I could not stop for death…

(Apologies to Emily Dickinson for the title of this post!)

So it’s been a while since I posted about my mother’s death and the arrangements I have to make. It took a few days for the death certificate to be released from the coroner, and I travelled back “home” (not that it feels like it anymore) on Monday to do my duty as sole next-of-kin.

I don’t know quite what I was expecting, but the past few days have been such a whirlwind of paperwork, phonecalls, bank appointments, letters, meetings and other such administrative annoyances that I simply have not had the time to really stop and let the basic fact of the situation sink in: my mother, the last remaining member of my immediate family, is dead. That leaves me, and some uncles that I am rarely in touch with. Right. It’s hard to remember the human connection when dealing with names on forms and account numbers.

Today I finally had a bit of time to process this, and I feel…surprisingly OK about it. I worry that this makes me some sort of heartless sociopath, but I’m also glad that I am not utterly devastated by this event and can still function at something resembling basic normal-ish.

I’ve arranged the funeral thanks to a very helpful local funeral director who knows the family well (big shout out to independent funeral firms. You are awesome.), and dealt with the confusing feeling of writing a Catholic service when I left that religion years ago, but hey…Irish family tradition and all that. I am now awaiting relatives to turn up over the next couple of days, and the inevitable deluge of awkward small talk and emotional sympathies that I really could do without at this stage, but I’ll go along with for everyone else.

I did a very small and low-key naturalist memorial in the local woods by a lake today, which was my way of saying goodbye without the pomp and ritual of churches, and which meant more to me than any formal funeral ever could (thanks especially to well-timed local wildlife appearing). I feel at peace with death generally, and her death in particular, but am still pretty stressed about the upcoming funeral and managing everyone’s expectations.

I have some more I want to write about, like how it was visiting the house to sort through her (many) possessions, and the odd and sometimes guilty sense of relief I have now she is gone, but those are for other posts soon.

Robin Williams and depression

I was going to write about the ancient burial chambers on the Isles of Scilly today, so expect that to come later this week. Instead, I feel compelled to write something about the sad news today. As I’m sure you know by now, one of the most talented comedians and actors of our time, Robin Williams, has died aged 63. His death is apparently due to suicide, the end result of years of severe depression compounded by alcohol and drug problems.

I probably first encountered Robin Williams as the genie in Aladdin, and then grew up with his films being always there, a comforting background presence, whether comedic or dramatic.  What Dreams May Come was one of the first films that really made me and many others of my generation think about death, life and what it all means. Dead Poets Society remains one of the most profoundly life-affirming, and death-accepting, films of all time.

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What Robin Williams’ tragic death reminds me is that mental illnesses like depression are very real, and can be fatal.

Already on the internet, I’ve seen amongst the outpourings of grief, people saying he was ‘weak’ or ‘selfish’ and that he ‘gave in’. No, he was ill. Is a cancer sufferer weak or selfish if their illness kills them? It’s time mental illness was understood as a real illness and talked about openly, instead of in hushed whispers of shame or stigma.

Depression is not the same as sadness, and it cannot be cured by success, money, happiness, or positive thinking. If one of the funniest and most thoughtful people in the world can’t think themselves out of it, then nobody can.

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When animals grieve

Elephant herd mourning a deceased bull. Photo by Kelly Landen at Elephants Without Borders

Elephant herd mourning a deceased bull. Photo by Kelly Landen at Elephants Without Borders

Recently, a couple of posts have been shared across the Facebook deathly community about how humans mourn the loss of our pets. The ever-fascinating Dr Paul Koudonaris has taken some beautiful photographs of pet cemeteries around the world. Ancient Greek and Roman epitaphs for companion dogs show that this is not a modern phenomenon related to post-Victorian sentimentality, but an innate human need to grieve. Those who have never had pets themselves may not understand that this loss is acute, it really is like losing a family member or friend.

But this got me thinking, we know that humans grieve for animals, but what do we know about how animals grieve?

For many years after Descartes’ assertion that animals were basically automatons and only humans could feel emotion, the idea of animals mourning or even having a concept of death was seen as irrational anthropomorphism. But recent studies, such as those by Barbara J. King at the College of William and Mary in the US, seem to point to many animals sharing deep emotional bonds, and indeed mourning and grieving for their dead relatives and social kin.

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Looking for deathly jewellery and pins for all the family?

 

pennyThen look no further! I recently commissioned some pieces from the wonderful Alison Atkin, the lady behind Penny Darlings, and I wanted to write a small review as I have been completely delighted with the results.

I found Alison through talking about Death Salon UK on Twitter. She is currently an osteoarchaeology doctoral researcher and also runs the brilliant Deathsplanation blog where she talks about all things death! I followed Alison on Twitter because she is not only into deathly things but is also majorly involved in science communication and outreach, an area that I am also passionate about and have done a lot of work in in my last job as a polar librarian.

However, it wasn’t until I overheard a conversation on Twitter between Alison and the brilliant Ben Garrod (presenter of the recently excellent BBC series ‘Secrets of Bones’) about how he wore a piece made by Alison on one of his episodes. This immediately intrigued me and so I did some digging and found Penny Darlings!

I immediately loved everything that Alison has up for sale. From tiny skeleton pins to larger pendants, her work is meticulous, detailed and beautifully put together. I knew I had to buy something from her and I thought I would commission some pieces as I had been hunting for some particular items for a while and never seemed to find anything that was quite right.

So, I asked Alison to make me a crow skull pendant as I love corvids and have never been able to find the right sort of necklace version of one. I sent her some images for reference and she made something quite beautiful. I also asked for a Ouija planchette necklace, because even though I know the Ouija board is nothing more than a novelty parlour game, I do like its associations with the occult and Victorian seances, both things that fascinate me. We exchanged ideas via email, Alison sketched up some examples and we worked together to get the final design that I wanted.

I also spotted a hero shrew pin on Alison’s list of items for sale and I asked if she could make a tree shrew for me instead as Ryan (who writes Deathly Ponderings with me) loves them. Alison did not disappoint and the detail on the tiny skeleton is breathtaking.

Alison turned around the designs really quickly, especially as they were new designs, and I received my packages yesterday. Each item was individually packed in a tiny envelope with the name of the animal or item written on the front with a delightful wax seal. I love my two necklaces and Ryan is thrilled with his tree shrew.

photoAlison has had her work featured by people wearing her pieces in the media and in other places, one excellent example being the wonderful Carla Valentine who wore Alison’s Abracadabra necklace in her interview photograph with the Independent when talking about Death Salon UK.

This is not a promotional post. Alison has not asked me to write this post, but I wanted to because I think her work is beautiful (and supporting independent artists is a good thing!) and you should all go and buy something from her or get in touch if you want something a bit more personal through her commissions option.

Image credits: Screenshot of Penny Darlings (Copyright Alison Atkin);
Penny Darlings jewellery image by Georgina (Designed by Alison Atkin)

A Druid’s thoughts on death

Stone burial chamber at Wayland's Smithy, Oxfordshire.  Credit: wikimedia commons

Stone burial chamber at Wayland’s Smithy, Oxfordshire.
Credit: wikimedia commons

I’m not religious myself, but I’ve always been fascinated by modern Pagans and their approaches to nature. Druid and blogger John Beckett is one of my favourite writers in this area, and he recently posted two very thoughtful pieces on death which I have been meaning to write about for a while now. Go read them!

In response to questions about heaven and hell asked of him by well-meaning Christians, John articulates a fundamental difference between the dominant Christian religious paradigm in the USA and his own Pagan beliefs. He writes:

Christianity (at least in its more conservative forms) is a death-preparing religion – its primary focus is on holding the proper beliefs so the follower will end up in eternal bliss and not eternal torment.  Paganism (at least in its more popular forms) is a life-celebrating religion – its primary focus is on doing the right things so the follower lives meaningfully and honorably here and now.  That’s a highly generalized view, and that’s certainly not all either religion is concerned with, but it is a key difference in core assumptions.

This difference in focus does tend to lead to different views on death and dying, as well as on how to live your life. If life is a test that determines your place in the hereafter, and death is the final judgement, then what matters most is ‘passing’, ticking the right boxes, worshipping the right god in the right way.

If death is understood however as simply a natural process, a transition, then it can be seen as a part of the great cycle of nature, of life and death and new life.

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