You Only Die Once
TEDtalk held at TEDxVenlo November 20, 2015
Have you ever met a thanatologist? Someone who studies death for a living? Have you ever wondered what someone like that looks like? Well, today is your lucky day… Some think we are a bit weird, or scary even because of what we study. Many assume we are a bunch of depressed or at least depressing people. But I can reassure you we are not! When thanatologists gather the atmosphere is generally quite lively!
I work as a researcher at the Centre for Thanatology, at the Radboud University Nijmegen and my colleagues are all passionate and vibrant people. I have to admit we get excited over unusual things – like finding this awesome grave candle, and imagine what a great day we had when we bought this coffin that normally decorates our office. And besides a morbid sense of humour we are quite happy to discuss morgues, cemeteries, funerals and ashes over lunch. Every two years there is an international conference, the so called DDD – the Death Dying & Disposal conference. An inspiring place to be!
I do most of my research on how we Dutch deal with death. For this I have interviewed a great variety of people – young, old and in between, from all walks of life – on their expectations of death. I have participated in and observed numerous funerals – burial and cremations. I have learned to admire the power, the energy and creativity of people in their dealing with death. I learned a lot from professionals in Dutch funeral care, about their devotion and what dealing with death on a daily basis does to you. In my visits to the crematorium I learned some really interesting things: Did you know that cremating a body – about 90 minutes at almost 900 degrees – does not turn you into ashes? There are still quite some big bones left, so to actually get ashes they are put into a so called cremulator. This picture shows some of our students in front of the DustMaster – model m4000. I wonder who has come up with this brilliant name! Enough about crematoriums for now.
I also learned and I am still learning from my numerous cemetery visits. I am fascinated by the way people continue their bonds with the deceased through material objects: Notes, pictures, flowers, candles, angels and butterflies that are left on recent and old graves. I am captivated by the fact that these very cheap objects – often bought at budget stores – become priceless items once placed on a grave.
You still might think being a death researcher is gloomy and sad. Of course I am touched by people’s grief or by the tragic death of young people. But not a day passes by that I am not impressed or inspired by the people I study. That is what makes being a death researcher so great! Death makes things urgent, it brings hidden feelings to the surface, it makes people express what is most important to them; it makes them find words to tell you what they belief in and what they value most.
I can say death has become a precious part of my life, also of my personal life. I think death is a great educator because it always puts things in perspective.
And I truly hope to make it a precious part of your life too because you only die once! #YODOYou all know you will die, but we don’t know when and how. That is a reality to deal with. But we don’t deal with it. Death always seems to come as a surprise. There is a lot about death that we are simply ignoring. We fear the unknown, we fear the pain. We might talk about when there is public discussion on euthanasia or when you have to decide whether you want to be cremated or buried after you die. But these are conversations on medical and ethical issues, or on financial and practical aspects. Way too often we save talking about death when it is almost or already too late, when death is already staring us in the face. It is a good thing to realize already early on in life that death is hardly ever the end of things: we will all live on after you die. I can’t promise you an afterlife in heaven (or hell) but we do live on in the hearts and minds of the people we have spent our lives with: Do you ever think about how you want to be remembered after you die? What it is that you want to leave behind when you go? What is your legacy?
Now is the time to do it. Life is precious and you only die once!
It is maybe not easy to put death on the agenda. But every second two humans die in this world, every year about 140.000 people die in the Netherlands. So it is happening every day and it will happen to you. So wouldn’t it be better to familiarize yourself with it a bit more. Go and take a walk at any cemetery – not to visit anyone’s grave in particular – but see how bonds between the dead and the living are kept. I could really recommend a family trip to a crematorium or an undertaker. Pay them a visit, not because you have to participate in someone’s funeral but just to see what they do. Ask all the questions you ever wanted to ask! And please bring the kids along! See what a funeral is all about without being part of it. It will make you think, might even inspire you and it will surely spark the conversation about death. Talking about it will make the necessary practical decision making later on a lot easier, and you are able to take more founded decisions.
The internet is full of lists of famous last words and fascinating obituaries. Read one every day. You will find some are illuminating, some are silly or simply funny. But it can make you think about your own last words. What last thoughts would you like to share with the people you love? Wouldn’t that be an interesting thing to think and talk about?
I cannot tell you what legacy you should leave behind. It is all about you and your life – It is your personal journey to make. But know that we are not hopeless nor helpless when it comes to death. Make it a part of your life, take your death serious, take your legacy serious!
Like we are familiar with the given that we only live once and therefore should live our lives to the fullest, the same goes for death – you only die once – so you better make the best of it. And the good news is you can start today, because it is up to you!
The video of the talk will be available soon!
The day started with a nice article in our regional newspaper (in Dutch):