Foxy Roxy and the rainbows

Not long after we lost Max the friend who was so supportive over that time also lost one of her dogs. Roxy was a Vizla who, like Max, far outlasted her prognosis. Even so, her death was a blow and she will be much missed.

You may remember the beautiful light catcher that Pauline made for me in memory of Max (who looked rather like her dog Siddy) and how touched I was by it. It continues to bring me rainbows and to provide a beautiful reminder of my much-missed pal. I thought, therefore, that it would be lovely to be able to give my friend a Roxy memorial light catcher and so I asked Pauline if she could oblige. I sent her this photo, showing Roxy in her favourite fleecy ‘pyjamas’, and asked if the light catcher could be made in these colours:

roxy copyright

Roxy in her ‘pyjamas’

And what a marvellous creation arrived through the post. The colours look a bit washed out because it’s just so darned sunny here at the moment, but they are really evocative of the original.

So, if you are looking for a special memento, or just a beautiful decoration for your house, do check out Pauline’s creations here.

I’m dubious about the idea of ‘shrines’ to loved ones, but I am very taken with the idea of capturing happy memories, and the light catchers seem to do this perfectly – the rainbows they create capture the ephemeral nature of life and it’s associated beauty. Grief and loss are so very difficult the deal with, and finding ways of moving on from the gaping hole and remembering the good times are really important if we are to lead full lives. Incidentally, I was much inspired by the animated film Coco in addressing ideas surrounding death and loss – I highly recommend, whatever your age (don’t be fooled – it isn’t a typical Disney film and the trailer doesn’t do it justice).

Just a word of warning – if you do commission Pauline to make a memorial light catcher, be prepared for floods of tears from the recipient.


Life and death

I haven’t written a proper post for ages and the longer I leave it, the more difficult it is to get going again. It’s not that I don’t have anything to write – quite the opposite. The real problem is deciding what to write about… soap dishes or lovely British wool, clothes pegs or plants,  knitting or crochet, a new home or hens on holiday… I seem to have been so busy the past few weeks. Eventually, I’m sure I’ll get round to telling you about some or all of these things, but in the mean time, here’s a little collection of photographs…


My busy weeks ended on a sad note. Quite a significant part of Saturday was spent remembering our lost knitting friend, Pauline Bambrey. The funeral was held at the crematorium in Aberystwyth. If anyone ever writes a ‘good crematorium guide’, this must come out as one of the most beautiful settings. The room where the celebrations are held has a huge window at the end, so those gathering to remember their loved ones look out over the most beautiful view. I don’t think I’ve ever been when there wasn’t a red kite swooping over the wooded valley, and Saturday was no exception. The sheer beauty of the place is always poignant:

And this was the music that the family had chosen to close proceedings…



Creative Dying

Today I’m delighted to introduce what I think is the first ever guest blog post here on The Snail of Happiness, written by my good friend Katie Shepherd about a project very close to my heart…

I am a palliative care nurse and permaculture designer with a spiritual self deeply rooted in Earth-based seasons and patterns.  Issues relating to death and dying are intrinsic to most aspects of my life.

My experience of being with and working alongside dying people and their families is that the majority of people are pleased and relieved both to have the chance to talk about their fears around death and dying and to be supported through the process of making positive plans for the kind of death they would like.

My own observations of dying people and bereaved relatives are that those who have talked openly and honestly about death and dying – and who have planned for what they would like to happen when the time comes – tend to have a more peaceful, meaningful time at the end of their life.

Obviously, we cannot predict how, when and where we will die. But the likelihood of having the death that we want – which takes into account our needs and wishes and provides the right support for those around us – increases greatly if we make plans for it.

Most people in the UK die in acute hospitals, often having undergone procedures which are unnecessary and are wasteful of resources and human energy. Research consistently tells us that most people would actually prefer to die in their own homes, away from a busy acute medical environment. Such an environment is unnecessary anyway for the vast majority of people as they approach the end of their lives.


all sorts of resources at the click of your mouse

Creative Dying is the name of one of my permaculture designs that has gradually been evolving over the past 4 years. It’s a project about supporting people – at any time of their life – to plan and design the death they would like. Creative Dying is a solutions-focused response to some of the problems relating to how we die in the UK.

The ‘home’ of Creative Dying is a website and I use the permacultuture ethics, Fair Shares, Earth Care and People Care  to set the scene and explain in more detail how the current way we die is often at odds with these ethics

The main topics in Creative Dying are

  • Creative Resources – a frequently updated page with freely available ideas and resources to help people look at creating a plan for their own death.
  • Permaculture Design and Creative Dying – A guided tour through The Design Web, a permaculture design process, and how it can help people create their own plan for the end of their life.
  • Creating Your Own Plan – Additional Support – I offer coaching (either via Skype or in person) and workshops on any aspect of Creative Dying, plus

Creative Dying also has its own FaceBook page and Twitter Account  (@creative_dying). Currently being launched is a blog and Facebook Creative Dying Group – both with the aim of encouraging online discussion about death and dying.

Creative Dying uses permaculture design  at its centre and will appeal to the many people throughout the world already using permaculture to increase resilience and healing in other aspects of their life and work. It is aimed at anyone who would like to explore the creative, positive and unique approaches that we can take to considering the end of our lives and how we die.

Katie Shepherd is a Permaculture Designer and Practitioner

You can find out more about Creative Dying at:

Three Things Thursday

…three things that make me smile: an exercise in gratitude – feel free to steal this idea with wild abandon and fill your blog with the happy…

This Thursday I’m not feeling very happy. I heard yesterday about the death of someone who was an important part of my adult life – Dr Peter Wathern.

I’m trying to focus on the fact that his presence in my life made it better, so here are three things that I am grateful for:

I’m grateful that Peter saw my potential at the age of 21 and supported me in gaining a personal scholarship so that I could study any subject that I wanted for my PhD. As my supervisor, he saw me through three years of research. He helped me plant trees (he considered it a good way to have a day out of the department!), set up and plan experiments and slog my way through the writing-up.

I’m grateful that later in life, when I was at a loose end job-wise, Peter arranged a temporary lectureship for me. We shared an office for a year and he provided yet more support. He was a great teacher.

And third, I’m grateful that throughout the time we knew knew each other, he welcomed me into his family – even as undergraduates, we used to be invited round to the Wathern’s for an evening of laughter and great food. And although we gradually saw less of each other over the years, Mr Snail and I had a fine evening there not all that long ago, as always characterised by lovely food and much laughter.

My life is diminished by the death of Peter, but was greatly enhanced by knowing him.




Our experience with chickens over the years has always suggested that they are binary: either they are healthy or they are just about to die. In the past, every hen that we have had that has become sick has died. It hasn’t mattered what we have done – trips to the vets, antibiotics, herbal remedies, changes in diet, flushing vents out with warm salt water (yes, really) – the hen has died.

IMGP3621So it was with great sadness that I noticed early last week that Esme was under the weather. With hens, the first symptom that you notice is lethargy – they don’t come out of the house straight away in the morning and when they do, they sit around, fluffed up, looking glum. All the sitting around generally leads to them getting a dirty rear end, particularly since another common symptom is very runny poo. If you read any of the dozens of web pages about sick chickens you will find many references to hens becoming egg-bound (i.e. getting an egg stuck inside them). Diagnosis is easy – you stick your finger up the chicken’s vent and see if you can feel an egg (glamorous activity, chicken-keeping). I used to be squeamish about this, but it becomes commonplace (if not fun) eventually.

I would have been surprised had Esme been egg-bound, as she hasn’t laid for months now – she’s an old lady. A quick examination confirmed the absence of any egg and so I had to decide what to do. Knowing that any intervention tends to distress them, I chose to leave her alone. My only action was to give her a bowl of rolled oats and live yoghurt every day so she had something nice to eat that might improve her digestion and would give her fluids.

She remained glum for several days, her comb was droopy and dark, her tail was down, she shuffled around showing little interest in anything much except the oats. We resigned ourselves to her imminent demise. And then she started to perk up – eating from the feeder, wandering around the garden a little. We assumed that this was her final fling – Aliss perked up like this just before she died.

But Esme continued to get better. I clipped the mucky feathers below her vent and she preened the rest clean. And now she’s scratching around with the others, perfectly happily and her comb has returned to its usual colour. Now, I may be proved wrong, and she may keel over as soon as I publish this post, but I think not. I think she has recovered.

She really was well-named, with her blue eyes and tenacity, she is a true chicken version of Esmeralda Weatherwax. And, just like Granny Weatherwax (although, sadly, not her creator), she would be quite justified in having a sign reading ‘I ATEN’T DEAD’

Esme in her prime

Esme in her prime

Goodbye Sir Terry, and thank you

Yesterday my favourite author, Sir Terry Pratchett met one of his enduring characters: Death (who always spoke in capital letters). Terry loved communicating via technology and so it is fitting that his death was announced via his Twitter account:


“Terry took Death’s arm and followed him through the doors and on to the black desert under the endless night.

“The End.”

The world has lost a wonderful, creative mind. He certainly inspired me. So, I’m reproducing this Terry-inspired post from 2013 as my tribute to the passing of a great man.

Boots – the world according to Sam Vimes

New boots - I hope they last!

New boots – I hope they last!

Now I know that quite a few of you are Terry Pratchett fans like me (well, perhaps not like me, because you probably don’t name your chickens after characters out of his books), but for those of you who aren’t, I want to recommend that you take a look at his writing. He is generally considered to be a writer of comic fantasy and that is certainly true at the most superficial level. However, in my opinion, he is a remarkably astute social commentator, as well as having what appears to be a vast knowledge of history, philosophy, science and literature. Well, maybe he is just good at research, but he certainly draws on it very elegantly in his writing.

Anyway, I was thinking the other day about the economics of poverty… at least the economics of being poor in an affluent society and remembered the best explanation of this that I have ever read. I should explain that Sam Vimes, the character in this excerpt, is from a very poor background, but  finally marries a very rich woman.

The reason that the rich were so rich, Vimes reasoned, was because they managed to spend less money.

Take boots, for example. He earned thirty-eight dollars a month plus allowances. A really good pair of leather boots cost fifty dollars. But an affordable pair of boots, which were sort of OK for a season or two and then leaked like hell when the cardboard gave out, cost about ten dollars. Those were the kind of boots Vimes always bought, and wore until the soles were so thin that he could tell where he was in Ankh-Morpork on a foggy night by the feel of the cobbles.

But the thing was that good boots lasted for years and years. A man who could afford fifty dollars had a pair of boots that’d still be keeping his feet dry in ten years’ time, while the poor man who could only afford cheap boots would have spent a hundred dollars on boots in the same time and would still have wet feet.

This was the Captain Samuel Vimes ‘Boots’ theory of socioeconomic unfairness.

― Terry Pratchett, Men at Arms

And that does seem to be it… over the years I have been lucky enough to be able to afford to buy some good quality items and I can attest to the money that this has saved. In addition, if you can pay for them, it’s possible to choose things that are designed to be repaired… our bamboo flooring in the kitchen can be sanded down and refinished, meaning it will last for many years; on the other hand, cheap laminate flooring has to be replaced once worn because it just can’t be repaired or rejuvenated.

As things stand, this is a difficult cycle to break.Leonard Cohen was right when he wrote

The poor stay poor, the rich get rich
That’s how it goes
Everybody knows

– Leonard Cohen, Everybody Knows

Terminal scrapbooking

Back  September I wrote a post on the disposal of human remains… it was all part of my ongoing thoughts about death and dying. As I have explained previously, I think it’s important that we think about the end of our lives, both for our own sakes and to support the families and friends we leave behind. What has been occupying my mind recently, however, is how to put together all my research and ideas, so that they are accessible and available when they are needed.

The trouble with dying is that you don’t know how and when you’re going to do it, so you can’t make firm plans – it could be sudden, it could be prolonged; it could be tomorrow or in 50 years time; you could be ill, you could be well; you don’t know who will be around. What to do, then? How do I collate all the information I have been gathering? How do I make sure my family know what I want? Well, obviously, the first thing is to talk to people… Mr Snail-of-happiness knows how I feel about various aspects of the end of my life, as does my sister, but we’ve never discussed the subject ‘systematically’ and I’m sure there are things I have thought about that I haven’t passed on to them, or that they won’t remember.

Some resources I've been using, plus my empty book on the left

Some resources I’ve been using, plus my empty book on the left

I was really inspired last weekend, therefore, by a workshop that I attended about exactly this subject. It was run by Katie Shepherd, a former palliative care nurse, who has a very balanced perspective on the subject. She is putting together a website at the moment (not live yet, but I’ll let you know when it is) to provide support about end of life choices, including links to resources; she’s also going to be running workshops on the subject. She has drafted a form to fill in that gives guidance on the sort of things you might want to think about, but she also suggested making a sort of scrapbook. And at this point a light bulb went on in my mind! This is what I’m going to do – I’m going to print out bits from websites, I’m going to collect pictures, I’m going to make notes and I’m going to compile a scrapbook – my own Book of the Dead – that I can add to and modify as the years go by. I can include information about where to get a felt burial shroud (here, if you are interested), what sort of location I would like to be buried in, end-of-life treatment and so on. I’ll also be able to include messages and thoughts… I might even put a CD in it with music I like.

I can make it engaging and accessible and not fixed… and, strangely, I’m quite looking forward to doing it!

Ultimate composting

I have mentioned before that I’m going to write a “death plan” … not a handbook on how to commit suicide, but a set of instructions to help guide my loved-ones when I am nearing the end of my life and after I have died.

I'd quite like to end up somewhere like this: The Sustainability Centre on the South Downs, Hampshire

I’d quite like to end up somewhere like this: The Sustainability Centre on the South Downs, Hampshire

Ideally, upon my death, I would like to have as little negative impact on the world as possible… and maybe even a positive effect. So I was interested to read today about the idea of human composting in this post by I remain hopeful. It has given me some food for thought.

My assumption has always been that burial in a ‘green’ coffin is the best way to be disposed of, but there seem to be issues related to anaerobic decomposition if buried at depth because of the production of methane when there is insufficient oxygen. My inclination is towards burial in a woodland cemetery, like the one at the Sustainability Centre and to be buried in a felted wool shroud, but is seems that this may not be the best option.

So what can be done? Well, there’s a Swedish company who have found a novel approach:

The breakthrough process takes only about six to 12 months to transform a dead body into high-nutrient compost. Here’s how it works: A corpse is first frozen to -18°C (0°F) and then submerged in liquid nitrogen. Then the frozen, brittle corpse is gently bombarded with sound waves, which break it down into a fine white powder. That powder is then sent through a vacuum chamber that evaporates all the water.

Since water makes up about 70 percent of an adult human body, the mass of the powdery corpse becomes greatly decreased. Also, if the powder is kept dry, it will not decompose. This erases the need for a speedy burial or funeral service, and it preserves the corpse without the need for any unnatural chemicals like embalming fluids.

When it does come time for a burial, the powder can then be placed in a box of biodegradable material like corn starch and buried in a shallow grave. The mixture will create nutritious, fertile soil, perfect for planting a tree, bush or garden, depending on the desires of the next of kin.

– Bryan Nelson, Mother Nature Network

It may avoid that nasty anaerobic decomposition, but it seems to me that it’s going to require quite a lot of energy: freezing, production of liquid nitrogen, sound waves, creating a vacuum…. I’m not convinced that it’s a ‘better’ option than burial in a woodland.

Then there’s resomation. Never heard of it? Neither had I until today:

Resomation is a process that reduces human remains to mineral ash and liquid in about 2 hours, after the body is subjected to pressurization in the presence of water and salts. The remains can be returned to the family of the deceased as is done with cremation.

Carol Bengle Gilbert

Again, I’m not convinced, as it appears to be rather energy-demanding. In her post. I remain hopeful also mentions the idea of cutting bodies into manageable pieces in order that they decompose more quickly… I can’t find information about the relative speed of decomposition, but increasing the surface area would certainly increase microbial activity.

This is clearly a subject that I need to investigate more fully before making a decision, but I still think a hole in the ground is the least harmful plan.

We’re all going to die!

Well, it’s true, we are. I know that the spring is the time that, traditionally, we start to think about birth and new beginnings, but life is a cycle and so it seems appropriate to consider both ends of life.

I have been thinking quite a lot about dying for about four years now – since my brother-in-law died. He was only 43 and it brought home to me that I wanted to make some plans for my own death and funeral. There are several reasons for this.

First, I don’t want to burden my family with choices when I am not around to help them. Arranging a funeral is the last thing you want to do when you are recently bereaved – you have to choose a location, whether to cremate or bury, a celebrant, what music to have, who will say things and what, where to get the ‘order of service’ of printed… on and on go the decisions to be made. And once it’s over you can’t do it again – you have to get it right first time. I want to do some of that planning in advance, so that it isn’t a case of other people having to make snap decisions.

Please don't put flowers on my grave... or, indeed, a headstone!

Please don’t put flowers on my grave… or, indeed, a headstone!

Second, in my life I think quite a lot (you will have noticed) about the choices that I make and I’d like my death to be the same. For example, I don’t like cut flowers – both because they decay around the house and because, in general, commercially produced flowers are an environmental and people-care disaster. So, I really wouldn’t want flowers at my funeral. I’d also like to be laid to rest in a sustainable way – some sort of coffin or shroud that would decompose entirely – no headstone, but a tree or two would be nice, preferably in a natural burial site.

But, before I die, I’d like to have a say about what happens at the end of my life – how I’m cared for (if it’s necessary), how I die (if there are reasons to make choices) and, similarly , where I die. And I’d like my family to know about this – both in terms of having talked about it and having some written guidance.

I really don't want to end up somewhere like this!

I really don’t want to end up somewhere like this!

So, at this time of new life, I’m starting to write a death plan (it’s one of my Permaculture Diploma Designs). There are loads of resources out there – everything from a simple free guide produced by the BBC to more complex templates for a ‘living will’, such as the one available from the Natural Death Centre. I’ve already written a will, but I plan to update it, and I have in place Lasting power of attorneys for both ‘health and welfare’ and ‘property and financial affairs’, but it’s the more personal things that I want to address; and I want to do it soon, whilst I don’t feel under pressure.

Whilst it might seem depressing to think about dying, there is lots of evidence to suggest that by doing so and by talking about it we reduce the stress and can have a better death. And since death is an unavoidable consequence of life, I’m all for improving it!

Changes in the way society views dying and death have impacted on the experience of people who are dying and bereaved. Our lack of openness has affected the quality and range of support and care services available to patients and families. It has also affected our ability to die where or how we would wish. Dying Matters

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