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 vitriol aimed at Hillary Clinton shows the fragility of women's half-won freedom

The more I understand about the way the world treats women, the more I feel the terror of it coming for me.

I’m worried about my age. I’m 36. There’s a line between my eyebrows that’s been making itself known for about the last six years. Every time I see a picture of myself, I automatically seek out the crease. One nick of Botox could probably get rid of it. Has my skin lost its smoothness and glow?

My bathroom shelf has gone from “busy” to “cluttered” lately with things designed to plump, purify and resurface. It’s all very pleasant, but there’s something desperate I know at the bottom of it: I don’t want to look my age.

You might think that being a feminist would help when it comes to doing battle with the beauty myth, but I don’t know if it has. The more I understand about the way the world treats women – and especially older women – the more I feel the terror of it coming for me. Look at the reaction to Hillary Clinton’s book. Too soon. Can’t she go quietly. Why won’t she own her mistakes.

Well Bernie Sanders put a book out the week after the presidential election – an election Clinton has said Sanders did not fully back her in –  and no one said “too soon” about that. (Side note: when it comes to not owning mistakes, Sanders’s Our Revolution deserves a category all to itself, being as how the entire thing was written under the erroneous impression that Clinton, not Trump, would be president.) Al Gore parlayed his loss into a ceaseless tour of activism with An Inconvenient Truth, and everyone seems fine with that. John McCain – Christ, everyone loves John McCain now.

But Hillary? Something about Hillary just makes people want to tell her to STFU. As Mrs Merton might have asked: “What is it that repulses you so much about the first female candidate for US president?” Too emotional, too robotic, too radical, too conservative, too feminist, too patriarchal – Hillary has been called all these things, and all it really means is she’s too female.

How many women can dance on the head of pin? None, that’s the point: give them a millimetre of space to stand in and shake your head sadly as one by one they fall off. Oh dear. Not this woman. Maybe the next one.

It’s in that last bit that that confidence racket being worked on women really tells: maybe the next one. And maybe the next one could be you! If you do everything right, condemn all the mistakes of the women before you (and condemn the women themselves too), then maybe you’ll be the one standing tippy-toe on the miniscule territory that women are permitted. I’m angry with the men who engage in Clinton-bashing. With the women, it’s something else. Sadness. Pity, maybe. You think they’ll let it be you. You think you’ve found the Right Kind of Feminism. But you haven’t and you never will, because it doesn’t exist.

Still, who wouldn’t want to be the Right Kind of Feminist when there are so many ready lessons on what happens to the Wrong Kind of Feminist. The wrong kind of feminist, now, is the kind of feminist who thinks men have no right to lease women by the fuck (the “sex worker exclusionary radical feminist”, or SWERF) or the kind of feminist who thinks gender is a repressive social construct (rechristened the “trans exclusionary radical feminist”, or TERF).

Hillary Clinton, who has said that prostitution is “demeaning to women” – because it absolutely is demeaning to treat sexual access to women as a tradeable commodity – got attacked from the left as a SWERF. Her pre-election promises suggest that she would probably have continued the Obama administration’s sloppy reinterpretation of sex discrimination protections as gender identity protections, so not a TERF. Even so, one of the charges against her from those who considered her not radical enough was that she was a “rich, white, cis lady.” Linger over that. Savour its absurdity. Because what it means is: I won’t be excited about a woman presidential candidate who was born female.

This year was the 50th anniversary of the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality, and of the Abortion Act. One of these was met with seasons of celebratory programming; one, barely mentioned at all. (I took part in a radio documentary about “men’s emotional experiences of abortion”, where I made the apparently radical point that abortion is actually something that principally affects women.) No surprise that the landmark benefiting women was the one that got ignored. Because women don’t get to have history.

That urge to shuffle women off the stage – troublesome women, complicated women, brilliant women – means that female achievements are wiped of all significance as soon as they’re made. The second wave was “problematic”, so better not to expose yourself to Dworkin, Raymond, Lorde, Millett, the Combahee River Collective, Firestone or de Beauvoir (except for that one line that everyone misquotes as if it means that sex is of no significance). Call them SWERFs and TERFs and leave the books unread. Hillary Clinton “wasn’t perfect”, so don’t listen to anything she has to say based on her vast and unique experience of government and politics: just deride, deride, deride.

Maybe, if you’re a woman, you’ll be able to deride her hard enough to show you deserve what she didn’t. But you’ll still have feminine obsolescence yawning in your future. Even if you can’t admit it – because, as Katrine Marçal has pointed out in Who Cooked Adam Smith’s Dinner?, our entire economy is predicated on discounting women’s work – you’ll need the politics of women who analysed and understood their situation as women. You’ll still be a woman, like the women who came before us, to whom we owe the impossible debt of our half-won freedom.

In the summer of 2016, a radio interviewer asked me whether women should be grateful to Clinton. At the time, I said no: we should be respectful, but what I wanted was a future where women could take their place in the world for granted. What nonsense. We should be laying down armfuls of flowers for our foremothers every day.

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.