The fallacy of choice: No interview with Cyril Schafer

My No interview with Cyril Schafer blog is a chapter from the book that didn’t quite make it into print – Re-Embracing Death: what Kiwi baby boomers are up to. I trust it serves both Cyril and the purpose of this blog series.


Cyril Schafer’s session at the celebrants’ conference is headed Emerging Funerary Trends – a Local and Global Perspective. He delivers the essence of his findings on the matter dispassionately. I find I respond with inward relief and warmth to some of the trends, and with concern to others.

    But when he digresses from professional to personal, I sit up.

    ‘The best-made plans….’ He is on different ground here. Cyril has come close to death recently. He looks at death now, his own death, but not because he wants to.

    He sees in our society a fixation on life – planning, controlling and trying to prevent death. This drive is at the heart of modern life. It has superseded religious aspects, in his view. Even our rapidly growing interest in Living Wills or End-of-Life Care Directives, whilst useful at one level, reflects a desire to be in control, to have choice. But death, he says, is messy, ambivalent. We may put clear plans in place, but death will always be messy; this is the nature of it. Yet we go to every extent possible to prevent or control death. Even organ donation is to help us live on in another so that our death won’t be wasted.

    And grief, he says, has become medicalised. ‘Good grief’ means a process that brings ‘closure’ – a stage model with an ending. And if an ‘ending’ is not reached, grief is labelled ‘pathological’ or ‘dysfunctional’. But actually there is far more healthy diversity than this model affords.


I have been happily nestled in the holiday park at St Kilda for a couple of weeks now. I have criss-crossed South Dunedin by bike and on foot. I like it here. The cultural diversity reminds me of my many years in Porirua, though I miss the Maori presence. I have encountered an earthquake, flooding, and the chill of a southern winter. It is time to see what the book is asking of me.

    Cyril is Dunedin-based. I would love to interview him. His response to my email is quick and full of enthusiasm, but he’s not available just at present.

    Meanwhile Nellie, my house truck, fails her Certificate of Fitness check with flying colours, and we are separated. She is at the garage and I am in a studio unit, luxury, I have to admit – warmth at the flick of a switch, a big soft bed, and a hot shower without leaving home.

    A few exchanges later Cyril emails, ‘Any time now’, and I procrastinate. Most of my stuff is in Nellie, who is taking longer and longer to mend, and I opt for next Wednesday to be sure I have her back.

    There is a note in my journal for 26 June: ‘I feel I’ve put Cyril off longer than need be, perhaps’. But meanwhile I’ve decided to speak with him about the Otago University Press as a possible publisher, and let my excitement about that over-ride my wondering about timing.

    It is interview day, but I haven’t heard a confirmation. I send an email guessing that something has arisen in his life to get in the way of our communication, and wishing him well. His partner responds; Cyril died on the 26th.

    Who am I saddest for? I don’t know – his mother, his partner, his students and fellow researchers, myself and the readers of my book? Mostly I am sad because I know it is fear that held me back. Sure, I had an excuse I could call on, but I could get things from Nellie when need be. The truth is hard to swallow.


It is almost time to end my Dunedin explorations for now, to move north for the birth of my elder grandson’s brother or sister, but I delay a day or two to attend Cyril’s funeral. I need to honour this man of courage and warmth. I learn more about him, chief of which is that he was only thirty-eight. He found an area of study that deeply interested him and has shared his understandings at a number of conferences.

    Next to me is a woman whose research on suicide was being supervised by him. I feel for her.


For Cyril

Death fascinated you.

You examined and wondered,

researched and discovered –

a decade of death studies,

from the outside.


Life invited you to turn the tables.

Reluctantly, but graciously,

you took the other stance

and eyed death from within.


It gave you more life –

bounty, vigor of a different kind,

more passion to share your passions.


And from the inside

the outside stuff looked different,

like efforts to control the messy thing

death is.


And in your sudden dying

your life declared

the truth you shared


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