Johanna Lunn is the creator of WhenYouDie.org and the producer/director of the upcoming documentary feature film In the Realm of Death and Dreaming. I sat down with her at the Illuminate Film Festival in Sedona this summer, where she hopes to debut the film in 2019.
Tell us about the new documentary!
The WYD Project – the website you’re reading this on – is a hub for people seeking content on all things death and dying. Under that umbrella, we offer many things: articles, reviews, posts, interviews, podcasts, and, soon, a trilogy of documentaries. The first of which is called In the Realm of Death and Dreaming, scheduled for release in 2019. This first film looks at the big questions surrounding death – what happens when you die? Does conciousness live in the body? Does consciousness survive death? Are we just dust?
We shed some light on these questions with a blend of stories culled from the latest scientific insights, near death experiencers, end-of-life premonitions, lucid dreams of dying loved ones, and other tales from the deathbed. What we believe happens when we die effects how we want to be cared for. So first we really have to look death in the eye and say ‘what are you?’
In the subsequent films we explore, ways to comfort the dying emotionally and physically, address fear and grieving, saying goodbye, ritual, green burial and other methods of working with the body after death.
Where did you get the idea?
Over a two-and-a-half year period starting when I was 19, I had three very significant deaths that completely cracked my world apart. My mother died unexpectedly. I was in a car accident where a pedestrian died in my arms. Six months later, my very best friend growing up who was like my sister died in a car accident. So I was just completely blown out of the water. You know, any one of them would have been enough, but three of them in under 3 years. Oof. Game changer. And the world around me at that time had no idea how to relate to me. Death was taboo. On the one hand, people didn’t know how to talk about death so I felt marginalized, ignored. And sad that people didn’t know how to say ‘How are you doing?’ Or offer a simple acknowledgment of what happened to validate my experience and help me move on. I was told to ‘just get over it’ as if there was a switch I could flick, and, boom, no more grief. So I felt pushed away, confused, almost shamed, and very lonely.
That sounds traumatizing.
It was. The prevailing culture didn’t acknowledge grief. I think there are a lot of cultural reasons for that. My parents were married just before my father was shipped out to fight in Italy during the Second World War. When soldiers came back, they were expected to function as if they weren’t just in battle watching their brothers die around them. They were launched into the industrial revolution full steam, had families, bought appliances on credit (a new concept) and drank a lot to quell the pain and trauma. By the time I came along, the denial of death as a cultural norm was well established.
And at that time you started working on a death documentary?
When I graduated from university, my first job was as a researcher for a potential documentary film about death and dying in the context of community for PBS. So I got to interview a lot of remarkable people on the early forefront of what we now call the death positive movement including Elizabeth Kubler-Ross. When we got the proposal together the network said,“This is really amazing but it’s still too taboo to talk about.” So in some ways, that’s where this project started. It’s felt like I’ve had some unfinished business!
So this has been a lot of years in the making.
Yes. And then the third thing – this is a story is about the end of my marriage. I’d been married for 24 years to a partner I’d grown up with, and when it was clear we were really headed in different directions, we split up when my daughter graduated high school. She went off to Mongolia for a gap year before university and we set about selling the house, our family home. Before I knew it I was on my own in a strange house. My identity as a wife and a mother disappeared. Shortly thereafter I quit my job for a major broadcaster here in Canada. So that was everything — limbo, a deeply groundless time.
A lot of little deaths happen in life.
Right? I found myself thinking a lot about my father who had died some time back — it was autumn and someone had said on Halloween that the veil was really thin between the worlds and you could actually have dinner with your dead relatives. This is true in Mexican culture with Dia De Los Muertos and in Celtic culture with All Saints Day, which fall at the same time. So I thought, ‘what the hell, what have I got to lose?’ So I went to the market and bought food to cook my father his favorite meal. And I got his favorite wine and I set the table with his picture at his place, and all day long when I was preparing this big feast I was listening to his music — the things he loved.
Finally the dinner prepared, I sat down with lit candles at this formal style dinner and ate beef bourginon – he didn’t eat his but you know — when I was done I kinda put the plate aside and I took out a pen and paper and I looked at his picture and I said all the things to him that I couldn’t say or didn’t know how to say or that I needed to say when he was alive. And I just said everything and this was important because it was at the end of a 24-year relationship I was examining myself, how I was raised, and my parent’s relationship. So really talking to him and saying to him all these things about relationships, about him being a father and me being a daughter, just everything came pouring out. When I was done, I picked up my pen and a pad of paper and I just kept writing and writing and writing until it was done. And it turned out to be a letter to me from my father. He said things to me that I could never have imagined he would have said. And it came out in a style that wasn’t my style of writing or speech. And it was incredibly helpful to me. And when it was all over I was like ‘how did that happen?! How is that possible?’ So all those questions about consciousness and continuity of consciousness were right there in that moment — what is it to be in a mortal body? What is it to be in this liminal world, this world of transition? So those are the three ways this project came about.
Do you think ancient cultures tend to have more wisdom on the subject of death than we have today?
Every period of human existence has had some kind of flashpoint on this subject. Most cultures, up until around 150 years ago, lived with birth and death on a daily basis. These are events that happened at home. The Victorian era had very elaborate mourning rituals, which including how a house was built. In the Middle Ages, there is a wonderful Christian contemplation of death as a way to live more fully. The Latin expression ‘memento mori’ means ‘remember you must die,’ and was paired with ‘memento vivere’ – remember you must live. Such a wonderful contemplation! Seeing the transitory nature of life was a call-to-arms to live because we don’t know when our time is up. There are many wonderful death rituals from around the globe.
How do these themes show up in the film?
All three films will be very story driven. They are a combination of personal stories and people with boots on the ground who share their wisdom gleaned from years working as healthcare practitioners, caregivers, death doula’s, grief counselors, or scientist and researchers who have spent careers researching death, dying, and the great mysteries of what happens after you die.
I have become the caretaker of some really incredible and beautiful stories. One was from Harry Cook and his wife Anne Martell whose son Lyle who died in a freak accident in India. He was hanging his laundry on a line to dry and touched a live electrical wire. Eighty percent of his body was burned. The night Lyell passed his father Harry had a very vivid dream where he woke up and his son was at the foot of his bed. He heard a voice say – ‘He wants to transfer his energy to you.’ At that moment, a light came out of his son’s shoulders and into his body. Filling Harry with vitality and well being. In the morning Harry and Anne learned that Lyell had passed around the time of Harry’s ‘dream.’
That whole family has a series of really incredible stories to tell.
What would you hope for people to take away from it?
I really hope people walk away and start asking themselves ‘what do I think about all this?’ ‘What do I want when I die?’ My goal is not to tell people how or what to think, but get people talking. To make conversations about death a normal thing and not something that happens because we are unexpectedly thrust into the situation of having to talk about it.
We want to ask you the same thing!
I think I would really love to be at home. I would like to be, up to a certain point, around people and the bustle of life. I want to put things in order and say the things best said while I’m alive: I love you, I’m sorry, I hid the money under my mattress…. And when death comes near I have a feeling that if there’s a lot of people around I’ll cling to life, I’ll want to be part of the action and not let go and die. So for me, at that time I will want the simplicity of turning inward. Doing the inner work of letting go.
I want to be cared for at home. And I definitely want people to celebrate my life, I understand there will be some sadness but I also want people to feel the joy of a really great life lived. After all, life is amazing – the good, bad, ugly, luminous – the whole ball of wax. When it’s time to go, I’m really curious about what’s next!
Kelly MacLean is a humorist, writer and host of The Tao of Comedy podcast where she tricks comedians into waxing poetic about the nature of reality. She’s a proud member of the When You Die team and hosts WYD podcast.