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.
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.
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.
I have just re-qualified as a first aid provider with St John Ambulance and this triggered some thoughts about sharing a story on here about my experience with death and PTSD as a first aider.
I won’t go into too much detail about the individual involved as they have surviving relatives and it would be unethical of me to reveal too much in a public forum such as this. However, I feel that sharing my experience is important as death is not always interesting/entertaining/fascinating. It can be scary, traumatic and difficult, regardless of how well adjusted to it you are.
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.
John Bellingham’s skull on display at St Bart’s.
Photo credit: potts-pots.blogspot.com
I’ll admit it: Georgina is more deathly than me. Apart from a period as a Goth in my teens, and an aesthetic appreciation for all things horror, death has never featured strongly in my thoughts.
So when I went along to the Death Salon at St Bart’s, I had no idea what to expect and was a bit intimidated. However, the warm welcome and engaging speakers soon swept away any lingering fears, and I was instantly hooked, drawn in to this marvelously macabre world where funerals, autopsies and decomposition were acceptable topics of conversation over tea and biscuits!