6 min read

Dealing with death – why the fuss?

Jane Cacouris is a writer and consultant working in international development on environment, poverty and livelihood issues.

“No fuss” cremations are getting more popular. Not giving a formal space or process to say goodbye feels like a seismic cultural shift to Jane Cacouris. Part of the How To Die Well series.
A sculpture shows mourning women raising hands and fists to the sky.
The Tragedy of the Sea memorial in Matosinhos, a Portuguese port.
Prilfish, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

Widow’s Rip is a notorious swirl of ocean just offshore from Nazaré, a centuries-old fishing village on Portugal’s windy and unpredictable Atlantic coast. Decades ago fishermen used oxen to pull brightly painted boats onto the beach and then rowed into the giant waves. Many lost their lives when the seas were rough. I first visited Nazaré with my Portuguese grandmother as a child and stayed in a fisherwoman’s house with an orange-tiled roof just off the central square. My eyes had to adjust to the gloom every time we went inside as she kept all of the shutters drawn. Even though it was thirty degrees outside, I remember her tanned, crumpled face shrouded in a black shawl that covered her head and shoulders. She wore a black knee length skirt with an array of petticoats and black shoes. As a ten-year-old, I was a little scared. I asked my grandmother when the fisherwoman’s husband had died. “About twenty-five years ago at sea”, she said. She explained it would be a sign that you didn’t love your late husband if you didn’t wear black for the rest of your life.  

Nowadays, although fishing is still a livelihood for some who live there, Nazaré is known for its sweeping beach and touristy promenade of restaurants, bars and stalls selling Portuguese wares. But the widows, now very old ladies, who lost their husbands to the sea all those years ago still potter around the town dressed head to toe in black. An ingrained tradition of how to grieve.

No other event in our life brings us closer to facing questions of mortality and eternity than the death of a loved one.

Grief and how we deal with the loss of a loved one is of course deeply personal and expressed differently depending on so many things; culture, beliefs, personality, life experience, to name a few. But in recent years, there has been a defined shift in British society away from some of the traditions that have historically accompanied death.  

The growing trend for direct or “no fuss” cremations is an example of this shift, with a rise from 3 per cent of all cremations in 2019 to 18 per cent in 2022 according to a life insurance company’s recent report. A traditional cremation includes a service at the crematorium or place of worship beforehand, whereas a direct cremation does not have a service. Instead, the deceased is taken directly to be cremated with no one in attendance, unless witnesses ask to be present. A simple coffin is used, and the timing of the cremation is determined by the funeral director, usually according to availability.  

Why are families choosing to cut out the funeral?  

Sources point to a range of reasons. A matter of choice – perhaps a statement of faith that the afterlife is not about funeral rituals, or conversely, that there is no afterlife, and the body will just decompose organically and be subsumed back into the Earth so why make a fuss? It can be for practical reasons such as cost; traditional funeral services are much more expensive than a simple cremation, estimated to be approximately £2,500 cheaper. A “no fuss” cremation can also reduce the likelihood of family division or arguments over the type of ceremony. Or family living in different locations geographically means a memorial service scheduled for a more convenient time can be organised.  

All these reasons seem perfectly valid. But not giving a formal space or process to say goodbye does feel like a seismic cultural shift, even for the British, known for our ability to keep our feelings under wraps. Practical reasons aside, are we ducking the emotion that inevitably hits us when we lose someone we love? Or perhaps avoiding the difficult questions that come with death? No other event in our life brings us closer to facing questions of mortality and eternity than the death of a loved one.  

On holiday in Nazaré in his youth, my father remembers a fisherman’s death in the house where he was staying. The night before the funeral - with the deceased laid out in the dining room - each of the women in the family took it in turns to sit in the corridor outside, the top skirt of their seven petticoats over their head, wailing in an outpouring of grief so raw that they couldn’t continue for more than a couple of hours. The “wailing process” carried on throughout the night, the role passing from woman to woman until sunrise. Not only was the loss of the fisherman the loss of their beloved, it was also the loss of a working partnership - the women sold the fish that the men brought home – and the loss of the family’s livelihood and income. The wailing was a necessary part of expressing this agony ahead of the funeral service when the rest of the family would come together to support each other.  

There are also intensely reverent traditions observed with death in Portugal, particularly within the Catholic church. The burial or cremation is usually no more than three days after the person has died. When my grandmother passed away a few years ago, her body was laid in an open casket in a room of the Catholic church in the mountain village in rural Portugal where she had lived most of her life. The night before the funeral, a procession of people visited her to pay their last respects, including distant family members, whilst my immediate family sat with her all night. People touched her arm or hand, and sat and chatted to one another. After Mass the following day, her coffin lined with lead was sealed and she was taken to the family Mausoleum to be laid beside my grandfather, along with the remains of around thirty of our relatives dating back to the early 1900s.  

Brazil, where we lived for several years, has many similarities to Portugal in dealing with death. The time between death and burial or cremation is even faster, usually within twenty-four hours. Family and friends rapidly gather, usually together with the body of the loved one in an open casket. Touching and kissing the body and wailing over it is not uncommon. According to a Brazilian friend, “Bebendo do morto” which means “drinking to the dead” is an old custom where family members raise a final glass of Cachaça, a traditional drink, to the deceased in the presence of their body.  

A funeral service is partly about taking a look back at our loved one’s jigsaw of life, at all the pieces that have slotted together to make up their precious and unique time on Earth.

In all these traditions, the funeral service acts as the closure to the first “phase” of grief, and the passing of the deceased into God’s care. The next phase is then the more private continuation of grief for months or years to come.  

Christians believe in life after death based on a conviction that as Jesus rose from the dead, so will we. A funeral service is partly about taking a look back at our loved one’s jigsaw of life, at all the pieces that have slotted together to make up their precious and unique time on Earth. Of course, there are damaged and missing pieces, but Christians believe that the jigsaw will be made whole and perfect in Heaven with Jesus. It is also a chance to give thanks for the the life of a human being wonderfully and fearfully made in the image of God. 

Regardless of the country, the culture or the tradition, the death of someone we love means that our world will never be the same again. It will continue spinning without them and we have to get used to that. The Book of Ecclesiastes in the Bible says: 

 “There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens: a time to be born and a time to die”.  

Death is an entire season; not only the end of the existence of a human on Earth who was created and loved by God, but a prolonged period of growth and change for those of us left behind.  

Death deserves us to make a fuss.  


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4 min read

Benefiting from the many facets of beauty

Belle is the Reporter at the Centre for Cultural Witness, writing for Seen and Unseen. 

A jewellery start-up is challenging what Belle TIndall perceives as empowerment and agency.
Three women stand, two lean into each other sharing a joke, while the other laughs too.
Members of Zena's Launch Pad team, Kamuli, Uganda.

I have a conundrum. I’ve started and re-started this article four times now. And I’m surprised that I’ve settled on this opening. But alas, I have a deadline to adhere to and a cold coffee to warm back up. So, this will have to do. I’m struggling with this opening paragraph because when it comes to writing about Zena - the female-led, non-profit, environmentally friendly jewellery and accessory brand - I simply do not know where to begin.  

There are too many facets of Zena that deserve to sit front and centre in this article; too many details to revel in, too many stories to tell, too much success to pick at and analyse.  

Where do I possibly start?   

How about with the delightful fact that the brand is named after a beloved pet goat who makes appearances on their TikTok? You know, kick things off on an endearing note. Or perhaps the fact that there are playlists curated for all occasions, dance challenges, and even a recipe for tequila lollipops on their website? That would certainly alert people to how seriously this team takes the art of having fun. Or maybe I should open with the fact that they’ve both challenged and refined how I perceive empowerment and agency. I could explain how they have alerted me to the importance of investing in female entrepreneurs as a means of tackling extreme poverty and profound gender inequality.  

Yes. I think that’s it. Let’s start there and work our way backwards, shall we?  

These women are not beneficiaries, they are benefactors – and that’s an important, not to mention beautiful, distinction. 

In which case, here’s the heartbeat of Zena, here’s what you need to know in order to understand everything else about them: women living in rural poverty are currently facing two major barriers when it comes to business opportunity and entrepreneurship, and Zena are tackling both head on.  

Firstly, female entrepreneurs in these settings have little to no capital with which to launch their business ventures. To combat this, every single product offered by Zena, whose HQ is in Kamuli (Uganda), is hand-crafted by women who were previously living below the poverty line. Through the Zena apprenticeships, these women are able to support themselves and their families while also earning/saving the capital they need to launch their own businesses once the short-term apprenticeship comes to an end. These women are not beneficiaries, they are benefactors – and that’s an important, not to mention beautiful, distinction.  

Secondly, as well as a lack of capital, these women are battling a lack of education. And so, through a multi-phase entrepreneurship programme (The Zena Launch Pad), Zena are giving their apprentices both the theoretical and practical tools that they need to launch and sustain their own businesses. Women are graduating from this programme with literacy and numeracy skills, a viable business plan, industry-specific knowledge and skills, as well as leadership and development.  

Because here’s the bottom-line, the foundation upon which Zena stands, the deep conviction of both Caragh and Loren, the co-founders and CEOs; agency matters. Widening one’s understanding of success to encompass these women’s agency, for better or for worse, matters. Empowering these women to earn their own capital, to see the unfolding of their own ideas, to know that their decisions matter, it makes all the difference. No dependence, no hand-outs, and no debt. Just the kind of empowerment that is laced with agency.  

It’s bold. But it’s working.  

There was utter delight in her eyes when she explained how good generates more good and creation generates more creation.

So far, time-stamped at this moment in time, Zena’s hybrid and holistic approach has led to 67 female entrepreneurs, over 150 children in school, and nearly 500 lives lived above the poverty line. Women are hiring other women, businesses are birthing more businesses, education is generating more education.  

Pretty special, isn’t it? Pretty Jesus-like too.  

I had the immense joy of chatting to Caragh, one of the co-founders and CEOs of Zena; she reminded me that multiplication is one of Jesus’ most classic moves. Just as the people sitting around Jesus with wide eyes and numb backsides witnessed one humble lunch feed tens-of-thousands of mouths, so are Caragh and her team witnessing jaw-dropping multiplication happen before their very eyes. There was utter delight in her eyes when she explained how good generates more good and creation generates more creation. Compassion is contagious and innovation spreads. Although Zena is by no means an enterprise that squeezes itself into a religious box (empowering women of all faiths and none), it is easy to see how Caragh and Loren’s faith in a God who wrote generative goodness into the fabric of reality, informs their mission to write it into their business model.  

Something else that is woven into the DNA of Zena, much to my delight, is an unabashed celebration of the female consumer. 2023 may well be remembered as the year when an economic earthquake was caused by Taylor Swift, Beyonce, and Barbie. According to Forbes, it is likely to be regarded as the year where people began to take seriously and analyse the power of 'the female dollar'. And Zena, with their penchant for all things pink and glittery, have been sitting ahead of the curve for a little while. Their products, as seen in Vogue, Marie Claire, and Harvey Nicholls (as well as embellishing the looks of numerous celebrities), seem to have been made with this cultural moment in sight. Their aesthetic perfectly encapsulates the resurgence of female playfulness and the reclaiming of ‘girliness’ as something to embrace and revel in. As I have already referenced, joy is something that this team take incredibly seriously.  

The celebration of women infiltrates every layer of Zena’s existence, that much is clear. While their products delight the female gaze, their profits sow into female entrepreneurship. Both of which display how working toward gender equality, particularly in contexts such as Kamuli, is a means by which we can wage a war on extreme poverty. 

Women serving women, who are serving women, who are serving women. And on it goes – so beautifully circular. So intriguingly God-inspired.  

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