“Byron Bay is cutting edge for doing death well. Just as people moved here to do yoga, meditation, and lifestyle, I wanted to continue that into the death.”
– Zenith Virago
Zenith Virago: “…in this moment my whole life changes.”
Your son Tane… you say he has been your biggest lesson …. in what way?
As I mentioned, when Tane was born, he lived with his father while I carried on exploring. I was a serious party girl. When Tane was 13 and a half, his father, Johnny, took his own life. They were living in Brunswick Heads and I was living in Byron. Tane had always known I was his mother, but we were more like friends. I was a Godmother of sorts. On the morning of the day Johnny died I was having breakfast with friends when I received a call to say what had happened and could I get to his house before Tane got home from school. By the time we got to Brunswick, Tane was sitting in the garden next to his father’s body. He looked at me and said ‘am I coming with you?’ In that moment I said, “Yes”. I looked at the boy, I looked at his father’s body and I looked to the heavens and thought, in this moment my whole life changes.
By then I had been doing death for five years so I understood. So we lived together and he behaved appallingly … thrashing around in grief. For every one of his bad actions, I would react …. badly. I learnt much about myself in this warzone, such as apologising and taking time to understand. I finally realised, via a Brandon Bay session, that all the things driving me mad about him were all the things I loved. I just didn’t like them from a parent’s perspective.
So I told him he would have to move out because I was all he had and he was going to destroy it. He would be better off living with someone else …. and he got it. He was 16 when he moved in with a family in Ocean Shores. They loved him and he loved them … they were perfect for him. Immediately we went back to being friends and we agreed to always be truthful with one another. I’m pretty passionate about Truth.
Above: A moment – a light candle, a few words of intention, deepening into stillness
Below: Zenith and Tane’s story was featured in the SMH Good Weekend magazine;
The Natural Death Centre is a not-for-profit organisation Zenith established in Australia
We noticed on your website you quote the words of the Dalai Lama ‘Kindness is my religion”. Is that true for you also?
Yes. You can’t go wrong with kindness. But beyond kindness is tenderness. I’m a sucker for kindness but tenderness is my undoing. The other day I parked my car and this woman gave me a serve. I just stood there and let her give it to me. When she had finished I turned around and there was a friend of mine who said ‘do you want a cuddle?’ He took me into his arms and I just let it all wash away. That simple act was not only kind it was really tender.
You co-wrote the book ’The Intimacy of Death and Dying’ with Claire Leimbach and Trypheyna McShane …. how did that come about and what has it meant for you?
I knew Claire already, and Trypheyna was a friend of hers. I knew I had a book in me, but I would rather be swimming and I didn’t want to develop RSI. Anyway, Claire spoke to the publisher and they expressed interest. We got a few chapters together and they gave it the go ahead. So we wrote that book knowing it was going to be published. This book has been a key for me. Being an author helped give me legitimacy in what I do.
You recently spoke at the Byron Bay Sex Conference on the connection between sex and death. What was your message?
My premise was ‘If orgasm is the small death, is death the total orgasm?’ In some cultures sex is the practice for death. In our culture we think or say ‘I’m coming’. But in some cultures e.g. Chile and Japan, they think and say ‘I’m going’. So when we think orgasm, we think of coming, which is a retracting or moving within focus, whereas the going is an expanding or moving out focus. So at the conference I got everyone to imagine that in the room… and it was a very different experience.
When someone is dying I see them with their arms outstretched, walking (going) towards death with all their family and friends holding them, supporting them, and I am walking behind them all. Then the person dies, and we walk a bit further, and then I drop away and they keep walking back into their communities. And someone may say to them ‘oh I heard your mum died’ and they say ‘yeah, and it was the most amazing experience of my life’. Because the thing that offers the most comfort is that something lives on, something leaves the body but lives on. That’s all the comfort you can find (in death), apart from somebody’s had a good life.
So I see that sex is the practice for death because it takes you out of the body… it’s totally about expansion. And I’m blessed to be sitting with people who are dying, having these experiences that are totally sublime, totally expansive.
The many faces of Zenith… a time to express and a time to go within.
Does Byron support you as a celebrant?
Byron Bay totally supports me to be this person. It has always supported me. Firstly I had a day job in law, then I was the co-ordinator of the Legal Centre, then the co-ordinator of The Byron Community Centre, but then I got so busy because Byron became the place to get married and I was one of only two celebrants. One day I did five weddings. I didn’t want to be that busy, so I gave up my day job and committed to being a celebrant. I haven’t advertised for ten years… but I always have enough work. It completely works… and when it doesn’t work I won’t be able to do it… so I trust in that.
Tell us about The Natural Death Centre you have established.
It’s a not for profit organisation as I feel it gives it credibility. People can be very distrustful of anything to do with death… like funeral directors and the clergy. It has become a portal on the web for people globally to contact me and often I direct them on to someone else in Australia. Sometimes I will talk for 20 minutes to support them in their journey towards death. I don’t know these people but the service gives them understanding, kindness, awareness and a sense of normality. I just respond to their request for help and it has become a community resource.
Byron Bay is cutting edge for doing death well. Just as people moved here to do yoga, meditation, and lifestyle, I wanted to continue that into the death. It’s about doing the inner journey well, doing the outer journey well, making responsible decisions about medication, embracing spirituality rather than dogma and doing funerals in a different way… open air, open coffin, transporting it in your own car, burying on private land … all these things are legal. It’s a return to the traditional, before the funeral industry got a handle on it, and before medicine became prolong life at all cost. It’s about having a population that isn’t afraid of death…imagine that for a minute… people being open to death in their way of living. It doesn’t mean people will behave badly, it just means they are uncontrollable. Of course that threatens the power base of religions, medicine and politicians.
You have also instigated The Annual Day of the Dead on the 2nd Sunday of November. Could you tell us about that?
This is my contribution to cultural change. We are confined by our cultural input. In South America they go to the cemetery and celebrate… they laugh, dance and take food because it’s part of their culture to celebrate death. We don’t have that. We have Remembrance Day, which is very dismal. Death here is either religious or war based. My strongest motivation was for women who had had stillborn babies and didn’t have the chance to acknowledge the child’s death. I knew there was a need but I didn’t realise how big it was. The first year I got all my friends to come along with tea and cakes.
This year will be the fifth and it will be called The Carnival of the Dead. On Friday 11.11.11 (11th Nov 2011) there will be a dance party at the Civic Hall called Dying to Dance. We will make a shrine and there will be dancers and ‘Ali Baba’ musicians. Then on the weekend there will be an art exhibition called Death, A Dying Art which will have coffins, shrouds, shrines and cakes. The artists include John Dahlsen and James Guppy. Sunday will be the Day of the Dead as usual!
Above: Zenith with vb’s Prue Mitchell
Below: Zenith’s favourite cups bought in her overseas travels were perfect for our Byron Muffin Men morning tea
And what we say is…
To sit with Zenith is to slow down, be still and listen; dropping into a space that allows. With many years of accommodating death, is it any wonder she exudes such a heartfelt and expansive presence. And we laughed … a lot. It was a little embarrassing to move from a beautiful Ahhhh sharing to our lightweight ‘Byron Questions’. Thanks Zenith for being so gracious and for defining ‘Deathwalker’ for our career guidance people out there. It was a privilege to share in your wisdom.
THE BYRON QUESTIONS
1. Fave café in Byron Shire
Different ones for different reasons.
2. Fave thing to do in Byron Shire
To swim between Wategos and The Pass.
3. Any one person that has inspired and influenced you?
Norma Forest. She is the lady that wears all the colours. She is 83 and when she was in her 70s I saw her cycling along with no hands. She is a radiant being.
4. What would we find you doing on a typical Saturday morning?
5. What is your fave blog or website?
6. Do you have a fave shop or place in Byron?
I’m not a consumer. The Salvation Army Op-Shop in Byron Industrial Estate.
7. Your tip for a visitor to Byron Bay
To sit in silence with eyes wide open.