The Death Letter Project
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Dr Rachael Kohn | Producer / Presenter / Writer

On Death

I could not go near my dead father’s body.

He wasn’t there any longer, so why was everyone acting as if he were?

Empty of his being, his body was desecrated. Untouchable. Was it my ‘priestly’ genes obeying an ancient prohibition?

In truth I felt abandoned by him, and in a fit of emotion could not draw near, to look at that face, no longer fierce, just a mask, after all.

I wasn’t there for my mother’s death, though in the final days dressed in hospital quarantine costumes, we were hideous yellow apparitions in surrealistic spaceship garb. Aliens.

She, a proud woman, reduced by starvation to an almost unrecognisable being, desperate to leave this world.

I spontaneously sang a favourite song that she liked to hear, “I’m leaving on a jet plane, I don’t know when I’ll be back again. Oh babe, I hate to go.”  It was all true.

Life is not a beating heart in a body. It is a soul, a spirit, an ineffable mystery that imbues us with reality and meaning. When the spirit goes, there’s nothing left. 

Except - for memories, dreams and reflections, the private visitors that come and go, unbidden. 

But photos, books, writings, mementos, paintings - where should they go? Who should have them? These questions haunt me as I have spent a lifetime in books. They are dear to me, and I to them.  Without me they would moulder. No one’s eyes would look on them and remember what was in their pages. They would end in the trash. 

A spirit of a person inhabits their things, not like their body from which it flies. It comes to rest in their photos, books, socks, bobby pins, stuffed toys. Who could dispose of these without care?

Death stalks my people like no other. And yet our cry is ‘L’Chaim’, “to life!”.  When someone dies, the immediate response is to the bereaved ‘May you be written in the Book of Life.”

Defiance, determination, survival, that’s us, that was my inheritance, so I will not let these morbid thoughts detain me for long.

I’ve wanted to live a useful life.  As Psalm 90 says, “Teach us therefore so to number our days, that we may attain a heart of wisdom…Establish the work of our hands that it may long endure.”

That is my hope.  

- Rachael Kohn

Editor's note: Dr Rachael Kohn is a multi-award winning producer and presenter of religion programs for the ABC, including The Spirit of Things on Radio National which she created in 1997. She’s taught Religious Studies at The University of Sydney and in universities in Canada and Britain. She’s the author of The New Believers: Reimagining God and Curious Obsessions in the History of Science and Spirituality.

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  • Beautiful piece - Stevie Lindsay Ross (Facebook)
  • Thanks Tina.. this Project is always a good read.. have appreciated Rachael's work for years.. interesting to get her perspective xx - Sand Hall (Facebook)
  • Very lovely writing and imagery. - Rosada Hayes (Facebook)
  • It’s funny how we imbue objects with a sense of a person, attach memory to them. When really the memories exist from our connections with people. - Kirstin Guenther (Facebook)
  • A beautiful letter from a person to whom I’ve been listening on The Spirit of Things on ABC Radio for years. Soft voiced , empathetic interviewer . Never seen her face. Love the photo and letter - Dorothea Ratcliffe (Facebook)
  • Great photo Teens - saxon108 (Instagram)