My close friend Lawrie had a misspent youth; in fact it was said to his face: ‘You’ve got a lot of teeth for a cheeky c*nt’, and it was true. By the time I met him he had mellowed a lot, but he still had his rocket launcher.
One of nature’s engineers, Lawrie had gone to school to eat his lunch, but he had learned elsewhere by asking himself questions like: ‘What happens if I put that in there?’ He also liked things that exploded. He had a quality collection of weapons. So it was fairly understandable that he would build himself a rocket launcher out of bits and pieces of crap from hardware stores and people’s left overs. He said he just wanted to see if he could do it, but I suspect his other motive was protecting his cannabis plantation. This was a serious piece of kit, I mean, a bring-down-a-helicopter piece of kit. Whenever Lawrie fired it, there was a Police investigation into the lights and bangs in the night sky. Lawrie leads a charmed life, that boy. I have seen the thing. It is made of plastic pipe and papier mache, would you believe, but its wiring is amazingly sophisticated.
Which brings me to Darren. Darren helped with the wiring. Darren was Lawrie’s mentor, and inspiration. Older, stocky, bearded, indestructible, a talented artist and a ferocious intellect. He was I guess a redneck environmentalist, a very local entity, who lived in a house he built himself in the deep countryside. I never met him. He died of cancer, and it was Lawrie’s great grief that he was not a part of that. Darren’s new partner had no time for Darren’s old crew. Lawrie was shut out.
Lawrie wanted to farewell Darren in his own way. He got the bros together and a party was held in the wilderness near Darren’s house. All day, while everyone else drank and smoked, Lawrie built the rockets, putting into each of the nine, the ashes of his friend and mentor. He had buried the hatchet with Darren’s partner. It took some negotiation and was good for both of them. I was invited to this party, and I knew no one except Lawrie himself. So I walked with the women down to the river. They talked about Darren. He was a man of influence. Everyone had a story, and it all went back to Darren’s wisdom, creativity and generosity. He was above all a teacher, of life and skills. The younger people all had learned from him a piece of practical wisdom, whether it be hunting or painting or the evils of Government intervention. He was truly missed. I say this without irony – we may never see his like again. Darren was a true rugged individualist and there is less and less space for such people.
That night, with friends and family gathered in the wilderness, Lawrie fired off all nine rockets, each containing Darren’s ashes. The sky lit up. There was even a sonic boom. Birds shrieked and flew. After the mighty sound receded, and the cheers died away, there was the sweetest silence. Lawrie then gave one of the briefest and most reverent eulogies I have heard. He said this:
‘Darren’s ashes will go into the river and the river will go into the sea’.
And so it was.
I spend a bit of time in cemeteries. Perhaps that is why I noticed two recent minor news stories that were televised here, about death, grief and reverence.
The first was about the headstone of the grave of James Kingi, member of the Mongrel Mob gang. There had been objections to the city council about this headstone, which carried Mongrel Mob insignia. A woman whose relative was buried next to James felt the headstone was offensive. The council was considering a bylaw against offensive headstones.
Well, as a keen cemetery walker I could get offended about quite a few things. I could get offended about gravesites I consider tasteless or unfortunate. I could also consider the tightly held norms of the headstones – how men are remembered for their hobbies and women for their relationships, how religious sentiment (safe in the arms of the Lord) has given way to a more individualized and personal placement of toys, flowers and photos, how cultural diversity is expressed.
The other story was about the funeral of a young man called Troy Kahui. His friends showed the proper respect by doing burnouts in their cars outside the funeral home. Police were called and the young friends were arrested for endangering the public. Troy's mother, not a car enthusiast herself, was disappointed with the Police response. She felt his friends were giving him the sendoff he would have wanted. She was right.
What is reverence? It is one of the most mysterious and beautiful virtues, and one of my favourites. Reverence is full of surprises. It hides in plain sight. It is wonderfully accessible and yet often missed.
A definition comes from The Virtues Project:
'An awareness of the sacredness of life. Living with wonder and faith. Having a routine of reflection'.
In our society public grief is very limited, if you want to be socially acceptable. And we have little sense of the liminal - few rites of passage for example. So we can undergo our death rituals with not even a sniff of reverence, and we barely notice.
A young man dies of cancer. His funeral is large, as they usually are for the young, and mostly the preserve of the family. Lots of aunts, lots of hugs, little cousins, sandwiches, the crematorium booked for an hour and the next funeral party waiting as everyone leaves. At the 'after party' some uncles get ridiculously drunk, and there are more little cousins twirling in their fairy dresses.
Blessed reverence comes to his friends the next night. They meet up more or less accidentally. They light a fire on the beach where he used to surf. They smoke probably too much pot and cry more than they expect. They talk about him, only a little, but they feel his life as it streamed through their lives, and they feel it streaming still.
Ash was our half mad half grown kitten. Our dog Tigger found him on the street and played with him for a bit. Days later, he turned up at our place and Tigger invited him in. We failed to find his original owner, and so he stayed. He was part Abyssinian, and part moggy, and preternaturally bright. He wrecked our carpet and kept us up at night. He was a wanderer, and faithless with it. Tigger, however, adored him. They would play together for hours.
We had him only a couple of months. The second time he went missing, it was for days. In the end I rang the city council, and yes they had found him, dead on the side of the road. They take a note of the dead cats they find. I burst into tears and asked to come and get him. The woman on the phone gently and awkwardly explained that I could not come for him, that they didn’t, they umm, they, well, he wasn’t…that I needed to understand…
So there was no body. Nothing to fare well.
We all know how to farewell pets. When I was a child, our next door neighbour’s guinea pig Rusty died while they were away and I was looking after him. Even though he wasn’t ours, we buried him in their yard and laid flowers and said good bye. When my daughter was at kindergarten, Sapphire the kindergarten budgie died and everyone brought a flower for his grave. He was buried with due ceremony at the end of the morning class and the whole community was involved.
For Ash, we just had the memory.
Nevertheless we wanted to say good bye and to show him we cared, to ease his passing to the Happy Hunting Ground, which I now think is in Shamanic terms the Lower World. We dug a hole. We treated it like a grave. I put some food in it, and his brush, and we gathered with some friends. We all wrote on small pieces of paper things we liked about Ash, and we threw them into the hole. We filled in the hole. We sang. We walked away.
We have several graves of beloved pets in our yard, and I count Ash’s as one of them even though his body is not there. We knew him briefly but his life was the whole of his life, and he was worth memorialising. Love to Ash.
Shamanic Services, Rune Readings, Funeral Celebrant & Death Care
There is increasing interest in nature based, uniquely spiritual, individually thought out ceremonies and services for life's transitions and losses.
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Karen Effie is Located in Christchurch
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