Jennifer Bolt of Freeman Brothers Funeral Directors
Freeman Brothers Funeral Directors is marking Dying Matters Awareness Week 2021 in several ways. The company – whose West Sussex offices are located in Billingshurst, Crawley, Horsham and Hurstpierpoint – is running two online events to support this year’s theme of ‘Are you in a good place to die?’. In addition to the wider theme, members of the public are being asked to consider how this relates to a particular topic each day. Today, Jen tackles the meaning of being in a good place to die… physically.
It’s a surprising fact of life that many of our most poignant, precious and emotive moments are so often accompanied by the most mundane of objects.
Take the humble sausage roll, for example. Not a thrilling or dynamic foodstuff in anyone’s book, nevertheless there’s a good chance that (unless you have a particular propensity for these little pastry-wrapped marvels) a good proportion of those consumed over your lifetime will have been in the context of a wedding, baby naming, birthday party or funeral wake. Such is their popularity, they have come to be as readily expected as flowers, gifts, cake or the coffin.
It is staples like these – be they foodstuffs, objects, routines or actions – that provide us with the structure and scaffolding to plan ahead: to anticipate the ‘shape’ that an impending life experience is most likely to take, giving us a starting point for more personal, bespoke touches to be incorporated and (perhaps most important of all) relieving some of the fear we feel when faced with a new emotional experience.
As funeral directors, we understand the appeal of planning an event down to the minutiae – even one you’re unlikely to be at! This is our raison d’etre: to plan, co-ordinate and execute a ceremony from an objective standpoint, relieving mental fatigue and providing the space and energy for family and friends to grieve and mourn. It is, in our view, the greatest gift of comfort we can provide to others.
Similarly, when clients come into one of our branches to purchase a pre-paid funeral plan, one of the reasons most commonly offered for doing so is to relieve loved ones of the financial, mental and emotional burden that funeral planning carries, and which would otherwise coincide with the most morose of circumstances. Indeed, who wants to squabble about which Bay City Rollers hit was Dad’s favourite, what colour of rose should be placed on the coffin or who will ultimately foot the bill whilst grieving for the death of a loved one?
What these clients recognise and accept – time and time again – is that so often what is most needed in such circumstances is pragmatism.
Routine, structure and forward-planning (while admittedly mundane) help to carry us through trying situations with minimal heartache, and perhaps this is why the humble sausage roll has become such a go-to feature of a funeral buffet? No-nonsense, plain fare that’s as easy to eat standing up as it is forgettable: nourishment, warmth and comfort without the need for acknowledgement or gratitude. These steaming morsels loiter in the background, reliable and ready to perform their function quietly and with minimal fuss – much like a good funeral director!
But, while many of us are happy about (or, at least, reluctantly resigned to) making plans for the next and most final of earthly steps – the funeral service – we have far greater reservations when entertaining thoughts about the death itself, and it’s not hard to see why.
By its very nature, the place and circumstance of your passing is a very difficult thing to anticipate – especially early in life – and the idea of a premature death (which may be violent, traumatic or lingering) is an unpleasant thing to contemplate in anyone’s book. As the saying goes however, death – like taxes – is an inevitability that bears thinking about.
Many of us, if asked the question ‘How would you prefer to die?’, are likely to respond with something akin to ‘Peacefully, in my sleep, in my own bed, at an advanced age.’ The words we use may differ slightly but – essentially – the three important factors most commonly expressed in this sentiment are ‘once I’ve had plenty of time to achieve, see and do everything I’ve planned to’, ‘without being aware of it’ and ‘in an environment that’s familiar to me’.
The former is understandable: it appeals to a very human inclination to measure success and fulfilment through lists and tallies, and we feel cheated if we’re not then afforded the time to put our plans into action. (Some might even suggest that, by lengthening those lists and plans, we’re attempting to lengthen our own lives: the concept of a so-called ‘Bucket List’, for example, seems a formalised determination to stave off the inevitable.)
The second seems equally reasonable: like a child’s first visit to the dentist or a first-time mother anticipating labour, our lack of first-hand experience coupled with the other people’s terror-inducing tales of ‘what happened to me’ can incite a fear and expectation of pain and suffering that’s difficult to overcome. How much worse, then, can that fear be when there are no voices left to offer a contrary view? So much easier to ignore the topic, abandon the conversation and let nature take its course (with a silent prayer that it won’t be as bad as we think!)
The last factor is perhaps the most problematic. Though statistically many of us probably will know the comfort of a familiar, homely environment when we eventually meet our end, others – even in the case of an expected death – are liable to pass in a place that is less familiar to them, be it in a civic institution such as a hospital, hospice or care home, or somewhere else entirely. How, then, do we ensure that we can still deliver ourselves a ‘good’ death in terms of physicality?
Happily, in many cases, there are professionals involved to help manage this for us. Local hospices, for example, prioritise helping their residents and patients to experience as good a death as possible, whether this be through medical interventions, such as pain management and complementary therapies; social engagement, making it possible for suffers to spend plenty of quality time with loved ones who are in easy reach; or personal indulgences, such as space to enjoy hobbies, peaceful gardens or regular refreshments for those wishing to imbibe!
But this will not be the case for all of us.
Ultimately, difficult and distasteful though it may seem to us, there really is only one way to take any sort of control of this most unpredictable of life events – to talk about it with our nearest and dearest.
Though we are sometimes plagued by the inherent belief that talking about our own demise will somehow cause it to happen, we – like our pre-paid policy purchasers – can help both ourselves and our loved ones feel more prepared, more relaxed and more confident about what will inescapably be an emotionally-testing time (whether expected or unexpected) by discussing our ideal scenarios. We may not ultimately get everything we ever dreamed of, but at least we will be giving our loved ones the opportunity to help make it as close to perfection as possible. And guarantee there’ll be plenty of sausage rolls!
This Dying Matters Awareness Week is the perfect opportunity to start the conversation, if only briefly. If you’d like any help and advice with taking this first step towards planning a ‘good’ death, speak to our staff who will be happy to point you to useful resources and organisations who can help.