Life’s Most Ignored Partner: Death

“It is hard to have patience with people who say, ‘There is no death’ or ‘Death doesn’t matter.’ There is death. And whatever it is matters. And whatever happens has consequences, and it and they are irrevocable and irreversible. You might as well say that birth doesn’t matter.”
– C.S. Lewis –

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My sprightly father has been researching the price of funerals in the Sunshine Coast. Or should I say, he has been exploring the cheapest possible way to dispose of his body when he dies. His Melbourne plan to donate his body to research at a local university was sabotaged when we moved to the Coast. Never fear, he just discovered that he can save a whopping $2,000 by using a funeral home near Brisbane and he reported his finding to me with a smug sense of satisfaction! As you can tell, I grew up in a home where we talked about death. It was as natural as talking about life. I only discovered that talking about death was a social taboo when I moved to Australia, and strangely enough, especially in church.

It remains somewhat of a mystery to me why people avoid this subject at all cost. Last time I checked, the death rate of Homo sapiens was pretty high – sitting very close to 100%. Death is inevitable. Considering this, why wouldn’t we ensure that we have a will in place (no matter what age) and clear instructions for end-of-life care? “DO NOT RESUSCITATE”, for example, has been emphasised to me by my father. If he could, he would have that clause tattooed on his forehead. I know it’s hard, but we need to talk about our mortality and death with our loved ones.

Our society’s strange avoidance of death is really quite insane. It seems like we fear death so much that we have convinced ourselves that by not talking about it we can dodge it. Anyone grieving the loss of a loved one in such a cultural “Truman Show” is normally met with awkward comments, a change of subject, or, a total lack of contact and care. By refusing to see life and death as part of the human existence we have created hell for those touched by death.

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One of the most famous historians of death, Philippe Ariès, claimed that death became a shameful scandal in modern society, that the dying were hidden away in hospitals and that grieving survivors were silenced to repress this scandal of death: “We ignore the existence of a scandal that we have been unable to prevent; we act as if it did not exist, and thus mercilessly force the bereaved to say nothing. A heavy silence has fallen over the subject of death.” Ariès is amongst a growing chorus of voices calling on society to stop this nutty denial and recognise and humanise death, “Death must simply become the discreet but dignified exit of a peaceful person from a helpful society that is not torn, not even overly upset by the idea of a biological transition without significance, without pain and suffering, and ultimately without fear.” Ignoring our mortality does not make death go away, rather, it creates even greater fear and hysteria about this unavoidable life event.

Looking back it also seems rather strange to me that for the many years I spent in church I only ever heard one whole sermon dedicated to death and preparation for dying. I know not all faith traditions avoid the subject, but in the Pentecostal/Charismatic scene a sound theology of suffering and death still remains fairly undeveloped. In fact, talking about death in these places is taboo. An almost superstitious-like fear hangs in the air, coupled with an often over-emphasis on healing (understood in the limited context of physical symptoms), miracles and positive confessions. The disappointment that an individual who had invested into this ideology encounters when touched by death or suffering cannot be understated. It can take someone years to recover from the toxic idea that God has let them down or they did not have enough ‘faith’ to avoid disaster.

My life and the life of our family was irrevocably changed with the sudden death of my mother in 2007. She played a key role as a very loved matriarch in our family structure. Her absence is felt to this day. C.S. Lewis wrote a most poignant journal where he recorded the death of his beloved wife, Joy, in A Grief Observed. He writes, “Her absence is like the sky, spread over everything” and “The death of a loved one is like an amputation.” So I am not for a moment suggesting that talking about death is easy. The very idea of losing the people we love is too sad for words. Yet life requires us not to ignore its partner, death. If the consequences of someone’s absence are so monumental and devastating, we have to be able to talk about our mortality and the decisions that await us or another person in such a tragic event.

Friend, take courage. We do not have much say into life choosing death as its partner. We do have a choice about ensuring that we have things in place for our departure. We also have a choice to talk about death, to discover the wishes of loved ones, and discover the details surrounding wills, accounts, legacy plans, etc. The stories we hear of the distress of people left in chaos when this unpleasant topic has been neglected should be enough to convince us that it is time to defy this silly social taboo and become vocal about mortality. Life is a journey, so is death, and both need our attention.

 

“End? No, the journey doesn’t end here. Death is just another path, one that we all must take. The grey rain-curtain of this world rolls back, and all turns to silver glass, and then you see it.”
– J.R.R. Tolkien “Return of the King” –

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Iceland, Here I Come!

“The problem with driving around Iceland is that you’re basically confronted by a new soul-enriching, breath-taking, life-affirming natural sight every five goddamn minutes. It’s totally exhausting.” – Stephen Markley

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Iceland! It’s been on the Bucket List for a very long time. In a few weeks, the beloved and I will be travelling to this isolated, under-populated island on top of the world … and I can’t wait!

If you are going to travel, my partner-in-crime is your ‘go to’ guy. He has meticulously planned our days from the time we arrive in Iceland’s capital, Reykjavik, the world’s northernmost capital city, to the car hire, accommodation, and cash conversion. I do not share his eye for detail or enthusiasm for travel planning. But over the years, and on our many travelling adventures, I can only say how grateful I am to this travel mastermind.

As a devout nature lover, Iceland has always fascinated me. It has a unique landscape, shaped by the forces of nature: geysers, mudpots, ice-covered volcanoes and glaziers. Locals and tourists alike fall in love with its green valleys, fjords and roaring rivers. As I write this, I glance at my hiking boots with great anticipation!

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Icelanders are obviously very proud of their beautiful piece of the planet. They have gone to great length to preserving their natural wealth through conservation and responsible fisheries management. According to the Environmental Performance Index, Iceland is the world’s greenest country. Renewable energy is a major focus and nearly every home in the country is heated from renewable energy sources. I do wish the powers-that-be in my own beautiful habitat would pay attention to reasoning and the actions of these Northerners!

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Then there are the books! Research shows that more books are written, published and sold per person per year in Iceland than anywhere else in the world. As a young child I was fed a steady diet of bedtime stories from Brothers Grimm, Norse Mythology and Icelandic Sagas. These sagas remain an integral part of Icelander identity. They also contain valuable information and record monumental events, like the discovery of a large island called ‘Vinland’ by Leif Erikson – an island later divided into two and renamed Canada and America! The sagas influence how we tell and read stories to this day … Tolkien would agree.

Ég tala ekki íslensku! But not to worry, there are some great apps to help with that problem. And, yes, my travel-wizard partner has already downloaded them. Icelandic is an insular language and has not been greatly influenced by other languages. It holds similarities to Norwegian and Faroese, but has changed very little from when the country was settled in the ninth and ticeland-quotes-1enth century. Icelandic is astoundingly difficult to speak and even harder to pronounce. Fortunately, most Icelanders speak English, so I won’t even attempt to demonstrate my zero Icelandic competence … and I won’t tell my enthusiastic travelling companion that we probably won’t use his freshly downloaded apps.

Let’s not forget the hot springs. Ingrained in Icelandic culture is the wonderful habit of bathing outdoors in volcanically heated pools – a tradition started by the Vikings. Theseblue-lagoon-569346_1920 geo-thermally heated pools, dotted across the country, have valuable health benefits. The most famous of these is the Blue Lagoon – in a lava field on the Reykjanes Peninsula. My bathers are packed! If you hear some rumours about an insane Australian who missed her flight home because she found marinating in these pools more appealing than a gruelling plane flight home … that could be true!

Sjáumst!

I have a deep and ongoing love of Iceland, particular the landscape, and when writing ‘Burial Rites,’ I was constantly trying to see whether I could distill its extraordinary and ineffable qualities into a kind of poetry. 
– Hannah Kent – 
 
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