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It's time to deal with death

08:00am January 17 2018

To view the full TED Talk by Westpac's Michelle Knox about dealing with death head to TED.com.

To kick the bucket, fall off the perch, bite the dust. These are just some of the euphemisms we use to describe an event we’ll all experience: death.

Yet so many of us don’t want to acknowledge death, let alone plan or discuss it with the most important people in our lives.

But I want us all to talk about death more. If we do, we have a better chance of having a good death and helping survivors experience a healthier bereavement. It is time we started taking ownership of our finale on this earth!

In the past 12 months among my team at work, we’ve lost five parents – including my own father – and a colleague.

This triggered some fairly frank conversations: dealing with government agencies, hospitals, nursing homes, advance care directives, funeral directors, coffins, headstones, headstone wording, headstone font size!

Then there were cultural differences in honouring loved ones. For example, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people follow specific protocols when someone dies, such as not showing photos or saying first names of the deceased.

I did some research and started asking family and friends their thoughts on death and how they’d like to be honoured. I even discovered you can host your own “death over dinner” or “death café”!

I was startled to discover that 45 per cent of people in Australia over the age of 18 do not have a valid will, despite the fact it can be simple and inexpensive.

What many people don’t realise is that laws vary from state to state. In NSW, if you die without leaving a legal will, an administrator is appointed by the Supreme Court, responsible for arranging your funeral, collecting your assets and distributing them after paying any debts and taxes. One of those debts will become the bill for their services – the more complicated your estate, the bigger the bill. When else in your life have you willingly given money to the government when you didn’t have to?
 

Michelle Knox was one of 15 speakers to take to the stage for TED@Westpac, an event held in partnership with the TED Institute.


Then there is corpse disposal. Did you know your body must be legally disposed of? You can’t just be “shoved off a cliff” or “set fire to in the backyard”. In Australia there are three options: burial, cremation or donating your body to science.

The good news for the enviro-conscious is that you can opt for an “eco funeral” and be planted at the base of a tree, in recycled cardboard or a wicker basket. For those who love the ocean there are eco-friendly urns that will dissolve at sea. Or you may choose to go out with a bang, literally… in a firework!

I lost my father in February last year to a progressive lung disease. When Dad knew his death was imminent, he had three clear wishes: he wanted to die at home, be surrounded by family and die peacefully.

I’m pleased to say we helped Dad fulfil his wishes. Although my heart is heavy with loss, it is not heavy with guilt or regret. I knew what Dad wanted and I feel peace knowing I could support his wishes. It showed me just how much of a privilege it is to help someone exit this life in the way they choose.

Including Dad’s, the 10 funerals I’ve been to in the last year have truly run the gamut – from a very solemn Greek Orthodox service, to full Catholic requiem mass, to a garden party where we scattered our friend's ashes around her garden with a soup ladle.

So what do I want? I have a will, I’m a registered organ donor, and I plan to be cremated. Given that I get sea sick I can think of nothing worse than my ashes being flung into a huge ocean swell, so I’ve bought a plot in the rose garden next to my Dad. I call it my investment property (but sadly there is no tax deduction!).

And the send-off? A big party with lots of champagne, colour, laughter and music.

 

This is an edited version of Michelle Knox's TED@Westpac Talk.  To view the full talk, head to TED.com.

For more about about Westpac's partnership with the TED Institute, read Lisa Choi Owen's article What TED's taught us about the power of ideas.


Michelle is a portfolio manager in Westpac’s Finance Transformation team. She is an avid work traveller and story teller, often combining these passions to write witty accounts in a travel blog. Her family describe her as a master delegator and by her own admission she thrives on being organised and planning ahead. With humour and compassion Michelle shares her own experiences in order to help others. She is living proof that talking about death won’t kill you.

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