‘I’ve been making a list of the things they don’t teach you at school…They don’t teach you what to say to someone who’s dying’ – Rose Walker, The Sandman

Rose Walker’s Journal in Neil Gaiman’s Sandman

I first read Rose Walker’s words in the distant mists of the early 1990s. I got the bit about love. Walking away from love. But I didn’t yet understand the bit about talking to the dying. Sadly, I get that a little more now with twenty odd years of life (and death) under my footsteps.

The Sandman was also the first time I connected with a personification of Death herself. I was a twenty something perky goth charmed by – well, a twenty something perky goth! I’d just lost my grandmother to a stroke. I had this woolly idea that people died peacefully in their sleep in their own beds as both she and my grandfather had done. In reality, people die in messy, complicated ways that can be both protracted and painful, or sudden and traumatic. On roads, in hospital beds. There is no blueprint for death.

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Morpheus & Death feed the pigeons

Similarly, there is no blueprint in our responses to death. My father died suddenly three years ago, though he was ventilated by the hospital to allow me to be with him when life support was withdrawn. What do you say to the dying? The best I could do was tell him I love him but I think shock had robbed me of a voice. Further down the line it’s not the tubes and the piping and the sterile atmosphere I recall from that day, or the terrible feeling of watching the world through shattered glass; rather I chose to remember the kindness of the care givers and the unwavering, unconditionally loving support of my husband.

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This is where Death’s maidens’ Caitlin Doughty and Carla Valentine come into my life. I noticed that my Kindle book shelf is showing a distinct pattern. There are rather a lot of books on there about death. The processes of death, the causes, the physical effect on the flesh, the people involved in the death industry. I’ve devoured them all. And two of them really chimed with me. For very similar reasons, which is why I choose to sing their praises together.

Caitlin Doughty’s Smoke Gets in Your Eyes reflects the life and work of a mortician who would found the Order of the Good Death as well as shedding an illuminating light on practices involved in cremation. I came to two immediate conclusions on reading this – I never wish to be embalmed, and I want to be buried rather than cremated. It takes you beyond the small room at your local funeral home to what actually happens to bodies once they are released to the family. My father’s was the first death that I had to process personally. It would be fair to say I was confounded by the amount of paperwork that goes into ending a person’s existence. My father lived a full and occasionally fruity life and it was my job to ensure that he left it with all his paperwork in order.

I’m not sure anything could have prepared me for this in advance. Indeed, it was a day to day  process once I’d secured a whole two weeks off work. I had to clear his socially rented bungalow in three weeks. Organise a funeral. You are so busy ticking boxes that the grief is almost secondary. I can remember the exact point that it slapped me in the face and tripped me on my arse. In that quiet room at the funeral parlour.

‘Sifting through an urn of cremated remains you cannot tell if a person had successes, failures, grandchildren, felonies. “For you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” ‘ Cailtin Doughty, Smoke Gets in Your Eyes

Cremains. That was my trigger. My dad wanted to be cremated. But he never said what he wanted to happen after that point. You get a call once you pay the funeral bills. Your dad is ready to collect? WTF? So collect him we did. The morning we completed the emptying of his home. I was due back at work the day after. They sat me in the lilac room, husband by my side. They brought a gift bag through. Cadbury purple it was. Little purple handles. I fixated on the bag. Took it when they handed it over.

Inside the bag was a plastic tub. Not an urn. A purple plastic bottle, the sort you see loose sweets contained in. Like gobstoppers. Or rainbow dust. Not people. His name and cremation date stuck to the lid with sellotape. I distinctly remember that being the point I broke.

I walked away from a lot that year. My job, my career. My peace of mind. Started reading a lot of books about death. It’s taken three years but I am finally finding peace with the process. And Doughty’s campaign for the Positive Death movement – The Order of the Good Death – has certainly opened up conversations in this household. Made us be very specific in how we want the ceremonies surrounding our demise to take place and talk about how we may wish to die. We’re all opting for woodland burials for a start!

The most recent book I read on the subject is Carla Valentine’s superb Past Mortems: Life and Death behind Mortuary Doors. Like Doughty she takes an autobiographical look at her life in which she knew she always wanted to work with the dead in some way. Also like Doughty, she deploys a wry humour to a sobering topic – but one which never crosses over into disrespect. In fact, her deep respect for our physical bodies is something that comes over in spades. It is an interesting read in discovering just what goes on during a post mortem in the UK, and also the level of training and the vast array of knowledge those involved in the process undertake, such as Carla as a mortuary assistant and now Death’s very own curator.

I did laugh out loud at the following passage – largely because I feel exactly the same way about my uterus from hell:

‘I’ll never forget the first time I saw the uterus of a normal, albeit deceased, woman during my early training. “That’s it?” I’d shouted furiously…I couldn’t believe how small they all were! After all the years of menstrual cramps and all the discomfort I’d experienced due to PMT, I’d imagined the uterus to be a bright red demonic entity covered in spikes which would bare its teeth at me as I attempted to remove it. Instead, it resembled a little pink plum, and the ovaries two matching fleshy almonds. They looked so harmless.’

Carla Valentine, Past Mortems: Life and Death behind Mortuary Doors

Both of these books have helped me to understand death that little bit more. To accept it as an inevitable process of life. Death herself has made a mark on me that will never completely fade – and that is only right and proper.

My father became dust. But he was – and is – so much else. After a couple of weeks where he resided rather uncomfortably in our dining room we took him home, to the beautiful green valley in which he spent his childhood and to which he returned in retirement. Let him go under the watchful eyes of his beloved red kites. Carl Sagan said in Cosmos, ‘The beauty of a living thing is not the atoms that go into it, but the way those atoms are put together.‘  Our atoms may rearrange in death but they are no less beautiful. Star stuff, harvesting sunlight.

*Postscript: The Kindle image I’ve included shows a third book I haven’t reviewed here – Judy Meliner M.D. & T.J. Mitchell’s Working Stiff: 2 years, 262 Bodies and the making of a Medical Examiner. This is also a superb read, and the sections on 9/11 and her work on a case involving a scalded child in particular will stay with me for a very long time. 

** Final word! The ever awesome Den of Geek gave me space to talk about the actual day my father died in their Geeks versus Loneliness campaign. You can read about the worst day of my life here. 

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