This article was published in issue #6 of Earthwise Women, June-August 1997.
Caroline was a dear friend, and I am grateful to others of my friends, Sue & Carole Ann, for permission to share this moving account of her life & death.

TAKING CONTROL IN LIFE AND IN DEATH


by Sue Eltahir

Many people are taking control over various aspects of their lives, rather than leaving it up to others to prescribe how things should be done. These people are using their intuition and recognising their own needs in areas of life such as creating self employment, trading in Local Exchange Trading Systems (LETS), being owner-builders, having home births and in home schooling. People are also taking charge of their death and dying process. The following is my personal reflection on a funeral and burial that took place at the home of a friend.

Caroline, an Earthwise Woman friend of mine, died earlier this year. (March 1997) It was expected, as she had battled with cancer for some time, but she was only thirty three years old! The funeral was one of the few I have been to that I could say was wonderful and that truly reflected on the spirit of the person who had died.

The funeral was at Caroline’s 20 acre property near Mannum. She had turned what was once a bare block into a productive piece of land, with an area of native bushland, an extensive nursery of native and edible plants and a permaculture garden with winding paths through raised beds of vegetables, flowers and fruit trees. This transformation had been brought about by lots of hard work, sweat and tears.

As we arrived at the house, an impressive hand-made building with stone walls below a steep timber A-framed roof, we heard Frank Zappa music playing and saw a crowd of people milling outside. Caroline had built the house largely by herself, carting rock, making stained glass windows, collecting secondhand materials and lovingly and painstakingly putting it all together.

We walked in and noticed the newer developments, as we would on any other visit. The slate floor was down, the bathroom all tiled and completed and the kitchen had moved position again. After hugging Caroline’s mother who had tears streaming down her face, we saw the coffin in the house, a simple box adorned with two simple flower arrangements.

They reminded me of the flowers Caroline had worn in her hair at a winter solstice party we had been to. She looked so happy that night, dressed in a flowering gown, her eyes sparkling, a huge smile, and her long, thick, wavy hair haloed with flowers.

We climbed the stairs, which weren't there last visit, to the timber lined sleeping loft with its sloping walls. Walking through the glass doors and on to a balcony, the trees and greenery below could be seen, contrasting with the surrounding bare paddocks. More and more people were arriving.

I remembered when I first met Caroline five years before, on our Permaculture Design Course. It was a nine day residential course and ten or twelve of us had slept in the loft of a barn on mattresses on the floor We had exchanged our life stories and had very little sleep, laughing and joking into the early hours nearly every night.

After a while we were asked to gather around the grave site, a short distance from the house, as Caroline was to be buried on her own property. We waited silently around the deep hole that had been dug by her brother and friends the day before. A jackhammer had been needed to get through the limestone underlying the few centimetres of topsoil.

We could still hear the music in the distance. As we stood quietly encircling the grave, the music stopped, and in the silence the coffin was brought out, carried by its green handles. Caroline’s brother, four other mates and her best friend and soul-mate Suzie, gently lowered the coffin into the ground using multi-coloured straps.

The silence was broken by Caroline’s younger sister, with words she read from a silver covered book of rainbow coloured pages. She told some childhood stories and then in the present tense described Caroline’s belief in reincarnation and how her spirit was with us now. Her brother followed with an emotional few words. Then Suzie struggled to get her heartfelt words out from the fluoro pink paper they were written on. She spoke of the special friendship she had shared with Caroline and had difficulty keeping the tears back enough to get the words out, as she stood at the end of the grave wearing a brightly patterned shirt, pink tights and rose coloured glasses.

I remembered Caroline and I were wearing colourfully patterned sarongs attached to our arms as wings and flapping around. We were parrots in a concert skit and we were trying so hard to make parrot calls, flap our wings and deposit stones which were our droppings, without laughing hysterically and destroying the play.

Suzie was supported in her grief by a hug from a friend, Bob, who then went on to speak of Caroline’s love for people and the earth.

We were then asked to stand in silence and listen to the natural world, becoming connected and in touch with the earth and with Caroline’s spirit. We felt centred and calm.

Each person was invited to write something using the pencils and many slips of recycled paper that were provided. It was a note to Caroline, a memory of good times, a thought or a feeling. People stood or sat, they thought, they remembered, they smiled and they cried. It was a release.

The words of John Lennon’s ‘Imagine’ wafted down to us from the house as these notes were thrown in on top of the coffin, followed by a handful of compost. Caroline loved getting her hands into compost and a large pile of compost was mounded up behind the grave for us to get our hands into.

As some friends continued to cover Caroline’s coffin with compost and put in plants around the grave, others moved over to an area set aside for tree planting, after choosing a tree seedling to plant from the nursery. We experienced the difficulties Caroline had experienced planting trees in this harsh environment, as we picked and poked our way through the rock and the hard dry earth. We shared picks and spades and assisted each other with mulch and watering and felt a shared spirit of community and of caring for the earth. We were continuing Caroline’s work.

I remember how Caroline had bucketed water, carrying it down to the bottom end of her block to keep young trees alive in the early days before the drip irrigation was put in.

About 150 people attended the funeral, an indication of the many hearts Caroline had touched. She had died only about 40 hours before, so with little notice it was amazing to see so many people involved in this wonderful, uplifting experience.

I found out later that after Caroline died her body was left in the hospital bed overnight and the next day her mother and sister had washed her and wrapped her in silk they had brought back from travels in India. She was placed in the silk-lined coffin by her mother and sister, with her head on a silk pillow. Caroline’s brother had made the coffin himself.

This was Caroline’s funeral. There was no taking away of the body, no funeral director, no church or chapel, no cemetery or crematorium; only family and friends assisting Caroline in her final connection with the earth on the land she had been custodian of for the last ten years. She had turned the land into an oasis in the desert and the place is all the more special now, being the resting place of her physical body.

I left feeling pleased that she had been buried in keeping with her ethics and beliefs and that her family and friends had carried on her spirit of independence and self reliance. It was the way she would have wanted it. Before she died Caroline’s family had discussed with her the possibility of being buried on her own land and she said “Good! We’ll get them to plant trees!” With over 200 trees getting into the ground that day, I’m sure she would have been pleased.

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