Refine Your Search

Letting go of 40 years’ worth of family memories


1 Minute Read

Over the past couple of years, I have had to share – with my partner, sister and other family members – the grim and heart-breaking task of clearing our parents’ house, selling it and saying goodbye to well over 40 years of memories. My father bought it as a plot of land, so it has only ever had our family living in it – until last summer.

Dismantling my parents’ lives and all that they had built up together over so many years has caused me actual physical pain. Despite never having lived in the house, I felt our family’s history seeping from every wall. I was incredibly protective towards it; particularly after my mother had to go into a care home, and the house was standing empty for most of the week. I hated having to leave it every time we stayed there. It felt as though I was abandoning it, and my parents with it (although my dad died 23 years ago), and I would often cry for most of the two-hour journey home. My only consolation is that our buyers are a young couple, keen to put down roots and, most likely (I’m guessing), want to start a family. The place needs another family and all the new life that brings. The last few years have been undeniably sad and tough for us all.

I cried, too, when I saw the skip on the drive for the first time. We had to hire three altogether. It took two solid weekends to clear the garage, shed, loft and airing cupboard alone, never mind any of the actual rooms. When I hired someone to help clear the house of the larger items of furniture in the final week, he had just the one day free that week. He said he had been manically busy, as had all house clearance/van hire people, because of the stamp duty holiday and easing of lockdown rules. This was also the reason why so many of the charities we tried couldn’t take our things. They were overrun with surplus items. The world and his wife, it seemed, had been having massive clear outs during lockdown.

I cried some more when I saw the boxes and boxes of brand-new, never-been-taken-from-their-wrappers Christmas decorations. Mum had obviously bought them (when?), then someone (who?) had put them away in the loft for her. She must have forgotten about them. But she was clearly ordering for a big family Christmas – the kind we used to have, when our grandparents and other family members came to stay, and when friends and neighbours dropped by. I gave some away to the kind next-door neighbours who had been keeping an eye on the place for us when we weren’t there and also to our lovely gardener who was a huge help to us in so many ways. It broke my heart to see them all. She must have spent a small fortune on them; no doubt from one of the many colourful catalogues that dropped through the letterbox on an almost daily basis; her link to the outside world (she couldn’t manage a computer, or even a mobile phone, for which, with all the clever scams about, I was heartily thankful). I suspect half the attraction for her was being able to speak to someone on the other end of the line. I hope they understood this and were patient with her.

We tried putting the bigger and better items from the house at the top of the drive for people to take (again, a lot of them were unused and still in their original packaging) and some of them went very quickly. The rest had to go back on the skip, or to charity. My sister’s friend helpfully put ads on a local ‘free’ website and we managed to pass on a lovely big armchair and matching footstool that way. (We all liked it, but none of us had room in our respective homes for it.) The woman who came to pick it up had had a stroke and was walking with a stick. She was very grateful for the chair, and for a couple of other useful items she rescued from the skip.

Someone else came by and asked if we had any houseplants. As it happened, we had ten, all bought by me in an attempt to make the place look lived-in, and I was planning on bringing them all back home with me, then decided I could probably live without most of them, so he walked away with six plants for his wife. He told me he had been living in South Africa for 12 years but decided to return home for his children’s sake. He wanted a better education and life for them and it was getting very dangerous out there, he said.

Another man came in to see what bits and pieces of crockery were going begging, saying he was getting them for his daughter, who he and his wife were now living with. Their son had been killed in a road accident on the nearby bypass just a year before and it had made them look at things in a different light. They were living in a seven-bedroom house at the time, with four cars on the drive. He said he had had 47 pairs of jeans and about a hundred Ralph Lauren shirts! After letting the family take what they wanted, he and his wife walked out of the house with just one bag of belongings each – and that was it. He looked so sad as he was telling me all this, I really wanted to hug him, but couldn’t (Covid).

Being an avid reader myself, I looked more closely at the books that summed up my parents’ lives. Typical of their generation, there was no internet and Google, of course, and so the bookshelves were filled with huge, hefty tomes of advice and information on gardening, family health, cookery, the Royal Family, travel (just how many books on France and Italy did we need?!) and sport (mostly rowing, golf and cricket, which were my dad’s interests). There were encyclopedias and atlases, bibles galore (and we’re most definitely not a religious family), and sensibly, useful books and pamphlets on making a will and what to do when someone dies.

Having come from a wartime background of ‘Make do and mend’ my parents kept their furniture for decades. There was the 1950s oak sideboard they bought when they were first married. The big, very old family bureau that I’m hoping will stay in the family, though nobody appears to have the room, is temporarily residing in my sister’s living room at her small flat. I know my mother wanted it kept in the family. A few more, smaller items of furniture we managed to share between us without any argument. Oh, yes – ahem – there’s also the very old oak dining table and chairs my grandparents bought at auction a very, very long time ago. I looked and looked and looked at it over the weeks and months we stayed in the house and finally decided I just couldn’t let it go, so I paid quite a bit of money to have it transported from the house to my own house, where it now resides in the already-rammed-full home office at the bottom of the garden, as there is no room for it anywhere else. I used to enjoy dusting and polishing its chubby, curved legs whenever I stayed with my beloved grandparents. There are so many memories of happy family meals around that table. Though who’s going to have it after I’ve gone is anybody’s guess. (Maybe I’ll have stopped caring by then. I do hope so. It’s exhausting and debilitating, carrying around all this emotional baggage.)

However, surprisingly, despite it being very trendy and sought-after in certain quarters, few people were interested in the G-Plan furniture my parents collected from the 60s and 70s. It was in excellent condition, considering its age (unlike the rest of us), but we were paid a fraction of its worth to have it taken away. It had to go. Though I found an old label for how to put one of the items together, and I’ve kept it, so there. (You see how difficult all this has been for someone like me?!)

There were LPs galore: musicals and big band sounds, James Last, Frank Sinatra, Tom Jones, Andy Williams and Simon and Garfunkel. Plus many more. The musical history of our family.

There were countless letters and cards to wade through, postcards both used and unused, newspaper clippings, local theatre programmes and brochures for stately homes and gardens visits and, as one who likes to keep these things myself, it has made me see the utter pointlessness of doing so. Have I ever looked at any of mine again? No. Will I, in the next ten or 20 years? Unlikely. I suppose the answer would be to collate the highlights into scrapbooks but, again, who else would be interested in seeing those?

The ancient family bible, dated 1817, is so huge and so heavy. I was hoping somebody else in the family would want it, but no, it’s landed on my dining table, along with a lot more stuff I have yet to wade through, so I guess it’s mine until I can pass it on to whoever in my family would like it. That’s the problem with not having children. I don’t have anybody to pass all my toot and tat on to, aside from my niece and nephew, and I doubt very much they will welcome it with open arms when the time comes!

Something they might be interested in, though, is my maternal grandfather’s diaries. Unfortunately, he didn’t keep diaries every year – or, if he did, they’ve long gone – but I brought home the ones dating 1934 to 1941 (though not consecutive, unfortunately –whatever happened to those?) and have found them riveting reading. I’ve learned an awful lot I didn’t know about my own family and my partner, on reading them, said that he felt he knew my grandad really well, despite never having met him. There’s lots about the war, of course: rationing, hiding under the table in the kitchen when bombs were being dropped rather too close for comfort and there’s a mention of lots of planes flying overhead one night, which, it turned out, were on their way to bomb the hell out of Coventry. Family and work-related news is in there. They all enjoyed going to the local cinema, and cycled everywhere in the surrounding countryside to visit relatives and friends. The weather is mentioned quite a bit, and it’s not nearly so dull as it sounds. If only he hadn’t written most of it in pencil, though, bless him.

Don’t get me started on the photos. Boxes and boxes, suitcases, albums and bags of them galore – often duplicated, just to add to the confusion. Some of them have careful and helpful explanations and identifications on the back, but many don’t. I study their faces for clues. The houses and gardens in the background. The fashions of the day. Someone in the family has attempted to begin the family tree on my mother’s side, but I’m still no wiser as to who half the people are in the photographs. My sister, panicking at the encroaching completion deadline, threatened to hurl boxes of slides on to the skip, without going through them first, which I thought unwise, so, guess what? They are my own house now, along with the bulky projector to view them with. And I still haven’t looked at them.

There were way too many drinking glasses – who needs that many?! We weren’t a family of drinkers. Nor did we give frequent parties. I don’t know what was going on, there. The local charity shops have got very picky, these days, and will only take full sets, now, so the rest had to go into recycling.

We had a caravan in the 1970s and, yes, right at the back of one of the kitchen cupboards we found a very bright yellow melamine set of plates and mugs and bowls – the ones we used when we were away. But I’m not keen on bright yellow, and nobody else seemed to want them, so they also went to a charity shop.

There were sets of pristine, unused bedding, blankets and towels. After a bit of research and a few phone calls, we were able to take a lot of those to a local homeless shelter. Again, though, even those places were a bit sniffy about what they were prepared to take, which surprised us. And the tea-towels! I said to my partner: ‘Who the hell needs so many tea-towels?!’ When I was back in my own home, I opened the drawers under the bed, where we keep spare linens, and guess what? There were about a hundred tea-towels lurking in there. I sorted through them, kept my favourites and the rest (all unused, of course) went to charity. I do like a nice tea-towel, though – I’m drawn to them, then I put them away, because I don’t want to get them grubby. Sigh. Clearly, it runs in the family.

I have always thought having lots of storage is A Very Good Thing. Not any more. Having ample storage just means shoving lots of things away and never looking at them again and my parents’ small house was very well served with built-in cupboards in every room – sometimes more than one. All deep and all rammed to bursting.

A friend has just had her loft converted into another bedroom and bathroom, and has found she doesn’t miss the extra storage space at all. She says she prefers to have everything to hand; it makes for a much easier life and I can understand that one. It does force you to keep your belongings down and, as far as I’m concerned, this is my new Very Good Thing.

Another friend, who lives in a very small flat, pays storage rental for furniture that belonged to her parents, which she wants to keep but has no room for at the moment. She is currently looking for a larger flat.

This entire, painful, emotional exercise has been a salutary lesson in not hanging on to useless stuff we never even look at again. What is it all for?! All the old newspapers and leaflets commemorating some event or other, all carefully saved and filed neatly into plastic folders by my parents, ended up on the skip, or in the recycling bin, simply because there was no time to go through them all first. And that’s not including the boxes of papers and other items both my sister and I took to our respective homes to sort through. I have all my mother’s old diaries and address books and they, alongside 20 bursting carrier bags, are piled up on a bench in my kitchen – and have been for the past ten months – because every time I go to look through them, I start to cry. But I have mild OCD and I like my home to look good, so it’s a daily niggle for me and I know I have to get on with sorting it all out before an entire year has passed!

I really wish my parents had thought to clear out the loft, and other places, while they still could. Though, of course, nobody expects to have two strokes 12 years apart and die of the second (my dad); nor do they expect to end up physically disabled, and with dementia, in a home (my mother). The wardrobes upstairs were full of the clothes and shoes my mother ordered by phone (she couldn’t leave the house in the last few years), then never arranged to have them sent back when they didn’t fit her, or whatever – they all still had their labels on. Unable to leave the house at all, not even to go and sit in the garden, I’m not at all sure what she thought she was buying all these things for. And the cupboards downstairs were full of brand-new, expensive-looking china, more glassware, kitchen and beauty gadgets still in their boxes and a set of silver-plated cutlery with the receipt still in the box – over two hundred pounds, ouch. My theory is that, after spending most of her life being careful with money and making-do, she could finally afford to relax the purse-strings a little and spoil herself with the sorts of treats she would never have considered before. None of us knew about these things whenever we visited; nor about the unpaid cheques, bills and backlog of important paperwork, or we could have helped her with it all, of course.

The whole sorry process wasn’t helped by me being such a terrible sentimental hoarder. I wish I could have hardened my heart and just tipped the whole lot into the skip. But I couldn’t. In fact, I’m still haunted by what we chucked out and gave away and regret not keeping more, but our own house isn’t that big and is already very full. Sigh. My partner is just as bad: when it came to clearing his parents’ house, he took things to the local charity shop one day, and then went and bought them all back the next!

We had been enjoying regular takeaway Sunday roasts and other meals from the local village pub for some months, since they were able to reopen after lockdown. We wanted to support them. The first time we sat down  with our lovely lunches in front of us, wafting their appetising scent everywhere, I said to my partner: “I honestly cannot remember the last time a roast was cooked in this house.” Even my sister, who has a much better memory than me, couldn’t remember.

Then there was the garden: a riot of bloom and colour when my parents were fit and able, but sadly gradually deteriorating over the years. I was paying our regular gardener to come out every couple of weeks to keep it all in shape, and put new plants into the patio pots and in the borders, which were looking bare and unloved before. I was also keen to keep up appearances for security’s sake. To make the place look cared-for and occupied. Last year, at what turned out to be our last spring at the house, I found it particularly moving to notice all the bulbs emerging from the earth. My parents must have planted these and the garden will continue to flourish; oblivious, of course, as to who will be looking at the plants and flowers and taking care of them from here on. And so the cycle continues…

Saying goodbye to the lovely neighbours, our gardener and his wife and the dear elderly and very sprightly man who has lived in the same house in the village all his life and who very kindly took the bins out for us, and for various neighbours who couldn’t manage it themselves (and brought them back in again), was especially hard for me, although we have been invited to tea with all of them – an offer we haven’t been able to take up yet, as our trips to see Mum in the home take up the entire day, there and back. After so many years, it feels sad and strange to no longer have a base in the area. Like outcasts. Mum is unaware we have had to sell the house, and thinks it’s still ours, with all her things still in it, which makes for some very difficult conversations with her. It would be immensely distressing for her to learn the truth and I hope she never finds out. Naturally, she wants to go back there, which would have been impossible in any case, even if we had somehow been able to hang on to it.

A shout-out to my long-suffering partner, here. I don’t know many men who would have done what he did for me, over the past few years. All the driving (I don’t drive), the checking and fixing of things in the house and the uncomplaining support he gave me in so many ways, during what was easily one of the worst times of my entire life was over and above and beyond the call of duty. It continues, too, with our regular trips to see Mum in the home. He is a rare gem indeed.

I finally came off the anti-anxiety/depression/sleeping pills I had been taking to get me through all of it. I was crying every day, and barely sleeping for worrying about the place when we weren’t there. The funny, plain, ordinary, boxy little house that Dad had built had been a true haven, refuge and sanctuary for me over the years, and never more so than in the last two years of our ownership. I think he would have liked that, though I’m not so sure he would be so happy with, or approve of the way things have turned out. I hated that our last few weeks there were so stressful, fraught, panicky and emotional, and I’m still feeling wretchedly guilty, grief-stricken and regretful at what we threw into those skips, and gave away to charity and the neighbours – it haunts me every single day. Sorry, Dad. Sorry, Mum. Though, as someone pointed out to me last year, I’d have most likely felt sad every time I looked at anything I’d kept. He said it’s not always healthy to be reminded. He has a point, though I have kept some things, of course. Just not everything.

And when I do think of what we had to leave behind, I find it helps me a little to imagine that at least some of those things belonging to our family are still residing in the area and, especially, in the village we loved and were very happy to call our home for so many years.

© Clare Cooper, 2022

My Business – planning your end of life!


1 Minute Read

Jane Duncan Rogers is the CEO of Before I Go Solutions. Her first husband died when she was 54 which led to awful grief but also the book Gifted by Grief which ultimately led to her end of life planning social enterprise. She lives in Scotland, got married again in between lockdowns plus she and her new husband are building not only a new life but a new eco-house too. www.beforeigosolutions.com

My worst fear had just happened – my husband was dead, we’d had no kids, and I was left alone in the world. Aged 54, too old to be a young widow, too young to be an old one.

That was how my 2012 started. Not a good place, and certainly not a place where I could ever have imagined what has happened since.

In those early months, I knew, in theory, there would be a blessing somewhere in his death, but I wasn’t in the least interested in finding it. As grief took its grip on me, and I was tossed and turned by its waves, I just hung on, doing my best to trust that I would survive. And at that time, I wasn’t even interested in surviving that much – I didn’t actively want to die, I just didn’t want to be alive.

But now, I can honestly say I am grateful for my husband’s life AND his death. For without them both, nothing of what I am doing now would be happening.

Three years after he died, I published my memoir, Gifted by Grief. By this time, the blessing in disguise had shown itself, the writing of the book had proved cathartic, and I was in a good place in myself.

Readers’ reaction to the book showed that they too wanted to answer the questions I had asked my husband a few months before he died. Things like ‘what are your passwords’, ‘what kind of coffin do you want,’ and ‘how do you want your body dressed’. Not easy to answer at the best of times and certainly not when you know you are on the way out. But we had plucked up the courage and amazingly, had enjoyed working on what turned out to be our last project together, despite the title being ‘Philip’s end of life plan’.

Little did I know it, but this was the start of what has become a fully-fledged social enterprise Before I Go Solutions, a training organisation where we train others to become accredited End of Life Plan Facilitators and provide products and programmes to help people put a good end of life plan in place.

I had previously run training courses and had in the back of my mind to train others, but this was brought forward a year when several people asked if they could train in what I was doing. Hence our pilot in 2018 for what is now our End of Life Plan Facilitators Programme, with the 8th intake for the training about to start as I write.

I had a lot to learn about being a social enterprise though. Despite being eligible for grant funding because of our status, it took a while to get my head around the fact that there are funding opportunities, and what social impact really meant in the eyes of possible funders.

I thought that by the very nature of the business, we were making a social impact – after all, everyone has to die, it’s a community event, and therefore an impact on society. But funders needed to see a more specific benefit than that. Eventually, we were successful with a lottery-funded bid for £10K to bring Dead Good events to Scotland, and the development of a pack of End of Life Planning cards.

We have also developed the Philip Rogers Scholarship Fund, enabling those from disadvantaged backgrounds to become Facilitators, bringing this work to their communities too.

One of the ongoing challenges with this business has been the need to educate people about the importance of doing this work at all, and specifically what an end of life plan actually is.  Most know about wills and funerals and the importance of doing them, and at the very least knowing if you want to be buried or cremated. And even then, a significant number have not attended to these matters (fewer than 4 in 10 adults in the UK still do not have a will in place, with statistics showing that there’s has been only a 1% increase in will-making between 2019 and 2020, despite the pandemic).

But an actual end of life plan means you not only have a will sorted, but also both powers of attorney; your funeral organised in all its details; your digital life planned (because you’ll still be alive online years later unless you state otherwise beforehand); your house decluttered (aka death cleaning); your advance care plan in place (your preference for treatment towards the end of your life); and the way your finances and household run – all documented and in one place.

And even when people realise that actually, this is a big project (after all, planning a funeral can be at least as big an event as a wedding, and yet we are supposed to plan that in a few days, compared to at least a few months for a wedding), they often just don’t do it.

Like Susan, who told me ‘I bought your second book, Before I Go, intending to go through it and complete everything. But 6 months later and I haven’t touched it. I need help’

Or Regina who said ‘I’ve started but I’ve got stuck with what to decide about how I want my end of life to be ideally, especially as my family are not forthcoming in talking about this with me’.

Or Saul, who shyly attended one of our courses as a lone man, and expressed his overwhelm in beginning to deal with the numerous build-up of possessions over the past 40 years, leading to anxiety, indecision, and worrying about what would happen amongst his kids when he was gone.

These are some of the scenarios that our Facilitators now help with.

This journey so far has been one of ups and downs, with a lot of dogged determination on my part to fulfil our mission of having an end of life plans become as commonplace as birth plans.

Now, my time is focused on developing the Facilitators Programme, working with organisations to help their staff become more at ease with talking about end of life to their customers, and learning how to scale a young business so it becomes sustainable for long after I have gone.

This is quite a challenge for someone who has been used to being a solo professional for most of her life!  We now have a team of administrative staff, all working part-time, and a crucial part of the workings behind the scenes.

Plus a growing international community of licensed Facilitators (we’ve trained over 70 now, and about 25 of those are actually practising). And of course, I am a director on the Board, of what is now the leading training company in this arena.

For me personally, I feel as if Philip and I are still in the business together somehow. As a psychotherapist, he was intent on helping others have a better life – and in a strange sort of way, he is still doing this from beyond the grave. This is definitely an unforeseen blessing!

The Death Dinner – Opening up the Last Taboo


5 Minute Read

‘After the soaring, a peace
like swans settling on a lake.
After the tumult and the roaring winds,
Silence.’

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

The Ghosts in the Attic


1 Minute Read

Dear Paul,

So we are selling up and have to clear all your stuff from the attic. The boys brought it down from the attic to what used to be Kitty’s room. Kitty said, “Mum, it’s like tons of stuff, not all of it Paul’s, but literally, it’s tons.”

“Do you mean literally in the non- literal sense, as our friend used to tell us she was ‘literally bathing in sweat’ and it made us laugh and grossed us out at the same time? Or do you mean literally as in truly?’” It’s a fair question. We are a family of talkers and exaggerators. She tells me wait and see.

So I go to the house to open my daughter’s old room and the door is just blocked with wall to wall boxes, there is not even a little passageway like you see in those programmes about people with OCD. It’s like Charlie Chaplin opening the door to a wall of snow, after a snow storm. A sea of boxes, each one overstuffed with things from your living life, with your wife, and before your wife. The forecast calls for storms. I feel strangely seasick.

I try to pull out one of the middle boxes, like giant Jenga, and manage to not drop the ones on top, which plonk down on the bottom ones with a heavy thud. I remember when you lived on the top floor as the same block of flats where we lived, when I was pregnant with Kitty, and climbing all these stairs, puffed out with my heavy pregnancy, walking slowly and heavily like an elephant in platform shoes. I called though your letterbox, “Paul, let me in, I need to pee….” But you were asleep, or not there. You are not here now, not ever. And yet you are everywhere, in these fucking boxes, hundreds of em.

I manage to carve out a Michele sized passage way, opening some of the dusty boxes with bits poking through them. A tripod. A shitload of band flyers for your various bands. Boxfuls of faded Christmas tree decorations and Halloween stuff: your wife was a big fan of both. Big box of home bar equipment. You had beautiful cocktail glasses. Oh God those cocktails. No I mustn’t. Just for today I am not going to drink. I have to say this every day, to not drink. But those home bars. We did love them. First Eddie got a bar. Then we got one, which proved to be my undoing, our little oval lit up monster maker in the corner, soon to be my favourite toy, a drunk’s version of a Wendy House. You had a bar corner and a beautiful black and grey ice bucket. I don’t remember the bar, if you had one. If nothing was clean we’d drink out of Arsenal coffee mugs anyway. Your father said, at your funeral, that you didn’t believe in God, you believed in Arsenal. That got a laugh, the sad funereal forced laugh you do when you want to cry.

More stuff. A guitar stand which topples onto my left shoulder. Boxes and boxes of damp ruined red velvet.   A strobe light. A vintage effects pedal. Hundreds of unsold CD singles of your band. Bettie Page posters and magazines. A Velvet Underground fanzine I loaned you but you never returned, Now, you are really never returning, which puts the magazine thing in perspective. A box filled with the most awful clothes that are meant to be yours, including your strange Japanese 17 year old tourist with I Love Kitty everything ( not my Kitty, the other Kitty) Camden market style punk clothing. Irony or just plain bad dress sense? You kept me guessing. You and your big girly fun fur coats. The campest straight guy I knew.

I remember the job lots you used to buy from the BBC costume department, because you’ll never know when you need 30 size six dresses in a checked Dolly Parton style , for a Benny Hill episode with a big country Western dance scene at the end. “The whole lot for a tenner, you bragged at the time, in your miniscule flat, now filled with dresses no one could wear. I tried one on, and it fit beautifully. But I didn’t want 30 of them. That was 30 years ago, 87, I think. We stayed up all night on speed, playing the same Television album over and over, trying to decide if Tom Verlaine’s nasal vocals added or detracted from his guitar playing. We played Glory fifty times at least, just for the opening riff. That was the sort of stuff we’d do not even on speed. Just to make sure we weren’t missing anything.

I sniff everything, like a dog, anxious to find something, anything, that faintly smells of you, that strange mixture of sweat, vintage clothing and whatever it was you put in your hair to quiff it up, when you had enough hair to quiff up. But everything smells of dust and damp and shaved wood and rotting cardboard. Those pink and black hounds tooth trousers , price tag still on ( twenty quid) – something a born again Christian would wear, with a polo neck and polyester leisure jacket, in the early 60s, on the cover of a knitting pattern magazine, you wally.   I am looking for a trace of you, not just your stuff, a trace of the friendship that partially defined me for over 20 years, my best friend, and I think I was your best friend, ( you were so loved by so many, I must not be the only one to claim you for BF status) the one who stayed up with you watching a documentary about the Jonestown Massacre on Christmas day, when everyone had gone to sleep, stuffed and drunk, we watched them drink the Kool Aid and become bloated bodies in the forest. It seemed Christmasy to us.

The very thing that defined me and made me feel OK, you, your absence became the new thing that defined me. When you died in 2010, the only thing I knew how to do was be sadder than anyone else, I even had to out-sad your devastated wife and parents. I did this by becoming a raging alcoholic and pill head and walking out on my family, to live in a small room and drink, and think about you. Now, I am somewhat reconciled with the family I so selfishly left, not enough to live there, but enough to be nice and fair. And here I am, wading through boxes of the life you lived so outrageously, so passionately with your wife, with your music, with your strange obsessions with Jimmy Swaggart and other telly evangelists, your nerdiness about Mac computers, even your taped answerphone messages.

You were a curator before everyone became one. I choke as I hear my own, younger voice on your answerphone tape, sounding all warped and watery, the cassettes not swimming well in the attic damp storm. “Hey Paul, it’s Kirschy, are you coming to the Mean Fiddler with me or not, or shall we just meet at the Killer after the gig?” The Killer was our local pub, on average a police incident or at least a glassing a couple of times a week. A girl drunkenly calling your phone, while dancing on a table at your own gig. “Paul, I’m dancing on the table, at your gig, and ringing you at home. How mad is that?” Then an interview tape, something for your work ( the day job- a journalist) with a guy saying the biggest spend of social security will be residential care of the elderly and things like “ medication reminder systems” -an alert to take your pills. You never got to be elderly. I never forget to take my medication.

I am making good progress. I have four piles. One for charity. One for the junk yard, one for me, one for your wife…your widow. I understand the need for tangible memorabilia, that by touching your stuff it will somehow magically bring you back to me, that that smokey glass and steel coffin going behind the curtain never happened, that I didn’t get trashed at your funeral and fall down in the disabled toilets, trying to hoist myself up by the emergency cord. But it’s all an illusion.

It’s just a bunch of stuff sitting in green recycling bags or boxes marked “Soothing lemon and ginger tea” Out of date technology that was new, once. Strange, global shaped Macs and tellys. Stuff that might not work again. When you died, I thought I would not function again. For two years I made myself redundant, a skeleton with a bellyful of vodka and pills, wanting the next best thing to being where you were, which was oblivion.

How dreadful it was to embrace the dead when I had living, loving children and a confused and sad husband who could not understand why I made this crazy choice. I guess at the time, it felt like the choice made me. You know where you are with the dead. The living are a constant unknown, for living people are always undergoing a process, changing. Meanwhile, your stuff gathers damp and dust in the attic. I keep opening things up, clearing things away

My daughter works from home, the clicking of her keyboards in the other room a strange comfort. There was a time, in my madness, I probably would not have been welcome to be in the house alone with her. Now we break for tea and biscuits. I do the washing up, just like a normal mum visiting her daughter. I have a fleeting thrill of feeling, well, normal. Looking out at the window at the still intact family next door, two kids, maybe three? The nervy but always on call for babysitting grandmother , going outside for fag breaks as the kids knock a football around. A kitchen extension in an already enormous house. I ask Kitty, “When did they build that?” And she tells me ages ago, when I still lived there, as some sort of mother and wife. I can’t remember that. I have a hazy memory of the family that lived there before this one. Of people in gigantic houses, their house, the house next door, building, always adding bits, floors, extensions, playrooms, guestrooms. Everybody wants more space. I just want, wanted, more time with you.

Me, I have all this stuff, Paul, your stuff, and no room for it. I finish the washing up and head back upstairs on a caffeine buzz, determined to get the job done.

Then, just like in that Chrissie Hynde song that always makes me well up, I found a picture of you…young, leather jacketed… and my heart leaps into my mouth and I gasp for air. I’m not sure why. I have loads of pictures of you, I just didn’t expect to find “you” here, although you are everywhere…. and I am willing myself not to cry, because I’ve been instructed not to by Mally. I don’t how things work in the land of the dead, if you have found each other, but Mally died a few years after you did. Not suddenly like you, but slowly, cancer ravaging his throat and eating him up inside. One day, months before the end, he drove me to work. I didn’t know how he could see anything, as his eyes were reduced to slits, his face so swollen from the useless steroids. He pulled over into a side street and said, “Look, when I die, don’t do that crazy shit you did when Paul died. It’s not allowed. Don’t fuck things up again, Kirschy, because I will come back to haunt you. Just don’t do it.”

And I didn’t. But still, here I am, kneeling in the middle of my old front room, sobbing over a picture of you, and then I clock Kitty in the doorway, hands on hips, in a motherly “What sort of mess do you call this?” sort of way. She says, in a long, exasperated exhale, “Why are you doing this, again? Why are you …doing this? Don’t do this…”

“I’m not doing it, I’m not doing anything,” I lie badly, eyes red-rimmed, a stray tear falling onto the photo.” I stand up quickly and put the picture on a pile. She’s rightfully on guard. I did some crazy shit when you died and she’s had enough. It’s taken ages to get her back on side, just about, so I just need to crack on tidying, and stop crying.

I miss you, but I understand for whatever reason, your number was up. I’m back in my flat now, crammed with a fair bit of your stuff. The strobe light turns my little corner of Hackney into a disco. I can listen to Cosmic Dancer, your funeral music, without crying now.

If you get this, let me know what it’s like , where you are.   Give me a sign. I’d ask you to look for my dad, for Rita, for Mally, for Lizzy, for Zak, for Josie, for Bowie, for God’s sake, he’s got to have some dead sightseeing address. but I know there are way more dead people than live ones so it’s probably pointless. Right now, just for today, I won’t drink, and I will stay in the land of the living.

Love you always,

Michele

 

On Losing My Mother


12 Minute Read

As my mother entered the final phase of her life due to terminal cancer, these past few months I was faced with the challenge of putting A Course in Dying into practice. What was most remarkable to m

Read the full story here: On Losing My Mother

Can I Embrace Death?


1 Minute Read

I’ve just turned 49. I can hardly believe it. I feel young, often mischievous (close friends call me that) and alert in spirit, and yet, 49 is not considered young in body anymore and the evidence of age is becoming ever more apparent in my skin and around my eyes.

I’ve also noticed that as I’ve moved further into my forties, ageing, sickness and death have moved into my consciousness much more.

In March this year, I was forced to look ageing, illness and death straight in the eye with the death of my beloved aunt – a kind, patient and generous person (modest too) – aged 79. My aunt was like a second mum to my sister and I. She didn’t have a family of her own and was very much a part of our childhood, supporting my single mum and often holidaying with us.

During the last two years of her life she suffered unbearable emotional and physical pain, endured endless operations and was in and out of hospital. Despite a strong will to live, her body could not take any more.

I got a call from my mother just before Easter, saying that I needed to come. I was just about to go on a two-week retreat in the Scottish Highlands but I changed plans, booked a flight to Germany and went straight to hospital from the airport. I got to spend the final hours with her, witnessing her last breath just after 5am – something I’ll never forget. She was gone forever.

Death as we all know, is the one certainty we all share in life and yet it is something we find very uncomfortable to sit with, to talk about.

Can we find a way to turn towards that which many of us consider the most intolerable and painful experiences in life – ageing, sickness and death – with an open heart-mind? They are, after all, experiences that we all have to face – whether we want it or not.

Would we find it easier to talk about ageing and death if we learnt to relax into and accept that the life is a process, a continuous cycle of becoming and ceasing, embedded in a larger cosmic cycle of life and death.

Seeing my aunt’s suffering caused me enormous emotional pain. It also taught me a lot about myself. I discovered that the distress that I was experiencing came from not wanting to accept her suffering and from not knowing how to tolerate the unbearable. I wanted it my way; I wanted my aunt to be well again, I didn’t want her to suffer. I didn’t want to suffer seeing her suffering.

When I was able to see things as they were, when I was able to sit and see my aunt’s sick and decaying body, and the presence of her nearing death for what it was, I felt something in me relax and soften, which helped me to turn towards the experience with patience. I was then able to offer a loving attitude towards my own pain and discomfort in the midst of the unbearable.

Taking responsibility for one’s death

My aunt’s death was also a wakeup call for me to reflect on my own death and to begin to take responsibility for it.

My aunt had no will and this caused much difficulty for my family.

Shortly after my aunt’s death, I made an appointment with a solicitor to make a will. I asked two of my closest friends to become my executors. I asked another friend whether she would be willing to lead my memorial service. I decided to be simply buried in a green burial – to dissolve back into nature.

By taking responsibility for my death, I must face up to the fact that I too will die, that I too may suffer from sickness, that I too may need care, that I too will leave a life and affairs behind for others to deal with.

Taking responsibility for our own death is a tremendous gift to ourselves and to the people we leave behind.

Accepting the life/death cycle – turning towards what is intrinsic and inevitable in life, rather than pretending it doesn’t happen; to feel enriched and empowered by the cycle of life and death we are all born into.

Show me more
Surprise Me

Hear more from us

Subscribe to our newsletter