7 min read

How to face the space of death

Natalie Garrett is the Marketing and Communications Coordinator for the Centre for Cultural Witness. She is an Anglican minister based in Gloucestershire and a trained actor.

Loosing family and friends across a life, leads Natalie Garrett to navigate the space of death we all face. Part of the How to Die Well series.
An experimental image mixes distance people with watery paint-like filters of green .
Jr Korpa on Unsplash.

Death is something I’ve thought about quite a lot. As a bereaved friend, granddaughter, niece and daughter. Also, as an Anglican priest who has pastoral responsibility for those who are grieving and who conducts funerals. And as the mother of children who live in a vicarage and hear a lot about Mummy and Daddy doing funerals, too. Death is a part of our life in a way it doesn’t seem to be in a lot of families. 

My first experience of death was when my grandfather died; I think I was about six. My memories of it are mostly about how the adults behaved. I remember, with uncharacteristic clarity, the evening when Grandma came to tell us that Grandad had died. I don’t remember what she said but I remember the feeling in the room. I remember it feeling as if someone had sucked all the air out, as if we were floating in a strange and uncomfortable space. I remember sitting in the kitchen with my mother not knowing the rules of engagement for this situation and feeling scared by that. 

And in my experience, over the many years since then and in many different situations, I think most people faced with death for the first-time experience that same fear of not knowing how to be in the space of death; “I don’t know what to say”… 

While I was a student, I had a friend who was the only Christian any of us knew. He also had cancer and didn’t have long to live. He made the choice do what people his age who didn’t have a death sentence to carry around with them were doing and went to Uni. He was one of the bravest people any of us had ever met. And at his funeral, a whole load of us from Uni turned up to pay tribute to this amazing young man who had touched so many lives by the way he had so courageously lived with death. 

I could hold that space that I had been so afraid of all those years ago; I could give form and shape to the place of that which we must all face but which we all avoid so passionately in our western culture.

One of my daughter’s godmothers died of bowel cancer. She was one of the most faithful Christians I’ve ever known. When she was diagnosed, the whole church prayed for her healing. But the cancer grew and the chances of survival shrank. But wow did she use her last few months, weeks, days well. She wasn’t afraid of dying so she talked openly about it to everyone and the healing that came from how she lived then was powerful and widespread. She was an incredibly organised person and wanted to make sure she tied up all possible loose ends, like selling her house. She told with such joy about the conversation she had with the estate agent who came round to value her house who asked all the usual questions, “So are you looking to move soon? Where are you going?” I can only imagine his face as she answered with complete honesty about where she knew she was going. And I remember, with a powerful mixture of emotions, the conversation I had with her when I went to say goodbye. “I’ll see you there.”  She said as I closed the door behind me. 

Several decades after that visit from my grandmother, as a grown up and now a Christian, I had the privilege of conducting my grandmother's funeral. Grandma had been such a huge and influential part of my life and it was unthinkable that I should lead the service and not be allowed to be a grieving granddaughter – but it was even more unthinkable to risk someone else doing it, in case they didn’t do it “well”. I visited her in a Chapel of Rest, a couple of days before the service, so that I could say what I needed to say and cry as much as I was able. As I led the service and thus guided my family through the process of saying goodbye to the matriarch of our clan, I could hold that space that I had been so afraid of all those years ago; I could give form and shape to the place of that which we must all face but which we all avoid so passionately in our western culture. Because as a Christian, I know something, I know Someone, bigger than death. 

Death seems to be the final taboo of our culture, the most intimate and unmentionable part of life. Which means we’re not very good at death. And a good death is a beautiful thing. 

There’s a famous story in the Bible when Jesus’ friend Lazarus died. Jesus isn’t there while Lazarus is ill, in fact he isn’t there when he dies – he turns up four days later. In the Jewish culture of which Jesus was a part, there were all sorts of rules to comply with around death and one of the traditions was to gather the local community, including professional mourners to weep and wail, to encourage the expression of emotion.  

Lazarus’s sisters were angry that their good friend Jesus hadn’t been there when they needed him. They were angry that their brother, Lazarus, had died. They were angry and needed someone to blame. I think we can all relate to that. When someone we love is suffering, when someone we love dies, a natural part of the grieving process is anger. And that anger is often directed at God, whether we believe in him or not. 

When Jesus arrives, he generously receives their emotional rebuke, allowing them to give voice to their pain. And then he goes to the grave where Lazarus has been lying dead for four days. And in the shortest verse in the Bible, we are privy to his reaction. Jesus wept. Even God is distressed by the reality of death. Death was never meant to happen; death was never part of God’s good plan for humanity. And it makes him weep. He turns up, unafraid of the raw reality of death and bereavement. 

Of course, in that situation, there was a reprieve – Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead. And the mourning turned to celebration. But of course, although we never hear about Lazarus’s final death, he did die, just like all the rest of us.  

Death is the one thing we all have in common. Different cultures react to death differently. In some cultures, the entire community stops doing normal life and gather round the bereaved. In our culture, all too often, we pretend nothing has happened. We are determined to keep death in a box, packed as far deep as possible so we don’t have to look at it. Death seems to be the final taboo of our culture, the most intimate and unmentionable part of life. Which means we’re not very good at death. And a good death is a beautiful thing. The Christian friends I’ve known who died untimely young deaths have shown me that. People who are not afraid of death, people who know what’s going to happen after they’ve died can pave the way for us to walk into the place of death and find beauty there. 

As we face death head on, we stare into the place of what’s really important. Everyone says glibly that on our deathbed we won’t be wishing we’d spent more time at work. But let’s not wait till our deathbed to work out where we need to spend more time. Let’s learn how to live well now, not hiding from the only guaranteed fact of our future. 

At Lazarus’s graveside, Jesus made the rather elliptical claim:  

“I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die.”  

When Jesus died himself, naked and nailed to a cross, he took on the greatest enemy of life. And he won. As Jesus rose again on the third day, he claimed victory over death. As Christians follow Jesus through this life, they do so in the assurance of eternal life with him after death. Wow, that’s the place of hope. That’s the place where you can look death right in the face, unafraid. 

The Christian message of hope is a life raft in the cold, choppy waters of bereavement. It gives form and shape to something we don’t understand and don’t want to have to navigate. It gives us courage to accept the truth, when we really don’t want to. Knowing that there is something, Someone, who is bigger than death. And knowing that death – either my own or that of someone I love – isn’t the end of the story gives me the capacity to walk confidently and unafraid through my life towards its inevitable end. And into what’s next. To quote my friend, I hope I’ll see you there. 

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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