There comes a point in life and I’m sure it’s different for everyone when one becomes aware of one’s mortality. I can’t pinpoint when, exactly, it was for me but one day I became scared of climbing up or down steep staircases, thinking I might fall. I stopped driving about 10 years ago when my little Fiat 500 was taken back by the leasing company and, since then, when I get in the passenger seat of a car, I’m aware that my heart beats a bit faster than usual. I avoid looking out from tall buildings. These may all be totally unrelated or, as I suspect, they’re just my brain sending out a warning signal that life is full of dangers that I’m not quite as resilient as I was in my youth and that death may come upon me suddenly.
I have also spent the past year becoming more interested in death and specifically, how I’d like to die and my funeral. A lot of this has come from putting together the film Death Dinner which Rose Rouse and I created last year with the help of an Arts Council grant.
Death Dinner explores the arena of death in conversation with ten characters who are connected to the death industry. There is a marvellously gothic mortician, an end-of-life-doula, a death rituals’ academic, a soul midwife, a photographer of Afro-Caribbean funerals and more. It all took place over an abundant feast in the Dissenter’s Chapel at Kensal Green Cemetery. Prior to making the film, I hadn’t really given death much thought, but the dialogue over dinner made me realize that there are many different sorts of funerals and ceremonial aspects, as well as various ways of body disposal.
Recently, I attended a Thanksgiving for the Life of Nigel Castle, held at the Rosslyn Hill Unitarian Chapel in the heart of Hampstead. Nigel was someone who had been in and out of my life for the past decade, thanks to an introduction made by his closest friend, Rob Norris.
A keen gardener, skilled healer, acupuncturist, osteopath, masseur plus being a good musician, Nigel was multi-talented. At various times, he had tended to my garden, worked his magic on my back and danced with me and others at 5 Rhythms, another passion of his. My children, now grown up, remember us all sitting in a circle and singing together while Nigel and Rob played guitars. He was a familiar face around Maida Vale and Queens Park, driving around in his beaten up Volvo. I never knew how he kept that car on the road but somehow he did. Nigel was always around and then, one day, I found out, via Rob, that he had lymphoma and two months later he was gone. He was 67. I never got a chance to say goodbye but there were plenty of people that did. Nigel was much loved by everyone that met him.
If funerals could come with ratings, then Nigel’s would have been a five star one. I’m by no means an expert on what constitutes a good or bad funeral, but Nigel went out in a way that will leave a lasting memory for me and, I’m sure, for many others.
The service itself lasted two hours. And, let’s face it, it’s hard enough to find a table in a restaurant that will let you sit there for two hours, much less a chapel. The service presided over by Anja Saunders, Nigel’s old friend and an Interfaith Minister, wove together music, poetry, tributes, recollections and finally Nigel’s own voice. At various points during this unconventional and beautiful service, we danced around the beautiful wicker casket to Dance me to the End of Love by Leonard Cohen, and then we were invited to come up and weave flowers into it or write tributes to Nigel on small, brown labels which would be buried with him.
There were tears and laughter as friends and family recounted their memories of Nigel. A pianist had written a song for him. A guitarist wrote another one. His friends from 5 Rhythms read out a series of poems. Rob and I particularly liked White Owl Flies in and out of the Field by Mary Oliver, which seemed to sum up Nigel perfectly.
Coming down out of the freezing sky
with its depths of light,
like an angel, or a Buddha with wings,
it was beautiful, and accurate,
striking the snow and whatever was there
with a force that left the imprint
of the tips of its wings—five feet apart—
and the grabbing thrust of its feet,
and the indentation of what had been running
through the white valleys of the snow—
and then it rose, gracefully,
and flew back to the frozen marshes
to lurk there, like a little lighthouse,
in the blue shadows—
so I thought:
maybe death isn’t darkness, after all,
but so much light wrapping itself around us—
as soft as feathers—
that we are instantly weary of looking, and looking,
and shut our eyes, not without amazement,
and let ourselves be carried,
as through the translucence of mica,
to the river that is without the least dapple or shadow,
that is nothing but light—scalding, aortal light—
in which we are washed and washed
out of our bones.
The length of the service felt like we were all able to collectively grieve, and by the end, I felt my spirits lighten as we all said goodbye to him. It was an amazing tribute to a wonderful person and I couldn’t help thinking that the world would be a richer place if everyone chose such an intimate departure ceremony.
Afterwards, I spoke to Anja to thank her for the way she managed to oversee the service and its host of participants in such an effortless manner. She was so fittingly graceful in the way she provided just the right amount of space and time between tributes for us to absorb what Nigel had meant to those he loved and just how much of an impact he had had on so many people. At the end, she encouraged us all to breathe and we did…