Who are you?
I am a holistic funeral director, death doula, established celebrant and counsellor. I started as a celebrant in 2002, and since then, my work has expanded to incorporate more of life’s significant events in practical, pragmatic, as well as ceremonial processes. I am pioneering a new model of integrated end of life and after death care.
I began paying attention to ‘transitions’ and how we make them in experimental performance in Sydney in the late 80s and 90s, where I worked at the intersections of cultural, community and creative arts practice. I have 25 years of experience in the arts and am trained in somatic body-based practices that I bring to my work. I study Body Mind Centering with Alice Cummins and other somatic modalities.
I am the founder and director of Life Rites, a new model of integrated funeral care that expands what families can expect from their end of life, funeral and bereavement care. From that first phone call, we can guide or follow you through the process in a way that enables a powerful and authentic experience for all involved.
I conceived of and worked as part of the team that created the community memorial, Picnic Among Friends, to offer new opportunities and models for safe, connected grieving practices (www.paf.org). I am a mother of a 20-year-old daughter, an artist, community member and friend. I am now in my mid-50s.
How has your outlook on dying changed because of the work you do?
It’s been a gradual discovery, developing over time. I was always a witchy kid, making potions and doing weird little rituals with objects I found in nature. I grew up in a pretty esoteric-leaning, creative community (for my primary education I attended a Steiner School) so I was doing meditation, pottery, gardening and yoga at a young age. This gave me permission to explore parts of myself that were inward, subtle and a little strange. Growing up as an only child with a single mum (a novelist), who had a reverence for artists, especially female artists, also influenced my eventual identification as a witch. How could it not? Cinema, books, art galleries and travel were part of my life from an early age and throughout my teenage years. I am very lucky to have been exposed to a lot of different ways of thinking as a young person. It taught me to value personal freedom of expression, a
Understanding how to recognise, meet and move through the significant moments, events and experiences of our lives has been my life practice for almost 20 years now. I don’t have an outlook—I have a deep inner body of cumulative experiences. And I am not looking from outside of death. I am in an intimate relationship with it—from the grieving bodies of relatives and friends, the hands-on care I and my team offer the dying and the dead, to the intimate listening and storytelling of lives that my work as a holistic funeral director, doula and celebrant entails.
Perhaps more so than any of this is the experience of serious illness in my own body mind and life and meeting my own mortality through a cancer diagnosis in 2017. It was this lived experience of being in the diagnostic chair that has shifted my professional practice. I did not die from the cancer and yet, as I was travelling through the rugged treatment and recovery, it was the people I had accompanied to their deaths that held me the most. My memory of being with them as they met the dark nights of the soul that serious illness can bring, and then when they met their deaths, has helped me understand that softening into the dying of our bodies is a great skill and gift. Once the shock, the fight and the pain of leaving those we love have coursed through us, there is a softening into the preciousness of life that becomes so apparent once there is a limit, a finitude, an ending of breath and of this consciousness that is upon us.
So, I will experience all the inbuilt survival instincts that are wired into my nervous system, but I am deeply taught by those I’ve accompanied in the art of dying by being as authentically myself as I can be.
How can we make death part of the conversation when we’re alive?
We make conversations about death part of our lives in many ways. There are so many initiatives from Dying to Know Day, Death Cafes, the Picnic Among Friends memorial picnic my team offered for 10 years, Death and Dying Festivals, etc.
The question before yours is: How do we build a relationship with finitude, limit and mortality in a way that fosters connection rather than disassociation and shutdown? For we are geared to not approach the reality of our nonexistence easily. We are biologically geared to survive and culturally bereft of the context in which to understand our lives as a cycle, not a straight line.
So, we begin by rebuilding the context in which death is seen as a central part of life. We feel into who in our lives we are willing to have the conversations with, as well as whose death will impact hugely upon our lives, and what we need in our kitbag for this.
We see what language we have available to us. We get creative. We take leave of our reason. We have an imaginary conversation with ourselves and death. With love and loss. We write letters to the people we love who may die before us. We imagine ourselves giving their eulogies. We write our wills. We write letters to our children, ones born and ones not yet here. We build up our mortality muscles with all of this. We read books about death, watch films, look it up in the dictionary. Listen to songs about death and dance to them.
We listen for the gaps and spaces into which the language we don’t yet have may come, and to ask the people we care about what’s important to them about their lives. We talk about life. How precious it is, and we mark the passage of seasons, time and significant events. We meet our maturation, our ageing, our raging, our sageing, with curiosity, breath, play and attention.
Is there such a thing as a “good” death? What might that look like?
People who have the luxury and challenge of a dying process tend to die as they live. Not always, but often. There are many deaths that are just beyond the scope of that value-laden language. I don’t subscribe to that phrase as it encompasses that we can fail at death and really, it’s challenging enough without having to get it right!
That said, I would hope that a good death would encompass that the person dying had access to care, support, pain relief and that their value as a human being was accessible to them and those who shared their life. And that the way in which they were cared for and honoured after death was authentic to them, dignified and real.
What role do you think your work plays in our current era?
I feel that by recalibrating our death as a central part of our life and an event in the lives of those who love us, there may be a way of beginning to build a relationship with the things that are so challenging for us. To meet a limit, a sense of finitude, an inevitable sense that resources are finite, that what is born must die, that a first breath always results in a last and that this, rather than being a ‘failure’, is the success of our biological entity that carried who we understand ourselves to be. And maybe if we can approach these limits and ‘failings’ with grace and understanding, then maybe we can learn to have, do, expect and consume less of the finite resources on this planet that we live on.
What does wellness mean to you?
I have been unwell in my life and so, wellness can be seen as an ableist place only certain people can inhabit or a slippery slope that everyone eventually falls off. So, I see wellness as coming to embody, as best we can, authenticity, integrity, creativity and presence. A willingness to ‘show up’, to do the work needed, to love fully and wholeheartedly. To embrace fallibility, vulnerability and shortcomings, as a way of developing compassion for others and to not take oneself so seriously. Also, knowing that we all are going to die, that maintaining ‘perfect’ health may not be available to all, so just do the best we can with what we have.
How do you care for yourself?
Self-care is always a priority, but my daughter tells me that my working life more often than not overtakes my capacity to prioritise self-care! I’m not sure that is always true, but I do hear that from her. I do love how in the cycle of life, I have come to the time where the human I raised, lovingly, has begun to give that care back to me, in a clear and direct way. This has been an unexpected consequence of COVID-19, as we are living together when otherwise we would not be.
So, to attend to my self-care, I have fires in my backyard (when it’s safe to), I walk along a river near my home, I soak in green, nature, my garden. I spend time (when not in lockdown) with good, real, loving people. I laugh a lot. I love my daughter, family, friends and puppy dogs. I meditate when I can, I do some yoga. I have professional care to enable me to sustain the intensity and rigour of my professional and ceremonial life. That is a given.
How important are daily rituals to you?
Not so much really, in the sense of locking myself into certain things I ‘must’ do each day. More so, I find I ebb in and out of certain practices with the seasons, age, energy, capacity, etc. I am very connected to being in my body and with myself in a kind way. The little daily routines of making tea, eating breakfast, feeding and walking my dogs, cleaning my teeth, sharing meals, seeing friends, are markers that are valuable as moments of ongoing familiarity within the changing landscape of my daily life. Meeting the predictable unpredictability of death means that even my morning cup of tea offers a holding place that is valuable.
How do you mark and celebrate change?
Understanding Rites of Passage, as Arnold Van Gennep saw them, as rites of separation, transition and reincorporation, allows us to find the moments of pause, change and new choices available to us as we travel throughout our lives. So, I engage with elements of earth, fire, water, air. I notice changes in temperature, light, the colours of the seasons and mark them by noticing them and drinking them in through my senses.
What types of rituals and ceremonies does your work teach us to participate in and honour?
This is difficult to answer, but I will give it ago—
The work of meeting in ceremony (even with yourself) and seeing our life as a cycle, not a straight line heading towards a terminus, but having a sense of emerging, rising, ebbing and flowing with the years as they pass, and knowing that we are held by more than our singular ‘I’ or ‘me’, can create a sense of safety to be fully here.
If we allow culture and society to hide from us the fact of our own finitude, then how do we understand what we are living as meaningful, precious and impactful? How do we consciously think beyond our own existence if it isn’t celebrated and honoured in our rituals around birth, life passage, death, mourning and legacy?
We only become good ancestors by knowing that is what we are born for. So, it’s less the types of rituals and ceremonies, but seeing and living and feeling our whole life through the lens of what are we here to leave and create, rather than get and consume.
Any moment of connection, any gathering based on curiosity, creativity and presence is ceremony, and will bring us into relationship with ourselves and each other in ways that may alter how we see and feel, and therefore allow the possibility of new thoughts, feelings and choices to emerge.
Ceremony is what awaits us when we are at the end of what we know.
Can you think of a ritual that would resonate with our world at this moment in time?
Far be it from me to speak for the world. I am doing my best to meet what I have put my hand and heart up for with grace, power, yielding, resilience, play and friendship and to continue to speak to and build relationships across wide-ranging constituencies and to listen deeply to the voices around me.