Zenith Virago: The Walk of Life, Death and Bereavement
The inimitable Zenith Virago is wise, compassionate and just downright passionate about life, death and everything in between. I first encountered her while listening to a Radio National interview, and was disarmed by her candour and courage in working with death, bereavement and grief. I was compelled to learn more about her work at the Natural Death Care Centre in the Byron Shire in New South Wales, and soon found myself signed up to her Deathwalker Training in Sydney, and then officiating funerals in the Southern Highlands. The apparent ease with which Zenith lives her truth is truly inspiring and a testament to just how easy it can be, if only we allow it. And it might take an intimate relationship with death to get us there.
Jess: Can you tell me a little bit about your background? Where did you grow up, what’s your origin story?
Zenith: I grew up in England with a pretty regular family, but one of the interesting things is that my grandfather was the head gravedigger and manager of the Wandsworth Cemetery in South London. Each week as a child, I used to visit my grandparents, we had to walk all the way up through the cemetery to a stone house at the top. So I certainly had a familiarity with cemeteries and graves from when I was very young.
My best friend died when I was 15 and that really impacted me about the randomness of death, and when death comes in the fullness of life. I sat exploring all of that, feeling “Oh well, I could be dead by the weekend.” It took me about 18 months to really work out a whole lot of things about death, which allowed me to have death – particularly sudden death – as a friend and as an asset.
Jess: So you had an early introduction or an early familiarisation with death. Were you drawn to working with death at that particular time, at that young age?
Zenith: No, not at all, not like some people. No, I got married, had children, I went travelling. Then in the early 1980s, as part of the gay subculture, I got caught up in the HIV crisis. Lots of my friends were gay man who contracted HIV, so I spent time with them. Not so much at the moment of death, but during their dying, and it was an amazing learning. Some of them saw the virus as a gift to them. Some were great teachers to me about how people can live a life even while they are dying.
There were lots and lots of lessons in the 80s for me around that, but still I didn’t think that I would be working in that field, not for a second. Then later I worked in law which was great grounding. Then my best friend Sylvia died in the mid-1990s. That took me on a deep journey, and sitting here with you is still part of that journey.
Jess: Just to backtrack a moment. How was it that the people with HIV found it to be a gift?
Zenith: Well, it’s a bit like some people when they get a diagnosis of a disease that is going to kill them. They may feel a sense of relief. They know they have limited time, they’re not going to have to plan for their old age, they can take charge of things and get themselves organised. Some of the guys felt it gave them an opportunity to go deeper into their spirituality where they wouldn’t have said they were spiritual people before. They were able to live with themselves, but they may have been a minority, where most people may say, “Why is this happening to me? Oh my God, I don’t want to die, I’m young.”
Sylvia died suddenly in her garden one morning. I went with her husband that afternoon, by his invitation, to identify her body. When we walked out of the morgue I said, “We could do this, do you want me to find out how to do it?” And we did. A local and generous funeral director told me how to do it – all of paperwork for the procedure. We built a coffin, we drove her in our own car, we did the ceremony and we pushed her into the cremator. That was a good day. That day was my 37th birthday.
Jess: Your 37th birthday? Right on the day. That is symbolic in its own way wasn’t it, like a threshold moment for you?
Zenith: Yes, it certainly was, but life offers us things and we say, “Yes” or “No”. You embrace it or you run away from it. It was a total embracing for me. There were things that led to that moment. Each small thing on its own is just a little incident, but when you put them all together they all lead to one moment, and then everything comes away from that and starts to lead to another. So there were lots of things that allowed me to be that person for that occasion, over a long period of time, but also in the couple of months beforehand. It’s the mystery, the beautiful mystery.
Jess: So can you tell me what some of those things were?
Zenith: Sylvia and I were close friends, she was 50-ish. We went for an adventure to see a local healer, an 80-year-old man named Eric, he was a phenomenon. We spent time together as it was a long drive. When I got there I told him I didn’t have anything wrong, I was just coming with my friend for the experience, for fun.
He responded with, “What I can do for you will make you go really deep.” I said, “Well stop right there, because I don’t know if I want to go deeper.” I sat there for a moment and I thought, “Okay, you’ve come all this way, this guy’s incredible.” I said, “Okay.” Sylvia and I went for three times. We had a great adventure together each month, and then a week after that last visit Sylvia died suddenly and my life went really deep.
Jess: How long after Sylvia’s death did you start with funerals?
Zenith: I did her funeral service three days later. Then shortly after another friend was killed on the highway. She was on a little scooter and a big ute knocked her off the road. Her husband asked me if I would do it for her, which I did.
Then all of a sudden, I got an opportunity to go to India, I managed to raise $5,000 overnight. Soon I found myself up a mountain with the Dalai Lama. I had an experience with him that was so incredible it just completely blew my cellular body apart into a sort of state of ecstasy, bliss. In that moment I thought, “This is amazing.” Then I thought, “I know this feeling, this is my intrinsic nature, this has nothing to do with him, he’s just woken it up. I can have this whenever I want, I just have to remember it!” Once you know something you can’t not know it. Twenty-five years later, I feel like I’m in that state of being a lot of the time. In that absolute state of joy, wonder and bliss while still functioning. But internally it’s a practice for me.
Jess: Grounded mysticism.
Zenith: I don’t know; I don’t need to put a word on it.
Jess: So what happened with the Dalai Lama? You were just in conversation with him?
Zenith: No, he came along and I took his hand, because I thought it’s too good a moment to miss. If I’m anything I am a person who knows a moment when it offers itself. We had a small, light conversation. For anyone who has been in his presence, he brings an incredible quality that is very radiant, you can fall into that or you can see your own reflection.
Jess: Well, that is highly transformative and profound. There must have been a lead up to that?
Zenith: No I wouldn’t say so.
Jess: Not at all?
Zenith: Some people have an experience like that and they see God. Maybe what we see is the meaning of life, your own intrinsic nature, that we’re all loved. It is possible to feel like that. The system doesn’t support that, it doesn’t want people to be joyful and ecstatic. People get locked up for feeling like that, there are lots of people in mental institutions who are just awake. I see so many people in the street who are just the living dead, they are dulled. People who live like that are sometimes in shock, it depends on what culture you grow up in. If you were living in a meditative community then maybe it’s a different experience, but we’re living in the oppressive mainstream.
Jess: Just going back to Sylvia’s death and meeting with the Dalai Lama…
Zenith: Yes… the biggest thing is saying yes to what life offers you. Being in the fullness of life by saying yes rather than no.
Jess: So in response to Sylvia’s death…
Zenith: Well, I felt Sylvia was there saying to me, if I have a handle on it, it will all be alright, we can make this okay. It was sudden, it was shocking. The ceremony was the best it could be, very simple, people felt empowered. I remember the local priest came to the ceremony uninvited, and one of the daughters, the 17-year-old, stood up at the funeral, and told him to go away.
Bereavement is a natural state of loss, but the quality and the experience of it is different for everyone, depending on who you are, your relationship with the person, how they die, their attitude towards death and dying.
Jess: Wow, that’s an empowered 17-year-old!
Zenith: She said, “We are doing this.”
Jess: Why was he there?
Zenith: I don’t know why, I was busy, too many things to sort out. He may have liked Sylvia, she was a great woman and it was a very strong village, but the daughter was reactionary and she was able to say that. I don’t even know if he left or not, I just remember her getting up and saying to him, “You shouldn’t be here.” Who knows what was behind it.
Jess: So when I did the Deathwalker Training with you last year, you talked a lot about healthy bereavement as being part of the Deathwalker process. It sounds like Sylvia’s funeral service was, I guess, a prototype of a healthy bereavement process?
Zenith: It was the absolute best we could create in those circumstances. It was real, it was meaningful and authentic, and it was appropriate for her. Bereavement is a natural state of loss, but the quality and the experience of it is different for everyone, depending on who you are, your relationship with the person, how they die, their attitude towards death and dying. Every bereavement has a different equation.
You can arrive at a funeral that looks like a disaster and you can transform your own feelings into an easier, healthier place to be.
It’s about how the people who are left behind deal with that situation. How empowered they feel in the process before the ceremony, then the ceremony itself, they are the two biggest contributing factors towards bereavement. If you are dealt with harshly and you’re in shock and people don’t allow for that, and you get moved along really fast, then you get a ceremony that doesn’t offer you any wisdom or healing, or some understanding. You are going to find yourself with the body gone, buried or cremated, and you are still in shock. Not only have you not been soothed or cared for, but the shock has been compounded by an insensitive and shocking funeral. Most people have been to a shocking funeral, they know they feel worse when they come out than they did when they went in, because of what happens in that space. But a lot of people can dissolve that because once you have been to a good funeral you see that, in a way, you have to do it for yourself on the inside, it doesn’t matter what what is happening on the outside. So you can arrive at a funeral that looks like a disaster and you can transform your own feelings into an easier, healthier place to be.
Jess: I guess you can experience tensions within families, where one cohort might be conventional traditionalists and the other might be more open to their emotions and are looking for a more expressive service. Have you been in situations where there has been that incompatibility?
Zenith: Yes, often. It’s just different viewpoints. So for me it’s just about acknowledging all of that and trying to get the best outcome where people are generous to each other. To try and see the other person’s point of view. Whether they understand it or not is a different thing, at least you acknowledge it and then it’s about how to integrate that into some mediation or compromise. Sometimes it’s an absolute nightmare, but generally if you are a solutions person rather than a rescuer … sometimes they will come up with their own solution which is ideal, but if not you can make an offering and they can consider it and that might be enough for a solution, but generally you can have everything, you can have it all.
I feel I am a servant to everyone, trying to make it work and not to piss anybody off. Even within the hundreds of people who are there at a ceremony. Even when I didn’t have much experience, I still had very pragmatic approach and that was very useful with those experiences.
Jess: I recently watched an episode of ‘The Moaning of Life’ [hosted by Karl Pilkington], have you heard of that? The host was going to different countries and looking at different conventions around death. One example is in the Philippines where they suspend coffins from the side of a cliff. Another place where the dead body is dressed and propped up and made up and the coffin is bounced around. What are the prevailing funeral conventions in Australian culture and to what extent do you think they could be opened up further?
Zenith: I haven’t seen it; I haven’t had a TV for 25 years. When I first started, I was very concerned about the ceremony itself, the end of that journey, where the body goes and how it’s treated. But over the years I am more interested in what’s most important, and that is how you live and how you die. If you die well, and you’re gracious and generous and people who love you see that and feel that, then it doesn’t matter what comes after that, it is all just a bonus.
We are fascinated by what happens to the body because in a way it’s over there, it’s not about what’s happening on the inside. We can decorate it; we can make it look fun. We all know what it’s like to go to a good funeral, and I put my energy into making the funeral a great funeral. But if I only had the choice to do one thing, it would be to put energy into people dying well. Some 20 years later I found myself with the Dalai Lama again and I asked him a question. I asked, “What can we do so the people we leave behind don’t hurt so much?” He said that the best thing we can do is live a good life because it’s impossible for them to hurt then; it’s so simple.
The conventions we have are often religiously dictated. People will generally have a religious faith and they will look to that for comfort and guidance. There is a whole group of people who don’t have a traditional faith and they are also looking for comfort and for meaning, they are looking to make some sense of it all. They are creating a death style that works for them.
Jess: You just said that if you could focus all your energies to one thing it would be for people to die well. It would be to…
Zenith: Just for people to live well and die well.
Jess: So what does that look like for you? What does living well and dying well look like?
Zenith: Exactly what’s in front of you. I am living my life: I’m having fun, I’m healthy, I am in a currency of generosity, I’m saying yes to what life offers me. I feel I contribute to a better world, I give information and knowledge away with a trust that it will continue to ripple out, it won’t just sit with that one person. Even if it plants a seed with them right now, it might take 20 years to sprout, it’s better than if you don’t plant the seed as there is no chance for it to grow.
We are in a culture that doesn’t respect ageing and death, just like it doesn’t respect women, it doesn’t respect death because the masses think they can beat death, that they can live forever.
And for me it’s about making friends with death, it’s living the reality that I could die at any moment. Up until 56, I said I could die tomorrow but now I say I could die today because the odds are getting narrower! I’m getting closer and closer to death. Either suddenly or expectedly. But looking around here I can see lots of people are oblivious to anything, to any death. Faith and religion should support you. When the chips are down or when something is challenging, faith can be a help or a hindrance. People live as if they are never going to die and a lot of people live with the knowledge they are going to die and they are good with that. We are in a culture that doesn’t respect ageing and death, just like it doesn’t respect women, it doesn’t respect death because the masses think they can beat death, that they can live forever.
Jess: Yes, it’s on its way for all of us…
Zenith: It’s like doctors who instead of saying to someone, “You are dying, what do you want to do with your last period of time? We can make it as pain free and as comfortable as possible.” Instead they say, “We can try this or we can try that.”People look to doctors to get the best advice they can, but they don’t realise that the doctor is probably terrified of death themselves because they can’t fix it, it’s out of their control. Most people’s fears around death are about being out of control, not being able to control it all.
Jess: What might be some of the key or obvious qualities in the students who sign up to the Deathwalker training?
Zenith: There is a curiosity and a sense of enquiry and that might look like many different things. Some people feel they have a deep calling, that they’ve always been interested and they’ve been looking for something meaningful. Some people have become marriage celebrants and they want to do funerals, they want to give the best service they can. There are people who are already in a profession, like social workers, psychotherapists, psychologists, psychiatrists, counsellors, doctors, nurses who want enhance their professional skills, so they can offer more and have a broader understanding to be of more assistance to the people that they work with.
Jess: I remember a topic that we talked about at the Deathwalker Training: the seduction of the profound. I’m curious about this idea and I wonder what draws people to the Deathwalker Training. Perhaps you can only really feel the depth and the meaning and the truth of life if you sit with the reality of death or if you live close to it?
Zenith: Yes, it’s different for everyone, our mundane lives can be exciting or ordinary, but the profound is very seductive, it’s the ecstasy, it’s the bliss. And once you taste it, you think, this is like luxury, I’d love to live like that.
I think extreme sports people get it the best, they want to do something they love, that thrills or satisfies them, but is dangerous. They do it, and if they die doing it, their family accepts they died doing something they love… I have a lot of love and respect for extreme sports people. Some people put their longing away because they can’t take that risk because of their children or whatever.
Jess: It’s interesting that it takes going into those places of depth and meaning to really feel the marrow, to really go into the marrow of existence. Surely there’s a balanced way, where you can sit comfortably within the depths but also sit comfortably within the shallows. I don’t mean shallow in a derogatory kind of way, but in terms of the humdrum.
Zenith: Well, it’s the mundane. Yeah, it’s just what it is. The philosophers often ask, “Is this a dream?” I’m sitting here looking around [in Springett’s Arcade in Bowral, New South Wales] and watching people walking past. It fills me with a fascination and a sort of deep sadness at the same time because so many people seem very unhappy.
I sit in lots of different experiences. When you sit with people who are really alive, even if they are dying, it’s a great teacher. If they are truly alive there is something so captivating about them, about what they see. You can be in the mundane but still be in the profound on the inside. And that’s what you see with people who devote their life to a meditative or contemplating order or religion or spirituality. When you meet that person there is something really lovely about them. Petrea King has that.
Jess: Yes, she lives close by [to Bowral] in Bundanoon.
Zenith: If people are hurt they put protection up, or they’re fearful and find someone who will protect them, or some philosophy that will protect them.
Jess: Where do you begin with all of that? While there is observing of this sort of mindlessness here, there is also a lot of yearning.
Zenith: Yes, people are longing for meaning. Lots of people have a big empty hole inside them and consumerism has now become the latest religion offering to fill people up. You are never going to fill emptiness up by buying new things. If people are happy, then they don’t need that much. And if you’re really happy, then you want everyone to be happy, it’s like when you first fall in love and you want everyone to feel like that.
Jess: One of the key questions that The Soul Spectrum asks is how do people generate meaning for themselves? And what does soul and spirit feel like for each of the people that I speak with. So what does that feel like for you?
Zenith: I think it feels light, easy, rich.
I think being in a human body is one of the most incredible experiences: to be functioning, to experiencing pleasure, to experience sex, love, to be someone, to eat, to lay on the beach in the sun, to swim, to have a hot shower.
Jess: Well that’s great! Do you think you think soul exists?
Zenith: I feel we have something, like an energy, like everything has an energy. A plant has it when it’s alive, it has an energy that is responsive and seeks the sunlight and enjoys the rain. I think our intrinsic nature is not about how we look or what body we’re in, it’s a joy, it’s a deep joy in a way that includes everything. I think being in a human body is one of the most incredible experiences: to be functioning, to experiencing pleasure, to experience sex, love, to be someone, to eat, to lay on the beach in the sun, to swim, to have a hot shower. All those things are incredibly joyful which without a body you wouldn’t experience. Bruce Lipton spent many years pondering why we have bodies and he said it’s because you can’t enjoy chocolate without a body.
Jess: It’s as simple as that!
Zenith: Most people believe when we die something leaves the body and most people take comfort in the belief that something goes somewhere, they may go on to meet people who died before them, they may become part of everything, they may be around, they may be able to talk to them. People even think they control the weather like, “Oh Dad, turn the weather on for us,” they are all comforting beliefs. I don’t know what happens, what exists.
Jess: Who can say.
Zenith: I certainly know when people are in full radiance they are infectious; we all carry that radiance. People get glimpses of that but it closes back down because our environments don’t support that. If everybody felt like that all the time we wouldn’t need all these extra things.
We wouldn’t just be feeding our bodies; we would be feeding our souls. We would have a better work/play balance, and we wouldn’t need all of that money in the bank, we would just be happy.
Jess: In Western cultures in particular there is a death phobia. I don’t really like to use that word ‘phobia’, but there is death…
Jess: Yes, death aversion. In the handful of funerals that I’ve done this year, I really notice for maybe a day afterwards that when I’m having a shower I’m really feeling it: I’m really having a shower; when I’m eating something, I’m really tasting the food…
Zenith: Because you are in the profound.
Jess: It heightens the beauty of life and I wonder if there is that kind of relationship going on in Western culture where being averse to the truth of death means you’re cut off from life. It’s interesting we need to hold death close in order to really live.
Zenith: Yes, and my work has made me lighter and lighter.
Jess: If you hadn’t been drawn to working with death and writing beautiful funerals for people, where would you be right now? Do you think you would still have emerged as a similar Zenith?
Zenith: No. Death has polished me into something beautiful. I had a choice to work in law or to become a real estate agent. I talked to a few people and they said I would hate real estate. I could have made a lot of money. It was just before Byron Bay boomed into a holiday mecca and even people who were real estate agents said I would probably be great but it wouldn’t make me happy. I did law, it was a step I needed to do. I could have been seduced by money and gone somewhere else completely different. I could be wealthy, I could be living in a big house, great view, going on holiday a lot, but I wouldn’t swap my life as it is now for anything.
Jess: Where to from here for you? You’ve evolved into the Deathwalker Training after 25 years or so?
Zenith: The Deathwalker Training is about giving and sharing information, education, experience and wisdom, before the need is there. It felt like I was in crisis control at the bedside, at funerals. I wanted to reach people when they weren’t in a critical situation. The Deathwalker Training has been absolutely fantastic. What I’m looking at next is a body of work about stepping into elder-hood with death as the goal and the outcome, thinking about what I want to do with that time, and how to be the best asset I can to my family, friends, or to the world.
Preparing for death. The Deathwalker Training covers legal, practical, social and spiritual aspects, but really it’s something much deeper, it’s a transmission. Death can come for you any time. That’s what I am thinking about now, it seems the next natural progression. But life … it doesn’t matter what I want or where I might like to go, I’ve learnt enough about my life to know that life will offer me something and that will be where I go. So it might be … actually, I don’t want to be limited by my own imagination. Because if 25 years ago someone said, “This is the person you are going to be and this is what you are going to be doing,” I would have said, “You’ve got the wrong person!” I say YES unless I get a big body NO. So it’s not like I say yes to absolutely everything, but pretty much!
Jess: Yeah, that was crossing my mind. I am inclined to say yes but then…
Zenith: You have to pay attention to your body and listen to it, you have to love your body for that to happen otherwise you see it as an enemy. It’s not going to be an asset to you.
Zenith: Trust in the mystery, the people, trust in the self. I think trust is a big asset and teacher for me.
Jess: Thanks very much, Zenith.
* For more information about the Natural Death Care Centre, please visit www.naturaldeathcarecentre.org
* Photographs courtesy of Hamish Ta-mé. For more information about Hamish, please visit www.shotbyhamish.com
* Interview very kindly transcribed by Alissa Angel