Insights from people on the front line

When dealing with dying and death is a part of your normal daily routine, it’s understandable that you work  out how to process those many and varied aspects of what is involved.  This story by Freya Peterson (Life after death: When dying is an ordinary part of your working day, ABC News, 14.5.2018) profiles three people whose jobs bring them into contact with dying and death on a regular basis and how it impacts their lives.

For crime scene photographer, Kylie Blumson, it appears to have resulted in a sense of detachment from reality.  At least this was the experience in the case of her mothers ending of days.  More immediately she says: “We can’t avoid death, or tragedies, or certain circumstances in life, but I think being appreciative of what you have right now, that mindfulness thing — being conscious of what’s around you — compels you to be the best that you can.”

“I’m constantly saying to my son, think about your decisions and the consequences. Don’t put yourself in that position. Be more conscious of the world around you and be aware that it can quickly be taken away from you.”

For Gemma Belle, a nursing home receptionist, she has welcomed and got to know people who are subsequently farewelled since as she says, these are not places that people usually leave alive.

“Grief is such an individual experience. I guess as soon as the residents come in the grieving process starts. It’s the end stage, they’re not leaving. People deal with that in such different ways,” she said.

Ms Belle says being able to talk about her work — with colleagues, friends and even her 7-year-old daughter — was key to coping with any stress or sadness arising from regularly occurring deaths in the home.

“I have explained to her a few times when I’ve been sad, about the fact a resident died. I think it’s important,” she says.  “In Australian society we’re quite separate from death, especially children.  The more you’re exposed to it in a natural supportive way, the better.”

Funeral celebrant Rod Pianegonda is disarmingly frank when asked to describe his frequent exposure to death.

“It might sound like a selfish thing to say, but when you see people on the slab, some part of your subconscious is saying, ‘How lucky am I that’s not me. I’m still here,'” he said.

“There is this realisation that I’ve been at hundreds of funerals …. and not one of them has been mine.”

Mr Pianegonda, previously worked for a commercial funeral provider for 10 years. He believes tackling the topic of death head-on not only helps people cope better with the loss of a loved one but can vastly improve a person’s attitudes in the time they have left.

This is a good news story about people who work in professions that most of us would shy away from:

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Saying goodbye

There have been copious books and articles written about how we should or should not behave come that time in a persons life when they are nearing  their ending of days. This story by Bailey Williams captures the essence of such times in five short segments (How to say goodbye,  Yes! magazine, Spring 2018).  If we have any doubts about whether or not we are doing the right thing, this uncomplicated ‘check list’ helps put our minds at rest.

If you’re not sure what to say …  Say what you feel;      If you want to feel close … do their favourite things;     If you want to feel connected … organise a ‘secular shiva’ ;     If you are afraid to say goodbye, remember … closure doesn’t mean forgetting;     If you never got a chance in person … write them a letter.

For the full story check this link:

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Buying into a package can be pricey

Package deals are all the rage these days. Whether it is furniture or travel or insurance, these are just some of the areas where customers are encouraged to buy more than they first intended.  The deals are sold on the basis of being good for the buyer whereas invariably they result in the seller walking away with higher profits.

This practice applies to funerals and permits undertakers – they like to call themselves funeral homes – to engage in upselling items like coffins and add-ons such as flowers, memory books and catering.

John Collett reports that “people who are grieving can fall prey to upselling and unscrupulous practices” in his story: ‘We bought an MDF coffin and painted it’: funerals can be dead cheap (SMH Money section, 20 February 2018).

Consumer group Choice produced a report in 2016 that questioned even whether many of us need the services of a funeral director.

Collett tells the story of “Gillian Maddigan who organised the funeral of her father … we bought an MDF coffin, painted and decorated it … It’s not for everyone, but there are people in families that are quite capable of doing it themselves,” she says.

The full story is at:

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Funeral on the village green

Variety is the spice of life and it seems it is becoming the same with death, at least when it comes to locations for conducting the funeral service.

In Where is an appropriate place to hold a funeral? Councils decide as mourners move away from tradition (ABC Central Victoria, 22.2.18) Stephanie Corsetti reports that there are now so many requests for holding funerals in public places like parks and gardens, that local Councils are considering if there needs to be some rules and regulations around this practice.

Some people feel unsettled when they come across a funeral service being held out in the open.  But that’s because the whole business of dying and death has been closeted away for so long that people are not comfortable about it being a part of everyday life, which it is, but for them it isn’t.

Hayley West is an advocate for home funerals and greater family involvement. She notes that two funeral undertakers in the Victorian town of Castlemaine “are really open to talking to families about alternative ways to bury their deceased. ”  Adding that: “There is a really strong movement for home funerals and controlling the funeral yourself. It’s about exchanging the knowledge that I have about what you can do.”

For the full story, visit:

Other trends at international funeral services, such as funeral strippers hired to entertain mourners, have also made headlines, especially in China where the practice has been going on for years.






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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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