Self-described ‘deathwalker’ Zenith Virago co-founded the Natural Death Care Centre in Byron Bay. She is the subject of the new documentary Zen and the Art of Dying.
Bryan Crump: What is a 'natural death'?
Zenith Virago: Really it’s about the care that goes with the death itself or with the ceremony. I think what you have in New Zealand for Māori is very similar to what we’re offering here - family and friends have time with the body and are able during that time to say and feel and just be with.
It’s about being real and travelling a journey with the person, with the body, with family and friends fully, so that when you look back you don’t have regrets about not having enough time or not doing what you needed to do.
Bryan Crump: Why is death so much a part of your life?
Zenith Virago: I think it’s actually part of everybody’s life. I lived in New Zealand before I came to live in Byron Bay and I was very taken with the way that death is such a natural part of life for Māori, in a way, and how the West has lost sight of that – of its natural place in our cycle of life.
Bryan Crump: That experience of bringing the body home to a marae and having the family and loved ones there, why do you think that’s so important? What happens when that happens?
Zenith Virago: If you get an hour at a crematorium with a body in a box and not such a great funeral service, then that can have impacts and implications for bereavement.
But if you can spend time during that period of shock with the body itself, then those feelings can transform and you can start to accept that that person is dead, because you are sitting with the body and you can see it with your very own eyes.
Your brain and your nervous system start to appreciate that the person is dead.
Bryan Crump: Why do you think we have this culture where we take the bodies away and put them in morgues until the funeral?
Zenith Virago: It’s created by the medical industry and the funeral industry and also, to some extent, religions. And some people want someone to take care of everything. They want to just turn up three days later and the body is in the box and someone else is taking care of everything.
But a lot of people don’t.
Bryan Crump: Do you think it’s the fear of the raw experience?
Zenith Virago: I think it’s unfamiliarity. It’s a bit like labelling death ‘taboo’. Death is not taboo. You might as well say breathing is taboo.
But some people find talking about it difficult. I think with the unknown, instead of using the word ‘fear’, if you say people are ‘unfamiliar’ that suddenly changes it.
Fear is omnipresent - we don’t need to feed it, we don’t need to put kindling on it.
If you try and rephrase that – ‘people are unfamiliar’, ‘you might be unfamiliar’… then suddenly it’s a much easier conversation. The language is much more comforting.
As soon as you mention ‘it might be scary’ rather than ‘it might be unfamiliar’ you’re introducing an element that can feed on itself.
Bryan Crump: How does living with death in an open way change the way you live your life?
Zenith Virago: It certainly makes me very alive. I recently was in Paris - sitting in a café there shortly after the guy drove the truck into the people on the promenade in Nice - and I sat there and thought “I could get blown up at any moment, but if that’s what happens I will have no regrets and I am living my life with the awareness of death every day – my own death – whether that’s imminent or far away.”
I encourage everyone to open to that possibility, even for just one cup of tea a day, to sit while you’re having a cup of tea or coffee and think if you were to die tomorrow, or today, whether you’re satisfied with your life. If there’s something you want to do, something you want to say, something you want to change, something you want to begin…
Seize that moment – not with gay abandon, but with a conviction that this is your life. Then when you find yourself dying, even if you’ve got two minutes on the side of the road, you can look back and not be living with regret or longing.
A lot of people are okay about dying because they’ve lived as fully as they can. And that might just be mothering children really well, that might be contributing to a community – it doesn’t mean going to the Grand Canyon or climbing Everest.
It can be a sense of inner contentment, so that when they’re looking at death it’s like ‘Yep, I’m okay with that’.
*This interview has been condensed and edited.