Wednesday, 3 August 2011
20 Years of daily death...
In the middle of the night on 31st August 1991, my mum aged 58 - not feeling well, ran a bath and got in it....sometime later on the next day, she was lifted out of her bath by the coroner's men and taken away to be examined. They wanted to know why she had died.
I have to say, it was a question that I asked myself, when I was eventually tracked down at a friends house. I asked the question more than once and still sometimes re-visit it.
To cut a long story short, the coroner never worked out the reason why mum died, and gave an open verdict. I think it was to shut me up as I refused to accept that she had taken her own life (the path' results suggested an overdose), and luckily, I went to the inquest armed with a portly solicitor as I had wind of the way things might go...the process was a little long-winded, but we got there in the end.
The whole event and the unfolding circumstances around mum's death and funeral were particularly surreal and impacted my life to such an extent that 20 years later, there has hardly been a day in which death has not featured loudly or largely in my life. My mother, by prematurely dying, gave me a whole new outlook on the meaning of life. Moreover, I gained a new career path along which to stumble and acquired a whole lot of interesting skills and a depth of knowledge about hitherto unknown aspects of human existance. These skills and knowledge of the way in which death actually works, from a practical sense at least, came in very handy when the rest of my family and bloodline started to disperse into death's dark void...Firstly, my aunt died at the age of 58 - my cousin died aged (yes you guessed) 58... then my gran died aged 104.5 (yes really...) and her cousin, being the last except for me followed on in her late 80s.
My aunt's death and funeral is a story in itself, it involved among other things, a loud pneumatic drill, the vicar being 'nudged' by the limousine as it edged nearer the grave to let my gran (who refused to get out of it) a view of the proceedings and afterwards, the solicitor handing me a copy of my aunt's will, over the open grave, as we stood on the boards, one at each side, looking down at the coffin below us.
Gran's funeral proved a shock to the registrar, who asked which funeral director I was going to use. I replied that I was going to 'do the funeral myself...' her face was a picture! Like my aunt's death and funeral, it is an epic tale and hopefully befitting a life of 104.5 years.
My cousin died in America, so I couldn't do much except write a bit to be read out during his memorial. He was an activist in the world of LGBT Queer & disabled folk and apart from being a tiny man with a massive personality, he was known for his teaching, writing and poetry in the USA, especially in SF and NY. In spite of his notoriety in his own LGBT circles, he didn't manage to pluck up courage to 'come out' to his mum till the 90s. He told me that I had inspired him to have 'the conversation'. It was his mum who was the last bit of my branch of the family tree to die and apart from collecting her from her final dwelling in a nursing home in Worcestershire, I was determined that I would do everything else for her.
So I did.
Having rung the funeral director, I arranged to go up and embalm her....knowing her size, I ordered her a lovely wicker coffin - to be delivered the day before I was due to go up to Worcestershire. Then before the day dawned, I set off in my little red van, with my embalming kit on board.... All did not go well - The van broke down on the M5 and I had to ask the rather startled RAC switchboard operator to send someone out ASAP as I was on my way to embalm my 'Auntie'.
Eventually I was rescued and arrived at the funeral directors - with a quick coffee break I took a look at the forms I had to fill in for the Crematorium - the Nursing Home Matron had registered the death for me...I went to spend a few precious hours with Auntie Joan.
I embalmed, dressed and placed her in her coffin myself - she was a very thin lady, inspite of being quite tall. When she was alive, I had never seen her eat huge amounts of anything except tea and homemade biscuits.
Having made her comfortable, I went back home down the M5 - and in the next few days, ordered the flowers - a coffin spray of Nerines (she worked in a nursery that bred them for 30 years)...I also wrote the funeral service, chose the music and arranged for the wake to be held in the church hall opposite Auntie's house. She had never really been into going to church, but as an artist, was very much a part of the local community and lots of people wanted the chance to chat about her.
I have many memories of Joan's funeral - walking in front of the hearse along the High Street in Upton-on-Severn where she had lived for so long. Allowing her to leave her community slowly, with quiet dignity - but the maximum of traffic disruption would have made her smile. Later, at the end of the service, I remember being being thanked by people who had known her for decades, for having given her such a special and appropriate funeral. Being my Aunt's chief mourner, her Embalmer, Funeral Director and Celebrant, I couldn't have done more and wouldn't have done any less!
Practical involvement, has always been my way of coping when death has touched me personally and for me, the practical tasks take on a spiritual quality that has an essence of healing and a continuum that bonds me within the great circle of existence. Of course I miss them all, my family and many friends who have gone before me - but I am not grief stricken. They live in me and continue in my memory and as part of my life.
That first time, twenty years ago, when my mum died - I had no idea what to do. What could I do? Being a French Polisher, the most obvious thing to do was to polish her coffin.....it kept me occupied for a few hours, gave me something to focus on and time to think - that's where it all started. I came into the business of death at the sharp end. It isn't a job or a business to me, it is who I am, who we are as human beings. If you call Funeral Directing an 'Industry' in my presence, I am liable to bite... People like me, look after people like you and people like me will look after me when I die, if you can't manage it yourself.
However, twenty years on from mum's death, with an Embalming Diploma; a BA (Hons) in Death Loss and Palliative Care and an MA (Distinction)in Religion: The Rhetoric and Rituals of Death under my belt, I still have no further clues as to the real mystery of death - that's why it's so special.
What I have got, is a comfortable relationship with it - a knowledge that it is natural and inevitable. Moreover, I have a sneaking suspicion that it isn't the end...rather, as Peter Pan suggested the start of something new and exciting. After all, he said 'To die would be an awfully big adventure' and that was my grandma's outlook, she misquoted it beautifully - often - and as the last branch on the family tree, I think it is only my duty to go along with her sentiment - it's traditional to do the same thing in families after all, isn't it?
Though having said that, I am approaching my 58th year cautiously and with some trepidation!!!