Category Archives: Attitudes to death

Et in Arcadia ego

Wednesday, 24 September 2014

Nicolas Poussin - Les Bergers d_Arcadie _Et in Arcadia ego_

Posted by Richard Rawlinson

I first came across this Latin phrase as a teenager reading Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited. Narrator Charles Ryder finds the words inscribed on a skull displayed in his bedroom. ‘Even in Arcadia, there I am,’ is the translation. Death, the great equaliser, prevails even in the most utopian lands, as certain in the stately homes of England as the slums of Calcutta, the parched plains of Africa or the war-torn streets of Iraq. Continue reading

“It’ll save you the bother when I’m dead.”

Sunday, 15 June 2014

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Jeremy Clarkson, writing in the Sunday Times about the death of his Mum:

Right in the middle of all that brouhaha about sloping bridges and Eeny, Meeny, Miny, Moe, my mum died.

So there I was, in Russia, in the middle of a Top Gear tour, trying to organise her funeral and tell the children and sort out all the legal stuff … and I knew that if I wept, which is what I wanted to do, because I was very close to my mother, the Daily Mirror would run pictures and claim they were tears of shame. It was a gruesome time.

And I knew that when I came home the BBC would still be bleating and the reporters would still be calling, and I’d have to go to her house and start sorting through her things. And where do you start with a job like that? Where did she keep her pension details, the deeds to her house, her insurance certificates? How do you cancel a Sky subscription? Did she have any shares? Premium bonds? And how do you find out if you haven’t got a sister who’s a lawyer?

Luckily, I do have a sister who’s a lawyer, but even though she could handle the paperwork, I’d still have to go through my mum’s things, and that would be a nightmare because I’m such a sentimental old sausage I even find it difficult to throw away an empty packet of fags. I think of the fun I’ve had smoking them and the people I’ve shared them with and I want to hold on to the wrapping as a keepsake, a reminder of happy times.

So what in God’s name would it be like in my mum’s house, surrounded by everything that made it hers, except her? And there’d be all those childhood memories. At some point it would be inevitable I’d find the egg cup I’d used every morning as a child and the cereal bowl with rabbits on it. That would tear my heart out.

At one stage I received a call from a middle-ranking BBC wallah saying they’d had a letter from some MPs, asking if I was going to be sacked, and I really wasn’t paying much attention because I was wondering what on earth I’d do with the mildly fire-damaged Dralon chair that my dad had bought for £4 in 1972.

Even by the standards of the time it was a truly hideous piece of furniture, and the years had not been kind to it. Any normal person would give it to charity or use it as firewood. But it was the chair my dad used to sit in. It had a cigarette burn in the arm from the time when he’d nodded off while smoking. I couldn’t possibly give it away, or burn it. And I sure as hell didn’t want it in my house. So what would I do?

There is no single thing in the house of anyone’s mother that isn’t infused with a gut-wrenching air of sentimentality. It’s not just her jewellery or her clothes. It’s the little things as well. Her kitchen scissors, her bathroom scales, her flannel. Every single thing in each and every drawer is as impossible to discard as a first teddy bear.

I would need a very big lorry to handle all the stuff I’d need to bring home. I’d also need at least two months to go through it all. And I’d need about 4,000 boxes of Kleenex.

However, here’s the thing. My mum did not die unexpectedly. She’d known for some time that the cancer was winning and had therefore had time to put her affairs in order. A job she had undertaken with some gusto.

I’d always assumed that “putting your affairs in order” meant writing a will and remembering to reclaim your lawnmower from the chap at No 42. But in the weeks since my mum’s death I’ve learnt that actually there’s a lot more to it than that.

First of all, she had left many helpful instructions about what sort of funeral she wanted. No friends. No flowers. And no mention of God or the baby Jesus. My sister and I didn’t even have to guess what music she would have liked because she’d told us: Thank You for the Music, by Abba.

All the financial stuff was in a neat box with everything clearly labelled. And she hadn’t stopped there. Before she became too weak, she’d had a massive clear-out. Pretty much everything she owned had been thrown into a skip. “It’ll save you the bother when I’m dead,” she had said.

But by far and away the best thing she did in those last few months was to sort out a lifetime of photographs, putting the ones that mattered into albums and, crucially, writing captions. So now I know that the time-faded sepia image of a stern-looking woman in a nasty hat is my great-aunt and that the blurred picture of what might be a corgi was my grandad’s dog.

Ordinarily, I’d have thrown away the endless pictures of what appear to be a building site, but thanks to my mum’s diligence, I now know it was the house in which I was born. And how it had looked when she and my dad bought it in 1957.

I don’t know how long she had worked on her downsizing and the clear-out and the organisation of her things, but it’s something we should all try to do when we know the Grim Reaper is heading our way. Because not only does it spare our loved ones from the hassle of going through every single thing we’ve ever owned but also it spares them from the grief of deciding that the horse brasses and the Lladro figurines really do have to go to the tip.

The only trouble is that there’s one thing my mum did not sort out. Back in 1971 she made my sister and me two Paddington Bears. They were the start of what became a very successful business and they were very precious, but over the years one was lost.

I maintain the sole survivor is mine. My sister insists it’s hers. And she’s the lawyer . . . so I have the cereal bowl with the rabbits on it, and the Dralon chair.

 

Imagine this: when someone dies we don’t hand them over to strangers

Wednesday, 11 June 2014

 

 

When the GFG, in conjunction with the Plunkett Foundation, announced a community funerals initiative back in 2012, we supposed that someone might pick it up and run with it. The Plunkett Foundation, far cleverer than us, was pretty confident they would.  They contacted all their community shops and community pubs and we waited with bated breath to see what happened next.

Absolutely nothing. Zilch. Squat.

So we are really pleased to learn of the emergence of a community funerals initiative on the other side of the world – in SE Australia in the steel town of Port Kembla, a place where, according to its community enterprise website, “no one wanted to live” until recently, but “now there is a change in the atmosphere”. It does look a bit like one of those unprepossessing places that brings out the best in people.

The purpose of the Port Kembla community funerals enterprise is to “empower people around death and dying, and offer a not for profit funeral service that is affordable and highly personalised to support healthy bereavement.” It is called Tender Funerals.

Tender Funerals will “offer affordable and flexible services and a transparent fee structure, to minimise the financial impact of funeral care. It will counter the idea that the amount of money spent on a funeral is a reflection of the amount a person was loved.”

“Tender Funerals will offer personalised services that demystify death and dying, and involve a model of community support, to assist healthy bereavement. This will include unique offerings of information and support, funeral services that celebrate and acknowledge both a person’s death and their life, and support and facilitation of active participation and community support in funeral care.”

They will also create an education programme to teach people about issues around death and dying: “We will develop and implement a community development model to provide ongoing support and community awareness … By providing a more open approach to death and the process around caring for the dead it is envisaged that people will become for familiar with death as an inevitable part of life.”

“Tender Funerals is re–imagining the way in which we as a community deal with death and provide a context within which the community is informed and empowered to ensure that the end of life process is one which is meaningful, authentic and good value.

“It will be a community resource and a funeral care provider that responds to shifts in community needs, attitudes, ideas and experiences in relation to death and dying.

“It will also develop a model for not-for profit funeral care that supports healthy bereavement, and empowered decision making at end of life, which can be replicated in other communities.”

The Port Kembla Community Project already has a scheme which offers no-interest loans up to $1,000.

Tender Funerals is presently crowdfunding to raise the money it needs to get off the ground. Check out the vision statement.

Its originators have had a film made about them – you can see the trailer at the top of the page.

Here at the GFG we’ve sent them a few bob to help them on their way. And we wish them every possible success.

Why go there?

Monday, 12 May 2014

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“If we want the deaths our lives deserve, we need to start talking about it,” advises a Times leader today.

Yes, it’s Dying Matters Awareness week and all Funeralworld is a-flutter with wheezes to “start the conversation” and encourage people to make a will, jot down their end-of-life wishes and their funeral wishes, even sort out their digital legacy.

As ever, the narrative from Dying Matters is that “discussing dying and making end of life plans remain a taboo for many people.” A possible problem here is that the stats supporting this statement offer comfort to the ‘deniers’ by showing them they are with the majority. Most people, after all, want to be where everybody else is.

And, by gum, the deniers constitute a big majority: 83% of people say they are uncomfortable discussing dying and death. 51% say they are unaware of their partner’s end of life wishes. 63% haven’t written a will. 64% haven’t registered as an organ donor or got a donor card. 71% of people haven’t let someone know their funeral wishes. 94% haven’t written down their wishes or preferences about their future care, should they be unable to make decisions for themselves.

If you reckon it important for people to get their death admin sorted, the present state of affairs is dire. But Dying Matters reckons that 400,000 more people aged 5-75 are talking about this unappetising stuff now than 5 years ago. This, surely, ought to be the headline figure. No one wants to feel left behind.

The difficulty in chivvying people to ‘get their shit together’ is, of course, that it brings them face to face with the terrifying fact of their own extinction:

A week? or twenty years remain
And then–what kind of death?
A losing fight with frightful pain
Or a gasping fight for breath?

There’s this comfy consensus among people in the death business that if you can bring yourself to confront your fear of dying your fears will magically melt away and your life will be gloriously enriched. It ain’t necessarily so. On the contrary, thinking about death can magnify the terror – why wouldn’t it?

For the end is likely to be disagreeable. Sherwin Nuland, in his book How We Die, wrote: “I have not seen much dignity in the process by which we die. The quest to achieve true dignity fails when our bodies fail.”

Nuland wrote his book 20 years before his death in March this year. Did the contemplation of his own mortality induce equable acceptance? Here’s an extract from his obit in The Times:

It is not given to many of us to set the stage for our own demise. For the surgeon and medical ethicist Sherwin Nuland, author of the bestselling How We Die: Reflections on Life’s Final Chapter, the climax of his personal drama, with the audience watching intently and the curtain poised to fall, had been scripted years before and never needed revision. Yet when the time came, Nuland was reluctant to play the part, remaining in the wings, unsure of his lines, not ready to make his last entrance.

According to his daughter Amelia, he talked incessantly about what was happening to him. “I’m not scared of dying,” he told her, “but I’ve built such a beautiful life and I’m not ready to leave it.” Finally, as the end drew near, he seemed “scared and sad”, as if the morbidity of his lifelong preoccupation had, somewhat ironically, rendered him unable to confront the reality.

If only talking about it really did earn us “the deaths our lives deserve” and, in the words of Mayur Lakhani, chair of the Dying Matters Coalition,  “enable people to become more comfortable in discussing dying, death and bereavement.”

But if not talk, what else is there?

 

Die-alogue Cafe

Friday, 11 April 2014

Diealogue

 

First there was Death Café. Then Let’s Have Dinner and Talk About Death. Then Death Salon.

Now there’s Die-alogue Cafe

Die-alogue Café has been developed by an Australian academic, Stuart Carter. We’ve been talking to Stuart for some time. We like and respect him very much. His purpose is not to upstage other formats, but to offer an alternative.

His starting point is pretty much the same as the others:

Living in a death denying time in human history is not delivering the good deaths we say we would like to have … in the company of like-minded people: we don’t feel so alone, we can create a good death road-map.

Self-empowerment is the thing:

We choose to not sit around and wait for someone else to do what we can do, ourselves — when we have the know-how (knowledge), the where-with-all (tools) and the friends who are willing to lend a hand (help).

So the format is purposeful, the discussion focussed so as:

* to be of practical assistance to each other;
* to build a body of knowledge and expertise that will, by extension, strengthen our families and communities;
* to build bridges across cultural divides;
* to empower people to act wisely and face the future with a positive outlook;
* to raise awareness about injustices and
* to provide a gentle nudge of encouragement as we face our fears.

Die-alogue Café is not for children, people seeking grief therapy; or people who are not prepared to use the plain English words that describe our end-of-life realities. It is not everyone’s idea of a good way to spend a couple of hours.

Meetings are themed. They comprise ‘ordinary’ people and professionals – care home staff, nurses, doctors, undertakers, estate planners, etc. Outcomes may be various: Do research, take on projects, write letters, practice meditation, play games, create art, visit, invent; in other words practice the principles and report back.

The overriding purpose is to enable people to have better ends and better funerals:

While the location, the time, the group may be different the underlying sentiments remain… open, honest dialogue as a backdrop to creating a dance with death that when played out in daily life, will reveal treasures untold and enrich all who stumble across its stage.

You can find out more about Die-alogue Café here. You can find Stuart’s dedicated website and blog here.

Classic

Tuesday, 8 April 2014

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Cicero

 

When Pomponius Atticus [a friend of Cicero] fell ill, and medical attempts to prolong his existence merely prolonged his pain, he decided that the best solution was to starve himself to death. No need to petition a court in those days, citing the terminal deterioration in your ‘quality of life’: Atticus, being a Free Ancient. merely informed his friends and family of his intention, then refused food and waited for the end. In this, he was much confounded. Miraculously, abstinence turned out to be the best cure for his (unnamed) condition; and soon the sick man was undeniably on the mend.

There was much rejoicing and feasting; perhaps the doctors even withdrew their bills. But Atticus interrupted the merriment. Since we must all die one day, he announced, and since I have already made such fine strides in that direction, I have no desire to turn around now, only to start again another time. And so, to the admiring dismay of those around him, Atticus continued to refuse food and went to his exemplary death.

Julian Barnes – Nothing To Be Frightened Of

Time to make way

Thursday, 27 February 2014

Pills

 

A letter in last Thursday’s Times tells us something, perhaps, about the evolution of society’s thinking about dying, death, the competition for NHS resources, futile care and the declining value life holds for the ageing and the elderly both in the eyes of society and in their own eyes:

Sir, It makes sense to limit some expensive drug treatments to the people who can best benefit society as well as improving the quality of life for the patient. I am an old person (73) and an ex-nurse and I do not understand why so many oldies are obsessed with getting every treatment available, to prolong their lives.

My mental and physical health are deteriorating. This is a fact of life, not a complaint. If I should become ill I will gladly forgo any expensive cure to allow someone younger than me to improve their opportunity of a better quality of life, and the chance of being more use to society. I ask only for palliative care and the chance of a quick release from life when I feel ready to go. I am not alone in this attitude.

The fact is that many old people are a burden on society. Like all nurses I have cared for the elderly as well as I could, but there were many occasions when I wondered why we were doing it. People who cannot accept this argument should work for a few months in a care home where many patients are demented, incontinent, unable to care for themselves, and have no visitors.

Like many of my friends I have made a living will to express my wishes in the event of acute illness. I would like to be able to apply for a prescription which could be used if I ever feel like a quiet and peaceful exit before things get too bad.

Gill Pharaoh — Pinner, Middx

Matthew Parris made this contribution to the debate:

I’m 65 this year and I wouldn’t dream of expecting the taxpayer to divert scarce funds my way for expensive drugs that would do more good for a teenager. My conscience even troubled me over the cost to the NHS of an operation last December to stop my right hand clawing up, as I can manage perfectly well without a couple of fingers.

My late father (a retired electrical power engineer) told me after the Chernobyl disaster that they should use oldies like him to go in and secure the generators. He was serious. I never admired him more.

Did Marc Bolan predict his own death?

Monday, 6 January 2014

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Posted by Richard Rawlinson

T-Rex star Marc Bolan died, aged 29, in a car crash in west London in the early hours of a September morning in 1977. His girlfriend Gloria Jones was driving him home from a night in Mayfair when her purple Mini smashed into a tree by the side of the road. Even today, flowers are still placed to mark the spot.

When Elvis Presley died a month before, Bolan is reported to have made the somewhat egotistical comment, ‘I’m really glad I didn’t die today because I wouldn’t have made the main story.’ As it turns out, he died on the same day as Maria Callas, with him being the bigger story, at least in this country.

Rock fans create legends around their heroes, and T-Rex lyrics have since been analysed for meaning linked to his death. Bolan’s last single, Celebrate Summer, includes the line, ‘Summer is heaven in seventy-seven’. His song, Solid Gold East Action, includes the line, ‘Easy as picking foxes from a tree’: the numberplate of the Mini was FOX 661L.

Footnote: John Lennon was shot dead in 1980 having just got out of his limo onto the pavement outside his Manhattan apartment block. Reporters have since unearthed quotes by the former Beatle such as, ‘I’m not afraid of death because I don’t believe in it. It’s just getting out of one car, and into another’.

Meanwhile, death preoccupied some of the so-called 27 Club, rock and pop stars including Brian Jones, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Kurt Cobain and Amy Winehouse, who all died aged 27. Cobain is quoted as saying, ‘If you die you’re completely happy and your soul somewhere lives on. I’m not afraid of dying. Total peace after death’. Winehouse once said, ‘If I died tomorrow, I would be a happy girl’.

bowie at funeral

David Bowie at Marc Bolan’s funeral

The makes-you-proud-to-be-British way of death

Thursday, 2 January 2014

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Alice Pitman, in the Christmas edition of the Oldie magazine, describes her extremely unwell 88 year-old mother rising to the occasion in hospital: 

Eventually a porter came and perfunctorily wheeled her to theatre. [We] followed down an interminably long corridor, the Aged P issuing instructions over her shoulder about what we were to do if she didn’t make it. Her will was in her knicker drawer. She wanted to be buried, not cremated. “I want the worms to eat me!” she exclaimed with reckless candour (a couple waiting for the lift looked horrified). “Don’t waste money on an expensive coffin. One of those cheap wicker ones will do. Oh, and no church service. I’m 99 per cent certain God doesn’t exist. In fact, scrap the funeral altogether. I don’t want one…” “It’s not up to you!” said [my husband], his stiff upper lip betraying a quiver of emotion. 

FOOTNOTE: Though her doctors abandon all hope for her, she survives. 

 

Caitlin Moran offers posthumous advice to her daughter

Wednesday, 1 January 2014

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Here’s one we missed earlier: journalist Caitlin Moran’s draft last letter to her daughter published in The Times in July of last year (remember 2013?). You can find the entire article (£) here

My daughter is about to turn 13 and I’ve been smoking a lot recently, and so – in the wee small hours, when my lungs feel like there’s a small mouse inside them, scratching to get out – I’ve thought about writing her one of those “Now I’m Dead, Here’s My Letter Of Advice For You To Consult As You Continue Your Now Motherless Life” letters. Here’s the first draft. Might tweak it a bit later. When I’ve had another fag.

“Dear Lizzie. Hello, it’s Mummy. I’m dead. Sorry about that. I hope the funeral was good – did Daddy play Don’t Stop Me Now by Queen when my coffin went into the cremator? I hope everyone sang along and did air guitar, as I stipulated. And wore the stick-on Freddie Mercury moustaches, as I ordered in the ‘My Funeral Plan’ document that’s been pinned on the fridge since 2008, when I had that extremely self-pitying cold.

“Look – here are a couple of things I’ve learnt on the way that you might find useful in the coming years. It’s not an exhaustive list, but it’s a good start… The main thing is just to try to be nice … Just resolve to shine, constantly and steadily, like a warm lamp in the corner, and people will want to move towards you in order to feel happy, and to read things more clearly. You will be bright and constant in a world of dark and flux, and this will save you the anxiety of other, ultimately less satisfying things like ‘being cool’, ‘being more successful than everyone else’ and ‘being very thin’.

“Second, always remember that, nine times out of ten, you probably aren’t having a full-on nervous breakdown – you just need a cup of tea and a biscuit. You’d be amazed how easily and repeatedly you can confuse the two. Get a big biscuit tin.

“Three – always pick up worms off the pavement and put them on the grass. They’re having a bad day, and they’re good for… the earth or something (ask Daddy more about this; am a bit sketchy).

“Four: choose your friends because you feel most like yourself around them, because the jokes are easy and you feel like you’re in your best outfit when you’re with them, even though you’re just in a T-shirt. Never love someone whom you think you need to mend – or who makes you feel like you should be mended. There are boys out there who look for shining girls; they will stand next to you and say quiet things in your ear that only you can hear and that will slowly drain the joy out of your heart. The books about vampires are true, baby. Drive a stake through their hearts and run away.

“This segues into the next tip: life divides into AMAZING ENJOYABLE TIMES and APPALLING EXPERIENCES THAT WILL MAKE FUTURE AMAZING ANECDOTES. However awful, you can get through any experience if you imagine yourself, in the future, telling your friends about it as they scream, with increasing disbelief, ‘NO! NO!’ Even when Jesus was on the cross, I bet He was thinking, ‘When I rise in three days, the disciples aren’t going to believe this when I tell them about it.’

“Babyiest, see as many sunrises and sunsets as you can. Run across roads to smell fat roses. Always believe you can change the world – even if it’s only a tiny bit, because every tiny bit needed someone who changed it. Think of yourself as a silver rocket – use loud music as your fuel; books like maps and co-ordinates for how to get there. Host extravagantly, love constantly, dance in comfortable shoes, talk to Daddy and Nancy about me every day and never, ever start smoking. It’s like buying a fun baby dragon that will grow and eventually burn down your f***ing house.

“Love, Mummy.”

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