Tuesday, 19 December 2006

In the midst of life

Having got all evangelical about home birth, I want to do the same about home death. Whenever I talk to someone about the death of someone close to them, I'm reminded how unusual it is that the two deaths I've experienced - my father and my grandmother, my father's mother - were both at home, not in hospital. Both of them I saw die; and I'm sure that if I hadn't seen my father die it would have taken me a long time to really believe that it had happened. He also made an incredibly brave death - something I'm not sure anyone has the option of in a hospital.

I do want to read The American Way of Death: I suspect that nothing much has changed since Nancy Mitford wrote it. I particularly hate people who extract money from you by hushing you into embarrassment, and I'm fairly sure that funeral directors come into that category.

What also sticks in my mind from my father's death are the florist who got quite pushy when my mother said she just wanted red roses to put on the coffin - obviously, a beautiful gesture can't be a beautiful gesture unless it costs more - and the local vicar, who after half an hour of talking about my father was still failing to get his name right. This turned out to be a good thing, as we decided we didn't want someone like him involved with the funeral, so we ran it ourselves.

It was lovely - as lots of people said afterwards, and then wondered if they should have. We chose poems and asked different people to read them: I read 'Fear no more the heat of the sun' and my Welsh partner of the time read 'And death shall have no dominion'. And we asked people my Dad had worked with and members of societies he's been in to just stand up and talk about him. It worked so well that someone we hadn't asked felt able to stand up and talk too, which was wonderful.

But in a way the situation was very simple. Last year a very good friend of mine died, and as he was in his mid-fifties and a lovely, lovely man, he had loads of friends as well as dozens of relations. He'd worked for the university too, so there was a huge memorial service in one of the colleges. There were two problems for me: one was that it felt odd to claim him as a close friend (he'd been one of my two best friends for some years) when so many other people had claims on him. I felt almost a fraud. But the other was a more general problem: the huge memorial service was to celebrate his life, but it took place not that long after he'd died, and his illness had been quite a sudden one. And I didn't want to celebrate his life: I wanted to mourn his death.

It almost seems as though you're not quite allowed to do that any more. I suppose there's a difference between funerals and memorial services, but even funerals seem obliged to have a positive slant. If you're genuinely Christian they probably ought to be anyway, but hardly anyone I know is. Though I suppose if you're going to believe anything, that's when it'll be - and why as an atheist I take particular care not to cop out at that point.

I suppose the sanitisation of death, removed to hospitals and controlled by other people, is related to the hygienic nature of funerals and their lack of outright emotion. Perhaps the latter is an English thing, though? I can't imagine Italians, for instance, dabbing with hankies instead of sobbing over the coffin, but perhaps I'm just thinking in cliches.

I suppose, also, that I don't like personal, domestic events to be taken over by church and state (and doctors). Ha! That ties up a preference for homebirth with being anti-marriage very neatly...

1 comment:

seelessofme said...

That is a very interesting take on Death. There are now alternatives for funerals too. You can use a celebrant who will get to know the person wh is dead and look after the funeral ensuring it runs smoothly asaying any words that need to be said and reading poems, inviting peiople to speak etc. Ultimately you did the right thing. It is important to feel in control at times like this.