Zenith Virago has been working alongside death and loss for 25 years. She tells Verandah Magazine that death has been her greatest teacher.
‘I’ve worked with dying people, death and loss for nearly 25 years, it has been an incredible experience, exciting and humbling – my learning has been profound, giving me a deep love and appreciation of the mystery we are all a part of.
I use the term Deathwalker to describe my role. I am walking alongside or accompanying the dying person or the family as they all walk towards death and beyond. It incorporates doula work, which is becoming more common of late. My work is all about empowering the person and the family to die as well as they can, and to have a healthier bereavement.
It wasn’t a career path I was expecting to take, nor did I have a calling like many people who work in this field. Life and death called to me, I said yes, and let it take me on a journey, an adventure, an awakening. As it transpired death has been my greatest teacher. Here’s how it began, since that’s the question people ask me the most.
My life was diverse, rich, full and lots of fun, I was heading for another birthday, something I always celebrated with those I loved and those who loved me. I felt acutely the joy of being alive, healthy and living life on the North Coast. I had been living in Byron and surrounds for nearly 10 years, it had already been an expansive time in so many aspects cialis of my life.
Moving here in the early 80’s as a young woman I, like so many others was attracted to the beauty of the natural environment, the exquisite ocean and the incredible people and close to nature lifestyle.
I was lucky to be part of the vibrant and growing lesbian and gay community, that also meant I had many friends who were living and often dying with HIV/AIDS. It was an epidemic and generally meant a slow decline, watching young vibrant men, age and diminish into old skeletal men, supported by friends, but only some families due to stigma and prejudice.
Like many people who come here, I was beginning a spiritual exploration, quickly I realized I was attracted to people who held a certain quality, a kindness, a stillness, it took me a while to fathom they were all people who had a strong spiritual path, many of whom were Buddhists.
One of those was my dear friend Sylvia Morrow. Sylvia died early one morning in her garden as the result of an embolism. Sylvia was doing a regular yoga practice in the garden, Richard, her husband had gone to the local shop for milk, and her daughter was in the kitchen. They rang my home to let me know. In one sudden and shocking moment, along with all those who loved Sylvia, my life changed.
After my partner came to my Byron office to tell me the news, I drove to be with Richard, and later went with him to the local hospital morgue to formally identify her body. Whilst I was there, as I stroked her head, and had a silent internal conversation with her, expressing my love and my shock…. I became aware of a hazy jet like stream of transparent energy, coming from her head, through my hand, which had come to a gentle rest in its stroking.
In my niaviety I imagined it must be her spirit leaving, I quickly turned to Richard and Sarah, and the two Police people in the room, but they were all occupied… so I decided to just enjoy it, I had never felt anything like it, I guessed it was a magical phenomena, something sacred and profound, in all my time with so many bodies since, I have never experienced anything like that again.
Many of you reading this may have had a similar experience with your family or friends. Death is surreal and so absolutely real all at the same time, it simply brings you right into the present moment, and you have no idea what the next moment may bring.
As we left the morgue after being with her body, it had been my first experience of a dead person, I heard myself say to Richard we could take care of it all ourselves, did he want me to work it all out? He replied that would be great.
On my way home I called into a local funeral director, he told me everything I needed to know to be able to do it ourselves. Then as a group of friends we did do it all, I completed all the legal paperwork, we collected her body and took it home, built a coffin, washed and dressed her, created a ceremony, and at the end pushed her into the cremator ourselves…. that day was my 37th birthday, and the next part of my life working with death, dying and loss had begun.
Soon after, other people asked me to help them out with their dead people, by doing the paperwork, helping them with the after-death care of the person, explaining what their legal and social rights were, how much they could do, or in the case of sudden death how to reclaim the body and work with the trauma, or by creating and delivering a meaningful and appropriate ceremony. It was an incredibly exciting and ground breaking time, like many people I had no formal training, or familiarity with death I felt like an extreme sportsperson doing the very best I could in whatever situation arose. I established a small charity the Natural death Care Centre to work out of and to spread the information.
How we deal with each death can be quite different, it is like an equation. The factors combine to create a response, the factors are things like these…..the circumstances of the death, how you hear the news, your relationship with the person and your familiarity with death.
It became clear quite quickly that most people in this community and then elsewhere only needed a little bit of information, guidance and assistance, and with that help they were very capable. There was no doubt that we were reclaiming our traditional ways of death and afterdeath care. People were able to make decisions, participate as much or as little as they wanted, and when the body had gone, the wonderful part was they felt OK… often they weren’t griefstricken, the being involved had helped them move through the experience in a way that they could feel good about, it was part of their healing. We were all in it together, and some of those death and ceremonies were truly transformational.
It felt as if as a community we were really cutting edge for more natural death and dying practices in Australia…we were simply returning to a more traditional way of end of life practices – we were creating a deathstyle that complimented our more natural lifestyles.
Many of the sudden deaths meant the family were in shock, some even traumatised, especially when someone close had ended their life by killing themselves. Others involved small babies dying at birth or shortly after, some were young children or teenagers, many by misadventure. I was learning on the job – I felt that I could only do my best, and I was all there was. I also felt that I was doing for others what I would want someone to do for me.
People who were dying invited me to come and be with them or their family, to help them plan their dying or death, or to help them plan their funeral. Their most popular opening lines were “I’ve picked the music for the ceremony,” or, “I don’t want it to be sad, I want it to be a celebration.”
This was courageous dying…it was an honour to accompany people in their process, to offer up my legal, practical or spiritual knowledge…this gradually grew in to a large extensive body of work and wisdom, some of these people were incredible teachers for me. I feel now that when I respond, speak or train people, we all come to be of assistance, and I have an embodied learning thanks to them.
To convey to people what is possible, along with many people sharing their personal stories, I co-wrote a book, The Intimacy of Death & Dying, and more recently I was the subject, along with members of our community, of an extraordinary independent documentary, Zen & the Art of Dying. I have now been working in end of life work for nearly 25 years, and teaching for 20 of those.
During that time I kept thinking people would wake up to dying and death and the benefits of exploring, discussing, being prepared and planning, so they could die well. One of the great spin offs was discovering that sex can be a practice for dying, and how the human body is designed not only for life and birth but also for death.
That moment is now here… there are so many books available now, many are personal memoirs by the dying people or the left behind partner, others are full of guidance and tips to help you through the process. There are many stories online and different ways to do death are much easier to find.
For the past 25 years Byron has been leading the way… and I feel we are still at the forefront and have created a hybrid holistic way to do death well, to offer continuous care for our dying, to tend to the bodies of those who have died, creating meaningful and appropriate ceremonies, and experiencing a healthy and natural bereavement.
Many people do not even use a Funeral director at all, with a little guidance and assistance they complete the paperwork and all the body care themselves.
Here are some of the aspects for you to know
( depending which state you live in and the individual circumstances involved), you can:
- Do it ALL yourself, you don’t need a Funeral director,
- Complete all relevant legal forms
- Keep the body cold at home for up to 5 days
- Take the body home after an Autopsy
- Build your own coffin
- Use a cardboard, wicker or bamboo coffin
- Transport the body yourself
- Create and celebrate the ceremony
- Book the crematorium and deliver the body
- Bury on private ground
- Bury in a shroud
- Cremate in a shroud
All of my involvement with so many incredible and courageous people in this community and beyond, who wanted to die as well as they could, those trying to make sense of the unknown and new place they found themselves in, or who wanted to share the best possible experience with their family and friends, so that they entered into an easier bereavement.
For the past five years, I have been travelling nationally and internationally to deliver a body of teachings in a 3 day Deathwalker Training, a comprehensive and exhaustive sharing of my wisdom, knowledge and skills to help people wake up their inherent capacity, enhance their existing skills and knowledge, and ask as many questions as they can think of. These are intimate workshops filled with a mixture of people, most have been looking for something honest and informative for a while.
As I now enter my 60’s, the last part of my life, death can not be far away as I am way past the tipping point of being closer to my death than to my birth, I find myself in the joy of the finite. I feel so very grateful to have lived a long life through all those different and interesting stages.
I find myself, smiling at small things, laughing at absurdity, being more quiet and still, dancing and partying just as fully. Resting in an ease that everyone around me knows what needs to happen should I die suddenly as we have had all the discussions and I have completed all the best paperwork, left clear and loving letters for my family…. My affairs are in order as they say.
But most importantly I have lived my life as best I can, lucky enough to have always loved aging, I have befriended death, letting it walk alongside me, even holding hands like a best friends or a lover, it is as rich as it can be, as I enter my eldership, I am so full of love for my life that I am thinking to put a body of work together about the Integrity of Aging Well and living a meaningful Eldership as we live the end of our lives.
For more information on death, dying and the Deathwalker Trainings in Australia see our website for the Natural Death Care Centre.
Deathwalker, EO Natural Death Care Centre
Zenith Virago : Deathwalker. Celebrant. Author. Trainer. JP.
(+61) 0427 924 310
Transformative Rites of Passage. Weddings & Funerals
Conscious & Integrated End of Life & After Death Care
Deathwalker Trainings: <https://naturaldeathcarecentre.org>
Co-Author of The Intimacy of Death & Dying: <https://naturaldeathcarecentre.org/publications>
Documentary Films: <https://zenandtheartofdying.com> <https://tenderdocumentary.com.au>