‘After the soaring, a peace
like swans settling on a lake.
After the tumult and the roaring winds,
Sheila Kitzinger, the natural childbirth activist who died in 2015
I am 64, and entering into the terrain of my own drawing-closer mortality - yet talking about death is still forbidden. Sex is so much more out in the open. Death is the last taboo. We do not talk about dying, how we’d like to die, or how others have died.
Last October, my mum nearly died of sepsis – her organs had begun to close down but being the 90-year-old Yorkshire woman she was and still is, she battled through – and then by chance, I saw there was a death café at the Dissenter’s Chapel in Kensal Green Cemetery as part of their October Month of the Dead.
I invited a close friend who presumed erroneously that Death was the incidental name of a café, and that we were meeting for Saturday morning tea and a natter. Instead we found ourselves in a circle of twelve discussing - the feelings that are evoked when a family member dies, the nature of a good death and different funereal rituals.
It was simply incredible to have this space to reflect on death and dying. There was a palpable sense of closeness and connection between us all at the end. Amanda and I definitely felt more alive as a result of the extraordinary conversations. One man admitted he’d never really expressed the grief around his mother dying. Another woman talked about the terrible suicide of someone close to her in detail. There was the death/life paradox in action. Plus it took place in this simple chapel created for non-conformists in 1834. Perfect. It sounds weird to say but we loved it, and vowed we would visit more. Forget bars and restaurants, death cafes are the place for truly, deeply, madly meeting.
A few months later, I found myself having the idea – we’d already featured a couple of fiercely brave pieces of writing about death, My First Death by Lena Semaan who told us about her friend, Bob, who had been terminally ill and courageously took the act of dying into his own hands, plus Dreaming of Death by Caroline Bobby who has been in an intimate relationship with death since she was young - for a Death Dinner as part of our OUTage series of events supported by the Arts Council. It would also take place at the Dissenter’s Chapel. The aim was to invite ten people from Deathworld – from mortician and author Carla Valentine to Soul Midwife Patrick Ardagh-Walter, to academic and expert in death rituals, Professor Douglas Davies to coffin plate aficionado, Hannah Gosh who happens to have a tattoo of one on her leg – to dialogue openly about their interests in death and dying, then dig a little deeper. We, at Advantages of Age, are keen to open up this last taboo as well as helping to form a Death Community, supporting the Assisted Dying movement, and also facing the nitty gritty of what we might personally want in terms death and dying.
I also thought it would be fascinating to invite the guests to come dressed as they would like to be buried or burnt. As well to bring objects with them that they’d like to go alongside them on the onward journey. This personal DeathStyle fascinated me.
Our aim was to turn the death stereotypes on their head. The guests arrived to a big red neon sign declaring Welcome to Death and then had their photos taken in or out of a deliberately kitsch Lachapelle-influenced gold frame with a leopard skin backdrop! Of course, not everyone was so keen to be snapped in this Day of the Dead type Momento Mori and we let them off the hook. Professor Davies wore his grey suit but had a rather extravagant cravat with it. Patrick, the soul midwife, was in his suit and photographed with his white miniature rose, the object he had chosen to take with him into the next world, which he felt crossed over between earth and spirit, a living rose. Others were keener to step into the frame, Liz Rothschild who runs a woodland burial ground, had turned up in her cream nightie and had chocolates to munch in the after-life. Suzanne, co-founder of Advantages of Age, was wearing a sexy scarlet dress clasping a photo of her beloved boys. Caroline Rosie Dent dazzled with her gold and black Victorian dress, black shawl and headband covered with ivory roses. In fact, she was the style star of the Death Dinner.
Everyone was welcomed over that liminal threshold into Deathland by the Queen of the Night (Ingrid Stone), all in white, of course, rather than black, with her purifying burning sage sticks. In silence, we made our way to our seats at the table accompanied by the haunting, ethereal sounds of Fran Loze’s cello. An abundant feast – from tomato and goats’ cheese tartlets to Parma ham and the remarkable broken heart cake – had been prepared by Caroline Bobby, our magnificent cook and a guest.
During the first half of the dinner, I invited the guests to tell us a little about their relationship with death and how they were linked to Deathworld.
Charlie Phillips, photographer, has documented Afro-Caribbean funerals at Kensal Green cemetery for years. He explained how Afro-Caribbean funerals are changing and that the emphasis is on paying out a lot of money and having songs like Do It My Way by Frank Sinatra these days. He had brought along his camera, of course, as his death object because apparently he is referred to as ‘the dead man photographer’.
Liz Rothschild is a celebrant, started the Kicking the Bucket Festival in Oxford, owns a woodland burial ground and has a show called Out Of The Box about death. Liz explained how when a friend of hers died, her group of friends gathered in such an intimate DIY way, it inspired her to want to support others create this kind of a ceremony.
Hannah Gosh makes modern mourning jewelry and told us why she is so taken with coffin plates. She had also brought along a pug’s skull as her object, but not her pug’s skull!
Caroline Rosie Dent is an end of life doula and a death café host, she told us about her death anxiety as a child, and why she’d brought along a part of her son’s umbilical cord to take with her on the ancestral trip.
John Constable aka John Crow wrote The Southwark Mysteries, a series of poems which became a play. It is the story of the Winchester Goose, one of the medieval sex workers in the area who were condoned by the Bishop of Winchester but forced to have unconsecrated graves. John has been a campaigner around the Cross Bones graveyard for many years and holds a monthly vigil there on the 23rd of every month.
Caroline Bobby is a writer, cook, erotic healer and psychotherapist. She had brought with her The Book of Longing by Leonard Cohen and her favoured piece of fine woolen cloth, that she would like to be wrapped in when she goes. She sees herself becoming ash and being blown away.
Patrick Ardagh-Walter is a soul midwife, which he describes as being simply alongside someone as they approach this last stage of their lives.
Carla Valentine is an author, mortician and the Technical Assistant Curator at Barts Pathology Museum where she looks after 5,000 body parts in bottles. She describes herself as being quite an unusual child who was interested in death and whose grandfather died when she was seven, in front of her.
Professor David Davies lectures in Death Studies, his most recent book is Mors Britannica: Lifestyle and Death-Style in Britain Today. He explained that he’s fascinated by different groups and their attitudes to death, some like their lives and deaths to cohere, others are just the opposite. He said he hadn’t brought an object because he’s never thought of having an object with him at that time.
Liz Hoggard is a journalist who admits to feeling like a bit of a death tourist in our midst. She sports pearls that might act as some sort of collateral in a future existence and has brought along two lipsticks, one of them is black, the other red. Max Ernst described the latter apparently as ‘the red badge of courage’.
During the break, we listen to Caroline Bobby’s recorded version of her piece, Dreaming of Death. It is precious and moving. In it, she says: ‘I don’t know if I long for death just because living with baseline depression is unforgiving, and every morning is a shock. I don’t think it’s just that. This human and embodied world has never, quite felt like my natural habitat. At a cellular level I am aching to go home.’
After this raw and vulnerable piece, we entered a discussion about death led by Suzanne. We looked at whether there is a revolution in death going on, whether death is really trending, how we could welcome death into our daily lives in conversation and what sort of funerals we would like. Some of it was funny, other parts were poignant. Professor Douglas Davies declared controversially that the only revolution going on is amongst middle-class women. ‘The Death Chattering classes,’ he asserted.
Finally, Charlie Phillips declared that ideally, he would go while making love. And that he’d like ‘Lucky Motherfucker’ on his gravestone as well as ‘Came and Went at the same time’. As you can imagine, laughter rippled through the chapel.
I announced that natural birth activist and then death activist, Sheila Kitzinger had inspired me. She had a death plan, managed to stay at home to die surrounded by her close family despite doctors trying to get her to hospital because she had cancer, then she was put in a simple cardboard coffin decorated by family and friends, and eventually taken in the back of a car for a small woodland burial. The more flamboyant memorial service came later.
Son – take note!
Death Dinner will be screened for the first time tonight - 6.30pm at Barts Pathology Museum, E2. https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/death-dinner-film-screening-tickets-38270917344