THE BLOG

Death's Summer Coat: A Review of The Natural Death Handbook, Fifth Edition

04/09/2013 01:29 pm ET

When I was four years old, I lived with my mother and grandparents in a white house with two porches. A great, leaning barn sheltered the farm cats, Snow-foot, Fluffy and Yellow-Tom, and if you left the hose on, toads gathered in plague proportion by the basement window. I remember this place as though static and unchanging, an event horizon around which time and space bend. Undisturbed by years of memory, it remains a touch-stone for me -- for it was here that I first considered death.

No tragic event inspired this encounter. It was springtime, and blue-bell flowers had come up next to the front steps. They bloomed, and they died; their lives were ephemeral, and this bothered me. Everything dies, my grandmother explained: the flowers, the toads, the cats... And you and me. In our present culture, obsessed with youth and sheltered from death by the sterile screen of the hospital ward, such a story may sound horrific. But I was not horrified. To be honest, my first inkling of life-making was much more fraught. I was not afraid of death, for I had not been taught to fear it. Free from the cultural underpinnings I've since come to know, I thought of death as a universal truth. Everything, my grandmother said. Everything dies. I would brush against death many times on my way to adulthood; I would be taken to every wake and every funeral. I don't remember weeping. But I remember green grass, the smell of wet earth, and blue bells: Death, wearing his summer coat.

Cultural death practices-from Dia de los Muertos to sky burial to the veneration of remains and reliquary-evince a long-standing fascination with (and attempts to understand) the end of life. In our modern age, however, wherein death and disease are hidden away or sanitized by palliative care, discussions of mortality and mourning have become strangely taboo. In many ways, the natural death movement attempts to recapture this sense of death's place in our lives and culture. The Natural Death Centre, the charity behind The Natural Death Handbook, exists to help re-open the dialogue about life's end, offering a combination of practical advice, how-tos, go-tos, and reflections that inspire, comfort and challenge. At the heart of the movement is a commitment to death as a natural part of life. No longer conceived of as a terror, death is refigured as the winding down of life's frantic clock -- and dying as a means of coming to terms with our identities, our loved ones, ourselves. The second major contribution of this movement is the reconsideration of our death practices, particularly the harmful effects of certain preservation techniques on the earth itself, that patient womb to which we are returned.

This, the fifth edition of The Natural Death Handbook, is presented as a collection of three smaller volumes. The handbook itself remains the greatest part, a singular volume that speaks with simple clarity and grace about the best practices for sitting with the dying, washing and cooling a loved one after passing, and preparing the body for a natural funeral. During the time of bereavement, we feel over-whelmed, numb, distracted. If we are very lucky and very blessed, we are met in this place by a patient friend -- the one upon whom we may cast our burdens and questions, the one who kindly walks us through the preparations and reminds us of what must be done next. I have been this friend in my lifetime, and I have leaned on these friends. In its quiet, considerate and measured tone, the handbook captures the spirit of this paraclete, offering gentle advice from chapter to chapter and ending -- appropriately -- with the grieving process itself once the earth has been turned. Appearing throughout are personal stories and testimonies, the practical experience of those who chose the natural death method and the quiet serenity of home wakes and preparations (and their practical considerations). I smiled at some, and I wept at others. It is a powerful thing to share our deaths, even as we share our lives.

Attending the handbook is the directory, which is more than a practical compendium of natural death sites and accommodating funeral directors (though it is that, too). The directory contains brief snap-shot descriptions of many sites by location, types of burial shrouds, urns and etc., and the code of conduct for the Association of Natural Burial Grounds. Though this is now also offered online to make updates quicker and easier, the bound volume is useful for planning purposes. I lived next to an old county cemetery for much of my adolescence, and I can speak to the peace and serenity of a natural setting. These are concerns we may not always consider (particularly, I think, here in the United States). Though the handbook contains only locales in the U.K., it may serve as inspiration for our own explorations of place and space. There are sites and centers that can help the Usonian or Candadian to begin, among them one from The Centre for Natural Burial.

Lastly, and a new addition to this printing, is a collection -- Writings on Death. Aptly described by the editor, Ru Callender, as "smoked glass, through which together we might glimpse death's outline," these essays demonstrate a collective wisdom, courage and clarity in the face of our endings. Whether it be the inspired self-reflection of a mourner or the studied vision of the historian -- or the creative spiritualism of celebrants, practitioners and questioners of faith -- the perspectives offered here might better be described as prism glass, refracting in full color. It is a great relief and respite from our often somber-hued considerations of death and dying, the best accompaniment I can think of for Death's summer coat.

From this last piece, I would take one thing more. The editors are careful to explain that, in many ways, the natural death movement is a secular one. However, it is not an exclusively secular one, even as ours is not an exclusively secular world. In fact, death is where our distinctions between science, self and sanctity most often break down -- thus, while a funeral may not be held under the auspices of a particular church (or even a particular god), spiritual healing and comfort are not to be eschewed. The handbook is careful to point out that considerations of death often need to be flexible (and suggests funeral directors and other groups that allow the mourners to craft the ceremony in ways they feel are best). A person of faith -- whether they be Christian, Jew, Muslim, Buddhist, Janist, Animist, or Paganist -- need not fear to explore natural death practices. Speaking as a person of faith from the U.S. context, where funerals are held in "funeral homes," I find that the quiet home wake, the green hillock, and the mourner-designed funeral rites lauded in the handbook water the soul in ways more traditional practices no longer can. It is, therefore, with great appreciation and deep respect that I recommend this, the fifth edition of The Natural Death Handbook. May we all unlearn our fear of death -- may death, indeed, lose its sting.

The Natural Death Handbook, fifth edition, edited by Ru Callender, et. al., is published in London by Strange Attractor. It is available online exclusively at the Natural Death Centre and in select book shops: Blackwell's of Oxford, the Wellcome Trust in London, and Arcturus in Devon.