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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.

AofA People: Caroline Rosie Dent – End of Life Doula, Death Cafe Host, Jeweller


5 Minute Read

Caroline Rosie Dent, 59, was one of our guests at the Death Dinner (screened tonight for the first time at Barts Pathology Museum). She is an end of life Doula, a jeweller and a death cafe host. Be warned – if you’re courting Caroline, never bring her cheap chocolate!

WHAT IS YOUR NAME?
Caroline Rosie Dent

HOW OLD ARE YOU?
59

WHERE DO YOU LIVE?
London, UK

WHAT DO YOU DO?
I am an end of life Doula – I walk alongside and advocate for people at the end of life, so they feel more at ease and more empowered in their dying days. I also run a Death cafe and am active in the Positive Death movement. I have been working as a creative in Textiles and jewellery for most of my life and I still make Memorial Jewellery under the alter ego Rosie Weisencrantz

TELL US WHAT IT’S LIKE TO BE YOUR AGE?

I find that such a hard question to answer as I honestly feel ageless inside. I am all the ages I have ever been ….I still carry all those younger versions of myself inside me; they all pop out at different times. At the moment I feel about 26 because I am particularly happy right now

WHAT DO YOU HAVE NOW THAT YOU DIDN’T HAVE AT 25?
I have the security of owning a home which gives me choices. I see it as my passport to freedom and adventure in the future. I have a beautiful son, who teaches me constantly how to be a better person.

WHAT ABOUT SEX?
I see sex as part of a deeper intimacy. I have zero interest in casual sex, in the same way I have no interest in fast food. I dipped my toes in the tantric waters for a while, and I got a glimpse of what is possible. I’m an all or nothing kind of person. Never bring me cheap chocolate!

AND RELATIONSHIPS?
I was a serial monogamist for most of my life and have had some pretty disastrous relationships, and yet I regret none of them. They all contributed to my growth, no matter how difficult. However, now I would like something a bit more joyful, with a man who totally *gets* me and shares my irreverent spirit. I am not afraid to be alone, as that is infinitely preferable to being in a dysfunctional relationship. I quite like the idea of living separately within a relationship. I think this keeps a relationship healthy.
Relationships can be a breeding ground for resentment, and living apart can act as a deterrent to that, and help to engender greater respect for each other. As Gibran says *let there be space in your togetherness* I would like to meet a man to travel and explore the world with…that is very appealing…. someone who looks at me through loving and forgiving eyes, and a man who can allow himself to open and be loved fully in return. I would like to experience that once before I die.

HOW FREE DO YOU FEEL?
Freedom is a state of mind. Thoughts are our greatest jailers. Sometimes I feel free, other times I feel imprisoned by my fears. I feel most free when I am alone in nature, and the mental noise is switched off. Nature is my sanctuary.

WHAT ARE YOU PROUD OF?
My son is my greatest achievement. He is a beautiful being with a boundless heart, and he has taught me many things. I am proud of my creativity and my achievements as a designer. I won an international award at the peak of my career. I am also incredibly proud that I overcame my pathological fear of death phobia, that plagued me as a child and into adulthood, and now through my work with death and dying, am helping others to overcome theirs.

WHAT KEEPS YOU INSPIRED?
Questions and Ideas. My own creative process. I have loved playing with my imagination since I was tiny and have always got a kick out of my own thought processes. I see myself as a catalyst, energy-wise. I would have made a good inventor. I feel I could have done anything I put my mind to..because my creativity is limitless.

WHEN ARE YOU HAPPIEST?
I feel freest and happiest when I am cycling along the river, far away from people, listening to beautiful music on my iPod. I am also happy when I am having conversations about death and dying and see people opening up about their deepest fears for the first time. I am happy when I am in love.

AND WHERE DOES YOUR CREATIVITY GO?
It goes everywhere! Creativity is a state of mind. It’s an unstoppable force. Art writing talking feeling being. An open and curious mind is the foundation of all creativity.

WHAT’S YOUR PHILOSOPHY OF LIVING?
Be yourself, and don’t take yourself too seriously. Be able to laugh at yourself in all your glorious human imperfection. There is literally nobody who does you as well as you, so celebrate your uniqueness. We are all glorious paradoxes. Enjoy the play. It will be over soon enough. And dying? “Get curious about death before death gets curious about you” is my mantra. Don’t wait till your body and mind are failing to begin this most important work. Contemplation of Death teaches us how to live. As the Zen quote says *the cup is already broken* so live each moment fully and kiss the joy as it flies.

ARE YOU STILL DREAMING?
Always. To dream is to be alive. Never underestimate the power of your imagination. Enjoy this play.

WHAT WAS A RECENT OUTRAGEOUS ACTION OF YOURS?
No huge acts of outrageousness here…just being myself. That is my act of rebellion or outrageousness. To give an example; yesterday I lay on a bench with my head hanging upside down, and watched the passers by walking from *the ceiling of the earth* – from an upside down viewpoint walking looks like dancing. It amused me to notice that and I try not to bother myself with what others think of me. By being myself I hope I give others permission to be themselves also.

My First Death Café


1 Minute Read

There’s a gathering buzz around the Death Café phenomenon – there have been 3859 in 40 countries including Iceland and South Korea – and so when one was announced in my ‘hood and in the perfect location, Kensal Green Cemetery’s Dissenter’s Chapel*, I knew I had to go. After all, I have said on numerous occasions that our ethos at AoA includes breaking through the death barrier. Not to live forever like the Immortalists*, but in order to shatter the taboo. I’ve also stated that I’d like to ‘review’ funerals but I have yet to be offered one.

The night before the Death Café – a social franchise where people gather, drink tea, eat cake, and discuss death with the stated aim ‘is to help people make the most of their (finite) lives’ – I started to research what was happening around death instead of the classic funeral. I found a video of a woman in Britain who picked up her mother’s body from the mortuary, placed it in her camper van and drove to a field where she and her friends dug a very deep hole and gently lowered her mother into it. No undertakers, no coffin, no service, this was the ultimate in DIY and legal. Excellent. But most people have no idea what is legal and what is not around death and dying.

Which is exactly why a Death Café is such good news. There’s so much to find out and exchange.

I invited my friend, Amanda who lives round the corner from me. We met in Ladbroke Grove outside the entrance. She had managed to ignore the Death part, and only seen the café. She thought she was meeting me for a coffee and a chat, although was slight bemused and bewildered at the location.

“No, it’s a Death Café where we’ll be talking about our mortality,” I whispered loudly whilst urging her into the newly decorated Dissenter’s Gallery which even has a little potential bar these days. And am instantly drawn to a large woven artwork by local artist, Zoe Landau Kouson , which looks as though it has writhing knots of brilliant breasts all over it. Feeding breasts, dancing breasts, tribal breasts, animal breasts and more.

Twelve of us sit in a circle on hard wooden chairs with the ideal Death café view – through the large nineteenth century iron gate – are the leaning gravestones, the modern graves and the Victorian tombs all thrown together in nature and peace.

The de rigeur tea and biscuits are pretty rudimentary – in Sussex they probably do a funereal spread with coffin cupcakes and Death by Chocolate – but hey, it’s the participants that count. And these people are marvelous in their eclecticism.

Mark, our unpaid facilitator during this two hour dialogue, has a skull broach on his lapel just for confirmation of his status. He explains the roots of the Death Café – originally Le Café Mortal started by Swiss anthropologist and sociologist, Bernard Crettaz in 2004 in order ‘to break the tyranny of silence around death’ – the idea was taken up by a mother, Sue Barsley Reid and son, Jon Underwood in Hackney,2010. They haven’t looked back. Death Cafés are popping up everywhere these days and a very good sign that is.

I remember writing an article in Time Out in the mid-80s at the height of the Aids deaths where I suggested that the advent of these often oh-too-young people leaving us so tragically would change our ways of dying forever. And to some extent, that has happened. Aids funerals were bold and brave and out there in a way that proclaimed we die as we live – there were coffins that stood up, there was waving to the coffins as they departed behind the curtain, there was Barbara Streisand singing. Funerals have become freer – I went to a Catholic one the other day and even that had much more individuality than in the past – and more personal. And yet open conversation about, for instance, plans for death and dying still remain rare.

And so, we share one by one about why we’ve come. I say that my 90 year old mother nearly died of sepsis recently, which has been instrumental in me thinking about wanting to take control of my own death. In some ways impossible but in other ways worth reflecting upon. And then I explain that I edit this magazine, and that we recently had an article where someone with a brain tumor living in Australia decided to buy some Nembutal so that he could enable his own death rather than wait for an increasingly painful end. Finally, he was in a hospice and could no longer play the harmonium, he found a window of opportunity, went to the toilet and took the Nembutal.

Before I know it, Amanda who thought she was just popping out for a little catch up, is talking about how she felt like an orphan as both her parents had died. An American woman wants to talk about cultural differences, another young man is becoming a hospice nurse and more that I’m not allowed to reveal because of the confidentiality clause.

I’m impressed by our collective energy and enthusiasm for the topic, and the multitude of attitudes and interests.

And I’m moved when we start to share more deeply about a good death might look like. Amanda talks passionately about wanting to die without the anguish that she felt both her parents experienced when they were approaching death. “I really want to be able to accept what’s happening,” she says. I really feel the depth of her sharing. This is Saturday morning, and suddenly there’s such an intimacy in this wonderful little chapel.

Talking so openly about death and what it means to us personally brings a warmth and closeness. There’s a feeling of community already where this sort of exchange is possible. It’s strangely exhilarating in the way that being about to talk about your secret desires and fears can be.

Josephine Speyer, a psychotherapist specializing in loss and bereavement, as well as being the co-founder of The Natural Death Centre (they do a great handbook about everything you need to know about death) who also holds Death Cafes is present. She has a softness that curls around us as she talks about a powerful moment when her husband appeared to her soon after he died. She’s also a keen advocate for death education and says that knowing what to do when her husband died suddenly, helped a lot.

There are moments of lightness too. One woman who is a friend of Kensal Green cemetery tells us about her favourite funeral. “It was one where my friend donated his body to science so there was no funeral, just a party in a restaurant where we remembered him.”

The representative from Dignity in Dying confesses that she hasn’t made a will. I haven’t either. But we are the minority in the room as Mark gets us to put our hands up. “Well, that is unusual,” he announces, “most people here have made their wills.”

The American couple don’t have children and they explain that making a will has felt like an act of generosity for them. Basically, they have given their assets to chosen family and friends, the result being that they feel content with their decisions.

Neither Amanda nor I want to leave. This is a dialogue we could have kept on contributing to and being fascinated by. Funnily enough, we left inspired, moved and determined to visit a Death Café again soon. There’s something so compelling about this level of realness.

 

 

 

Look up a Death Café near you on deathcafe.com or start one up yourself through the website.

*The Dissenter’s Chapel was built as part of Kensal Green Cemetery’s eastern part for non-Anglicans to perform their own rites, and is still in use for funerals today.

*There is now a Dissenter’s Gallery, which is managed by Michael Speechley, which is involved in all sorts of exciting projects including the Death Café. Dissentersgallery.com

*The Immortalists are a community in the US who believe that they will live forever.

 

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