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.
Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

The three big mistakes the government has made in its Brexit talks

Nicola Sturgeon fears that the UK has no negotiating position at all. It's worse than she thinks. 

It’s fair to say that the first meeting of the government’s Brexit ministers and the leaders of the devolved legislatures did not go well.

Scotland’s Nicola Sturgeon told reporters outside that it had all been “deeply frustrating”, and that it was impossible for her to undermine the United Kingdom’s negotiating position as “I can’t undermine something that doesn’t exist, and at the moment it doesn’t seem to me like there is a UK negotiating strategy”.

To which cynical observers might say: she would, wouldn’t she? It’s in Sturgeon’s interest to paint the Westminster government as clueless and operating in a way that puts Scotland’s interests at risk. Maybe so, but Carwyn Jones, her Welsh opposite number, tends to strike a more conciliatory figure at these events – he’s praised both George Osborne and David Cameron in the past.

So it’s hard not to be alarmed at his statement to the press that there is still “huge uncertainty” about what the British government’s negotiating position. Even Arlene Foster, the first minister in Northern Ireland, whose party, the DUP, is seen as an increasingly reliable ally for the Conservative government, could only really volunteer that “we’re in a negotiation and we will be in a negotiation and it will be complex”.

All of which makes Jeremy Corbyn’s one-liner in the Commons today that the government is pursuing neither hard Brexit nor soft Brexit but “chaotic Brexit” ring true.

It all adds to a growing suspicion that the government’s negotiating strategy might be, as Jacqui Smith once quipped of Ed Miliband’s policy review, something of “a pregnant panda – it's been a very long time in the making and no one's quite sure if there's anything in there anyway”.

That’s not the case – but the reality is not much more comforting. The government has long believed, as Philip Hammond put when being grilled by the House of Lords on the issue:

"There's an intrinsic tension here between democratic accountability of the government and effective negotiation with a third party. Our paramount objective must be to get a good deal for Britain. I am afraid will not be achieved by spelling out our negotiating strategy."

That was echoed by Theresa May in response to Corbyn’s claim that the government has no plan for Brexit:

 “We have a plan, which is not to give out details of the negotiation as they are being negotiated”

Are Hammond and May right? Well, sort of. There is an innate tension between democratic accountability and a good deal, of course. The more is known about what the government’s red lines in negotiations, the higher the price they will have to pay to protect. That’s why, sensibly, Hammond, both as Foreign Secretary during the dying days of David Cameron’s government, and now as Chancellor, has attempted to head off public commitments about the shape of the Brexit deal.

But – and it’s a big but – the government has already shown a great deal of its hand. May made three big reveals about the government’s Brexit strategy it in her conference speech: firstly, she started the clock ticking on when Britain will definitely leave the European Union, by saying she will activate Article 50 no later than 31 March 2017. Secondly, she said that Brexit meant that Britain would control its own borders. And thirdly, she said that Brexit meant that Britain would no longer be subject to the judgements of the European Court of Justice.

The first reveal means that there is no chance that any of 27 remaining nations of the European Union will break ranks and begin informal talks before Article 50 is triggered.

The second reveal makes it clear that Britain will leave the single market, because none of the four freedoms – of goods, services, capital or people – can be negotiated away, not least because of the fear of political contagion within the EU27, as an exit deal which allowed the United Kingdom to maintain the three other freedoms while giving up the fourth would cause increased pressure from Eurosceptics in western Europe.

And the third reveal makes it equally clear that Britain will leave the customs union as there is no way you can be part of a union if you do not wish to accept its legal arbiter.

So the government has already revealed its big priorities and has therefore jacked up the price, meaning that the arguments about not revealing the government’s hand is not as strong as it ideally would be.

The other problem, though, is this: Theresa May’s Brexit objectives cannot be met without a hard Brexit, with the only question the scale of the initial shock. As I’ve written before, there is a sense that the government might be able to “pay to play”, ie, in exchange for continuing to send money to Brussels and to member states, the United Kingdom could maintain a decent standard of access to the single market.

My impression is that the mood in Brussels now makes this very tricky. The tone coming out of Conservative party conference has left goodwill in short supply, meaning that a “pay to play” deal is unlikely. But the other problem is that, by leaving so much of its objectives in the dark, Theresa May is not really laying the groundwork for a situation where she can return to Britain with an exit deal where Britain pays large sums to the European Union for a worse deal than the one it has now. (By the way, that is very much the best case scenario for what she might come back with.) Silence may make for good negotiations in Brussels – but in terms of the negotiation that may follow swiftly after in Westminster, it has entirely the opposite effect. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.