Scoop Review of Books

Six Feet Under — Maybe Less

Book Review
Death and Dying in New Zealand edited by Emma Johnson (Freerange Press, $30)
Reviewed by Alison McCulloch

death-and-dying-coverI’ve been to one funeral and two tangihanga this year: two former teachers and someone I didn’t really know. It’s true that we don’t give much thought to death until it’s right in front of us, and also that we probably should, both points Emma Johnson raises in her introduction to this collection of essays on the topic.

We’re a bit like that about lots of things: illness, old age, taxes. But especially about death. It comes to us all, but in many ways we have to live life as if it won’t, because if we thought too much about being dead for all eternity (as an atheist, that’s how I see it anyway), it would be that much harder to spend so much of our time at our meaningless jobs, doing our meaningless chores and indulging in our meaningless squabbles. And I’m with Ernest Becker in believing a whole lot of what we do is, consciously or not, a futile attempt to deny our mortality. 

The focus of Death and Dying in New Zealand is less on the philosophical than on the practical, though when it comes to death, they certainly overlap: it’s impossible to think about the latter without falling into pondering the former. And I did a fair amount of that reading this book, while discovering there’s a lot of interesting practical stuff I had no idea about: that more than 90 percent of of our dead are embalmed; that conservation and natural burial parks are here, but they’re land hungry and can be expensive; that there’s a newer (possibly better) way of disposing of bodies called aquamation (or bio-cremation or resomation or alkaline hydrolysis); that there are people who call themselves ‘deathwalkers’ who help “facilitate a loving, dignified and peaceful death”.

Melanie Mayell is one of those, and her essay “Deathwalkers, death cafes, and rethinking death” is full of curious trends and ideas, including the death cafes of her title (get together and talk about death); some unorthodox ways of dealing with ashes (“pressed into jewellery, grown into a diamond or be blown into a gorgeous glass sphere … pressed into records, blended with tattoo ink”); a programme in Seattle that essentially turns bodies into compost, though they’ve given it the slightly more comforting name of “recomposition” and more. 

Like all collections, some articles are more readable than others, but for the most part this is at once a useful and thought-provoking book. I’ve read (and written about) two of Freerange’s previous collections, Once in a Lifetime: City-building after Disaster in Christchurch and Don’t Dream It’s Over: Reimagining Journalism in Aotearoa New Zealand daunting tasks both at 512 and 360  pages respectively. Death and Dying in New Zealand is part of a new series called Radical Futures, and at a slim 159 pages is much more accessible — a welcome direction for a press that does important work.

I was eager to read Marcus Elliott’s essay. He’s a Christchurch-based coroner, a job I only know from TV crime shows (aka I don’t know at all) and wanted to understand a little better. It’s a nice piece, but felt constrained — perhaps by the nature of the office — and I wish he’d gone into a bit more detail about the work. I do, however, hope my corpse is never one of the 5,500 reported to coroners in New Zealand each year (of which they accept around 3,400) i.e. a death for which “the cause is unknown … self-inflicted, unnatural or violent.”

Two essays take a look at the unique approach of Māori to death and dying, one on the melancholy side, the other, by Kay Paku surprisingly bright and breezy. She touches on issues like wairua, kēhua, poroporoaki, and tapu:

“When a person dies, everything around them becomes tapu — taboo if you like. Before resuming normal duties — eating or drinking for example — tapu must be removed and noa (normal) restored. Māori do this using water and prayer. It’s like a magic trick.”

And there are pieces on coffin clubs, funeral poverty, the architecture of death, and end-of-life care (apparently we do that pretty well in Aotearoa New Zealand).

One of the early supporters of the book asked a really good question on its PledgeMe page: “Is there much advice about managing post-mortem digital footprints (eg social media; rights over passwords) / digital legacies and digital IP covered in the book?” It’s something I’ve often wondered, having had friends die, yet live on in a ghostly digital afterlife. (Ahh, so maybe there’s life after death after all.) No, the topic isn’t investigated in depth, but the book does advise that our planning include “providing information about digital assets and online accounts you would like shut down”. 

That planning list is part of the very useful final chapters, the first two of which offer reading lists for various age groups, including picture books, novels and of course non-fiction. Next come sections on “things to think about” and “things to do”, with a glossary of sorts explaining things like ‘burial at sea’, ‘do not resusciate’ orders, embalming (uses toxic solutions and provides no public health benefit), natural burial grounds and more. As for the ‘things to do’, I can tick off a couple of items (appoint power of attorney — check; make a will — check), but the rest not so much.

At which point, we’re back where we started: avoiding thinking about death until … until …