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Christianne Heal
Counselling and Psychotherapy
Cambridge/London

A Different Way with Dying

Funerals don't have to be the grim, dismal affairs they so often are. Opportunities for creative send-offs abound and, according to psychotherapist Christianne Heal, planning them can actually help the bereaved come to terms with their loss.

Heal, a counsellor who runs workshops on death and dying, believes organising an appropriate ceremony can be a way of working through the need to do something for a dead friend or relative. When her mother died earlier this year she put her theory into practice, planning a funeral which she describes as both suitable and honest.

“We wanted a service which would reflect my mother and the person she was, but not to the extent of being dishonest. She had great qualities, but there were things about her which were very annoying too. We wanted to remember her as the whole person she was."

Heal asked her siblings and other family members to write down the things they remembered about their mother, good as well as bad, to be read out at the funeral. She decided, too, that it would be a good idea to arrange the service so that everyone felt involved, which meant rejecting a church as a venue. “We just didn't think the arrangements of benches would be helpful. We wanted to sit around the coffin so my mother was clearly at the centre and so we could all participate,” says Heal.

The funeral parlour at the chapel of rest seemed to be the best available option, so Heal and her family booked that for the service. “It wasn't a place where funerals were held very often but in the end it worked really well. We found a priest who was willing to come along and say mass but who understood that it was for us, and that we wanted to be in charge of what happened.”

The most imaginative aspect of funeral, though, took place at the graveside, when Heal her family released helium-filmed white balloons into the sky. “I bought them the day before from a party shop. Letting them go represented her spirit moving off, and it was a very significant part of the ceremony for me. Lots of people cling on to dead relatives and that's not really healthy in the long term. It's alright to hold on to a person's belongings for a while, of course, but keeping their rooms untouched for years shows you're not living your own life, you're holding on to something that's in the past. Letting off balloons doesn't mean you can let people go any more easily, but it means you can be aware that there's a need to try.”

Encouraging people to plan more imaginative funerals, both for themselves and for their relatives, is just part of Heal’s mission. What she really wants to see is death brought out the closet into the open. “It’s still very much taboo. And I think that as a result people feel very alone and very lonely about death. That's difficult of course, for people who are particularly afraid of death, perhaps because they've been told that they haven't got long to live.”

What these people need, says Heal, is someone to talk to who will understand what they're going through and know how to help and respond. And with that in mind, she and a team of like-minded colleagues have set up the Natural Death Centre, which they hope will become a resource for those interested in the academic study of death and dying, as well as for medical and hospice workers and, of course, ordinary people.

What those who run the centre hope to achieve in the long term is to empower people with the knowledge and information they need to be able to make informed decisions about how and where they want to die. This doesn't necessarily mean giving people the right to practice euthanasia, but it does mean allowing them a choice over whether they spend their last days at home or in hospital, and about whether they are kept alive artificially or not.

Heal believes the objectives of the Natural Death Centre mirror, in many ways, those of the natural birth movement of the 1980s. Before gurus like Sheila Kitzinger and Janet Balaskas appeared on the scene to challenge deeply-held medical myths, people hadn't even begun to explore the possibilities of active birth in low-tech surroundings and with partners present. Today, the movement’s ideals have penetrated through the whole birth network and almost everyone involved will acknowledge the positive benefits they have had.

The same could, Heal believes, be true of the natural death movement. Death needs to be accepted as an inevitability so that people can be given the right to choose how they do it and so the dying itself is not seen as a failure. And if this is true for anyone it is true especially, surely, for Christians: Heal, herself a committed believer, says her own strong sense of an afterlife has always been at the forefront of her work helping people come to terms with the idea of dying.

And although she advocates taking time to think about dying to both believers and non-believers, she admits that those who have faith usually deal with it best. “At least they know that, through the process may be frightening, they will come through. For people who don't have anything, there's just this idea of a void, and many find that difficult to deal with.”

This article originally appeared in The Funeral Director

Christianne Heal’s next Death Workshop is on Saturday 30th October 2021 in Waterbeach near Cambridge

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