Keeping Our Dead Afloat

Published on, photo by Taylor Shedd/Soundwatch, taken under NMFS MMPA permit #21114

A mother orca’s devotion to her dead calf raises questions about how we humans carry our dead

The internet has been abuzz with news of a mother whale who for a week now, “has been carrying her dead calf on her head in an apparent act of mourning with the help of her group.”

As reported by NPR, The Whale Museum’s Jenny Atkinson says, “The thing that’s amazing about Tahlequah is that she’s … carried this calf hundreds of miles and hundreds of hours at this point, and her family is helping her.”

We humans continue to be astonished at the sentience of other beings; Atkinson says, “The first thing it tells me that is that grief isn’t owned by humans.” Rather than marvel that this grieving orca is “like us,” we might do better to wonder how we ourselves have moved so far from carrying our own dead, keeping them afloat in the ongoing stream of our lives, and counting on the help of our people, our pod, to do this heavy lifting that is more than any one should bear alone. Read More

What We Do vs What We Want: A Lament for What We’ve Lost

click image to watch Kevin Toolis discuss his father’s Irish wake

Death, according to the New York Times, is “having a moment in the sun.” Good news, or troubling?

The June 22 article, “The Positive Death Movement Comes to Life” is one of the most-forwarded links to hit my in-box and social media accounts, often accompanied by words of congratulations or encouragement.

In the midst of all that troubled me in this article (which touts death cafes, death doulas, a DeathLab, and a practice FUN-eral), I couldn’t help but think of the second-most forwarded link in recent months, a BBC video in which author Kevin Toolis talks about his father’s Irish wake, the subject of a book by that name.

“On my father’s island off the coast of Mayo,” Toolis says, “people go to the wakes of their neighbors; they see dead bodies; they touch dead bodies; they take children to those wakes. So even an ordinary life… would have seen 20, 30, 50, sometimes a hundred dead bodies.”

With this full connection to the natural cycle of life and death, the people of this place know What To Do when the dying time comes. They know how to recognize it, and how to respond. Read More

Come of Age: Stephen Jenkinson’s New Book

click image for the video trailer for the book
How we approach death and the dying, how or whether we remember or care for the dead – these questions are inextricably bound up with how we age, or don’t, in the dominant culture of the West – and with the disappearance of elderhood as a skilled function in these times.

I have three cartons of Stephen Jenkinson’s new book in my office pending his appearance in Portland this Fall – but you don’t have to wait. The book is available through your local independent bookseller or the Orphan Wisdom School.

Here’s what early readers have to say:

“This isn’t a book, it’s a kind of divining, the rare breed that can leave the scriber harrowed and the reader blessed.”
—Dr. Martin Shaw, author of Scatterlings: Getting Claimed in the Age of Amnesia Read More

A Night Of Grief & Mystery, Portland Oct 20th

click image to watch a beautiful trailer for the tour

“We’re born to a dangerous time. Consider that affliction or consider that assignment.” ~ Stephen Jenkinson

They are nights in which love letters to life are written and read. There’s some boldness in them. They have that tone. These nights have the mark of our time upon them, and they’ve become timely, urgent, alert, steeped in mortal mystery, quixotic, with some swagger. What would you call such a thing?

Nights of Grief & Mystery. Coming to Portland on Saturday, October 20th.  Purchase ticketsShare on Facebook. Read More

Staring Down Fate

Chris Lucash (d. June 4, 2016) with his family; click image for the trailer to the documentary that tells their story
Watch Staring Down Fate, an important new documentary about mortality and the state of our planet

When Chris Lucash was diagnosed with ALS at the age of 53, he and his wife Alisa and their three young children moved to a community where they and their neighbors could make a place for his dying and death.

A few years earlier, filmmaker Jeff Mittelstadt had begun documenting Chris’ life work. As a federal biologist, Chris had worked for nearly 30 years to reintroduce endangered red wolves into the wild. When he began, zero existed outside of captivity; under his program,  red wolf numbers in the wild rose to about 130 before the program was undercut by political controversy. During those years in the field, Chris was exposed to the toxins of industrial agriculture that may have caused the disease that would claim his life.

The day after his diagnosis, Chris and Alisa and Jeff began to make Staring Down Fate, a feature-length documentary that brings us into the intertwined stories of the endangered red wolf and Chris’ journey towards death.

Read More