I realise that this is going to strike some people as very odd, but a couple of years ago I started an art project focusing on death – more specifically on my own death. I meandered into this project after taking some photos in a beautiful old graveyard in North London. I loved the carved angels, weathered stone and creeping ivy on the ancient graves: it was actually a very peaceful, tranquil and romantic place to be.
I might have been happy just to take a few photos, but then I stumbled on a new part of the graveyard and started to look at the more recent graves. I found them incredibly poignant and moving, mainly because I realised how inarticulate we are these days in the face of death. Many of the graves were extremely well cared for and those who tended them obviously tried very hard to put items on the graves which would have been meaningful to the person who had died. However, some of them were gruesomely fascinating as I wondered why particular objects had been chosen to represent the dead person.
Here are a few of my photos from that day:
The first one interests me because the man who died was nearly 90 years old, was a father and grandfather and had lived through two World Wars. Why did his family choose to place a sculpture of the grumpy old men from the Muppets on his headstone? Was this something he had found amusing and there were many happy family evenings spent round the telly watching the Muppet show and this brought back some really fond memories? Was he a curmudgeonly old bloke who sat in his chair and moaned all the time? In a hundred years time, when no-one is left who remembers him, what will this grave say to the people who wander by? Does it matter?
The second photo is of a grave which had some lovely foliage plants growing on it, but contained this interesting message: ‘miss u!’ It’s the sort of thing you might text someone who’s unable to come out for a drink with you one night and strikes me as a bizarre way to address a dead friend or family member. And yet that’s the point, because it obviously was meaningful for the person who went to the bother of buying the thing and taking it there, even if for me it feels too relaxed and informal in that context. These objects do have meaning to the people who are grieving, even if it is veiled to me.
The third photo shows a grave that was typical of many because there was an attempt to fill the space with lots of things in order to give it personality. I thought it was interesting the way in which religious symbols were mixed with characters from the Jungle Book. It also included bells, wind chimes and moving windmills which I noticed seem to feature on a lot of graves, perhaps because they suggest movement and sound: possibly an attempt to deny the inevitable silence and stillness of death?
I include the fourth photo because I found it so poignant: the second, smaller gnome is almost invisible and yet is looking up in adoration at the bigger one (whilst standing next to a plaque reading ‘Special Son’). The cheery fake flowers just make the whole thing even more unbearable as you realise the depth of pain the parents must have felt when trying to create a grave which would honour their son.
The final photo is also representative of many of the graves I saw that day: untended, over-looked and covered in debris. This one looks like it contains a soiled nappy and an old cake box, although both have been carefully tied into plastic bags so may have contained something meaningful which someone was trying to protect, perhaps aware that they would be unable to visit again any time soon.
Although these graves all made me think and reflect in different ways, each one raised in my mind the same question: when I die, what will be left and what will it say of me?
Far from finding this a macabre and depressing question, I think it’s actually a very liberating and positive thing to reflect on our own death. In a later post I will show more of the artwork I created during the project and share more of what I learned about myself in the process, but in this post I want to encourage you to think about your own death in the hope that it will enable you to live in a more passionate and focused way.
The first exercise is one where you imagine your own funeral and the second is a writing exercise where you write your own obituary. I know it sounds bizarre, but give them a go – they are most illuminating!
Visualise Your Own Funeral
If you are new to this kind of thing you might find it helpful to follow these few steps to prepare yourself:
- Find a quiet space where you will not be disturbed and can sit comfortably.
- Shut your eyes and sit with a relaxed, attentive posture. Try to keep your back fairly straight, your feet flat on the floor and your hands gently relaxed on your lap.
- Become aware of any tension in your body. You could try to become aware of your feet on the floor and then slowly bring your attention up through your body, gently noticing any areas which feel uncomfortable or tense. Sometimes it helps to tense these areas a little more, or move them a little, then let them relax.
- Now spend some time just becoming aware of your breathing: don’t change your breathing pattern in any way, just notice the breath entering your body and then leaving again.
Once you feel more relaxed and present, it’s time to start the meditation. You are aiming to picture and enter into this scene as fully as you can. Try to see it unfold in your mind’s eye as though you were living through it this moment in time: seeing, touching, smelling, hearing, feeling and reacting to what is before you. There may be times when you can’t picture something clearly or feel anxious because you can’t decide which image to focus on, but be gentle with yourself, don’t panic and just carry on with the meditation with an interested, kind attention.
You are present in the place where your funeral is about to happen, but are unseen by the people who are attending. Spend some time visualising the place in as much detail as you can. Is it taking place in a church? In a cathedral? Or have you opted for a woodland burial or a fiery viking longboat? Picture your surroundings as clearly as possible.
Notice the people arriving for your funeral. What is the atmosphere like? Is the mood predominantly sad or joyful, despairing or thankful?
The funeral service starts and three people are going to stand up and speak about you. The first is a friend of yours who has known you for many years. You are going to listen to them talking about what kind of person you were: your characteristics, personality, strengths and abilities. They will focus more on who you were as a person rather than what you achieved in your life. As you visualise them describing you, imagine what you would like them to say in your wildest dreams – not necessarily what you think they might say about you. (That’s an important instruction so I’ll repeat it in different words: you are going to hear what you would desperately hope to hear, rather than what you fear you might hear about your deepest self.)
Once your friend has stopped speaking, a work colleague starts to talk about you. This person has seen how you cope with stress, how you deal with bosses and co-workers… What do you most deeply hope that this colleague would say about you?
The last person to talk about you is a member of your family. It may be a brother or sister, a parent or a child. What in your wildest dreams do you hope that this family member would say about you?
Before the service comes to an end, think back over the many things which have been said about you at your funeral. Which three things do you most strongly wish were true about you?
Once you have completed the exercise, you might like to bring your attention back to your body. Notice your breathing again and scan your body for any tension. When you feel ready, open your eyes.
Writing Your Own Obituary
All you will need for this exercise is a journal (or a piece of paper) and a pen.
Without thinking about it too deeply beforehand, pick up a pen and start writing your obituary. This should not focus too much on places you lived, jobs you had or places you visited. Instead it should focus on what kind of person you were: your values, beliefs, attitudes, strengths and characteristics. As in the previous exercise you are aiming to get to what you most deeply want to hear about yourself, rather than what you fear might be said about you. Try to write without pausing, until you feel you’ve said everything you want to say.
Once you have completed the obituary, read it through and mark or highlight the sections which resonate most deeply with you.
Why Jacqui, Why?
Both of these exercises are intended to help you get in touch with the things that are going to matter to you at the end of your life. We spend so much time thinking about the career we wish we had, the money we’d like to earn, the places we’d like to visit and the things we’d like to achieve. Of course these things matter, but perhaps they ultimately matter less than the person we have become by the end of the earthly stage of our journey. My guess is, that for most people, at the end of life what will matter most is the quality of relationships we have and the extent to which we feel we have lived with integrity and become the person we were made to be. As the famous quote goes:
No-one on their deathbed ever says, ‘I wish I’d spent more time at the office’.
The next step after this is the more difficult one: how is this new understanding of what really matters to me going to change the way I spend my time and live my life right now?
If you have a go at attempting either of these exercises, do please leave a comment outlining the things you think are most important. Is your list similar to mine (to be loving, nurturing, thoughtful, kind, compassionate, honest, warm…) or is it very different?
The ‘Death Flowers’ painting and title for this post may seem a bit strange, but if we do somehow manage to focus on the things that matter most – if we live our lives with integrity and passion – perhaps the point of death is not just one of endings and decay, but a flowering and blooming into something new, beautiful and extraordinary.