Friday’s Times had an article about Matthew Bannister of BBC R4’s obits programme Last Word (Fridays at 4.00 pm). You listen to it? Of course you do. Who doesn’t? Here’s what the article said:
When Bannister, who had been a high-profile radio presenter and media executive for many years, was asked by Mark Damazer, controller of BBC Radio 4, to host Last Word in 2006, his reaction was, “This could be a bit depressing — dealing with death could really get you down.”
The reality was different. “I realised very quickly that it is a life-affirming programme to work on,” he says. “It’s about the stories of lives not deaths. We talk about people in the prime of their lives, we celebrate their lives . . . it’s a tremendous occupation to have, delving into the lives of interesting people.”
You may be surprised that Bannister reckoned he might buckle under the weight of death death death because this is the programme you would most like to front. His concern is completely normal. The term people in the death business like to lob at those who are not loved-up about death is denialists. Call em what you like, the fact is that 99.9% of the population hate death, a stat that hasn’t changed since the dawn of time and isn’t going to change any time before the Rapture. It’s the death-embracers who are abnormal. Quite possibly you’re one of them.
Anyway, the reason why Bannister hasn’t gone under is of course because his programme is a harvest festival. He doesn’t deal in corpses and raw grief, just afterglow-filled life stories.
Not so undertakers and celebrants. Until comparatively recently deathcare was a part-time occupation for all concerned: the laying-out woman, the coffin maker, the carriagemaster, the priest. I wonder if that wasn’t best. Is it really emotionally healthy to spend all day, every day, handling this stuff?
To the point. I think Last Word could be an even better programme. So I have written to Mr Bannister and his team. This is what I said:
Dear Last Word team
I’m writing to ask you to consider including in Last Word the life stories of ordinary people.
By ordinary people I mean those local heroes whose value was measured not by glittering achievements on the national or international stage but instead by human qualities, good deeds and what they meant to those they lived among.
You may reckon such lives insufficiently interesting. You’d be wrong. No one’s life is easy. There is much heroism in the lives of ordinary people, much patient endurance of suffering, much unselfishness, much sacrifice, much incident, much good done, much lovingkindness shown. It’s undetectable in the people queueing for a bus or shopping in a supermarket. The public face obscures we know not what, but this quiet heroism is general.
The point is, life’s ups and downs make heroes of lots of people — heroes, not nonentities.
The stories of those of our fellow-citizens who have lived and struggled and won some and lost some are moving and inspiring. All priests and funeral celebrants know this, as do many undertakers. Every day their life-stories are recounted in crematoria and churches and at gravesides up and down the land, and what stories they are. They celebrate the extraordinariness of ordinary people. They are the stories of people like your listeners, people like us.
As a nation we set aside space and erect monuments to our glorious dead but not to our ordinary dead. Thus do we lose the lessons they could teach us, the examples that might inspire us and the opportunities to say thank you.
You can do something to redress this. Perhaps a trial period, one local hero a month? The Good Funeral Guide community (goodfuneralguide.co.uk) can help you. You’ll be amazed how admired and popular this will be.
In a nutshell, keep up the Them, but let’s have some Us too.
With best wishes, etc
If Last Word writes back I’ll tell you what they said.