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Peter Clifton-Sprigg 1954 – 2016

October 29, 2016

I have a lot to say, but don’t know where to start.

Yesterday I went to a friend’s funeral and I don’t feel like I’ve been to a funeral.  For one thing, we had some time to get ready for it.  Just before Christmas last year, Peter had been told that he only had a few months to live.  So we knew we’d be going to his funeral, we just didn’t know when.

And he wasn’t shy about reminding people that it was up and coming.  Lately he would introduce himself by saying, “I’m Peter and I’m dying.”

That by itself was a new experience for me.  Usually when people are terminally ill, it’s the elephant in the room.  But Peter made it a totally acceptable topic of conversation.  More than that, he inspired everyone with his courage, humanity and determination to get the most out of whatever time he had left.

I first met Peter in 2011 when he was on the faculty of a horticulture school that would bring its students out to CUE Haven to plant trees and help us with maintenance work.


Peter was one of three faculty members and I mostly remember him as the one who would insist that the students take extra time and make everything just right and to his credit, the culvert drainage boxes he helped build on the walking track have stood the test of time.

Unfortunately due to funding problems, the school’s priorities changed and they haven’t been back to the farm since 2013 and we lost touch with Peter and his colleagues.

In June this year, Joan, one of the other teachers, contacted us to tell us that Peter had been diagnosed with terminal cancer and he wanted to bring his wife out to CUE Haven to show her the work he and the students had done.

We arranged a time to meet up. We didn’t know what to expect and were shocked.  Peter was on crutches and unable to eat most solid foods.  Because the cancer was in his bones, he was at constant risk of fractures.  Nevertheless he took off and insisted on walking the entire track from the top of the property back to the house.  We also planted celebration trees and he insisted that we pick out a special tree to plant as a memorial tree for later.

We happened to show him an area where we are planning to put some benches and artwork. That’s when Peter’s wife told us that he had won numerous awards for his garden designs in the UK and Peter said that he would like to design the area for us as his gift to CUE Haven.  A few weeks later he came back a couple of times and mapped the area and drew up a professional plan for us to use.  He even set up an office in the field!


In his last few months, Peter decided that he was too busy to give up.  He had been a karate teacher for the past few years and one of the things on his bucket list was to get his black belt.  He was awarded the belt on September 1.  He also did a tandem sky dive to raise money for the West Auckland Hospice where he spent his last days.  He generally refused to go to the hospital, in spite of serious medical complications, on the grounds that time in the hospital prevented him from living life.

Yesterday at the celebration of Peter’s life we saw pictures of his life and listened to some of his favourite music.   Yes, Led Zeppelin’s In My Time of Dying and Stairway To Heaven made the list—and the ceremony ended with Pink Floyd’s Shine On You Crazy Diamond.  There was also a guest video appearance by Peter himself—and he was there physically, too, in the wooden coffin he’d designed and built himself in the past few months.

The funeral home was filled to capacity and there was a stream of people describing how Peter had positively impacted their lives.

The ceremony was called “A Celebration of Life,” and I know that is the new euphemism for “funeral.”  But this really was a celebration of a life well lived.  And a life that will continue to positively influence a lot of people.

Peter’s attitude was an inspiration—in a world where we seem to be afraid to discuss issues like death and dying, he confronted it head on.  Usually we don’t have candid conversations about these topics.  But Peter made it comfortable.  When he could no longer eat solid food and had to feed himself through a device installed in his stomach he thought nothing of pulling up his shirt and showing you how it worked.  He treated his illness as something that was happening to him and that was part of his life and not something to fight but to live in spite of.  He had been a missionary in Uganda years ago but was constantly questioning our place in the universe and had come to view death as just a step in a larger spiritual journey.

Being around Peter helped put things in perspective.  When explaining his desire to get the black belt, he said that he wanted people to say, “If he can do it, what’s stopping me?”

Here’s Peter making the local news and talking about making the most of life.

Peter, we look forward to telling your story to future visitors to the platform you have designed.  You will always be remembered at CUE Haven and by all the others you have touched.


He who binds himself to a joy
Does that winged life destroy
He who kisses the joy as it flies
Lives in eternity’s sunrise

–William Blake

6 Comments leave one →
  1. October 30, 2016 2:11 am

    There’s this physician who wrote a post titled Dying of cancer is the best death, arguing that, unlike sudden death, terminal cancer gives you plenty of time to prepare. So “[l]et’s stop wasting billions trying to cure cancer,” he concludes.

    Still, if someone gave me a gift certificate for the death store so I could pick out my favorite death for myself, I’m not sure I’d choose cancer. Tough call. On the one hand, flatlining in my sleep sounds good. On the other hand, departing thus would deprive me of the experience of dying, so I’d never know what dying actually felt like. But then again, there’s so many things I’ll likely never experience (like being pregnant, parachuting down from the stratosphere, etc.), would it really kill me if I never knew what it felt like to die?

    As to preparation, I suppose we should all be prepared to step off at all times. That’s one reason why, for example, I don’t allow people to post on my Facebook Wall. Because if I were to suddenly suck the kumara (an expression I learned right here, I believe), I’d have no more control over what others would subsequently plaster to the top of what would then be my digital forever shrine.

  2. October 30, 2016 4:08 pm

    Oh Thomas, what a hackneyed phrase “I’m sorry for your loss” is. But I am truly sorry that this man will no longer be in your life to talk to and laugh with. You have great memories of the time spent together and he has left you with lasting proof of his life and his desire to live it to the end. That we could all be that brave although I’m sure your friend wouldn’t consider he was being brave. Hugs and condolences from the other end of the island.

    BTW I can use Hackneyed because Hackney in the East End of London is where I was born and brought up.

  3. Dug permalink
    October 31, 2016 2:10 pm

    R.I.P…..Peter Sprigg

  4. November 1, 2016 1:48 am

    I have read this twice and been trying, as in your opening sentence, to articulate my reaction for days. I wanted to leap through the text and through time and plead with your friend to be careful of his fragile bones.. and yet I’m so glad he didn’t end his life carefully. I love the field office, especially, for some reason. You’re going to show us pictures of how everything looks when his designs have been executed, yes?

  5. November 1, 2016 8:43 pm

    A special human being, and you’ve written a wonderful tribute, Tom. My deepest condolences to you and his family and your community.

  6. November 18, 2016 8:38 pm

    what a beautiful post Thomas. I find it extraordinary that some people just shine regardless of their circumstances. I hope his contribution to the garden continues to bring joy to people who visit. I too hope to see pictures as the garden progresses. Take care. I think of you often. how have things been for you what with the earthquakes and all? Take care. Cindy

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