What’s the deal with life and death?

Talking about death and dying – it’s never easy.  That’s why, when I trained to be a funeral celebrant during the first year of the pandemic, I bought a set of conversation cards created by Marie Curie, who ‘believe in starting those [life and death] conversations now, so your loved ones know what you’d choose when the time comes.’ They are ‘designed to get the conversation flowing to help you share your wishes and learn more about your family and friends.’

It was during the first year of the pandemic, I trained to be a civil funeral celebrant, someone who conducts a burial or cremation service, working with the family and/or friends to acknowledge -through words, music, visuals, and so on – the person who has died.

A few months after getting my accreditation, I realised that being a funeral celebrant wasn’t for me.  There were a couple of reasons for this  a) I didn’t have the schedule that would let me get somewhere on a specific day and time  b) although there are excellent exceptions, the funeral industry and the way it operates is questionable, and the costs of funerals are very high – the average cost of dying is £8,864 – meaning a lack of accessibility to a decent funeral for some sectors of the population. 

On this last, I started to explore the idea of offering free funeral services to people with no or low incomes, but again there were stumbling blocks around this idea, which is sound in principle but turned out to be less so in practice. 

Nevertheless, I’ve persisted with my interest in the ways people talk about, and approach, death.  It’s generally deemed to be ‘a difficult topic’, at least in (predominantly non-religious) cultures where there aren’t defined beliefs and rituals around dying and death.  (Grayson Perry did a lovely programme on death – looking at how different cultures approach it – in his 4-part series Rites of Passage).

And in these past weeks, dying and death have become almost centre stage – not only in the news of the various global conflicts but also in the day-to-dayness of my own life. 

On the first: the UN Global Food Programme lists 6 conflicts currently having major impacts on food security, making the point that ‘Hunger fuels conflict, and conflict fuels hunger. These six countries are stark examples of this vicious cycle.  It’s why the U.N. World Food Programme was awarded the 2020 Nobel Peace Prize for our work to prevent the use of starvation as a weapon of war.’

On the second: 3 people in my circle of friends, told me of someone close to them who had died during the week,

Also during the week I attended a workshop exploring stories of connectedness, relatedness, humanity and sharing in times of loss, grief and death particularly in relation to organisational life and work, with the aim of considering ‘whether/how organisations can become compassionate communities: ones that that squarely and supportively acknowledge the major but under-recognised, the least spoken about, and the often-overlooked human experiences in all communities of serious illness, ageing, dying, caregiving and loss’.

And, also this week, I started the mandatory training for the bereavement support work I’ve taken on for a local hospice.  (As an aside, I’m not sure why the mandatory training includes ‘Food Hygiene’, as my work is mainly on Zoom – am I supposed to quiz my clients on the cleanliness of the cups they are drinking their tea from?  I asked the HR person why I needed to do it.  She said that there was one set of training for all the different hospice roles.  They’re planning to tailor the training to specific roles but haven’t done so yet.  I now have a Food Hygiene Certificate!)

Getting back to the point.  In both the workshop and in talking about the three people who’d died I found confirmation of the findings of a report that ‘most people still aren’t keen to talk about death and funerals.  Only 1% of people [surveyed] knew all their loved ones’ funeral wishes – and 19% didn’t know any of their wishes at all.  Of those who knew their wishes, 62% had been told directly, 18% were told by family and friends, and 16% found out from the will.’ 

That’s where the Marie Curie cards are so helpful – and they were used in the workshop, I mentioned earlier.  My group never got beyond the first question:  Would you prefer to be buried, cremated or something else? Several people hadn’t thought about it for themselves before, and others didn’t know what the wishes of their immediate family members might be.  One person knew he’d told his family members what the wanted, but couldn’t remember himself what he’d asked them to do in the event of his death, and was going home to check. 

The discussion was, surprisingly perhaps, wonderfully energising, it was refreshing to have the conversation with complete strangers, discussing our wishes in death. As someone said, ‘We don’t do enough of it. I don’t even talk to my friends about it. …   The more we feel free to discuss death the more we will be able to support and help people navigate their own deaths.’ 

We exchanged information on different cultural responses to death – the Jewish, the Hindu, were two that came up, and someone asked the question, ‘Is death the only certainty?’   One person mentioned all the euphemisms that surround the act of dying, wondering why we can’t simply say, ‘He/she died’.   Someone else said that she would like to be cremated and then have an apple tree growing from her ashes.  From my celebrant training, I knew of an organisation, Let your love grow, that can arrange this, I wonder if she’ll tell her family and if so, will they act on it?

The 4 questions that we didn’t get round to were: What do you think happens when a person dies? Name three things you’d like to do before you die.  Has the war in Ukraine changed your perspective on death and loss?  Is death a different loss is from say, redundancy or team dispersal? NOTE – the last two questions are not in the Marie Curie deck of cards.

For my part, when I reached my 65 birthday, I presented each of my daughters with a pack containing my will, lasting power of attorney documents, living will,  and leaving my body to medical research documents.  They know all the songs/readings I might enjoy at a memorial celebration of my life, and talking about death is not a subject we shy away from.  What I need to do now is revise my will and consider pre-paying funeral costs.  

My mother was a fantastic role model in preparing for her death – we knew exactly what her wishes were, and she’d pre-paid the funeral costs.  As I saw a close friend struggle, this week, with not knowing anything of what his partner who’d just died, would have liked or wanted, I can only urge people to have the courage to plan ahead, to talk about their inevitable death and their wishes around it while they are still alive.

Is death a discussable topic for you?  Let me know.

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