a short post about death

Even during the most pivotal moments of our lives we are only a few minutes away from being digitally distracted.

Twelve to be precise.

We check our phones for new messages every 12 minutes

Four weeks ago today we were just arriving in Ubud, Bali on day six of a planned 3 week trip.

Within a minute of framing a perfect shot for Instagram I got a text from Karen’s sister asking me to call her immediately.

You know it will be bad news.

Her mum had passed away suddenly, only a few hours after we last spoke.

When you get news like that your immediate response is one of confusion.

You can’t become numb as you need to take control.

Your mind cycles through thoughts ranging from the profound to the prosaic – and even to the selfish.

“How do you tell someone their mum is dead and that they are never going to see them again?”

“We’re 8000 miles from home. What do I actually need to do?”

“This trip is really over, right?”

“On the positive side, thank god we haven’t unpacked yet.

In these intensely human moments of crisis you realise how much technology is ever present.

  • Insurance companies offer to organise a flight for you ‘if you can wait 24 hours’,  when you can organise one yourself in just minutes.
  • Websites continually push barely literate chatbots at you when you just need a bloody phone number.

And as always it’s the people who really make the difference. You can go digital by default all you like but you can’t digitise human kindness.

  • The Indonesian Airbnb host who stops eating his dinner to drive you immediately to the airport.
  • The flight attendant who bravely attempts to ‘override the system’ to try to get you a couple of seats next to one another.

8000 miles feels a very long time when you’re just trying to hold things together.


Death is in our faces almost everyday – we hear about it on the news, we watch TV shows and movies featuring loads of it. But when it comes to the ‘everydayness’ of death, the sheer normality of it, we’d rather not talk about it.

We are obsessed with prolonging life and looking good. Society is urging us to eat healthier, exercise harder, buy more things – anything to put off the inevitability of death or even thinking about it.

Western culture keeps death at a distance. It’s just not for everyday conversation.

12 months earlier I’d been in a very different community in Sulawesi, Indonesia. In Tana Toraja, death is life and part of a longer spiritual journey. Families keep the mummified remains of their deceased relatives in their homes for years – and traditionally invite them to lunch on a daily basis – before they are eventually buried in ceremonies that go on for days.

The funeral we were invited to in Sulawesi was a great celebration of life, much like a going-away party.

It was an occasion in which the entire family of the deceased, and all the members of the village take part. During their lives, they all work extremely hard to accumulate wealth. But unlike in the West, they don’t save their money to buy consumer goods.

They save for a good send-off in death.


The funeral of Karen’s mum, Anita, on Wednesday was very different from the one in Tana Toraja. They don’t tend to make animal sacrifices in Stoke-On-Trent. And the funerals last for mere hours.

It was a beautiful send off though. A wonderful celebration of life and family.

Unlike a Torajan funeral where you’re literally invited to take selfies with strangers, everybody politely kept their phones away. Protocol meant we had to resist that 12 minute temptation to check.

Technology does have an important part to play though in how we grieve in a digital age.

We share our memories on Facebook and swap stories and recollections of our loved ones. We even share recollections with the profiles of our loved ones. Researchers say before the end of the century there could be as many as 4.9 billion deceased users floating around the internet. Our virtual selves and their associated memories will become as numerous as our real bodies.

That said, I made a commitment this morning to spend a little less time on my phone. Karen nearly fell out of bed in shock. I’ll repeat that commitment here as a public statement of intent.

We have an endless gift for caring if we allow time for it.

Sometimes we really need to disconnect in order to reconnect with what matters.

  1. Beautifully put, Paul. I made this exact commitment to myself a little while back. Sending love to you, Karen and Gina.

    Reply

    1. Thank you – that’s really appreciated

      Reply

  2. My condolences to you all Paul. As you know I’ve written a lot about the deaths of Mam and Dad and sisters. All of them happened before the technology we have today. News travelled more slowly then and close ones often found out too late and missed funerals. I recently experienced a funeral where digital technology played a role. Vishva’s uncle died recently. We attended the Hindu ceremony with the open coffin. I noticed one of my cousins was filming it on his mobile. I found this strange and a little off putting. My western values kicking in. Then I realised the face on the phone was Vishva’s younger uncle who lived in India. They were Skyping the funeral so that he could be part of it and play his role as a brother. Sometimes technology is useful. My thoughts are with you all.

    Reply

  3. Sorry Paul. That was not meant to be anonymous. I posted before completing it.

    Reply

    1. Thanks Tom – that’s a really good point. We can often make all sorts of presumptions about different generations use of technology. Thanks for your kind thoughts

      Reply

  4. Hey Paul, thanks for posting. I so loved your honesty around first reponses to the news and your descriptions of the confusion and urgency and kindness along the way. Best thoughts Moya Sayer-Jones (Australia)

    Reply

    1. Thank you Moya. I hope things are good with you!

      Reply

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