“There is a lot to regain about the healing function of everything we do”
Easter is the celebration of the endless cycle of Life-Death-Life and finally the time has come to bring to light this inspiring talk I have been honoured to have with Dutch undertaker Susanne Duijvestein at the beginning of November 2019. All bright and fine energy, Susanne is the founder of susanne bij afscheid where she guides families into crafting beautiful funerals that celebrate the life of the departed one. In this meaningful conversation, Susanne brings us back to our finitude and invites us to learn about the nature of death instead of fighting it.
Does All Saints’ Day mean anything special to you?
Here in The Netherlands, due to secularization, we don’t have this tradition anymore. Instead, it kind of turned into a commercial happening. Shop windows are popularly decorated with pumpkins or colourful calaveras. Some cemeteries open their doors for people to hang out there and light candles, they organise talks, concerts and all sorts of performances. It is definitely comforting for people who have lost someone in the past years. But this celebration is not a Dutch tradition, it is more a cultural appropriation of the Celtic All Hallow’s Eve and the Mexican Día de los Muertos. I have never joined those events because they don’t resonate with me. And it is ironic that we are so intrigued by the Mexican rituals and seem to have forgotten where we come from ourselves. We commercialize something exotic without remembering our own tradition. And more important: without paying any attention to the meaning of the rituals.
This is typical in the Western culture, we feel lost, we don’t know how to find the answer, we are clueless and we start looking for a meaning everywhere except within ourselves. Our generation has travelled the world, we share our experiences, we are inspired by everything, we pick this and that, we mix it all together and we get this new meaning in our daily life but we still can be missing the essence, the true sense of traditions, practices and rituals. It is all about quick experiences rather than the true spiritual and healing meaning of things. In the Dutch funeral culture, the only ritual that remains from the catholic tradition is the lighting of a candle. People do it but most of them have lost the sense of it.
I am not being normative or negative about that because that is not the way to raise consciousness about death rituals. In my work, I always encourage people, even if it is just lighting a candle, I encourage everything. I know it is a journey for everyone. When I reflect on my work, I notice that there is a lot to gain — to regain maybe — about the healing function of everything we do. I am interested in what the stories of our ancestors mean to us in our daily life, how what they have experienced can still resonate within our lives, how we share their stories, tell who they were, our connection with them.
Do people get back to you after some time and share how what you have given them has grown within them?
It has only been two years since I started my activity as an undertaker but I am still in touch with each of the 45 families I have guided. I witness their path from a distance, they often share their experiences and stories with me. They are always thankful for how beautiful the ceremony was. They tell anecdotes, recall old habits of the departed or talk about things they feel guilty about such as not having said something, or have doubts about whether they have been present enough or been a good friend or a good partner. Of course, there are major differences between people: some move on quickly, go back to their daily life and some remain very emotional and don’t know how to deal with their loss. Some are spiritual and some not at all. Some find support by opening up on social media and some find this sentimental. Some change their lives radically and some continue just the way it was.
I am quite concerned about how involved we are, culturally, with people who are coping with their loss and grief. It has been a year, you should move on, get better, get well soon, that is the Western mantra. We are in death denial, we hardly allow ourselves being unhappy — it is really normal to be unhappy, to be sad, to deal with loss and grief, but there is very little space for that. And especially I guess in the professional environment where we feel very uncomfortable to really talk about this with colleagues. I totally understand that it is a difficult topic but we still have to talk about it and offer this space for someone who goes through hard times. Remarkably, I notice people are more and more opening up on social media, it seems to become an area for honesty, beyond the picture-perfect. But I still wonder how those likes and hearts and comments relate to support in real life. Are your friends, colleagues and family members truly concerned about the grief, the missing, the heartbreaking pain of having lost someone? However, we are all responsible for our own emotional health. It is not something we can blame others for. I always encourage the families I guide to not judge friends or relatives who don’t pay much attention to the grieving — it is up to them to make sure they create enough room for their emotions.
How do you deal if a conflict arises within a family because of different approaches to death and funeral practices?
Grief often awakes ugly parts of ourselves because the tension is high, everyone is very emotional and conflicts arise more easily than in normal times. People tend to get into arguments they have had in their youth with their siblings for instance. It is normal that it happens, I just let it be, it is just there. And if it becomes disturbing and impedes major decisions, I discuss it. As a funeral director, I represent this common goal that we are going to have a healing ceremony for everyone in a few days. This helps me facilitate the resolution of the family’s internal discussions.
To which extent planning one’s own funerals makes things easier?
Whether everything has been planned beforehand or not, if the family is inspired and creative then a funeral can be a beautiful healing rite. But I do see a difference if you have shown yourself during your life, if people have known you: if you have always been a mystery or very introverted or sacrificing yourself for others, people didn’t really get the chance to know you and more conflicts or divergences might arise regarding how the funerals should be designed. If you have always expressed who you are, built deep friendships, shared your opinions, it is easier for your loved ones to have this tribute and create a ceremony that represents who you were.
I don’t start presenting options to families, there are thousands of possibilities on the market, you get blown away by the abundance and that doesn’t help at all. What helps is to listen first. Who was your mother? What did she love? What was she passionate about? I ask about meaningful memories, I encourage people to tap into their creativity and find personal ways to share these stories. The fact that I enter the home of the departed one also tells a lot about who that person was, like the style of the decoration. I remember entering the house of an elderly woman who died while she was making strawberry jam. I could see the glass jars ready in the kitchen, the labels handwritten, I felt her love for making this, probably for her children, friends and neighbours. Being aware of everything I see, hear and smell, paying attention to what is not verbally expressed, instantaneously gives me more information about the person than talking with their relatives. Based on that, I make suggestions — Should we gather at this venue? What do you think about a celebration at home? — and the family begins crafting the ceremony they want.
How much time do you spend with the mourning family?
It might happen that I am already involved early when someone is in the terminal phase of an illness and we gather first once or twice to plan things beforehand together. Usually, I spend a whole week preparing the ceremony with the family and some time after the funeral I always check in with them. We reflect on the celebration itself, was it healing for them, were there parts that were not nice or different from what they had imagined. We also share the experiences of that day, how beautifully things went. It has often happened that during a rainy day, suddenly the sun shines at the moment of burying or stepping out of the church. It is very meaningful to re-live those moments, to experience them again, to share them. We also have a conversation about their feelings, how they are dealing with their emotions. A couple of weeks after the death, the emotions have changed, most of the practicalities have been dealt with, the rush is over, the attention peak has passed and people suddenly find themselves facing the new emptiness of their daily lives — especially if they had been intensely taking care of their late relatives. They feel really tired, they don’t know what to do all day, emptiness arises, friends are less present. How are you doing? Do you find it difficult to get out of bed? Are you thinking of going back to work? I advise people to not go back to work too quickly, to keep standing still. Once you are back to your normal routine, it becomes difficult to claim this space for yourself. And nowadays it gets even harder: with the insane rhythm of our world, you will be pushed into that speed. In times of grief, you feel sick and feeling sick is a reason for not going to work as long as is required. Because there is scarcely space for that kind of processes, because we have forgotten our rites of passage, we might feel lost and want to look for quick fixes. But grief is not something you can fix. It takes time.
I recently had a role in an event on the future of death and we discussed on these many initiatives to “cure” death, to make sure we live longer, to fight death with pills. I said that I believe the only thing we have to do now is to embrace death and to learn about its nature instead of fighting it. And indeed, the audience was not enthusiastic about eternal life. A survey was done at the end of the event and I remember that about 90% of the participants said they preferred to just die rather than to live forever. I think embracing death is the most healing thing we have to do, confront ourselves with our temporariness and truly reflect on life and the purpose of life: what do we want to do with our lives? Confronting yourself with your death — I think it is quite healing.
Thank you, Susanne Duijvestein, for sharing with us.