New views on dying – and a visit to a Death Cafe
You’re going to die. So am I. We all are. We know that. But we don’t like to talk about it.
In previous times, when life expectancy was shorter and death was more routine, it was harder to ignore. A relative would wash and prepare the body and family and friends would see it at home. But nowadays, the business of death is handled by hospitals and undertakers. And many of us avoid discussion of this unavoidable event, as if we hold a superstitious belief that a black-robed figure wielding a scythe will be summoned up.
Having a chat about death doesn’t hasten it. We’re scared of it partly because of its unpredictability, but airing your thoughts around death in general and yours in particular could help you feel slightly more in control. It’s certainly worth thinking about how you want your funeral. Why wouldn’t you want to finish your life in the style in which you lived it?
We’ve all been to funerals on traditional lines, conducted by a vicar who didn’t know or never met the star of the show, who perhaps gets their name wrong, or paints a verbal picture so lacking in detail that no one recognises them. But there are now many more options, like humanist celebrants, wicker, wood or cardboard coffins, direct cremation or burial (where the body is taken straight to the crematorium, or buried from the place of death), green funerals, natural burial sites, you can even be buried in your garden (as Kirstie Allsopp’s mother was). And you don’t have to deal with a funeral director; you can do it all yourself. Planning ahead could help keep costs down; the average cost of a funeral is about £4,000, and the industry is currently being investigated by the Competition and Markets Authority on pricing.
You may feel that what happens to you after you die doesn’t matter, especially if you believe that death is the end, lights out, no alternative state of being, no angels on fluffy clouds or devils poking people with pitchforks. Can I make a personal plea here, based on the sudden death of my father six months ago: that you decide on something, even the basic burial vs cremation, because it’s one less decision to make for whoever will be sorting it out.
Once decided, put your wishes on record, perhaps keeping them with your will (please say you’ve made a will), again because it makes it easier for those you leave behind. And it can prevent arguments. A friend of mine works at a funeral director’s and regularly witnesses rows among family members who have very differing views on ‘what they would have wanted’.
One way to explore end-of-life planning could be a Death Café, where people gather to eat cake, drink tea and discuss death. There are over 1,500 of these groups in the UK, set up to ‘increase awareness of death with a view to helping people make the most of their (finite) lives’. At these sessions, there’s no agenda or objectives, just a respectful, confidential forum to share ideas.
At my thought-provoking session in north London, participants were aged from 19 to 90 and topics of conversation ranged across the landscape of death from the practical to the philosophical. One topic I touched on there was my irritation at how people avoid the D words – ‘died’, ‘dead’ – as if it eases your pain. In her fascinating book All That Remains: A Life in Death (Transworld, £16.99; paperback out March 5, £8.99) Professor (of anatomy and forensic anthropology) Sue Black says: ‘We talk about “losing” someone, whisper of their “passing” and, in sombre respectful tones, we commiserate with others when a loved one has “gone”. I didn’t lose my father – I know exactly where he is…He has not passed, he is not gone, he is not lost: he is dead. His life is extinct, and none of the euphemistic rhetoric in the world will ever bring it, or him, back.’
Some agreed with me; others didn’t. But it was a lovely supportive atmosphere in which to bring up whatever you felt like, without fear of being judged or criticised. Over the two-and-a-half-hour session, we covered fear of death, parents not making wills, artificial intelligence and immortality, whether Victorian mourning dress rituals should be revived, the ageing population and how having to clear out a dead person’s house makes you go home and start decluttering (well known in Sweden, where it’s called döstädning, ‘death cleaning’). There were some tears, more laughter – and great carrot cake.
Find your nearest Death Café, or see how to set one up HERE.
Adrienne Wyper writes about health & wellbeing, and other good stuff.