“How long does it take to plan a wedding?” That was the first question the funeral director asked our small group of would-be celebrants on the first day of our training. “About a year and a half”, came the first, hesitant reply. “Ok thanks,” he said, “the rest of you, just shout out all the things you need to organise and I’ll write them up on the board.”
“A venue”, someone eventually said. “The date”, suggested someone else. Invitations, transport, hair and makeup, clothes, music, catering, flowers, a photographer, someone to conduct the ceremony; as we began to enjoy ourselves, the list grew and grew.
When he’d filled most of the board with our suggestions, he turned to us again and said, “that’s quite a list isn’t it? No wonder it takes a year and a half. But the thing is, apart from the photographer, everything on it, we have to do for a funeral – and we have to do it in just three days.”
A wedding is the third most stressful event in most of our lives, but the death of a loved one tops the charts, pipping even divorce into second place. Common sense suggests we should be prepared for it, but the evidence shows that we don’t.
In the UK, only a third of us have written a will. Only 27% have discussed our funeral wishes and even fewer have spoken to a family member about theirs.
It gets worse.
Only a third of GPs have told anyone what they want to happen at the end of their lives. If even doctors can’t talk about death, it’s hardly surprising that the rest of us ignore it too.
There are many definitions of what make humans unique in the animal kingdom. Having opposable thumbs is one, thinking about abstract ideas is another, but my favourite is wilful blindness.
Wilful blindness is what happens when we ignore things we could and should know because we feel better not knowing them, and there is no area of life where that is more true than death.
For most of us, death is no longer a part of life. Even a hundred years ago, few people made it past middle age and medical care, such as it was, took place in the home so it was impossible to escape the realities of disease, pain and suffering.
Now we live so much longer, and our lives can be extended further still by advances in medical care. Much as we’d like to, very few of us die at home, and the medicalisation of old age and the professionalisation of funeral care mean we are far less prepared to face death than at any time in our history.
In the Middle Ages, life was nasty, brutish and short. More children died in infancy than survived it, life expectancy was 35 and medicine had nothing to combat the many terrible diseases like dysentery, typhoid, leprosy and smallpox, let alone the bubonic plague that wiped out half the population of Europe. In a world that interpreted everything through the framework of religion, death was seen as ‘the wages of sin’, but the upside was the promise of eternal life through the redemption of the Lord Jesus Christ.
While we now live in a largely secular age, like Alain de Botton, I believe that we can still learn from our religious forebears.
The ‘Ars Moriendi’ is the name given to a collection of handbooks about death, dying and the afterlife which were produced by the Catholic Church to train priests in ministering to their parishioners as they approached their end. Written by the French theologian Jean de Gerson in the 14th century, the idea caught the imagination of the papacy and copies were quickly distributed throughout Christendom.
The work was in two volumes. The first prescribed the prayers to be spoken and the rites to be observed at the deathbed; the second, much smaller one dealt with the temptations that could prevent the faithful from achieving a good death, and it was illustrated with images of angels and devils fighting over the souls of the dead; who would be saved and who would be damned?
The readers of the ‘Ars Moriendi’ were encouraged to meditate on death as part of their practise of a good life. Contemplating your own mortality sounds gloomy, it doesn’t have to be and there were many people who did so long before Christianity.
Three centuries earlier, the philosopher Zeno founded a school in Athens that took its name from the porch of the building where they used to meet, and they became known as the Stoics.
The Stoics didn’t see philosophy as an intellectual pursuit so much as an all-embracing attitude to life that allowed them to live it with power. They realised that although they couldn’t control what was going on around them, they could control their reaction to it, and that gave them a very dispassionate view of the vagaries of fate. The Stoics were among the first people to get the paradox that the only way to live a full and rewarding life is to embrace the fact that we are going to die.
The best-known Stoic these days is the Roman emperor, Marcus Aurelius, and his twelve books of meditations are full of advice about how to do that. “Think not disdainfully of death, but look on it with favour; for even death is one of the things that Nature wills,” he says in book nine, or as the scriptwriter for “Gladiator” rephrased it, “Death smiles at us all; all we can do is smile back.”
In India, two centuries before Zeno, another royal philosopher, Siddhartha Gautama, had already reached similar conclusions. Recognising that humanity is inextricably caught between fear and desire, the Buddha offered a path out of our suffering that involved recognising the impermanence of all things and the acceptance that death is a part of life. There is no direct link between the development of Buddhism and Stoicism, but they share the recognition that the only thing we can control about death is our attitude towards it, and that is as true today as ever.
One reason the ancients were more clear-sighted about death was their awareness that life was short. Ours is getting longer and in the last hundred years, life expectancy has increased massively.
In 1920, a man could hope to live to 55, a woman to 59. Today, the average man dies just before his 80th birthday, while most women make it past 83 but as we are beginning to realise, living longer is a double-edged sword. Those of us in good health and with substantial savings may enjoy a rich and rewarding retirement, but with that additional lifespan come other challenges.
Alzheimer’s Disease International predicts a doubling in the rate of dementia every twenty years, and with it, a matching increase in the costs of medical and social care for its sufferers. Perhaps the most worrying statistic is that while a third of us have written a will or talked about what we want for our funeral, only 7% of us have given any thought to our future care, should we be unable to make decisions for ourselves.
The other very practical consequence of our wilful blindness about death is that when someone we love dies, the immediate aftermath is bewildering. In just a few days we have to make some very expensive decisions at a time when we are uniquely vulnerable; ironically decisions very similar to those for a wedding, which as we know usually takes about nine months to plan.
A funeral is the ultimate distress purchase.
Choose a funeral director, pick a coffin, decide on the kind of ceremony and the venue. Choose a date and a time, find a reception venue, choose the flowers and a caterer. And then there’s the bureaucracy: register the death, speak to the solicitors, find the will and sort out the estate. Cut off the phone, prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone, clear the house, cancel the papers, contact the utility companies and – these days – the social media ones too.
In the sleepless, numbing frenzy of organising the funeral, the most important response to the death of your loved one – the creation of a meaningful tribute to their life – can get overlooked.
That’s where people like me come in.
The photograph that illustrates this piece was taken by the award-winning Jane Barlow for a 2010 article in Scotland on Sunday