohol is passed around freely, food is served, and the festivities start. Wemake an opening in the family tomb tolet out the bad smell, then begin pulling out one body after another. They’re re-wrapped in fresh fabric, even the crumbled ones. The band starts to play, people begin to dance, sing, and commune with the dead, rocking them, talking to them, filling them in on the latest news, introducing them to new family members, perhaps showing them a new bridge or house, and asking for specific blessings before placing them back. People are even more powerful once they die, so we must respect them.”
Also believing in an afterlife, the San Bushmen of the Kalahari Desert add bows and arrows, pots and fabrics tothe graves of their dead, whose bodies are anointed in ochre and fat and buried in foetal position, facing east. The spot is topped with a stone cairn to keep it from being dug up by any animals.
Death ritesare not always achingly solemn. In Barbados, a driver commemorates his grandmother, who passed four years ago, by hanging her smiling pictureonabadge on his rear-view mirror. In Ethiopia’s remote Omo Valley, the sudden loud gunshots turned out to be part of a funeral procession with a touch of gangsta-verve. Guns and bullets are a luxury, swapped with precious cows and goats, and so firing them is a way of lavishing honour on the departed. In Spanta, Romania, people believe that death leads to a better life, and so it must be celebrated. The notion is reflected in the Cimitriul Vesel, the ‘merry cemetery’, dense with colourful paintings on tombs illustrating the dead person’s life that are often topped with light-hearted epitaphs.
Our death is our swansong, and the manner in which we go also reflects who we are. The religiousrites that are handed down to us over generations have a consolatory feel, but many of these were established millennia ago, when there were far fewer humans, rivers were pure and thick forests covered our planet.Thesetraditions now need to be revisited. Our awareness of environmental issues has been heightened. Let’s look outside our windows today and think afresh. By 2050, there will be 10 billion humans. Does cutting down trees for pyres and coffins, putting masses of carbon in the air and choking our waters with ashes sound right?
Shedding our reticence and donating our bodies to science and allowing our organs as hearts, livers, eyes to be used by others upon our passing is modern-day compassion.Preserving, not depleting our planet is the new mantra. Fresh ideas abound. The US-based company Eternal Reefs compresses human remains into a sphere that is attached to a reef in the ocean providing habitat for sea life. Resomation is a technique where alkaline hydrolysis breaks down and liquifies the body with no carbon emission. Capsula Mundi, an Italian company, makes organic pods into which bodies are placed and put in the earth. Seeds or saplings are planted just above, and they becomenourishment for the growing tree. A simple version of this practice requires a spot, a sack and a sapling. If we can allocate land and turn our bodies into forests, it could be our most considerate legacy for future generations. A human and a tree growing into each other. What better consolation.
It brought me back to my father’s deathbed in China.
By Xiaoyan Huang
I thought for sure he was dead: Whenever I cannot reach my father, now 86, I am convinced the day has come and that he has died alone in his apartment. It was nearly midnight in Shenzhen, China. I tried calling him on WeChat, on his cell, on his landline. No answer. I called his friend to check on him. He answered the doorbell that night and seemed okay, she reported. The picture she sent, though he was smiling, did not reassure me. I’m a cardiologist in Portland, Ore. One look at my father’s ashen color told me his end was near. A week later, he was hospitalized and diagnosed with metastatic colon cancer.
This event had a cruel symmetry, echoing what happened in 2003 when my mother suffered a fall and massive brain bleed. Same apartment. Same hospital. Even the pandemics, then and now, involve related viruses: SARS and the novel coronavirus. My mother had gone into a coma by the time I reached her bedside. After months of hospitalization, she was discharged home, comatose. My father kept her alive in a persistent vegetative state for five more years, with hired help and tube feeds, nearly bankrupting himself. Throughout that time and long after, I was overtaken by guilt. Thirty-four years ago, my parents supported their only child to pursue her education in the United States. It pained me to realize that as a physician, I was unable to save my mother’s life, and as a U.S. citizen, I never gave her the good American life she had asked of me.
This time, I was determined to do right by my father. Though I managed to leverage my connections as an established American cardiologist to get him VIP treatment in his local hospital, he adamantly declined further diagnostic testing or care. My father, a retired university professor, is fiercely independent, a loner. He told me he had lived a long, good life and wanted to die on his own terms. When I gently suggested getting a colonoscopy, tissue biopsy and perhaps advanced cancer therapy, he got mad: “I am fine, I can walk to the crematorium myself!”
Palliative and hospice care are not widely supported in China. When loved ones fall ill, spouses and children often show over-the-top devotion, fearing judgment by other family members and by society at large. In cases of terminal illness, the patients themselves almost never participate in discussions about the severity of the condition (a situation depicted in the 2019 film “The Farewell”). Family members are expected to pursue more aggressive treatment, even if medically futile, espousing blind optimism. The higher the price tag, the better the demonstration of filial piety. Dying at home is generally avoided because of superstition. In China, my father faced intimidating cultural stigma against his wish to stop treatment and die peacefully at home.
I wanted to support him, but it would mean figuring out his end-of-life care on my own. After consulting an oncologist friend, I packed my suitcase full of over-the-counter comfort care medicines. I also had to make arrangements to put my life on indefinite hold — applying for family medical leave, rescheduling appointments, asking colleagues to cover my patients and administrative duties, saying goodbye to my husband and children with no set return date.
Decades ago, I was fortunate enough to attend college in America on a full scholarship. Now it would take every inch of my immigrant success — leaning on all my resources and institutional affiliations — to take the return trip on which I would probably lose my remaining parent and sever my last tie with China. Travel during the pandemic is dauntingly difficult: I needed a special family emergency visa, two negative coronavirus tests within 48 hours of my flight and a time-stamped health clearance bar code from the Chinese Consulate. There were only a handful of flights between the countries each day; it was impossible to buy tickets online. With the help of a childhood friend’s wife, who runs a travel agency in China, I got one. The plane was packed. Everyone wore N95 masks, some with double masks, others with goggles, face shields, hazmat suits and gloves. The flight attendants wore disposable surgical gowns. People hardly ate or drank during the 15-hour flight, trying to minimize bathroom trips.
For two weeks, I was quarantined in a hotel room in Xiamen after landing. The first night, on a sleepless high, I made grandiose plans for catching up on emails and work. By day five, I started exercising by putting all 20 hotel-provided bottles of water into a backpack and pacing the room: 14 steps long, six steps wide, over and over. By day seven, each banging of the door by the hotel staff, announcing meals delivered to a chair outside, made me jump — as did the twice-daily temperature check. Finally, after 14 days and 11 negative coronavirus tests, I was released into the world.
When I finally got to my father’s bedside, suitcase in tow, it was almost anticlimactic. For a surreal second, I felt I was rounding on an elderly patient, as I do every day in my hospital. Reunion in Chinese style, even in such weighted circumstances, is restrained. No matter how many times I had cried in private, there would be no embrace, not even a handshake, no tears in front of him. I instinctively checked on key physical exam findings: Was his neck vein elevated, and legs swollen, suggesting congestive heart failure? I stopped myself just short of probing his abdomen. My hand went, instead, to tuck him into his comforter. At this moment and going forward, I wanted to be only his daughter.
A few days later, I brought my father home. Together with a friend of his, I took care of him: shopping for and cooking his favorite meals; helping him shower and dress; dispensing his few remaining pills. Back in his own environment, my father instantly began feeling better, eating more. We still don’t use the word “cancer” or talk openly about his prognosis, but this feels like neither denial nor forced optimism. Instead, we focus on the concrete tasks at hand. When he has energy, I sit by his bed listening to him talk about his life, about history, philosophy and technology. I tell him about his grandsons and their girlfriends, my work and my life.
I began this journey initially stricken by grief, and by fear of reliving the guilt my mother’s death had induced. But I came to appreciate an unexpected symmetry: Years ago, my parents sacrificed to set me free and allow me to pursue a new life in America. In returning to China, I sacrificed to set my father free and help him have a good death. The first choice is relatively common and often celebrated; the latter is unconventional, even frowned upon — seen as almost unnatural in a culture that prioritizes extending life. But the limbo of quarantine, and all the hurdles I had to surmount en route, brought me to a realization: how important it is, for the living and the dying, to share a moment of peace. In that moment, love is no longer measured by the quantity of pills, the number of CT scans or the extent of heroic medical interventions, but by time spent together.
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.
Here are the last questions from the most recent Conversations Under the Oaks. They’ve been edited for length and clarity, but I’ve done my best to preserve the thinking behind the questions.
What are your thoughts on the restless dead? We have a potter’s field here locally that I feel very drawn to. It was recently rediscovered and is the resting place of the homeless, the unidentified, the stillborn, etc. from around the 1900s to the early 1960s. I feel a deep connection to this place. Any thoughts?
There is a very old idea that people who die sudden and/or violent deaths, who die with unresolved issues, or who do not receive proper funeral rites do not move on to whatever comes next, but instead remain here as earthbound spirits. Alternatively, their souls – the essence of who they are – may move on, but the “energetic remains” of their trauma sticks around and occasionally the living bump into it.
I have some experience with this, but I’m far from an expert in it. If you have serious specific issues, I recommend you find someone who’s dealt with this a lot more than I have. But in general…
First, simply listen
What do you feel? What do you hear? One voice or many voices? Is there an attempt at communication, or is it just noise?
A few years ago I visited Chickamauga National Military Park, site of the second most deadly battle of the U.S. Civil War. I grew up 15 miles from Chickamauga and visited it occasionally – I always felt like the dead were near. But on this trip, I heard them screaming. Here’s what I had to say at the time:
By my belief system and the belief systems of most, those who died here went on to the afterlife, however you conceive of such a place. Those who believe in reincarnation would likely assume that many have been reborn, perhaps several times.
Perhaps there are a few souls trapped here 153 years later, but surely not many. Perhaps the physical remains (both human and man-made, like the cannons) facilitate a connection across the realms. I don’t know.
I just know I heard the dead screaming.
First, I would listen. I would make offerings to all those there, and if possible, to specific individuals. Keep in mind that most were Christians in life – be respectful of their beliefs and expectations, without disrespecting your own.
I would help keep the place clean, to the extent that such activities are permitted by the landowners. People get nervous when anyone takes an interest in a cemetery – they often jump to conclusions of malefic magic, even if they have no idea what that means.
I would not attempt to cleanse the place. I wouldn’t attempt to help any spirit “move on” unless I was sure I was dealing with one individual spirit and not either energetic remains or a conglomeration of spirits.
Worship and Magic in Paganism and Christianity
Here’s a question on the different approaches to magic in Paganism and Christianity.
I’ve been thinking about the underlying structure of magic and religion. With Christianity, it seems like they combine devotionals to a deity with executing magic to invoke the deity’s power. With Paganism, it seems like there is more focus on magic as an individual practice.
A question like this requires the disclaimer that Christianity and Paganism are both broad and diverse traditions. Southern Baptists, Roman Catholics, and the United Church of Christ are all Christians, but they take very different approaches to it. Likewise, Gardnerian Wiccans, Celtic Reconstructionists, and kitchen witches are all generally (though not universally) considered Pagans, but they have very different beliefs and practices. So any attempts to compare “Christianity” and “Paganism” are necessarily broad, high-level, and will have many exceptions.
Further, much of what’s generally considered “folk magic” is done in the context of a Christian worldview, even though it’s unsanctioned. This question is concerned with official approaches, so that’s how my response is structured.
Let’s start with some definitions. Worship is declaring what is worthy. Magic is the art and science of creating change in conformance with will (that’s Crowley’s definition – I haven’t found a better one). Religion is the common beliefs and especially the common practices that bind a group of people together.
Magic: one form or many forms?
In orthodox Christianity, magic can only be done with the intercession of the Christian God. Therefore, it makes sense to incorporate pleas for such intercession with rites of worship.
In most forms of Paganism, magic is understood in a broader sense. My Threefold Theory of Magic says that while magic works by the intercession of Gods and spirits, it also works by our manipulation of unseen forces, and by psychological programming. So while we can incorporate magic into our worship (and I frequently do, especially in the big High Day celebrations), we have other options that Christians don’t.
Further, we have many different magical systems: energy work, herbal magic, stones and crystals, sigil magic, visualization, bardic magic, and others. These diverse systems lead to a diversity of practice.
All religions have something to say about magic, even if what they say is “magic doesn’t exist.” What they say about magic will determine how – or if – they work magic. Pagans see magic as much broader than Christians see it, so we have more approaches to working it.
Predictions for the next few years
The last question is a big one.
I’m interested in your thoughts on the next few years: predictions about Pagan culture and the Big Tent, but also how things are going to go with Nazi Pagans. And predictions for the spiritual side of things.
I occasionally mention the Big Tent of Paganism, but my enthusiasm for it has significantly waned over the past few years. My dream was that we would build robust individual traditions, and then work together on issues of common interest and to build pan-Pagan institutions. But it’s clear there is little interest in building those individual traditions, much less working together across traditions. The vast majority of Pagans simply want to do their own thing in their own way, and far too many live in mortal fear of someone “telling them what to do.”
I think we’re going to have to do a lot more work of creating traditions before people will start to congregate around them. And those traditions are going to have to be centered around things that people can do on their own, because that’s what they want.
I’m sad that the questioner mentioned Nazi Pagans. Or more exactly, I’m sad that they felt the need to mention them. Because they do. There are Nazis and White Supremacists in our wider society, so of course some of them are going to find their way to Paganism. I don’t think that’s going to change. We can and should attempt to isolate them and to deny their legitimacy to use Pagan concepts and imagery. But forget reclaiming the swastika – it’s lost for at least a hundred years, and maybe forever.
The currents of magic are getting stronger
On the spiritual side of things, I think the intersections of this world and the Otherworld are going to become stronger and more frequent. Expect more encounters with the Fair Folk. The currents of magic are going to continue to strengthen – that means if you can work magic, you can work more and better magic. What won’t change is that those who practice regularly will do more and better magic than those who don’t.
We are in the early years of Tower Time. It’s not going to be 2020 for the rest of our lives, but things in general are going to be challenging. But the chaos that is disrupting normalcy is also creating new opportunities: in business, in politics, in religion, in magic, and in virtually every area of life.
Those who pay attention and seize the opportunities will thrive. Those who cling to the past will not.
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.