Is death the final frontier? The last taboo? I don’t think so. Death and dying are a very natural part of our life cycle. It may be expected or sudden, long and slow, accidental and fast; we don’t know when or how, but we do know its coming.
Some people may find this a shocking revelation, others just a simple fact of life. Familiarity with death is something that has been slowly eroded from our modern lifestyles; it has been taken away from us and become big business.
If we can live embracing the reality of our own physical impermanence, far from being terrifying, our lives can be enriched. Robert Larkin’s book, Funeral Rights (Penguin, 2008), gives us the most comprehensive view of both the historical and contemporary situation in Australia, and what our rights are regarding the loss of loved ones. It also tells us what we on the north coast of New South Wales already know: that the face of death and dying, and funerals has changed and is continuing to evolve. It is happening everywhere, but Byron Bay leads the way, not just the counter culture, but more and more people from all walks of life.
Byron Bay has always been a great place to live, and now it has also become a great place to die. As a member of the alternative culture that has set up home here since the 60s, I have been busy helping people to reclaim death and its attendant rites of passage. Having opted out of the mainstream, and created our own lifestyle, we have also created our own “deathstyle”.
For nearly 20 years, it’s been my role to help people become more aware of what their options are, and guide them so they can have a more meaningful and appropriate experience through their own journey, or that of a loved one. For many years I did this as a maverick, alone, shaking up the status quo of the old vanguard, who had a comfortable monopoly and were reluctant to change. As the years have gone on, and consumer demand here has become more exciting, many of the firms have changed and opened to a more open and inclusive approach.
Now in Byron Bay a not-for-profit organisation exists called the Natural Death Centre (NDC). The NDC is an organisation that is actively involved with assisting people through the death, dying, and the disposal process. It is a part of the growing global wave of individuals and organisations which are committed to demystifying and reclaiming the three D’s: death, dying, and disposal.
Those who belong to the NDC feel that by opening up dialogue, and embracing death and dying as a natural part of our lives, we can make the entire death process become a less traumatic and a more beneficial journey for all those involved. Providing an easier journey into the stages of loss and grief that follow. Death done well makes for a healthier community all round.
Pioneering approaches for those who want to be more involved and participate in a more meaningful “way to go”, the NDC has been created from a generation that doesn’t just want to hand it all over to a guy in a black suit, and turn up three days later to a box, with flowers on it, in a chapel somewhere. Individuals, families and communities now expect and create some wonderful celebrations in the form of life ceremonies. Having had the experience of a good funeral, or even a great one, there is no going back to a regular old style funeral.
Some of our aims are, to encourage participation in an holistic death process through: wellness, illness, dying, death, post death, funeral, body disposal, and bereavement. This is done with preparation and dialogue on death and dying as a natural part of our life cycle, for a conscious and compassionate experience.
There is provision for an holistic approach to death and dying through education, options, considerations, assistance or referral. It is teamed with environmentally responsible and sustainable methods of body disposal - including the establishment of natural burial grounds. Embracing life and death are activities we should fully engage in.
If you follow a traditional faith, then the method of disposal for the body will be prescribed and you will simply follow that without too much question or deviation. But more and more, we are wanting to personalise the moment as a way of really honouring someone we have loved and lost. We want to have a say in what happens. Many faiths are opening to the changing times, some are not, and are even clamping down and attempting to make the experience less personal.
We are waking up to the fact that a good funeral really honours the person that we love, and that it’s not about how much you spend. It’s about participation, in the planning, creation and the ceremony itself. A good funeral also helps with the grieving process, as there is a sense of satisfaction, and a feeling of “getting it right”, without being left with the feeling that it didn’t reflect who the loved one really was in life.