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.

Communities Need A Different Model – And That Might Not Include Us

Last week I was in Sulawesi, Indonesia, a place none of my family had ever heard of – until a devastating quake and tsunami hit Palu, at which point my phone sprang to life with loads of messages checking that I was still alive.

Actually, we were 300 miles away at that point, and in no danger whatsoever, but the trip had already made me reflect on life, death and the role of the social sector in building communities. A role I’m more convinced than ever that we are getting wrong. 

A few nights earlier we’d been staying at the home of our guide in a small village in Tana Toraja, a mountainous region of South Sulawesi. At about 9pm, after dinner, we were picked up and rode on the backs of motorbikes to seek out a big community event – a funeral.

Rather than going to a funeral, it had the feel of searching for an illegal rave in the early nineties. We rode through the countryside in darkness listening for sounds of the ‘party’.  Walking up the hillside definitely had the full festival vibe, you could hear music and singing in the distance and a few entrepreneurial types had set up a stall selling Bintang beer, palm wine, and snacks.

The Toraja people have some of the most complex funeral arrangements in the world.  For them, a funeral is a great celebration of life, much like a going-away party, and is an occasion in which the entire family of the deceased, and all the members of the village take part. During their lives, they work extremely hard to accumulate wealth. But unlike in the West, they don’t save their money to buy consumer goods, rather they save for a good send-off in death.

This was a funeral unlike one I’d ever attended. No-one was crying,  Tea and food were served by the family of the deceased. People danced and exchanged cigarettes. Teenagers huddled in groups and took selfies.

The next morning we were invited to the formal funeral ceremony. Rather than being mere spectators we were asked to join the funeral procession before being advised: “you’ll get better pictures from over here”.

This was the best-organised community event I’d ever been to – but there were no signs of any community organisers.

The community itself was self-managed and autonomous – and free of professionals. 

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The Problem With Professionals

The UK social sector is hooked on a deficit model. A model that believes that communities are best served by people in positions of authority administering services on their behalf.

It’s a transactional, rather than a relational model.  Services are rationed according to need, with those capable of ‘looking after themselves’ left to their own devices, as if it has been designed by accountants.

Paternalism exists — we are always hearing talk about ‘turning people’s lives around’ and protecting ‘the neediest and vulnerable’, a phrase that’s used endlessly.

We focus uniquely on what’s wrong rather than seeking out the skills and inventiveness of local communities.

Proponents of this system will tell you that this works, that this is efficient, it avoids over supplying to those who don’t need it. Digital self-service is the way forward, so don’t give anyone access to a human if you can avoid it.

I frequently attend conferences and hear senior executives opine that we should be more like Apple or Amazon. As if a new iPhone every year is the pinnacle of self-actualization.

This rationed model – mostly unchanged for nearly 100 years -is demonstrably failing.

We are seeing an increase in the number of people experiencing chronic and severe loneliness, there is a sense of alienation and mistrust across communities. The past model is unfit for the challenges of the future.

The answer lies not in more professionals, more experts to be listened to. This exclusive club, populated by those in the know, who are using their exclusive access to design services on behalf of others is part of the problem.

The way forward for the social sector isn’t to be more professional – it’s the exact opposite. We need to transform our organisations to reconnect with our roots and cede power to those closest to the problem. Social purpose organisations need to be rebuilt around the dignity of people, with a modern sense of trust, solidarity, and compassion, not just focused on efficiencies and being strong and stable. 

A Tana Toraja funeral can go on for days, involving hundreds, sometimes thousands, of members of the community.  If big consultancy firms got their hands on it and ran it through a lean processing review they could probably get it down to a few hours.

Cry, bury the dead and get back to work. 

You don’t strengthen communities with a business plan and you don’t build trust with spreadsheets.

Alternative networks and platforms are gathering pace and are challenging the traditional role of our institutions.

For the sake of our future community we should not try and halt this disruption – we should embrace it.


 

 

You can learn more about the Tana Toraja people in the Grayson Perry Rites of Passage series.

Even better – why not go yourself? I can recommend this as a truly amazing place to visit – here’s a link to the webpage of our local guide Daud Rapa who also offers accommodation options at his home. Thanks Daud! 

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