Helena Dolny | Desmond Tutu's legacy: Eight compass points for living and dying

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Archbishop Desmond Tutu. (PHOTO: Gallo Images/Getty Images)
Archbishop Desmond Tutu. (PHOTO: Gallo Images/Getty Images)

Since Desmond Tutu's death, Helena Dolny has done some reflection and come up with eight compass points that she will continue to live with and be influenced by.


I find comfort in acknowledging how we are shaped by the ones we loved or who've significantly touched our lives who while they may predecease us, in their having shaped us, they live on within us.

I've spent some hours thinking about Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu, or rather "the Arch" as he was affectionately called by many. He died on 26 December 2021 in the middle of our end-of-year holiday season.

I was fortunate enough to have walks on beaches. I found myself thinking of "the Arch" and more attentively picking up litter, the plastic wrappers of snack packets, cigarette stubs, beer bottle tops. The phrase from my catholic childhood liturgy (Luke 22:19) echoed in my mind, "Do this in memory of me."

The Arch was known to pick up litter.

On his 82nd birthday in October 2013, Tutu and members of the Desmond and Leah Tutu Legacy Foundation spent time in Cape Town's Joe Slovo park, cleaning up litter along Democracy Way.

READ | 'I have prepared for my death' - Tutu on assisted dying

That year I sat with the Arch and interviewed him about his thoughts on dying.

A year later, in 2014, The Arch supported my application for a Rockefeller writers-in-residence award in Bellagio to work on my book "Before Forever After: When Conversations About Living Meet Questions About Dying." Which I finished and published in 2017.

I was a minor person on the periphery of the life of "the Arch' but he, unknowingly, was much more central in the way he's shaped my life.

Since his death, I spent time considering his impact and came up with eight compass points that I will continue to live with and be influenced by.

  • The courage to think and act for yourself, independently

Live the life you believe in, that you wish for, with your personal integrity intact. This may mean the risk of going against the authorities or simply taking a stand to challenge accepted traditions. There are so many instances in which the Arch did this in practice: the positions he took on gay marriage, on Palestine.

He advocated for the right to die with dignity, including assisted dying saying "this is my personal view, not the view of my church." He at first said he'd favour cremation over the tradition of burial, but on learning about aquamation, he opted for this as the eco-friendliest way of becoming "dust unto dust".

READ | Explainer: The process behind Archbishop Desmond Tutu's water cremation

When I shared with him how hard I found it when people who you were close to, admired and respected, reacted very negatively to my public support for assisted dying (I was Chairperson of DignitySA at the time), he told me I must (metaphorically speaking) get a tin hat, and be ready for the blows, as the consequence of standing up for what you believe in.

He also then made me laugh when he told me that sometimes, when he and Leah disagreed over a matter, he would say, "You are entitled to your wrong opinion!" He suggested that friendship would transcend difference of opinion.

  • Acceptance that death is part of life and the need for readiness to die whatever your age.

As a child he'd faced polio. As a young adult, he had serious TB, was hospitalised, and his situation was so bleak that his father went as far as to buy the wood for his coffin.

In his fifties, the possible assassination was a reality. And in 1997, aged 66, Tutu was diagnosed with prostate cancer – his life-threatening companion of the last twenty-four years of his life.

For Tutu, these experiences meant choosing to live a life without deferrals, with your affairs in order: legal matters, your living will, making known your posthumous wishes as well as being in the best possible state of emotional well-being - accepting that you have done all that you can to be at peace in your personal relationships. 

  • Making right

The book Archbishop Tutu co-authored with his daughter Mpho, "The Book of Forgiving" makes it into my top ten desert island books. There's a strong advocacy for self-compassion in the writing, the willingness to forgive oneself for harm done unto others. And then there's the observation, that if you don't forgive, then the person still has a hold over you in your life – you are still carrying them – especially if you want conditionality e.g. "I'll forgive if you apologise." That apology may never be forthcoming – indeed perhaps they don't even understand what is was that they did that was so hurtful. Also how does one forgive when the deed was indeed so heinous?

The Tutus make the distinction that forgiving the person does not mean forgiving the deed. I have found these principles freeing – I have gratitude for this body of work.

  • Dignity and medical resource allocation

What we choose to spend money on – personally and as a society. One of the reasons the Arch supported assisted dying was about what money gets spent on whose health – and that the resources available should be spent on the young who have their lives ahead of them.

There's a lot of data available on health expenditure in the last year of the lives of the elderly, on the numbers of operations carried out, or treatments such as kidney dialysis on someone in their mid-eighties – medical interventions that do not significantly extend life and/or alter the near-final outcome.

Tutu's view was that those who are terminal and or elderly should have a right not only to refuse treatment but to have access to assisted dying if needs be to mitigate pain and/or psychological distress.

  • Rituals don't need to be lavish to show Love.

The Arch was frankly distressed by the trends to spend lavishly on funerals, the ornate caskets, silk-lined coffins, the flower arrangements, the food, the granite tombstones. What was most distressing to him was that people would go into debt in order to hold a lavish funeral as though the expense was an expression of and proof of love for the deceased.

READ | Opinion: Brendan Pearce -Last rites - Desmond Tutu's lesson for us

His criticism of expense, however, did not mean he was dismissive of taking funerals seriously - indeed the Arch acknowledged the importance of ritual, both that of his church and that of his African cultural heritage. The latter requires that an animal be slaughtered – The Arch set out his wishes on more than one occasion – 'Let it be a sheep for the fulfilment of ritual – but not the extravagance of a cow. Let my coffin be the one that is most cheaply available. Let the food for the After Tears be tea and sandwiches – nothing more."

  • Be Specific – Pre-empt conflict.

One of the great things about the Arch's willingness to break the taboo on discussions about dying and his posthumous wishes was that so many knew what he wanted. Where the ashes would go, in a niche, in the Cape Town's St George's cathedral had been settled on years ago.

Once he chose aquamation –acquamation it would be – no further discussion. We all know so many families who quarrel after a loved one dies. One sibling says mom wanted to be cremated –the other says I never heard her say that. Or there's a huge disagreement about what to do with the ashes – exactly where they'll go. It seems to me that being explicit about one's wishes, pre-empting possible conflict, is an act of kindness to those loved ones you leave behind.

  • Live your life in the bigger picture.

Isn't the Arch the epitome of what it means to live for one's country and at the same time be a global citizen? The first six points could be compass points for simply guiding personal choices that we make within the confines of a limited diaspora impacting family and friends. But the Arch lived a "big life" – his choices were consistent with "the bigger picture".

On home turf, he advocated for a wealth tax as essential to finding a way forward to building the fabric of a new society. But further afield, he could not countenance the current day injustices experienced by Palestinians whatever empathy he had for the historic suffering of the Jewish people. Internationally, his commitment to dying with dignity meant he supported the International Right to Die movement.

His understanding of the danger that we face in terms of global climate change translated into the practicality of his choice for aquamation – every choice has a consequence – how can my loved ones receive my human remains for ritual by the eco-friendliest means possible. - I think the living life in the bigger picture fuelled his inclusivity.

READ | Melanie Verwoerd: Desmond Tutu: This 'ousie' will miss you

On the level of the everyday, the Arch's inclusivity, at the simplest level, would be the way that he would take time to welcome people who turned up at the 07:00 Friday morning service in the side chapel of the Anglican cathedral. Afterwards, his ceremonial garments folded away, he'd come to a nearby fast food outlet and sip hot chocolate on his day of abstinence, while others tucked into bacon and eggs. He made sure he "worked the room" that whoever was there would get a "piece of him" no matter where they came from, their nationality, religion, race, sexual orientation.

It's hardly surprising that his last book, "The Book of Joy", is drafted from dialogues with the Dalai Lama, a Buddhist, with Doug Abrams (Jewish) creating the final tapestry contributing his own writing and editorial skills.

  • Encourage the next generation.

'Before Forever After' was published in 2017, after which he continued to be supportive of my work. He encouraged my founding, together with Mapi Mhlangu, of LoveLegacyDignity, a social enterprise that commits to the Arch's call that the taboo about not talking about dying must be challenged. He was by this time had retired and emails to his address would generate the following reply:

Dear friend, thank you for writing. Having retired from public life, and now well into my dotage, I derive great joy from the letters I receive, keeping me abreast of developments in the lives of those we love. Should you be writing for an endorsement or pubic support – of any kind- you would truly warm the cockles of this old man's heart if you directed your request to someone a little younger and more dynamic than I, thus contributing to a new cadre of voices for tomorrow. The only requests my office can consider are those directed to archpa@tutu.org.za. Such requests will be included in weekly administrative meetings with my PA. Thank you and God bless you.

But a couple of days later, the Arch, still having sight of these mails, would often respond using his iPad.

I had sent him the outline of my first LoveLegacyDignity talk delivered in Washington. He wrote:

Dear Friend, I wish I could hear you give this speech. Very good. Much love and blessings, Arch. 

A gesture of encouragement, warming the cockles of my own heart. Trying to get people to have conversations about their mortality while they are very much alive is like pushing water uphill with a broom.

It would be easy to quit the effort with an, "At least I tried, as best as I could, for a while". But Archbishop Tutu's life inspires. It makes you see yourself as a cog in the wheel of history, and the importance of playing the longer game, and of committing to living the bigger life. Of aspiring to live not only with small decisions which embody moral integrity in the domain of one's personal life – but also seeing those actions, multiplied by others, then amplified into contributing - in whatever way possible, to our being global citizens of this planet earth, responsible for the heritage we leave for our children, grandchildren and future generations.

- Dr Helena Dolny , is the co-founder of Love Legacy Dignity and author.

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