Why Aren’t People in A Good Place To Die?

Freeman Brothers Funeral Directors has been supporting families in West Sussex since 1855. In our 167 years’ experience arranging funeral services in Horsham, Crawley, Billingshurst and Hurstpierpoint, we have witnessed the increasing resistance of family members and friends to discuss funeral plans. To consider why this might be, we are delighted to welcome bestselling novelist […]

Estimated Reading Time:

Freeman Brothers Funeral Directors has been supporting families in West Sussex since 1855. In our 167 years’ experience arranging funeral services in Horsham, Crawley, Billingshurst and Hurstpierpoint, we have witnessed the increasing resistance of family members and friends to discuss funeral plans. To consider why this might be, we are delighted to welcome bestselling novelist Ruth Hogan as a guest blogger. Ruth, whose novels often explore responses to death and grief, ponders why death has become such a fearful subject and why talking about it could help.

I was seven years old when my granddad died, and I wasn’t allowed to go to his funeral. I was furious. And curious. I wanted to understand what happens to someone when they die. But my parents felt that it was something that I should be protected from. ‘Granddad’s gone to heaven’ – conversation closed.

Perhaps one of the reasons we have become so bad at death is that dying is no longer a domestic event. In the UK far fewer people die at home, and even fewer have their bodies tended to by members of their own family. For most of us, what happens after someone dies is a mystery from which we are physically removed. We have become happy for it to be dealt with by strangers, but this distancing ourselves from death inevitably results in fear of the unknown. For the Victorians things were very different.

Diseases like scarlet fever could destroy a whole family in weeks, and children as well as adults were very familiar with death as a regular house guest…There was no hiding place from one’s own mortality and so protection from it was considered pointless. It was a perfectly acceptable topic in children’s literature of the day, along with lovely fluffy kittens, jolly nice table manners and Lizzie’s new bonnet.’

The Victorian approach to death is often disparaged as being excessive, sentimental and overly dramatic. There were very specific requirements regarding social interactions during mourning and funereal fashion

‘Pongee, bombazine, crape and barathea may sound like the names of canine characters in The Hundred and One Dalmatians, but they were actually fabrics unattractive enough to be appropriate for the fashioning of ladies’ mourning outfits in the nineteenth century… An astonishing variety of crape was available, to suit every style of mourning. Norwich crape was hard and very crimped; Canton crape was softer; Crape Anglaise was embossed, and bombazine was a cheaper crape substitute, coarse and scratchy. Women had to demonstrate their mourning proficiency by wearing dull black frocks trimmed with yards of crepitating crape, rough, black undergarments and matt black accessories, whilst staying at home and weaving miniature works of art using the hair from the deceased (head hair, I’m hoping), to be framed, or inserted into pieces of memorial jewellery.’

It is easy for us now to dismiss these stringent standards as being overblown and irrelevant, but it is worth considering that they may have some merit after all. For the Victorians, there was no agonising over whether or when it was a good idea to visit or telephone the bereaved. There was no fretting about the ‘right’ thing to say, what to write in a sympathy card, or what to wear to a funeral.  Back then, everyone knew exactly what was expected of them and that must surely have made things easier.

These days our considered approach to death is to try very hard to ignore it. We can’t even say it. It has become the ‘d-word’. We have developed a baffling range of euphemisms to discuss it as though using different words will cushion the reality like a soft-focus filter on a photograph. I spent many hours in hospital waiting rooms with my dad (who isnow dead) irreverently discussing the ‘d-word’ and much of the content of our conversations found its way into one of my novels.

‘We say someone has ‘passed away’. We talk about having ‘lost’ someone, or someone being ‘late’. They are neither lost nor late. We know perfectly well where they are, and they’re not late, they’re just not coming.’

We discussed the details of Dad’s funeral with a healthy mixture of sincerity and hilarity. He wanted to be cremated and asked that there be a label attached to his coffin saying gas mark 5. I told him that it wouldn’t be nearly hot enough. He said that rather than having a floral tribute spelling the word ‘Dad’, he wanted it to say ‘Dead’. I told him that everyone would think it was a spelling mistake. The details are not important – what’s important is that we talked about it. Sadly, Dad died at the start of Covid and only a handful of family members saw our meticulous plans come to fruition. But I was there, and I took great comfort from knowing that (for the most part) he got what he wanted.

Mum and Dad died six weeks to the day apart during the initial outbreak of COVID. In the months leading up to that we spoke openly and often about their deaths. It wasn’t always easy, but it was absolutely necessary. It meant that I knew what their final wishes were and that they could die, as far as possible on their own terms. It meant that when I gave permission for Dad’s medication to be stopped, I was able to speak for him with complete certainty that it was what he wanted. It meant that I will always remember Mum telling me ‘I’ve had my life and you must go on and live yours.’ Those conversations have also prompted me to think about my own death (hopefully a while a way yet!) and consider what I can do when the time comes to prepare for it.

As a child I loved graveyards and cemeteries, and I still do. I have never been able to understand why people find them ghoulish.

‘…people nowadays seem to think that cemeteries are morbid places and to visit them for recreational purposes is at best creepy and at worst, tempting fate. But perhaps it is the confrontation of their own mortality that really unsettles them. After all, it is the only certainty that we all share. However fit, fabulous, rich, double-jointed, brilliant, brave, funny or fastidious about cleaning our teeth we are, we are all going to die. It may not seem fair but there it is.’

We are indeed all going to die. Hiding from it won’t delay or prevent it. But facing the fact and talking about it might just help.

All quotations featured are taken from Ruth Hogan’s 2018 novel, The Wisdom of Sally Red Shoes. If you’d like to hear more from Ruth, or learn more about her writing, you can follow her on Instagram or Twitter via @ruthmariehogan, or on Facebook at ‘Ruth Hogan Author’.

0 Comments

Written by

June 1, 2022

You may also like…

Archives

Call us at any time on 01403 254590 or email mail@freemanbrothers.co.uk