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Looking at death, literally.

I’ve been reflecting, in the wake of Bonnie’s death, on how different some of my views around death are from when I was younger. Specifically for here and now, what I think about the need to spend time with the bodies of those we love who’ve died, and the rituals we have around this.

Sitting with death, literally. We ought to do a whole lot more of it for a whole lot longer.

That can seem a shocking idea at first. I get it.

Over the last week I’ve looked repeatedly at photos of my dead dog, Bonnie. Not just photos of Bonnie who is now dead….but actual photos of her dead body. I’ve even been watching videos of her cremation. Let’s put that more plainly – I’ve been watching videos of her dead body burning. Like old school funeral-pyre style. Me from 20-years ago would be horrified. Horrified that someone had taken such photos and videos, had sent them to me, and then that I had actually watched them. Repeatedly! And, heaven-forbid, shared them with my almost 6-yr old child. I think a 20-year old version of myself would wonder what on earth had happened to me that I would indulge in such bizarre, creepy, barbaric behaviour. She’d weep for her future. Lucky that girl had no idea what was to come!

Around 20 years ago I was living in Japan. I have a particular memory of death from that time that sticks with me.

I had a friend who had lived in Japan a long time and who had a Japanese family that she had become part of. She told me about the death of her Japanese grandmother. She said that, following tradition, straight after the funeral would come the cremation. Nothing interesting here. Except…the family were expected to sit and wait outside while the cremation happened. And then, when all was done and dusted, they would go in, help sift through the ashes for the big bones, as it’s these that are buried rather than the ashes. (If you’ve never looked into the process of cremation, the biggest bones don’t break down on their own without the help of a tool or machine).

The younger horrified-by-death version of me was…horrified. What a completely inhumane and barbaric practice! How on earth could anyone expect the family to sit outside a room, knowing that the body of their dead beloved friend or family member was burning in there, right at that very moment? And then to have them sift through the ashes and bones?! This was so shocking to me.

Very obviously, the best way was to have the cremation without the family having to be aware of it. And allowing them to pick up the ashes when they were ready – be that days or months later. Clearly the healthiest and kindest way was to keep them completely removed from that whole part of the process.

Cut to today when I really couldn’t disagree more.

When Bonnie was dying (though we didn’t know that for sure at the time) my vet sent me a video of her struggling to breathe. After she had died I asked him to send me photos of her body. Then when she was returned to the kennel for cremation, I asked if they had photos and they sent me some. They had wrapped her in a small, white sheet, and put a beautiful offerings basket (following the Hindu tradition) with flowers and incense on her body. They had also taken the cremation pictures and videos I mentioned before. She wasn’t in a box, or safely hidden from my view in some kind of oven. In these pics and videos I can see her clearly. In the pictures I can see her face and lovely white fur as the fur lower down on her body was blackened by the fire surrounding her. In the videos I can no longer see any white – just the black shape underneath the fire. I also arranged for our old dog-walker and friend to Bonnie to spread her ashes at a beach we used to walk her on. I have the beautiful video from that too.

I’ve watched them many times. And so has my daughter. I spoke to her about the ‘fire’ pics and videos before showing her, explaining what she’d see and asking if she wanted to. She was keen as mustard. We’ve looked at them and talked about them a few times and about what was happening to Bon’s body in them.

So why do I look at these?

I look at them because it helps make her death feel real. All death can feel unreal, especially if you’re removed enough from it…and we certainly were at over 11,000 kms away. But the distance isn’t the issue. You could be right in the next room and have it not sink in at all for many months.

I look at them because I feel involved in the process.

I look at them because they’re beautiful. Seeing her in death and seeing the process that was used to return her to the earth. It’s important. There is something very sunset-like about them for me.

But mostly I look at them because it makes a huge difference to be able to go through the full, gentle transition from someone’s (or somedog’s) life to their death.

I don’t think a lot of people get to experience this. We largely live in death-fearing and denying societies where it’s completely normal to outsource every part of death care. Well, it may very well be normal, but it isn’t natural and it isn’t healthy.

To sit with dying, then sit with death, there is a natural transition that I’ve seen happen in others and that I’ve experienced myself. There’s a shift when you are fully able to feel and acknowledge the death. But also when you feel ready to disconnect from the body, having spent the time you needed.

You won’t experience this in your one-minute viewing. It’s a much longer process.

In case you’re thinking back to a death in your life and realising this chance is gone…don’t worry. Having been able to spend this time with someone, dying and then dead, isn’t a prerequisite for healing at all.

All of this work I do began with me healing completely from my grief over the death of my dad, now many years ago, and I didn’t have a chance for a natural and healthy death transition with him. I hadn’t seen him in 6 months (I was living overseas), and I arrived in NZ hours after he had died. I saw his made-up-to-look-sleeping-when-actually-he-was-dead body for about 5 minutes the next day. In that short space I only had time for 2 reactions. The first was the desire to poke his cheek, as there was something bizarrely mannequin-like or furniture-like and unreal about him. The second was to be wary of getting too close. (I’ve watched a lot of horror movies. I knew how these things could go down.)

So if you didn’t have that, you didn’t. Hey, me neither.

But you know for next time.

As much as possible we ought to be involved in the process of death. It is healthy, and should be totally normal, that I can see pictures of my dying and then dead dog. It helps it feel real, it helps it sink in. It helps me transition between having her here and not. It helps me feel connected to the sheer naturalness of dying and death and what happens after death. There is calm and beauty and healing to be found here. Many ancient civilisations, and some more modern cultures still, have such a process. A vigil by a funeral pyre as a body slowly burns. A way to transition through that process.

Not all of our modern advances are good ones. When it comes to death, returning to a lot of the older, more natural ways make a lot of sense.

Well, I’ll leave you there and I think I’ll take some time now to go back through those photos and videos. I promise you, I’m not half as creepy and morbid as I might sound. Maybe not even 10%. 💗



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