Embalming – no ‘right’ choice: conversations with Noeline Moenoa 

Noeline is a friend with whom I stayed on a couple of occasions when I was in the midst of interviewing people for a proposed book on how we might re-imagine or re-embrace death. We got into interesting conversations, so there were times when I reached for my voice recorder. Here I share several snippets that touch especially on embalming.

Snippet 1

What you were just saying reminded me of Ian, who didn’t believe there was anything on the other side. One day we were out; I knew that he was sick, and he knew too, but he wasn’t going to say anything about it. He asked me if I loved him, and I said yes, that I did, and the next question that came out of my mouth was, “What is it that you want said at your funeral?” It was so just there, and I was a little bit surprised, but he didn’t seem to jump at the question. He just said, “I want to remembered for helping, for trying to make things better”. I then asked him what song he wanted, and he told me the song, which we did track down and play for him. 

Although he didn’t believe there was anything on the other side, I remember saying to him “It’s just like for you, how you take Ethan [the dog] and you just go walking in the bush; that’s where you find your passion and your serenity. It would be just like that. Every time I think of him, it’s always him and Ethan, walking together somewhere out there. 

Is Ethan on the other side?

Yes, he went a week before Ian did. 

Oh my goodness. So he went in preparation really.

A week to the day. It was pretty amazing. But his death really broke Ian, that his best mate had gone. I remember when we were doing family pictures (to put up in the house) and I said to Ian, “Find me a picture of you and I”, and he gave me a picture of him and Ethan (laughs) so that’s what I put on his coffin, the picture of him and his dog. And it seemed appropriate coz they were both within a week of each other. 

That’s perfect.  Wherever someone is ‘with soul’, even if they wouldn’t put it that way – wherever they are in a place of serenity, that’s a way of describing death, as you did so beautifully for Ian. 

For him it was the bush.

I really felt that in him when I knew him. There was a longing to get back to somewhere, in the South Island – to a very different kind of lifestyle. And you gave him that.

I’ve always felt bad that the first thing I said was to ask him what he wanted said at his funeral.  It meant I knew.

Yes, I understand that . . . and you gave him a great gift. When people are dying, especially if they have no sense or belief that there is anything after death, there’s often a lot of fear around, ‘How will I be remembered? Will I even be remembered?’ So I have the feeling that your asking the question will have allowed Ian to relax a bit in his final few days, knowing that his life was not wasted, and that he would be remembered in a way that he had done his best to live. 

Snippet 2

I was telling you about my interview with a funeral director and his attitude to embalming, and I imagine I was on my high horse about how we need to get used to what death looks and smells like . . . .and you said: “It could be upsetting for those left behind to have to deal with the person looking different”. So, yes, he does have a valid point. I can be a bit confrontational in my attitudes!

But, Margie, would you want to be shrouded?

Yes, yes. I definitely wouldn’t make an issue of it with my family, but it would be my choice.

I can remember when I was in the UK, and I was leading workshops. The workshop was called ‘What Makes a Funeral?’ It was to help people look at their own funerals, to be familiar with what you have to think about ahead of time, to be more ready to assist in a family situation or with neighbours or friends, and to do a bit of looking at their own death as well.

The last segment of the workshop was about beginning to imagine your own funeral, so I thought I’d better dream into mine. In my imagination I was shrouded and on a plank.

There was a guy, he’s one of three people who have now created an alternative funeral service in Frome where I was living. At the time I was leading these workshops he said to me, “I’ve got four pairs of bright pink shoes, if ever you want them”, and I think the conversation ran to the possibility of my pall-bearers wearing them. (I called my funeral celebrant work at that stage Pink Coat Funerals, so that will be why.) I thought that was a fabulous idea.

So I could see in my mind’s eye my body carried, just on a plank with a shroud, from my home to the hall, about a kilometer through the town, preferably with a band. This chap’s wife played the squeezebox and sang French songs, and sometimes others joined her.

But then there’s this beautiful piece of music that can still make me cry. It’s a very solemn piece, Gabriel’s Oboe by Morricone. I wanted to be carried into the hall to this piece of music, very slowly, and then come to rest. Now that I think about it, it would be more appropriate to have more solemnity and reverence in the music on the way to the hall, and some jollier music to leave by.

So, definitely shrouded on a plank. And it was to wake people up! ‘Oh, there’s a dead body!’ But this funeral director, he’s gentler than me!

Is it Louisiana where they have bands going with the procession of the funeral, and dancing? That always intrigues me.

I imagine so. Someone sent me a YouTube clip. The coffin was rocking, and barp-de-barp-barp on the trombones! That was New Orleans.

My sister said she wants really good music playing, like rock ‘n roll – music she can dance to; and she wants to be buried in her nightie because she’s planning to sleep and not wake up! Interesting that she wants to be buried. I decided I’d go with cremation – easier for the family – and I didn’t feel I needed to be somewhere that my kids can come and visit, because for me I want them to know that I’ll be with them in spirit, so I don’t want to be put in certain place. I have talked to them about how I want to go, that I want to go very simply, but what I really do want is to have a sausage sizzle at the end of my funeral, in a park. They reckon it’s not possible, but I thought, ‘Well it’s my funeral!’ Maybe it’s just that nobody’s yet done it, but that’s really what I want.

And that should be absolutely possible, Noeline.


Snippet 3

Can I take you back to your Dad, Noeline?


You and your sisters had been dressing your Dad, is that right?

I have a feeling it was the boys who actually dressed him, but we went in to see what he looked like – if he looked acceptable in what he was wearing. I remember they put him in a suit. I don’t know why, because he hadn’t worn a suit for quite a few years, but he had a tie on and was all buttoned up. Then the funeral director asked my eldest sister to bring his teeth. Neither she nor my other sister wanted to put his teeth in. I think it was because . . . you know how the mouth gets quite stiff. I think they didn’t want to deal with that. But the funeral director put his teeth in.

That’s when I had a freak-out. As soon as the teeth went in his whole face changed and everything sort of looked protruding. All I could see was a gorilla face, how they have this big part here where everything sticks out. And honestly, I hit the roof. I was surprised; I was swearing and everything, and I’d never talked to my sisters like that, them being older than me, and having respect for them. I couldn’t believe how I went off the handle, but that wasn’t Dad to me. It was actually very freaky. They could see how serious I was, because they don’t often see me angry about anything. So they asked the funeral director to take them out. As soon as the teeth were taken out it was like something inside me just calmed back down. And it was like, ‘Now I know who you are; you’re Dad’, and it was acceptable to see him like that.

And this is because he almost never wore his teeth?

Yes. When he first got them, he was very proud of them because they were big and very straight and he’d had very straight teeth and a beautiful smile. That was fine for him to smile, but he found he could never eat with them in, and sometimes when he talked he had trouble getting his tongue around the sounds, so he only ever had his teeth in when he went to a meeting, and as soon as he came home he took them out. So I was much more used to seeing him without them than with them.

And it was exactly like that with Mum. This memory just came back tonight. I remember they put lipstick on her and blue eye shadow. That was not Mum. In all the years I’d known her, 28 years, I never once saw her wearing lipstick or eye shadow. Again, she looked very foreign, and again I hit the roof about it. It’s weird, I hadn’t ever thought about those experiences, but they’ve come back, clear as a bell.

The memory I don’t have is of dressing my grandnephew. I know that I apparently did it, but I don’t see it.

How old was he?

He died just before his first birthday. They called it a cot death, but he wasn’t in a cot. I don’t remember having anything to do with that funeral, and yet my niece told me I did it. The only thing I can think is that it must have been so deep, because it would have been the first time I had to do a baby. I guess the memory is blacked out.

A traumatic memory.

Yes, traumatic is the word. If he was still alive now he’d be coming up to 15 years old, yet it’s only a couple of years ago that I learned about what I’d done.


Snippet 4

I remember, too – what you were saying about embalming and how the face changes and the person doesn’t look dead any more . . .

I remember when Ian died, and we had him on the bed, probably until about the next afternoon, and this woman came who is sort of an embalmer, but does things naturally. She was saying we’d need to get icepacks to put around the body, and close the curtains to keep the room cooler, and have something for the flies . . . and by the time she was talking about flies and smells, and because he had died with his aorta bursting, you could already see that the body was deteriorating very quickly. I think in my mind it was too much to cope with. I’d been lying on the bed beside him, and I was aware of the way his mouth was open, and the stiffness – rigor mortis had set in, and he didn’t look like Ian. He kind of looked like those spooky pictures you see of zombies on the cover of magazines.

I remember when they took him away, as much as I wanted him back at the house, when they actually brought him back, I wouldn’t go into the house to see him. I never said to my son how I felt, but he went in with the undertaker and they undid the top of the coffin. He had a good look at Ian, and came out and said to me, “It’s alright, Mum; you can go and have a look at him. He looks really peaceful and he looks like Pop”. It was lovely that he knew it was a concern for me. When I went in, the coffin was open just about that much, so I made my way slowly along the wood. I didn’t want to come quickly up to his chest. And when I saw his face, he really did look like Ian – his face was all full and plump and the colouring that they’d done on him was a lot like what he left. I was so pleased; so pleased that for three days I danced in the lounge with him in the coffin beside me.

Oh how wonderful.

Yeah, I played his favourite country music and danced and danced and danced like he was there. I was waltzing around the lounge, and in my mind I could feel him waltzing with me.

Noeline, that was a really, really good reason to embalm. I can be a bit black and white about it, but I can see that that was a very good use of embalming – hugely important.

I was the one who wanted to go natural, so I found somebody who did, but when she told me about all that was involved, and the fact that he was already in the state that he was in, and would deteriorate really quickly, it was too much to deal with. And given what else was going on in our household as well . . .  He came back and he looked like he was sleeping, really. It just opened things up – gave me that freedom. The fact that I wanted to dance with him was weird, because when he was here, he didn’t much like dancing. We could never really waltz together, because he was an old-school waltzer and I wasn’t. He was very light on his feet. Every time we tried to waltz together I’d be standing on his feet because I didn’t have that flow. He made it look simple.

But you danced beautifully with him when he was dead!

You know why? I knew this at the time. It’s because I had the control of leading. I was in charge of the dance. I remember thinking, “Now I get to do the leading”.

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


Honesty and compassion – a balancing act:  a conversation with Murray Darling and Sue Jarvie

Sue is the daughter of a dear elderly friend and distant relative I met through the death of my Uncle Bob. I am staying in the home of Sue and her husband Murray in Kaikoura, overlooking a strong and beautiful mountain range. As the conversation turns towards the death of Murray’s former wife, I reach for my voice recorder and asked their permission to use it.

We arrive in different ways, don’t we, about how we accept things, and what we do from there…

Murray:  Well, if the information you get is right, that you are terminal, I guess you think about that and how do you want to spend the rest of your life. I mean you could spend the whole time being angry and anti, but you may as well just grab what you can. In Judy’s case she’d travelled overland from England years ago, before she met me, and she loved India. She’d always gone on about wanting to go back to India. We came away from hospital when she was diagnosed, and I said, ‘If you want to go to India we’ll go’, and she said, ‘No, I’ve got passed that now. I just want to be able to do my job’.

She had a walking postal round in Greymouth, which was just two hours, eight till ten. She’d go in and sort the mail for that round and then she’d be dropped off and make her way through town and deliver to all the shops. So she continued to do that and we supported her. Over time it got to be more and more of an effort for her, but it was what drove her. She was going through treatment as well. The radiation was effective; the chemo was not. The hardest thing is that they scheduled six chemo treatments and at three they did some x-rays and said, ‘Things are getting worse; the chemo’s not working so we’re going to stop it’. She said, ‘Can we just …’ and the doc said, ‘Look, it’s the best option we’ve got and it hasn’t worked; there’s no point’

So it just went from there. She kept doing the round. She got to the stage where she needed help getting up and getting organised. She’d go off to work. I’d get home and she’d be just collapsed on the sofa. It was all she could do to do i

Leading up to Christmas she loved. They were not allowed to change their uniform, but she always wore a Father Christmas hat, and used to buy lollies and give them to the shopkeepers. About a week before Christmas, she just had to stop. They offered her a helper, but she said, ‘I’m not going to have a helper!’  She did come around to accepting help, but it was just too late; she couldn’t have got around. That was only about six weeks before she died, so in terms of intensity, it was not too bad. You see so many who are more or less bedridden for a year, and that would be awful.

But she really knew how she wanted to spend her remaining time, and had very good support to do it. 

Murray:  The kids were concerned about her driving the car, so I asked the doctor what was the story and he said, ‘Is she doing all right?’ and I said, ‘Yeah, she can drive all right’. And he said, ‘Well let her do it, it’s the best thing. Leave as many things as possible normal’.

The other thing is that the cancer specialist nurse at the hospital was very helpful. She was West Indian. We were there one day, about three months, I suppose, before Judy died, and she said, ‘Now this is very serious, Judy. You realise this?’ and Judy said, ‘Yes, yes’. And she said, ‘Now do your family know what you want?’ And Judy said, ‘Yes, yes, they do’. I was there, which was good. And the nurse said, ‘What is it you want?’ She said, ‘I’d like to die at home if I can, but I don’t want any pain’.

They were of the view that they just pump the morphine in once it gets very serious. So she got both of those; she got what she wanted. So that, and other things, is what make it easier for the family. If it’s going to happen, it’s best if it can be as good as it can be for what the deceased wants. After death that’s fine. We know we did all we could.

Yes, because then you’re not living with wondering, or guilt, or wishing…

Murray:  That’s right. So we just responded to what she wanted.

Sue:  Did you arrange her funeral with her?

Murray:  No. She didn’t want anything, and she didn’t want any embalming, and she made that very clear to the cancer nurse. She said, ‘I’m to be cremated as soon as I can be after, and that’s that. There’s to be no service. There’s to be nothing’.

Sue:  Well, that’s very difficult for people left behind.

Murray:  You’re right. In a discussion I had with the cancer nurse afterwards, she said, ‘You know, after death the patient doesn’t know what you do, so you can do as you like’. It didn’t worry me particularly, but one of my daughters particularly was very keen that there be some marking of it, something tangible. So a few days after Judy died we had a sort of funeral service that was of the nature of a celebration of her life. I arranged for about five people to speak – people who knew her from birth, long before I knew her – people she went to school with, that sort of thing. Being a small town, a lot of those people are still around. And so we arranged all that.

Judy played the bagpipes, and she had a ten-year-old kilt. When she was ill, we were staying in Davidson House, which is the Cancer Society place in Christchurch, and there’s a little Scottish shop nearby. We were in there one day and she was looking at kilts. The girl said, ‘Do you want to a kilt?’ and she said, ‘Aw, I don’t think so; it’s a bit late now’. And the girl said, ‘We just made a kilt, and when they sent the material they sent double the amount, so we can do you a kilt for $600’. I said, ‘Right; do it!’ 

So they made it and she never wore it. It arrived only a few days before she died, and she saw it, and said it was nice, but had no will or occasion to wear it. I’ve still got it; it’s here and I wore it on that day – which I normally would never do – just as a mark of what it meant to her.

How lovely.

Murray:  A friend of ours did the service. It was a guy I worked with who had become a minister in the Anglican Church, in Blenheim. He himself was unwell with MS, in fact I went to his funeral earlier this year. I rang him up and said we were having this funeral and was there any chance he could take it. By that stage he was driving a hand-controlled car; that was where he’d got to. He said, ‘When are you having it?’ and I said, ‘It’s on Friday’. He said, ‘I’ll be there Thursday’.

Judy died late on Saturday night – like one o’clock Sunday morning. We knew she’d died. She had a hospital bed in the lounge, and all the gear. Her breathing got laboured and then stopped, so we knew, but we didn’t do anything about it then. We just covered her up and went to bed and that was that. And in the morning I rang the undertaker, who I know, and told him the story. He said, ‘We’ll come up’. I said, ‘Just you come; we’ll help you’. So he came, we had a cup of tea and we told him what was required and so we got her into the hearse. He took care of everything. The doctor had seen her; he’d called in home a day or two before she died, so he knew exactly what was going on, so there was no issue with the Death Certificate.

The undertaker said, ‘She’ll be going to Christchurch this afternoon’.

So there’s no closer crematorium?

No, Christchurch is the closest to Greymouth.

I said, ‘Well, bring her home first’. So his assistant came up, and we got the coffin out of the hearse and put it on a stand on the lawn. Because of the Scottish thing we draped the Scottish flag over the box. We had the bagpipes sitting on it and took a few photos. All the family were there, the kids and the grandkids, and we just got that little record, and then into the hearse and away she went. And then of course on the Thursday we got the shoebox back…  

Thinking back on it we did what we could. It was her wish that nothing happened; I felt a bit bad about having the service, but as I said, the funeral service is for the living, not the dead, so that was fine. And then the ashes sat in the lounge for a long time.

I have a friend who’s a potter, so I got him to make an urn. He said, ‘I’ve never been asked to make one of them’. He made two because he just wasn’t sure how big it would turn out. I got the one that looked about right, and then that sat there for a while. When I was coming away [moving to Kaikoura] the family were not too concerned, except my second daughter again felt the ashes needed to be sort of somewhere, so there’s a plot in Greymouth which my brother-in-law bought for himself. He’s got his mother’s ashes there and a memorial thing for his father, though he’s actually buried elsewhere. So he said, ‘There’s a wee spot there if you want it, so we made arrangements. I suppose the funeral director dug a little hole and we had a little ceremony there. So again, that was all finished off, and now, particularly my second daughter, who only lives a five-minute walk from it, can walk around there, and there’s Mum.

Sue:  I think it’s good to have a plaque, or some place you can go to.

Murray:  Well, I don’t think it would have worried the others.

People are different about whether it’s important. My younger sister had always felt there was a lack of a ‘place’ for my parents, because when they died my elder sister and her husband took the ashes to their place and buried them on their land. Then they moved. It hadn’t worried me, but it had always felt incomplete for my younger sister. She wondered if we could have a memorial seat or something that. She thought Plimmerton would be the best place because Dad was in the Plimmerton-Paremata parish for about ten years. She asked about seats along the waterfront, but the Council indicated that they didn’t need any more there. But there’s a little park in behind the church and the manse where we lived. We got a big strong macrocarpa bench. It’s in a perfect spot, over the fence from what was the manse and what was the church. It hadn’t occurred to me to do anything, but it’s lovely to be able to go there.


Next morning the subject rolls around again. I get the feeling people like the opportunity to speak freely about death, and I certainly enjoy joining them. Murray had been telling us about speaking with an Indian man about how his culture sees death, as part of his ambulance officer qualification. I’d reflected something I’d recently read, also about India – that at birth there’s some sadness because the baby is taking material form and life is going to be harder, and at death there’s much more joy.

Sue: It’s interesting, isn’t it, how we perceive.

And how we perceive directly affects how we experience, so if we picked one of us up and put us in a different culture, especially a more traditional culture, and we were in that culture from birth, we would see death entirely differently. I find that fascinating.

Sue:  I think we’re starting to see funerals differently now though, more as a celebration of someone’s life, rather than all doom and gloom. That’s changing.

I have a hesitation around that inasmuch as we’ve almost swung too far. Occasionally I hear of funerals where there’s not really been any space for a very natural sadness.

Sue:  Yes, everybody puts on a brave face.

I think there’s a very important balance to keep between sadness and celebration.

Murray:  Historically, when somebody dies, there’s always been this, ‘He was the best person in the world. What a tragedy it is’.

Judy was asked to play the bagpipes at the funeral of a fisherman. Everyone had been getting up with all these platitudes about what a wonderful fellow he was. Then a bloke got up who had worked for him. He had the white gumboots; he was off the street almost. He said, ‘I’ve listened to all this. He was a bit of a bastard at times. He could get a bit bloody snarly. We’d be away for a couple of weeks on the fishing boat and it could get a bit tense at times. He’s not a saint; he’s a real person’. And he told the story of him losing his false teeth overboard into Milford Sound after being on the grog one night. He reckoned there’s a seal out there with a great big smile. It went over very well. So there’s certainly a change from the whole somber thing. But what’s too far? Where’s right? I don’t know.

It’s another balance thing, the balance between truth and compassion is how I express it. I love writing tributes or eulogies for so-called ‘difficult’ people, where you’ve got the family tearing their hair out because they can’t think of a nice thing to say about them.

Sue:  No redeeming features! They tell me there are people like that.

Well, there are people where an ongoing relationship of bitterness and anger has developed, and there’s been no way of breaking through it.

The very first funeral I took in the UK was for a chap of 84. He’d been a motorcycle mechanic all his life. He died shortly after the family noticed him dropping spokes as he was remaking a spoked wheel. I went to see the family. There were three sons and two daughters, all middle-aged. The women were connecting with me a bit, but the men – I felt as if they were just holding their anger in. So I said, ‘Tell me about your father. Tell me the whole lot. I need to be able to create a really broad picture of your father, so tell me the works’. Gradually they opened up. It took me hours to write the eulogy, but I was able to weave the facts of his history, in amongst wonderings like, ‘We can guess that Robby didn’t have a kindly relationship with his own father, so it’s not surprising that Robby’s sons found him a pretty harsh father at times’ – that kind of thing; giving it some context. I didn’t know, but I could wonder.

Another thing… once they were able to say how it was and be heard, then I felt they were able also to begin to see some good things. I remember one of the sons saying, ‘You know, none of us ever got into trouble. There would have been hell to pay. Dad worked hard, and he expected us to work hard’. It was as if all this was dawning in the hours that we spent… because they’d been heard.

Sue:  You made a space available for them to move on and find a new context, whereas if they’d sat there on their own, they’d have just been bitter and twisted.

I guess so, and would have really struggled with what to say.

Sue:  And to live with it, too, because that’s the consequences afterwards. They have the rest of their lives to live with that.

That’s true. I did another one. The woman found me on the internet. I never met her. They had a local clergyman to take the funeral – that was already set – but they wanted someone to write the eulogy. The woman’s brother, son of the man who had died, wanted to do it, but he didn’t know what on earth he could say. I can’t recall whether I spoke with him or whether just with the woman as a sort of go-between, me feeding her questions to ask him. He was resistant to talking about his father, and at the same time had this strong sense that he should say something at the funeral.

In the end I wrote the eulogy, from his point of view, so that he could read it. I gave him heaps of time to digest it and get back to me about anything, the tiniest thing, that didn’t ring true. He was so proud, and so pleased. He’d never spoken in public, and he was able to speak about his father. I think that would have been the beginning of real healing for him.

So for me, it’s one of the best things I can ever do, to write a eulogy for someone who is ‘difficul

Thank you, Sue and Murray, for sharing your thoughts and experiences, and being willing for me to share min


I was so moved by preparing the eulogy for Victor that I wrote a poem and sent it to the family.


Eulogy for Victor

Sometimes a man emerges on the world

different, challenging,

full of his own importance,

so sure of some things that

he rattles our cages,

yet somehow sad and incomplete within himself.


He may be a Winston Churchill.

He may be a recluse.

He may attract

high praise or

broken windows.


Only some strange twist of

place and time

seems to make the difference.


We may love or hate such a man

but seldom do we feel indifferent.


He splits open our security.

He batters on the door of all things proper.

He upsets our apple carts

yet in so doing

gives us something

by which to define ourselves,

something uncomfortably scratchy

to rub against,

something growthful and wonderful

if we can but bear

the friction.                                                    

This entry was posted on June 16, 2021. 2 Comments

Passion for a fresh approach: an interview with Melanie Mayell

In January 2006, my then husband and I set off to visit 25 counties with our three young children. We settled into one village in each region and stayed there for a week or two, living very much amongst the locals rather than in tourist spots

    As we got into a routine, most mornings I would go out for an hour or two with my camera, and I began documenting the tiny delights of our journey with my photographs.

    When I got home I divided the images into folders based on their colour. I kept coming back to the white album. The white images really spoke to me and made me feel peaceful and serene. I thought, ‘How can these best be used, given that they make me feel so peaceful?’ The idea that came to me was to support people who were going through loss, and that’s where the Goodbye book sprang from – it was a creative response to how the photos made me feel.

    The following year we went away again, and I kept working on my book, capturing white images, collecting beautiful quotes and song lyrics.

    Then in 2008 my marriage ended and loss suddenly became very personal. The book, which was designed to support the grieving process for other people, ended up supporting my own grieving process. I ended up writing more about loss from a personal perspective in the book, and it became very intimate, and relevant.

    Then we had the Canterbury earthquakes that brought so much loss and change to businesses, jobs, schools, homes, health, sanity, and security. And sadly there was even loss of life. The book became more universal, not so focused on bereavement; it expanded to support people through all kinds of loss.

    Around this time I met Lois Tonkin. She invited me to do a Grief Support Certificate, which I did, and that has deepened my understanding and my creative work with loss. 

    It’s also been very provocative. I talk to people about the Goodbye book and they immediately go ‘hmmmm…’. It asks the question of them: are they willing and brave enough to have a conversation about death, loss and their experience of it? It’s been a wonderful doorway into a deeper intimacy with people.

    Then I learned about Death Cafes. A friend of mine who is a Death Doula (a companion for the dying) has set up a Death Café in Auckland. I love the sound of that; maybe I should set one up in Christchurch! They’re very easy to do; they’re just about welcoming conversation. I love that idea, that informal nature.

I mentioned Death Cafes to my mother. ‘Oh, oh, do you have to call it that?’ I said ‘Ah now, that’s good! It’s good that you have that reaction because that shows that there is such a need for conversations about death’. Some people have an almost breath-holding, aghast response, and I guess it’s difficult; it depends on what you believe.

    And even if you do think this life is it, why not have a spectacular departure! If this is all there is, then even more reason! Write your will, decide what happens to your body, choose your music and have a practice funeral before you die. I love the idea of practice funerals, and having all your friends there. Hear what needs to be said, the good and the bad. Getting real, being authentic. I’m all for it. 

    Is there anything you wanted to ask me about?


You say that your Goodbye book invites us to feel our sorrows more deeply. I’d love you to talk about why you think that’s important.


Socrates said, ‘The unexamined life is not worth living?’ I think anything that invites us into a deeper conversation with ourselves is vital. The death piece, or anything relating to loss and letting go, asks us to become more conscious in the present moment. It is helpful, because it asks us to bring our attention here now, and here now, and here now.

    So this work around Goodbye and death invites us to live more closely to the heart of things, and to the heart of each other, because it’s not until you’re conscious that someone’s dying – when someone’s got a terminal illness, or someone’s old, or close to their end – then we become acutely conscious. We’re counting down the moments. . .  but much of the time we live in a suspended state of reality; we live as though it’s going to last forever, without real appreciation for what is here and the preciousness of it.

    The dying have a lot to teach us about that. There is a point, which I’ve heard about through Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’s work, where the dying person reaches a level of total acceptance; they teach us how peaceful it is to be in that state. I imagine it would be challenging to companion a dying person without reaching a level of peaceful acceptance yourself.  I haven’t done that, though; I’m only speaking from their [Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’s team’s] research.

Your question was about why is it important to live closer to the heart?


Yes, about entering deeply, especially our sorrows and our losses.


Kahlil Gibran says, ‘The deeper that sorrow carves into your being the more joy you can contain’. And I think it’s true. If we take the opportunity to feel our sorrows, not numb ourselves, really feel them, let them flow and be felt, and accept them however long that may last… then we can be open to joy when that arises too.

    In New Zealand the funeral industry has had a way of managing death for us, and while it had its place, there’s also room for a lot more variety. There is a place for home-based funerals, more eco-friendly burials and cremations, and a call for a wider variety of coffins that family and friends can paint and decorate themselves. I think we are on the edge of a whole new world of death, a new death chapter

    My friend the Death Doula recently said to me, ‘Come and do our Natural Death course, and once you’ve done it you can look after a loved one after they’ve died, and you can prepare their body for the funeral’. She said it’s amazing; it’s the most loving act people can do for their loved ones. And it’s quite straightforward. She said that the families who have done it find it to be a beautiful, healing process that better prepares them for the funeral. That might be the next thing I do.

    There are all sorts of skills and tools available. People just don’t know about the options, and often don’t want to think about it until they are in crisis – and then it’s too late. That’s where knowledge is not just power, it’s choice.


That’s why it’s so important to think about these things before death. There’s so much pressure and so much going on emotionally otherwise.


And the funeral itself – there’s a lot of pressure to get things done in a very short amount of time. I’ve heard a lot of people say they just wanted to get the funeral over and done so they could begin the grieving – they’re still in shock at the time. I find it extraordinary, the speed.


It’s not necessary; it’s just how we’ve come to do it. We can slow the process down. 


What about family coming from overseas?


People often wait for that reason, but if there isn’t some concrete reason, people often don’t wait, because the three or four-day thing is quite embedded in our culture. See how much of it is cultural? Societal?


Rather than just cemeteries, imagine if we had beautiful memorial areas in nature. On Miyajima Island in Japan they have beautiful trees where you can tie little rice paper prayers onto the branches. You don’t have to be religious; it’s more about mindful contemplation. And we could do something similar here. People do like walking around beautiful cemeteries, but imagine if there was something to do, whether it was these prayers, or some beautiful processes that were simple – even sculpture, interactive sculpture, or a collaborative piece that people added to so it grew over time, or things that people could read – beautiful, hopeful poetry, but little pieces. Imagine that interwoven into our cemeteries, rather than just these depressing places.


You really are re-imagining death, aren’t you, and especially here in Christchurch. That’s what I’m hearing.


I remember talking with Lois – she developed a programme on loss for school children, but I don’t know if it’s still being taught. I think she might have developed it for Skylight. People generally don’t want to talk about it with their kids – even when they have to. 


So we’ve got to start. It’s not so long ago that children would all have encountered death, and I don’t mean just death of a pet – death of Granddad at home, or death of a younger or older sibling.


We try and shelter them from it, and yet there are some beautiful books on death, for children. Have you heard of ‘Freddy the Leaf’? It’s beautiful, quite sad. Freddy starts off in spring, and he goes through the seasons. He’s the last leaf on the tree…

    And there’s another one called ‘Up in Heaven’, and it’s about a Golden Retriever who dies, and you see him galloping round up in heaven and watching the family. It has beautiful illustrations. I often send that to friends when a pet dies.

    You imagine having a place, and it has resources, beautiful art, and a place you could bring children. You don’t need to teach them anything; they’d just walk around and look at things, or read them. And they might ask questions, and you don’t even have to have answers for them; you just let the questions arise and then say, ‘Well what do you think?’

    There are lots of ways to honour a person in a heartfelt way. I made a jar of memory fragments for my parents. Any time I’d think of a memory I’d just jot it on a little piece of paper, for instance, ‘I remember when you took us tramping on the West Coast and we all got lost and bitten by sandflies and we hated it, and now we love it’. Because you’re writing for the person who was there, you don’t need all the detail; you just need a fragment, and in it goes. Eventually I had a whole jar of them and it became a real treasure.  You don’t have to be very creative.

    Imagine of we had a place that people came to for ideas and inspiration, and looked at death in different cultures; it would de-mystify it a lot. The funeral pyres in India, the sky burials in Nepal where the body would be chopped up and put on the top of a mountain where vultures could come and take the food. (I’ve since heard this has been discouraged as the vultures have been getting sick from eating sick and contaminated corpses). 

    I’ve developed a new book; it’s a type of grief journal. The idea’s based in narrative therapy, but rather than an individual journal where one person writes their feelings, this is designed to be a group journal. The amazing thing about these journals is that they allow deeper conversations to continue without necessarily affecting the surface conversations, which is fascinating to me.

    I’ve experienced it with my own children. If they don’t want to talk about something, we can write about it. On the surface we might be talking about, ‘Whose turn is it to do the dishes?’ Meanwhile, we can be having a written conversation that’s very heartfelt, deep and painful. Sometimes these deeper conversations may lead into a verbal conversation, and sometimes not. 

And the same is true with the grief journal.


Well, you’re certainly not lacking in ideas for making death more accessible, Melanie. Wonderful! Thank you for sharing with us.



Melanie’s passion has taken her a long way since we spoke in 2016. She has set up a Death Cafe in Christchurch – a monthly event for over five years, and now with over 700 interested people. Two years ago she started an annual conference called Death Matters – a day of exploration and discovery with a diverse range of positive and empowering speakers.

Last year they added an art exhibition called Death and Transformation. Five local artists explored the theme of death, loss and grief in their own lives. Their stories and creative responses to loss and change were a complete inspiration, Melanie says. She plans to host the 3rd Death Matters Conference and the 2nd Art Exhibition next year, 2022.

Funeral trends – encouraging and less so: interview with Simon Manning

Simon is a funeral director. He’s a busy man, but was happy to be interviewed. I had the fun of conducting the interview in my humble house truck. I placed a sheepskin over the little canvas chair and put a pot of water on the gas element in preparation.

Once he had his cup of tea we began.


I’m working on compiling a series of interviews, conversations, with a wide variety of New Zealanders who can help give a bit of a fresh take on death, dying and funerals. I feel sad about how death and dying are done, and the effects of our skewed relationship with death – they ripple right through society. And the fear – “Don’t mention it, you’ll bring it closer”.


In some cultures, that’s an absolute reality for them. Jewish Orthodox refuse to talk about it in advance. Even Pacific Island cultures, while they know death’s coming, it’s not a good thing to prepare for it in advance.


That’s helpful for me; I didn’t know that.


And the thing is we know that it’s helpful. With New Zealand European, where we’ve come from culturally, we know that it’s beneficial to prepare in advance. You make better decisions, you make more informed decisions, you are less likely to go down a path that you look back on afterwards and think, “Why did I do that?” You don’t know why you did it, but people with good intentions sometimes suggest you do things, so you go down that path, but if you plan in advance, you are far more likely to get a funeral that you want, whether you’re doing it for yourself, or for somebody whose death you’re preparing for. You’re in more control. And you’ve got the power. You know, I think of when I was growing up, with my doctor, who was my father’s doctor and grandfather’s doctor, and whatever Doctor Roddick said, I never questioned. And funerals were the same, because we had even less understanding of death than we do today, where people used not to question. When I first started doing funeral arrangements people would say, “Whatever’s normal”. What was ‘normal’ was so predominant in every single funeral arrangement, and now, you never hear, “Whatever’s normal.” So, there’s been a big power shift. People clearly feel that they have the power to do and say what they want, but again, it’s tainted by culture, it’s tainted by our traditions. So to say to a Pacific Island family, “What about cremation?” would be like I’m from Mars. It’s just not an option, and the ones who do choose it (and for us we might see a Pacific Island family cremate once a year) it’s an absolute, “Oh my goodness, what are they doing?” But it’s good that those people feel they can make a choice.


I’ve been talking funerals and trying to de-mystify the process and hand the power back for 36 years. And yet when you come against a culture, it’s really. . . Well I don’t have a right to impose my beliefs on you, if you want to do it this way. As long as I do it how you want it, that’s fine. I don’t necessarily agree with it, but again, culture is culture, and religion.


And there’s a piece in your Purpose that says… “consistent with the values of the families we’re serving,”


It doesn’t mean we always agree with it, but if that’s what you want . . . If people are going down a path that I don’t think they understand the consequences of, I will always say, “We can absolutely do that; these are the consequences.” For instance, people have said, “I don’t want embalming, but my son’s in London, and he wants to fly back and see Mum”. In that situation I’ll say, “That’s absolutely fine, but the consequences of that choice are, the person is not going to look as good. If we embalm her, she will look a whole lot better for your son, but at the end of the day it’s your choice. And then when the son comes over a week later and has a look and it’s really not a pleasant experience for him, you sort of think, what a shame, but again, that’s their choice.

And one of the biggest shifts around embalming, from our perspective – not many companies do it, I don’t believe – when a family rings us to say someone has died, we will ask them immediately on that call, “Do you want your Mum or Dad embalmed?” and then you’ll get into a conversation because they will then say, “What does that mean?” Generally I’ll say, “If you want to see the person in the casket again, we would recommend that you do it, but you don’t have to. But if nobody is seeing the person again, it’s up to you whether the person is embalmed or not. They can go into refrigeration for the days between now and the funeral. And then people tend, with embalming, to be working through practical issues. There will be people that have an environmental desire not to introduce chemicals where possible, so they will immediately say, “No, we don’t want that”. But there will be people who have never thought about it; they’ve never come cross that decision to make. And as a company we’ve probably been doing this for about six years, asking the question. Before that we just used to do it, because we didn’t have refrigeration. Yet most companies in New Zealand don’t have refrigeration, so the only way to keep the remains from smelling and decomposing is having them embalmed.


Oh, I’m really surprised, because I completely assumed that every company had refrigeration and would have had for years. I think it’s more like that in Britain [where I began working as a funeral celebrant.]


Britain is another culture. It is still black [dress], and you hire pallbearers, and cars.


I was an independent funeral celebrant in Britain, and I called myself Pink Coat Funerals, partly because I’d seen people gathering for funerals, and it was all black, and I wanted to offer something different.


And the other cultural thing about Britain is you have to wait so long for a booking at the crematorium, and in New Zealand, people have no understanding how lucky we are that you can choose when and where your funeral is. And if you’re in England it’s just not like that. They’ll tell you it’s 9:30 next Friday week.


And 20 minutes for the ceremony, by the time you get in and out…


How do you celebrate a life in 20 minutes?


Yes, I found it so difficult. I used to ask people to book a double slot if they could.


So when you’re talking about funerals, I’m really proud that we do what we do here, and we do it pretty well; always room for improvement, but we’ve got time – no one’s ever pressured. In recent years we do have more pressure on us in cemeteries, with councils saying if you arrive after 3:30 there will be an extra fee, and Saturday fees are really steep, and that’s their way of trying to dissuade people from later funerals and Saturday funerals. I think it’s particularly unfair. I’ve pointed it out many times, but no one listens, because their motive isn’t actually to serve the customer, but to suit themselves. But when you’ve got cemetery staff starting at 7:30 in the morning, and the first funeral in the city’s going to be ten o’clock, so they’re not going to arrive before lunch-time, why wouldn’t you have your staff start at ten and finish at 6:30? Everybody else in business would do that, and not charge them extra, but councils just aren’t interested. They’ve got a monopoly; they don’t care.


Can I bring up a point about embalming? Years ago, when I was heading into funeral celebrancy I was fortunate to be able to observe two embalmings. What interested me is that when I went into the room with two elderly women, they both looked dead. As the embalming continued their colour changed, and they started to look much more like that were sleeping. In terms of my passion for people to accept death as part of life, I actually think that looking dead is a good thing.


It depends where you’re at, emotionally. When you’re arranging a funeral with say six people in a family, every single one of them is in a different space, and so you’re trying to satisfy them all, and sometimes that’s not easy. So there will be some people who are so particular about makeup, for instance. They’ll want Mum to look like she’s going out to the races, and they’ll want to put a hat or fascinator on her, and her hair will have to be so right. There are some people who just don’t care. And we’re being introduced into a family where I’ve never met this person in my life before, and I’m trying to do my best. What we as funeral directors really want to do is present a clean, preserved person, so our goals are really around preservation and disinfection, then presentation. From the family’s perspective they would say it’s presentation. And so you’re dealing with all sorts, depending on the situation. We have a lady who’s been with us for a month; the family went on holiday. They’re due back next week, so preservation’s absolute, because they want to see her, and they want her to be looking like they remember her when she left. So you’re always doing a balancing act, and most often we get it right. And we want to get it right because we want that family to come back next time, so that’s the driver. You don’t want to mess it up.


But I understand what you’re saying. I would suspect that in relation to how you’re living, you would want an eco-burial, and the eco-burials at Makara Cemetery are really quite skyrocketing. It is the second most popular area of the cemetery now, and in that area of the cemetery there is no embalming; it’s not an option. So if people say they want an eco-funeral and want to be buried there, we just always say to them, “You understand that means there will be no embalming, and we will put Mum into refrigeration. You can come and see her on the day of the funeral if you want, but these are the restrictions around the choice”. And every funeral I have there [at the natural burial ground] is really real. I mean it’s natural; there’s nothing false about it. It’s all real. And they’re a little bit more expensive than a traditional funeral, only because the wood [for the coffin] has to be sustainably grown, so it tends to be more expensive, and the plot that you’re burying the person in is one and a half times the size of a normal plot. You bury the person one meter down, in the active soil layer, and put compost on top of the casket, and then fill the grave in, and the plan is that you’ll return to the elements much, much quicker that way than you will when you’re any deeper.

In the UK they call them woodland burials, and they seem to be very popular.


Oh, there are hundreds of natural burial grounds, not all woodland; there are meadows and wildflower fields, or just a quiet grassy area. I was really stunned when one of my kids showed me an article about the Makara one, and it was the first in New Zealand. I assumed New Zealand would be ahead in such things.


Yes, it was the first real one. There was one in Auckland but it was an absolute sham really. And since Makara has been in, more and more cemeteries have started to explore the idea. People have been asking for it for years, but Councils weren’t motivated to actually address it. Mark Blackham, who looked after the starting of this one, it took him years to get through the Council.


He will have paved the way for others.


Yes, and he can pick up his template and take it to other councils who are now saying they like what he’s doing, and would he come and see what’s possible at their cemetery, so that’s a good thing. We worked with Mark the whole time that we could. He’d found that natural burials were something some funeral directors opposed, but we met each other and I said, “Not at all, Mark. We’re about what the customer wants. That’s what we want to do”. We just get on so well.


As a matter of interest, are shrouds permitted by the Council.


Yes, they are permitted, but we’ve never buried anyone in just a shroud. Again, that had a practical base. If you’re attending a funeral in a church or a chapel with a person in a shroud, there’s that whole . . . you’re really confronting death. And it’s no different from when people choose to have a funeral where the casket is open. A lot of people don’t like it. “Oh, go forward and see Mum; she looks great”, but for some it’s the last thing they want to do. And again, it’s when you’re imposing your view on someone else, it’s not necessarily the right thing to do. Even when we’re taking caskets to people’s homes I’ll say to them, “Maybe this room’s a good room, because if people don’t want to see your Mum, they can come and see you and not have to see her, because not everybody’s comfortable with it”. But shrouds are pretty confronting.


We have Muslim burials at Makara, and they use the casket just as a vessel to carry the person to the grave, then they take them out. They’re wrapped and sit up – they sit up in the grave facing Mecca. They have boards on top of them and then the soil goes on top of that. So shrouds in that sense have been used for . . .  I don’t know when the first Muslim burial was at Makara, but I think it would have been within the last 30 years. But as a culture that’s what they expect. There are no women at the graveside either, so there’s another cultural difference.


I guess there’s a cultural thing that I feel up against in the resistance to death that I encounter, but I have to acknowledge that telling my kids, “Just wrap me in a shroud” is confronting.


But the other thing that’s really important is when you have views about what you’d like for yourself – like I have an opinion about what I’d like as a funeral – but actually, the funeral’s not for me. So you can have whatever views you like, but at the end of the day, if the kids go, “I can’t bear the thought of looking at Mum wrapped in a shroud up the front. We’ll do everything else she wants, but I can’t deal with that”. If you were to force them to do it, you’d have to ask, “What am I doing that for? Why am I controlling from the grave?”


Yes, I get it!


I wrote my funeral out and said to my father, “Look, if I go, this is what I want”. And he wrote his out, and I said, “I’m not having that bloody jazz music. I know you love it, but I hate it”. And he goes, “You’re not having Neil Diamond at your funeral”. So I said, “I can relate to that, so you do whatever you like, but I’m so not listening to your jazz. And I mean it’s true. Why do we want to control from the grave when we know the benefit of the funeral’s actually not for us?


No, it’s not; very good point.


We just want everybody to have the power and control to choose what’s right for them. When I’m pre-arranging a funeral and people get really specific, and if they’ve excluded the family from the arrangements, I will say, “If your children choose to do something different, do they have permission?” and 99.9% of the time they’ll say, “Oh god yes.” And occasionally they’ll say, “Absolutely not,” and the next thing I’ll say is, “You need to go and see your lawyer, and you need to make sure your executor knows what you want and will follow your wishes, because families do have the ability to change things”.


So, for most of these people, does it have them thinking differently?


Yes, and even when I’m doing the pre-arranged stuff at the most basic level I say, “You really need to tell your kids you’ve done this because how are they going to know to ring me? They could ring any funeral director and never know what you’ve arranged”. So they know they need to work that one through.


I have another question. I know that for you the education piece is important, and doing things in a very ethical way. Do you have any big dreams about how you’d like to see funerals? Even little dreams? What sort of shifts do you think would benefit our society?


We’ve had massive change, but I would just like death and funerals to continue to be talked about, because that empowers people. If only you could get rid of people being unsure of trying something a bit different, then people would have a very good funeral. I think for the most part we have very good funerals here, but if we could only just relax and talk about it a bit more. That’s also generational, so if I’m talking about my grandmother, she wouldn’t want to know about what’s going to happen at a funeral, or it would be very simplistic, because she’d be thinking of her parents, or when she was growing up, and you never asked a question of anybody. But as the younger generation comes through, they know they have choices.


Surprisingly, there is a growth in one area of our funeral world and that is, cremations are now about 78%. There is a growing trend towards no funeral and just a cremation and there will be either a memorial service, or we’ll just pick up Nana’s ashes. Every year we grow a percentage in that line, so currently 7% of our funerals are what we would identify as No-Service Cremations. We’re trying to understand what it’s about. It’s not about price; we know that. It might be, as people are getting older … my father, for instance, is 85, got Alzheimer’s, really doesn’t communicate with anybody, so as a family we’re even having that conversation about, “Well what do we do when he dies?” because he’s got no friends left. He actually lost them years ago when his Alzheimer’s started. So, are we having the funeral for us, and our friends can come, but why are we telling his story to these people who didn’t know him? Is there a better way of doing it?


When I see the growing trend of No-Service Cremations, I wonder whether our medication’s keeping us alive longer. And with Alzheimer’s growing, maybe, as a community, all of those things might be impacting on the final decisions that people make. I’m not sure, but it could be. Maybe ten years ago we figured it was price-driven . . .


That’s an assumption that I’ve made, because I’m aware of the trend.


Well, I know that it isn’t price driven. Maybe it was ten years ago, but these days, with No-Service Cremations, out of the 7%, only a few of them are actually ringing and asking, “How cheaply can I do a cremation?” So they’ll come in and arrange a No-Service Cremation, but they won’t even ask what it’s going to cost. So that’s not the driver for them. And predominantly cost is not an issue around funerals. People aren’t asking the question, and that’s possibly driven by the more personalised funerals we have today, and people know that if you want to have Dad’s funeral in the yacht club it will cost; and if you want a natural burial it’s going to cost more; and if you want it live-streamed to the world it’s going to cost something; if you want catering for 300 people it’s going to cost. It’s not to say you can’t do it all yourself if you want to, but generally we are a pretty lazy society –  we want to drive our car into the car park, have the service, we want the cremation to somehow happen, we want a cup of tea, and we want to get in our car and drive home. Whereas 30 years ago you would have the funeral in a church, you’d go to the crematorium or the cemetery, you’d then go back home and invite people to share and tell stories, back in the family home. It’s all gone; it is all gone.




The funeral chapels are just where the venue is. People have gone more non-religious. I’m not sure that’s the right term, but they have funerals away from the church. They want the car park; they want the catering lounge; they want the one-stop shop. They want the Macdonald’s funeral, in a sense, and the funeral homes that can provide that are the ones that attract people. When I started in this business, funeral homes didn’t have catering lounges – they didn’t exist. And today you wouldn’t build a funeral home without putting it in or you wouldn’t have a business. So, it’s consumer-driven response. When celebrants started doing funerals and the church feared that funeral directors where driving people in that direction, the reality was we weren’t doing that. We don’t care where you have your funeral as long as you have what you want. It was people making that choice. But those changes were viewed quite suspiciously by some ministers. Very little is driven by the funeral director because the funeral director’s goal is to get those people to come back, and they will never come back if you sell them something they don’t want, or you push them in a direction they don’t want. It’s just human nature. And that’s the empowerment that we have today, and 30 years ago we didn’t have it.


I’ve been aware it’s a trend, and another piece that concerns me is the disruption to what I see as the ceremonial process, in which you would complete the cremation or burial before the cup of tea. To me that’s quite dislocating.


The driving away from the church or chapel without family going with the deceased is probably over 90% now.


Even without family, over 90%?


Yes, there’s a lot of what we call drive-aways. And you know, when you dig a little bit deeper into why people do that, it will be their past experiences of what a crematorium is like. They go, “Oh, we went with Nana to the crematorium. It was a cold place and I could see the flames”. And I say, “You couldn’t see the flames. I know the building, and the cremator is actually about 500 meters south”. And they say, “We saw the flames!” and no matter what you tell people, when you’ve got that in their mind you cannot convince them. Sometimes family stories get told and re-told and re-told, often with drink, and then they become the reality. And you will never change that, even though you know it can’t happen.


Another question: is there an increasing trend for people to take the deceased home for a while?


Definitely. That’s been increasing ever since I started 36 years ago. I could look at our company diary; I guarantee someone has gone home today. I just know they will have, and it’s just not unusual. As the trend started to take effect, you’d get people who’d say, “I would like Mum home”, and then you’d have a sister going, “Oh, no, that’s just not on”. So then there’d be the negotiation between family members, and every time a family would take someone home, the person who’d been against it would end up saying, “Simon, that was the best thing we ever did”.


So therefore there is a slow spread of that.


And I would always say to people when they’re arguing, “If I could offer this piece of advice, I have never, in my whole career, had anyone regret it. It’s still your choice, but I’m telling you, you won’t regret it”. And it’s true. I wouldn’t say it if it wasn’t.


Because that’s the feedback you’ve had.


It is the reality, and it’s because we get closer and more comfortable with death. There’s this dead body who’s back to being my mother, because the minute the person dies they go from being my mother to being a dead body, and then if you can take them home and actually spend time with them, they become your mother again. And the stories you hear, like, “I was in there and I had the tea towel over my shoulder after I’d done the dishes, and I was talking to her and it was just like Mum coz she used to put the tea towel over her shoulder”. You hear these stories. They wouldn’t happen if she was in a funeral home. And as much as we say to families, “You can take as long a you like”, when you’re in the viewing room you’re conscious that you’re making someone wait. If it’s 7:30 at night you’re thinking, “Oh, they probably want to go home”.


Whereas if she’s just there . . .


You can wander in at 11 o’clock at night, sleep beside her, do whatever you want. The cat can go in there; the dog can go in there. It is normal. But can we get everybody into that phase? I guess in time it might become normal again, because that’s how we did start. We had the person in the front parlour, even though no one ever went into the front parlour.


Last question: how do you think Maori ways of doing things have affected, and are affecting, how we do funerals?


I think Maori and Pacific Island cultures opened New Zealand to the idea that it’s okay to see the dead body. Maori and Pacific Island cultures have always done things that way, but I guess as the population levels increase you get more and more exposure to that, and I think that New Zealand white, European, whatever we are – has made its own mind up. The old undertakers used to say, “Just remember Mum as she was”. They were only observing what people were saying they wanted. But as people get to experience other cultures, they see something and think, actually, that was really good. We’ve got so many blended families that, goodness me, they’ll go to a marae and experience a tangi, and they’ll go, “Gosh, I don’t want a tangi, but I think I want Mum home in the casket, so she’s with us, where she belongs.


The issue of ownership of the body needs addressing. We’ve had a person stolen from us. We got them back, but it was very stressful. And these cases just rip people apart.


How was Britain, being a celebrant?


It was very different. There was the Church, and Humanists, and that was almost it. I was one of very few independent celebrants, nationally. The cheering thing for me, though, is that where I started as a celebrant, in a town called Frome, there is now a small, independent company that arranges and conducts funerals. One of them is a close friend, and he says their venture was made possible because of what I started. So I can live with that! In the three years I was a funeral celebrant there I had about ten funerals, and six of them were in the last five weeks, so it was exceedingly slow, because it was so new. But I am delighted at what has grown from it.


Predominantly we’re celebrant services now, but the church services have changed; they’ve had to. There was major pressure on them that if they didn’t change – people would say they’d have the funeral in the chapel and use a celebrant. Some ministers said it would be their way or the highway, so people just said, “See you later”. But the Catholic Church in New Zealand, while it would like one eulogy per funeral, even they know that you can’t achieve it. So, that’s the preference. They have vigil services the night before where they encourage people to share as much as they like, but if families want three eulogies in the funeral service, or seven eulogies, no one’s going to stop them. And music, you have whatever you like. So in all denominations these days, the funerals are so much more personal than when I started. In the old prayer book the Anglican service could be done in twelve minutes when I first started. That’s non-existent now. The 1972 service, which was the modern one, has gone too, and the new, new one that they have, they hardly ever use the book. That’s a good sign. You should start a funeral with a blank piece of paper.


Thank you so much. Simon. I do appreciate your coming, and sharing.


Preparing the family for death: interview with Kim Barnett


I met Kim as a fellow funeral celebrant and was intrigued at her choice to prepare her family to face death, from her grandchildren to her elderly in-laws.


My siblings are not at all comfortable talking about death. I’ll spout on about something, say a conversation I’ve had with Mum, and they’ll slip off into something else. It’s interesting how most people find it’s really uncomfortable to talk about death. It’s like, “When on earth that horrible time comes and we have to face it, we’ll do it then”, which is not very prepared in any sense, is it? And that’s when there’s a sense of urgency and being all at sea, and not in control.


And we would never do birth that way, would we?


No, we put so much thought and planning into birth, and it is a fraught experience too, in some ways, but we prepare for it in all the right ways and get everybody involved. It would be great if we could get close to that when it comes to the whole thing about dying. We cannot pretend it’s not a part of life.


I suppose the way we deal with a lot of fear is by pretending it’s not there, and certainly on a nice day you may think, “Why would I want to be thinking about that!” But for me, thinking about it makes me live better; I’m sure it does. It makes me take different decisions about what I dwell on, or what people I want to bring in close. Life’s become more precious. It’s something about my stage of life, I guess. I’ve become a lot more choosey about who I have around me, where it’s loving and easy and fulfilling. Which is another grief, in a way, so that when it comes to the huge separation of dying…


In our whole lives we’re saying goodbye. These choices, like not to have certain people in my life – that’s a grief, a goodbye. Or when I look back at a photo album, that’s when it confronts me. I see how unwrinkly I was then. I grieve in the way of seeing the stages of life that are gone, never to come back. We’re used to saying goodbye, actually.


I say we’re used to saying goodbye, but that doesn’t make it easy. Terry’s Dad died just prior to his 70th birthday, quite suddenly. It was very traumatic for family and friends. I feel almost sadder now. I find we mention him a lot now, especially around how much he would have loved the grandchildren. They’re sporty, and he was so sporty. I feel he’s been cheated really– that’s the emotion that comes up.


My Dad is 82. He’s married to Terry’s Mum. We’re a very interconnected family! They got together first. She’s 88. She’s quite sharp, but physically frail. But what she misses most is her incredible creativity – her handwork, her artwork, her sewing. Now, in the retirement village, she’s joined a little art group, but she’s mourning her losses. I don’t think she’s being kept going by medications exactly, but if I had my choice in life I’d rather live long and die quickly than live long and die slowly. I can see the grieving of having to let go of things she loved. Hopefully she’s finding different things she enjoys doing, things that compensate.


Terry’s Dad’s ashes are still with us, in Terry’s wardrobe, in a horrible little container – nothing nice about it at all. They’re in his wardrobe because the family hasn’t decided what to do with him. He died within two weeks of being diagnosed. I remember him saying to me one day when I visited, “What is it like being with someone who’s dying?” and he said it in this really creepy voice. My response was, “I hope I’m not with someone who’s dying”, which was my instant response then, 17-odd years ago. He didn’t talk much about it but I did ask what were his wishes for himself. He said, “Just put me in a rubbish bag and throw me out”. And I said, “Well we’re not going to do that”. But I wonder what he’d have thought about sitting in the wardrobe in a plastic container?


So, as one of my homework studies when I was doing my celebrant training, I wrote a little ceremony of a scattering of ashes for Wal. We were to go in my brother’s boat and scatter his ashes around the local area where he’d lived all his life, and fished. It hasn’t happened, but it still could, I guess. He loved golf. The guys thought maybe we could scatter him on the golf course, but now that I understand the destruction that ashes can cause to the land, that’s not an option. We could plant a tree, but if you create something permanent on your own property, and then move… you have this trail of decisions to make. I guess if you scatter in the sea it’s different somehow.


For my Dad – he made a comment one day to say that he wants something to show that he did exist, that he was here, even a little plaque with his name on it. He’s not a man with a big ego, it’s just important to him. And yet his parents were scattered in the sea at Piha, and there’s no memorial, but my Grandfather’s name is on the fence by the lily pond at Piha as the little reserve is named after him.


It’s interesting with my Dad; he’s exploring more about spirituality. He’s always been a firm atheist. Of late he seems more open to some sense of our continuing in some way after death. Terry’s Mum has explored many religions and philosophies. They read a lot, especially Deepak Chopra, and Dad seems to be taking hold of some of his ideas and calling them his own.


His father, my grandfather, was brought up strict Baptist, and later shunned it. Not so his two sisters, who lived to 104 and 106. They were very concerned he was going to end up in limbo. He was severely depressed having lost my Grannie, and losing his faculties. He was an educator who prided himself on his ability to recite poetry, and recall things, and be something to people – his ex-pupils often visited him. Towards the time of his death, I took him out to the family bach [holiday house] at Piha. I was young and trying to jolly him, and way out of my depth. He was in a process of letting go and was very sad. As he sat on the bed he said, “Kimbo, do you know what it means to be in limbo?” I said, “Kind of – you’re not here, you’re not there”, but I didn’t understand its religious context. So he explained to me. He said, “My sisters are very concerned that because I haven’t been baptized I’m going to be in limbo, and they’re distraught about it, so I’m considering what I need to do to make things okay for them”. And I’m like, “You don’t need to make things okay for them!” Anyway, as it turned out he was re-baptised. He never talked about it again. Perhaps it was partly him hedging his bets, or was it strictly in terms of others? He was a very generous, big-hearted man. He was six foot two, and if you arrived at his house he’d come out with his arms outstretched and walk the whole length of the property and just gather you in; a gorgeous man. Coming from that position, to being more dependent, was really difficult for him. I think it is. To die must be a blessed relief sometimes. The process is so difficult.


His wife, my Grannie, had died a lot earlier of a heart attack. She was an absolute sunshine person in our lives. She was an atheist and happy with it; just a lover of nature, and an accepter that this is the life we have. She was as bright as a button. She went way too early for us. I still miss her. When I was a teen she was the person I would go to. I could talk to her about anything. She was very active in the justice system, always trotting down to the court to see that justice was being done. My Pop adored her. It must be terribly difficult when you’re so attached to someone, to find a way to fill your life again and make it count.


My Grannie lost so many of her family, but she never carried it on her shoulders. You think about how disassociated we’ve become from death. She lost two sisters in the flu epidemic, a brother in the War – right at Gallipoli – and her brother-in-law, her mother not long later, and her father at 56. She had huge losses, and yet she didn’t carry sadness like a cloak. We never even knew about it as kids.


We lost our oldest cousin, before I was born. She drowned, but not in the sea – in the lily pond, which is unbelievable when you think of the surf at Piha. My aunt was living at Piha, and her daughter was about 18 months. No one knew how to deal with the grief. No one was able to help her. She never really even cried. They had twins pretty much straight away. No one suggested she hold Jenny. She can remember giving comfort to the lady who was looking after Jenny at the time, because she was distraught, and not really registering herself. The doctor said to her husband, “Make sure she cries”. They had to get some clothes for Jenny, drive to the police station to report what happened and fill in forms. Last time I went to visit her – she’s 87 now – she cried and cried and cried. I asked her, “What’s this about?” And she said, “It’s Jenny”. She wanted to talk about Jenny.


Oh Kim, bless you. That’s so important.


Until she told me, she said nobody knew how that day went. She told me the story of how the whole day had unfolded. When she got to her Mum’s house her Mum was just curled up in a fetal position on a chair, completely distraught with grief, and unable to give her any comfort, so she just buried the grief, and was advised to move on, move on. She never went to the funeral; women never went. My Grannie said to me once, “I’ve never been to a funeral and I’m never going to one”, I guess because she had so much grief in her early life. I can’t imagine having all the loss she had – all those early losses, and then to lose her first grandchild. And yet, as I said, she never wore a cloak of sadness in her daily life. We had the most amazing, joyful times around her.


I think about it in relation to my responsibility to my grandchildren. If something happens that really guts my heart, I want to make sure that I heal enough, or can move out of that space when I’m with them. I want to be real about it, but also not take away from the joy of being with them. It can rob, if you’re wearing it. With some people it affects their whole demeanour. Maybe they don’t give themselves permission… By me being happy it doesn’t mean I don’t miss or didn’t love the person. Maybe people get confused about it. If I’m happy, does it mean I can’t be missing that person too much?


The conversations I’ve had with my mother and mother-in-law have kind of happened spontaneously, rather than me making a dedicated time to talk about it. It’s been when the opportunities have arisen. It’s fairly easy these days, given the stage they are, to see when they’re not feeling well, or they’re contemplating, or feeling a bit insecure because other people around them are dying, and they’ll say what they’ve liked about somebody’s life celebration, and what they haven’t liked, or what scares them. So when the little opportunities come up I grab them and advance them a little bit more if I can. I’m trying to come to a place where we all feel a bit comforted by it, and I was going to say excited by it. That’s ridiculous! But with my mum, for example, she told me she didn’t want a funeral, not something cloaked in sadness. She’s quite outgoing, but also quite a private person, but when we got to talking about it she said, “I want everyone to come in bright colours. I’ve had a wonderful life and I want it to be happy. I want to be in a yellow casket, and I want flowers, and I want poetry, and I want music – I want ‘Somewhere over the Rainbow’”. So then I said, “That will be done; that is what we will do. We’ll make it a celebration of you. We’ll enjoy bringing you into our lives in every way”. I think when she pictured it, when she changed it from something dark and cold to something almost exciting, something really changed in her. It’s like she thought, “This is my final thing, and people are going to enjoy it and revel in the personality of me at my best”.


With my mum-in-law, she was mortified (funny word!) to think of being in a dark room at a funeral home, parked in a coffin overnight. So I said, “We can put that thought to rest immediately”. I think the furthest thought from her mind was that she could have someone at home who had died. When her Mum died, with help I’m sure she could have had her at home, but death is a huge, unknown, scary monster for her, and she’s had other people’s reactions in the past, like, “Oh that would be creepy”, or “That’s not how I want to remember them”, or “We’ll always have that memory in our home”. Moving those kinds of thoughts aside by saying that I’m totally relaxed about her dead body, and about her being in our home, shifted something for her. She knows she’ll be cared for and loved, and we’ll take the time for people to come and be with her.


At this stage I don’t fancy having my own casket open; who knows what sort of a bad hair day I’ll be having! It’s vanity, I guess. I don’t want the last impression of me to be like a plastic doll. But who knows. I might get used to the idea. I don’t mind being around someone who has died. I’ve laid people out on my psychiatric nursing career. My cousin, who died from breast cancer when she was 33, had an open coffin and my aunt asked for people to come up and put notes in the casket. Everybody obliged, but some weren’t particularly happy about going that close to Glen, especially with how different she was looking. And there was the sort of smell of death, which is something we’re not used to.

I’m all over the place, Margie. What a difficult subject I am!


Never, Kim! It’s all so interesting. The pieces I remembered from our chatting earlier were that you’d taken the time and the courage to think about what your parents and mother-in-law might want, and you’d spoken with them. But what you’ve given me is a whole lot more than that; you’ve given all sorts of experiences and insights.


It’s one of these times where different things keep coming to mind. We’re on the cusp, in our family, of inevitable death visiting us. An uncle died a couple of years ago, and one of my cousins lost her husband recently. I guess we’ll be coming together more as a family around death as time goes on.


My parents have all said they want to be cremated. I always thought I wanted to be cremated – well I don’t want to be cremated, but of the rough choices you have! But since getting involved in this [celebrant] work and having gone to see the cremator at Waikumete Crematorium, the industrial side of it doesn’t appeal to me, seeing the ashes being raked out and all that. I have a hunch I would like the least interference, a gentle transition, so I’m tending more towards burial, but what I would really love is to be buried in a forest setting, wrapped in a shroud, comfortable enough that there are some layers of cloth that you visualise to be comfortable, just because it makes you happy to think of, not because it matters at all, and then lying in the earth and letting nature take its course. I haven’t got my head around what’s available in Auckland, but I know it’s being worked on. In “A Will for the Woods” they have natural stones engraved with the person’s name and date, so over time they can use the area for a lot of burials, and maybe the stones will turn up-side-down in time, but it doesn’t matter. That feels really nice to me, and I have a feeling that might work for my family, particularly my Mum. Cremation had been a sort of considerate view – we don’t want to take up room, or be a bother; just do it and get it over with. We just can’t be doing the big plot with the big concrete thing. We just can’t keep doing that. But the natural idea appeals, if it’s available.


[ will tell you what’s available here in Aotearoa New Zealand]


It’s really appealing to think we can nourish the earth and become part of it. I’ve also seen a compost material that you can add ashes to and then grow things.


Even with our pets, we’ve always honoured them. We’ve had a couple of cats. There was Billy and then there was Muffin. Caitlyn misses Muffin still, and when we go past the hibiscus tree at the top of our driveway she often stands there quietly looking quite sad. With the rabbit and the guinea pig, too, we’ve always put them in a little box, and made a little mattress with some fabric, and drawn on the outside of the box, and put notes in, and done it so that everyone can see that that is where the pet is. We bought a rose for Billy called ‘Remember Me’.


The other day Caitlyn said, “Grandma, can we have a look at Muffin? Can we see if she’s still there? So I said, “Remember when we see little insects and things that have died, they aren’t like they were, so Muffin will be just a little pile of bones now”. She seemed to accept that. It’s been good for them to love something, see it die, know where it’s buried. But what I notice is the love that’s still there in her; it’s very strong.


Terry and I bought a little fish each for Caitlyn and her cousin Zachary. We put them in the fishpond. The next morning Terry found one of them floating. Zach had said earlier that it was his first ever pet. So we decided to hatch this stupid plan of getting another one, but it was an albino one, the one and only. He must have overheard us because he said, “Did my fish die?”


Good for him!


I said, “Oh Darling, it did. We’ve been so upset to say because we knew it was so special to you”. He was quite matter of fact about it, but I’d said to Terry before that, “Where have you put it?” I think he said, “In the rubbish bin”. I said, “Get it out! It’s got to be dealt with it properly!” So we had to do the same and honour this little fish, and never buy one of those delicate ones again!


Thank you, Kim, because you’re not afraid of death and you’re thoughtful about it, from the death of pets, to getting close enough to your elderly aunt that you could give her the space to really mourn her daughter; it’s fantastic.


I discovered that Jenny’s ashes had been scattered, and I asked my aunt if she’d like to go and spend some time there. It will be 60 years ago this July that she drowned, I think. I asked if she would like her other children to be part of it too. She said, “No, just you and me”, which is sad, because they could well be carrying some unknown kind of grief.


Oh, they will, it’s true, but I can really understand why as a first step it’s just you she wants to go with, because you’re the one who’s dared to speak about her child’s death. And then after that she may be ready to do something with Jenny’s siblings.


After I spoke about it we had the longest hug. I think it was as one mother to another, and with blood connections you can cross boundaries so fast.


Death as change, not endpoint: stories from Ken Ross

Ken Ross and I did not have the opportunity for an interview, but he kindly offered to write about two of his experiences in relation to death. I find them moving, and they confirm my sense that death is not an endpoint, but a change.


On Easter Monday 1983, I was in charge of two vessels in the Marlborough Sounds, one a 38-foot launch and the other a 32-foot cutter that was strapped alongside. I was in the mouth of the Queen Charlotte Sound, having just dropped a group of Outward Bound Students at Ship Cove. I was cruising slowly because of the cutter alongside and a rising chop, waiting to hear a marine weather bulletin (due at 1117hrs), because the weather report would determine which bay and mooring I would use to shelter the vessels on. At approx. 1115hrs I realised my watch had stopped at 1110hrs. I stopped the vessels, turned the marine radio up, listened to the weather forecast, decided I would use our Tawa Bay mooring in Endeavour Inlet to sit out the weather, and proceeded to Tawa Bay.

An hour or so later I was sitting on the mooring, making a cup of tea when I received a marine radio message to proceed to the nearest telephone and call my parents in Wellington.  I left the cutter on the mooring and proceeded to the home of a person I knew at Snake Point, approximately 25 minutes away. I called my parents, and when my mother answered the phone I said, “It’s Nan, isn’t it?” She asked me how I knew, and I said, “I’ll tell you when she died – she died at 11.10am”. My mother confirmed I was right. 

How did I know? For most of my life my grandmother had been the family matriarch, a terrifying Victorian figure of grim countenance and little humour. In the last 5 years of her life I had regular, monthly one-to-one contact with her, and began to see a very different side, a softer person who cared deeply for her friends, family and neighbourhood. I was consciously developing in a spiritual manner, and our conversations often went to spiritual matters. She wasn’t a church-goer but she was ‘Christian’ (Christ like) in her outlook toward others, plus she had lost a lot of her judgemental behavior. On the day she died, I ‘knew’ it was her, in the way I ‘know’ I am me, from deep within. We had never discussed post-death contact, but I understood she wanted to connect with me at that moment, and did.

Some years later when I was living in Kerikeri, I was asked/tasked to form a ‘Spiritual Development Group’. Some time through 1988, five of us from the group travelled to Whangarei to a presentation from a woman from the Spiritualist Church in the UK. This woman was an internationally renowned Spiritual Medium. The woman spoke for an hour or so about her life, and then started giving messages (from ‘the other side’) to people in the audience (approximately 70 people). I silently asked that she pick one of our ‘group’ to give a message to, so we could discuss it and check its veracity on the way home. I had no sooner posed that thought when she turned and said she had a message for the man with the beard in the second row, and indicated me.

She described an older woman and what she was wearing, who could only have been my grandmother. She described a biscuit tin the woman was holding that was my childhood joy, my grandmother’s shortbread tin with a picture of Edinburgh Castle and a pipe band on it.  She passed on some personal messages to me and then said, “She is giving me a date, and says, “You will know what it means”.  It was 6.11.28, my father’s birth date.

She then said, “There is another person here, a man. They seem to know each other”. (In ‘life on earth’ my Grandmother and this man, Murray, had not met, to my knowledge.) She then went on to describe a friend of mine, a man by the name of Murray Charles. Murray was an outdoors friend; we had climbed together. He taught at Marlborough Boys College in Blenheim and I worked at the Cobham Outward Bound School in Anakiwa. One day, in ’83, he phoned me and asked if I wanted to climb Mount Tapuaenuku in the inland Kaikouras with him. I was keen because it is a decent climb and peak. He said he was taking the family for a trip to the glaciers in South Westland in the next week, and would make contact on his return on the following Thursday. We aimed to start our climb on the Saturday. Murray never phoned on the Thursday evening, and on the Friday a friend, who was also a teacher at the school, came to Anakiwa to break the news that Murray and one of his sons had been killed by rock fall as they descended the glacier track.

The medium described the climbing breeches and boots Murray used to wear, described his appearance, and then said, “He wants you to know, he tried to save John, but couldn’t”. Just prior to the accident, Murray’s two sons, Graham and John, had been ahead of Murray and his wife on the track. Murray saw a huge rock dislodge from the mountain and rushed forward to throw the boys away from its path. He saved Graham, but the rock got Murray and John. Murray was a wonderful man and his loss was devastating to many people. That he wanted to convey his failure to save John even though he gave his life, said so much to me.

Thank you, Ken.


Hospital chaplain in touch with her own death: an interview with Sande Ramage

So, what’s behind writing this book, for you?


Well, I’ve had a long-term passion about how we do death and dying.


How did you get that passion?


I think lots of strands – for a start, by nature I’ve never been afraid of my own death. Then when my parents died (my Dad was actually a hospital chaplain – he was at Waikato; he and Mum died in a motor accident) I think that led me somewhere about funerals. Many years later I worked as a funeral celebrant when I was living in the UK, and in the process of that I also explored death and dying area more broadly and found myself just wanting to be with people when they were dying. That led me to some soul midwifery training…


What is it, specifically, that you wanted to connect with me about?


I’ve read some of your articles and blog posts and think you have interesting things to say. Can we begin with your thoughts about ageing, because how we think about ageing must inform how we think about dying, and vise-versa.


The most interesting thing about ageing for me at the moment (as a 62-year-old) is how liberating it is. It’s as though I’ve (at last) outgrown some of the limits, or the messages that so bound me as a younger person. I have more questions about the role of authority in my life, more queries about whether the professionals really do know what is best, and I have developed a far greater reliance on my own good sense and wisdom.


The second interesting thing is how our whole society is having to change attitudes towards ageing. Instead of sticking with the idea that once you reached 65 your life was essentially over, a huge group of ageing people who are reasonably fit and still interested in life are forcing us to reinvent this new age of being. I’ve just watched a Nigel Latta documentary called ‘Getting Old: The Retirement Bomb’ and I found it stimulating mostly because there is a recognition that this period of my life might go on for 20 or 30 years and people are doing much, much more than sitting around knitting. I love that Bunnings (a large hardware chain of stores) likes to employ older people because they know so much. I love that people are retraining and looking towards new or redeveloped careers. That’s exactly what I’m in the process of doing, thinking about what alternative training I can do now to set me up for the next 20 years because I have no intention of retiring from work. In part that’s because I just don’t have the money to live easily without more income than national superannuation, but the most important thing is that I love going to work and being involved in contributing to the common good. Even if I could afford to sit around and go boating and travel all the time, I just wouldn’t. I would be SO bored and think that would be a waste of my life. 


For sure!

 Also, I’d like you to speak about your experiences as a chaplain, and what are the oft-repeated responses you see to death and dying. And how might it be different?


On the whole the people that I come into contact with are reasonably pragmatic about dying, particularly when it seems that people have had a ‘good innings’. There is a sense of a life lived in all its variety and, if they have time to reflect on it, the process of working out meaning and joining the dots of their life enables them to come to terms with it. People are more anxious, and understandably so, when they or their children are younger and that sense of not having lived enough rises to meet them. I can understand that.


Sometimes it’s not the person dying but the friends and family around them who find it more difficult to cope with, especially if they are called from far away at a crucial moment. The stress of the moment can put pressure on family members who might want to persist with treatments that are ultimately unhelpful and may prolong a person’s life but not add to their quality. In those situations, people can experience a sense of unfairness and also begin their process of bereavement and loss without even realising it.


In those situations, too, I often think about the omnipotent God mythology, the idea that there is an all-powerful being that can do miraculous things at will or on demand. It’s an interesting mythology but one that has been literalised and quite rightly rejected. However, it seems to me that there is a tendency to reinvent that mythology around the medical profession – assuming, hoping and sometimes expecting them to perform the miracles that God used to be petitioned about. Putting any group of people into that position is ultimately unhelpful because none of us can deliver on mortality.

This is what Steven Cave pointed out in his very helpful book Immortality: The Quest to Live Forever and How it Drives Civilization. He reckons there are four main stories humans have told themselves about death, from religion to science, and all of them are designed to have us avoid death. In the end he rightly concludes that none of these can deliver and that the only way we can come to grips with life is by developing the wisdom traditions. We have to face up to immortality from the beginning. The advance care planning processes that are becoming more and more popular are a contribution to this, but I think more open and honest conversations are needed in our communities so that we stop mythologising the medical profession and the health system into the God that cannot deliver. There has to be a partnership approach to living and dying. We all have responsibilities in that process.


In terms of being a chaplain, I always ask what matters most to a person, and try to connect with them on that level. If it’s Smoky the Cat, Fred the Dog, family members, a career, or a religious tradition, then that is what matters. Often people want to talk about their story, in their way – to be heard just as they are with no improvement required. Sometimes they are walking towards forgiveness or reconciliation; sometimes a sense of peace is needed and gained through the sharing of story. At times people want particular rituals; other times it’s the sense of presence that matters more.


I’m hearing you say that we need to take more responsibility for our ageing and death, to face up to them. What do you think about the idea that we are capable as human beings of having an inner sense that our time has come? In traditional societies it may involve going off alone. In our society it may involve a choice to cease eating and drinking.


I think that’s really important, that we are capable of knowing that our time has come, but in order to do that you have to live within your embodiment, not outside of it. Sometimes our society encourages us to live outside of ourselves – to be pulled out of ourselves to another entertainment, or another activity. I can see this with the heavy emphasis on sport in our culture. Sport and physical activity are wonderful but sometimes they become a diversion from what is within. Going alongside the need to be physically active is the need to develop a soulful approach in the face of the vulnerability of mortality. It’s an important challenge in our century. 


Huge, I agree. And going by the ads I see for aged care and retirement villages there doesn’t seem a lot of emphasis on soulful living.


Well you’ve got to ask who’s making money, don’t you? Where is the money going, and what is their purpose? So the advertisements are around all the exciting things and not much about how people are going to die in the same kind of way that most of us do. Interestingly I was called to a large retirement complex the other day to be with a daughter and her dying mum. It seems that this national retirement business employs activity people and nurses and all manner of care people but no-one to attend to spiritual and soulful needs. That seems somewhat unbalanced.


Yes, because when we front up to our death, we’re free to live; it’s not kind of hanging around somewhere. We’ve met it face-to-face; now we can get on with living – and living in that embodied way that keeps us connected to the deepest part of ourselves, and the deepest part of each other, and to our physical world.


Yes, I think so. For me a lot of it’s around that kind of approach. How do you as a society assist the process of aging? I suppose governments will be relieved that big players have come into the market, and kind of dollied it up, but the reality is, most of the people that I come across in my day-to-day work aren’t going to live in these places. We can’t afford to. So I think there’s an illusion going on here about it, which as a society we are somewhat complicit in.   


I guess as a hospital chaplain you encounter people at a point where their lives have been irrevocably changed. What are some of the shocks people face, and how might we prepare ourselves better to face what might (or will) come?


My experience is that often thoughts about the end of life don’t get entertained until people have an event that immobilises them, or means they can’t drive any more. Losing your license is a huge event, and it really throws up in stark relief that you are not as independent as you once were. That initial achievement of getting your license is such an independence-giver, an indication that you are entering the adult world. And so losing your license is at the other end of that. It’s really upsetting for many people, and I know I would find it really difficult. So some people don’t think about it, and their families don’t think about it, and they just hope that it will be alright, but these losses are often hard to take and set up the grief and loss process. And once you don’t have your driving license, where you live may become another issue so that losses start to cascade.


It’s interesting, because again, in traditional societies something like no longer being so independent wouldn’t matter two hoots, because your function is slowly changing to one of quiet support, and mentoring, and your own inwardness.


Even a few months ago I would have said that we don’t live in societies like that but I’m noticing the changes that are occurring. Partly this is because I’m reading a lot of academic literature around spirituality and health and it’s wonderful to see that there are professional standards around spirituality being developed in the elder health area. This means that the focus is on exactly what you’re talking about. In addition, the work of the Commission for Financial Capability is creating energy and resource. Although it all began around the reality of financial pressures that New Zealand faces with us baby boomers changing to ageing stars, the byline, Building Wealthy Lives is so hopeful, full of multiple meanings. By putting focus and energy into this area we start to see things differently, do research that has meaning and can alter our perceptions and actions. 

    What else can I tell you?


Do you encounter people, I guess elderly people in particular, who are ready to die, but who are essentially being kept alive, and feel alone in this, in relation to their families or the medical profession?


I do listen to people talk about how they are ready to die. Sometimes this is because they need some help with medications or support. Getting those in place actually changes the focus for a person and they can then see that there is still a richness to be had in their life. Other times, yes, they are ready and our job then is to listen properly and not intervene in a heroic way. This ought to be part of ongoing conversations between everyone involved. Deep listening to a person’s wants and needs is the key.


Does advance care planning help in situations like this?


Yes. The more families can talk about what matters to them towards the end of their life, the better off we all are. There are no surprises or overly emotional reactions to bad news. Instead there can be a sense of understanding and an ability to make decisions in the knowledge you are doing what mum or dad wants.


Would you to talk some about euthanasia? I found your article thoughtful and a very necessary part of the whole discussion, because mostly the debate is from one side or the other, whereas I felt you were just encouraging thoughtfulness.


From my perspective as a person in spiritual care, what’s important is working with people so that they can work out their own meaning. So for me, trying to walk a path in the middle of all of this is really important. It seems that the debate is in danger of polarising around pain and palliative care. But in my view euthanasia is not about being ill; it’s about whether or not human beings have the right to die. When the conversation gets stuck in the palliative care area, then the focus is on pain and whether or not someone’s got the right pain relief on board. I absolutely support palliative care. It matters in any community and I work with such wonderful people in this area and if I need their services in the future I would be just thrilled to get care from them.


But I repeat, that is not the issue for me. The issue for me is whether I have the right to die, and clearly, in our society, I don’t.


I think we need to talk about that issue, and the reality that people are going to want to die at various times in their lives, and under varying circumstances. The questions for me revolve around how we as a society deal with that, and what values and meanings underpin that. For me, this is the most important conversation so that we could hopefully get to the point where as a society we could compassionately support people in their choice to die.

I can see that we could ritualise death in these circumstances, and put song and dance and art around it. We could choose the time of our death, bring the people that we care about together, say the words we need to say, and in my case drink gorgeous champagne, and go. It’s interesting that over the last few months these kinds of rituals have grown up around people in some countries who do have the right to end their lives. I know it seems strange in our culture but I think we need to let go of some of the strongly held ideas and sit a while with some new ones.


I’m interested, Sande, in what might have led you to respond to life in the way that you do.


As I reflect on my life, I reflect on how much of my life is controlled by other people, and other people in power. I was adopted into a fundamentalist Baptist home, and that has impacted my whole life. If I look now at my reflections about the Father God being transferred onto the medical profession, I think no, I don’t want that kind of mythology at this end of my life, and I resist that in our society – our society kind of adopting the Father God in another way. When I was twenty-five I had my daughter, and the experience for me was pretty distressing because that whole adoption thing was about searching for the source of being. So I had my daughter and had a very difficult time. This resulted in my first mental health diagnosis of post-natal depression. It wasn’t entirely helpful. I used to feel that instead of people actually hearing my story, what they heard was something that fitted a screening tool, which put me on a pathway. So I went on that pathway dutifully and obediently, and lived into that and many other diagnoses that came along.


“Living into diagnoses” – that’s a powerful expression.


I think it’s what happens, because, you know, it’s not easy to be a human being, is it? All of us struggle in some way, and I struggled, all the time thinking there must be something wrong with me. In a way it was a chronic pain issue; existential pain, an all-encompassing suffering. Now I’m not alone in that feeling, but if so many of us think like that, you’ve got to wonder what’s happening here. But, as a society we don’t sit and talk about it. We think, there must be something wrong with me; who will I go to? So I go to a doctor, and what does the poor doctor do? The poor doctor’s got fifteen minutes, if you’re lucky, to try and think this out, or help. So what happens? An industry comes along that says, I can help you with that, and creates all of these wonderful drugs to theoretically help you feel better. And so the poor doctor prescribes them because at least it gets the person out of their surgery in fifteen minutes and they can feel as though they are helping.


I’ve almost never been to a doctor, so it’s really helpful for me to talk with somebody who is with it all the time – living with medical care, not only from your own background, but also in your work. 


Fixing the fixable is very important. We must do everything we can to alleviate suffering in a compassionate way. But I think we have forgotten that there is no life without suffering and learning to live with suffering is an important life skill. Learning to manage pain of many kinds without instantly resorting to a quick fix is one of the things that helps us develop resilience and courage and wisdom and a kind of soulfulness. It’s part of the spiritual journey of waking up to reality. Part of the problem of having a group in society that has been set up as the replacement to the God mythology is that it puts enormous pressures on that group to fix.


What’s your sense of why, Sande? 


One of the hardest things for health professionals, who have been trained to diagnose and treat, is to sit beside someone who is suffering and be able to do nothing. My mum gave me my first practical adult lessons in this when she was dying of cancer. I was 21 and one of a team of three who nursed her in the last month of her life. It was one of the most powerful experiences of my life and I am forever grateful for that privilege. But there was nothing to be done, other than compassionate care and listening. It was very hard to just sit and listen. I like to think she would be pleased I’ve ended up with a few more skills in this area now!


I think she’d be delighted and intrigued!

‘Death is failure’ comes up for me as I hear you speak.


To me death is not failure, but I think there’s more conversation needed so that as a community we don’t have unrealistic expectations about staying alive, and then push those expectations on the medical system, who are forced to respond. I think our lives would become different under those circumstances. Better!


If we looked at illness from a place of curiosity… This is interesting. What might it be about? Why might this have come along into my life?


Yeah, exactly. It might just be about, ‘What shall I do with this? Hello, come into my life; may I get to know you?’ This is something that Eve Ensler and Martin Crowe did very well as they both walked along with cancer. Martin started to see lymphoma as his teacher. Brilliant.


Yes. I notice that in our society there’s a sort of commitment to live as long as possible, and that not living as long as possible lets other people down; lets us down.

I remember when my children were young, living in Porirua, hearing about numerous children with glue ear in the Far North. They couldn’t hear properly and so were failing at school, and all for the want of a $45 grommet operation. And at the same time, we had somebody living in Porirua who had one of the very first heart transplants in New Zealand. And I’m thinking, ‘What’s going on here?’ And I said to my kids, young as they were, that if I get to the stage where I need some hugely expensive medical treatment, just leave me be; leave me be and let me just live out the rest of my life in the best way possible. I’d rather the money went where it’s really needed.


So that’s a very big re-balancing of values, isn’t it? It’s not sexy to do research in public health, or in poverty. It’s sexy to do it in the big conditions like cancer. I think this is unbalanced and tends to reflect the energies of a few people who have been impacted by a particular condition and then raised funds around it. And ‘fighting cancer’ is a slogan that drives me insane. Why would you fight off your own body? 


I agree, Sande! There’s a wonderful magazine in Britain – The Big Issue. It’s produced for homeless people to sell on the streets. I recall reading in one of them a little snippet about some very well-conducted research about wearing of bras, and how it was exactly related to breast cancer [deaths/diagnoses] and the longer people wore bras, the higher the chance of developing breast cancer, and especially bras with underwires which press on the lymph glands. I mean it was really, really clear, and yet at much the same time there was a huge walk for breast cancer research. You paid to go in it, and you got sponsors and so on, and everybody was given a bra to wear over the top of their tee-shirt. They got this huge sponsorship from a bra company. So they’re not going to advertise this piece of information that says be careful what you wear; especially avoid underwires. You can barely buy a bra without underwires, anyway!


Is there anything that you could say in general about what you come up against in our society around death?


I think there’s less anxiety now about where you might be going when you die. I think largely we’ve got over worrying about if there’s a three-tier universe with a literal heaven and hell… only just, mind you. My experience is that people are more anxious about how they will die, rather than the reality that they will die.


When people are aware that death has come to visit and sit on the bed for a time, mostly people gather, and hang out with people that they care about. That’s really good. The biggest thing that concerns me is that we don’t talk about it soon enough. I think death should be part of what we do every day. Like I don’t think that we should have burial grounds away out of town. We’d be better off with a little burial ground in each area.  


Little ones in the suburbs, as it were.


Absolutely, and that we should celebrate death, I think, and learn to understand its value in life. We still pretend, and so that would be my biggest thing – let’s talk about it earlier on – have it as part of our everyday life.

There’s a wonderful book called Cry Heart and Never Break about death coming to have a cup of tea with some children. It’s just awesome. I’ve used the concept in talking to some people struggling with the idea. They just love the idea that death could come and sit on the bed and have a bit of a natter.


In a blog post, you write about living with your desk skull. Can you tell us something about this and why it’s important to you?


It’s just a small skull, large enough to remind me to focus on what really matters; to keep me aware that I’m mortal; and to remind me to be soulful in my mortality.


Thank you, Sande.


Is that alright?  Useful?



Buried in the serenity of the bush: An interview with Mark Blackham

My daughter proudly handed me a newspaper article. The heading was something like NZ’s first natural burial ground opens. I stood there, perplexed. I was briefly back in Aotearoa New Zealand from the UK where I had begun to work as a funeral celebrant. At the time, about 2007, there were well over a hundred natural burial grounds in the UK, and I had simply assumed that good old green NZ would have plenty, too. But no, it had taken the death of a baby at birth, and fifteen years of dedicated hard work to bring one natural burial ground into being here.


Years later, in 2015, I would of course want to speak with Mark Blackham as part of my research for the book I hoped to write – Re-Imagining Death.



Thank you so much for being prepared to do this interview, Mark.



Okay. What do you need to know, then?



You started this organisation, Natural Burials, and you’re its Director. Can you tell us about its vision?



Well, in 1999, the starting vision, if this can be a vision, was choice. My wife and I lost our first child at birth, and faced that question about ‘What do you do?’ and that’s when it all came back to me, this idea I’d had when I was about 15 years old. You can get a bit dark when you’re in your teenage years, and you think about those sorts of things, and then you don’t think about it again until you’re much older. So this idea came back you me, and my wife liked it too, and so we asked around. Everybody said, ’You can’t do that.’ The idea was to be buried in the bush. I just thought that would be very cool, and I couldn’t see a good reason why not. (For non-Kiwis – “the bush” is what we call out native forests as they’re mostly quite dense.)


Then a while later, when I began exploring a little bit, the common theme with all of the burial grounds (and when I looked at the law as well) was a set menu of things, a very narrow set menu of things. In fact, that also applies to funeral directors. All the experiences people told me about were of funeral directors not doing things people wanted to do, so people felt very left out. So, for me, choice was absent, and if there’s anything about the modern consumer, the modern individual, it’s an expectation of choice.


So that was the starting vision. The vision itself, the choice that we wanted, was to be buried naturally, either in bush, or in an area that would return to bush. It was as simple as that. And that we would have these places everywhere.



And it’s been a long journey. I’m surprised how long it’s taken.



Oh, goodness. Yeah, well … funnily enough, I think we followed the pattern that might be familiar to others who come up with a new idea, and that’s that in some ways they overdo the newness of it. And newness frightens people – they get nervous about it. It sounds like you’re trying to change everything. And after a while I realised I was not talking about anything new, just some modification on what was available: you don’t go quite as deep; you just use a casket that’s made of slightly different material to what people have been using; the family get to do a few more things that they want to do, like digging the grave themselves, or filling it in; and that there’s a tree rather than a concrete or stone memorial.


So then we turned it around a bit like that and began doing less of the, ‘Hey it’s a great new environmental thing’, and more ‘It’s just a little bit of a change on what we’ve been doing’, we began to make a bit more headway.


Also, councils … I hope you don’t mind if I talk quite a bit …



No, you go for it.



Councils were very reluctant, kind of still are, but less so now. Cemeteries are just holes for money, for them. They cost a lot in terms of maintenance, and they’re nothing but trouble because people always pester them about memorials that have fallen over, or something that hasn’t been mowed often enough. Oh, it’s just endless; people want to pull people out of the ground … Cemeteries just lose councils money, hand over fist. So here we were coming along to them saying, ‘Tell you what; can you open up a new section for us?’ I mean with this thing they just said, ‘Oh go away; we don’t want any more trouble; you’re just trouble’.


The Wellington [City] Council were less like that. They were still circumspect, and still focused on practical things, which is right, but were open to the idea. First off, though, they were mainly open to the idea of assisting us doing it ourselves, but we figured that, because of our initial rounds of approaching councils and them saying no, probably what we’d be best to do was to get the council to certify us setting up our own one. This is because under the law, only a council can designate an area as a cemetery, so we would have needed them to certify an area that we had chosen, that we had bought ourselves, as a cemetery. And the Wellington Council was willing to do that.


But then (this is about 2006) somewhere along the line … the main problem was that they didn’t want to be lumbered with a piece of land with about five people in it and the trust we had formed going bust. I could see that, because under the law they would have been lumbered with the responsibility of managing it. So they said, ‘Could you give us your business plan?’ (and when I say business plan, this was never an idea for a profit, it was just something we wanted done). In the end we had to spend a lot of our own money, and we were prepared to sink our own money into it to make it happen.


So we gave them our business plan and they went, ‘Oh, it really does work, doesn’t it?’ So they said, ‘I’ll tell you what, we’ll do it ourselves then’. Well we were both cross and … well we were cross, actually. We’d spent a lot of time and money taking this other route. We were about to buy a bit of land, and had done planning consent requests, traffic analysis and all the rest of it, but we said, ‘Okay, let’s do it together’. They had a piece of land already, which was adjacent to the current cemetery.



Yes, to the Makara one.



Yes. It wasn’t designated to be used … well, it would have been eventually, but it could have been 100, 200 years, who knows. So they said, ‘Let’s set it up there’, and the rest is history really. It opened in 2007. We had twelve people in the first year, and then it’s probably increased by 20 to 25 percent in numbers every year after that. There are 150 people there.






I think key in that have been funeral directors, by the way. We did a lot of massaging of funeral directors. The years from 2000 to 2006, they were nasty towards our organisation and our ideas. Every council we talked to, the funeral directors association went and talked to afterwards. Early in the piece, when we presented to Wellington Council, one of their funeral directors went along to a council meeting and told them a whole lot of stuff about how dead people need to be embalmed because of the danger of infection and all the rest of it, all of it completely untrue. We even had the monumental masons, probably not surprisingly, complain about us.



All afraid of their bottom line, I guess.



Yes, all of them were worried about that. The monumental masons probably justifiably so, but really … someone says they don’t want a headstone and so you attack them and criticise them for it? It’s personal choice.


Funeral directors I think were worried that we were trying to take business away from them. So we took that one on directly, here in Wellington, anyway, with the prospect of the Wellington [Natural Burial] Cemetery starting up, and me and another person went round visiting all the funeral directors, and made it clear that we weren’t interested in taking business off them. We weren’t interested in business, full stop. We were just interested in having a natural cemetery. We’d done proper opinion surveys. We showed them the numbers, the number of people who were interested in this and the sorts of things they were interested in, and said, ‘You guys can provide the service; we want you to provide the service, to get these people into the cemetery’. So one or two of them picked it up, including and primarily, Simon Manning.


The guy is … we just can’t say enough good stuff about him. He’s a businessman, and he’s shrewd, but that just goes hand in glove with an awareness of meeting people’s expectations and needs. You know, he saw where the market was going, but he’s generous as well, generous with his time. He got right in behind us; helped us with the council. He adjusted his presentation to clients, distributed the material to them, and embraced it fully. That made one heck of a difference. So, not all funeral directors are tarred with the same brush, and gradually over time they have all, well I’d say two-thirds of them, have adjusted.



Good. Well, what a long journey, and quite a tumultuous one really.



Yes, it’s had its moments, that’s for sure.


You’re probably aware of the Law Commission Review recently. One of their recommendations involves allowing private cemeteries to be set up, but in the end, all these private cemeteries still need to go through the local authority to be signed off.


We’ve just been working with the Palmerston North City Council on setting up a cemetery there, and they’ve gone for a tiny little swampy piece of land. Oh, and the other part of that Law Commission Review says that if a group of locals demand a natural burial ground, or sort of cemetery, or component of a cemetery, councils have to provide it. What I’m trying to say here is that the Palmerston North example shows that you’re still … You know councils are not always the best way of doing these things. They’re bureaucratic, they’re risk averse, so it’s not necessarily going to be an answer. There’s always going to be barriers to this.



Well, until we wake up to how we can’t sustain life on the planet the way we’re living now.



No, that’s right. Actually, it’s funny you should say that, because one of the things that often gets said is, ‘But cemeteries take up land’. And we say, ‘Yes, isn’t that fantastic! Let’s take up more, and put bush on it!’



Yes, very good.



Yes, you’re right, it’s been difficult, but that’s what happens. I think we’re over the hump, though. We now have council people coming to us and saying, ‘Can you help us set one up’, rather than us going to them and saying, ‘Will you set one up’ and they say ‘No’. So the difficulties are in the practical application now. There’s been a great transformation of attitudes to death over the past ten years that we’ve been pushing this. We like to think we’ve had some part in that change.



I’m sure you have

Now, I don’t know if you want to go into this sort of detail, or if we just refer people to your article, Going up in Smoke, for instance, (I did like that) but I wanted to ask why is natural burial a valuable and necessary alternative? There are two factors there: an alternative to traditional burials, and an alternative to cremation.



Well, I’ll start with something slightly different if that’s all right. I think the primary reason that people choose a natural burial has to do with their concept of natural, in a really general, holistic sense, not a specific sense. It’s about simplicity, and a return to nature, a sort of completing the cycle. Also the idea of being buried in an area of bush … there’s a tranquility and a peacefulness, which I think attracts. So there’s some psychology involved. That’s one of the reasons, if not the main starting reason.


That’s been a learning thing for us because we started off reasonably environmental about the thing, and probably over time that’s adjusted with the reality of the sort of people who are picking it up, which is exactly the people we hoped for, mainstream New Zealanders, not greeny alternatives … just everybody. And the reasons people pick it up are all those things I’ve just said. And that’s why it’s an alternative; it’s an alternative because it seems to just synchronise better with people’s ideas of the peace and tranquility of death, and the completion of the cycle.


And to your specific point. Well, it’s better than a traditional burial because the traditional burial locks you away in a casket that is not necessarily going to break down as quickly. (I mean it does break down if you’re looking at hardwood, or if you’re looking at chipboard, and most of them are chipboard with veneers, those have got lots of glues, formaldehyde, a lot of synthetic stuff, plastics … a whole heap of chemicals. And of course, heavy in the processing: veneer, plastic, that’s all had to be manufactured using raw resources, and electricity – the whole thing.)


So the caskets themselves are both a dead weight … sorry, I haven’t used that one before; it’s quite good … and an environmental cost, plus they have a tendency to lock away all your body goodies from the soil.


But what’s worse, in terms of that locking you away from the soil, is the depth at which people are buried, because not only do you decompose without oxygen (because there’s almost no oxygen at six feet under, or at one and a half meters that people go) you kind of liquefy rather than decompose. And what happens to that liquid and what’s in your body is that it gets washed down, straight into the water table, rather than being absorbed by bacteria, macro- and micro-organisms and plant roots.



And therefore turned into harmless matter – well, not just harmless, but helpful matter.



Yes, make sure I come back to that in a moment. So it washes down into the water table and that’s where you get toxification of streams. Plus, all that stuff from the casket goes out with it. It does break down eventually, but all those plastics, chemicals and what-not are going to wash out as well.


So, the cool chemical thing that happens with a natural burial is about the twelve basic elements in your body, and how they get taken up by other life, by bacteria and worms and other stuff in the soil, plus by plants. So nitrogen in your body gets fixed and becomes nitrate, carbon becomes carbonate, sulphur becomes sulphate and so on. There are twelve of them. So that gets used by those animals and turned into more life.


And also, in terms of traditional burial, you have your headstone, and the area is mowed and looked after. So we like the idea of the bush overhead providing both tree-life and oxygen, and also habitat for other organisms. Goodness, I heard yet again today, another quote about biomass and how important it is, even just a square meter of grass and a couple of weeds, how much life is in there.


So that’s the direct contrast with the traditional burial: depth, decomposition format – providing no nutrients to the soil – and let’s call it a sterile environment above.



And embalming?



Well, the biggest problem with embalming is the denial of the body to the soil, and its contribution to that liquefying format. We have to be fair; the research seems to say that if you test the soil around a body after ten years or so, the formaldehyde from the embalming is hard to detect. It’s probably been there for the ten years beforehand, but the levels of toxicity are low. It’s not a biggie; I don’t want to overdo that. So it’s more that you’re denying your body unnecessarily.


But you’ve also got the problem of thermaldahyde as a cancer-causing danger to the people who are carrying out the embalming. Actually there is quite a high incidence of needle pricks and things like that with embalmers, and they’re affected by the stuff that’s in the embalming fluids. The other thing to say is that we’ve got two or three embalming fluids now that are green, environmentally good. We still discourage their use because they slow down decomposition, but they’re actually okay. One’s called Mortech 2-in-1. I don’t think it’s a New Zealand product. It’s a salt-based cleanser of your internal system. It washes a saline solution through the body. It’s all unnecessary, but, if you insist on it … if you really think you need it for an extra day or two for the body, then it’s okay, but it doesn’t really do any better than putting a body in the chiller. You know, you just don’t need it. Most burials are on that third or fourth day and that’s still fine for an unembalmed body. It’s adding something artificial, and our general principle is ‘Don’t add anything synthetic to the earth’.



That’s a good principle.



And in terms of the comparison with cremation, well in that chemical thing I told you about, when you force an extra element of oxygen, in fusion, in fire, into those elements I told you that the body is made up of, you turn a bunch of them toxic. So sulphur becomes sulphur dioxide; nitrogen becomes nitrous dioxide I think it is, and those are pollutants. And at a crematorium they’re thrown up into the air, giving us air pollution. Yet they could go into the ground and become food. It’s madness. It’s kind of crazy.


In Europe they actually have crematoriums classified in their industrial-use surveys for polluters. Now compared to a factory or something like that, crematoriums are nothing, but they’re significant enough to feature on the monitoring of levels of pollutants emitted into the air. So, they don’t need to be there.


Of course you’ve got the casket thing – all that resource put into the casket, which then gets burned. At the very least, the ranges of caskets that we triggered, which include untreated pine, are much quicker-burning. This new generation of caskets is at least better for people still insisting on cremating.



Well, that’s a good sort of offshoot, if you like.

I have a question about the quantity of gas it apparently takes to cremate a body. I was at a friend’s home when a man came to swap their gas bottles.  He and I got talking and he said that when he started delivering gas the amount of gas it took to cremate a body was something like one fifteenth or one tenth of what it is now, because our bodies have so many more heavy metals. That was mind-blowing to me.



I’m not sure I’d believe that. I think the crematoriums have become far more efficient. The quantity of heavy metals in our body is still a tiny proportion of the total weight of the body. And if you watch a cremation it is fairly fast, but that’s because they heat them so high, but you’ve got to keep them vented as well, but they do use a lot of gas, and unnecessarily so. In the end it’s all wasted resource.



So, in terms of the availability of natural cemeteries, I guess for on-going access to information it’s best to refer people to the Natural Burials website, as the availability is going to keep shifting, or growing. Is that the best way to be up-to-date?



Well, we’re just a voluntary organisation, so the website is never as up-to-date as it might be, but we do keep a list of all the natural cemeteries that exist, plus the ones coming on-steam.



So I guess it’s good to ask your funeral director, too, because that helps sow the seed as well.



Absolutely. It is bizarre. It was only a couple of weeks ago; we were doing a little bit of work with some people in a town, in Northland somewhere, who were interested in getting a natural cemetery set up. They got a little bit of media coverage and made a proposal to the Council. And a funeral director said to the Council, and in the media, ‘I’ve had no requests for natural burials’. 


No, of course he hasn’t. There aren’t any available. We got a bit of that. I remember one of the councilors in Wellington saying to us, ‘If this was such a great idea it would have been done already’. Yeah, that’s what they said about the wheel! Such lunacy, but there you go. You might not want a natural burial for yourself, that’s perfectly fine, but why you would attempt to deny it for everybody else, I don’t know.


So, my point being, responding to yours, yes, people should ask their funeral directors about it. Ring up and say, ‘Do you offer natural burial? How would you go about it?’ And if they say they don’t have one locally you could ask, ‘How would you go about making sure my funeral is as natural as possible? Do you have the untreated soft pine caskets available? Would you bury me in a shroud?’ (Which of course you can. There’s nothing illegal about that). ‘Can you make sure that I’m buried only half a metre down?’


Now technically there is nothing stopping any cemetery in New Zealand doing that. I think there were only a handful of councils, when we did our research, which had a by-law that said it needed to be six feet, or whatever it was. Most of them don’t specify.


So if you just ask a couple of questions like that, those sorts of things get a funeral director on notice that there is indeed interest out there and they’d better start thinking about it.



And apart from the website, what resources would you like me to list? Id’ love to share your article, ‘Going Up in Smoke’. Can you think of any other good resources?



The other one is the Natural Death Centre in the UK.



Yes, I had ten years in the UK as I think I indicated. The Natural Death Handbook and the movement – they’re very actively supportive, aren’t they, of people creating natural burial grounds.



It’s funny though, over the fifteen years that we’ve been doing our thing, we’ve been asked questions in New Zealand that they never got asked. We’d get in touch with them and ask questions like, ‘How long does it take a body to decompose?’ They had no idea, because no-one ever asked those things over there. They just thought it was a great idea and went from there. Over here we kind of wanted to know the nth degree about stuff, which is a great thing about New Zealand, but also a curse.


So our website has got probably more than you’d get anywhere else in terms of some of those hard facts, like the chemical composition of the body I was telling you about. Those things are all on the website, and you won’t find them easily anywhere else. We’re the ones who had to do all the work.


More specifically, we got some of our information out of the guys in America [USA]: the FBI Body Farm. Yes, they’ve got a hundred acres or so and they bury all these John Does or whatever they call them, in various states of decomposition, and see what happens, and they learn from that so that they can help in police investigations. So we asked them a few questions. They were really, really helpful; they’re the only people in the world who’ve done it.



That’s brilliant! This journey has led you all over the place, hasn’t it Mark?



It certainly has. I’m just taking a look at my books. I’ve got a bunch of books here, but these days everything’s on line. The Natural Death Handbook from the UK is great.



And this new one? ‘A Better Send-Off’, is it?



Yes, by Gail McJorrow. It’s good. Her book’s more inspirational. She’s asking the ‘Why Not?’ question. If you were looking for the hard facts, that’s probably not the one you’d go to.


The other website would be Simon Manning’s Eco Funerals. He’s set up an eco-funerals network. There is an international network owned by an American funeral directing company, but Simon has tried to set a New Zealand-based one, and one of the formats he’s done it under is the Eco Funerals website.


The other people I’d always recommend are the Return to Sender caskets in Auckland. The reason I mention them is because it’s not just about caskets; they sell them (they’re not for everybody because they’re very designed, though they’ve got some simple ones now as well) but they are totally into the concept of natural burials, personalised funerals, the whole of thing. Their motivations are pure.


We’ve updated our fact sheet, but I’m not sure if it’s on the website. It’s a four-pager with a lot of that chemical stuff that you might want to have as a resource. I’ll email it to you.


There’s probably stuff to be talked about in terms of people’s engagement with funeral directors, or how much of the work of a funeral you take on yourself …


We’ve stayed away from any critique, or any involvement with funeral directors the past few years because they were so critical of us, but through that period we’ve learnt a few things about how to find out who’s good and who’s not.



I’m going to speak with Phillip Tomlinson, shortly. Do you know of him?



Yes, he’s the do-it-yourself, do-it-on-the-cheap man, but good on him.



And I think he’s also coming very much from a point of view that it’s so much better for the grieving process to have a lot of participation and involvement in a funeral.



I’ve actually looked up his book a lot because I’m convinced that the pre-planning, personalising stuff, where a person gets to plan and do their own funeral, is such a good preparation for death, and I’ve witnessed it. It seems to have people feel more content about their approaching death. We’ve got personal testimony from dozens of people who’ve used the natural cemetery about how important it was to them: dressing their parent, keeping the body at home, filling in the grave – that stuff where they participate. And referring back to what you were saying, how much better grieving is. Even seeing the person dead, rather than ‘sleeping’ in the sense of being all ‘lovelied up’.


So I’m convinced about that, but so far all we’ve got is effectively anecdotal; it’s just personal testimony. I’ve found no research that’s been done that you could say proves it. Personal testimony is no proof about better grieving, but I could put you in touch with a couple of families about how much better it made them feel. It gets you close to the real thing, but hard proof there isn’t any.


I think one of the great things about natural burial is that the experience has been so good that people want to share it. Obviously it’s to our advantage to have them talking about it, but for you it’s that personal involvement. It was part and parcel of what we started to do early on, was this idea of family involvement. We’ve all got too far away from death – it’s foreign, and scary, and we keep it at arm’s length, and we don’t need to. So these people will be able to speak to you about that.



That’s wonderful. Thank you, Mark, and for your time this evening.



Mark Blackham



Article referred to above:


Going up in smoke

Despite the recent efforts of some local authorities to encourage it, cremation is not a fitting way to dispose of your body after you die, according to the founder of Natural Burials, Mark Blackham.

Cremation turns your body into air pollution and barren ash. In our era of personal choice and environmental consciousness, it is odd that some City councils have recently decided to increase burial prices to encourage people to use cremation.

Studies of emissions reveal that cremation turns people into at least 46 different pollutants. Some of these, like nitrous oxides and heavy metals, remain in the atmosphere for up to 100 years causing ozone depletion and acid rain.

This fact would have horrified my Dad, who was cremated when he died last year in Australia. Being above all frugal, he had selected a no-frills cremation service for himself. They collect the body, burn it, and you pick up the ashes two weeks later.

I like to think that the fact that he had any choice at all is an indicator of the transformation beginning to work its way through the death industry. 
Society is becoming once again less fearful of death. People are demanding more involvement, more personalisation, and more choice in what happens to their body after they die.

At the vanguard of that change is natural burials – the concept of being buried without embalming, in a bio-degradable casket, at less than half the depth of the traditional burial, so your body is returned to the earth rapidly. A tree is planted over your grave, which becomes part of a new natural forest.

The natural decomposition processes utilised by a natural burial rapidly returns your body to the soil in the shape of around a dozen fundamental life-giving nutrients.

Not only do many people find the acres of bush in a natural cemetery a fitting memorial to their lives, they also regard returning their body to the ecosystem as a far better legacy to leave for future generations.

In the UK, the number of natural burials is growing at a rate three times faster than that enjoyed by cremation when it was first popularised and commercialised in the late 1800s.

Natural burials are bringing human death practices full circle.

For thousands of years early humans buried their dead in simple shallow fashion. Cremations only emerged relatively late in human history. It first arose in the Western world when Romans sought to mimic the dramatic fiery end of their great mythical heroes. Entombments soon replaced cremations thanks to the smart marketing of elaborately carved sarcophagi. By the fifth century cremation had become almost completely obsolete following the spread of Christianity, with its associated belief in the resurrection of the dead (thought to be a bit difficult if your body had been burned to a cinder).

Cremation was revived in 1869 as an idea at the Medical International Congress of Florence, and a model of a cremating apparatus and ashes was exhibited at the Vienna Exposition in 1873.

The first crematorium was built in the UK in 1885. The first crematorium in New Zealand was opened 24 years later, in Karori, Wellington.

Although New Zealand has one of the highest rates of cremations – around 70% of all deaths – the practice has met with mixed success internationally. In Britain only 56% of people are cremated, and in America only 26% of deaths are cremations (although the Cremation Association claims 39%).

Given the high cremation rate here, it is hard to understand why local councils think they face bigger cemetery issues than other countries.

I cannot leave under-answered recent claims that cremations are environmentally better because they reduce pressure on available land, and are “clean”.

The pressure on land and the environment is living humans, not dead ones.

If there is a ‘problem’ posed by cemeteries, it is traditional burial methods. We are the only species in which the dead do not return naturally to the eco-system. Long-life coffins, deep burial and embalming result in the dead remaining intact for a very long time.

Councils are worried by the realisation that, hundreds of years after you die, they will still need to meet the costs of mowing around your grave and re-erect your crumbling gravestone.

They are also jittery about the cost of buying land for new cemeteries, and the costs of owning intensely valuable cemetery land that can’t be sold or developed.

But if traditional burials seem problematic, let us consider the real effects of cremations.

Bodies take up to three hours to burn in a crematorium, using up large quantities of fuels like electricity or natural gas.

The process emits pollutants such as carbon monoxide, nitrous oxide, sulphur oxide, mercury, dioxin, sulphur dioxide, hydrogen chloride, hydrogen fluoride, cadmium and chromium.

Although transport and raw industries are the biggest contributors to air pollution, crematoriums are statistically significant polluters.

The European Environment Agencies Emission Inventory Guidebook says crematoria contribute 0.2 % of the total emissions of dioxins and furans – among the most environmentally destructive and long lasting pollutants.

San Francisco’s Public Works Department found in 1999 that crematoria were the third-highest contributor of mercury (from burning amalgam fillings).

Crematoriums claim to comply with environmental standards, but standards are relatively weak. For example, “clean-burning” crematoriums only reduce visible particle emissions, not the real pollutants.

Sadly, the remaining ashes are of no use to the environment either. Ashes are so inert that the soil in cemetery flower beds needs regular replacement to prevent accumulating dead ash choking the life out of plants.

A natural burial offers a far better alternative to both cremation and traditional burial.

It is better for the environment and a more satisfying choice for many of the dying and their families.

The greatest thing we can do upon our death is to be buried naturally, and lock land up in bush to be enjoyed by future generations of humans and flora and fauna.

I have not raised the biggest single reason against Councils forcing cremations – that it is ultimately a spiritual matter. It is not for Councils or Government to limit people’s choices.

And choice has been limited to date. Natural Burials is about to change that. According to our research, at least a third of all New Zealanders can’t imagine anything less fitting to our time alive than to be cremated after death.


Permission is granted to reprint this article, as long as the author and source are attributed prominently; Mark Blackham,

Death Cafés to Natural Death Care: an interview with Carol Wales

The first thing I’d love you to do, Carol, is give us some background – so, tell us a bit about the Death Café movement, where it came from, what it’s essentially about.


Okay. Jon Underwood, he’s in London*, he decided he would set up the website, Jon could see the need for people to talk about death, and have conversations about end-of-life – well, living, death and dying, really. He thought it’s always great to have food and a cuppa – people relax, feel comfortable, and generally speaking they feel more relaxed talking, about anything really. So that was where the café idea came from. And death, of course, is a word that often isn’t spoken about because people don’t like the word death.


He set this up in 2011. And we started our Death Café in 2013 – it was Mothers’ Day. When I set it up via the website – because that’s how you go about it – I think there were about 1000 Death Cafés in the world, and now (2015) it’s around 2500 world-wide. So it’s exciting to see the growth.


Yes. So tell us what you do. How often do you meet?


We meet every second Sunday of the month. The meeting is scheduled for an hour and a half. We open the space; I always light a candle. I never know who’s going to show up. I love it. There is no agenda, however I do bring along Advance Care Plan documents that attendees can take away. These are also available on the internet1


So it’s like any situation where people turn up to a cafe! You don’t know who’s going to be there.


Precisely.  A facebook page was setup, business cards and flyers were made up and left at Garnet Station Café where the Death Café was held.  


There is no set agenda for the meeting. I introduce myself, then we go around the room for the guests to introduce themselves. We then go through the guidelines which come from the Death Café website. These speak about privacy amongst ourselves – that what’s discussed within the room stays there – and about being respectful of the amount of time you’re talking in relation to others in the group. We don’t offer counseling, just hold the space for each person. People can share what’s going on in their lives or the questions they have about end-of-life.


So it’s a time for conversation.


Yes, which loosens people to feel comfortable to open up. It’s incredible seeing the transformation in people.


Can you give us an example? And I’m aware that I don’t want you to break confidentiality. So can you speak in general terms, or else check out with the people you speak of if they are happy for their stories to be mentioned.


Sure. One lady came along because she wasn’t able to talk with her Mum about the end of her mother’s life and what she wanted. She was the only daughter, and there was no-one else in the family. She just couldn’t go there with her mother. They did have a bit of a struggle in their relationship anyway. But through coming along – I think it was the second time she came – she talked about this in different ways, and we just shared ideas in which she could perhaps go about it. We weren’t solution-finding – we were just having an open discussion. After those conversations she told us she could actually approach it, and that she would like to be involved in the process after her Mum died, being with her body etc. She was realising the benefits of this in terms of grief, and being close to her Mum in those final days, sharing the ups and downs. We all know how meaningful that relationship can be with our parents. I just saw a softening in her, which was lovely to see. I see it in many different people and situations. People will often come to me afterwards and say, “That was so good. I feel so much better” – those sorts of comments. And then they want to have similar conversations with their families, their loved ones. And maybe we talk about Advance Directives. I always have Advanced Care Planning information available as well.


So, I wonder what the Death Café provides that enables people to then go away and talk with their mother or their family or a friend. What do you think it is?


What it provides is, from the comments I’ve had from people, that it’s a warm-hearted group that we have. My whole intention is that the place be warm-hearted and friendly and a place where people feel comfortable to talk. And as a facilitator, the whole time when I’m holding the space I endeavour to take it back to that friendliness, and it works. People feel it. It’s like when you go to a new job – if the space is made comfortable for you then you learn the job more quickly, you’re happier, and all of those things. It’s exactly the same with the Death Café.


And even the name of the movement, Death Café, is welcoming, isn’t it?


Well not everyone thinks that. I thought it just rolls off your tongue. But when we first started, and I had to push the button on Facebook when I set up the page, I thought, “Oh my goodness me. What’s going to happen here?” and then it started to flow – I put posts up, made flyers, made business cards, it becomes… normal. It takes the sting out of the word.


And to me, somehow putting the word café alongside the word death already starts to take the sting out of it.


It absolutely does. And what I’m finding is that people will ring me, or they’ll send an email, and say do you think I can come along. At the meeting I’ve had a 90-year-old couple come along, a lady at the end of life, a whole raft of people from different situations, and they share that.


So you might get people who are dying themselves (well, we’re all dying, but it’s a bit more up-front for some people) or people who are perhaps coping with someone who is dying but not able to talk about it easily with them?


Yes, or someone living on their own, with a long-term illness – it’s difficult for them. So the more we talk about it, the more people can be in the space with it. And I believe it helps with the fear. That’s what you want to eliminate, and enjoy that journey.


I know you work with death and dying, Carol, but I gather it’s possible to facilitate a Death Café regardless. In fact, I think I read on the website information that a facilitator needs to leave their profession at the door – just be there with everybody else – a whole group, all of whom are dying!


I don’t think you have to have that background at all.


No, just a willingness to talk about death.


And to not have an opinion.


Or have an opinion but be open to everyone else’s opinion, I suppose.


To not have an agenda. Like euthanasia has cropped up, and it’s not something that’s on my radar. However, we’ve had conversations and it’s great, because for people who are thinking, “Oh, if I get memory loss I just don’t want to go there”, maybe they discover that it’s really a fear around how they’ll be looked after? Through being in the situation with my Mum, that’s what I understand, too. And if you’ve got cancer it’s the pain that is often the concern.


So you’ve been able to see these themes, if you like, because you’ve got a group of people discussing whatever’s on top for them.


Yes, but also by having the conversation, a lot of things bubble to the surface. We never know what’s going to happen in regard to the conversation.


That’s interesting. So a person may come with one piece in mind – like the woman who wanted to be able to speak with her mother – but of course, get people chatting and you’ve got other things that might be quite under the surface in the same person, that bubble up for looking at. That’s brilliant.


It’s a process, because people are opening up. Like the elderly couple who talked about their relationship. He was so concerned about when he dies, would his wife be okay. He expressed this. He was a bomber pilot, so he’s been close to death many times and wasn’t fazed about dying. That wasn’t his fear; his fear was for his wife. And she was able to reassure him that it was okay.


You hold the Death Café once a month. Is that a pattern that you think works?


Yes. In my experience, if you have it every month – the second Sunday afternoon, the first Thursday evening, whatever suits – people know it’s on. They might not come for a few weeks, but they know. You can use the website to advertise, so people can check it out there.


What would your vision for the future be in terms of Death Cafés in New Zealand, Carol? What would you like to see?


I’d like to see everyone understand about dying. One of my desires or intentions deep inside me is that I want my son to know that it’s okay when I die. And for his own death – I want him to understand more about dying, not just, “I want to be buried”… I want him to know about the process. And that’s my intention for the end of life – it’s the process. I don’t want him to miss out on understanding that. I don’t want him to miss out on the mystery of dying.


Yes, that grieves me, too, Carol, when I see people fight so hard to stay alive because that’s the culture we’re in. I see Western culture as very directed to staying alive, and it can mean, I think, that people miss their death, and I think that’s a tragedy.


The conversations at the Death Café can lead into these things. Some people have been coming for a year, 18 months even, not every time, but over that time. And that says to me that people want more. But many people don’t think about it.


So you’d like everybody to have the opportunity to be able to talk about, and really understand, the process of dying?


I’d like it to be the norm to talk about it – that you don’t have to go and find a book about it because it’s just talked about. And we’d talk about it with children. Children are so receptive; they just get it. And a lot of elderly people do too.


And I guess the more we bring death back home, as it were – dying and after death – the more it will become familiar territory.


I feel that’s the movement, the times, we’re in. We’re just holding each other’s hands to go back home, teaching each other the natural ways to do things, so that when someone dies their loved ones know what to do, or they know who to call on to assist them. They can take the person home, and wash them, and spend time with them and talk to them.


Let’s close this piece in regard to Death Cafés, Carol, because we’ve segued into a different area.
I know it’s important for facilitators to have no particular agenda, but you have a particular passion, and also background, inasmuch as you are a death doula, a companion for the dying. And you’ve also done some learning about how to look after the body at home, that sort of thing. Is that right?


We call it natural death care.


So there are two trainings you’ve done – the death doula and the natural death care. Could you tell us about both of these? There may be people who would appreciate knowing where to go to explore these things further if they find they’re drawn to them.


I find it hard to talk about training, because it’s innately within me; it’s just been there forever.


Yes, I think it’s in many women especially.


Yes, it’s like everything in life. There are some things that are innately there, and not others. The difference is one of degree. I would say that if you looked at my soul CV you’d see many lifetimes of this. And everyone has their own way of doing things.

Going back to what you asked me about with the training, I already had this going on for me, but I felt I needed to do some training. It annoys the life out of me that we have to do training to show we’ve done something. That’s why I don’t really want to talk about it.




I’m not comfortable. A lot of what I do just comes naturally. I can’t do things if they don’t come naturally.


So you felt you had to do some sort of training, but actually you didn’t need to.


That’s right. And I think that is a very important piece. When you think in more traditional societies, and in our own society not so many generations ago, there would have been some particular women in the village who were more tuned into working with death, and quite likely with birth as well, but many women would have just taken their part.


Perhaps for them it was the most natural thing in the world for them to be involved with.


And others would have assisted. And I think we’re tapping into these things now; we’re tapping into the best of ourselves. So, yes, I did my ‘Accompanying the Dying’ with Deanna, but…


Maybe some of us had or have to do some training in order to break the hard ground – to initiate what for our society is rather new.


Maybe, and with the Natural Death Care with Claire Turnham, it was just so natural for me to do that. I adored it. And I’m all set to go. When somebody rings me and wants me there, I’m ready. Somebody has rung me and said he’s near the end of his life, so I’ve said just give me a call and I’ll be there to assist in whatever way you want me to.


So essentially you’ll go to their home and work alongside family to bathe and dress the body – that sort of thing?


Just assist with some of the things they’re not sure of, so they can enjoy this special time. I just know how much it’s going to mean to them when they look back.


Yes. I helped a friend of mine look after an elderly friend of hers when he was dying. A day or two before he died, I said to his wife that I thought it might be nice for the three of us – after just leaving his body undisturbed for a while – to wash him and put some nice cream on his body, and then get him dressed. She said, “Oh no, I don’t think so”. But when the time came, she did choose to be part of it. She became utterly and completely involved and just loved it. She said she wouldn’t have traded the opportunity for anything. It was a real last contact with her husband and gift to him, she felt.


And that possibility is in all of us. It does take a village to support. We can get called out at any time and we need each other. It just makes it so much easier. Somebody might be putting the kettle on… These are the things I want to see. Not all of us have got a lot of family, so if we know the community can do it, that feels so good – to know near the end of life that there are people who will come in and assist with loving arms. And if people are dying in hospital or a rest home, then we need to create a lovely space where people can gather.


Yes, I was thinking about that. There are times when the rest home or hospital are just going to be where death happens, but it’s about thinking ahead about how we can make the space feel warm and open and gentle, and to have asked what the person who is dying would best like around them, and how we can best serve them.


It’s about empowering people to do it.


So this is a real community thing you’re talking about now, isn’t it? It’s about developing these conversations beyond the Death Café and into community, so that we know each other, we know whom to call on for different things – we’ve got that sense of support around us.


I think the Death Café is going beyond its original intention now. However, it’s a great umbrella to be under. The name is becoming familiar. Whereas having all different sorts of names gets confusing.


And we’re a mobile society, so it’s good to have things that are familiar, wherever we are.

So is your sense that Death Cafés are becoming more like the beginnings of a community impulse around caring for each other at the end of life?


All the Meet-up groups are a way of bringing people together – things are already happening. Sometimes we don’t realise something’s happening, but it is. It’s like your Tango group; you can have a Tango Meet-up group for people who have always wanted to do the Tango. They don’t want to think it has to be perfect; they just want to have a go. Put a red rose and have a go!


That’s what living’s about, isn’t it? Just having a go at something and not thinking it has to be perfect. You know when you listen to Stephen Jenkinson2 he says that as a society we think we have to do everything right. Having to have certificates is part of this. And now what we’re saying is that innately within us is what we’re good at. There is a place for training, but we need to begin with what’s innately in us.


Thank you so much, Carol. As so often happens in these interviews, or conversations, we find ourselves somewhere even more interesting than the original intention!


*Jon Underwood died suddenly in 2017 at the age of 44. In the words of his wife, shortly after his death, “… through his work helping people come to terms with the idea of death, Jon was uniquely and unusually aware that life is short and appreciated his life fully, reflecting on this through daily practice … He lived every day reflecting very consciously on the fact that none of us know how long we have and focused completely on being present in, and making the most of every minute.”


  1. (created for New Zealanders, but a great resource regardless of where you live. Just check out if any particulars are required in your locality.)


  1. 2. Jenkinson, Stephen Die Wise – a manifesto for sanity and soul North Atlantic Books, Berkeley, California (2015)