How to deal with death

How people at Findhorn react to the passing of a community member

There are few surer ways to understand how a culture ticks than to look how it deals with death. In Africa, where I spent much time in the 20 years before coming to live here in Findhorn, the veils that separate the realms of the living and of the ancestors are thin and people pass easily between them.

New-borns are often recognised as re-incarnations of recently deceased elders. While death is surely still a source of some sadness, it is more easily understood than here in the rational, scientific West and more readily accepted.

So it is that funerals are often great parties – at least as much about celebration as grief. This is especially so in Ghana, where I lived for a number of years. Saturday afternoons are given over to great parties as townsfolk return to their home villages to bury those who have recently passed away.

Often, the funeral becomes a celebration of what was best in the life of the deceased. The most memorable example I saw of this was the funeral of a local dignitary in the north of the country. He was known as a lover of football who always had a cigarette hanging out of the corner of his mouth. For his funeral cortege, he was propped up in a sitting position in a long palanquin, cigarette in mouth, and paraded through the village while the local football team dressed in the team’s kit kicked a ball to each other over the cortege.

Findhorn funerals often have a flavour of the African way of doing things, though perhaps not to the same exuberant extreme.

Our most recently departed elder was Katherine Inglis, a South African woman who lived here for the last twenty years of her life. For the two days before the funeral, Katherine was laid out in her bed at home, giving friends the opportunity to come sit with her for a while in silence.

During the service, Katherine’s body lay in her coffin, handcrafted out of old packaging cases – according to her own wishes – by a couple of community members and her son.(She rejected both cremation and the use of an expensive coffin on ecological grounds, wishing to return to the earth simply and without fuss.)

Video clips on a large screen showed Katherine reading funny stories – no community sharing was complete without one of Katherine’s humorous tales – and generally being her delightful self. Individuals took the floor to reminisce about especially happy or poignant memories. The mood was primarily one of thanksgiving for a life well lived.

After the service, the coffin was loaded up onto the back of a tractor and driven off to a clearing in our woodland where Katherine had asked to be buried. In keeping with her wishes, there is no headstone or plaque – just a tree. Community members were invited to help fill in the grave. We are in the process of applying from the local council permission to turn this area into a ‘green burial site’ – a place where we can bury our dead naturally on our own land.

This way of undertaking funerals speaks to the core of the ecovillage ethic. For, at heart, it is about claiming back from the ‘professionals’ the right to do things in ways that are meaningful to us. How many of us have sat through christenings, confirmations or bar mitzvahs, weddings and funerals bored and alienated? I would guess that only the luckiest among us have escaped this fate.

Our rituals have lost their power because we have ceded control over them to the priestly castes and to the state. Katherine’s funeral was one small step in the journey towards our reclaiming the right to create our own living rituals in ways that truly respect the individuality of the ones we are celebrating.

Jonathan Dawson is a sustainability educator based at the Findhorn Foundation in Scotland. He is seeking to weave some of the wisdom accrued in 20 years of working in Africa into more sustainable and joyful ways of living here in Europe. Jonathan is also a gardener and a story-teller and is President of the Global Ecovillage Network.
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The decline of the north's sporting powerhouse

Yorkshire historically acted as a counterweight to the dominance of southern elites, in sport as in politics and culture. Now, things are different.

On a drive between Sheffield and Barnsley, I spotted a striking painting of the Kes poster. Billy Casper’s two-fingered salute covered the wall of a once-popular pub that is now boarded up.

It is almost 50 years since the late Barry Hines wrote A Kestrel for a Knave, the novel that inspired Ken Loach’s 1969 film, and it seems that the defiant, us-against-the-world, stick-it-to-the-man Yorkshireness he commemorated still resonates here. Almost two-thirds of the people of south Yorkshire voted to leave the EU, flicking two fingers up at what they saw as a London-based establishment, detached from life beyond the capital.

But whatever happened to Billy the unlikely lad, and the myriad other northern characters who were once the stars of stage and screen? Like the pitheads that dominated Casper’s tightly knit neighbourhood, they have disappeared from the landscape. The rot set in during the 1980s, when industries were destroyed and communities collapsed, a point eloquently made in Melvyn Bragg’s excellent radio series The Matter of the North.

Yorkshire historically acted as a counterweight to the dominance of southern elites, in sport as in politics and culture. Yet today, we rarely get to hear the voices of Barnsley, Sheffield, Doncaster and Rotherham. And the Yorkshire sporting powerhouse is no more – at least, not as we once knew it.

This should be a matter of national concern. The White Rose county is, after all, the home of the world’s oldest registered football club – Sheffield FC, formed in 1857 – and the first English team to win three successive League titles, Huddersfield Town, in the mid-1920s. Hull City are now Yorkshire’s lone representative in the Premier League.

Howard Wilkinson, the manager of Leeds United when they were crowned champions in 1992, the season before the Premier League was founded, lamented the passing of a less money-obsessed era. “My dad worked at Orgreave,” he said, “the scene of Mrs Thatcher’s greatest hour, bless her. You paid for putting an axe through what is a very strong culture of community and joint responsibility.”

The best-known scene in Loach’s film shows a football match in which Mr Sugden, the PE teacher, played by Brian Glover, comically assumes the role of Bobby Charlton. It was played out on the muddy school fields of Barnsley’s run-down Athersley estate. On a visit to his alma mater a few years ago, David Bradley, who played the scrawny 15-year-old Billy, showed me the goalposts that he had swung from as a reluctant goalkeeper. “You can still see the dint in the crossbar,” he said. When I spoke to him recently, Bradley enthused about his lifelong support for Barnsley FC. “But I’ve not been to the ground over the last season and a half,” he said. “I can’t afford it.”

Bradley is not alone. Many long-standing fans have been priced out. Barnsley is only a Championship side, but for their home encounter with Newcastle last October, their fans had to pay £30 for a ticket.

The English game is rooted in the northern, working-class communities that have borne the brunt of austerity over the past six years. The top leagues – like the EU – are perceived to be out of touch and skewed in favour of the moneyed elites.

Bradley, an ardent Remainer, despaired after the Brexit vote. “They did not know what they were doing. But I can understand why. There’s still a lot of neglect, a lot of deprivation in parts of Barnsley. They feel left behind because they have been left behind.”

It is true that there has been a feel-good factor in Yorkshire following the Rio Olympics; if the county were a country, it would have finished 17th in the international medals table. Yet while millions have been invested in “podium-level athletes”, in the team games that are most relevant to the lives of most Yorkshire folk – football, cricket and rugby league – there is a clear division between sport’s elites and its grass roots. While lucrative TV deals have enriched ruling bodies and top clubs, there has been a large decrease in the number of adults playing any sport in the four years since London staged the Games.

According to figures from Sport England, there are now 67,000 fewer people in Yorkshire involved in sport than there were in 2012. In Doncaster, to take a typical post-industrial White Rose town, there has been a 13 per cent drop in participation – compared with a 0.4 per cent decline nationally.

Attendances at rugby league, the region’s “national sport”, are falling. But cricket, in theory, is thriving, with Yorkshire winning the County Championship in 2014 and 2015. Yet Joe Root, the batsman and poster boy for this renaissance, plays far more games for his country than for his county and was rested from Yorkshire’s 2016 title decider against Middlesex.

“Root’s almost not a Yorkshire player nowadays,” said Stuart Rayner, whose book The War of the White Roses chronicles the club’s fortunes between 1968 and 1986. As a fan back then, I frequently watched Geoffrey Boycott and other local stars at Headingley. My favourite was the England bowler Chris Old, a gritty, defiant, unsung anti-hero in the Billy Casper mould.

When Old made his debut, 13 of the 17-strong Yorkshire squad were registered as working-class professionals. Half a century later, three of the five Yorkshiremen selec­ted for the last Ashes series – Root, Jonny Bairstow and Gary Ballance – were privately educated. “The game of cricket now is played in public schools,” Old told me. “Top players are getting huge amounts of money, but the grass-roots game doesn’t seem to have benefited in any way.”

“In ten years’ time you won’t get a Joe Root,” Rayner said. “If you haven’t seen these top Yorkshire cricketers playing in your backyard and you haven’t got Sky, it will be difficult to get the whole cricket bug. So where is the next generation of Roots going to come from?” Or the next generation of Jessica Ennis-Hills? Three years ago, the Sheffield stadium where she trained and first discovered athletics was closed after cuts to local services.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era