Making a Documentary about Death and Dying
"To die will be an awfully big adventure". Peter Pan
Peter Pan's jocund attitude toward death seems rather imperceptive in light of the bleak and tenebrous reality of what it means to die. Yet perhaps most of us wish we too held such a blithe disposition toward death and dying. What is your greatest fear? Is it not death?
For most of us the thought of a tomorrow that never comes is purely too depressing to even fathom. For those of us leading our hectic day to day lives, with hopes and dreams for our futures, with projects and goals that have yet to be attained, with children we want to have or raise, with countries we want to visit and explore, for a life we want to live, we desperately rely on tomorrow.
We need tomorrow, and the day after that, and the day after that one, and the day after that as well, and so on. You get the idea. But if tomorrow doesn't come, what then? Or what if your tomorrows are numbered, when you live with the knowledge that there may only be very few of them left?
A year ago I decided to make a documentary about death. I held the idea in my mind for several weeks before committing myself to it. I let it marinate there inside my head to see if the notion would flavor and expand. Many times I decided it was too much of an illimitable subject. I pushed it away time and again, and endeavored to think up something else. Yet no matter how hard I tried the theme refused to leave my reverie until I finally resolved to take a shot at it.
I told myself that if I could not secure the interviews I needed to make this documentary then I would have no choice but to abandon the idea. To my utter surprise and perhaps slight disdain, the people I reached out to were more than willing to be interviewed and filmed by me. I had no choice, I made the commitment and have been working diligently on this film for a year now.
It appears people do want to talk about death and dying. However in the beginning and sometimes even at present, when people ask me about the film I am working on my reply usually evokes a spell of uncomfortable silence, and perhaps a clearing of the throat, and then a simple "Oh". A few people have looked at me incredulously and said, "Why?" And, "That's so depressing!"
Yet it seems more people are open to the idea rather than against it. Perhaps it is because some of the themes surrounding death are so prominent and in the forefront of our media these days. The right to die debate being one of the most popular, followed closely by the many celebrity suicides and drug overdoses that have pervaded our news broadcasts this year.
In recent news a 29 year old woman by the name of Brittany Maynard decided to take her own life. Diagnosed with terminal brain cancer, she suffered severe and lengthy seizures as well as intense neck and head pain. She knew the pain and seizures would intensify in the days to come, and so she and her husband made the move from northern California to Oregon where it is legal for the terminally ill to take their lives assisted by a physician. Brittany Maynard ingested the lethal drugs provided by her doctor and died the way she intended to, in peace and with dignity.
When I interviewed Michael Irwin aka Dr. Death in the UK this past summer, I asked him how he felt about having the title, Dr. Death, did it bother him? He told me that although his partner and friends were not fond of his famous nick name, he on the other hand wasn't bothered by it at all. In fact for Irwin the more we discuss death the better. He believes death is a final journey that we ought to plan for, something in which we can look forward to. Irwin has accompanied several people to Dignitas in Switzerland, the only assisted-death organization in the world that accepts international patients.
For Irwin the right to die is something we all should strive for. The outdated laws surrounding assisted death ought to be changed. Those that are of sound mind and who wish to end their pain and die with dignity, in most countries, simply cannot, it's illegal. Watching our loved ones suffer needlessly up until they die leaves scars and painful memories that could be avoided. After all do we not treat our own pets more humanely? In 2013 Irwin launched a support group named Die-alogue which will enable people to come together and discuss as well as glean advice about euthanasia. He hopes that people in the clinic will support one another to travel abroad to places such as Dignitas if necessary.
During the same time I was in the UK I had the chance to meet and interview Jon Underwood, founder of the Death Cafe Movement. Death Cafes have spread quickly across North America, Europe, and Australasia. So what exactly is a Death Cafe? To put it simply, a Death Cafe is a place where strangers gather together, drink tea or coffee, eat cake and discuss death. It is not for profit and there are no themed Death Cafes, meaning any topic surrounding death can be discussed. It is also not a form of therapy where people are counselled about death and dying. A Death Cafe is not a support group but rather a discussion group, which is made evident on their website.
I had the privilege to attend a Death Cafe in Ottawa, Canada this year. I ventured there without expectation or so I thought. Yet when I noticed that the first people to arrive were elderly I have to admit I had presumed it would be mostly old folks. However I knew my judgment had been completely miscalculated when I watched the room fill with men and women from every age group, as young as 20.
As I moved from table to table and listened in on the conversations the attendees were having, I discovered that all themes relating to death were discussed. Some of the elderly were concerned about their wills and whether their possessions and property would cause conflict in their families. Middle aged people spoke about what legacy they were leaving behind for their children, not merely materialistically, but what they were teaching their children, the code of ethics they wished to impart and pass on should they die in an untimely way.
For some the experience was a catharsis, as they grieved in front of strangers and shared their stories of who they missed. They spoke about the complexity of grief and how it can be interrupted and deviate, and appear at the most inconvenient of times or the oddest of places. One young woman spoke about the importance of organ donation and how her father died while waiting for a heart transplant.
By the end of the evening the initial hesitancy and reticence that had permeated the room was replaced with loud chatter, laughter and hugs. I was brimming with astonished emotion and gratitude that these once strangers had allowed me to take part and listen in on such intimate discussion. Jon Underwood believes that by engaging with death we can improve life, and that talking about death is both important and too often overlooked. He believes creating a safe environment to discuss death and mortality is invaluable and I would have to agree with him.
Throughout filming I have been privy to the personal stories of others, including those of friends of mine that were willing to discuss a mutual friend's suicide and how it affected them. Grief therapists spoke to me of the terminally ill and the challenges they and their families had to face. One therapist spoke of the tremendous courage she witnessed of terminally ill children, and how she was floored by the wisdom they exhibited at that profound moment in their lives.
Perhaps it is the profundity of death which we fear most, such finality seems obscure in a world that is always changing, evolving and devolving, growing and dying. If death is final then what can life be about? Yet what if the reality that we are experiencing now is not all there is? What if there is life after death? What if there are parallel lives happening simultaneously to the one we are having now?
I traveled to Houma, Louisiana in March of this year to interview Dr. Jeffrey Long, a N.Y. Times bestselling author of Evidence of the Afterlife, the Science of Near Death Experiences. Dr. Long has been researching NDE's for over 20 years and has the largest research internet database of near death experiences. Thousands of people from all over the world have entered their experience on Dr. Long's site. First they must answer a lengthy and detailed questionnaire which is then reviewed by Dr. Long and his peers before it is decided whether or not their experience was indeed a near death.
Through his website and Dr. Long's help I was able to meet and interview a few people about their near death experiences. Many of the stories on his website have striking similarities and this is also true for countries where English is not the primary language. Here we have first hand accounts of people that know what it feels like to die and who were able to come back and relay that information.
Most experience a tunnel and an unimaginable, unearthly white light. Some see dead relatives, some sense a guide or angel with them, or perhaps merely a voice, although that voice is heard and spoken telepathically. Some have life reviews where they are shown every moment in their lives up to when they died. Some are provided with information of future events.
Skeptics have argued that NDEs occur because of anaesthesia or that the bright light phenomenon is attributed to neural noise and as the noise increases it appears as white light increasing, and that if the entire cortex became so noisy, and the cells were firing fast, the entire area would fill with light. Yet these arguments can not be made for those near deaths where the person was completely brain dead, and still came back to relay events that were happening around them, or conversations they had on the "other side".
Whether one accepts the existence of such phenomenon or not, the fact that people want to discuss death remains the same, despite which theme speaks to them most. For some the practicality of death is of utmost importance, as they draw up their wills and plan their funerals. Others are compelled to fight for the right to die with dignity and wish to see laws changed for themselves and loved ones. While still others enjoy pondering the mystery of death and what comes after if anything at all.
Death and dying, is it still a taboo topic? Is it a subject that is evolving or devolving in our society? I asked this question in many of the interviews I conducted, and I heard both responses. For those that believed it was evolving, the argument was that there is so much more information on the matter now, every aspect of death, dying, and grief can be found in bookstores, talk shows and on the internet. This must mean we are becoming more comfortable with talking about it.
For those that felt it was devolving, the argument was that everything in our society speaks out against aging and getting older. One can simply turn on the television or open a magazine and identify with the ads promoting youth and anti-aging. In times past the dead remained in homes before a funeral. Now the dead are removed from our presence expeditiously, and open casket funerals are not in favor with most people anymore.
Yet I cannot help but feel that our discourse of death and dying is somehow evolving. The information I ascertained from those while making this documentary has illustrated a progressiveness of the issues surrounding this topic. Perhaps it is not yet polite dinner conversation but the dialogue is growing and I feel that can only be a good thing.
As the filming part of my documentary comes to a close, I look back on the year I've had and I find myself thinking much like Peter Pan, for me this has been an awfully big adventure and yet the mystery of death remains an esoteric anomaly, one that perhaps should never be explained. One that is meant to be the last ultimate adventure.
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