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Leaning into Death


6 Minute Read

As some of you know, I am deeply interested in death and dying.

A few weeks ago I released the beginning of a film collaboration with my friend Andrew Hassenruck. Its intent is to keep some kind of record as I explore the possibility and option of taking my life.

When I say released, I don’t mean in a major way. I’m not a media star, and neither is my little film trending. Nevertheless, I have come out into the public domain with my enquiry. Everyone to whom I matter has seen it. Many people I don’t personally know, some who kindly follow my blog, friends of friends, friends of strangers, have seen it too.

Over the last decade, I have chosen to write from an undefended place. It serves me well as a connective measure, and if on occasion it can serve someone else, well, that is a cherry on the cake.

Andrew Hassenruck
Caroline Bobby by Andrew Hassenruck

Although I’ve become comfortable with the process of working like this, putting this piece out there – still put my heart in my mouth. My close friends were already in the loop. I had had fulsome conversations (you know who you are) and felt into what it would mean, and what it would ask of me, to go public.

It’s an emotive and taboo terrain. It’s an unusual proposal. It’s likely I’ll trigger some people to anger, fear, judgment, or argument. Most difficult of all is when others want to fix me. I get the good heart of it, but that triggers me.

Don’t get me wrong, if I were offered private health care that would take me out of the six months between appointments and praying to get to talk to the same surgeon as last time, groove, I’d say an unreserved, yes, please and thank you. They are the facts of the matter, alongside the time it takes to journey through the necessary hoops. I’d prefer a shorter route to finding out if the surgery to fuse two discs in my spine, either alleviated pain enough to make a difference to my quality of life, didn’t work at all, or indeed made it worse. These are the possible outcomes.

It’s the intense level of generous but onerous offers to fix that sees me off. The endless treatments and practitioners that have worked miracles for someone else. I want to say: don’t you think I’ve tried a lot of different remedies over many years? Don’t you reckon I might have some people in place? Don’t you realize that my disposable income is very small and may well be allocated already? My low tolerance for such efforts may not be fair, or very graceful, but I also want to say: what if you don’t have to offer me anything, and neither one of us needs fixing? My point being that these old narratives make distance happen, and I’d rather hang out in the fields of helpless humanity, where tears and laughter are buddies, and it is as it is.

Death compels me, and always has done, though this last decade of my little life has been the kindest. Kindness found me when I gave up looking for redemption. It was always there. Do I regret how long I didn’t know that for? Yes, I do.

I wonder about the duet of my depression and physical pain. If I were of a lighter disposition, would it seem such a viable option to choose death in the face of increasing disability and pain? The truth is I don’t have and won’t find a categorical answer to such wondering. A simple thread of truth is this: if there isn’t a way to reduce the degree of pain in my back, hips and groin, the pain that is my constant companion, I don’t want to stay in the world. It’s survival. It’s both too much and not enough.

My specialist subjects of death and enduring depression are not always easy to speak about. I feel deep in my blood and bones that doesn’t serve us, and that the unspeakable needs a voice. Many voices. Being a tiny thread in that conversation matters to me. What if depression responds better to being welcomed than banished? What if suicide is not by definition a tragedy? (Though of course it often is) What if choosing to die, is for some of us, the optimum option? What if death itself is not a tragedy, but could be more of a sweet human event to be thought, talked about and walked towards, differently? What if the mirror twins of entering embodied life with the first breath, and slipping out on the last, were equally blessed? What if more of us could turn our faces into dying with awareness and kindness?

I know, that’s a lot of what ifs.

Here’s a thing, I feel a least some gratitude to this opportunity for sincere enquiry. I enjoy, yes enjoy, thinking it through, imagining and creating details. I can feel my integrity and my love of beauty, ritual and intimate communication in the harness. I would put my heart and soul into giving it my best, passionate effort. That must mean at least some part of me, however small, would be disappointed if the surgery is effective and I get to stay in my little life for a while longer.

In the few weeks since setting my film loose, I have received so much kindness and understanding. I am truly humbled by some Herculean stretching to empathy instead of opposition. Gratitude especially to my brother Paul, sister in law, Maureen and precious niece, Genna.

In April 2014, I started sending Postcards from the Window Ledge. My first blog post ends with these words.

Somewhere between a daughter being born and a sister dying,

I have found that I can love life and long for death at the same time.

That both are true, and I am as full of tenderness as of despair.

As Leonard Cohen says in the lyrics of Famous Blue Raincoat: I hope you’re keeping some kind of record. For me, the taking of a few notes along the road never fails to crack my heart open. With my heart open I always remember we are in it together. All our little lives rolling on and running out, in a ravaged and beautiful world, that in my humble opinion – is also dying.

How Creating my Own Rituals Helped me Grieve for my Mother


11 Minute Read

I’m a skeleton collector. I have a large sea-washed radius from a sperm whale beached on the sands in Orkney. Part of its flipper, its hand. One of my most treasured possessions is an early Victorian piece of scrimshaw, engraved with portraits of two women – maybe the whaler’s wife and daughter or maybe his lovers in different ports – made from a sperm whale’s tooth which I inherited from my father. In fact, I have a whole collection of teeth, ranging from a 50,000-year-old European cave bear’s molar to all my baby milk teeth kept by my mother alongside my four adult wisdom teeth taken out when I was 21. I can now keep my wisdom in my pocket.

Bones and teeth survive. Bones remind us of the transformation that occurs at death. I have a bunch of my hair too, literally a fist full of matted dreadlock strands woven with strips of fabric and beads, remnants of my thankfully brief ‘crusty grunge’ phase in 1991 – hair which has lasted nearly 30 years. Like bones, hair lives on. I’ve come to understand I’m a bone worker. Bones have worked their way into my ‘medicine basket’ of ritual tools that have helped me navigate a year filled with death. From the sudden death of my mother at the end of 2017, to the sudden death of my mother-in-law within two weeks of that anniversary in December 2018, to the sudden death of a yoga friend who tragically took her own life shortly after this New Year. Their bones now are ash; only fragments of bone remain, returned to the earth to sit with ancestral bones or waiting, resting, keeping family company whilst loved ones adjust to the massive, unexpected earthquake of transformation that’s hit them. The dead have to adjust too. Sometimes their souls need help crossing the mythic river in the Underworld. There lies the role of the shaman, the psychopomp, the death doula, the soul midwife, the priest or priestess and the Irish mna caointe and baen-shea in the-end-of-life and soul-crossing rituals they perform.

Through all of this, more than ever before, I’ve come to understand the value of ritual in our natural cycle of life and death.  Ritual makes us human. Ritual connects us to our animal, secular and spiritual selves. We know many species have ritualistic behaviours. Corvids have been observed participating in mourning rituals, and I still have the vivid picture in my mind of a London raven jumping up and down on a dead bird’s body, cawing as if were singing an intense keening in St James’s Park as I walked to work. We now know that ritual increases the likelihood of species survival as it binds groups together. I wonder if this large, black bird was performing a ritualistic death dance to warn the rest of the flock, or was it in mourning? Ravens have long since been associated with death in folklore and myth.

Part of being human is coming to terms with death. Ritual has its place in helping us negotiate that final transformation – from ashes to ashes, dust to dust. In our increasingly secular society long focused on prizing youth above elderhood, spending vast amounts of money on maintaining a youthful veneer, we have developed an unhealthy relationship with death. Death and its rituals have been pushed to the sidelines in this relentless pursuit of youth, of living as long as possible, even if the quality of that life is often questionable. Death has been taken out of the home and medicalised. So many people want to deny death, they fear death; by doing so death has gone underground until it rears its inevitable skeleton head. Death is all around us, there is no escaping; delaying possibly, but let’s face it, it’s not going away. The planet is at the precipice of the sixth mass extinction, yet still so many of us are ill-equipped for death. We’ve forgotten how to greet it, to sit with it, and ultimately how to mourn and grieve. However, many of us do instinctively know that ritual has its place when it comes to death. Even if that instinct is sometimes more unconscious than conscious.

Death demands ritual. Not just the physical death of our loved ones: our partners, our elders, our families, our friends, our babies, our children, leading ultimately to our own death, but other symbolic deaths too. The end of our bleeding (if we’re a woman), our marriages, our jobs, our old, worn-out selves, all these transformations involve a final goodbye which deserves to be marked and mourned. Ritual and ceremony can provide a framework to do just that. Underlying all ritual (and myth) is a universal pattern: the death and rebirth of a god or divinity that ensures the fertility of the land as well as social order and harmony. When we place ourselves at the heart of ritual we connect back into that universal pattern. I think that’s the key to ritual unlocking whatever transformation and change we are marking, honouring, letting go of or celebrating.

You don’t have to be religious to create ritual. As I’ve discovered, consciously creating your own personal rituals can be very cathartic and freeing. There can often be a sense of drama to ritual, and there is the idea that theatre itself emerged out of ritual. The performer in me, having created improvised theatre and dance over many decades, has been naturally drawn to creating ritual in recent years, particularly in this year of major loss. The death of the mother is one of the most fundamental deaths to grieve, since not only do we come into the world from our mothers, they represent the fertility of our land, of our society, of our ancestors. No wonder 2017/2018 was an earthquake year when I lost both my mother and my mother in law. At the same time I’ve been losing my periods – the ultimate ending of my fertility, although an ending I’m finally glad to embrace after giving birth to death. It’s taking me 13 years, and many deaths in between to reach this place of acceptance.

Through all of these griefs, I’ve found myself creating ritual. I’m not religious; but I am spiritual. For many years I was a card-carrying atheist, rejecting the dogma and ingrained patriarchy of most monotheistic organised religions. Christian mythology never really did it for me anyway. I just couldn’t relate to Jesus, and as a mythologist, I couldn’t understand how people actually believed the Bible as a gospel truth, not as a loose collection of stories written down many hundreds of years after the grains of various historical events had become mythologised and spun into stories. I enjoyed the story telling aspect at Sunday School (I voluntarily went when I was seven for a brief period) and at 14 easily gained an A in compulsory O level Religious Education. I guess it’s because I’m a storyteller.

When my baby died, I found myself craving ritual. I remember going into churches just to create my own rituals focused around Mary, lighting candles for her and my son. The archetypal mother who had also lost a son. To me she was the only remnant of an ancient fertility goddess left, sanitised into a virgin by a male dominated institution. I found Catholic or High Church of England churches always good for some goddess veneration in the form of Mary. Their churches really do the best smells and bells – because they understand the theatre of ritual. The three cores aspects of ritual being:

  • blood sacrifice (the blood of Christ in a cup)
  • a natural process or mythic historical narrative (the Christian mythology), and
  • an act of magic (the Christian symbol of transformation, the Holy Communion)

Thirteen years on from that earthquake birth, I’m exploring and creating my own rituals which have been particularly helpful during my year of mother grief. I have organically gathered together my ‘medicine’ basket with my tools of ritual. My bones, my incense, my core oracles – the runes and roses – and various other objects of meaning and personal importance. My horse skin drum ‘Paskadi’, my rattle, my cloak, my hood, and my 1940s fox fur cape. The elements of ritualistic transformation. I’ve started inviting others to join my rituals and offer rune and rose reading rituals.

I created my rune set after being called to work with runes in three dreams within three months of my mother’s death. This became a ritual in itself; collecting the wood to complete the set (I’d been given the first nine), carving, sanding, polishing and then anointing them with the last vestiges of my own menstrual blood (the blood sacrifice), into a tool that can help others transform (the magic), underpinned as they are with a Norse mythological framework (the narrative).

By working intuitively and instinctively, I’ve found that creating rituals both personal and shared, has really helped me through my grief. It’s provided a focus and an outlet for my grief. When my mother was close to death (she died 24 hours after having a major stroke whilst out shopping), I somehow knew what to do. I didn’t consult a book; I wasn’t a member of a church, but I knew that ritual was important. In the year that’s passed, I’ve also discovered I have a natural ability to do what I now know as soul journey work. I’ve found I have ‘psychopomp’ abilities – I had to look this up – after experiencing very strong and vivid dreams and vision journeys with drumming, where I’ve helped dead or dying people (and trees) ‘cross over’ to the other side.

Birds too, back to the corvids, are said in many cultures to have a psychopomp nature, carrying the dead to the afterlife . A few days before I lost my son, I was lying in my old bedroom at my mother’s house, clinging on for dear life looking out at the sycamore tree at an unusual gathering of at least 15 magpies in the tree. There had not been one before or since. My mother and I were both struck by the strange occurrence. The magpie is my death bird and my magician. I don’t try to explain this psychopomp phenomenon, as ultimately I don’t think it matters. I simply accept it.  All I know is the role of the psychopomp is known in myth, in folklore and in ancient spiritual practices, down through the millennia. I’ve also starting exploring the power of singing laments and keening from the Celtic Scottish and Irish traditions – coming as I do from strong Celtic stock as well as Norman Viking – using my drum to access these songs as they emerge. They are a powerful way to bring voice to death and grief.

I’m beginning to see there is a place for all this work – as we enter into a new, more open and frank relationship with death. Death is coming out of the shadows. Ritual most definitely has its place and new death rituals are emerging, rooted in our landscape, in a way that is meaningful for us today. The growth of the death cafe is one example of communities coming together to talk about death and break some of the taboos that have grown up in our youth-obsessed world. I went to one in Plymouth the week before I led a small family ceremony to interr my mother’s ashes in her family grave. The cafe was well-facilitated, we all sat round tables talking about our experiences of death, dying and grieving, and it was actually very light hearted. There was much more laughter than I expected. Ultimately I think that’s the trick – to laugh with death, even in the midst of the tears, the anger and the whole gamut of emotion death wrings out of us. Gallows humour, morbid humour is there for a reason. Death doesn’t want us to be deathly serious…all of the time.

So I’ll continue to collect my bones, read my runes and bang my drum whilst I lug my increasingly heavy medicine basket around the country singing to the land and telling stories to birds in the trees, laughing along the way like some crazy Sacred Fool literally dancing with Death. And strangely as I sit here in my mothers easy chair finishing this article, the voice on a radio play I’m listening to drifts over, and says: “She deserves a good death.”               

Resources and further reading

Chi In – my poem about death and the Sacred Fool

For rune and rose readings, rituals, poetry, stories and my blog visit www.runesnroses.com

For more on ritual, the book Ritual  – A Very Short Introduction – by Barry Stephenson

For information on death cafes

For information on psychopomps

Talking about Death – would you take your child to a funeral?


6 Minute Read

I watched my friend’s five-year-old son peer down into the tiny grave.

Surrounded by a group of somber people in the small churchyard, the cold wind whipping around their ankles, the sound of sobbing and noses being blown, he was just curious to see what was in the bottom of this hole in the ground.

We were gathered to say goodbye to a baby who had died in her mother’s womb at just eight months old. An utter tragedy. The poignancy of the size of the white wicker coffin was heart-wrenching.

But this little boy just wanted to know what was going on. He quietly leaned over, peered in, saw the tiny coffin at the bottom of the grave, and then wandered back to hold his mother’s hand, looking reflective.

Should he have been taken or not?

This was the subject of an article I shared in my Facebook group last year and which generated a large number of comments. It seems there are many different opinions on this subject.

So here’s my take.

It depends.

Whether you take your young son or daughter to a funeral simply depends on many factors.

I intuitively feel that in the long run, it is better to not hide death away from children full stop, but then as some of the comments in the group showed, being in the presence of someone who has died can be traumatic in and of itself. Whether it is more traumatic than not being there at all is, at least to some extent, dependent on the circumstances.

Age may be a factor, as may religious or cultural reasons as to whether a child should attend or not. These need to be respected.

But more than anything, the way the death and funeral are handled in terms of speaking about it will determine to a large extent the effect it will have on the child.

Susan said: “Personally I think it is absolutely necessary (to take children to funerals).   My mother died unexpectedly when I was 10 and I was sent away the day she died until after the funeral and it was a huge mistake and the biggest regret of my life. I never got to say goodbye and for a long time, I kept thinking she would just appear and that it was all a big mistake. It has had an everlasting effect on me and I’m now in my sixties. If someone just disappears from your life and you haven’t had a chance to say goodbye as a child, it is very bewildering and distressing, much more so than attending the funeral.

I would stand at the lounge window and think she would walk along the road. And even though I knew she was in a coffin under the ground, I thought she was still alive and trying to get out. I think a lot more damage is done by not allowing a child to say goodbye than them attending a funeral which I think is a positive way to say goodbye.”

But then someone else shared:

“I recall sitting in the front row of the visitation on the night before my grandpa was buried. During the ceremony, the Rosary was said and it seemed like hours staring at his waxed body in the coffin. I didn’t like it and to this day, those feelings are the first that come to mind even though I had many other great memories with him.” 

So what to do?

On balance, I think the more we are at ease ourselves with dying, death and grief, the easier it will be for our children to be at ease. They will take a lead from us, as they do in most things.

So if you feel uncomfortable about this subject, either because of people daring to think NOT to take their child, or because they strongly feel taking a child to a funeral is a good idea, it’s worth exploring a bit more.

So, what is your opinion about funerals, full stop?

If you have religious beliefs, the end of life ritual (commonly known in the Western world as a funeral) may have requirements that you follow, that have stood the test of time in that religion, and that you are already aware of.

If you are not religious, but spiritual, you might know you want nothing to do with a church for your own funeral but are not quite sure what on earth to do if not that.

Or you might think that the only alternative is having a humanist conduct your funeral, who will not include any reference to any religions or spirituality at all.

You might not even want (or be able) to contemplate the word ‘funeral’ at all.

And this is at the heart of the original question.

In Western society today, generally speaking, we shy away from the obvious – the fact that just because we are alive, we will also, one day, die.

In fact, the word ‘death’ has almost become taboo (although this, finally, is beginning to change).

In order to consider whether or not you might take one of your children to a funeral, you have to be able to contemplate death – your own or someone you love.

death, funerals, alternative funerals

In order to do that, you have to face up to what kind of beliefs or attitudes you have about end of life and all that that entails.

And that is not easy. It really is not an easy subject to reflect on, which of course is why people don’t do it. Plus we are all so busy living, aren’t we!

But let me add in a little something to tempt you to explore further, assuming you have read this far.

Did you know you don’t even have to have a funeral at all?

It’s true. But not commonly known.

And even if you do know it, the impact of grief might propel you into engaging a funeral director, or having a funeral for a family member, simply because that’s been the way it’s usually done.

So you have to be prepared in advance if you think you may not want to have a funeral. That nearly always means being willing to have a conversation with your nearest and dearest.

And that’s why it’s a good idea to work out what you think about end of life matters well before you may need to know – so you can instigate a very necessary conversation.

So – what DO you think about funerals? Would you want one for yourself? Would you take a child to one? Please comment below and let’s hear how you feel about it!

I Learnt About Death from my Cat


1 Minute Read

Why I Wrote a Book Called Kahuna – the Cat that Didn’t Die

Imagine standing in the hustle and bustle of Kings Cross station when all of a sudden you notice the air around one of the pillars shimmy and blur, and you can’t help yourself because you’ve seen all the Harry Potter films – you run towards a pillar very close to Platform 9 and find yourself rushing through into a different dimension of reality. Not to Hogwarts but to Catwarts! The Feline University of Life and Death.

Who would have expected to learn so much about death and beyond from a cat? Then again, who would you learn from?

It started way back when I lived on a small boat on the Thames in the heart of London with my first cat. I had always been a dog person until one day the opportunity arose to be the proud ‘parent’ to an adorable black and white, half Persian, fluff ball kitten. She gave me one of those long cat stares and I was smitten! When she came to live with me on the boat, which rocked sometimes gently and sometimes quite violently, I wondered if I had made the best decision. She was so tiny and fragile-looking but I was unable to let her go. She filled a void in my life and I was selfish. After a few months, I was getting more confident in her ability to leap from boat to boat successfully. After all, she had nine lives didn’t she? Maybe she used eight of them up when I wasn’t looking, because one very early morning, with the sun glinting off the incoming tide, she drowned. I was lying awake in my bunk wondering where she was, lulled a little by the lap of the water against the hull, when I felt a whoosh of vital energy rush through my body. Its impact was that of a strong draught of champagne; heady and uplifting. I knew in that instant she had either returned home safe and sound or she had died. I realised if death felt like that it wasn’t so bad and I was in no doubt that I had felt her soul leave her body and kiss me goodbye.

Over twenty years and three cats later, this experience of death and beyond began again, this time with my ginger moggy, Kahuna. He’d arrived in my life as a Christmas gift with his gargantuan purr, his wide rib cage and his long long tail which hung over his back like a question mark. I’d never had the magical closeness, I’d had with my first feline but he was still my ‘boy’. As he approached his sixteenth year, we ended up together far away from London in the wild and enchanted landscape of Powys in Wales and everyone thought he’d experience a whole new lease of life having always lived in suburbia. But it didn’t quite work out that way.

Having had a fairly uneventful life, he came to this extraordinary place of beauty and experienced a number of firsts – his first hill, his first pond, his first stream, his first waterfall, his first rabbit, and then his first (and only) attack by a bulldog. He escaped but damaged one back leg so badly enough he had to have surgery and then was cage bound for weeks. During this time, he became diabetic. However if he hadn’t had to have this rest and seclusion, and nursing by me, then we would never have travelled on such a profound journey together.

I had just turned 61 and on top of Kahuna’s health crisis, my life was chaotic. I had lost my only client and along with that my only income. Without savings and an alternative revenue stream, my landlord gave me notice. However, I am a firm believer in the magic of life and that when there appears to be a breakdown, it’s usually followed by a breakthrough. Which is just what occurred. An unexpected business idea dropped into my imagination fully- formed – although maybe it’s less of a business and more of a vision, mission, and legacy. And a new home was offered to me for a few months as a breathing space where Kahuna would also be very welcome.

So my few possessions were stuffed into the car and we embarked on our next adventure together. I discovered a protocol called ‘tight regulation’ that helped cats to come out of diabetes. It is a very challenging protocol and you have to be fully committed to the well-being of your cat before you start this procedure. I had to learn to let Kahuna’s body be the expert and tell me what he needed and when. After four weeks of testing his blood glucose levels every few hours day and night, feeding him and dosing him with insulin accordingly, he became non-diabetic. It was a moment of triumph but by no means the end of his health challenges. But you don’t go through this kind of intense experience without deepening your relationship substantially.

I was sure Kahuna knew I was doing my very best for him even while I had to stick pins along the edge of his delicate ears to tease out those essential pearls of blood.

We moved again to what I hoped would be our long term home on a beautiful Welsh hillside but his health continued to be a problem and we faced numerous journeys to the vets to sort out a chronic constipation problem. I knew there was only so much that beautiful tiger-striped body could tolerate and I watched him lose his vigour and his eyes told me that he was on that final furlong.

With hindsight, I had this strange thought that we had made an agreement for me to be his student. I thought back to the death of my first cat and how she died because of the selfishness of my decision to keep her with me on the boat. I was worried that my selfishness at this time would result in me keeping Kahuna alive no matter what and against his own wishes. My trust in my ability to understand his thoughts was minimal even though I had been on an animal communication course years before and felt so close to him. I was too caught up emotionally with him so I sought for someone to speak on his behalf.

‘Did Kahuna attract your attention just then?’ This was the query from Lucy Jordan, an animal communicator based in Greece.

‘Yes he did,’ I responded with great surprise. Kahuna was sitting regally in his favourite corner between two windows behind my back. I’d just heard a sound I couldn’t place from that corner and had literally just looked round to see him watching me.

‘I asked him to do that so I could check I was talking to the right cat’, said Lucy.

‘Have you a message for me from him?’ My heart was beating rapidly in my chest as I asked this question.

‘He says he is getting tired but he’s not ready to go yet. He will let you know when he needs help from the vets by knocking something off the table. He also said that he thinks about death differently to you. For him, it is simply leaving his cat-suit behind and popping through a membrane to a different dimension.’

This was the start of many dialogues with Kahuna through Lucy and step by step we walked together towards that final frontier where he would let me know he was ready to leave his cat suit and pop through that membrane. I like to think we navigated this route well together.  As he got weaker and was less inclined to go out for a walk I asked him to let me know every day if he was happy to stay in his cat suit. If he wanted to stay he was to ask to go outside. There was no cat flap in the door so he would stand patiently until I noticed.

One day it was very clear, we were oh-so-close-to-that-moment. He hesitated near the door and then walked on by. His back legs were almost too weak to hold him up and his quality of life had leeched away in the previous 24 hours. I asked Lucy to check in with him after noticing a puddle of water on the table where somehow my water glass must have been nudged. Had this been his sign to me? ‘Yes’ came the clear answer.

I went with him every step of the way. The vet came to our home and Kahuna received the injection as he lay in my arms. Effortlessly, he unzipped that beautiful cat suit and popped through that membrane. And I was lost in my grief.

‘You’re getting lost in your grief Francesca!’ said friend Jeanette Kishori McKenzie as I responded to her call a few days after Kahuna’s departure. ‘Every time you feel his loss, choose to feel his presence,’ she counselled. I always took notice of Jeanette as she has the most extraordinary understanding of life and death.

‘Okay!’ I said, excited by the thought even though my rational mind told me it was never going to work. I remembered back to when Kahuna was diabetic and on Jeanette’s counsel, I had learned to tap into him to feel a bolt of life force flow through me. But he had been alive then.

Moments later I felt his loss, and the descent into grief arriving. But I caught myself and chose to dive deep, beyond that sense of loss until I felt his presence. It was a deep dive, it took all my will power not to lose focus and weep, and then all of a sudden there it was… a kind of tickling deep inside and a whoosh of energy ran right up through my body, out of the top of my head and a huge smile spread across my face. Kahuna!

I have no idea how many times I did this – but I was determined I would keep going. Every time I sensed his loss I would choose to dive in and sense his presence. My sadness would evaporate and be instantly replaced by joy.

One night, I spoke out loud to Kahuna and asked him to give me proof that he was not gone. I woke in the middle of the night hearing a scratching sound. There is nothing around my home that makes that sound except when Kahuna was with me. Whenever he needed my full attention, he stood up on his back legs and scratched whatever was in front of him. It was his signature sound I could recognise anywhere. I lay there with the most extraordinary feeling of warmth spreading through my heart and slipped back to sleep.

I connect with him regularly now as he has not gone anywhere – in fact, he is within me, in my heart, an intrinsic aspect of me. He helped me write my book Kahuna – the Cat Who Didn’t Die. He helped me write this article and he shares with me profound wisdom. One of my favourite examples is when I realised we were not going to hit the book launch date I’d planned to coincide with Kahuna’s passing. I was so sure that a launch on 6th January, a year on from him popping through the membrane as well as being epiphany was a perfect date. But it was not going to happen. I asked him what that was about and his response had me laughing. He said basically ‘Dates are completely man-made things and have no real meaning other than what we assign them.’ He went on to say that every day can be as profound and meaningful as we want, so not to be concerned. What a beautiful reminder that we are not bound by anything other than our imagination!

Asking what he’d love me to share with you, he reminds me of something he shared in the book – that cats are often considered aloof, but this is not the truth. Cats expand to feel everything and be part of everything. They understand we are all One. So aloofness is not as we perceive it, it is their state of being one with everything. He suggests we slow down, enjoy our environment, and expand our awareness out until we are all at one. His advice for all of us is this – be more cat- lke.

Kahuna is certainly a cat that didn’t die.

If you would love to read more about this journey with Kahuna to death and beyond please follow the link: https://francescacassini.com/books/kahuna/ Kahuna – The Cat Who Didn’t Die is for sale there.

Welcome Abroad the Funeral Revolution


1 Minute Read

Advantages of Age hears from Kate Tym and Kate Dyer, the founders of the UK’s first Coffin Club.

It’s a sunny morning in September in a room above an art gallery in Hastings. There are laughter, chat and a feeling of warmth and camaraderie which seems slightly odd considering each of the five people involved are busily decorating their coffins. This is Coffin Club UK where death is always top of the agenda and yet no one seems very sad! Kate Tym and Kate Dyer, the founders of the charity, encourage clubbers to plan their perfect send-off and, if they like, bling up their coffins too. ‘We go through life planning each step of the way and then, when it comes to our funerals, we seem quite happy to just leave them completely up to chance,’ says Kate Dyer, cheerfully. ‘Yes,’ adds Kate Tym, ‘families find themselves, at a point of bereavement, having to make decisions about what mum or dad or sister might want and they’re not in the right place, emotionally, to start asking questions or thinking creatively. Coffin Club removes that anxiety as it means you get exactly the end of life celebration you want and you know exactly where every penny’s going.’

Funeral Directors, generally, like to offer a range of packages – it’s 20 minutes up the cremation, or a religious place of worship, to a very set format. ‘People don’t realise that funerals are actually very unregulated,’ says Kate Tym, ‘you can separate the cremation or burial from the celebration of life.’ ‘We’ve had send-offs in barns, village halls and even the upstairs room of a pub,’ Kate D says. ‘Simply by changing the setting, the whole atmosphere changes, too,’ she enthuses. Kate T says that by putting a brightly-decorated coffin into the mix it becomes part of the proceedings. ‘Guests aren’t afraid of it – they come up and look at it, touch it, pat it, have a chat with the person inside. Sometimes we leave a space where people can write messages to the person inside – they’re involved right up to the last moment.’

Coffin Club runs over six weeks, for one morning a week, and each week there is an invited speaker – forward-thinking, independent funeral directors, the manager of the local crematorium, a representative from the local hospice, the manager of a natural burial ground and a lady who did her own DIY ceremony for her husband just over a year ago. ‘She kept him at home for five days after he’d died,’ Kate T says cheerfully. ‘She really is our poster girl!’ Each clubber is given a funeral wish-list right at the beginning and fills it in as the weeks go by. So, from burial or cremation to music choices, to venues and readings and anything else they might fancy, not a stone is left unturned.

‘The reasons people come to Coffin Club are all different,’ says Kate D. ‘Some are all about practicality, they want to cost their funeral and have it all organised before they go, so that their family aren’t left with the job. For others, it’s more about coming to terms with the inevitable and finding that in itself empowering,’ Kate T adds.

Currently, in the UK, the average cost of a funeral is around the £4000 mark (https://www.sunlife.co.uk/how-much-does-a-funeral-cost-in-the-uk-today) and that’s not including the ‘do’ afterward, the flowers or the catering or any legal costs around settling an estate. Coffin Club wants to deal with funeral poverty, too, ‘We can get a much more personally-tailored funeral to come in at around the £2,500 mark. It can be done even more cheaply if you don’t use a funeral director at all, but that’s not for everyone,’ says Kate D.

‘Each time we’ve run the club we’ve had one person attend who is terminally ill,’ Kate T says. ‘That’s really hard, but also means a lot to us. Ashley came along wanting to be buried in the field at the back of his house, but wasn’t sure if that was even legal. It is legal and it’s really not difficult to arrange. Coffin Club enabled him to get exactly what he wanted.’ ‘He had the most fantastic celebration of his life,’ says Kate D. ‘We started in the village hall, which was packed. The service itself was full of music and lots of people stood up and told personal stories of their memories of Ashley. Without the crematorium time limit hanging over us, we were able to let the service take as long as it took, and at the end that was about an hour and a half. Then he was drummed across to the field where he was buried with family members helping to lower his coffin into the grave.’ ‘Ashley had actually been too poorly to decorate his coffin,’ Kate T explains, ‘so his family did it for him after he’d died. They covered it in maps of places he’d travelled to and tickets from gigs he’d been to. I think they found it a nice experience, talking about things he’d done and sharing memories.’ Kate D takes over, ‘Everyone came up and touched his coffin, wrote messages, talked to him – it was really very lovely.’ That’s the true validation of Coffin Club – someone who came along and got exactly the send-off they wanted and for it to not cost a fortune.

The coffins Coffin Club that uses are really innovative. They are flat-packed ply coffins that come in ten sections that are then put together with an Allen key. The Kates get them from a Dutch company called Coffin in a Box. ‘They have a really low-carbon footprint,’ says Kate T, ‘they’re made with virtually no waste, have low-emissions in combustion and bio-degrade really easily. Putting them together is pretty funny, too. Having been involved in making and decorating the coffin gives people a feeling of taking control.‘

‘We’ve had people’s kids come and help them, they laugh together whilst decorating their box, it’s a truly bonding experience and makes the whole thing less frightening. Of course, there is a very deep sadness when someone dies,’ says Kate T, ‘but celebrating their life and trying to capture some of the joy and energy they had when they were alive is about love and respect, too. It’s not about making light of it, it’s about caring deeply enough to give them a send-off that is totally about them.’

The decorated coffins have ranged from simple – painted white with a Star of David to much more decorative , for example, hot pink with unicorns and Elvis, to the jokey, for example, a plain box with This way up and Handle with Care stickers on it. ‘It’s not about how good they are, artistically,’ says Kate D. ‘It’s more the process… the thought behind them. It gets our Clubbers thinking about what’s been important to them during their lifetime.’ They range from an elderly Quaker who had a Quaker Oats themed coffin to Bev, who loves purple and went for a vibrant violet base coat. ‘A lot of the conversations happen while we’re decorating,’ says Kate D. ‘It’s a time when people share some of their deepest feelings because thinking about dying – brings these emotions sharply into focus.’

‘Coffin Club was born out of frustration,’ says Kate T. ‘We’re funeral celebrants and we were so depressed by the one-size-fits-all formula of most funerals that we thought there must be a better way. We want everyone to know that there’s a vast choice of send-offs available to them from the traditional Victorian gent in front of a limo hearse to skipping naked through a field with dancing girls and fire eaters!! If you know you can do anything at all and still want to go the totally conventional route, we’ll support you 100 percent. But, we don’t want people having 20 minutes up the cremation because they had no idea they could do anything else. Coffin Club is all about choices.’

Ultimately, Coffin Club is about people taking back ownership of their end of life celebrations. ‘We can’t believe the children of the 50s and 60s generations are going to go for the formulaic way!’ The Kates really believe, as a nation, we’re on the brink of a funeral revolution. ‘We’ve run three Coffin Club Master Classes so that people in other areas can learn how to set-up and run Coffin Clubs and are certain they will grown all over the UK.’ Coffin Club has been followed by a local documentary maker, Whalebone Films, for over a year and the BBC came and filmed in September too – there is a definite feeling of the tide turning. ‘We don’t believe respect is about how much you paid or what you wear. it can be about getting out a pot of paint and doing something that’s a labour of love.’

Coffin Club really is a fabulous initiative. As the Kates say: ‘We’ve got to start talking about death again as a nation. From the moment we’re born we’re all terminally ill. We need to bring death back into the every day and out of the scary, taboo place that it’s been for a long time now. If you talk about sex, you’re not going to get pregnant and if you talk about death, you’re not going to die. You’ll just be well prepared – Coffin Club is really just about thinking outside the box!’

 

www.coffinclub.org

www.coffininabox.com

Death & Gratitude


1 Minute Read

The lighting of candles plays a significant part in my daily life. Each morning I stumble out of bed and fire up a tea-light. I’ve been doing it for so long that it has become a reflex, though none-the-less potent because of that. I have places in each room where candles sit and get lit. I am prone to making altars, if indeed this is what they are, wherever I go. Even an airport hotel on the way to somewhere else gets a little nod from this habit of mine.

Everyday, I light many candles. I go through a lot of tea lights, and make a quarterly trip to Ikea to bring them home a thousand at a time. As I write this from Bed-World (which is sometimes the whole world), a little flame illuminates stones in a glass pot, the face of Buddha in wood, two pictures of the sea, two of Leonard Cohen, and a drawing of Leonard The Dog by a friend.

I am talking about my relationship with burning candles because I want to speak about death and gratitude. These little flames infuse both. I’m always offering up candles. This one is for Catherine’s mother. I don’t know Catherine’s mother, but she’s dying and Catherine is walking with her mother until she has to let her go. So I send some light to them. I often have multiple prayers burning brightly – in amongst my stones and pictures.

I will remember the summer of 2018, not only for the extreme and unusual heat but for the death and gratitude that marked it.

My friend Jayne took her life in July. She was utterly defeated by her depression. She tried so hard to fix herself and get rid of what felt ‘other’, spending months on a psychiatric ward and trying every combination of drug protocol. For a couple of months, during this hospitalization, I was in almost daily contact with her. We had long text conversations and some calls where she was desperate. I was one of the people Jayne didn’t need to explain depression to – and that has value when you’re in the belly of the beast. I’m no expert on anyone’s depression except for my own, and I couldn’t tell her if hers would go or stay. I could only tell her about my own experience of falling into the Fields of Kindness when everything else had failed. If I could have carried her there, I would have.

When all else failed for Jayne, she took herself into the woods and after building a nest under some foliage, she took an overdose of drugs.

You might say, where’s the gratitude in that story?

Jayne’s death ripped a jagged hole into the fabric of her family. Her mother, her sisters and her partner are ravaged by losing her. And… and, yet there is peace and simplicity too. The way Jayne chose and actioned her own death touched me beyond any easy description. I could feel a gentleness and grace in how she laid herself down in that cradle, the earth. I could feel simplicity in her decision and I trusted it. I’m grateful for that. I am grateful for Jayne’s precious life, that she was in this world and I was blessed to know her. I am grateful to have known her in her joy, and, yes, I am grateful to have known her in her hell on earth.

Many candles have been lit and burned down to nothing, for Jayne, and all of us that loved her. During our hot, hot summer, a schnauzer called Dennis also died. I didn’t know him personally. He lived in North Devon with his people, and yet he touched so many, so far and so wide.

I belong to two communities on Facebook, over and above the community of my personal friends. One is my Leonard Cohen family and the other is Schnauzer World. Both are exquisite. When I say exquisite, I mean open-hearted, generous, hilarious, inclusive and above all else, kind. Dennis was our hero in Schnauzer World. He made it to eighteen years, and all of us Schnauzer people were cheering him on. When he started to have seizures, we sent him enough love to change the world. Then there was the CBD oil intervention. He rallied beautifully for a while, and, then he was done. After all, in dog years he was a hundred and twenty-six. He died while on a camping trip in the glory of nature, with the kind earth beneath and his dog brothers and human family by his side.

I grant you it’s easier to see the gratitude in this story. A whole childhood, beloved, adored and then slipping back into the mystery in an actual field of kindness. But, for me, with my bedroom altar crowded with candles for Jayne and for Dennis, I was filled with gratitude for all of it. Death is in everything, and when we’re done, we’re done, if it be at a hundred and twenty-six, forty-eight, or barely born at all.

I have always felt death as a friend. Even way back, in the violent self-destruction of my little history, buried in the chaos was my kinship with death. The manner of a death can be horrifying, but I believe the doorway of death is a separate thing.

I don’t buy any of the afterlife theories. I think we are gone, and that gone-ness, the no-thing-ness of it all, calls me like a siren. I don’t think we are reincarnated over and over until we learn everything (perish the thought) and I don’t believe there will be a line-up of all our dead, welcoming us through the gates to heaven. All that is too complicated for me. I am hoping for the radical simplicity of Nothing.

A few days after Dennis died, one of our group snapped a picture of a cloud in our bright blue sky. It was very distinctly a Schnauzer flying. That I believe in. Sometimes, as the autumn notes come in and our heatwave summer feels like a bit of a dream, just as I drift off to sleep at night, I see Jayne dancing like she did at my fiftieth birthday party.

I cannot face into any death without the taste of gratitude filling my mouth and throat. To finish as I started, with the candle rituals – every Sunday I light a tapered candle, sometimes but not always, blue, and say: thank you, Life, for another week.

From Fear to Here


7 Minute Read

The Buddhists say two things are certain in life:

We’re all going to die.

We don’t know when.

I shared this with a friend once, as he was leaving my house; it was one of the last things I said to him. He died suddenly shortly after. Like me, he was somewhat death-phobic, and ‘talking death’ was our shared guilty pleasure. My last view of him was him laughing at the absurdity of this truth.

Dark humour aside, death is inevitable for every one of us. Today’s living are tomorrow’s dead. No exceptions. No matter how much wealth you pile around yourself, you still can’t escape death, as Steve Jobs proved. Maybe it’s no coincidence that ‘hated’ is actually an anagram of ‘death’.

As a passionate death conversationalist, my mantra is ‘get curious about death before death gets curious about you’ and it’s my mission to get people talking openly about this, the most feared ‘deadline’ we will ever have to face.

When I tell people that I host a monthly Death Cafe, it amuses me how many look confused and immediately respond with ‘DEAF Cafe?’… usually several times before they allow the dreaded D word to permeate their thinking.

It’s a party pooper to mention the dreaded D-word at all. A close friend told me that nobody could clear a party as fast as me when I started talking death. I used to have a list of ‘death friendly’ questions starting with – would you rather die at sunset or sunrise? Eyes would roll and friends would mock, but I noticed how quickly they joined in after the eye rolls had stopped. That was many moons ago, and now everyone and his dog seems to be writing a dying blog. It seems I have been upgraded to a legitimate weirdo.

So how did this obsession start? Sadly, I suffered from debilitating death anxiety for the first half of my life. I have no memories of it not being there.

My much-loved granddad died when I was ten – my mother went into an all-consuming depression to the accompaniment of Edith Piaf, and my grandma never uttered my granddad’s name again. Death seemed to be an open secret. Everyone felt its dank presence but didn’t mention it. Curtains were drawn, and people spoke in whispers, or not at all. At least they didn’t mark the houses of the deceased with big black crosses, but somehow it felt like they did. As a child, I would pass these houses of contamination, these containers of the dead and the bereaved, and the sense of isolation and abandonment felt overwhelming.

By the time I was 13, my fear was turning into an obsession. I found myself turning to the In Memoriam column in the newspaper every day, I was reading books about the Holocaust, and had saved up my pocket money to buy an Ouija board which only served to terrify me further. I quickly discovered the power of uninvited fear to hijack life. I was too busy living my future death over and over to be fully present within my own life.

‘If you can’t accept death, how can you accept life?’

In desperation, in my 20s I took my phobia to a succession of doctors, where I quickly learnt that doctors were equally scared of death. After all, they are trained to SAVE lives and let’s face it, from that perspective, death is a pretty epic failure. So off they sent me for anaemia tests, with the unspoken admonition that people who smoke deserve to die. One had a breakdown himself shortly after returning me to my black hole of death anxiety.

They just didn’t get that it was an existential thing, not a hypochondriac thing, although I believe now the two are intimately related.  Put simply, I was terrified at the thought of disappearing from existence and always had been. I was but a tiny speck of flesh dust, destined to be hoovered up by a big black hole, never to reappear. I tormented myself nightly with that particular thought for most of my childhood.

Nope – iron pills and giving up smoking were definitely not going to fix this.

It seemed to me, you either look death squarely in the eye, or bury it in a deep dark grave, and maybe if you bury it for long enough, dementia might eventually take over, so you don’t have to consciously face the fact of your death at all before you die. A small perk in a nightmare world.

By 30, my phobia had reached a peak. Depression and anxiety came in crashing waves, as I went through phases of believing I was about to die imminently. The thought of death had become unliveable. Luckily, at this lowest of lows, I met someone who changed my life forever –  a wonderful holistically-minded NHS GP. She was the first one to really hear me, although mostly I was weeping in front of her. I learnt that the most radical act of healing one can do for another, is to simply be present and listen from the heart.

I began my long journey back into life and continued to read everything I could find on death and dying.

Carlos Castenada encouraged me to ‘keep death at my shoulder’.

St Francis referred to death as ‘brother death’ and instructed me to ‘befriend death’.

Easier said than done when you’re death phobic! But, over time, slowly something changed. I began to question that consciousness ended with death.

So fast forward 30 years and my path of enquiry is still ongoing, and my fear can be better described as awe or reverence of a great mystery. I spent some years volunteering with suicidal people, and then the dying, and I am now a trained End of life Doula (someone who supports the frail, demented and dying).

I host a monthly Death Cafe, a relaxed space where people meet to talk death over tea and cake. I think of these spaces as Temples of Truth. At a Death cafe, you never have to say ‘Please leave your bullshit at the door’. It just happens all by itself.

When we meet as strangers we don’t have to worry about upsetting or protecting others. There’s an energetic release that happens, often accompanied by much laughter.  Anonymity gives us permission to share openly and honestly. It reminds me of when women started talking openly about sex in the 80s. Exhilarating.

Looking back today, I see clearly that talking about death has enriched my life, in ways I never could have anticipated in those days when my fear was completely all-consuming.

Death reminds me that one day in the not too far off future, all those I care about, will no longer be around, and to enjoy and appreciate them now. Or maybe I will be ahead of them on that one-way escalator. Either way, the goal is not to waste time on resentments and petty grudges.

Death has taught me to be myself more fully. How incredible to be this one in 7 billion unique idiosyncratic Caroline character. I love that ALL of us are totally irreplaceable.

When I walk through graveyards, and I pass the headstones with their names erased by time, I find myself mentally saluting, and whispering ‘well done, you got in and you got out! You completed the story of you…. as I will too.

Sometimes when I set out on a journey, I say to myself –

Wherever I am going, I may not return.

Today may be my last day.

This hour may be my last hour.

Sounds morbid, but I see it as a mental extreme sport really, playing with that edge;  and just as those who do extreme sports say it makes them feel more alive, so it is for me.  When I allow death to takes its place at my shoulder, I too feel more alive. When I keep it within the light of my consciousness, it cannot fester unattended underground.

Life is change, so maybe death is simply another change, a beckoning and unavoidable mystery, to be revered more than feared.

Perhaps there really is ‘nothing to fear but fear itself’.

When death finally comes to claim my bones, I hope I will be able to meet it in such a way that my death will shine a light for those behind me on the escalator, in that, I will have met it with my eyes, mind and heart wide open.

The fact that 108 billion people have successfully died before me, cheers me up in this endeavour. If they managed it, then so can I.

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