The Art of Dying Creatively
I am a palliative care nurse and permaculture educator with a spiritual self which is deeply rooted in Earth-based seasons and patterns. Issues relating to death and dying are intrinsic to most aspects of my life. Several years ago, I started exploring how permaculture can improve how we die in the UK and in many parts of the world. Central to this was the fact that “Dying with dignity” appears in Holmgren’s Permaculture Flower, and generated many interesting discussions in my peer groups within the permaculture community. This eventually resulted in the launch of my permaculture project: Creative Dying, a free online resource.
Death and Dying in the UK
In the UK and in many other parts of the world. Death and dying is still a very difficult, taboo topic, cloaked in the fear and unknown. The way in which many of us die at present in the UK is at odds with permaculture principles and ethics. People do not often get the death they would like, many needlessly dying in hospital experiencing unnecessary and distressing procedures, tests and treatment, away from their home, with resulting feelings of confusion and lack of control.
Inequalities around whether a person is enabled to make decisions about what they would want for their end of life and care after death are huge – age, disease type, social class, sexuality, race, mental health, with very real consequences about whether someone then has a ‘good death.’ In my experience, fear, distress and lack of control about how we die can often mean life time effects on emotional and physical health to those left behind, due to complex bereavement.
The environmental impacts of how we die are also very significant. – from the resources needed for end of life care in hospital, to the damaging actions of many aspects of the funeral/after death industry, - embalming, cremation, coffin materials - and financial affordability (the average cost of a funeral in the UK in 2018 was £3500 for a cremation, and nearly £4300 for a burial )
My experience in the permaculture community is that even within groups of people who are very knowledgeable, empowered and solutions focused about other aspects of their lives are reluctant to talk about how their end of life might be.
So, what can permaculture offer as a way solutions focused way forward?
Before We Die
People who talk about and plan for their death, tend to have a much better experience of death, and those around them : - family, friends and community - then go on to have a more open and positive attitude towards death, loss and supporting others as they approach death. Planning for what we want to happen as we die and after our death is much easier to do when we are well, than waiting until we are unwell and perhaps too poorly to make decisions. There is a much greater chance that End of Life wants and wishes will happen if we have a plan, and others close to us, are aware of those plans.
Ways to start talking about death and dying, and making plans include:-
As We Die
If we had some control (most people, with the right support, do), what would we want our death to look like? Where would we want to be (if possible?) Who would we want to be there? What support would we need and want?
One exciting and rapidly growing role is that of a Death Doula – non-medical people who are trained to be alongside terminally ill people and support those close to them, at the end of their life. There are several places in the UK where Death Doula training is available now and the numbers of people working in this sphere is spreading steadily.
Obviously we cannot all predict how we die and for some we might not be able to achieve the ideal death we hoped for ourselves. It can be useful to have a ‘plan B’. For example, if you were to die in hospital, who would you want to be there? What kind of medical/nursing intervention would you want? What possessions, music, art would you want to surround you from home?
After We Die
What do we want to happen to our bodies after we die? How do we want our life to be remembered and celebrated?
With our present systems of after death care in the UK, many people can feel frustrated, and let down, with their experience of grief deepened, as after death care activities carried out by health care professionals and then practitioners in the funeral industry can feel impersonal and profoundly disconnected from the identity of the person who has died. In addition, the financial cost of much of this is beyond the reach of an ever increasing number of people.
There is no legal obligation to use a funeral director for after death care in the UK – though if you choose to do so, there are some wonderful Funeral Director and celebrant businesses who can ensure the whole process is as in keeping with the life of the person who has died as possible. In addition wherever we die, we can choose to have friends and families take care of us (wash, change clothing . Making this request known to health care staff involved can mean this is more likely to happen
In the UK one of the most Earth regenerating ways to care for the body of someone who has died, is burial, where the body is wrapped/contained in a locally sources biodegradable material, in a geographical location where other life can benefit from the nutrients released by our decomposing corpse. (I’m currently knitting a cover from UK grown wool – which will be used a blanket, for hopefully many years, then my plan is my body will be wrapped in it before I am buried as close as possible to the place where I spend my final weeks of life.) Organised Woodland Burial sites are the most obvious choice of location., but there are other perfectly legal options.
Globally there are some great projects emerging looking at ways of increasing Earth Care with relation to what happens to our bodies after we die. These include:-
Recompose - transforms bodies into soil so that we can grow new life after we die.
The Living Urn – growing trees from human ash
Ecoffins - environmentally friendly coffins and caskets
Permaculture design offers us many answers to how we can improve an experience we all face, and which connects every living being and system on our beautiful planet. Opening up conversations, exploring fears, empowering ourselves with knowledge and support and then making documented plans are all very real ways of ensuring we work towards Earth Care, People Care and Fair Shares as we die.
In this article I have provided an overview about how permaculture design can help with way we die, which will hopefully engage a much bigger conversation.
The following resources can help you to explore this topic further. As part of Creative Dying, my own project exploring how permaculture can improve how we die, I have a regularly updated page sharing many online, in real life and print resources. Go to Creative Dying for lots more information and ideas about using permaculture to improve how we die.
Other (UK focused) favourite key online resources of mine are
Natural Death Society
Power of Attorney
For those people who use social media as a way of connecting and learning new knowledge, there is a wonderful diverse community of people globally working word to raise the profile of improving attitude and experience of death, dying and bereavement. The hashtag often used to link this work is #deathpositive.
Finally – I would like to acknowledge the potential for triggering difficult feelings relating to loss and bereavement that people may experience through reading this article. These reactions are totally understandable and healthy. Many of us have experienced events where grief has been ongoing and complex. If this has happened for you then giving yourself to engage in activities which for you can provide the support you need is very much ok. If you find that you are needing something more than your usual emotional support tools then I can recommend the following links as first steps
What’s Your Grief
Cruse Bereavement Care
An earlier version of this article "The Art of Dying Creatively" was also published in Permaculture Magazine (Autumn No 93)
Its exactly a year since I completed the wonderful People and Permaculture Facilitation (FIT) training Attending the Permaculture Association's Thriving Communities Gathering this weekend, and meeting up with Anna and Charlie who had also attended the FIT training, got me thinking about how FIT and the resulting monthly online gatherings, had influenced my permaculture design/work.
Anna, Charlie and myself, all facilitated key workshops focusing on People Centred Permaculture projects, at the Thriving Communities Gathering - it felt like a very meaningful presence, bringing our applied and tested designs focusing on People Care and Fair Shares, to the event.
More details about our workshops, (text taken from the event programme) -
Reciprocity in Communities - Working with deprivation - with Charlie Gray of Horton Community Farm & Grow Bradford, 1.30pm
This workshop is about creating reciprocal relationships in deprived communities, of which Charlie has great experience to share through her work in and around Bradford. Charlie is part of a LAND permaculture Centre in Bradford, West Yorks as well as Grow Bradford and Plenty, all food related organisations which are helping to transform food systems across Bradford by various means.
The next steps for these projects are all focused on how to link underprivileged and privileged areas and how to run projects across these areas to best effect.
Using the Design Web - Diploma Accreditation with Anna Locke, 3.00pm
An accreditation event is the culmination of the Diploma in Applied Permaculture Design, in which the apprentice makes a 45 minute presentation of a selection of their design work to a peer group panel made up of Diploma holders and Design Course Certificate holders. This panel also inspects the student's portfolio and assesses the work against the accreditation criteria.
Anna Locke is presenting highlights from her 3 year diploma journey. Her 10 designs reflect her paid work as a community gardener as well as a playful translation of some of the classic land-based permaculture concepts into reality --- e.g. Hugelkulture, biodiversity, using edges, green manures, grafting, irrigation, creating structures and more.
The presentation is in two parts- first an overview of the 10 designs- 7 of which are in London and 3 of which are within a very large community forest project in Sussex.
The second part is about a growing connection with the use of the design web. Because of the complex nature of community gardening Anna started using the design web and doing people-centred designs. There is a clear progression along the 10 designs journey and she will be giving her thoughts, tips, observations and reflections gathered along the way.
Creative Dying: Permaculture Design for end of life care - Katie Shepherd, 1.30pm
Creative Dying uses permaculture design at its centre. The workshop will encourage participants to explore creative, positive and unique approaches that we can take to design the end of our lives and how we die. It will appeal to the many people throughout the world already using permaculture to increase resilience and healing in other aspects of their life and work.
My current designs, especially the development of my overall Right Livelihood and then Creative Dying, (using permaculture to design how we die), have evolved and grown in a really effective way over the past year, with much of the knowledge and experience of the FIT training being core to this deepening growth.
My next steps over the following month are to document these designs into a publicly accessible format, meaning others can benefit from more accessible People Focused design information.
This has been on my "would love to do" mindmap for a long time. Its something Jan Martin from The Snail of Happiness (TSOH) writes every week, and its so inspiring. Word from TSOH is that Three Things Thursday was invented by Emily of Ms Emily’s Home for Full-Grown Nerds , who writes ...
....three things that make me smile: an exercise in gratitude – feel free to steal this idea with wild abandon and fill your blog with the happy....
There has been a lot of writing about the personal and community (global?) benefits of expressing gratitude, recently. One article I particularly like is from happierhuman.com
So here it is, my first Three Things Thursday post
Dried apples and tomatoes snack - care of my lovely friend Pippa who I met up with for a drink last week. Pippa and her husband Andrew run a permaculture project Those Plant People near Keighley, West Yorks. Their North facing land grows a massive variety of food all the year round. They use a dehydrator as one of the ways they preserve the harvest.
Urban Death Project
The Urban Death Project is developing an innovative new model of death care that honours both our loved ones and the planet earth. At the heart of this model is a new system called Recomposition that transforms bodies into soil.....In our vision of the future, Recomposition will happen inside buildings designed for the communities they serve. Gardens are nourished by the soil created inside, as we connect with the cycles of life...and death.
I feel so connected to this project. Its inspiration has been key to my own design around permaculture and death - Creative Dying -
The start of my own mini-indoors garden design, in my current accommodation. Just having a few plants on a window ledge has made such a difference to my life in the last few days, especially as the days in the UK are SO short and dark just now - more to follow about this design!
Today Im really proud to have been guest blogging on the wonderful The Snail of Happiness blog (written by my friend Jan Martin). You can read the post about my Creative Dying project here.
Creative Dying is born...
This week is Dying Matters Awareness week in the UK - a big diverse event with many people and organisations holding events to promote awareness about subjects relating the death and dying. I decided a few months ago that this week would be my goal for launching the zone 3-5 phase of a design, Designing Dying, I started about 4 years ago as part of my Diploma in Applied Permaculture Design.
I started the latest phase of the design, now called "Creative Dying" by using a different design process (The Design Web by Looby Macnamara) to explore the design at a new level. I presented my experience of doing this at the National Diploma Gathering earlier this month.
Creative Dying is a website and coaching/workshop business which aims to support people - at any time of their life - to plan and design the death they would like.
It is focused at anyone who would like to explore the creative, positive and unique approaches that we can take to considering the end of our lives and how we die.
Creative Dying uses permaculture design at its centre and will appeal to the many people throughout the world already using permaculture to increase resilience and healing in other aspects of their life and work.
Im really passionate about the journey of this design for many reasons, and will be writing regular updates about its progress and hopefully success here.
Creative Dying on Facebook
Creative Dying on Twitter
The National Diploma Gathering - NDG- (for anyone involved in the UK Diploma in Applied Permaculture Design) took place over the weekend in St Werbergs Centre, Bristol. Its one of the highlights of my permaculture year- so much inspiration and learning, and catching up with friends old and new - and for me my first NDG both as a Diploma tutor and as a member of the Diploma Working Group. The Friday before the Gathering was a tutor training day - so a great opportunity to connect further and increase confidence with my new role.
'Im tired of' - discussing patriarchy, and solutions - a fab workshop facilitated by Anna Broszkiewicz, expanding on some of the issues raised in a recent blog by Nicole Vosper, "Overcoming burnout part 6 - Patriarchy makes me tired"
A layered system of observing and assessing Graham's tutorial with Reevsie - I got totally lost as to who was observing and assessing who and why, but the whole experience was really useful as a new tutor - and I have so much gratitude to Graham for letting us all in on his design support hour!
Me presenting my Creative Dying design, without my planned presentation, due to a series of tech issues. The problem being the solution meant I had to just get on with it though - and it certainly deepened some confidence edges in doing so!
The weekend, as usual, renewed my designing energy and motivation and I'm very much looking forward to spending the next few days planning on the next steps I aim to take as a permaculture practitioner.
regular updates and reflections about the permaculture designs in my life