Digging into Death with Everyday Activist Annie Bolitho

The fear of death follows from the fear of life. A man who lives fully is prepared to die at any time. Mark Twain

Death. It’s a subject I’ve been contemplating a lot lately. Not because I plan to exit this heavenly earth any time soon, but because by contemplating death, I might just be more compelled to live my best life. And it’s more than the old cliché of writing my own eulogy for my funeral. It’s something much, much deeper.

I’m intrigued by death at both a micro and macro level. At a micro level, I want to explore death in relation to my own life and those I love. Amazingly at 56, I’ve been relatively unscathed by it, so I literally have no compass point.  At a macro level, I’m intrigued by the meta-narrative around death, particularly in the Western world, and how the death and funeral industry might cultivate a higher purpose than the relentless pursuit of profit.

I have plenty of questions with very few answers when it comes to death, so I’ve sought out the wise counsel of everyday activist Annie Bolitho who is an End-of-life Educator & Companion and the author of Death: A love project.

I arrive at Annie’s home in Preston Melbourne to be greeted with a warm hug and her infectious smile before being escorted through her thriving garden to her studio. As I survey her abundant crop of vegetables, I can’t help but consider that Annie just might survive for some time, should the apocalypse hit.

She’s transformed her garage into the most exquisite studio and filled it with many cherished items collected over a life-time. As she excuses herself to make tea, I’m taking many photos and wishing I was more adept and creative at iPhone photography. Every single piece clearly has a story of its own.

Annie returns with a pot of golden tea. The tea is a gift from a friend in China who sends it over especially for her to share with clients. It truly is golden and sweetly aromatic and the perfect accompaniment to her homegrown apricots.

Annie sits in front of her desk facing me square on. There’s no barrier between us and I feel quite vulnerable yet excited about what this interview might reveal. It almost feels like my own private end-of-life consultation.

I intend to live forever, or die trying. Groucho Marx

Carolyn: What does an end-of-life educator and companion actually do?
Annie: I bring my skills and experience to people who need someone who’s at ease with their own experiences of death and dying, especially with the reality of suffering. I’ve been through many, many deaths, some expected and some completely out of left field that were extremely traumatic. I know the feelings that come up and I know the practical details you have to think about. I can advise on shrouds, coffins, cemeteries, crematoria and good funeral directors and how different scenarios might play out for example, if you’re a single person with no family compared to someone who has a partner and three daughters. I help people think about stuff they haven’t thought about before and I do it in a way that isn’t confronting.

Carolyn: Do you consider this work your calling and was there a pivotal moment you realised it?
Annie: I’m absolutely clear this is my calling. It’s been a gradual thing though. It’s taken me many experiences to come to a place where I can work in a way that’s helpful to others. From an early age friends were asking me for help as they knew I had first-hand experience. A pivotal year for me, was when I was 20. My best friend was killed in a terrible car accident about eight months before my mother died of cancer and then my father died quite soon after that. I was also in a very serious car accident myself where three people died in my party and nine people died in the other party. And some experiences came later.

Someone has to die in order that the rest of us should value life more. Virginia Woolf

Carolyn: When and how, have you had your calling affirmed?
Annie: Every time I see a client here in this beautiful space, I feel affirmed. The space is full of life and beauty. People come in really hunched over and bowed down yet leave feeling much more alive to the possibilities. A recent example where I felt incredibly fulfilled was at the death-bed of a single man I worked with. I’d worked with him but I hadn’t met his friends and it was only at the palliative care ward that I met them. They were all there, caring for him. Many single people might not ask friends to come forward but they all willingly did it as his sister was sadly not able to get there until after he died. How amazing to see all his friends come together and for it to be such a meaningful experience for everyone.

Carolyn: What’s the most important thing people don’t think about when it comes to death?
Annie: We don’t ever really know when our time of death will come. We can do any amount of putting off thinking about it, but at some point, death is going to come. That’s probably why I do so much education and wrote the book. It helps for people to think about death when they are in good health.

Carolyn: What’s the best way to broach the subject with someone?
Annie: Start lightly and look for a learning moment rather than making it a big thing or saying ‘we must have a conversation about death’. An example might be ‘I just saw this movie/read this article and it really made me think about your situation…’. If you are open to it and pay attention, you’ll notice all sorts of prompts and stimuli to help you start a conversation.

Carolyn: Why do people fear death? Why is it a taboo subject for so many people?
Annie: Everyone is different. Some people don’t fear death. Others do. There are people in between. Think about people who fear getting into a relationship. I think it’s often because they see a relationship as a ‘thing’ rather than a myriad of different experiences. You can’t know what’s going to happen in a relationship. Death is similar. People put it outside themselves and they see it as a ‘thing’ when in fact there is so much life in death. There is also so much death in life. People are incredibly superstitious. We live in a rational world where people think rationally about almost everything except death. So many people believe, even if they would never admit it consciously, that if we think and talk about death, it just might happen.

Carolyn: For people with elderly parents, how would you approach a conversation about death? Annie: There’s a lot of fear between parents and children. The children don’t want to talk about it with their parents because they don’t want them to die and parents don’t want to talk about it because they don’t want to die and they don’t want their children to feel burdened. Broaching the subject of death is sometimes seen as insulting, as if you don’t mind if they die. Whereas, to talk about it, actually is to care. It doesn’t help to go into any conversation uninformed. If you go in looking for an outcome with a sense of seriousness it often puts people’s backs up. That’s not to say that it’s not a complicated field because some people are genuinely set on never talking about it and that becomes a really difficult problem for the kids. Some people also have very complicated families. The number of siblings makes a difference particularly as they will all have different views. I think lightly is the way to go.

Carolyn: What are the benefits for people and families in rethinking death?
Annie: I’ve noticed after people read my book, that people feel better about it. They feel a bit softer, more able to help others who are going through it and also they learn the practical things, that it’s not all about feelings. What you can do? What can’t you do? What’s legal? How much does stuff cost? How do you work well as a family when death is near? It brings people and families closer together when it’s been discussed but at the same time it can shatter families if it hasn’t.

Carolyn: What’s your vision for the death and funeral industry?
Annie: My vision is not so much for the industry but for the people who will at some time buy the industries services and products. The industry has limitations and some operators are really, really bad but generally I think the individuals who work in the industry have good intentions. The reason I wrote my book was so people can become better informed so they don’t turn up to a funeral director as a complete sucker when the time comes. The industry is largely controlled by large corporates and profit is their bottom line. People need to learn who are the funeral directors who are not the large corporates. If I do go to a large corporate what’s my budget? What do I want? What don’t I want? Otherwise it’s likely people will be taken advantage of. The industry is changing in some ways being driven by consumer demand. They are offering some different products and services but it’s the profit motive that is making them change, it’s not because they want to create a more compassionate system. One of the funeral companies is one of the 100 largest companies in Australia. That’s not going to see them shirking the profit motive, they want to stay there.

It’s at this point that I reflect on my own work in the corporate world and my passion to work with leaders to bring a higher purpose to an organisation. How does a funeral company balance purpose with profit so they are opposite sides of the same coin and not competing motives? I make a mental note to investigate who the big-name CEO’s in the industry are, so I can send them The Purpose Project.

Carolyn: How are people and their deceased loved ones, specifically treated at funeral homes?
Annie: There was a 4 Corners expose last year and it highlighted some dubious practices in the industry.  Without clients knowing, some funeral homes are sending bodies on a long drive to be cremated cheaper in other states. In Victoria, we are protected to a degree because the cemeteries and crematoria are statutory trusts and the government regulates price-setting and quality of service but it’s not the case in other states. To have a higher purpose for employees in this industry, they would need to allow more time in every area of the work. Celebrants and funeral directors need more time with people to be able to support and advise them. At the moment, that time is only available if you buy the expensive packages. It’s hard to do your best when your time is limited. Celebrants for example get so little time to spend with a family to plan a service. That’s where I personally support people and make the greatest difference. I’m the attentive companion that is missing in the lead up to death, during death and post-death.

Note: According to the 4 Corners story, 150,000 people die in Australia each year and it’s a 1.6 billion-dollar industry employing more than 1800 people. Funerals can cost from as little as $1250 to tens of thousands of dollars and many people are open to exploitation at a very vulnerable time and are being coerced into buying products and services they don’t need. It raises a big question. Does the funeral industry even belong in a capitalist shareholding environment?

Carolyn: What are the practical things to consider in planning for end-of-life and death?
Annie: There’s the will which is the legal document to be executed once you die. It can’t be changed unless it is challenged. Then there’s a living will or an Advance Care Directive, which helps you plan what you want to happen if you enter into a long illness and aren’t able to communicate your wishes. This is really important as it allows you to express your values and desires for approaching the end. These things bear quite a lot of thinking and discussion. It might be easier for couples to do it together but it’s often more difficult for those who aren’t partnered.

Carolyn: What advice would you give someone who hasn’t thought about death before? How do they get started?
Annie: Take it gently and consider your self-care. Death is a fascinating topic and I have seen many people become so fascinated to the point of obsession. That can actually have harmful results. What I mean by self-care is to address the subject a bit at a time and ensure it is in context in regard to your own life or family. Don’t jump into the whole topic by reading every book or watching every movie. Just take it gently.

Carolyn: What does the term ‘everyday activist’ mean to you?
Annie: To me it means that standing out has no benefit. We do our work every day because it is needed and we get joy from it at the same time. It’s not about putting ourselves out there as some sort of expert.  We just humbly go about our work.

Carolyn: What’s in the basket that sits at the front door?
Annie: Seeds. I collect and distribute them through Transition Darebin Food Swaps. Death is so much about the final moment, whereas seeds are about new life and growth and potential. You cannot work in this area and not have something that deeply nourishes you and seeds give me that. My seeds have been planted all over Melbourne and it gives me great joy to know that. [At this point Annie pulls out a box of seeds and hands me seeds for a Gold Peruvian Chilli, Calendula and Garlic Chives to plant in my own garden.]

I had seen birth and death but had thought they were different. T.S. Elliot

Carolyn: Death Cafés are a global phenomenon. What are they and are they for everyone?
Annie: Death Cafés are a place for anyone and everyone to drink tea, eat cake and discuss death. The aim is to increase awareness of death to help people make the most of their (finite) lives. To date, 10130 Death Cafés have been held around the globe. The bushfires have had a devastating effect in this country and we’re going to hold a Death Café here in Melbourne for all beings, not just human beings. If readers are keen to find out more about it, it’s best to subscribe to my newsletter.

The time has come to end our interview and let Annie get to her next meeting. As I prepare to leave, I take one final photo of the beautifully framed Ensō circle. In Zen, Ensō is a circle drawn in one or two uninhibited brushstrokes to express a moment when the mind is free to let the body create. It symbolises enlightenment, strength and elegance, all the qualities I know Annie brings to the world and her most important work. It expresses the reality that everything that has a beginning, has its time and its end.

I’m eager to continue exploring death but leave with Annie’s words of caution not to become obsessive, lurking at the back of my mind. I notice I’m feeling lighter and more content than when I’d arrived. As I ride back to the office, I’m most certain that the contemplation of one’s own death is the most sure-fire way to make the most of one’s finite life.

It’s the circle of life, and it moves us all through despair and hope, through faith and love, ‘till we find our place, on the path unwinding. Elton John

Everyday activists are the grassroots people in the world making change one person and one community at a time. They’re not the ones with big names, big pockets and big pulling-power. They’re everyday people following their calling, doing work that matters and taking action every single day to do good for humanity and the planet.

Carolyn Tate is the author of Everyday Activists and The Purpose Project. She’s passionate about bringing purpose and meaning to everyday life for everyday people in the workplace. Find out more about her work on LinkedIn and her website.