Thy Will Be Done: Death, Grief, and Responsibility.

Today my someone important in my life handed me her will and told me she is going to die soon.  Someone whose role in my life has been complicated, but has certainly known me longer than anyone else in the world, and they have just told me that they are going to die.  It has certainly been an odd Sunday.

Perhaps this may seem callous and overly personal for an article to be released publically.  However, is that not the big issue that is often faced when looking at mental health.  We do not want to discuss it, because it can be too painful, embarrassing, or personal.  So, in the spirit of overcoming this lack of discussion, for the final article of #mentalhealthawarenessweek, I will be looking at grief, responsibility and death rituals.

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Death is as certain as tax and Nigel Farage / Donald Trump /(insert your own idiotic, racist, and dangerous politician here) doing something so idiotic that your eye roll causes a migraine.  We are all going to die (spoilers), we often get very little say in this, death is very often completely devoid of individual agency.  Death is also a great leveler, as ultimately regardless of gender, nationality, sexuality, wealth, education, religion, age, or whatever car you own: we all head out to the same black night with no definitive answer of what is to come.

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I personally believe that you construct your own afterlife within the last few seconds of your brain’s lifespan.  As the last seconds of your life fall from the top to the bottom bulb ‘time; becomes individually relative and you can spend ‘eternity’ in a paradise/hell of your own subconscious imagination.  It would answer why so many have ‘experienced’ different things because that is what they hoped they would see.  I’m looking forward to being told I’m wrong, and I am absolutely not criticizing anyone’s beliefs.  It just makes perfect sense to me that that last moment can be the heaven you imagine before it goes permanently dark.  So moral of the story, be nice to yourself, because otherwise, you may end up taking the wrong last turn.  Personally, I am quite looking forward to flying my Tardis from distillery to distillery through history with Stitch, the 11th Doctor, Pond, and some select loved ones!  #afterlifeyourway

 

 

Going back to the matter in hand.  Death, burial and grief.  Within the Will I received today there are some very clear instructions on what to do afterward, and this got me thinking about burial practices in history.  Personally, I am rooting for a Viking funeral!  I am claustrophobic and the idea of being a box and planted, or being in a box and cooked are not particularly appetizing.  Sadly it appears, this is not an option, namely because it is very illegal unless under some very strict guidelines.  However, my disappointment aside, open-air cremations are a fascinating burial practice from history.  As noted the Vikings burned their dead in the open air so their essence could rise to Valhalla within the smoke.  It is less likely that they did this in a longboat however for two reasons: 1. because it’s a waste of a perfectly good boat (think of the resale value!) 2. because it would not get hot enough to fully cremate the body – instead the body would wash up somewhere else partially charred in a rotting container, the funeral equivalent of being given a strangers half-eaten 2 am kebab.

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Open air cremation has also been practiced in Nepal and India for centuries.  This still occurs today but can lead to issues both today and history.  Today, open-air cremations are allowed under strict guidelines, as a recent case in Newcastle recognized, where a member of the community wished to be cremated in line with his beliefs, leading to a lengthy battle with the local council.   Newcastle council cited the 1902 Cremation Act, as a reason for not sanctioning the open-air cremation of Hindus.  However during the First World War, after a significant amount of discussion in Parliament,  the funeral rites of Indian soldiers who had died at Brighton after repatriation to military hospitals were allowed.   During 1915, 53 open-air cremations took place on a burning-ghat set up on the South Downs near Patcham in Sussex.  Today the Chattri (“Umbrella” in Hindi) war memorial stands on the site of the burning ghat to commemorate the Indian fallen of the Great War.

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The Chattri Memorial in Brighton

These funerals in 1915 were the only open-air cremations to take place.  As concerns and complaints over the cost of the process, which had been levied at the local councils, forced it to end.  This issue also extended to the burial of soldiers who had been repatriated to Britain for medical care and died, as the British Military offloaded the cost and responsibilities to the dead soldier’s family.  This exploitation sometimes continued as in some places the cost of burial would double to cover the cost of burying someone in a different county than to where they lived.

Dealing with the dead has been an ever-changing process that is usually very culturally specific.  In the 19th century, it was common in British and some American households to keep the corpse of a loved one within the home of the family.  Today, this is sometimes still done and is similar to the Irish tradition of having the body present at the ‘wake’.  However, this practice could often be deadly, as corpses released disease and bacteria into the home infecting those around them.  This could be much worse in working-class homes were a single bed was used in shifts for the whole family.  Diseases such as smallpox, consumption (TB), or enteric fever (Typhoid), could be transferred through the proximity of the body to the living and diseased residue on bedding and furniture.

In 1962, a local leader in the Eastern Highlands of Papua New Guinea asks Fore men to stop the sorcery that he believes is killing women and children.
Courtesy Shirley Lindenbaum

In other culture throughout history, the practice of endocannibalism was not uncommon.   In Africa, India, and South America, small, and often tribal, communities would roast and eat the dead as ritualistic method of maintaining the community.   One of the most famous of these communities is the Fore People of Papua New Guinea.  The Fore routinely consumed the dead as a means of absorbing their life force as both a funeral and a method of grief.  The results of this were suspected to have created a unique and deadly disease ‘The Kuru’.  This disease was caused by an infectious protein (prion) found in contaminated human brain tissue and spread to kill thousands within the community in the 20th century.

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Modern takes on zombies often follow a similar fictional narrative path as the spread of the Kuru.  Within an excellent article on the possibilities of actual zombies on the Health Harvard blog, Stephanie Watson explains that while the Kuru has similar aspects to the common conception of a ‘zombie’, the primary issue is the distribution of the disease.

Toxins might be fine for creating a couple of zombies, but to launch any type of apocalyptic scenario there must be an infective agent and an efficient route of transmission. So far, the prion is the only agent that causes anything remotely related to zombieism. Prions are oddly shaped proteins that cause abnormal folding of proteins in the brain. Essentially, they turn the brain’s centers of higher thought into spongy mush.

Zombies, be they fast (21 days later), slow (The Walking Dead), comedic (Sean of the Dead), or functioning members of society (IZombie) stem from the very human fascination with the dead and dying.  One of the most terrifying aspects of death is the wiping of the slate.  All those emotions, experiences, learned knowledge, and internal thoughts are gone.  If we arrive ‘tabula rasa’, then we potentially return to the same state as we pass back through the revolving door.  Of course, it may be that your experiences and essence continues on through a ‘soul’ (see Buffy the Vampire Slayer), however, (unlike Buffy) regardless it is inaccessible to the rest of us after death.  Well, unless you have a glass, a letter board, a strong stomach, and have never, ever, seen an 80s horror film.

The word ‘zombie’ is said to have come from the 8th century, from nzambi, which in Kongo means ‘spirit of a dead person’, or zonbi, used in the Louisiana Creole or the Haitian Creole that represents a person who died and was then brought to life without speech or free will.  This is the primary issue with zombies within the cultural zeitgeist.  They are us devoid of our humanity or agency.  They can not talk or express feelings.  They are trapped in the endless cycle of consuming and wandering with no fixed goal other than to react to anything that passes their way.

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For me, the zombie is the perfect analogy for grief.  All the logic, the reasoning, the ability to rationalize, is gone.  During grief, we can be reduced to reactionary beings, whose notion of life is limited to the next stimuli that hit us.  That is what happened to me today.  As she handed me a file containing a will and a letter, what she actually handed me was a responsibility.   A duty to enact her final wishes, to deal with her possessions, to find ways to bring her ‘peace’ at the end.  As I received the file I felt nothing.  Honestly, this is not the first time I have been at the end of this conversation.  In fact, in my typical way, I made a joke.  Something along the lines of ‘this is the 9th time I have written your eulogy – at this point, it basically starts with “Finally!”  This is what I do, my process to deal with anything is to make a joke, followed by a joke, and if that does not work, another joke.  I have given several eulogies in the past, including the hardest after the sudden passing of my adopted mum when I was 21.  Even then, in that raw emotional state, I cracked wise like a failed comedian desperately trying to get that last career opening gig.  Because in that situation what else do you say?

When I say I felt nothing, I think I felt the absence of something.  The promise of more feelings to come later.  (I will also admit to being exceptionally hungover so it could be that).   I have been watching the new Netflix series ‘Dead to me’.  Within the show, grief is brilliantly portrayed.  One character is angry and destructive, another weeps uncontrollably.  One turns to faith, another to drink.  A particularly character I identify with continually makes jokes that no one else finds funny.  This is not usual.   I once read in a book at ‘Dark Sarcasm’ should be taught in schools.  I am a historical suicidologist with an obsession with military history.  I think about, and often make quips about, death and dying every day.  I am not even sure that ‘dark’ covers it.  (I once got told off for laughing at a funeral and not being somber enough).

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I think the point to this post is that death and grief are very personal.  But often the person with the least stake in it is the person who dies.  (Keep your vampire joke to yourself).  My responsibility box (as I am now calling it) is currently looking at me as I finish this article.  I know that my own mental health may suffer as a result of today’s events, so it is important to reflect on what is important and what you can do, as an individual, to protect and improve yourself.  My method is to immerse myself in fiction / my academic work.  I escape.  I always have.  But sticking with reality for a moment. Someone important in my life is dying.  That is terrifying for her and those around her.  She is grieving for herself, just as I am grieving for her, and she has not even died yet.  Today I was handed a massive amount of responsibility.  But I also received time to deal with it, a blueprint for the following stages, an opportunity to help and support her, and most of all the opportunity to rewrite that bloody eulogy again.

As I opened with, this article may come off as being too flippant, or cavalier about a very serious topic, however that is entirely my point.  At some point, we all have to deal with grief.  I now know that sometime in my close future, I am not going to be ok.  For a while.  While the situation is complicated, the truth is actually very simple.  The removal of one person from this planet presents a ripple effect to those around.  Things need to be organized.  Words spoken.  Papers signed.  Grief to be experienced.  And if studying this topic has taught me anything, it is that grief, like belief, and funeral rites, is often entirely unique; and that is ok.

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Thank you if you have been reading all of my articles this week for #mentalhealthawarenessweek it has actually be very challenging to engage with so many emotional topics, and I very much appreciate your time.  Going forward there is lots more to come – both academic and more conversational.  I’ll keep writing if you keep reading.

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