Addressing the certainty of death is something that society tends to shy away from. That could be about to change.
At the end of January London Southbank’s Festival for the Living looked at this emotive subject from all angles and the Swindon Festival of Literature has announced that it will be opening up the discussion at its 19th annual Festival in May.
Oxfordshire actress, playwright, and Celebrant Liz Rothschild (pictured) will be in conversation with Sue Brayne, Psychotherapist and author of ‘The D-Word: Talking about Dying’ at Swindon Arts Centre on May 15.
The one thing we all have in common is death. ‘The D-Word: Talking about Dying’ (Continuum Books) focuses on how to open up those difficult conversations with someone who is dying. According to its author, Sue Brayne, ‘facing death is about taking responsibility for your life.’
She said: "One person who did just that was Steve Jobs, co-founder of Apple. Six years before his death last year at age 56 he summed up how an acceptance of the inevitable can impact positively on one’s life: "almost everything – all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure – these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. There is no reason not to follow your heart."
In earlier times around the nineteenth century, when the average life expectancy in Western Europe was 20 – 37 years, death was a regular part of most people’s everyday life. Sue Brayne believes that today death is regarded as a medical failure. “Most of us will die in hospital,” she says, “and, while the medicalisation of death provides structure at a time of uncertainty and fear, it does little to help us face the emotional challenge of dealing with the actual dying experience, whether our own or someone else’s.”
Liz Rothschild, who founded the Westmill Woodland Burial Ground in Oxfordshire (see article below), agrees. “We have become dependent on life-extending medicines and many people are in a permanent state of denial about death. We have lost the ability to talk openly about the end of life. Yet, unless we confront our fears, important things can be left unsaid and undone and we run the risk of missing out on a fulfilled life.”
Organiser and founder of the Swindon Festival of Literature, Matt Holland, says that the inspiration for the talk came from Liz Rothschild for whom the harsh reality of death came over 20 years ago when her best friend died suddenly in her early forties. This led Liz to become a Celebrant, helping people to create ceremonies for significant stages in their lives, and later to establish Oxfordshire’s Westmill Woodland Burial Ground, a major aim of which is to create an environment where death can be talked about.
WESTMILL WOODLAND BURIAL GROUND – A Natural memorial
Westmill Woodland Burial Ground is a simple, 3-acre field which is being transformed into a mixed English woodland. It is a natural place for the dead and the living, and provides a living memorial to those who are buried there. It is for the non-religious and religious alike, and is one of only a few green burial sites in Wiltshire and Oxfordshire. It was officially opened in May 2011. The not-for-profit business was set up by Liz Rothschild and her partner Adam Twine, an Oxfordshire organic farmer.
Westmill is a peaceful woodland habitat with expansive views overlooking the Downs and Vale of the White Horse, full of wildlife. Wild cherry, oak and apple trees are living in the first glade that was planted. The site, when fully established, will have open areas, paths and glades, natural English trees, together with a willow bower which will form a green wind-proof shelter. A wildflower meadow will be created where people can scatter ashes and a shared memorial area, resembling a stone circle, will allow people to have names and dates inscribed.
Friends and Family Group
Bereavement brings a multiplicity of feelings – confusion, loss, pain. Numbness and shock can delay the reality of the death. At Westmill a Friends and Family Group is developing where grief can be shared. The willow bower and the lime tree avenue were planted by the Group with plans to plant more trees. They have also planted wildflower bulbs and roses and helped maintain the Roundhouse by giving it a coat of linseed.
The Roundhouse, made of wood with a living green roof open to the sky, is the natural place for gatherings. The setting is enhanced with fire bowls and candles to create a fitting environment for celebrations, funerals and memorial services. It is also the perfect place to enjoy the views and memories.
The ‘D’ word
Society tends to shy away from embracing feelings and discussions around death. The aim is to make Westmill Woodland Burial Ground a place where death can be talked about. The culture is to promote an open attitude towards death which in turn can result in a positive impact on life. For example, this was highlighted by the way that Steve Jobs, co-founder of Apple, looked death in the eye (died aged 56 in 2011). In 2005 he summed up death: "Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything – all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure – these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart."
Organising a funeral
There are no rules to organising a funeral; no set length of time during which it should be conducted. Westmill gives freedom to the bereaved to have the funeral they want, rather than what they might feel is expected. They support people’s grieving process by involving them in the burial ground and offering information and literature.
21 April 6am at Westmill Woodland Burial Ground Bird survey – welcome in the spring
15 May 12.30pm at Swindon Arts Centre – Liz Rothschild in conversation with Sue Brayne, author of ‘The D Word’, a down-to-earth book about caring for the dying and green burials – there will be laughs too
30 June 2-5pm Open Day – bring a picnic, enjoy the views