“If we don’t own aging we are never going to get it together on death.”
– Zenith Virago
Zenith Virago – Deathwalker extraordinaire!
On browsing Zenith’s website prior to our meeting we noted the title ‘Deathwalker’. Hmmmm. What is a Deathwalker? We couldn’t recall it as a career option in High School. All kinds of images flooded the senses… from the bizarre to the most sacred. Not surprisingly, this lady of intrigue has lived a fascinating life, a life of many ‘moments’ as she prefers to call them. Death for Zenith will merely be one more moment. Read on…
What brought you to Byron Bay?
In the early 1980s, when I was 25, I came to Australia on a working holiday from the UK. I worked in Sydney for five months before hitching to Cairns. I was travelling with another woman and when we got to Grafton this guy in his fifties and of Italian descent says “I’ll take you to see Byron Bay”. It was a magnificent day and yet when we arrived the main carpark and beach were deserted. I took one look at that beach and felt my heart burst open. I couldn’t have imagined anything as beautiful. I carried on hitching to Cairns but thought, one day I’m going to live in that little place. About a year later I agreed to have a baby for a male friend who happened to live in Byron. He wanted to learn some of life’s lessons through having a child and since I believed a child only needed one loving parent, regardless of gender, I was ok with that. I lived here for six months to make sure it was a good idea before we became pregnant. After the birth of my boy, Tane, I left them to live together while I travelled Australia for a short time before returning to live in Byron.
You have become well known for your work in the field of death and dying. What are your thoughts on the aging process?
I love it because it is simple – you are either old or you are dead! It’s really that simple because it is the natural turn of events. If you live long enough you get old. I buried a three year old boy a few weeks ago so I haven’t got much time for people wailing and wanking on, ‘oh, I’m getting old’… it’s like, get a life. You’re alive, you’re healthy, you’re in a great relationship, you live here, you’re not in a war zone, you’re not disabled… hello!
All that stuff about women and aging just contributes to a messy world and women not standing in the fullness of who they are… trying to be something they’re not. I think that goes for both men and women, but because women are the great consumers, they are manipulated more by marketing and media. I feel it is important that we own something on the external. If we don’t own aging we are never going to get it together on death.
Aging is the natural prelude in the general scheme of things. It’s the run up to death, but now we are so busy keeping the body alive at any cost, it is becoming distorted. So if we are going to live a long time …. own it!. Those in their twenties see us in our fifties as old. You are as young as you feel, but the body is always aging. The spirit doesn’t have an age and the mind generally gets better with age because you learn wisdom, you learn kindness and caring… you learn many things, so the mind is actually better with age. You learn to be more honest, you become more discerning, you grow integrity and wisdom. I started what I am doing now at 36… I had this incredible fearlessness and great gusto that got me there. But I couldn’t stand there at the age of 36 and pretend to be wise. I still said yes when the role offered itself because something in me said, well, I’m all there is and all I can do is my best… so I stood there at those funerals with a lot of confidence and a trust that if I was the person standing there, then I was the right person to be there. But now, nearly 20 years later, what I bring is all the learning from the people who have shared their lives and deaths and my own years. Now I do bring wisdom to that experience while continuing to learn and change.
Zenith brings moments of wisdom and humour, artwork by Peta Laurisen
How did you start out as a celebrant for weddings and funerals?
When Sylvia, a dear friend of mine, died suddenly, I went with her husband, Richard, to identify her body at the morgue. At that point I had never seen a dead body. She’s there in the morgue looking big and healthy and I’m thinking she can’t be dead. There were two policemen trying to give us some space, Richard was comforting his distressed daughter, and I stood next to Sylvia and started to stroke her head. I’m saying to myself “Oh my god Sylvia… I can’t believe it”… and as I rested my hand on her head I saw and felt her life force leave her body through my hand, which I’ve never seen since. I watched it, briefly looking over to the others to see if they could see it, but they were all busy. So I thought, I’m not going to miss this moment. It looked like a vapour, like when you are filling up a gas bottle. As we walked out of the room I said to Richard “We could do this ourselves… do you want me to do it… I am sure we can work it out.” In my mind I am thinking wherever Sylvia is, I am sure she’d be ok with me handling her farewell. Because I was in law, and had spent many years organising events like the anti-debutant ball, I felt I could do it. Anyway, Richard gave me the go ahead.
So I got the necessary paperwork and off I went to the courthouse where I found myself arguing with the coroner, then at the hospital I argued for the release of the body. I was like, “Don’t mess with me… I want that body and I want it now.” I thought, you show me the legislation that says I can’t take that body and I won’t… but if not… I’ll be back in 20 minutes. So we took Sylvia’s body home and there was a bunch of women, some of whom were nurses, who washed and dressed her. We built the coffin, people spent time with her and we drove her in our own car to the cemetery where I did the ceremony. As I finished the ceremony and wandered off, I said a big “YES” to myself. That was on my 36th birthday … it was a good day. I went to a party that night and people were asking me how I was, and I explained I was in another realm because my whole life had pivoted in that moment.
A few weeks later I was up a mountain in India with the Dalai Lama, purely by chance, and I was holding his hands when he too asked me how I was. I was speechless. I let him go, turned around and had this massive download of complete bliss. I felt I could’ve died in that moment, but realised it was nothing to do with him. It was my intrinsic nature, and I could have it anytime I liked; but that’s the rub. So I came back after six weeks and people started asking me if I would do funerals for them.
Coincidently, I had come home years before with an application form to be a marriage celebrant because I thought I would be good at it. I wondered where all the freaks went to get married. They want someone who is open to their lifestyle and not going to judge them. So I filled in the form, but that process took a few years and by the time I was accepted I had moved along in life … I was already doing death… assisting people to bury their own dead and navigate the legal system. If I look back now, I can see all those points in my life when I stood up and said yes. It’s very much part of my life … to be the person who stands up, and from that position you can help others stand up and move on.
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 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.
To be continued Tuesday …………………
Zenith’s story with Tane continues on Tuesday 30th August, together with some interesting reading on one of her favourite topics… Sex and Death! If you haven’t already you can simply SIGN UP as a very byron subscriber and receive next week’s posting straight to your inbox.