I have been listening to a lot of interesting discussions about the 14 year-old girl who has had her body cryogenically preserved. It has certainly stimulated a lot of views about death and life.
Cryogenics is the science of low temperature conditions. It has included the study of the point whereby gases become liquid and one discipline has looked at how this can preserve bodies. But in many ways the science of it all is irrelevant – more important is the desire that sits behind the wish to be resurrected.
It would be interesting to know what this young girl wanted from this request. Was it that she couldn’t accept the idea of the world without her in it? Could it be that she wanted to offer hope to her parents that they might not be losing her for ever? I hope that she received counselling to help her clarify what she wanted and helping her to think about what would happen if she was brought back to life when all her friends and family might be gone and where life might be unrecognisable.
The film California Man starring Brendan Fraser was a comedy whereby a cavemen is found frozen, is defrosted and introduced to west coast american culture with subsequent laughs aplenty. But would it be that funny in real life? Surely all the reasons for wanting to be preserved would long be gone? And she is still a child – who would care for her and protect her?
In one discussion I heard someone comment “when would her parents grieve for her?” When my father was alive he always said he wanted to be cremated because he didn’t want anyone tied to a grave that would require maintenance and regular visits. How much stronger would this attachment be if you knew the “dead” person was in suspended animation? The process of overcoming the loss of your child and beginning to move on with your life would never be over.
Although the thought of leaving this world is difficult for me it’s never lead me to consider being preserved (even if I could afford it). But then I’m in my 60s and have had a very good life. Maybe I would feel very differently if I was a young teenager who felt robbed of my future. Maybe then I’d be willing to gamble that one day I would come back and I could live that life after all.
This week hundreds of people and their dogs joined an elderly whippet called Walnut on his last “walk”. Like many pet-owners, recognising that Walnut was at the end of his life and making the decision to have him euthanized was a really difficult time for his owner, Mark Woods. Mark felt that it was time to let Walnut go, peacefully and without pain.
Mark had come to the decision to have Walnut put to sleep at the age of 18 years as he could see that his deteriorating health would affect his quality of life: essentially he felt that it was the kindest thing to do. This did not mean that he wouldn’t have wanted Walnut to live longer or that he was bored with looking after him. But he clearly didn’t see the point in mindlessly keeping Walnut going as long as possible regardless of how much he might suffer.
In his final days his owners made sure that he had lots of treat such as his favourite custard cream biscuits and a sneaky burger. However they also realised that he would like one last visit to his favourite beach in Newquay in Cornwall. Even though Walnut was too frail to run around they knew that just being out in the smells and sounds of the seaside would be a tonic for him. To ensure that lots of his doggie friends turned up Mark posted up on social media a call-out to come and join Walnut on his last walk. What he couldn’t have anticipated was the hundreds of people and dogs who turned up to take that last walk with Walnut.
Only a matter of hours later, Walnut died in the arms of his owner surrounded by his family. For me this represented a “good death” – in fact, probably the best possible death. To have the chance to say goodbye, to have your final treats and even for your final celebration to be when you are still alive, surrounded by your nearest and dearest must surely be a fitting end to a life well lived. It is a sad comment on our attitude to death and dying when you find yourself envious of an elderly whippet called Walnut.
On the eleventh hour of the eleven day of the eleventh month of 1918 the Great War ended and this date and time have henceforth been dedicated to an annual tribute to those who have died as a result of warfare. On Friday a moving tribute was displayed in the centre of Bristol and I went to see it before the crowds arrived.
The artist, Rob Heard has individually wrapped 19,240 small figures in hand-stitched shrouds to commemorate the number of people killed in the first day of the battle of the Somme.
It was a quiet but sunny morning and the atmosphere at College Green was sombre. Inside the marquee was a display of all the names of those dead represented by the figures laid out side by side. It is shocking to think of so many lives being wiped out in such a short period. The photos of the brave young men in their uniforms ready to go to fight to defend their country were particularly poignant. Both my father (in the 2nd World War) and my grandfather (for the cavalry in the Boer War) survived these awful wars and it saddens me to think what they went through and what they may have witnessed. In fact, my mother’s first fiance was killed in the first weeks of the 2nd World War so these deaths changed lives everywhere. Whilst soldiers were encouraged to write final letters in case they didn’t survive I hope that most of them didn’t worry that death might not be instant for themselves or their comrades.
Most of us should consider how fortunate we are to have the time to talk to our friends and families about a death that may well not be soon or violent. We should grab these opportunities in both hands and be forever grateful that we are not facing a frightening and messy death on a battlefield far away.
On the 15th October 2016 I wrote a post about one of Leonard Cohen’s last interviews when he stated that he was “ready to die” and that he hoped “it’s not too uncomfortable”. Although he had not admitted to an illness at that time his death this week makes me wonder if he knew he was reaching the end of his life. If so, I hope that he managed to have the death he wanted and that it was comfortable and on his own terms. And I hope that talking about death in the way that he did helped him to realise this. It’s a great example of what we should all be doing.
I have a strange bucket list because I sort of wrote it before I was born! In my 30s my life had undergone some hard and challenging events and I needed to find a way of feeling positive about my achievements whilst also giving me some goals and aspirations to work towards. So I imagined myself floating around in the womb and began to write a list of what my bucket list would be from when I was born until, well, I kicked the bucket.
I wanted to live by the sea. I wanted to work abroad. I wanted to see the Pyramids, the Great Wall of China and Rome. I wanted to go whale watching, own dogs, run a road race (I finished last!), buy a house, have a professional manicure (I was 59 when this happened) and drive a Porsche. I’ve added to it over the years (yes, it is actually written down) – I wanted to play in the World Series of Poker in Las Vegas and it might surprise you to know that this one is ticked!
But interestingly my list wasn’t all about adventures and things. One of my first entries was “to have a best friend”. I knew that to achieve this would be one of the most important factors to my happiness and joy. I wanted to get married – this was partly an accepted aspiration for most of my generation but one that would also let me know that I would love and be loved enough for us to tell the world in a public ceremony. I wanted to have a job that made a real difference to other people’s lives. And I wanted to be a mom. I really, really wanted to be a mom. And now I’ve added that I want to be a Grandma.
When I look at my list of all the things that I feel would show I’d lived a good life I realised I had the balance right. People and relationships are the sign of a life well lived. Adventures and material things are the supporting act.
Dia de Muertos or the Day of the Dead is a Mexican holiday celebrated from 31st October to the 2nd November. It is a fusion of Catholic beliefs with Aztec traditions and revolves around the belief that once a year the spirits of dead relatives return to visit those they left behind. In order to honour these dead, the living will visit the graves decorating them with flowers and leaving gifts for their dearly departed. There will be sugar skulls and orange marigolds and even toys for dead children. At their parties they ensure that the food and drink they have is a favourite of their dead relatives and they may leave out pillows and blankets for the dead to rest comfortably after their long journey. I love this idea. It would bring me great comfort to feel that my departed parents popped by to see me once a year. In fact they could come by every day if they wanted! Although I’m not sure I could cope with eating my mom’s favourite food every day as I’m not the biggest fan of liver and onions.
One of the key elements of this festival is that it is a colourful and festive celebration as well as an opportunity to reflect on the fragility of life and the inevitability of death. The bright face painting of skulls is a reflection of both the Aztec and Catholic belief that death is a positive thing because you are transitioning to a better place: a time of rebirth and higher consciousness. It is also a momento mori – a reminder that we all will die one day.
It is interesting that it shares its days with the Christian All Hallows Tide, the first day of which we call Halloween and which purportedly originated in Celtic pagan harvest festivals. I can’t help but wonder if this interest in the dead be they saints or sinners at this time of year is prompted by the dark nights and frequent fogs which make everything look kinda spooky. Its when we feel the nights get longer and we prefer to stay home in the warm than go out in the cold; all of which can make a person more introspective and reflective on the mortality of ourselves and those who have already died. There can often be a feeling of melancholy as the dying greenery makes way for the deadness of winter.
But I do find it a cheery thought that my dad might be hovering around checking out how I’m doing. Whilst I can’t bring myself to paint a skull on my face I think I might share a glass of whisky with him later. And I will pour out a second glass, just in case he pops by. Happy Day of The dead everybody!