A good death is hard to find

Stephen Jenkinson wants his death to be as messy as possible. “But that doesn’t mean gory, with body fluids flowing everywhere,”…

Stephen Jenkinson wants his death to be as messy as possible.

“But that doesn’t mean gory, with body fluids flowing everywhere,” said the palliative caregiver.

He wants it to be more like a messy house, “where there’s a lot of work to do that ain’t been done yet — so let’s get busy.”

The death coach, who holds a Harvard masters in theological studies and a degree from the University of Toronto in social work, came to Whitehorse to give workshops and screen a National Film Board documentary about his work.

On Monday, holed up at Vista Outdoor Learning Centre in a wall tent overlooking Lake Laberge, Jenkinson was recovering from an intensive weekend retreat he’d hosted.

His wife Nathalie Roy led the way to the tent, carrying a big pot of peppermint tea.

And there he was.

Sitting on the bed, a stove gurgling in the corner, the angel of death looked like a cross between a grizzled fur trader and an Afghan freedom fighter in his Pakool.

Look closer, and you’d see two huge silver and turquoise necklaces poking out from under a couple of thin, knotted cotton scarves, which added an element of Parisian poet meets Southwest medicine man to the mix.

As the visitors entered, the first thing Jenkinson did was get off the bed.

“I feel like I’m in a hospital, and not the best place in a hospital either,” he said, settling into a plastic chair.

That’s when he noticed the inchworm.

Crawling up his dark denim sleeve, a translucent green worm was unsuccessfully looking for leaves.

The worm ended up outside.

“Now it might even get to heaven — if things don’t work out for it,” said Jenkinson.

Mr. Death doesn’t think much of heaven.

“The story of heaven starts with the Garden of Eden where it used to be a lot better,” he said.

“But, of course, a woman did something horrible and lost the whole shooting match, so now we’re sitting in the middle of the worst booby prize — a purgatorial soup.

“So the whole point is to get out of here — it’s ‘Beam me up Scotty.’”

That’s why the world is in such a state, said Jenkinson.

No one wants to be here.

“Heaven is one of the most calamitous things we’ve done to the world.”

So what happens to you when you die? said Jenkinson.

It’s a question the Grim Reaper activist asks all the time. And he usually doesn’t get a very satisfactory answer.

Seven out of 10 people usually shrug and say, “That’s it,” he said.

“But if you’re dying and I sit across from you and shrug, that’s an idiot luxury.”

Finding out you’re going to die is like sitting on a glacier 25,000 years ago, he said.

“It’s that kind of remoteness — nobody knows what it’s like to be there with you.”

Our culture’s attitude towards death has to change, “so humanity doesn’t suffer when sitting on the edge of that glacier wrestling the angel that says you’re dying,” he said.

Sitting with someone who’s dying, “you’d think death would be the only show in town,” added Jenkinson.

“I mean what’s more compelling than that?”

But to get there, Jenkinson has to do a heavy selling job.

 “People die almost exactly the way they lived,” he said.

Many keep on going to work as if nothing has changed — except that they only have a few months to live.

“And people would rather talk about their income tax, RRSPs, or who’s going to get that knick knack from Niagara Falls,” he said.

On your deathbed, it’s not the triumphs and corporate takeovers that get remembered — it’s all the menial crap you didn’t get to, said Jenkinson.

It’s called “bad dying.”

And it’s caused by a culture that’s death-o-phobic, he said.

It’s a culture that carts away dead bodies and has strangers prepare them for burial.

So, people aren’t used to touching dead bodies, said Jenkinson.

“They don’t want to pay the grief premium of picking up little Bobby and washing him and re-dressing him and watching his skin change to the colour of plums.”

It’s like handling a newborn, he said. People assume they’re going to do something wrong.

And it gets worse.

Kids aren’t taken to see dying grandparents because parents want them to remember them as healthy. And gawking is considered bad form, said Jenkinson.

“But how else do you learn about death?”

Then there’s the word, lost.

“I lost my father — what does that mean? — Have you ever lost your car keys?” he said.

That’s the cost of getting on with life, the dead person gets lost.

But it shouldn’t be this way.

“It’s like removing the empty chair from the table because it’s too painful. It’s a coping mechanism.”

But that isn’t good death.

Good death isn’t happy or comfortable and it shouldn’t be easy to cope with.

When Jenkinson dies he wants people to weep and wail.

He doesn’t want them to get on with their lives, or say niceties at his funeral.

“People should have to carry the bereaved spouse,” he said.

At funerals people force themselves to laugh and tell funny stories, “a bizarre frivolity.” And there’s often a picture of the deceased glowing with health.

Seldom do you see a picture beside it of the person dying, with their hair all gone from the chemo, said Jenkinson.

“So even their memory gets sanitized.

“And the emcee is talking to the crowd and vice versa, and who isn’t there? — Buddy, lying in the coffin.”

Jenkinson, a self-described subversive, “is trying to grow sanity where there’s a lunatic bramble bush.”

In other words, he’s hoping to reshape how society regards death.

“I am taking on the lunacy of culture one person at a time.”

And to take on the culture, Jenkinson is “sleeping in cultures jaws, and sitting on its inner lip to taste what it tastes — to know more about culture than it knows about itself.”

The metaphor is captivating, but it doesn’t explain how to have a good death.

“It’s fundamental to have a life esthetic,” said Jenkinson.

“Because there is no difference between how you live and how you die.”

Still a little hazy?

“Good death doesn’t end at your last breath,” he added.

“Death is the rest of your life for whoever knew you.”

But how do you have a good death?

Those who are dying are always relieved when people acknowledge it, rather than skirting around the issue, said Jenkinson.

And in this culture of prolonged death where people live hooked up to machines waiting for the next miracle cure, it’s a good idea to be a savvy consumer.

After all, only 50 per cent of cancer treatments work, he said.

Also, get rid of the “idiot euphemisms” for death, like the word lost.

Maybe little Johnny should come see his grandfather breathing through a machine in the hospital.

And putting the dead front and centre at their own funeral, without any smokescreens, would help.

Jenkinson also mentions other cultures where the body is carried around and treated with humanity.

But is that all a good death requires?

It’s hard to pin Jenkinson down.

But then, good death’s not something you can practise, right?

Jenkinson disagrees.

Good death is everyone’s responsibility, he said.

“And good death should begin at the death of all before you — you shouldn’t wait until you’re dying.”

Griefwalker, the NFB film about Jenkinson’ work, is screening at Mt. McIntyre Recreation Centre on Thursday, September 11th at 7 p.m.

Admission is by donation and Jenkinson will be speaking. For more information call 667-7429.