I purchased my first copy of The Natural Death Handbook: A manual for improving the quality of living and dying in 1993.The poor old thing is on its own death bed now: balding as pages, brown and mottled, come adrift at the spine and must be carefully shoved back in beside their slightly more robust companions.
Since that edition The Natural Death Centre in London published several more and, this year, produced its fifth edition– in the form of not one but three books!
Before I even open a page, the aesthetic design of the trilogy and the box which houses it is so elegant that I instantly want to add it to my already very comprehensive library. I’m a sucker for a pretty face.
The first and slimmest of the three books (I imagine this will have to be updated fairly frequently) is The Natural Death Directory. It includes chapters on Natural Burial Grounds (within just the UK), Funeral Directors and Coffins and urns.
The second volume is The Natural Death Handbook itself. There’s lots of reading in it and I’ve yet to delve into it; skimming through the ‘Contents’ I notice that subjects addressed include the natural-death movement; spiritual aspects of preparing for dying; practical aspects of preparing for dying; planning a funeral in advance; practical aspects of dying at home; practical aspects of keeping the body at home; an overview of funerals and loss, grief and bereavement.
Writing on Death, the third volume, was instantly appealing and I have started reading some of the essays. In ‘Degrees of Separation’ – her article on her mother’s death – Emma George writes with poignancy and humour: a potent mix. For example…
‘These are times of elevated consciousness [when her mother was dying], when everything seems to respond. Nature responds. Songs on the iPod shuffle respond. These are the times when all that is mundane, grey and meaningless fades away. I think this is what people mean when they talk about faith.’
‘To witness birth or death is to witness the void. It’s a high voltage surge of love’… and ‘Losing my mother sounds wrong; it reminds me of being a child in a department store. My mother isn’t near the perfume, or waiting for me at the escalators. My mother isn’t anywhere.’
I found touching the quote from The Summoning of Everyman (c.1475): that Richard Barnett begins his essay, ‘A Brief History of Modern death’ with…
O Death, Thou comest
When I had thee least in mind.
The essay itself makes for intriguing reading. It’s followed by ‘Time to legalise assisted dying’; ‘Animists and ancestors’; another by Dr Sheila Cassidy, ‘Hospice: vision for a brave new world’; another on death masks and funeral rites, and on celebrants as the new priests.
Stephen Grasso’s essay (‘Feeding the Bone Orchard’) caught my attention and held me; he’s another writer who creates some vivid and thought-provoking images. ‘Tiny and afraid, separate and alone, we move as single units of flesh coming and going across parched earth,’ he begins. And the following which – though the sentiments aren’t new to me – are compelling.…
‘Death is the most basic of life functions…. No matter how much we try to pretend that it isn’t there, it is something that each of us will have to face in our lives again and again until our own number is up…. So when this condition of existence eventually catches up with us, it causes a spectrum of unbearably painful and difficult emotions that we are largely unprepared for. Our culture is so far in denial about the reality of death that we don’t really have the coping mechanisms in place for a healthy integration of our bereavement, or a rational context for the existential uncertainty that reminders of our mortality can often provoke.
‘We swallow it all down and hold a knot of grief in our stomach that we carry with us for the rest of our lives, and we try to forget the smiles and personalities that meant so much to us.’
Other essays include one on Music thanatology, on Carl Jung and the dead; on Freedom, Meaning and Loneliness, and conclude with ‘Leave Them Laughing’ by Carla Zilbersmith, as she was dying of motor neurone disease. Her last paragraphs are so joy-infused, exuberant even, and they remind me of the lovely poet Rumi, and of Phillip Gould, as he was dying of cancer (see his book When I Die; Life in the Death Zone) when he wrote of ‘ecstasy…moments on moments of ecstasy.’
Carla writes: ’I feel like I am hiking up a steep mountain trail, followed reluctantly by my healthy and able-bodied loved ones. I have reached the pinnacle of the mountain and the view is remarkable. What I see is that we are all beautiful and imperfect creatures who hold in our hands all the secrets of the universe about how to live a joy-filled, satisfying and authentic life. However, we are clutching so hard to hang on to this life that we can’t open our hands to receive this bounty.
‘I’m madly in love with living. Thanks to my illness my life is high-definition Dolby surround sound!… I want to crawl into the backseat with life and steam up all the windows I want to stop everyone on the street and tell them about my love…. Lately, more of the hours of each day are filled with suffering rather than joy, but I will not stop inviting in joy until my last breath; I will not spend my life bemoaning something which cannot be changed. ‘
Even if the Resources volume is relevant largely just for those living or planning to die in the UK, this trilogy is a steal at £25. Available from The Natural Death Centre.