Pull up your mug of coffee and let’s discuss coffins. Why? you ask? Why not? I answer.
The Angel of Death touched my life a couple if times last year (and is always lurking somewhere close by in this violent society we live in). As uncomfortable and even frightening as it is, we have to deal with the reality of this foe – maybe even befriend him?
“We need a mind shift in our societies. We need to think. We need to question. What is life? And isn’t death part of living – a natural part of life?” – Desmond Tutu
Bernard Crettaz, a Swiss sociologist, had come up with the idea of “cafés mortels” (death cafes) – informal gatherings where the only topic of discussion was every living thing’s inevitable demise. The first gathering was held in 2004 in the Swiss town of Neuchâtel and since then, these cafes have sprung up all over the world. There is even a website dedicated to these gatherings with the objective, “to increase awareness of death with a view to helping people make the most of their (finite) lives”.
[A sudden flash of memory: When I was a young librarian in a public library, I showed an elderly woman the different sections of the library and happened to pull out the book, “On death and dying” by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross from the shelf in the non-fiction section. Ha. She gave me an earful on her being far from dying…]
Our friend and domestic worker, had lost her mother last year. True to her African (Xhosa) custom, the funeral was very traditional; a big and dignified event, plunging them into debt for many years to come. Why? Because social pressure demands that the deceased be buried in a style consistent with their observed social status. Research has shown that on average, Black African households spend the equivalent of one year’s income for an adult’s funeral. My brother-in-law’s funeral (all included) was a fraction of the amount, but still dignified. While we understand the importance of custom and religion, B and I have agreed that our coffins only need be the most basic husk, as we both want to be cremated in any case. Nobody wants to deny those staying behind a time to say goodbye, but need the ceremony leave them financial cripple afterwards? I would not want B pay for my sendoff for the rest of her life. Harsh times demand harsh decisions.
As you grow older, I guess it is inevitable that you start thinking about your own death. How long will I live? When will I die? How will I die? Thoughts like these wove through my mind with media reports in South Africa about Robin Stransham-Ford, a suffering man seeking legal approval for medical assistance to end his painful life. A while ago, another South African Johan Beukes, was medically assisted by the Swiss organization Dignitas. Then you start wondering: Will I die with dignity?
When the audiologist told me my hearing had deteriorated even more in the last year, her words set off more revolving thoughts: What if?
What if I lose my hearing totally and become deaf?
What if B passes on before me?
How will I cope? I know I will not cope in a world where I already feel alienated.
What if my body captures my mind in a feeble state of vegetation? Will the circle complete itself and I end up like a helpless baby wearing nappies again?
B and I have Living Wills, but what happens to the one remaining behind? South Africans do not (yet) have the legal right to assisted dying, although organizations such as Dignity SA is advocating strongly for it. The UK organization Care Not Killing states that “(p)ersistent requests for euthanasia are extremely rare if people are properly cared for, so our priority must be to ensure that good care addressing people’s physical, psychological, social and spiritual needs is accessible to all.” In what idealistic society? Certainly not in mine. But I am not arguing for or against assisted dying or the “good death”- euthanasia. My thoughts do not have any moral, philosophical, medical or religious grounds, they are merely introspection.
I know the argument, Why worry and think about death now? Live your life fully and deal with death when it comes. Life can change in the blink of an eye.
I want to be there for B as long as possible. And yes, everyone has the right to live, but I also want to die with dignity. I want to be free to choose and live or die with the consequences of that decision. But will I be able to make that choice and carry it out if and when the time comes? I cannot answer that with 100% certainty. Until then, I am lamenting the time away from those I love and making the most of those with those close to me, wishing others could live closer.
“Life should not be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside in a cloud of smoke, thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and loudly proclaiming “Wow! What a Ride!” ~ ― Hunter S. Thompson,
* A very interesting article on Bernard Crettaz, is Take me to the Death Cafe.
** Read a letter from a Xhosa grandmother to her grandchild, explaining the traditions of a Xhosa Funeral.
*** “Paying the Piper: The High Cost of Funerals in South Africa”