Talking About Dying
“All through human history and up until about 1940,
people died at home and remained at home, cared for by family members until their burial. Contact with death was just an ordinary part of life.”
This quote is taken from Grave Matters an article by Stephanie Chamberlin in the NZ Geographic.
When someone dies, the first thing to do is nothing.
Don't run out and call the nurse. Don't pick up the phone. Take a deep breath and be present to the magnitude of the moment.
There's a grace to being at the bedside of someone you love as they make their transition out of this world. At the moment they take their last breath, there's an incredible sacredness in the space. The veil between the worlds opens.
We're so unprepared and untrained in how to deal with death that sometimes a kind of panic response kicks in. "They're dead!"
We knew they were going to die, so their being dead is not a surprise. It's not a problem to be solved. It's very sad, but it's not cause to panic.
If anything, their death is cause to take a deep breath, to stop, and be really present to what's happening. If you're at home, maybe put on the kettle and make a cup of tea.
Sit at the bedside and just be present to the experience in the room. What's happening for you? What might be happening for them? What other presences are here that might be supporting them on their way? Tune into all the beauty and magic.
Pausing gives your soul a chance to adjust, because no matter how prepared we are, a death is still a shock. If we kick right into "do" mode, and call 911, or call the hospice, we never get a chance to absorb the enormity of the event.
Give yourself five minutes or 10 minutes, or 15 minutes just to be. You'll never get that time back again if you don't take it now.
After that, do the smallest thing you can. Call the one person who needs to be called. Engage whatever systems need to be engaged, but engage them at the very most minimal level. Move really, really, really, slowly, because this is a period where it's easy for body and soul to get separated.
Our bodies can gallop forwards, but sometimes our souls haven't caught up. If you have an opportunity to be quiet and be present, take it. Accept and acclimatize and adjust to what's happening. Then, as the train starts rolling, and all the things that happen after a death kick in, you'll be better prepared.
You won't get a chance to catch your breath later on. You need to do it now.
Being present in the moments after death is an incredible gift to yourself, it's a gift to the people you're with, and it's a gift to the person who's just died. They're just a hair's breath away. They're just starting their new journey in the world without a body. If you keep a calm space around their body, and in the room, they're launched in a more beautiful way. It's a service to both sides of the veil.
Sarah Kerr, Death Doula
Death is an unavoidable part of the cycle of life, yet in western cultures in recent years, a silence reigns. Death can be a difficult topic to discuss as it often brings up feelings of loss, anxiety, fear, awkwardness, sadness. This means we tend to pretend that it's not going to happen, and we do not prepare for the inevitable natural end to life. We have pushed the experience of death and dying towards professionals: doctors and funeral directors. We have lost the knowledge about what happens and the options communities have for after death care.By talking about death, we're forced to accept the reality: that death is inevitable. Amongst some Māori, talking about death and dying is seen to invite it. Yet we believe ending the silence about death may help to diminish its terrors and lead to improvements in our quality of life. It can help us spend our time more wisely, finding the precious in the present moment and better appreciating what's truly important in life.
Despite some initial concerns about handling a dead body many whānau find that continuing to care for their loved one after death is a critical part of accepting the death, alleviating the shock and numbness and beginning to release the grief. Whānau care for the body after death can be a deeply sacred act, a final act of respect for a loved one, a last act of love.
Over the past 30 years the hospice movement and improved training in palliative care have brought wonderful, compassionate changes to end-of-life care. Yet there is still much more work to be done if we are to become more familiar with death, dying and grieving.Compared to Pākehā funerals, tangihanga have changed very little over time. Although embalming and the use of coffins and funeral directors have become standard, but the ceremonies remain the same. We hope after-death care will once again become part of a community’s natural support for one another.
A short history of funerals
Traditionally death like birth, was seen as a natural part of family life. Loved ones were respectfully washed and gently laid out by those who loved them most. Nowadays, this care is more likely to be done by strangers, who also direct the funeral.
Pākehā followed the British custom of someone in the village who would lay out the dead. A wreath of laurel or boxwood tied with crepe or black veiling was hung on the front door to alert passersby that a death had occurred. The body was watched over every minute until burial, hence the custom of “waking”. The wake also served as a safeguard from burying someone who was not dead, but in a coma.
In her thesis, Reclaiming the Last Rites, Jean Hera researched women’s roles in after death work and ritual in Aotearoa and described how the male takeover and accompanying professionalization of death removed the final act of love, the preparation of the body/tūpāpaku from the hands of lay women, both in Māori and Pākehā cultures. In the past decade, more women have taken up roles in the funeral industry as embalmers and funeral directors, and many others are now becoming funeral guides, with a nationwide network being formed. To read Jean Hera’s thesis click here.
Many of our traditional practices have been lost, as we handed the care of our loved ones to strangers. This website has the information they need but we know that, overwhelmed by grief and loss, many families will need guidance to as they learn and reclaim the rites of traditional after-death care. This personal last act of love supports families during their time of loss and enables them to take their time to grieve in a familiar environment. Funeral guides are now available in some parts of Aotearoa to support whānau.
Some families have the confidence to do all the processes themselves and that is legal in our country. This website and its links should give families all the information they need to do this.
Pouroto Ngaropō writes of the important role of tangihanga in Māori culture, and the adaptation of some of the rituals in recent decades.
Te Tāwera Hapū and Iramoko Marae attend tangihanga, to give our love and support to the whānau in a time of loss and grief and to also acknowledge the mana of the hapū and the marae whom the deceased belongs too.
Hapū and Marae believe the more wailing and carrying-on at a tangi, the better. It’s healthy. It honours the dead. It helps explain death, too. And here it helps explain tangihanga, “this is the ultimate Māori cultural expression.” This is the last bastion we have as hapū in expressing our hapū and marae identity and showing our love and support to others.
Tangi is the space where relationships are celebrated, challenged and nurtured. It’s where talk turns to politics, sports, business and gossip.
Tangihanga is probably the most powerful networking event in te ao Māori today. Emotion is encouraged and drama is expected. It’s a time to balance the ledger of kinship responsibility.
And, at its heart, are whanaungatanga and manaakitanga.
When it comes to tangihanga, it’s all hands-on deck. The mana of the marae is at stake. Tangi are talked about years after. Stories of coffins spirited away in stealth, full-blown concerts, high drama and shared memories.
Who can forget the five-hour wait in atrocious storms at the tangi of really important people that died. No one complained.
Now we have to adjust tikanga because younger generations don’t want to get wet,” And you want them to come to the marae.”
An advanced care plan is a health care plan that ensures people receive medical care that is consistent with their values, especially when seriously or chronically ill.
Advanced care planning doesn’t need to be complicated but it does require careful consideration. It involves thinking about, talking about, and writing everything down in a plan that aligns with your values system.
Advanced care planning helps guide doctors and other health professionals if you become too sick to speak or make decisions for yourself. The plan gives family and friends an opportunity to know what you want.
Anyone at any stage of life and health can have an advance care planning conversation. Have these conversations when you are well. It is difficult to have these conversations when a crisis occurs. Be prepared and talk now.
In some areas of the country, such as the Bay of Plenty, hospital staff support people in communities to write their plans.
After death a form must be submitted to Births Deaths and Marriages. This asks for your parents names and work, dates of marriages, children etc. Family may not know all this so it maybe helpful for you to also record these details while you do your advanced care plan. You can use this form.