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…
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Goodbye my Lovely Friend – Nigel Castle
Dear Suzanne, How wonderful to hear you too knew Nigel! I enjoyed reading your memories of him and the account of his funeral. It was a five star funeral indeed and a place of bringing people together for a healing ritual and a thanks giving. Dance me to the end of love….. Nigel loved Cohen. Here are some of my memories of Nigel I wrote after his funeral.
Memories of Nigel
Nigel was never better in himself than when he was dying. Those last 18 months or two years of his life. He was graceful, authentic in the way he spoke, very direct and to the point and had an amazing synchronicity in the timing of his phone calls when he suggested we meet at Queen’s Park for coffee at the Black Habit or go to the Farmers Market. He was very philosophical and a real pleasure to be with. He had a spacious feeling about him. He was gentle, loving and very open.
I knew him for over 35 years when we both worked at Neal’s Yard. I worked in the Warehouse during my training at Chiron which I finished in 1985 and we became colleagues at the Therapy Rooms. He always had this swagger, like a very English cowboy, a funny mixture. He’d say ‘Hey Jo-se-feeeene!’ in a loud singsong voice and then come up right into my face with his face, staring at my eyes like an eagle and clap me on the back. “How’s it going?!’ It felt like a performance, as if there were a huge audience he had to impress. It was a screen, very off putting for many of my female colleagues, because it was so obviously phoney. I liked Nigel. I knew he had a good heart and was very caring and all this bravado was just to keep a protective distance. I knew he was often lonely and suffered with anxiety. For a time, with some other therapists at Neal’ Yard we formed a little support group where we would meet and talk about ourselves and our lives. To me he was like a distant brother. I felt close to him when we met and talked. He was very open, sort of. I knew about his relationship with his parents, his sister, his wider family, but only up to a point. There were things it was not possible to say. There was always an emotional shield that prevented us from getting really close to what he was feeling about what he was saying. I understood this, because I too am so wishing to be deeply understood and at the same time fearing that openness. Nigel was generous and kind. He was proud of his allotment and sometimes brought me some of his vegetables. His allotment was a special refuge for him where he had neighbours who became friends. He loved growing his own food. And we both loved eating organically grown food, freshly picked. We were both health freaks enjoying the beauty of this organically grown food and how food was medicine. We shared a spiritual outlook in life, of healing and the web of consciousness we are all part of and everything is part of. And a love of nature. We both loved coffee houses, croissant and good coffee, music and buddhist meditation, dancing and friendship. He was an adventurer, a traveller. He went to places I only dreamt of visiting. India, Cuba, Mexico. He had a friend who lived in a chateau like house in East Germany and owned horses. He took ayahuasca with shamans in Peru or some place like that, several times and talked about his experiences with these ‘medicines’, how he was sick throwing up outside the tent after taking ayahuasca. He was a spiritual seeker.
He also was a serial monogamist. There were always girlfriends he had had and mentioned. I don’t think I ever got to meet any of them. He was always on his own. I never met him as a couple.
Nigel was a cranial osteopath and acupuncturist. When he trained to become a psychotherapist where I had trained, at Chiron, I knew the trainers he talked about. I had turned away from my original body psychotherapy training and had become more analytically informed in my approach. I often challenged him over issues of boundaries. He took a great interest in my point of view, but was also defensive about his way of working. It was not really possible to have an in-depth discussion on this. He would became remote, like a screen would go up. We never had an argument. It was important to avoid disagreement and so keep a distance.
I went to him for cranial osteopathy treatments many times over the years, mostly at his flat in Maida Vale, a beautiful little loft space. I remember when he went on holiday with his friend Rob from America. He was so weak and low in energy then. Rob was also a healer and gave him treatment and somehow he made it through. And he went to India. I think it was some time after this when he told me he was ill but he did not say what his illness was.
It was some time later that he told me that he had cancer without ever mentioning the word ‘Cancer’. He had refused chemo and radiotherapy which his doctor recommended and took alternative natural remedies instead. He continued to see this doctor for check ups and told me how amazed the doctor was at how well he was. And he was looking very well. He had no pain or so he said. Friends and colleagues gave him treatments and healing whilst Nigel continued working as a psychotherapist. By this time I was aware that Nigel was dying and challenged his ethical conduct ever, ever so gently, but he said working helped him so he was not prepared to give it up or address ending. I wondered about what kind of clinical supervision Nigel was getting.
He did not talk about his diagnosis. Diagnosis was also a word he did not want to hear. He never mentioned the world cancer. So I never really knew what it was or what type of cancer he had. He did not want to talk about that. He knew full well about my death education work, my work with the Natural Death Centre, my knowledge around preparing for a good death, natural burial and family-organised funerals, but he never wanted to talk with me about that. Only when he became very weak and was perhaps able to accept the possibility of dying, that he asked me to find a natural burial ground. There were several options and he chose one South of London, but planning a funeral is team work and he never actually got a team together to plan his funeral with him. In the end he was buried at a different natural burial ground and I think it was a good choice.
As time went on Nigel became increasingly physically weak, but his spirit soared, like an eagle.
He talked about having a friend who would let him stay in his ground floor flat so he could go out more easily, not having to manage four flights of stairs in Maida Vale. He spoke about the hospice nurse who came to see him. He liked them and he felt very supported by them to stay at home. He was given that special hospital bed to avoid bedsores. He started having an end of life doula who he very much appreciated and liked. He talked about her and showed me the digger or crane she had given him after telling her about his father giving him a crane for his fifth birthday. His father died before Nigel was six years old. In 2009 I had interviewed Nigel about this very traumatic bereavement for a research paper on Grace in Grieving – Psychospiritual transformation through bereavement with Dr. Mary Murray I still have the audio of that interview. I know about what happened then, how he was not included in his father’s funeral, he was sent to boarding school and he became very anxious and depressed. The death of his father was a life long issue for him. As he was ill and dying, he could talk about his own grief but he could not think about what effect his denial of his dying had on his patients. His refusal was adamant.
I rolled with it. It was Nigel’s way and I decided not to push him. I think it was June 2018 when I saw these orange size tumours growing in his armpits and he once mentioned the word Lymphoma, by then it was July and he died in September.
By June and July I came to visit him every other week. He spent a few weekends with old friends in the country but he was very weak and mostly lay in bed whilst I made lunch for us. I made gluten free vegan food for us and he gave me directions on how to light the cooker or do certain things whilst lying in bed. We sat at the table to eat and enjoyed it. Gradually he ate less and less. Needed to lie down more and more. So after lunch I sat by his bed, holding his hand or lying next to him in bed with arms around him.
I went to America for five weeks in August. He talked about travelling to the Canaries in September. I thought it was ambitious, but who knows? Perhaps he could do it? But when I came back in September he texted me to say he was at St John’s Hospice. That week there was never a time when I was free at the time he suggested I see him. On Thursday I was about to visit him, but he sent me a message that there was too much going on with people and doctors around his bed. On Friday morning I decided to stop by and see him on my way to an appointment. It was 10am when I got there. He had died at 8am. His body was still in his room. His sister and one of his close friends and his doula Rebecca where sitting outside. I spent some time with him. He looked so alive, as if at any moment he could turn round and talk to me. His bed was next to a window with flowers growing outside. It was beautiful. I was so glad to see him, to catch him before he was gone, to see him one more time. I was so pleased to be able to say good bye to him in person. He looked so peaceful and so much himself. I was happy for him. He had died very well.
Josefine Speyer, London 2018
Advantages of Age
For some reason I just came across your tribute – I had not seen it before but someone else just commented on Nigel and I discovered it. I met Nigel via his good friend Rob and I didn’t see him as often as you but he always had a special place in my heart. It is lovely finding this.
Hi there, I was a patient of Nigel’s — he healed me many times at Neal’s Yard. I rang today to make an appointment and found out that he had passed away. I was so sad to hear this. So I came home from work and immediately googled to find out when this happened, and found your lovely tribute. I am so sorry for your (and the world’s) loss, and am sending my warmest condolences to his friends and family. With kindest regards, Lisa Hillman
Advantages of Age
He was a very special person. I’m sure I speak for many that still miss him.