Sunday Sundries 2

Welcome to this week’s roundup of interesting deathly miscellanea we’ve found on the interwebs recently. Let’s begin with the recently deceased Rik Mayall, a truly great comic actor, talking in his usual irreverent style about why we shouldn’t fear death: GroundSwell Project is an interesting initiative in Australia designed by Clinical Psychologist Kerrie Noonan, and Playwright Peta Murray in late 2009, to encourage deep engagement with death in society. To do this, they use art, film and creative speakers to open discussion of death acceptance. Go check them out, on their site, on YouTube and on Twitter.

One thing they have on their website is a link (Dying to Know) to all the many great TED talks that have dealt with death. There’s a lot of excellent viewing on there, but I wanted to share one video in particular: Jae Rhim Lee talking about her environmentally-friendly mushroom burial suit. It’s not at all like that episode of Hannibal, don’t worry! But it is pretty cool.

And finally, the webcomic xkcd has a fascinating series of ‘what if’ questions discussed in terms of science and statistics. One such question is what would happen to the human population if just one extra person were to die per second. Check it out HERE. Mentioning xkcd also gives me an excuse to post this:

That’s all for this week’s Sunday Sundries, be sure to look out for more deathly posts from us soon!




Billy Connolly’s Big Send-Off: a review

Billy_ConnollySo the UK TV channel ITV had a two part documentary on the topic of death, presented and produced by Billy Connolly. For those of you who don’t know who Connolly is, he’s a Scottish comedian who has courted controversy for the topics that he has covered in his routines, from blasphemy to masturbation. He is a very popular comedian and musician and has appeared in many films, including The X-Files and the best film of all time, Muppet Treasure Island.

However, Connolly has not been in the best of health recently. Fairly early on into his Big Send-Off programme, he tells how he had a very “funny” week: On Monday he got hearing aids, on Tuesday he got tablets for heart burn and on Wednesday he was told that he has prostate cancer and Parkinson’s Disease. Needless to say, this series of revelations had quite an effect on Connolly and while apparently he had been wanting to do a documentary on death for a while, having his life shaken up made him want to actually get on with finally making it.

In the first episode, Connolly took us on a (mostly) US-centric death journey with lots of interesting examples of funeral directors (including one that had a drive-thru viewing room…a classic example of the separation from the realities of death) as well as a fabulous tour of the necropolis of Colma, California. Connolly also went to a funeral directors’ exhibition where he saw lots of different services, including the exciting fungi suit that breaks down the body through providing a growing space for fungi. Connolly really wasn’t convinced by the fungi suit which made me sad as I think it is awesome! I read a few comments on reviews of the programme from around the Internet and the fungi suit wasn’t popular with viewers either. Strange. Connolly also met up with the hilarious Eric Idle who sang his “Five Stages of Death” song which was brilliant yet regrettably unreleased so I can’t link to it here.

In the second episode, Connolly continued on his journey but the tone of this part of the documentary was certainly different to the first. We saw a memorial wall to young people who had been killed in New Orleans. The local pastor for one of the areas affected said that young people in New Orleans were more likely to be killed than a soldier serving in Afghanistan. Needless to say, it was quite moving to see how the community mourned their dead and fought to keep their memory live through tshirts, processions and other forms of ritualisation.

Connolly saw lots of things and met lots of fascinating people, including a 91 year old artist who had come to terms with his inevitable death and was incredibly inspiring in the way that he approached his remaining months of living and just didn’t take anything too seriously. However, the part of the documentary that really resonated for me was when Connolly visited the anatomy department at the University of California (San Francisco) and read the many cards that anatomy students had written to the people that they had studied as part of their learning. I found the process of talking to the person who gave their body to science and learning must have been quite poignant for those students, especially after hearing lots of varied reported experiences of medical students at Death Salon UK (they ranged from naming their cadavers to trying to keep them as anonymous as possible). One of the cards said that they especially liked the deceased person’s “badass tattoos”. This made me chuckle.

Interestingly, Connolly was very unsure about donating his body to science and made lots of jokes about his physical appearance. However, after speaking with the wonderful anatomy staff, he clearly was convinced about its worth as an endeavour.

I have summarised this documentary hugely for the purposes of this post. There were lots of cool things that I haven’t mentioned and if you are in the UK, the ITV player catchup service should still have the programme up for a while. If you’re not in the UK then I’m afraid you will have to get creative or have a friend who can tape it for you, old school style!

Overall, I found the documentary to be really interesting but I found watching Billy Connolly to be quite difficult at times. I’m used to him being a force of nature, racing around a stage and swearing profusely while making his opinions known with energy and enthusiasm. The man I saw on my TV screen was a shadow of that person. Of course, this is mostly down to age and his various recent health scares but it wasn’t just that. He seemed to be nervous and afraid throughout a lot of the programme. He turned away from things that I wouldn’t expect him to, and he reacted negatively to certain situations in ways that surprised me.

I can’t possibly criticise Connolly for responding to death in a very human way. His view of life and existence has clearly changed over time and has definitely been affected by his health problems. I am grateful to him for having made this programme and I am grateful to ITV for agreeing to air it. I can only hope that Connolly finds some peace when his time comes and that he has learned a lot from making his documentary, because I know I certainly did.

When faced with our own mortality, it seems that even the most vibrant and spirited of folk can become cowed by the reality of it all and in a way, I respect the honesty that that showed throughout the documentary.


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: My Thoughts

John Bellingham's skull on display at St Bart's. Photo credit:

John Bellingham’s skull on display at St Bart’s.
Photo credit:

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!

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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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