The impermanence of things

On Thursday 8 January, 2015, my beloved Uncle Warwick Stanley Broadhead passed away (1944-2015) on Waiheke Island.

TRB_1851He was amazing. He was mother’s older brother, my Godfather, my teacher, my friend and fellow trouble-maker.

For over 30 years he followed the Tibetan Buddhist teachings in some form, alongside my aunty and mother.  Tarchin Hearn and his partner Mary have been important teachers of his, and his siblings.

In the 90s he had a number of heart attacks (last count was 3 or 4), and a triple by-pass in the early 2000s. My understanding is that his diligence in exploring the dharma, and his health scares, meant Warwick (or Uncle Wow as we called him) was constantly contemplating the dynamic interplay of life, death, suffering and everyday beauty. He talked about this stuff all the time.

H404895_351860668187282_1860153099_ne once told me how exquisite his walk up a set of stairs was. At the time his foot gout was flaring up, which meant he was in a lot of pain. He talked about how this pain made him slow down, which was physically tiresome, but it made him acutely notice his body and each step he took. It was like a walking meditation.

Death scared him, and it offered him hope and wonder. It made him more human; the ripple effects made those around him more human too.When his time to depart this world into the great mystery came, he asked his immediate family and network of creatives to uphold his wishes:

Warwick Stanley Broadhead’s “Wishes For My Funeral”:

Treat my corpse gently.

Do not inject it with formaldehyde or other preservatives.

Perform as much of the funeral as you can dear able bodied ones.

Play only live music, songs or sounds.

Hire a professional mourner, wailer, keener.

Let descriptions be the photographs shown.

Wrap this body in a shroud.

Dress me in white.

Put the Egyptian Afterlife servant with me.

Bury this body no more than 2-3 feet underground.

Plant a Kauri tree on the site.

No headstone.

Wish me well into the deep mystery.”

Lots happened over TRB_2015the 5 days we were with him in his home on Waiheke Island. Meditating and observing his body decay was amazingly transformational. I will never experience the living or the dead in the same way. Ever. It has changed how I look at my living body and those around me. The microbes, and ecosystem of the body is amazing. When we die our body becomes a place for other things to live. Uncle Wow wanted us to observe this. He also wanted us to transform the attachment we had towards him. As the shock and grief oscillated inside me, I began to disassociate “his being” from his corpse. On another level, working through his wishes also meant my relationships with family and his close friends reached  a new level of respect, reverence and appreciation. It was transformational.

I arrived with my wife Riria on day 2 of his passing. WeIMG_0332 (close family and friends) cared for his body by cleansing it with natural oils such as tea tree and coconut. We adorned his whole body with beautiful kawakawa leaf and dressed him in white. We lit incense and burnt oils. We read to him, laughed at him and rested next to him. We had the fans going non-stop. We couldn’t move his body too much, because if we did, things would get messy (if you get my drift).

I realised how industrial the West has become in dealing with the dead. Other than natural disasters, with no time to ‘clean up the mess’, I and those around me are insulated from the decay of humans, and the life it provides other insects.

No formaldehyde mixed with the heat of the Waiheke summer sun, resulted in his body decaying quickly. By day 3 it was only frankincense and myrrh that was most effective in addressing the odour of death.

Uncle Wow wanted his death to be one last offering to us; one last teaching about the impermanence of life and death.

2015-01-15 05.41.44


21 thoughts on “The impermanence of things

  1. Thanks for this offering. I’ve been thinking about impermanence a bit lately. It really is the ultimate prompt for mindfulness in my relationships and living generally. Love

    Liked by 1 person

  2. thank you for this writing and reflection, Alex. My take on some of what you are writing about is our divorce from nature and from many natural functions … ‘the professionalisation’ of life and of death’ …there was a time when the family was the ones who cared for and prepared the body for burial … so what you did for your beloved uncle is reclaim the personalisation, of the washing caring for dressing your dear one for burial.

    Because I am a midwife, I think it is very related to how it is so easy to distance oneself from birth – to ‘hand ourself over’ to … a ‘professional place’ (ie a hospital) for birthing, to a machine, being numbed and removed from what is happening, to operative or surgical delivery instead of birth.

    Anyway … you are also the nephew of a home birth midwife, so you know this!!

    But I think of people like – palliative care nurses who are helping families regain the knowledge of care of the very sick and dying; – people like Te Ru Wharehoka from Parihaka who planned his natural burial in the old way and taught others what to do so they could help others following him … and your family learning through helping your uncle.

    It is wonderful to hear of the learning and inner journey that your uncle has bought about. I think it is big learning, so be gentle and take care of yourself, eh.


    Liked by 2 people

  3. Beautifully written bro, and a great perspective on something many of us choose not to ponder often. Disassociating the memories and love from the bodily remains and using that body to give something back to the earth, whilst still very difficult to process through for those left behind, is a very thoughtful thing to wish for and do.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. That’s deep brah. Your first post is a heartfelt, optimistic and wide-eyed, wonder-filled perspective on your Uncle’s passing and I appreciate it immensely bro.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. This is a wonderful distillation and articulation of five brand new days with Warwick. He corralled us so lovingly into observing/participating in this, his last rite of passage. Your family went to the top of the class for this teaching – the love ,respect and deep humanity you showed for Warwick and everybody else was inspiring. CX


  6. Thanks Alex, It brought back the all too recent passing of my mother at home with most of my siblings and father present. Watching her body shut down over a period of days, and still enjoying her few moments of clarity and even a smile or two gave me the chance to experience and come to terms with her leaving the body behind. It was foreign to”let her die” – such a common cultural reaction- thinking we should or even could – delay the inevitable.
    You uncle sounds like a beautiful person and well–loved.


  7. Beautifully written Alex. Your uncle is an inspiration to me and my life as i slowly die. (not that this is imminent) I hope to go with as much grace as he. Mauriora Vanessa CL


  8. Very thoughtful, moving writing Alex – thanks for sharing. Totally agree with your thoughts on the process of dying and grieving – by ‘sanitising’ it we loose far more than we gain. Your uncle sounds wonderful. Arohanui, Kate


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