The Big Issue : Edition 504
THEBIGISSUE5–18FEB2016 29 ILLUSTRATIONBYGREGBAKES;ORIGINALPHOTOGRAPHBYMILESSTANDISH WHEN FACING THE END OF IT ALL, WHY NOT DO IT YOUR OWN WAY? The Big Sleep have considered this an option. To be fair, very few of us are Bowie-level artists – I can hardly put my underpants on some mornings – but now he’s hacked a path through what’s acceptable, there’s something to follow. The key, obviously, is not relinquishing control, which admittedly is a whole lot easier if you have a truckload of cash and influence. Bowie had choices. But I think Australians are ready for a paradigm shift around what’s allowed for our own deaths. In New Orleans last year I was greatly enamoured of “Uncle” Lionel Batiste, the deceased bass drummer from the Treme Brass Band. He was 81 when he died and a total dude; by all reports a character and ladies’ man to the end, he wore his watch across his palm so he always had “time on his hands”. At Lionel’s funeral, his embalmed body (dressed in finery, gold watch in place, clasping his cane), stood leaning against a faux lamppost in the funeral parlour, attending his own memorial. The viewing lasted several hours, beers and BBQ were sold in the street, hundreds of people paid their respects and partied, brass bands played and everybody danced. Lionel’s family had wanted to send him off in an original way, and the funeral director said they had to “think outside the box”. Not for everyone, but how glorious. How life-affirming. What a hoot. How “would never happen in Australia in a kazillion years”. A few weeks ago there was a news story about Australian scientists Patricia and Peter Shaw, both 87 years old, who’d made a “rational suicide pact”. Determined to avoid what they saw as the horror of losing their independence in the grip of hospital treatments, nursing homes and palliative care, they planned. For ages. And they died their own way. We hand over our power so quickly when we’re dying. To the system, to our families, to “what’s done”. What a waste, when we could make it our final, greatest, project. Just ask yourself, “What would David Bowie have done?” ON THE ONE hand, new year, fresh start, woo hoo and hellooo 2016. On the other, nothing slaps the joy out of a summer break like David Bowie dropping dead OUT OF NOWHERE. What the actual hell? Alan Rickman following days later wasn’t great either, but Bowie was a punch to the solar plexus. Despite ardent teenaged wishful thinking, I never did gain access to David’s inner circle, so his death from cancer struck as suddenly as that signature lightning bolt. The blindside came because, incredible in these hyper-connected times, there was no whisper that he was even ill. But also, David Bowie – other worldly, pan-sexual and insatiably creative – seemed plausibly immortal. No question, he did a terrific imitation of a god. But Bowie is gone, trailed by a planet-wide comet of stardust and grief, and what I’m left with is, gee, didn’t he do death well? I mean, come on. Class act. Kept his mortality a secret, and three days before he died dropped his 25th studio album, Blackstar, giving us an extreme close-up of a star extinguishing. Blackstar, a thesis on death, eternity and how to live, boils with secret knowledge. Then, he evaporates. A quick cremation, no service, no- one in attendance and a secret interment. Like he’d been beamed up. Has anyone gone like this before, turning their death into a flawless and complete performance-art gesture? All of the celebrity bollocks and chaff a thousand miles beneath their notice? Bowie’s minimalist, mindful death event felt like a galaxy being born, a gift. It could not have been further from Michael Jackson’s finale: the golden coffin, cast of thousands and motorcade of Rolls Royce Phantom limousines. The difference between these two creative giants was certainly cultural (Bowie was English and private; Jackson, American with a show-pony family), but, mostly, Bowie knew it was coming, and Bowie got to plan. There is, I think, a teaching moment here. A different way of doing death. Goodness knows we need one. Bowie must have been planning for ages. He knew he had cancer, and what did he do? Rolled up his sleeves, got out the butcher’s paper and crayons and went, “Oooh, new project. This will be a big one.” I don’t know that most of us would » For virtually more FSN, visit fionascottnorman.com.au or follow her on Twitter @FScottNorman.