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.