Thursday, 1 November 2018

Let's talk about death

It being Halloween, All Hallows Eve, Samhain, Dia de los Muertos and so on, this seems like a good time to have a conversation about death and dying.

No, not the horrors of death, undead corpses walking around and spooky ghosts, but the actual realities of death and dying. For many people of different faiths and cultures, Halloween is more than an opportunity for costumes and scary films, it is a time where we consider grief and loss. There are often remembrances for the dead or the opportunity to accept loss and grieving and to move on. This ritual of being at peace with death and loss doesn't have to stop at others, it can extend to yourself too. Often this is metaphorical - saying goodbye to difficult circumstances or grieving a loss of self due to illness.
But maybe it can be more practical too. One of the many ways we can be more at peace with the concept of death in general and our own deaths in particular is toactually take time to think about what happens at the time. This doesn't just mean spiritual beliefs about the afterlife or what happens to a persons soul or spirit but can and should include practical considerations about how you physically want your death handled.

Ideally by considering these things and being open with loved ones about your own wishes you can encourage others to open up and talk about their wishes. While the thought of a loved one dying might be filled with sadness and fear, knowing what their beliefs are and what their wishes are can help to bring us to terms with their death (long) before the fateful day. If the only benefit is not having to worry about guessing at their wishes and making the practical aspect easier, that's still a weight off the shoulders of a grieving person.

In the therapy practice DBT this would probably be counted as the "coping ahead" skill in which a person visualises and works through a potentially distressing event in advance in order to lessen the impact of future feelings and to understand and cope with things which may be difficult.

But starting those conversations can be difficult. So let me go first.

I don't know what I believe about the afterlife. I am open to the concept of spiritual afterlives such as some non-Christian version of heaven. I don't really believe in reincarnation and I don't really believe in ghosts and the spirits of the dead haunting the living plane. I also don't believe that what you do to the body of the deceased impacts on any potential afterlife.

That doesn't mean I don't care what happens to my body. I actually do. I live my life in a manner which tries to be as environmentally friendly as possible within my circumstances and I would like that to be taken into account with what could be called my final act.

Ideally I would like to donate my body to medical science. I am also a registered organ donor. The process of donating your body to science happens long before you die. You have to submit a form or request to your chosen university of medicine giving your explicit consent while you are alive. It's not possible in most circumstances for somebody else to consent on your behalf after you have passed. If this is something you want then the earlier you arrange it the better. If you are in the UK can read the information on the Human Tissue Authority website. You will have to identify your local facility and contact them individually. I will be submitting a form to Leeds University as that is my local university. Should I move out of their "catchment area" then I will have to submit a form to whatever is the closest medical university there.
However, I also stated that I am an organ donor. Unfortunately this can be incompatible with donating your body to science. Medical researchers generally want whole bodies, so if your organs are donated after your death then the research institute may not be able to accept your body. There are other reasons they may not be able to take your body including some causes of death - each university has guidelines on what they can and can't accept. For this reason it's best not to leave your wishes at simply "donating to science".

image description: picture of a body wrapped in an unbleached linen shroud with yellow primroses resting on a wicker pallet. image from Respect Everybody Shrouds

I need a back up plan should my body not be accepted. For me there are a few considerations.
I specifically do not want to be embalmed and given a traditional British burial: the whole casket, 6ft down in a grave liner thing is not for me. It's too unnatural and too steeped in Christian traditions for me to be comfortable with. Embalming is also pretty nasty stuff. Sure I'll be dead and formaldehyde isn't going to harm me but it is a carcinogenic and there is the potential for harm to embalmers and also to wildlife and plant life should that fluid seep into the earth. Even worse, there have been cases of flooding in cemeteries which have washed that formaldehyde into our general water supply. Let's not do that.
So if I am to be buried I want it to be a natural burial without embalming and preferably in a shroud (I'm not going to lie if there is an eco friendly black option available, I'd love it) or all natural casket rather than the traditional big wooden box with all the fancy bits. This is usually called a Natural Burial or a Green Burial.

The other option I'd be interested in is sadly not licensed in the UK, but if it does become available before my death then it's super cool. It's called Alkaline Hydrolysis but is sometimes called "water cremation" or resomation. It's a process of essentially dissolving the body in an alkaline solution and then filtering the water. It's way more environmentally friendly than traditional cremation, though as it's less understood people are nervous about the thought of water filled with human remains. In reality this is cleaner than the smoke and vapour filled with human remains that gets pumped out of a crematory. My hope is that as it's talked about more people will become more comfortable with it and it will become legal in the UK. To be honest part of me likes this option because it has a slightly sci-fi feel to it.

image description: diagram of how an alkaline hydrolysis machine works showing a body in a cylindrical chamber. diagram from the BBC article "Dissolving the Dead"

And that's it. I have no specific wishes or requirements about funerals, wakes or memorials. I don't think that's up to me. That's something that is important to the living and I am happy to leave it to them to choose something that works for them and their grieving process. My concern is that my body is treated in a way that reflects my values. I would like my loved ones to know and be aware that they can be a part of this process if they want to be - if they want to prepare the body or be there at the burial or water cremation,  if they want a body that can be viewed. I want them to know that they have rights and some measure of control over how they mourn and deal with this event. It doesn't have to be completely taken out of their hands by a formal and clinical funeral home unless that's what they want. And a wake or memorial service can take place at any point and in any place they see fitting. That's ok with me.

I hope this helps you think about your own death in more positive or at least pragmatic terms. Let's start having these conversations and making death a less scary and incomprehensible thing.
There will always be sadness and grief around death and that's ok. But we don't have to make it harder on ourselves if we don't have to.

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