The GFG goes international (part 1)

It’s almost three weeks now since Isabel and I set off to be part of the K smrti dobrý festival – ‘A Festival about death and its presence in our lives’, which took place in Ostrava, in the far eastern part of The Czech Republic. We were invited after our fabulous patron, Zenith Virago, was one of the headline speakers last year and suggested that the Good Funeral Guide should be involved with this fantastic event.

We spent months exchanging emails and holding zoom calls with Jana Slavice, the quietly unassuming woman who works as a death doula and is the powerhouse behind the festival. She gently guided us towards agreeing to offer a  two-hour workshop, a lecture and Q&A session and a two-day workshop at the festival, and she organised all the travel and accommodation for us, as well as the translators that we needed. We simply needed to turn up on time at Stansted airport.

So, we did. I spent the morning measuring and weighing my carry-on luggage after being warned of Ryan Air’s over officious attitude to cabin bags – this turned out to be the most stressful part of the whole experience (and all unnecessary as nobody looked at the extra cm of length, width and depth of the bag I was carrying). Then I joined the queue for security and immediately remembered how hostile the whole process of flying is – it’s been a while since I was on a plane. The whole ‘your mascara is a liquid and therefore must be placed in this tiny plastic bag along with every other item that could ever possibly be described as not a solid, and if the bag can’t be closed you have to decide which items to place in our enormous bin for contraband’  just hurt my head. (It was travel size shampoo, shower gel and conditioner that didn’t make it to Prague in my case. Or not in my case, in fact.)

Anyway, once that drama was over and Isabel and I found each other in departures, the adventure began. And what a time we had! We met amazing, inspirational people, that was the most wonderful part of our week. We had a glimpse of the beautiful city of Prague by night, cabbage soup in a bread roll for supper, an extraordinary, high speed 400km train journey for under £20, a stay in a beautiful villa in the forest outside Ostrava, kind volunteers to drive us to and from the festival and an insight into the vibrant, rapidly growing interest in improving dying, death and funerals in this part of the world.

Hundreds of people had travelled from across Czechia and Slovakia to be part of the festival, which was impeccably organised and run in the cultural centre in Ostrava. Everything was beautiful, the exhibition of delicately decorated coffins in the lobby, the displays of crystals, hand-made shrouds, musical items. And loads of other things, the dressing of the main stage, the stunning painting of the Guardian Owl that had been created especially for the Festival – Jana’s eye for beauty was everywhere.

The packed programme had something for everyone, with talks, music and film screenings in the main auditorium throughout the weekend while workshops took place in smaller rooms. We missed a lot, as there was so much going on, and of course everything was in Czech. We had translators for our workshops and talks, but the rest of the weekend was a hubbub of a language that neither of us had managed to learn more than a few words of. It didn’t matter at all though, as we were really busy. 

We attended workshops run by our first-night-in-Prague-housemates and fellow Brits (no translators needed) Alexandra Grace Derwen, renowned author, ceremonialist and leading facilitator on the doula training course at Sacred Circle Training Co. CIC and Alison Stoecker, former political advisor and writer about grief and trauma. We were gifted the most beautiful books of photographs of dying people by renowned photographer Jindřich Štreit and were also given little pots of chocolate ganache topped with white chocolate skulls. We learned about the Czech customs and laws around funerals, and we discovered that Ostrava kitchen staff find the notion of vegetarianism unusual, (and that fried cheese is a thing…).

We ran an introductory 2-hour workshop on the Friday, delivered a talk about the impact of Covid on funerals in the UK on the Saturday, and then facilitated a 2-day workshop on the Sunday and Monday, introducing a concept that we have been developing together called The Power of Liminal Time.

We had a room full of experienced practitioners who were incredibly generous in sharing their wisdom and knowledge. At the end of the two days, the overwhelming consensus from everyone involved was a deep appreciation and understanding of the potential of the time before, during and after death as a profoundly important opportunity to really experience inner wisdom and peace.

We left Ostrava the following day, returning to Prague for our last hours in Czechia. This time, our train tickets were for business class seats, which apparently involve complimentary Prosecco and pastries, even at 10am. Our fellow travellers clearly were accustomed to this way of travelling, but we opted for orange juice – our whole experience had been bizarre enough without adding in alcohol before lunch!

We came home to the UK early the following morning, feeling both replete and inspired. Being part of the festival had been so nourishing, meeting so many extraordinary people and having so many conversations about the thirst for shared knowledge about how to do death better. 

The Festival in Ostrava is an incredible achievement by Jana, who is already planning next year’s event as something even bigger and better. It has given Isabel and I a springboard from which to launch a series of events here in the UK next year, and we are working hard developing our model and exploring where and when we can offer people an opportunity to come and be part of this exciting new work. Having launched it in Czech (with the assistance of our fantastic translators) we can’t wait to bring it to everyone here. 

Watch this space!

Why go there?



“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?


Time to make way

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.

Why doctors can’t talk about death

“Psychoanalysts believe that emotional trauma in human life is because man is not really a god and is something more than just an animal. He is a demi-god and being a demi-god is hard.  He can create and appreciate goodness, enjoy the wonder and awe of each day; teach, learn, and dream, but at the same time, he can see into the future and knows his fate.  His mind can conceive flying through the air, staying awake for days or living to be 10,000, but he is denied by the limitations of his flesh.  This results in life long stress and in order to cope man uses various psychological strategies, including repression and denial, to focus on each day and each moment and not go truly mad.

When someone becomes ill with a life threatening illness such as cancer, their ability to deny the animal part of their existence may collapse.  Suddenly they are less god than ailing beast. This can cause terrible anxiety, confusion and depression, as their personality is threatened by physical deterioration and critical coping mechanisms fail.  At these critical times, the support of a physician who understands the core balance of the human condition can be most valuable.

“However, it seems to me that doctors do not talk about death to their patients, not because they do not care, but because doctors do not know how to deal with the god, they only understand the animal.”


Go gentle

Years ago, Charlie, a highly respected orthopedist and a mentor of mine, found a lump in his stomach. He had a surgeon explore the area, and the diagnosis was pancreatic cancer. This surgeon was one of the best in the country … Charlie was uninterested. He went home the next day, closed his practice, and never set foot in a hospital again. He focused on spending time with family and feeling as good as possible. Several months later, he died at home. He got no chemotherapy, radiation, or surgical treatment.

If this is how doctors choose to die, why do they go to such lengths to provide ‘futile care’ for their patients? 

Find out in this fascinating and important article in Zocalo.

Hat-tip to Rupee

The unintended consequence of promoting longevity

Michael Wolff describes caring for his eldery, dementing mother in New York magazine. It’s a long piece and it will concentrate your mind. You’ll brood on it.  Warning: once you start, you won’t be able to put it down. 

…what I feel most intensely when I sit by my mother’s bed is a crushing sense of guilt for keeping her alive. Who can accept such suffering—who can so conscientiously facilitate it? 

“Why do we want to cure cancer? Why do we want everybody to stop smoking? For this?” wailed a friend of mine with two long-ailing and yet tenacious in-laws. 

Age is one of the great modern adventures, a technological marvel—we’re given several more youthful-ish decades if we take care of ourselves. Almost nobody, at least openly, sees this for its ultimate, dismaying, unintended consequence: By promoting longevity and technologically inhibiting death, we have created a new biological status held by an ever-growing part of the nation, a no-exit state that persists longer and longer, one that is nearly as remote from life as death, but which, unlike death, requires vast service, indentured servitude really, and resources. 

This is not anomalous; this is the norm. 

The traditional exits, of a sudden heart attack, of dying in one’s sleep, of unreasonably dropping dead in the street, of even a terminal illness, are now exotic ways of going. The longer you live the longer it will take to die. The better you have lived the worse you may die. The healthier you are—through careful diet, diligent exercise, and attentive medical scrutiny—the harder it is to die. Part of the advance in life expectancy is that we have technologically inhibited the ultimate event. We have fought natural causes to almost a draw. If you eliminate smokers, drinkers, other substance abusers, the obese, and the fatally ill, you are left with a rapidly growing demographic segment peculiarly resistant to death’s appointment—though far, far, far from healthy.

Read it all here

Doing a good job?

Dying Matters is surveying its members to see what they think about how well it’s doing. The GFG was one of the first 100 orgs to sign up to Dying Matters.

Statements on the survey (5 possible responses from Strongly agree to Strongly disagree) include: 

The Dying Matters Coalition has helped highlight the need for more open discussion around dying and death.

Dying Matters has produced some helpful materials and events for coalition members.

Dying Matters has kept coalition members well informed and engaged in the work of the coalition.

To be honest, we’re not especially aware of the work of Dying Matters here at the GFG, and that could well be an oversight. It’d be interesting to know what you think. 

Modern death ‘reverberates like a handclap in an empty auditorium.’

There’s a good death piece over at the New York Times that you might like. It’s by Bess Lovejoy, author of the about-to-be-published Rest in Pieces: The Curious Fates of Famous Corpses. Here are some taster extracts: 

Over the last century, as Europeans and North Americans began sequestering the dying and dead away from everyday life, our society has been pushing death to the margins … The result, as Michael Lesy wrote in his 1987 book “The Forbidden Zone,” is that when death does occur, “it reverberates like a handclap in an empty auditorium.”

The erasure of death also allows us to imagine that our mortal trivialities and anxieties are permanent, while a consistent awareness of death — for those who can stomach it — can help us live in the here and now, and teach us to treasure what we already have. In fact, a study by University of Missouri researchers released this spring found that contemplating mortality can encourage altruism and helpfulness, among other positive traits.

Though there’s no deserved namecheck in what follows for Jon Underwood, Ms Lovejoy observes:

“Death cafes,” in which people come together over tea and cake to discuss mortality, have begun in Britain and are spreading to the United States, alongside other death-themed conferences and festivals (yes, festivals). 

Whoops, Ms Lovejoy omits to namecheck, also, this festival and this festival. You begin to suspect that Britain is at the forefront of something here.  

Ms Lovejoy concludes: 

It’s never easy to confront mortality, but perhaps this year, while distributing the candy and admiring the costumes of the neighborhood kids, it’s worth returning to some of the origins of Halloween by sparing a thought for those who have gone before. As our ancestors knew, it’s possible that being reminded of their deaths will add meaning to our lives.

Find the complete article here


All will be well

I am filming with Bernard Underdown, Gravedigger of the Year, at Deerton Natural Burial Ground. We are standing beside one of Bernard’s freshly-dug graves talking with ever-so over-egged animation about graveyard myths and superstitions. We exhaust the topic, look over to the camera, and the cameraman says, “Lovely. Perfect.  Again, please.” In answer to our mildly miffed expressions he explains, “Car. That car. Sorry.” The noise of a passing car has intruded on the microphone. Bernard and I dig deep into our reserves of flagging spontaneity and reprise. 

On the other side of the burial ground I see five people arrive, then stand and survey the ground and chat contemplatively. It is starting to rain and they put their umbrellas up. 

One of the group detaches herself and comes over to us. It is Wendy Godden-Wood, the owner. Bernard and I come to the end of our re-take. We’re on a continuous loop now, we ready ourselves to start again. The cameraman says “Great. That’ll do.”

Wendy explains that the four people have come to buy plots. They are mooching, looking for the spot they like best, the spot where they’d like to spend eternity. 

People say we’re a death-denying nation. Don’t know about that. 

Before I die

Posted by Vale

At the Southbank Deathfest in January one of the best features was the wall that invited people to write down what it was that they wanted to do before they died.

The idea began in New Orleans when artist Candy Chang pasted the first ‘Before I Die’ wall on the side of an empty house.

You can see more about the first wall here.

Although it closed in September buy tadalafil 20mg uk 2011, the idea has spread all over the world including London. Interest has been so great that a website has been set up showing walls from across the world. It includes a kit for people to create their own before I die wall. Why not set one up near you? Something for one of those empty shopfronts on our derelict High Streets?

The kit can be found here.