Tuesday, 26 June 2012

Dispatches – Channel 4, 8.00pm 25th June 2012

There were obvious things being done wrongly - glaring errors in the care of the deceased and the level of staff training - management and possibly appropriate staffing, however, it was a programme that clearly set out to 'bash the Co-Op'. While I personally can't stand the industrialisation of funerals and don't approve of the use of funeral arrangers to arrange everything front of house and then an unknown (to the family) Funeral Director turning up on the day of the funeral....with the unconnected back-stage people just seeing to manual tasks - I feel strongly that the programme needed to do some work in the independent sector too as balance. The funeral sector is un-regulated, with trade bodies trying to 'police' members internally - and with the ex funeral ombudsman clearly ignorant of what is involved, one asks how to progress at all? I want to share several questions/points. 1. With the number of people dying - would the general population be willing to have more active mortuary units behind their high-street funeral homes, rather than large hubs - and possibly pay extra for them? - Funeral costs are moaned about at this stage - it could possibly be worse. Even issues of storage for the number of correctly sized coffins required on a daily basis is beyond the imagination of most people; perhaps the coffin work could be done offsite...but space for the dead is still going to be a concern, and getting them to the chapel of rest subtly is always an issue in a high-street site. I know more than one excellent funeral home on a trading estate - possibly we should move death off the high street altogether - or alternatively educate people (not just snipe pointedly), into what is actually involved. 2. With the increasing popularisation of eccentrically shaped coffins - would the general population be prepared to pay also for separate storage and transportation of them if necessary? 3. Why did the programme not address any of the issues that occur in delays between death and correct documentation being available - sometimes it is not possible to complete the practical body-care as fast as one would like - simply because the registration and/or Doctor's papers haven't been done. This does not excuse lying to families to cover up not having completed the necessary care... 4. Why did the programme not make comparisons with the small end of the funeral market - the Green Funerals, the DIY funerals and the good and the bad end of the independent sector? I have never been one to support the Co-Op funeral service hugely, but as a large provider, they are in a position of somehow having to make provision for what they do... Hubs clearly present huge problems - both logistically and in managing the workforce. Some members of the independent sector will be crowing at the programme, but I would ask them in all honesty to think of the logistics of coping with the huge number of funerals that the Co-Op currently do - and to proffer some sensible, considered input as to resolving the issues raised. It is all very well sitting smugly in a small pristine premises, where everything is perfect and in control, when you only do 5 funerals a week. The big independents and other large groups who do hundreds of funerals a month might be in a position to make suggestions - or to tell us how they manage...if indeed they actually always do manage. I would love to know! I am sad that this programme will have upset and unsettled people who are in a vulnerable state. I am sad that a mortuary has been shown that has not paid attention to ithe sacred task of respecting the dead - who are even more vulnerable than the living. I am sad also, that once again, what I and many of my hard working and passionate collegues stand for has been called into question by - what? A combination of poor workmanship, bad practice  and mismanagement, enhanced by very careful editing. The programmes clear intent seemed to be to find the worst in the Co-Op, and only the Co-Op and to make a sensational point through undercover means. I hope in the long-run that the programme has more positive reprocussions than negative ones...and I leave you there, as a feirce independant, who actually feels a bit sorry for the big guys today. Industry and funerals were never going to be happy partners. Perhaps if fewer of us died per annum it would help!

Sunday, 8 January 2012

Dead Line Art Project

This is a project that I have just been asked to be involved in - as one of the Death Specialists.....It will be a really fascinating couple of days for all concerned!

Dead Line is a live performance installation which opens up a space to talk openly, or a little more openly about death, dying and our own mortality.

"Dead Line offers us the opportunity to step away from the hustle and bustle of just being and to think about coming to a stop. Strangely this experience is immensely positive and uplifting...a privileged moment I treasure still and I hope you will too."
Helen Cole, Director, Inbetween Time Productions

Friday, 11 November 2011

Visit the Dying Matters website

Thanks Chris Quigley! For writing about my graduation in the famous Quigley's Cabinet... I feel honoured indeed.

Chris Quigley writes books that any self respecting death student shouldn't resist...they are fascinating and often pretty odd. They are the kind of books that are very difficult to put down, which is sometimes difficult when one is supposed to be writing an essay or dissertation. Chris is very generous with her encouragement - and her blog is a one stop shop of strange delights.

Seriously - the degree result was great, this mention is just the icing and candles on the cake!

Wednesday, 10 August 2011

Strange but true...so they say.

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A Quest for a Father………….!

Because of the nature of my parent’s relationship, (what this nature was exactly I will probably never know), my father has always been to me, a nebulous two-dimensional creature. This dimensionality was due to the concept that I had of my father, which was for a long time based entirely on an incident that happened when I was about four. I found, somewhere or other, a photograph of my mother and an unknown man holding a little girl…(Me!)

“Who’s this?” I asked my mother as I peered at the small picture.
“It’s your father” my mother replied quickly as if to brush the matter aside.
I persisted with my questions…….”what’s his name?”

The photograph disappeared very quickly afterwards and was not mentioned ever again!

That appeared to be it, but I never forgot the faces looking out of that photo.

Even in my extreme youth; I felt that the subject of my father was not a one that could be pursued easily and this proved to be the case. Throughout the years I was to find out only limited, sketchy and strangely romantic snippets of information about this man whose name was, in fact, not John at all, but Andrè.

Several stages in the growth of this strange daughter/fantasy-father ‘relationship’ stick out in my mind.

I had been told that I had been born in Johannesburg and that my parents had met when my mother was a Doctor’s assistant in Alexandra Township, where my father was serving as a policeman. This work of my mother’s was quite unusual, as I am led to believe that at that time in the 1950’s, she was one of the very few white women to be allowed access to such a highly segregated black township.

My father was apparently skilled in many of the African languages, I suppose that this was why he was able to do his job which, in the main, would be to patrol the black immigrant workforce brought into South Africa to mine for Gold. He rode around on a large white horse and according to mother, looked very handsome. My mother was known to be ‘horse mad’ in her youth and so the combination of the dark good - looks of the uniformed policeman and his white horse obviously swept her off her feet.

They started out by living together in a small rondaavel in someone’s garden in a pleasant leafy suburb of Johannesburg. When I eventually visited this part of SA myself, I did a trip to see the places that appeared on my parent’s marriage certificates. I sat in the church where they were wed. My mother said that she cried, throughout her marriage service, (either in mortification, or in joy, who knows)? They married in April and I was born in the October of the same year. My maths has always been bad, but even I cannot get the intervening months to add up to nine!

Despite the year of my birth being 1958, my mother said (on one of the rare occasions that she spoke about him), that father took great care of me and bathed, changed and helped to feed me. I suspect that mother was grateful for this as by her account she had not been at all well during pregnancy, or my birth which happened during a fierce thunderstorm.

When I was seventeen and not particularly well myself, suffering from depression that would eventually lead to a secretly borne but never the less debilitating agoraphobia, my mother took me to see a homoeopathic Doctor. We sat in the consulting room and I answered the many questions that go into making a holistic homoeopathic profile; from which the Doctor makes subsequent diagnoses and prescription. The Doctor asked me if there was any illness in the family, a query that I answered to the best of my ability. After which my mother chipped in with a gem of a conversation stopper; “of course her father was a schizophrenic”

WHAT? I thought, completely flawed by the remark.

The Doctor looked at me and realized, bless her, that this piece of news was as new to me as it was to her and she gently brushed it aside and continued by saying to my mother, “was that a confirmed diagnosis and did he receive treatment for it?”……………..
I don’t remember the answer, or much else about that consultation at all; my mind was going at ten to the dozen.

I tried more of the cross questioning tactics when we got home…..
It did not have much effect other than my mother’s flat response of “I don’t remember”.

But eventually I did get a bit more out of her: “We went riding in the bush together, his parents ran an Algemene Handedaal (trading post) and had a pet baboon on a chain that I was afraid of………..He threatened me with a gun once, I found some uncut diamonds and flushed them down the toilet…………I always wanted a daughter called Angela, but when you were born, he registered you as Marianne Angela…….He painted and played the guitar, he wore white swimming trunks and looked so handsome when he dived into the pool….he was a good diver…….He sold my house and when I came to England, I only had you, a suitcase and fifty pounds.”

So the ‘romantic’ of the tale of my father continued to unfold!

The news about my father’s illness posed many internal questions and led me to read about schizophrenia. I was already struggling to live with a manic depressive and often suicidal mother, so I quickly concluded that as far as breeding stock went, I could be a walking time bomb. Not only this, but I asked the inevitable question; would I too succumb to mental illness myself as I got older?

There were so many unanswered questions.

When I was eighteen, mother reluctantly conceded that there were documents at the solicitors that would enable me to obtain a passport. I sent off for them and became the proud possessor of a birth certificate, stating my race to be white - in true apartheid style; plus my parents’ marriage certificate and a change of name document. As well as these I had a naturalization certificate, which proved that I was now a British citizen.

All these and more had to go off to the passport office, it took ages and waiting was a nightmare, but the precious blue booklet eventually came.
Not that I would have been able to go anywhere at that point you understand. My boundaries set by the agoraphobia were confined strictly within my village patch, with the very occasional foray to the nearest town. These self-imposed limits were to dog me for many years. I was (outwardly) fine if I had someone with me, but could only go so far on my own. I became excellent at excuses and for years, no one actually realized.

Nevertheless I had at last got hold of information that gave me the feeling of having some kind of identity the crumpled pieces of paper that the solicitor had been harboring for so long gave me roots.

I wrote a letter at this point to my South African Guardian asking if he had any memories of my father, but for whatever reason, access to any information or mutual friends was denied. Someone else ‘couldn’t remember’!

Then, I found another photo!

It was stuck between the pages of a book called ‘Jenny’ (mother’s name).

I kept it very firmly for myself this time!

It was bigger than I remembered the first one to have been and seemed to be a blown up version of the original, as it appeared grainy. As I looked at it, I realized with the help of my older eyes, that we were all sitting in my Grandmothers garden in Bournemouth! Gran’s stool, Gran’s hedge. What was this about, where was Africa?

More cross-questioning ensued.
“I don’t really remember”. Was my mother’s first, predictable and most unsatisfactory reply. “But…” mother went on…..” he did stay in Bournemouth. He came over on the next flight…. he had sold my house and all my possessions….he tried to climb out of the kitchen window and Mr. Timms (next door) saw him, thought it was a burglar and called the police.”

“What happened to him?” I asked.
“He was supposed to have a job at the School of African and Oriental Studies in London with his languages, but I don’t know if he ever really went there….he just disappeared.”

And that was all I was going to get. Except of course for mothers immortal advice about ‘men’, which I am sure, must have been drawn from very personal experience!

1. Men always have to go to the loo as soon as you dish out food.
2. Men always want to put ‘it’ in from behind when you are trying to sleep.
3. Once they get excited there is no going back.

Mother died when I was thirty-two, so I felt free to ask my Granny a few things.
This tack proved to be somewhat more rewarding.

I started the cross-questioning……………with the photographic evidence.

“Oh yes” she replied, “your father lived here with us for about a year, he was very polite, but I had to pay off a lot of his debts. He sold your mothers house you know, and all the things we had sent out for her. It took us ages to pack everything up and ship it to her. Even Joy sent some of her paintings…It all went………He was supposed to be going up to London, but he just disappeared in the end. Even the South African Police came looking for him. I had to send them away. It was all very trying”.

Then she went on…..”After he went away, I received a letter from his father begging us not to give up on him. He seemed a nice sort, an agricultural type. I think your father had a brother or something, I don’t quite remember any more. It really was a trying time; it upset all of us very much, especially your mother”

So when Gran died at the age of 104 having been preceded into heaven by her siblings as well as both daughters and her husband, I ended up sorting out her personal possessions. To be honest, it was more like sorting out for all of them. I had the remnants of eight lives to contend with and understandably the experience really got to me.

One of the main things to affect me was that I found a five-year diary that had been written in the 1950’s by my aunt Joy. This covered my mother’s move to Africa, my parents meeting and their engagement - to the disapproval of his parents – who were an American father and French mother - and the eventual marriage. The families mounting excitement at the lead up to my birth… and mothers visit, with me, to England when I was fourteen months old. Principally because she wanted to see my Grandpa who was very ill with yet another nervous breakdown!

Suddenly my two dimensional father became more of a reality. Suddenly, I found out, from the pages of Joy’s diary, that he had simply ‘followed’ my mother, traveling apparently on the same plane and arriving at my Gran’s house three days later…………. Why?

Joy writes of “enjoying ironing his shirts….the fun of a larger family”, of him being” jolly and easy to speak to”…of my mother “being withdrawn and secretive”.

Nothing really explained what was actually going on. Or what happened when the whole event went pear-shaped.

A family friend (who I remember mostly for sending beautiful Easter eggs to me in Yorkshire, the boxes of which I kept my cars and Lego bricks in for years and years) later let me into another startling revelation:

“Of course you know that you were hidden up there (Yorkshire) and only two people outside the immediate family knew where you were…don’t you!”

NO I didn’t! Was there actually abuse? Did he try to kidnap me?

Well, that did it! I decided that I would try to look for his family…………..the Salvation Army had a go too. No chance, there was just not enough information!

Does my father still exist I wonder, even in anyone else’s memory?

Do I have any other relatives bearing his name in Africa, America or anywhere?

Or will my Father simply remain a two-dimensional face that peers out of that photo – mirrored by my own as I grow to look more and more like him.

Wherever he is and whoever he was; he left his mark, on me – a memory of him through my cells - albeit rather enigmatic, I am, never the less, in part, his genetic monument!

Thursday, 4 August 2011

Gran - a bit of her life before her death

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In my last blog post, I talked a little about my Grandma, a woman who was born in 1896 - a time that I have come to regard as one of the prime eras of Victorian industrialism. Gran was born in West Vale, Halifax in a Mill cottage belonging to Prospect Mill, which in those days, probably didn't look too unlike this photo of it.

Prospect Mill, was started by my Great Great Grandfather, George Ingham, and my Gran's father Fred Sutcliffe had started work there 'at the bottom' and through a passion for self education, managed to better himself into eventual marriage of the bosses daughter Harriet and promotion to wool buyer and a seat on the board of directors.

Gran was the youngest of four children and to give some scale to her story, her sister Lily was twenty years her senior. Gran said that even as a small child she never felt excluded by her older siblings. At family concerts, she sat under the piano until she was old and adept enough to sit at it and accompany her sister Olive who played the violin. Gran's brother Ingham had "a bit of a gym" set up in the loft and patiently taught his little sister, my Gran, to climb ropes and wall-bars.

Eventually, the family moved from the cottage, to a huge house in Halifax, 'Gads Hill' (named after Dicken's house), it was set as the name suggests, up on a hill. They had large gardens and a tennis court. As the older children matured into teenagers and then early adulthood, house-partys and tennis evenings were common. Fourteen places were quite usual at meal times. These family parties, were also often bi- or tri lingual, as Ingham had been sent to study in Germany, spending time in Hannover and learning to speak the language fluently. Following Ingham, when their turn came, Gran's older sisters Lily and Olive were sent to 'Finishing School'in Switzerland and also became talented linguists. My Gran, Phyllis, visited them in Switzerland and shared the family talent for languages; even aged 104, she would sing herself to sleep in French or German. Lily corresponded in French to her old friends even in her 90s hampered as she was with bottle-bottom glasses and failing sight. Sadly Auntie Lily died when I was in my teens. She was the one that I really would have liked to know as an adult - we have several interesting things in common.

It was a priviledged childhood for all of them - one where servants reigned in the kitchen and were summoned by bells. Fine art and music were topics of discussion and actively persued as hobbys. Music was my Gran's first love and as she finished her time at school, she stayed on to teach the younger ones music and trained to become a concert pianist.

That was the plan - but then war broke out "and that..." said Gran, "...was that!".

Coming from a home where servants cleaned, they soon found themselves as trainee nurses scrubbing floors with carbolic soap, making ready a large house to recieve wounded soldiers covered in mud and blood from the 'front'.

Lily and Olive also nursed in France and their younger sister, my Gran nursed in England and Scotland. She had fond memories of 'her boys' and kept a photo album of some of her patients as they recuperated from the horrors of the trenches and the front-lines of places such as flanders. Ingham was sent to Egypt, where he survived war, only to contract Pneumonia from a swimming pool and die prematurely leaving a young widow and two daughters. The years of war were pivotal to my Gran, the austerity and horror of the First and then the Second World War gave her a self discipline and a code of living that remained with her always, it shaped her attitude to life and society. The live-in home helps that she had to have in the 1990s had a very hard time trying to live up to her very simple way of life and I was constantly smuggling loo rolls and other 'luxury items' in for them. Gran declared that they should only use one sheet of toilet tissue at a time and woe betide anyone found throwing food away! Gran used to search the rubbish bins in her kitchen for food waste and on finding anything discarded by her home help, would 'tut-tut' through her teeth - mumbling darkly while observing the newly found scrap - words like "this would feed a child...".

She was not an easy person to care for, or shop for. Nothing was ever quite right - or up to scratch. When she once cut her leg and I spent 5 hours in A&E with her, it was an eye opener for me. She spent the time re-arranging the department from her cubicle, stating what (in her WW1 opinion) was not rightly placed, proportioned or positioned. The Doctors, all of which she declared, were "...far too young and LOOK he even has a PONY-TAIL". Being deaf as a post, these comments came out at full volume. I was mortified and I think the Dr with the Ponytail was pleased to discharge her!

As a consequence of her fussiness, I never ever offered to do her shopping, having realised at quite an early age that it was a recipe for disaster, more than that, an open invitation for criticism and for falling out of favour...

My mum was terrified of Gran and also her sister, my Aunt Joy. Having lived her whole life on the end of my Grandma's critical tongue and my Aunt's equally critical and caustic tongue, she never felt that she had gained her mother's approval - certainly she didn't get her sister's approval. Having witnessed this, I was not going to enter into the possibility of a critical relationship with my Gran and Aunt as I saw how destructive it could be. So, when I eventually started to visit them more regularly, after my mum died, we ate cakes, drank tea and developed a relationship that involved art and literature. It was a relationship, for the most part devoid of conflict - I simply wouldn't play into the game and avoided it.

After my Aunt Joy died in the 1990s (Gran nursed her from the age of 3 till her death at 58), the dynamic between us mellowed and we became quite good friends - regardless of this, I still had to maintain the status-quo between her and her 'carers'.

However, after mum had died in 1991 and I became inseperable from coffins, hearses and graves, Gran was more than a little perplexed at my chosen career. She would often pronounce in exasperation her mantra, "women don't go to funerals in our family..."

When my Aunt Joy eventually died, Gran refused point blank to go to her funeral - repeating again and again, the family funeral mantra. I pointed out that as we were a family consisting only of women, it seemed a shame that none of us would therefore go to each others funerals...and she backed down, but only as far as saying she would be picked up in the limousine. When we arrived in the cemetery for the graveside service, Gran refused to get out of the car - hence (see last blog post) me having to place it nearer the grave in the hopes that the very expensive set of digital hearing aids would pick up what the doddery Vicar that Gran had chosen was about to say. I didn't realise that the Vicar was doddering about behind the limousine, hence he got a bit of a tap on the leg. Things went from bad to worse when the doddery Vicar started reciting the 23rd Psalm and a pneumatic drill sang forth just down the road, drowning out his words.
However, by some miracle, (or wishful thinking on her part), Gran said that she heard every word of the service and that it was lovely - funny that - I was standing next to the grave and couldn't hear a thing. This was possibly, either because I didn't have any digital hearing aids, or because I was laughing so much internally as the doddery Vicar didn't seem to know a thing about my 'Auntie Wheels'. Joy by name but not always by nature!

Gran perked up hugely after Joy died. Being her constant carer for 58 years had been a huge commitment and although her life didn't change much from a routine point of view, Gran became more interested in my work and we started to have more regular afternoon teas. Her 100th birthday came and went - she was disgusted when she spotted the printed signature on her telegram from the Queen, but failed to notice that her birthday lunch was held in a very camp Gay Hotel. She was however, astonished that her Neice (Auntie Joan - who's funeral I blogged about), had been brought down from Worcestershire and the following day, she entertained Joan, who returned to my home in the evening, shattered, and remarked wistfully about my Gran, that "she didn't even have a rest after lunch...." Joan was at least 30 years her junior!

So, that was my Gran - well, a little insight into her. She was a tiny woman with a large personality. Throughout her life, although her parents moved down south after the Great War, she remained a Yorkshire woman at heart. Her motto was that "if it's Yorkshire, it's alright" - but, you have to say that like she did, because she retained the correct accent!

It worked for her.