It is, nowadays, a really common theme – everyone is talking about the fact that everyone doesn’t talk about death. It is a “taboo”. And yes, as I have written before death IS personal.
So what on earth do we do? Well, firstly, I am thrilled to see that the first formalised Death Café has opened in permanent premises in London – it is a fantastic step in the right direction. But the last time I looked the United Kingdom is pretty huge! So it is also encouraging to see that various smaller groups not just Death Cafés are starting to pop up – some are just informal meets, others have more structure – but it is good!
For me, as a funeral celebrant, one of the most heart-breaking aspects of my work is when a family simply has no idea what their loved one would have wanted. Their distress is tangible – and believe me I work so hard with them (as any civil celebrant trained professionally by UK Society of Celebrants would do), to make sure that the distress is removed so that we can on the day do justice to, honour, and celebrate the life of their loved one.
On the upside, as a funeral celebrant, I seem to be getting pretty clear instructions and indications from family and friends around me – it seems that fun coffee club mornings, by way of example, will dissolve into weird and wonderful conversations that leave the patrons nearby (who inevitably are drawn to eavesdropping on our lively conversations) either scrabbling for the bill, or nigh on falling off their chairs to lean in closer.
So I would ask this – is it taboo to speak about death, or are we just too darn scared to step outside of our cosy boxes and confront death AND life? I think if we got our death plans sorted, we could get to the really important part – Living now! Living well! Really living now, and experiencing every single precious, beautiful moment.
A little while back, I was incredibly privileged to conduct a Celebration of Life for a young man, three years my junior. Working with the most phenomenal Mother and Father (let’s call them Bob & Bet for privacy) in creating that ceremony, I was really humbled by their approach, they were just beautiful human beings and that is it.
I had two incredible, invaluable experiences that day:
The first when Bob came to me after the ceremony and said this to me: “Thank you for celebrating my son’s life, but thank you too for allowing us to celebrate his death. His life was not easy and for him death was good”.
I know that I will never be able to comprehend the pain, the agony of losing a child; I truthfully, for this, had and still have no words – we simply hugged, and then he gave me the saddest but most beautiful smile that I will treasure always.
The second, on a somewhat lighter vein, followed when, breaking normal protocols, I did attend the wake at the family’s insistence, rather than polite request. Bob wished to introduce me to a chap, a life-long friend he said, and for again for privacy sake, we will call him Jack. Jack had lived and worked in South Africa, as had I, and so Bob felt that we would get on famously.
Well, he wasn’t wrong! Jack is definitely knocking on late 70’s, and he is delightful, a real old fashioned gentleman. With a wicked wit, and some pretty slick moves to boot.
We chatted, we exchanged histories, and then Jack got down to business – he wanted to talk about death. Right there, right then! Well pretty soon we were discussing the differences between regular and eco burials. He doesn’t fancy cremation.
Grave depths, double plots – “Oh no dear, the ex-wife probably won’t want to share”; coffins; shrouds – we pretty much covered it all. What music he loves, oh and heaven forbid NO dirges!
It was a delight, here was a man who was happy to break the taboo, and live – and believe me – his life is amazing, full of fun and adventures, I hope I have half his stamina at his age!
And I think the best thing he said was “Now, you don’t know this, but Bob and Bet want to invite you for dinner in a couple of weeks – you know, when things feel less raw …. Would you mind terribly if I angle for an invite?” … I did tell you – slick moves!