Lisa Herbert is dying to talk
ABC rural reporter Lisa Herbert has spent a lot of time thinking about death and funerals, and how best to plan for them, having written The Bottom Drawer Book: The After Death Action Plan. The book provides practical information, poses thought-provoking questions and has space for documenting personal wishes and reflections.
Below, Lisa answers questions from the Dying to Talk Discussion Starter. For support in starting the discussion with your loved ones, download it from www.dyingtotalk.org.au
If you had a condition that you could not recover from, what would be important to you, towards the end of your life?
There are two things of importance to me should my days be numbered. I would ensure those closest to me knew I was at peace with mortality and, hopefully, they would be too. My next milestone birthday is 50. For a while I wasn’t looking forward to ageing, but now I understand what a privilege it is. There are many, many women all over the world who don’t make it to 50. If my death comes sooner rather than later, I want my loved ones to know that I’m okay with that, because, with a long list of successes and failures under my belt, I’ve given life a darn good crack.
Organising my own wake would be a priority too! It will be held while I’m alive so I don’t miss out on the fun. It will be outdoors in a paddock somewhere, with a live country music band, fairy lights hanging in the nearby gum trees, and a bar. There will be time for speeches and stories (or are they eulogies?) and there will be a lots of laughter as people recount stories about me. I’m not naive enough to think there won’t be tears as well, but the laughs and the opportunities for thoughtful goodbyes is a nice way to begin the grieving process, for all involved.
Are there any pets that you would like to see or be with you, if this is possible?
I’ve been surrounded my animals all my life so I couldn’t imagine not having animals around me in my last days.
In recent weeks my 14-year-old Jack Russell trotted off to the big kennel in the sky. (Bandit was the inspiration behind the little dog that appears in The Bottom Drawer Book.) I don’t have any other pets, but I do have an affinity for our native wildlife. Hopefully I’ll be able to hear birds chirping or possums scampering over the roof.
Would you prefer a quiet environment or do you prefer activity and chatter around you?
Being outdoors is important to me so I’d rather die in a natural environment, ideally laying on a picnic rug with birds chirping ahead and a soft wind rustling the leaves in nearby trees.
Would you like music to be playing and if so, what style or what music?
If there aren’t any birds or leaves nearby, I’d like to be listening to my iPod which contains all my favourite music. I have many friends in the country music business so their music would be on the playlist. I am also a big Patty Griffin fan. No-one creates a mental image like Patty Griffin does, and her music takes me on quite a journey. There’s a lyric in a song called ‘Mother of God’ that is my favourite; “When I was 18 I moved to Florida like everyone sick of the cold does. And I waited on old people waiting to die, I waited on them until I was.” It’s a song lyric that paints such a dark and dated picture of ageing and dying. I like to think that death needn’t be that way.
If possible would it be important to you to have time outside?
If I couldn’t go outside, I’d want to die much sooner! Much of my life is lived outdoors, I’d like my death to be the same.
Would you prefer to be surrounded by lots of family and friends, or would you prefer one or two closest people to be with you?
I’m a classic example of an introvert, and am very comfortable spending time alone. While I have a couple of wonderful friends who are unlikely to let me die on my lonesome, I’m open to the idea of dying alone.
Are there any cultural or religious practices you would like to observe?
I want to be able to drink as much scotch as I choose. (That’s as cultured as I get!) If I am dying slowly, in pain and without dignity, I would like to ignore any backward legislation that prevents my assisted suicide. It’s my death, it’s my suffering; I want to go on my own terms and a time of my choosing.
Is there anyone particular you would like to see or talk to?
Being a science graduate and forever curious, I’d like to make sure I understand what is happening to me and the physiological processes involved. Therefore, I’d like to speak with a palliative care nurse or doctor. I’d also be keen to document it in a blog, if I was able. Much of my life is spent online, dying would be the same.
I would also speak with medical staff to make sure they’re aware of my advance care plan and that they will follow my advance health directive.
Is there anything else you can think of that you would like?
A natural burial! Death has become so unnatural and the death industry has become so large.
When I die I want to look dead. Don’t sew my lips together because my mouth is open, don’t slide eye caps under my eyelids to give my eyes shape or keep them closed, don’t fill my arteries with preservatives, don’t waste money on a coffin made from a once-glorious tree, and don’t put me under a slab of cement.
There are several Australian cemeteries that offer bushland settings and moves are underway to develop Australia’s first natural burial ground near Armidale in NSW. I’d be happily wrapped in a shroud and buried there, with only a tree marking the spot where I lie.
What is on your bucket list of things you would like to do or achieve before you die?
I rarely leave things for later. If there’s something I really want to do, I make plans to do it. Next year I will be walking the Larapinta Trail, an extraordinary bushwalk west of Alice Springs. It will take three to four weeks to hike the 223km, carrying a 17kg pack. I did some day walks there a couple of months ago and fell in love with what I saw. It might kill me but what a way to go!
How did you feel during the process of completing this form? Was there anything about the process that interested or surprised you?
Having written a book for anyone who wants to influence their own farewell, thinking about this sort of thing is nothing new. Because the first book was so well received, I’m working on a second edition of The Bottom Drawer Book: The After Death Action Plan. Its success proves there are many people keen to help plan their own funeral and who don’t want to leave behind any uncertainty among family and friends.
I regularly receive emails from terminally ill people who want to talk about their death but their families don’t want to hear what they have to say. That makes me sad. But I’m buoyed that, ever so slowly, we are starting to talk about death and dying. And I hope I’m helping that conversation, albeit in a small way.
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