The value of a life

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

About 150,000 people died yesterday

Many people died yesterday… in every country there were deaths. Some people died of old age, some as a result of an accident or an illness, some tragically and some peacefully. In total, about 150,000 people died in the world yesterday. Of course the media cannot report all of those deaths, and we are more likely to hear of the deaths of individuals from our own country than those from overseas, but yesterday really highlighted to me how the current cult of celebrity has skewed the lives that we, apparently, value… or at least that the media values.

Last night we watched the news at 10pm on the BBC. The main story was the death of Peaches Geldof – daughter of Bob Geldof and Paula Yates. Clearly a tragic death – she was only 25 and had two young children. Probably her greatest claim to fame was her famous parents, although she had (probably as a result of having famous parents) been a model, TV presenter and written for various newspapers and magazines. The BBC web site currently features a link to a piece about the death of Peaches Geldof on its front page.

Much later in the same news bulletin last night the deaths of two British women in Tenerife were briefly reported: Uma Ramalingam and Barathi Ravikumar drowned trying to save two children who had been swept into the sea. Mrs Ramalingam was a consultant obstetrician and Dr Ravikumar was a GP. The children were rescued but both women drowned. I had to search for a story about these two women on the BBC web site today.

In addition, yesterday the Rev. Frans van der Lugt, a Dutch Jesuit priest who ‘became a symbol of suffering and compassion in the war-ravaged Old City district of Homs, Syria’ was shot dead. According to The New York Times ‘After Syrian government forces isolated and laid siege to the rebel-held Old City for more than a year, a truce in January allowed the evacuation of 1,500 people, both civilians and fighters. But Father Frans, as he was known, insisted on remaining in the monastery where he had lived for decades, offering refuge to Muslim and Christian families alike and sharing their deprivation and trauma.’ This story did not even merit mention on the BBC TV news last night… and today I only found a report on the BBC web site because I searched for the priest’s name.

And what of all those who died yesterday as a result of the conflict in Syria? At least that’s a situation we hear a little about here in the UK on the news. Other conflicts and those who lose their lives as a result get almost no coverage. The web site Wars in the World currently lists the warring hotspots in Africa as: Central African Republic (civil war), Democratic Republic of Congo (war against rebel groups), Egypt (popular uprising against Government), Mali (war against Tuareg and Islamist militants), Nigeria (war against Islamist militants), Somalia (war against Islamist militants), Sudan (war against rebel groups) and South Sudan (civil war). And that’s just one continent. There are people dying in all of those countries (and many more) and we barely hear of the conflicts, let alone the deaths.

Now, I don’t want to play down the death of any one individual, but I am appalled that our cult of celebrity gives such prominence to the passing of one young woman and pays so little attention to massacres of innocents. Perhaps our newspapers and TV stations need to remember the value of all lives and give some prominence to those who had so little chance to speak up for themselves even when they were alive.

I’d like to think that we would value every life and that the passing of each person is mourned, just as I’d like to think that each person should be valued and cherished when they are alive… whoever they are, wherever they come from and whether or not the media deems them to be ‘important’.


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

Flower power

There is a scene in the US sitcom Friends where Monica gives the following advice to Phoebe’s boyfriend

do not get her flowers. Okay? Because y’know, she cries when they die, and there’s the whole funeral…

The line gets a big laugh and it’s supposed to show just how cookie Phoebe is but, you know, I’m really on her side in this case. Whilst it may seem strange to most people, the truth is I really dislike cut flowers… the idea of having something gradually decomposing on my mantlepiece isn’t something that appeals to me.

A breadseed poppy flower in my garden

I have told many people over the years about my feelings towards cut flowers and most of them think I’m bonkers… although a few have acknowledged that I do have a point. I prefer to see my flowers growing… perhaps in a pot, but preferably outside in the garden or in a natural place where the bees, butterflies and hoverflies can enjoy them too.

I was brought up not to have flowers in the house because my mother has such severe hayfever. Even the flowers at my sister’s wedding had to be artificial. So, I didn’t grow up expecting to see flowers indoors… just green growing plants. Perhaps this is why I have always been thoughtful about their presence and never really accepted them as a natural feature.

Of course as I got older I began to think about the origin of cut flowers and question their environmental credentials. The point of a cut flower is beauty… for most people they should be perfect – no blemishes or signs of deterioration when they are received. Like any other plant part, once picked decomposition is going to set in quite quickly, so treatment with fungicides and rapid refrigeration are in order… particularly since many flowers travel thousands of miles before they reach the supermarket or florists where they are sold. As John McQuaid says in an article in the magazine of the Smithsonian institute

Selling flowers is, at bottom, an attempt to outwit death

But even prior to their picking and transportation, the flowers need to be perfect – so have to be grown in conditions that prevent attacks by insects and pathogens.

Flowers in the garden – where I like them

A large proportion of cut flowers are grown in Colombia or Kenya – countries with a climate that allows year-round flower production without artificial heat. In terms of carbon  emissions this seems like a good option – the other common source of cut flowers is Holland, where the plants must be grown in heated polytunnels to ensure they are available throughout the year. However, even in tropical countries, cultivation is often in polytunnels in order to control pests and water applications. And, of course, pesticide use is common… having a significant impact on the health of the workers (often women and children) in the facilities (you can’t call them gardens or even farms) where these flowers are produced. Most (but not all) cut flowers are produced by large companies whose primary motivation is profit, not the welfare of either their workers or their customers. War on Want have highlighted the issues associated with the industry and, whilst the situation seems to be improving, in part as a result of customers looking for fairly traded of environmentally responsible bouquets, there are still problems. For example the ‘Fair Trade’ mark tells you nothing about the levels of pesticides, although it does give more assurance that workers are not being ‘exploited’. In my opinion, however, ‘exploitation’ should be considered to include exposure to dangerous chemicals as well as long working hours, limited breaks, child labour and so on.

Even as a purchaser or receiver of cut flowers you may be exposed to unpleasant substances. John McQuaid writing in 2011 noted that

the U.S. Department of Agriculture checks imported flowers for insects, but not for chemical residues

Which makes me wonder what the message really is when you give someone a bunch of flowers – here darling, have some dangerous chemicals and watch these plants slowly dying!

There’s plenty advice on buying flowers, be it from The Ecologist Magazine or the UK Government. You may want to think about worker’s rights, carbon emissions, water resources, pesticide and fertilizer use, supporting developing countries or your local economy, but for me it’s easy – I don’t like cut flowers so I never buy them!

Oh, and I don’t like cut Christmas trees either!

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