A burial shroud is laid out a Death Doula workshop in Brisbane.

Listening to the dying and giving them a voice too: The emerging role of the Death Doula

There are two types of people in this world: Those who accept they and the people they love will die, and those who don’t.

It’s the latter who don’t want to talk about the inevitable and who label any such discussion as morbid.

But, like it or not, death happens, sometimes too soon, sometimes not soon enough.

Selling my book The Bottom Drawer Book: an after death action plan at the local market soon after its release, I had a woman look me in the eye, scowl and matter-of-factly tell me it was a “stupid idea”. And off she went.

I felt sad that anyone in her life who wanted to have a discussion about death or their terminal illness or their funeral plans wouldn’t be able to. They would be abruptly and rudely shot down in flames.

Thankfully there are people very open to the idea of talking about death and dying. These are the death doulas.

I recently attended a death doula workshop where, for two days, 15 like-minded people learned about the role of a death doula, death mid-wife or end-of-life consultant.

Some were planning to become death doulas while others, like me, just wanted to learn about the emerging service being offered to the dying and/or their families. Death doulas have been around for years, but they’re only now becoming known in more conventional circles.

So, what is a death doula?

First and foremost, it’s someone comfortable talking about death and dying.

It’s someone who bridges the gap between the dying and their families or partners. Sometimes it’s someone who simply helps the dying person to die – holding their hand, explaining things, offering assurances, or simply being there if there is no-one else is.

You see, it’s a challenging and confronting time when someone is close to death. It’s an emotional time that can sometimes see common sense go out the window. Grief fuels sometimes unhelpful emotions and actions, family arguments and confusion. And it’s not uncommon for the wants and needs of the patient to become secondary to the wants and fears of family members.

How often does a mother try to please her children? Let’s face it – when people are nearing death they don’t feel like eating or drinking. They don’t necessarily want their family sitting beside them either, staring and waiting for the next breath to come. Yet the loving daughter pleads for their mum to eat so as to stay strong, hoping for a miracle. But when is enough? When is it time to let go? There comes a time when it simply “is time to die” and the circle of life ends. A death doula can remind family of this. A death doula can offer a balanced eye and hand during these times, offering spiritual care, psychological and social support. They can be someone to talk with.

It’s a paid role. Death doulas are usually hired by the family of the person who is nearing their end of life, but the doula’s responsibility remains with the dying. They’re paid an hourly rate, or can be hired on daily or weekly terms.

A doulas after-death role

If they haven’t already, when the time comes death doulas an also help organise home vigils and home funerals. (Yes, you don’t have to use a funeral director, and the body can be taken home from the hospital.) Doulas can help facilitate discussions with funeral directors and they can ensure that grief-stricken partners aren’t taken advantage of when making funeral decisions.

Awareness of end-of-life consultants or death doulas isn’t widespread and some in the medical profession are yet to be convinced of their worth. But as our population continues to age at an ever-increasing rate, hospitals and nursing homes come under more pressure, and medical staff become busier, the role of those death doulas willing to sit with and reassure the dying, to listen to and speak for the dying will become even more important.

 

Lisa Herbert is a journalist and author. The second edition of The Bottom Drawer Book: an after death action plan is available online in Australia for $18.95. Order here.

I shared my death doula training experience with these amazing people. (I’m 4th from the right) 

The entrance to Centenary Memorial Gardens and Crematorium

Funeral faux pas: I showed up to the wrong funeral yesterday

Thankfully I realised I was at the wrong funeral before entering the chapel on the outskirts of Brisbane. I quickly checked my diary and saw Alan’s funeral was at 2pm. It was midday. I jumped in my car and made my getaway, thanking my lucky stars that A. I didn’t have to sit through the wrong funeral (I would have felt like a funeral fraud!), and B. I hadn’t missed Alan’s funeral.

It seems I’m not alone in attending the wrong funeral. Sharing my embarrassment on social media, friends and Twitter followers shared their experiences too.

Twitter replies to my confession that I showed up at the wrong funeral
People shared their funeral tales wth me on Twitter.

A friend wrote: “When my brother died, following the official service, he was taken to the cemetery to be buried with our dad. One of our cousins was running late to the graveside and bolted in and took his place, just as they were carrying the coffin from the car to the grave. Except it was the wrong funeral!!! He’d stop at the first one as there were two that day and he was in haste. Our brother used to do funny things like that so it was actually extremely hilarious to us. The other family were quite confused!”

On Twitter, Damon says he was backpacking in rural Ireland when he found it odd that the town he was in was very quiet and pubs empty,  except for one.  “Pub was buzzing, free food too.” It was an hour before he realised he’d crashed a wake.

“😧 Locals very understanding,” he writes. 

Raelene from WA tells me one of her relatives went to the wrong funeral:  “My aunt did same re my father. Funerals 300kms apart. She said she ‘didn’t know anyone’! Wonder why!”

Rachel responded from Geelong: “I drove 2.5 hours a day early for one once.”

And my friend’s dad said (*warning – Dad joke): “I once went to my funeral and, in shock, I woke up. Realising I was still here, I decided to go back to sleep.”

BTW – While Alan’s funeral was very sad (they always are when people die relatively young and unexpectedly), I found myself chuckling a couple of times. The Priest was from Brisbane Boys College (BBC) so he was obviously used to engaging with youth using a bit of wit. Alan liked a party and the Priest reminded the gathering there were no hangovers in heaven. There was a downside though. He said there was no drunkeness either – you can drink as much as you like, enjoying the great taste, but not feel the alcoholic effects. Hmmm. I enjoy the tipsy feeling from a couple of champagnes in the sun as much as anybody so I figure I’m not ready for heaven just yet, but just in case, I have a copy of The Bottom Drawer Book: the after death action plan”.

Stupors outside a temple about 40 inutes from Siem Reap, Cambodia

The Stupa: a high rise for generations of human remains

It’s easy to look past the colourful monuments that surround the large, majestic and eye-catching temples of south-east Asia. In size and elegance, there’s no comparison.

Yet outside these magnificent houses of respect and worships, there are a plethora of smaller buildings. They may just look like decoration but each of these ‘stupas’ house the created remains of several generations – with the urns of family elders placed on the top shelf of three orternal shelves and subsequent generations on the lower shelves. Much expense is spent on these little buildings. Traditionally they held the possessions of those departed but, these days, they house the cremated remains of family members.

A worker builds a stupor close to a temple on the outskirts of Siem Reap in Cambodia
A worker builds a stupor close to a temple on the outskirts of Siem Reap in Cambodia. The great grandparents or grandparents will be moved into the top storey of the monument.

While Cambodia is a poor country with many families struggling to even reach the poverty line, a lot of money is spent on stupas. This stupa below is being built about an hour from Siem Reap. The cost? About US$3,000, which is an extraordinary amount when some Cambodians struggle to make $1.50 per day.

A crematorium sits in the distance behind a temple in Cambodia.
A crematorium sits in the distance behind a temple in Cambodia. Mourners bring wood as final and practical offering.

For westerners, temples are an intriguing unknown. Am I allowed in? Why do have to take my shoes off? What religion is practiced here? Will I burst into flames if I enter? A myriad of religions are practiced often side-by -side and often with elements of several religions combining. You’ll be excused for confusing Buddhism, Hinduism and Animism which all seem to go hand in hand in countries like Cambodia. While most Cambodians identify as Buddhists, Hinduism, for example, influences significant events such as weddings and funerals, and the use of astrology to determine the most appropriate dates for important occasions.

Buddhists believe in cremations and that’s why there are crematoriums very close to most temples. Here, in a village not far from near Siem Reap, this wagon is offered free to anyone using the nearby crematorium.  Inside is the body in a bamboo coffin. The ceremonial casket is not burned and lives to provide pomp and ceremony for other village members for years to come. Mourners bring wood to fuel the cremation which usually takes about three hours.

This ceremonial wagon or cart leads a procession to the crematorium.
This ceremonial wagon or cart leads a procession to the crematorium where the deceased will be burned using donations of wood from mourners who also bring food and water and monetary donations for the family.

 While tens of thousands of tourists flock to the well-known temples of Ankor Wat, few realise they’re scampering through crematoriums as well as temples.  Pre Rup temple was a Hindu temple built in 961AD (Yes, it’s more than 1,000 years old!). It’s believed funerals took place at this temple, with two crematoriums within the temple itself – one for men, one for women.

Pre Rup is a Hindu temple near Siem Reap. The building on the left is thought to be a crematorium for men.
Pre Rup is a Hindu temple near Siem Reap, not far from Ankor Wat. The building on the left is thought to be a crematorium for men.

So the next time you’re in Asia or India keep an eye out for both crematoriums and stupas. You’ll be surprised how common they are and the pride of place they hold. It’s the opposite approach to that of western society and its treatment of the dead and their remains isn’t it?

 

 

 

Where did the cemetery at Singapore’s Fort Canning Park go?

Does moving headstones move a graveyard? In Singapore, apparently so.

While the headstones and monuments at Singapore’s popular tourist spot, wedding and concert venue Fort Canning Park  have been moved, the graves themselves remain. But you wouldn’t know they were there and no-one seems too concerned. Sprawling lawns now cover the one-time cemetery, with just a few monuments clumped together in a corner and some headstones incorporated into a wall that runs down the sloping hill.

The official line from the authorites is that most of the graveyard’s monuments and headstones were so delapidated they were removed in the mid 1970s.

Six hundred people were laid to rest in the cemetery between 1822 and when it closed in 1865. Can’t you tell? Um… Well… No. 

Lush lawns now cover 600 graves at Fort Canning Park , Singapore.
Sprawling lush lawns and a paved pathway now cover 600 graves at Fort Canning Park , Singapore.
The
headstones that have been incorporated into a beautiful brick wall reveal the diverse range of people buried at Fort Canning. A third of them were Chinese Christians and languages on some of the reamining tombstones include German, Thai and Dutch.

 

Some headstones remain, bricked into a wall at Fort Canning Park, Singapore
  
A handful of monuments remain in one corner of the former cemetery at Fort Canning.
 

I can’t help but wonder what Australians would think of a lawn replacing an old cemetery. Do you think there’s a period of time than passes before it’s OK to transform a cemetery into a recreation area?
 

 

 

Kranji War Cemetery

A mass grave and tributes to our war dead: Kranji War Cemetery, Singapore

I’d never even heard of Kranji War Cemetery, but I’m glad I stumbled on it. One of the first graves I noticed was that of an Aboriginal soldier, remembered by “his mob back in Australia” during the recent 75 year commemorations of the Fall of Singapore.

More than 20,000 Australians served, with around 1,800 lives lost in battle. Around 15,000 were captured as Prisoners of War.

Private J Knox lies in Kranji War Cemetery, Singapore
Private J Knox lies in Kranji War Cemetery, Singapore. He died as a Prisoner of War six-and-a-half months after allied troops were ordered to lay down their arms on February 15, 1942. His grave is in the first row on the left as you enter the cemetery. The flowers and flags laid on his grave just two days prior are a poignant reminder of the ongoing effects of war.

It turns out the Kranji War Cemetery is the final resting place of more than 4,400 casualties of World War II. Among those graves are 850 without a name, only “known unto God”.

There are 850 graves of unknown soldiers at the Kranji War Cemetery in Singapore.
There are 850 graves of unknown soldiers at the Kranji War Cemetery in Singapore.

 

And then there are walls and walls and walls of names – names of land troops and airmen who don’t have graves. I can only assume many of those 24,000 casualties were left where they fell as they attempted to stop the Japanese during their surprise invasion through 200km of Malayan rainforest. Many would have been Prisoners of War who died in captivity, most notably during the construction of the Burma-Thailand railway. There is a memorial at the Kranji War Cemetery to the twenty-four THOUSAND people who have no known grave. (I needed to spell that out as I am still trying to come to terms with that number. Each of those men had families. Can’t. even. fathom).

The memorial to the 24,000 soldiers and airmen with no known grave.
The memorial to the 24,000 soldiers and airmen with no known grave. The wreaths were laid two days prior during the 75 year commemorations of the Fall of Singapore.
This memorial wall is littered with the names of Australians.
This memorial wall is littered with the names of Australians. There are many Commonwealth nationalities on the walls at the Kranji War Cemetery.

There’s another memorial at Kranji War Cemetery which really put my heart into my throat. It relates to a mass grave that is located on hospital grounds in Singapore.

The Singapore Civil Hospital Grave Memorial at Kranji War Cemetery lists the names of 107 Commonwealth casualties buried in a mass grave alongside 300 civilians.

The Singapore Civil Hospital Grave Memorial
The Singapore Civil Hospital Grave Memorial commemorates 107 Commonwealth servicemen buried in a mass grave on hospital grounds. There are 300 civilians in that grave  as well.

You see, during the last hours of the Battle of Singapore, hundreds of wounded civilians and servicemen taken prisoner by the Japanese were taken to the hospital. The number of subsequent fatalities was too great for the hospital and authorities to handle. The deceased were put into an emergency water tank that had been dug on the hospital grounds prior to the war. This mass grave holds more than 400 people.

After the war it was determined that identifying those within was an impossible task. So the grave was left undisturbed and enclosed, consecrated by the Bishop of Singapore. The site is marked by a cross, put there by military authorities.

The Kranji War Cemetery, Singapore
The Kranji War Cemetery, Singapore. The walls of the large structure in the background have the names of 24,000 servicemen who don’t have graves written on them

The Kranji War Cemetery is on the outskirts of Singapore. The Japanese landed just a few kilometres from the cemetery’s site on 8 February 1942, at the mouth of the Kranji River. The following night they launched an attack. Fighting continued for a few days, much of it hand-to-hand combat. Japanese troops had the numbers and lots of support from the air. Allied forces never stood a chance.

The Kranji War Cemetery isn’t far from the Kranji train station so I can highly recommend you pay it and our fallen soldiers a visit the next time you’re in Singapore.

Advance care plans and Facebook legacy contacts: new additions to The Bottom Drawer Book’s second edition

It’s become increasingly obvious there are many people who are keen to be a prepared for the inevitable, even though that may not be any time soon. They also want to take the pressure off their loved ones when the time comes. Western society typically labels any  talk about death and funerals ‘morbid’ but, thankfully, that antiquated idea is slowly changing.  You see, the first edition of The Bottom Drawer Book has sold out and I get emails from people telling me how it has helped them.

“Our 22 year old son is dying and while we have generally discussed his wishes, this book will make things easier. I have ordered 4 books for all the family so we can all sit down and fill in our books together so that our beautifully amazing son won’t be the only one making the hard decisions and we can make it light-hearted and fun. Thank you for making a difficult discussion so much easier.”

I’m not going to lie. I cried when I got that email. Humbled almost beyond comprehension, it made me so glad I followed through on a crazy idea to write an after death action plan.

Three years later and the second edition is out. There are only a couple of changes.

Advance care plans

I’ve included a section on Living Wills. In other words, these are simply your plans for your future medical care.

The Royal Australian College of General Practitioners estimates one in four of us will not be able to make medical care decisions as we near our end of life. That’s where what’s called ‘advance care plans’ come in. It’s a list of your wishes, including who you want to talk to your doctors on your behalf, if you’re too out of it to make any sense. Your plan can outline what procedures you want or don’t want eg. do you want to be resuscitated? Do you want feeding tubes removed? It can outline where you’d prefer to die and even if you want your dog or cat with you.

While advance care plans aren’t necessarily legally binding they will help your doctors and family make health care decisions if you can’t. Each Australian state and territory have different regulations and terminology when it comes to care plans and health directives so ask your GP or local health care about them. There’s also some good information online. This website HERE has links to each state’s documents. There’s also info about appointing an enduring power of attorney or enduring guardian. The person or people you nominate for this job can make financial, lifestyle and health decisions on your behalf if you’re not well enough too.

Facebook legacy contacts

The second edition of The Bottom Drawer Book also includes some updated information from Facebook about what happens to your Facebook page if you die. As mentioned in the first edition, you can choose to have your page deleted or memorialised. Having your page memorialised means your page becomes somewhere your friends can share memories and leave comment. Facebook has now also introduced the ability for you to nominate a legacy contact who takes control of parts of your Facebook page. That person won’t be able to see your messages or delete any of your content or friends, but they can post updates (such as funeral information), change your profile picture and accept friend requests.

We live so much of our life online these days that when we die there’s an awful lot of information, photos, blogs, videos etc that will be left orbiting cyber space. You have the ability to manage what happens to all that stuff. All it takes is a little preparation, and that’s where The Bottom Drawer Book: an after death action plan comes in. It costs $18.95 which includes delivery within Australia.

Boxes containing The Bottom Drawer Book

Hanging coffins of Sagoda, Phillipines

Umbrellas over graves and coffins hanging from cliffs.

Two of my friends visited cemeteries during their recent overseas Christmas holidays.

In the Phillipines, the Hanging Coffins of Sagoda caught Steve’s interest.

Nobody really knows the reason these coffins hang from the side of limestone cliffs in Echo Valley within the Mountain Province. There’s speculation that it either gets them closer to heaven/paradise, protects them from animals and floods or even that it saves space so as not to use up valuable agricultural land.

It’s thought the local Igorot, the local tribe, have been laying their loved ones to rest this way for 2,000 years. It’s a practice that has been done in China too, for well over 2,000 years.

This burial custom still takes place these days, though it’s only some of the elderly who choose this method of burial. Visitors to the area walk through a more conventional cemetery on the hike to the cliffs.

The coffins are in a range of sizes, with the small ones said to be filled with bodies that are in the foetal position; the theory being that those people leave the world as they entered it. Hanging next to some of the coffins are wooden chairs. It’s on those chairs the deceased sat as they were prepared for burial.

It’s hard to fathom just how those heavy coffins are put in place. Some are also laid in nearby caves. Eventually the coffins disintegrate. People visiting the site are encouraged not to stand under the cliffs, just in case some bits and pieces fall from the cliffs.

Umbrellas shade graves at Nusa Lembongan
Graves are shaded at Nusa Lembongan, south east of Bali
The graves my friend Charlotte visited on Nusa Lembongan are more conventional but just as peaceful. They’re also an example of the way ancestors are cared for and tradition upheld. The island is south east of Bali and is fast-becoming a popular tourist destination because of its stunning beaches and bays, snorkelling and great natural attractions.

Many of the headstones there are shaded by colourful parasols. This is to keep the hot, tropical sun off the dead. Protecting graves from the elements is not uncommon. I have seen graves in Botswana, Africa shaded with iron and cloth covers and decorated covers over Aboriginal graves in some of Australia’s more remote communities.

You can always tell a lot about a culture, a town or a community by the way they treat their dead, can’t you?

 

 

Colourful fireworks over Brisbane.

Ashes scattered by fireworks means loved ones go off with a bang.

As you look skywards tonight, you might just see some particularly special fireworks.

The scattering of ashes via fireworks is taking off. These days there are several companies that offer the service for both people and pets.

Fourth generation pyrotechnician Andrew Howard is co-ordinating 75 fireworks shows in towns and cities across the country tonight. While none of those events include someone’s ashes, he told ABC Darwin that ashes being spread using fireworks is becoming more popular.

“We got our first inquiry over a decade ago. It was a little bit weird but it’s certainly very common now.”

“We do several throughout the year but there won’t be any on New Year’s Eve this year,” said Mr Howard.

Ashes are put into handmade aerial shell fireworks that are launched high into the sky over the location sought by the client, usually somewhere of significance to the deceased or their friends and family. The colour of the fireworks becomes an important component of the ceremony, with the colour chosen to reflect the personality of the deceased.

In 2010 the Sydney Harbour New Year’s fireworks incorporated the ashes of two dogs, Gyprock and Zeus. They were the beloved pets of Craig Hull, who has since become a successful pyrotechnician. His company, Ashes to Ashes, specialises in “the scattering of one’s cremated ashes by way of a beautiful and spectacular fireworks display”.

Mr Hull’s first clients were Mikala and Stephanie Dwyer. The sisters sent their mum and grandmother up in fireworks in Sydney in 2014. Speaking to The Feed, Mikala said the ashes had been “hanging around for quite some time”.

“My grandmother’s been hanging around in cupboards since 1994 so this is a way of setting her free a bit,” said Mikala.

“My mother loved fireworks so this was the perfect thing.”

“It seemed totally right and I realise it’s not right for everyone, but for us it was quite wonderful,” she said.

What do you think? Would you like to go out with a bang at a memorial service with a difference? You can make your wishes known in your will or simply tell your loved ones or write down your wishes in The Bottom Drawer Book: an after death action plan.

I hope you have a safe and memorable New Year’s Eve. Enjoy the fireworks! And I’d love to know your thoughts about sending your friends and family skywards.

 

 

 

Christmas can suck sometimes

When the sun comes up tomorrow it’ll be Christmas. And Christmas can suck. And not just because you’re forced to spend time with your judgemental and bossy sister-in-law, spend days in the kitchen, or spend money on unneeded presents you’ve bought simply because you’re ‘supposed’ to.

Christmas sucks when there is someone missing.

Cemeteries around the country are preparing for their busiest days of the year. For many, a church service and a present-giving morning are soon followed by a trip to a cemetery to visit the person they’re missing most this Christmas.

Then the afternoon may be spent visiting friends and having to don a Christmas hat and be merry, even though it’s the last thing you feel like being. But you put on your brave face because you don’t want to put a dampener on the day for your friends or your children.

Even though you’re surrounded by wonderful people who are great company, there’s still a piece of your Christmas spirit that has long left the building. You smile and nod, feign amusement at the dodgy Christmas cracker jokes, make small talk, and stare at the clock hoping it will all be over soon.

If you’re hosting a Christmas gathering and there’s someone like that in your house or backyard, let them be. Don’t be the one who says, in front of the crowd, “You’re quiet today! What’s wrong? C’mon, lighten up. It’s Christmas!”

For heaven’s sake, don’t be that person. Instead, give your quietly-grieving guest a big welcoming hug, an acknowledging smile, a hand squeeze and a chair in the corner next to the person they’re most comfortable with.  While they may not be the life of the party, your party may be offering them a reminder that, while missing a loved one sucks at Christmas, life goes on and spending time with caring family and friends isn’t all bad. It just takes getting used to.

Eh? You wrote a book about whaaaaaat?

Welcome to a blog about the inevitable. While it’s not for everyone, there are a lot of people who like the idea of having a say in their own farewell. Some people tell me it’s because they don’t want their family burdened with the task and others tell me it’s to ensure everyone has a good time at the funeral!

My interest in western society’s perception of death and dying was sparked as a teen after reading several books written by renowned psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross. The works, inspired by Dr Kübler-Ross’ work with terminally ill patients, were groundbreaking at the time. Never before had the emotional needs of the dying been given attention by the medical profession.

Nearly 50 years on and many people are still reluctant to talk about the inevitable. However, while researching The Bottom Drawer Book, I found that once the discussion began, people opened up and gave their mortality some measured thought. All they needed was someone to initiate the discussion. And that’s where The Bottom Drawer Book comes in. Its aim is to start the conversation.