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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Erdogan’s purge was too big and too organised to be a mere reaction to the failed coup

There is a specific word for the melancholy of Istanbul. The city is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. 

Even at the worst of times Istanbul is a beautiful city, and the Bosphorus is a remarkable stretch of sea. Turks get very irritated if you call it a river. They are right. The Bosphorus has a life and energy that a river could never equal. Spend five minutes watching the Bosphorus and you can understand why Orhan Pamuk, Turkey’s Nobel laureate for literature, became fixated by it as he grew up, tracking the movements of the ocean-going vessels, the warships and the freighters as they steamed between Asia and Europe.

I went to an Ottoman palace on the Asian side of the Bosphorus, waiting to interview the former prime minister Ahmet Davu­toglu. He was pushed out of office two months ago by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan when he appeared to be too wedded to the clauses in the Turkish constitution which say that the prime minister is the head of government and the president is a ceremonial head of state. Erdogan was happy with that when he was prime minister. But now he’s president, he wants to change the constitution. If Erdogan can win the vote in parliament he will, in effect, be rubber-stamping the reality he has created since he became president. In the days since the attempted coup, no one has had any doubt about who is the power in the land.

 

City of melancholy

The view from the Ottoman palace was magnificent. Beneath a luscious, pine-shaded garden an oil tanker plied its way towards the Black Sea. Small ferries dodged across the sea lanes. It was not, I hasten to add, Davutoglu’s private residence. It had just been borrowed, for the backdrop. But it reminded a Turkish friend of something she had heard once from the AKP, Erdogan’s ruling party: that they would not rest until they were living in the apartments with balconies and gardens overlooking the Bosphorus that had always been the preserve of the secular elite they wanted to replace.

Pamuk also writes about hüzün, the melancholy that afflicts the citizens of Istanbul. It comes, he says, from the city’s history and its decline, the foghorns on the Bosphorus, from tumbledown walls that have been ruins since the fall of the Byzantine empire, unemployed men in tea houses, covered women waiting for buses that never come, pelting rain and dark evenings: the city’s whole fabric and all the lives within it. “My starting point,” Pamuk wrote, “was the emotion that a child might feel while looking through a steamy window.”

Istanbul is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. In Pamuk’s work the citizens of Istanbul take a perverse pride in hüzün. No one in Istanbul, or elsewhere in Turkey, can draw comfort from what is happening now. Erdogan’s opponents wonder what kind of future they can have in his Turkey. I think I sensed it, too, in the triumphalist crowds of Erdogan supporters that have been gathering day after day since the coup was defeated.

 

Down with the generals

Erdogan’s opponents are not downcast because the coup failed; a big reason why it did was that it had no public support. Turks know way too much about the authoritarian ways of military rule to want it back. The melancholy is because Erdogan is using the coup to entrench himself even more deeply in power. The purge looks too far-reaching, too organised and too big to have been a quick reaction to the attempt on his power. Instead it seems to be a plan that was waiting to be used.

Turkey is a deeply unhappy country. It is hard to imagine now, but when the Arab uprisings happened in 2011 it seemed to be a model for the Middle East. It had elections and an economy that worked and grew. When I asked Davutoglu around that time whether there would be a new Ottoman sphere of influence for the 21st century, he smiled modestly, denied any such ambition and went on to explain that the 2011 uprisings were the true succession to the Ottoman empire. A century of European, and then American, domination was ending. It had been a false start in Middle Eastern history. Now it was back on track. The people of the region were deciding their futures, and perhaps Turkey would have a role, almost like a big brother.

Turkey’s position – straddling east and west, facing Europe and Asia – is the key to its history and its future. It could be, should be, a rock of stability in a desperately un­stable part of the world. But it isn’t, and that is a problem for all of us.

 

Contagion of war

The coup did not come out of a clear sky. Turkey was in deep crisis before the attempt was made. Part of the problem has come from Erdogan’s divisive policies. He has led the AKP to successive election victories since it first won in 2002. But the policies of his governments have not been inclusive. As long as his supporters are happy, the president seems unconcerned about the resentment and opposition he is generating on the other side of politics.

Perhaps that was inevitable. His mission, as a political Islamist, was to change the country, to end the power of secular elites, including the army, which had been dominant since Mustafa Kemal Atatürk created modern Turkey after the collapse of the Ottoman empire. And there is also the influence of chaos and war in the Middle East. Turkey has borders with Iraq and Syria, and is deeply involved in their wars. The borders do not stop the contagion of violence. Hundreds of people have died in the past year in bomb attacks in Turkish cities, some carried out by the jihadists of so-called Islamic State, and some sent by Kurdish separatists working under the PKK.

It is a horrible mix. Erdogan might be able to deal with it better if he had used the attempted coup to try to unite Turkey. All the parliamentary parties condemned it. But instead, he has turned the power of the state against his opponents. More rough times lie ahead.

Jeremy Bowen is the BBC’s Middle East editor. He tweets @bowenbbc

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue