I once called at my mother’s house to find her on hands and knees deep into the small cupboard under the stairs.
‘Hello Mum! What are you doing under there?’ I called.
Wriggling her rump out of the dingy den, she said,
‘I’m making sure there’s enough drink for my wake.’
That was seven years ago. Aware of her age and still grieving after Dad’s death a year earlier, she probably felt it timely to check the wine and whisky. She’s now 94, and her inner strength has been a great source of inspiration for all of us. No doubt she still checks the booze stock and, more than once, has taken me through her formal documents, explaining meticulously what I’d need to do.
The only phrase missing in her explanation was ‘When I die.’ Okay, in the circumstances it wasn’t essential since it was obvious what she was referring to. But isn’t it also because talking to someone about death, yours or other people’s, is very hard?
It’s particularly so across generations. The younger you are, the further you are from dying and the more distractions you have. Death is not on the agenda. In The Prince of Mist by Carlos Ruiz Zafon, a 72 year old lighthouse keeper tells his grandson how growing old and dying is perceived during three broad periods of life.
“During the first it doesn’t even occur to us that one day we will grow old. We don’t think that time passes or that from the day we are born we’re all walking towards a common end. After the first years of youth comes the second period, in which a person becomes aware of the fragility of life and what begins like a simple niggling doubt rises inside you like a flood of uncertainties that will stay with you for the rest of your days. Finally, towards the end of life, we reach the period of acceptance and, consequently, of resignation. A time of waiting.”
This is where readers in their ‘first period’ might choose to skip the rest of my article – fair enough! Indeed, the lighthouse keeper’s story would probably have been lost on his grandson.
Yet dying is the only certain thing about life. Something we can all be confident will happen. All right, there’s the famous quotation,
“ … in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.”
In fact, celebrities and large corporations have proved that taxation is far from certain. I prefer my ex-father-in-law’s assertion that the only two certain things in life are 1) Death and 2) If you take your scissors to be sharpened by a scissor grinder they’ll always come back blunter than before.
When Mum calmly declared she was preparing for her wake, perhaps she was hinting at a wish to talk about it. But the discussion was one-way. Because I’m a generation behind and leading a busy life, my instinctive reaction was to close the conversation down.
‘Oh, you’ll be with us a long time yet, mum!’
Whilst it might have been harsh to have said, ‘Good idea – won’t be long now, will it?’ or ‘Don’t worry – leave some cash handy and I’ll pop down the offy if we run short,’ my actual response was little better in the sense that it only left me feeling more comfortable. It wasn’t particularly helpful to her. With hindsight I could have asked how she felt and helped count the bottles. But I didn’t. And even now I feel a tinge of guilt writing about the episode – despite the fact that dying is normal, natural, certain, and a common end for all of us.
What is it about the word ‘die’? In spite of its certainty it somehow poses a threat – as if saying the word will hasten the event. Instead we choose euphemistic terms like passed away, no longer with us or demise. Softer in tone, these words seem to help us cope.
Sometimes humour replaces euphemism. Popping your clogs or meeting your maker are harmless terms if used generically. I particularly liked a recent comment by Peter McParland, scorer of the two goals that gave Aston Villa their last FA Cup Final win in 1957. In a recent TV interview about this year’s final between Arsenal and Aston Villa, the sprightly 81year old said,
‘It’d be great to see them do it again before I move on.’
Move on! Sweet!
I accept that in our culture some topics are filed in the drawer labelled ‘unmentionables’. Many prefer to hold their counsel on matters of income, religion and which Party they vote for. Sadly, some also find conversations about cancer or mental health too awkward to handle.
But why death when it’s so inescapable? To me, dying is as important as being born in the sense that respect for life should not have diminished. With the exception of sudden unexpected death, and say dementia or severe illness where people might not be best placed to articulate thoughts, the emotional impact could be softened by more open discussion between those in their last years and those to be left behind. A kind of ‘living’ celebration rather than a funereal one.
I’ve just read a wonderful book by Caitlin Doughty called Smoke Gets In Your Eyes. A qualified US mortician, she offers a compassionate, respectful, yet hilarious account of her thirteen years experience with dead people and their loved ones. Her well-considered views help me realise that I too am well into the third period – the ‘period of acceptance’. For some time I’ve held no fear of death; only a niggling concern for those I leave behind. I keep my Will in order, and from time to time, when a natural opportunity arises, I try to be open about my feelings with relatives or close friends. Some are happy to join in, others treat death as an ‘unmentionable’, pausing diplomatically before saying,
‘Er, did I tell you we were going to Corfu this year?’
Yes, I try. But I don’t always get my timing right. I recently met up with my other half after being away a few days. We had plenty of catching up to do, but so taken was I by the mortician’s story I’d been reading on the train that my opening gambit was,
‘I must tell you! I’ve bought a great new book!’
‘Oh yes. What’s it about?’
‘Death,’ I said.
‘Thanks for that,’ she said. ‘Please can we start this conversation again?’
Copyright © Paul Costello May 2015
Addendum August 2015
Since writing this article I’ve read another book based on crematorium work, this time a funny, sad, yet ultimately optimistic novel called “A Trick I Learned from Dead Men” by Kitty Aldridge. I felt this section had the same tone as my piece. The main character, Lee Hart, is reflecting on the earlier, premature loss of his mother and the more recent sudden demise of his stepfather Lester:
“I sit in the room. I’m supposed to be hoovering, but. Here she died. Here Lester lay. Facts unfit for airing in the presence of prospective house buyers, under the rug they must be brushed, pronto.
Framed photographs. Us when we were young. I stare at us. Me and Ned with freckles, gaps in our teeth. Mum and Les leaning, laughing up at the camera, surprised, sun-kissed. We seem alive, more than we are now. Who are these people and what are they doing? And where have they gone? I lie on the bed.
I wonder if I lie here long enough whether I might slope off too. I close my eyes. I don’t mind, make a change. Buenos noches. Adios. Not that it’s easy of course. It isn’t. Death: the most natural thing in the world is unnaturally tough to do if you’re trying too hard. And certainly not if you are clocking it before it’s had a chance to clock you. A watched pot, etcetera. Stare death in the face and watch it paralyse. Death would rather take you by surprise, creep up sideways and bosh.”