New ways to broach the subject

Live presentations from people who have been there and done that can make for great conversation starters.  If you have a few minutes up your sleeve, these YouTube TEDx talks might be worth a look and perhaps even passing on to others.

First up a 6 minute TEDx 2013 talk: Preparing for a good end of life, with Judy MacDonald Johnston. Planning ahead is a practical thing we can do with the benefit that it leaves more room for peace of mind in our final days. In a solemn, thoughtful talk, Judy MacDonald Johnston shares 5 practices for planning for a good end of life.

This talk has had 1.5 million views.  By day, Judy MacDonald Johnston develops children’s reading programs. By night, she helps others maintain their quality of life as they near death. To access the 5 worksheets mentioned in the TEDx talk: The Plan, The Advocates, Hospital Readiness, Caregiving Guidelines, and Last Words, plus the Medical Summary pdf log onto:

Next is a 14 minute TEDx Sydney talk:  We’re Doing Dying All Wrong, with Ken Hillman June 2016,

As  a world leader in managing the care of very sick people, Ken Hillman’s breakthrough methods of treating critically ill patients have become the gold standard in Australia, the U.S. and Europe. His job is about keeping people alive, but he asks us to question whether that’s always a good thing. Ken Hillman is Professor of Intensive Care at the University of New South Wales. His first book, ‘Vital Signs’, is aimed at the lay public on what really happens in intensive care. His latest book is titled Good Life to the End, on ageing, dying and death. We highly recommend it.

And this one is a beauty that takes just 1 minute 18 seconds:  Practice Makes Perfect – Video, Posted on 11/03/2017 – We know that starting conversations about end-of-life care wishes with your loved ones can be hard – we’re here to help.

On a slightly different note, here is an 11 minute presentation to give us a boost. 2.4 million views for this one. Jane Fonda at TEDxWomen 2011: Life’s third act,

Within this generation, an extra 30 years have been added to our life expectancy – and these years aren’t just a footnote. Jane Fonda asks how we can re-imagine this new phase of our lives. She emphasises Wholeness, Authenticity and Wisdom and how Entropy (the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics – everything is in a state of decline or decay) has one exception.  It is this, that the human spirit can continue to mature regardless of age providing we continue on what Viktor Frankl (who was a holocaust survivor) describes as Man’s Search for Meaning.  Jane, who turned 80 on 21 December 2017 encourages us all to conduct a life review and to jettison the baggage that holds us back from participating in building a safer more just world.

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Final footprint challenge

There was a time in the not so distant past when all funerals would have been what we call today, ‘sustainable’.  There were no fancy coffins made of precious timber, there were no hearses using internal combustion engines, no cremation facilities using gas burners, no heavy machinery to dig graves, no fancy named professionals and marketing staff all trying to convince us that we need this, that or the other as part of what has turned into a multi-million business – none of the trappings we consider normal today, because, well, there were no funeral directors to out source this important event to.  Funerals were an in-house event, an ordinary thing that families and communities did when one of their number died a natural death.

While this isn’t our experience today, it perhaps could be if we could only convince ourselves that (1) dignity and respect are not price based commodities, (2) we do have the skills, and (3) our lack the confidence can be overcome.  Is there a way to correct this situation? Well the Dutch are having a go.  Called the Final Footprint Challenge, they say:

‘In order to realise sustainable funerals, more sustainable innovation is needed in the funeral sector. That is why we, want to stimulate the development of new knowledge, products and services. We can not do that alone, but we like to work together with others, inside and outside the sector. Together we can make the entire market more sustainable.

The funeral industry challenges you to think about how a sustainable funeral looks in 2030. Together we want to leave our world better for current and future generations. That is why it is important that funerals are completely sustainable.

37 entrepreneurs have signed up for the Final Footprint Challenge. They all have a solution to realise a sustainable funeral. Come to the Challenge Event on January 25 to see which 10 entrepreneurs continue to the Bootcamp Days! Or sign up for the Demo Day on April 5 to hear the pitches of the finalists.’

This looks like a great project.  To find out more visit:

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The ‘passing’ word parade.

It seems like we have still got some way to go when it comes to naming the realities that life delivers on a daily basis.  Rather than saying what we mean and meaning what we say, we seem to delight in skirting around the more direct and plain English use of the language.

This was emphasised once again in an opinion piece this time by Newcastle Herald writer Jeff Corbett (Frightening realities, Sat 13th January 2018).  “Passing” says Jeff, “has become so common lately that it seems we have a new way of dying. So and so passed, we read, we hear, we say, and it comes with a layer of respect on top of the obfuscation.  Not that there’s anything new about avoiding dying, death and dead.  In more religious days we would say passed over, as in Uncle Joe passing over the line between mortal and eternal life.”

“From passing over we moved to passing away  … and in the year just passed we’ve ditched the away to state merely that Uncle Joe passed.”  Of course as Jeff reminds us we have to conjure up the reality in our minds and come to the conclusion that Uncle Joe would have in all probability ‘died.’

In the absence of being told this fact two options come to mind. One is check the death notices in the paper or perhaps the best way is to reply by coming out with the D-word: you mean Uncle Joe has taken his last breath and died.  Plain, simple, no confusion. After arriving at this point perhaps some gentler words can be used to express our grief or sadness.  But to establish the truth, it’s best not to mince words.

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Tell us once

According to ABC News reporter Melissa Brown, the grieving partners of loved ones who have died are being charged hundreds of dollars to get household accounts transferred from their loved ones’ names into their own.

In The hidden costs after the death of a loved one, (29-12-2017) she says:

  • the Council on the Ageing (COTA) received “hundreds of complaints” about dealing with companies after a death;
  • this was leading to unwarranted stress, prolonging grief when people are at their most vulnerable; and
  • that COTA wants Australia to follow the lead of authorities in the UK, which set up a “Tell Us Once”

Hundreds of complaints about the hardships experienced by widows and widowers dealing with companies such as banks and utility providers, is not a good look when dealing with something as simple as changing account details.

COTA said some gas and electricity companies were charging disconnection fees, and then re-connection fees, to change names of account holders.

Read the full story at:

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Giving back all that remains

A couple of life affirming actions constitute the difference between life and death.  One would be heartbeats and a pulse, the other would be breathing and the rise and fall of the chest.  So in short, without going into the science the difference between life and death is our next breath.

To draw breath is to accept a gift of the plants of the Earth; we in fact exchange air with all other living creatures.

In 4 Ways to Give Your Body Back to Nature After You Die (Yes! magazine, October 31, 2017), Jennifer Luxton talks about burial methods as a means of giving a purpose to our mortal remains.

“Whether it’s sudden or a long time coming … What happens next is largely driven by tradition, regulation, and a multimillion-dollar industry.”

In Australia more than half of us choose cremation while burial is becoming less popular.

“But what if you want your body to be useful still? Ideas emerging from an alternative community of mortuary and hospice professionals offer ways to give your body back to nature. As strange as some of these methods might seem now, they are at least getting us talking “outside the box” about death.”

  1. The Infinity burial shroud is a biodegradable suit woven with a mix of mycelia and other micro-organisms. Its best use is when placed in direct contact with the soil. Fungi help with decomposition and transfer nutrients back to the living earth.
  2. Mortality composting. “Soil scientists with the Urban Death Project in Western Washington are prototyping the “recomposition” process on human remains after successful trials with livestock remains. The eventual plan is to build a recomposition structure for use on a metropolitan scale. First, the body is placed inside a vertical chamber layered with wood chips, similar to the way compost piles use leaves as a carbon source.  Over several weeks, as the body is decomposed by bacteria, it shifts down the chamber. Other bodies are laid on top as part of a continual process. Eventually, all that’s left is a nutrient-rich humus ready to nourish new life.
  3. Reef balls. “If cremation is still the most cost-effective option, consider this alternative to an urn. Florida-based Eternal Reefs offers to add your ashes to a concrete structure designed to attract aquatic plants and animals when set out on the ocean floor. Eternal Reefs’ partner, the Reef Ball Foundation, sets out artificial reefs in areas of development to encourage estuary restoration and habitat recovery.”
  4. Conservation burial. “The simplest solution might be natural burial grounds, which let you go into the grave without a casket. Plots are marked by GPS tags rather than headstones.

Log onto the Yes! website to get the full story and see the illustrations:

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The things you talk about over lunch

There’s nothing like spending time in the company of lovely people who care for each other as if they were family. In times like these conversations can range over a variety of subjects that while respectful of everyone around the table, can push the boundaries or seem out of place.

Talking about personal experiences, like funerals, can trigger all kinds of responses. The context can help position the conversation and permit a more free flowing dialogue.  What might appear to be off limits to some is completely acceptable to another.  This is most obvious when comparing cultural norms.  For example Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) is a national event in Mexico and has been for decades, but to suggest such an event in Australia is not met with enthusiasm.

When one of the ladies at the table mentioned On Ilkla Moor Baht ‘at it didn’t raise any eyebrows, until the words were explained in more detail.  The story goes that it is often sung by school students who think it’s a bit of a hoot.  Here is the basic gist of the story:

‘On Ilkla Moor Baht ‘at’, comes from the County of Yorkshire. It is written in Yorkshire dialect, which must look pretty strange to anybody not from the British Isles.  The title roughly translates into standard English as ‘On Ilkley Moor Without a Hat’.  A moor is a piece of open, often windy and cold land, almost a wilderness. As the story goes, you need a hat in the winter, and going to a moor without one is a bad idea.  Ilkley is a town in Yorkshire, quite close to the cities of Leeds and Bradford, and Ilkley Moor is close by.  The song serves as a dire warning about what happens to those foolish enough to venture to the the moor without appropriate headwear:

they die, are buried, are eaten by worms which are then eaten by ducks, which are then eaten by the songs’ singers.*

Which serves them right.  It has more or less become the unofficial ‘national’ anthem of Yorkshire. According to tradition, the words were composed by members of a Halifax church choir on an outing to Ilkley Moor near IlkleyWest Yorkshire. Sung to the Methodist hymn tune “Cranbrook” it was composed by Canterbury-based shoemaker Thomas Clark in 1805. The song became so popular that the origin of the music as a hymn tune has been almost forgotten.

This link serves up a rousing rendition of this traditional folk song that states unambiguously how the cycle of life applies to every living creature including we humans:

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Woven into the life of our ancestors

Some people call November the Month of the Dead.  Hallaween (All Hallows Eve), All Saints Day, All Souls Day and then Remembrance Day.

Grim perhaps but it all depends on our point of view.  Then again, it more correctly all depends on our knowledge of how they came to be and whether or not they are seen as being relevant and worthy of attention.  In the northern hemisphere where all these things kicked off, its cold and the days are short and somewhat grey and gloomy perhaps.

For us in the south, for the most part, it is anything but bleak and chilly.  So why pay much attention to this northern tradition?  Well it has universal significance regardless of the climatic conditions. It is the history and connections that make it / them worthy of bringing into focus.

A society that does not reflect on how it got to where it is, falls into what is known as the “parochialism of the present” – so obsessed with its own importance that it overlooks the myriad of human and non-human actions that got us to this point in time.

Roman philosopher Marcus Cicero said that: “To be ignorant of what happened before you were born is to live the life of a child forever. For what is a man’s life, unless woven into the life of our ancestors by the memory of past deeds?”

We would not be here if it were not for those who trode this Living Earth for centuries before us. In Some thoughts on the eve of an ancestral pilgrimage,  Holly Pruett recalls these words:

“It is one of the responsibilities of village-minded people and human beings everywhere to carry their dead with them as they walk through their days,” writes Stephen Jenkinson in Die Wise: A Manifesto for Sanity and Soul.  “How easy it is in our way of life,” says Jenkinson, “to let the dead slip from view and from memory, how easy it is to disappear.”

In the dominant culture of ancestral amnesia, we’re driven to write our own legacy, for fear of being forgotten. Thus the burgeoning wave of write-your-own-obituary, record-your-message-for-the-future, and plan-your-own-memorial vendors.

Jenkinson challenges these efforts as misdirected: “The truth is that we cannot, nor should we be able to, choreograph the way in which we will be remembered, if we will be remembered at all.”

In a similar vein Tom Switzer urges us not to get trapped by the seemingly present situation in which we are living (Are we in an era of unprecedented instability or just ignorant of history? SMH, 30 Oct 2017)

“The time has come to lower our voices, to cease imposing our mechanistic patterns on the biological processes of the earth, to resist the impulse to control, to command, to force, to oppress, and to begin quite humbly to follow the guidance of the larger community on which our life depends. Our fulfillment is not in our isolated human grandeur, but in our intimacy with the larger earth community, for this is also the larger dimension of our being. Our human destiny is integral with the destiny of the earth.”  (Thomas Berry, Dream of the Earth, 1988)

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