Sunday Sundries 8

Image from A.K. Rockefeller on Flickr (CC2.0)

Image from A.K. Rockefeller on Flickr (CC2.0)

It’s that time of the week again when we do a wrap-up of interesting death stuff from around the web:

Yesterday, we had the great pleasure of attending the Digital Legacy Conference in London (a full recap coming soon!) where we heard a range of excellent talks from speakers in the fields of death, medical care and the tech industry on how the digital age is changing dying, grief and memorials. Now let’s all go and make a Social Media Will!  Dead Social has a whole bunch of free tutorials to help you get your digital affairs in order.

In other news, scientists in South Africa may have just found the world’s oldest preserved human skin, on a 2 million year old fossil of Australopithecus sediba. This could offer new insights into our evolutionary ancestry and is possibly the oldest human soft tissue ever discovered.

Hyde Park pet cemetery. Image from "19th century photographs" online. Photographer unknown.

Hyde Park pet cemetery. Image from “19th century photographs” online. Photographer unknown.

The BBC ran an article on the rising popularity of pet cemeteries in the UK. Instead of burying Rover in the back garden, more and more people are looking for a permanent memorial and funeral for their companion animals. Of course, this is not a new thing, as this article on London Insight on the beautiful Victorian Hyde Park pet cemetery shows.

Ever wondered what actually happens to your body after you die? Of course you have! Ars Technica gives you all the details.

Finally, how did we miss this? Everyone’s favourite mortician and founder of the Order of the Good Death, Caitlin Doughty, examines the hidden dead of London along with Dr Lindsey Fitzharris, medical historian and all-round lovely person. Check out Lindsey’s channel, Under the Knife, as well.

Death in Cambridge: Dia de Muertos

We’ve featured Cambridge’s excellent Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology on Deathly Ponderings in the past because they do some excellent work and this month is no exception. While many Western countries tend to celebrate Halloween, Mexico (and parts of North America) celebrate Dia de Muertos.

The Museum displayed a wonderful Dia de Muertos altar space and we took some time to discuss the significance of its construction and the festival with a Mexican member of staff.

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Dia de Muertos

Celebrations start around the 28th October and reach their peak on 2nd November. It is a time for people to remember relatives, friends and ancestors in a celebratory way, with fun, laughter, music, food and music as opposed to the more sombre funeral rituals that many of us may be familiar with. The upbeat and rich Mexican tradition reflects the deeply held belief that no-one is truly dead until there isn’t anyone left alive to remember them.

Dia de Muertos has been celebrated for at least 3000 years and it brings together Aztec and Mayan religious traditions, with a more recent addition of Catholicism which was brought to Mexico by the Spanish conquistadors.

The altar

Traditionally, families will build an altar in their homes, with everyone taking part in decorating the space to honour their deceased relatives. Often altars will have three levels to represent the sky, earth and the underworld. The altars are then decorated with items, food and flowers that represent what the deceased enjoyed in life.

The lowest level is the first to be decorated. As a symbol of the underworld, flowers, candles and wood dust shapes are arranged to make a path or trail to guide the deceased’s soul to the altar.

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The middle level represents earth, or the world of the living. This is where the offerings and items that the person enjoyed in life are placed. These can include games, musical instruments, clothes, food, bread, drink and sweets. Food is often placed in baskets and traditional Mexican pots.

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The highest level represents the sky and is the spiritual level. A picture of the deceased is placed here with a glass of water and a cross made of salt or ashes.

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Activities

We were thrilled to see how many activities that the Museum were putting on over the Dia de Muertos festival period, from sugar skull mask making to storytelling for kids. They also had a small space for people to make tissue paper chrysanthemums, which are a traditional flower used on altars and represent death due to their flowering around the autumnal period.

We made two flowers for inclusion on the altar which was rather lovely, so we got to make our own ofrenda or offering to the person who the altar was made for: Gabriel García Márquez. The Columbian author died in April 2014 and was a national treasure for Mexico due to the fact that he spent a lot of his time there.

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Finishing off the day…Mexican style

To fully celebrate the ending of the wonderful Dia de Muertos festival (we had already celebrated Halloween in our own Celtic-tradition way), we thought we would support a local independent Mexican restaurant who do amazing burritos.

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We were thrilled to not only enjoy some amazing food, courtesy of Nanna Mexico, but we managed to get one of their last sugar skull cookies, as well as discovering an amazing altar on the upper floor of the restaurant space. The altar is dedicated to the original Nanna Mexico, Margarita, which was quite beautiful. Without her, Nanna Mexico wouldn’t exist and it is a truly special local secret of glorious food-based joy.

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Final bonus image: Nanna Mexico’s most central location has a wall of skulls in their stairwell. It is epic.

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Image credits: All images by Georgina. 
Text content greatly assisted on by MAA staff.

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.

Going back home for death

Hi all, Georgina here. So for those of you who read Ryan’s last post, you will know that his mother recently passed away and it has fallen to us to sort everything out.

Since the last post, we have been manically busy hence the long silence on the blog. Thankfully Ryan’s mother did not have to have a postmortem but the various delays and other bits and pieces meant that her death was only registered last Monday. As soon as we knew that that was going to happen, we jumped on the next train to start sorting through things.

So far we have managed to get things going with a funeral director. Thankfully the chap in question knows the family and has helped with the funerals of Ryan’s grandparents so he was really easy to deal with and is taking care of so many things which is a huge help.

We are currently wading through a lifetime’s worth of paperwork and other bits and pieces, trying to get some semblance of understanding of what everything means. This ranges from bank accounts to electricity bills and everything in between.

Reassuringly, everyone that we have had to deal with so far has been massively helpful and things are moving slowly but surely which is good. It is just rather surreal coming back to Ryan’s home town to sort out something we didn’t think we’d have to deal with for a good few years yet.

So far, we’ve discovered that there isn’t a will which means everything is up in the air. However, we’ve managed to get a lot done without having to pay a solicitor which is surprising yet empowering.

Anyway, Ryan will write another post soon to fill you all in on how things are going from his perspective. I’ve just been kicking ass and taking names with regards to getting all the paperwork sorted as that is the sort of thing I’m good at. Working together on this is way easier than one person doing it all alone so my only advice at this stage is, if you’re having to arrange all of this sort of thing alone…try and get a friend or a relative to help you out and if possible, make sure that they are someone you can trust and that you get on well with. Tensions and emotions run high with this sort of thing, so knowing that the person who is helping you has your back the whole way is important.

When death comes home

It’s one thing looking at death in the abstract, as an academic interest or a quirky curiosity, and quite another when it turns up on your doorstep when least expected.

I found out this weekend that my mother has died suddenly in hospital. She had various illnesses on and off for many years, including alcohol issues, but was recently very stable. She was rushed into hospital the other night, and died soon after. As I live hundreds of miles away, I was unable to be there for the death and so I got a phonecall from a relative to inform me the following day.

As it’s a Bank Holiday weekend here in the UK, nothing can be done until tomorrow at least. So there’s no death certificate as yet, and the coroner will be doing a post-mortem, so I have no idea when the body and certificate will be released.

But I will have to travel back at some point in the next few days. As the only surviving next-of-kin, organising the funeral and dealing with the estate (such as it is) is up to me. I won’t lie, it’s bloody terrifying as I have no real experience of this. I did help (along with Georgina) to organise my grandfather’s funeral a few years back, but estates and wills are a new minefield for me.

So what I was thinking of doing was blogging the process as I go. Both as a form of catharsis for me, and hopefully to be able to help others in a similar situation negotiate the legal and personal difficulties of a parent’s death. From dealing with funeral directors and solicitors to trying to organise a funeral in a religion I no longer identify with to dealing with family and the platitudes of well-wishers, it will all be here, so watch this space in the next few days/weeks.

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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Sunday Sundries 4

18th century Scottish gravestone featuring Memento Mori. Image from Martyn Gorman (CC2.0)

18th century Scottish gravestone featuring Memento Mori. Image from Martyn Gorman (CC2.0)

It’s Sunday again, which means time for more deathly nuggets found on the interwebs this week!

First up is The Conversation Project, an excellent site filled with downloadable resources to help people talk openly about their wishes for end-of-life care. The Project website says:

“Too many people are dying in a way they wouldn’t choose, and too many of their loved ones are left feeling bereaved, guilty, and uncertain.

It’s time to transform our culture so we shift from not talking about dying to talking about it. It’s time to share the way we want to live at the end of our lives. And it’s time to communicate about the kind of care we want and don’t want for ourselves.”

Do check them out and download a Conversation Starter Kit to help you have ‘the conversation’ with your loved ones.

Next, LiveScience has an image gallery of the anatomist and artist Gunther von Hagens recent work, the Animals Inside Out touring exhibition. I got to see this in London and it was breathtaking. Gunther uses ‘plastination‘ techniques to preserve the muscle, tissue and even blood vessels of animals (and humans) and turns them into scientific exhibits that are also works of art.

While on the topic of animals, here are nine touching epitaphs that ancient Greeks and Romans wrote for their deceased dogs. Just goes to show that the companionship of pets really is timeless.

Here at Deathly Ponderings, we’d also like to congratulate the Morbid Anatomy Museum in New York, which has opened this weekend. I hope to be able to visit there one day!

Right, that’s about it for another week. Let’s leave you with this rather wonderful creation of artist Thomas Kuntz, a hand-cranked automaton of a skeleton playing Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata, because why not?

 

Image credit: 18th century Scottish gravestone featuring Memento Mori. Image from Martyn Gorman (CC2.0)

Time to get personal: First aid and PTSD

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.

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Death Salon UK: a life-changing event

IMG_0172Earlier this month I was thrilled to have the opportunity to attend a three day conference in London that was all about death! Death Salon was started in the US and is based around the 18th century salon/coffeehouse movement where people got together to talk and share ideas. The recent event that I went to was the first time that Death Salon had held an event in the UK, so as soon as I heard it was happening, I snapped up two three day tickets immediately for Ryan and me!

I am very glad that I did, because during those three days I had an experience like no other. Each day had a theme: ante-mortem, peri-mortem and post-mortem. Each speaker sort of fitted in with each theme, with some finding some flexibility with their content. Each talk lasted for half an hour, with an average of 9-10 individual speakers per day, presenting on a whole range of topics. Each day was then concluded by a half hour keynote speech from one of the several Death Salon members who were in attendance: Megan Rosenbloom (Death Salon Director and co-founder), Dr Lindsey Fitzharris (Medical historian and The Chirurgeon’s Apprentice) and Caitlin Doughty (Founder of The Order of the Good Death).

As there was so much content, I cannot possibly cover each and every single speaker here, but thankfully there were some of us (myself included) who were tweeting throughout the conference and so I was able to pull everything together and create some rather epic Storify reports for each day. So, if you want the nitty gritty, check them out! Day One; Day Two; Day Three.

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