Explainer
Change
Life & Death
6 min read

Dealing with death – why the fuss?

“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.

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

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.  

  

Article
Assisted dying
Comment
Life & Death
5 min read

The careless conflation of independence, autonomy and dignity

As Jersey begins to legalise assisted dying, there’s keyword confusion.
A elderly women in a care home stands and places her hands on the shoulders of a seated woman.
Eberhard Grossgasteiger on Unsplash.

Reviewing Canada’s legislation on assisted dying, one anonymously authored article raises the concern: “Does it make dying with dignity easier than living with dignity?” This insightful question cuts to the centre of the debate: dignity. Or more particularly, the unwitting conflation of dignity with independence, and of independence with autonomy.  

As Jersey becomes the first place in the British Isles to begin the process of legalising assisted dying, I feel that we should listen carefully as to how and where these terms are being used, both in the formal debate, and in the commentary that surrounds it. The States Assembly in Jersey voted to allow the development of assisted dying legislation for those with six months to live (or twelve months if their condition is neurodegenerative). A second vote to make assisted dying available more broadly to those who experience conditions that entail “unbearable suffering” was defeated by a narrower margin. Reading the flurry of press releases that followed the vote, these keywords, autonomy, independence, and dignity, are everywhere. But are we really thinking about what these words communicate?  

People in positions of wealth and power have more independence and autonomy, more choices and freedoms, but it is we who ascribe dignity to those in that position.

The word dignity comes from the Latin word dignus, meaning ‘worthy’, and this is still the primary definition given to the English word dignity today. The OED has it as “the quality of being worthy or honourable”, immediately followed by reference to “honourable or high estate”. If this is so, then dignity is not something that can be bought, nor assumed – it is a status conferred upon someone by the esteem in which other people hold them. The haughtiest person in the world can still be esteemed undignified, as can the richest. Moreover, the opposite is also true: we are never prevented from conferring dignity upon, and esteeming the worthiness of, those who live the humblest of lives.   

And yet, if we are honest with ourselves – do many of us not quietly associate the idea of becoming rich and powerful with becoming dignified? Do we not tend to assume the worthiness of those in high office – at least until we meet them and realise pretty quickly that they all put their trousers on one leg at a time, the same as the rest of us. This association happens because we have such a tendency to conflate dignity with independence (the ability to live without assistance from others) and autonomy (the ability to make one’s own decisions, and not have those decisions limited or interfered with). People in positions of wealth and power have more independence and autonomy, more choices and freedoms, but it is we who ascribe dignity to those in that position. It is society who sees the autonomy of those in high status, and esteems it as dignified.    

Does this not unwittingly suggest that choosing to live in a state of extreme dependence on palliative care is, by implication, undignified? 

Repeatedly ancient wisdom, in the bible, warns us not to assume that dignity comes with the freedom of wealth or power. All the great ‘heroes’ of that book suffer their indignities. Fresh from the success of his Ark project, Noah gets drunk and exposes himself. Elated from a victory against an enemy, King David dances half-naked through the streets. These are just two examples of the catalogue of embarrassments and mishaps that beset nearly all the kings and leaders whose stories are told as part of the Christian story. One after another, they stumble and struggle with life and leadership. The apostle Paul explains that this is because God uses the foolish things of this world to shame human pride, “for even the foolishness of God is still wiser than human wisdom.” Therefore, Paul argues, God chooses to speak to us through the weak and the lowly things and people of this world. Never was this demonstrated so clearly as when Jesus was born in a draughty stable, lived a life of poverty, and died a criminal’s death on a cross.  

But what has all this to do with the debate over assisted dying? Well, I am struck by how often the idea of losing one’s independence (through disabling or terminal illness) is conflated with losing one’s dignity, and so dying through personal choice (autonomy) is presented as regaining it. One campaign group that speaks to this debate even calls itself ‘Dignity in Dying’ – but does this not unwittingly suggest that choosing to live in a state of extreme dependence on palliative care is, by implication, undignified?  

Independence is not possible for everybody, or not possible to the same degree. And dignity? Well, dignity is possible for anyone. 

The Dean of Jersey, the Very Reverend Mike Keirle, has spoken of his concern that the change in legislation will make vulnerable people feel pressured to end their lives. Examples from Canada, where physician assisted dying is already available, show that his concern is not unfounded. In 2022, Canadian veteran and Paralympian Christine Gauthier phoned her caseworker to chase up the over-due installation of her new wheelchair ramp. She then describes how she was horrified to find herself being advised to consider assisted dying instead.  

"It is remotely just what they're doing,” says Gauthier, “exhausting us to the point of no return. […] I was like, 'Are you serious?' Like that easy, you're going to be helping me to die but you won't help me to live?"

Gauthier is not alone – she spoke out when she learned that four other Canadian veterans had reported similar experiences. In these unhappy moments, one can see how dangerous the assumption can be – the assumption that no one would want to live a life of needing help. Here are disabled people who do want to live, and this assumption, this careless conflation of independence, autonomy, and dignity, leaves them fighting for their right to do so. Why should anyone have to fight or even speak for their right not to commit suicide? It is little wonder that disabled actress, Liz Carr, describes assisted dying legislation as “terrifying” for disabled people. 

I respect that there are terminally ill people, and those who love them, who speak from a desire to end their suffering; it is clear that people on all sides of the debate need to have this difficult and emotionally charged conversation. But whatever the eventual outcome in terms of legislation, we must be careful that it is not based on careless assumptions, or on the conflation of one thing with an entirely different other. Independence is not possible for everybody, or not possible to the same degree. And dignity? Well, dignity is possible for anyone – it is a state that can be conferred whenever, and upon whomever society chooses to confer it. Autonomy is the matter in question – we are talking about autonomy in dying. And whatever happens, we should by no means legislate in a way that leaves disabled people esteemed unworthy, left open to the indignity of fighting for their right to live.