When I retired as a humanist celebrant I thought I'd stop writing this blog, but my fascination with all things death-related prompted more posts. They're just written from a slightly different perspective, that's all. Oh, and I still do the odd one, by special request.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Skip the dying part

My friend D, who had his eighty-second birthday recently, is apprehensive about a visit to see a hospital consultant next month. He thinks he has cancer. A suspicious spot was found on his tongue during a routine dental checkup, and he says it's where he used to have a pipe clenched between his teeth for years and years.

D isn't afraid of death, he says. He's not bothered about oblivion. It's the transition that worries him. He's afraid of suffering and indignity. If it turns out that he does have cancer, he's already imagining the worst case scenario - a horrible, drawn-out, painful illness. He'd like to die in his sleep, he says.

Woody Allen said that he wasn't afraid of death; he just didn't want to be there when it happens. I suppose most people think like that, if they think about it at all.

Another friend, Mary, who died a few years ago, had oral cancer. She contacted me when she'd had the diagnosis to arrange her own funeral and I befriended her. For the next five or six years, I visited her for lunch every couple of months. She was a retired teacher in her eighties, a passionate socialist, very interested in the world inhabited by her grandsons, who'd been travelling and gone to university. She bought herself a computer and taught herself to use it so she could keep in touch with them by email.

After her diagnosis, Mary remained fairly well for about five years. When things started to deteriorate, she travelled to hospital for palliative radiotherapy every weekday for several weeks. This involved a long bus journey, so it was very tiring. They didn't have a bed for her at the time. When she was admitted, Mary remained polite and cheerful, making friends with the staff and the other patients, as though she was a morale-boosting visitor, rather than another very sick patient.

It wasn't the cancer that killed Mary. She had to have a tube inserted in her stomach, to be fed, and the wound became infected. It was the infection that killed her. Never, throughout the whole ordeal, did she complain or express fear. She was dignified and determined to the last. When I conducted her funeral, it was the only time I wept as a celebrant.

D has lived a conventional, unadventurous life. For the last twenty-odd years, since I've known him, he has mostly kept himself to himself. He has no other friends. His family rarely visit him, and he hasn't see his grandchildren since they were babies. He worries so much about things going wrong that he avoids doing anything in the first place.

Mary lived life to the full. She went swimming regularly until a year or two before she died. She played bridge. She went to the local community centre. She had a live-in gentleman-friend (which shocked the Frinton blue-rinse brigade) for several years - she was widowed a long time. She was intensely curious about other people and their lives without being judgemental or intrusive.

As I have said many times, those who are afraid of life are generally more likely to be afraid to die. I hope that D hasn't got cancer, but if he has, that it won't be nearly as bad as he imagines it will be. He is terrified, which is very sad.

Friday, August 10, 2007

Death is nothing at all?

Religionists can sneak up on unwary humanist celebrants like me. The client/s might say that he or she or they don't want any religion at the funeral, but there could be some relative or friend who's determined that Uncle Bob or Aunt Brenda shouldn't be given a send-off that's totally free of superstition. "Stella wants to do a reading," I'll be told. "I'm sure it'll be OK. She knows we're not having a religious funeral." That's precisely why Stella waits until the last minute to tell you what she wants to read, and it'll probably be something about a happy ever after, when we all meet again, in the by and by, or something along those lines.

Canon Henry Scott Holland's a popular one. It's supposed to be "comforting". This is a version I've been sent:

Death is nothing at all
I have only slipped away into the next room
I am I and you are you
Whatever we were to each other
That we are still
Call me by my old familiar name
Speak to me in the easy way you always used
Put no difference into your tone
Wear no forced air of solemnity or sorrow
Laugh as we always laughed
At the little jokes we always enjoyed together
Play, smile, think of me, pray for me
Let my name be ever the household word that it always was
Let it be spoken without effort
Without the ghost of a shadow in it
Life means all that it ever meant
It is the same as it ever was
There is absolute unbroken continuity
What is death but a negligible accident?
Why should I be out of mind
Because I am out of sight?
I am waiting for you for an interval
Somewhere very near
Just around the corner
All is well.
Nothing is past; nothing is lost
One brief moment and all will be as it was before
How we shall laugh at the trouble of parting
when we meet again!

Canon Henry Scott-Holland, 1847-1918, Canon of St Paul’s Cathedral

How we shall laugh? Where did Henry get this idea? Did he have any evidence that one's dear departed would be lurking "just around the corner" (spooky) until you catch up with him or her? And would he or she be as we remembered him or her when fit and healthy, or when he or she was old and sick, for example? What about all the other dead people? Which ones would be waiting, and who would diplomatically stay out of your way because you didn't get on in life, so the thought of spending eternity in their company gives you the heeby-jeebies?

Few people have really thought about an afterlife, except in the vaguest terms. If they did, they might find, as I do, that it's a very unattractive prospect. For a start, eternity's a very long time. After the first few hundred years I think you'd be anxious to leave. What will you do? Eating chocolate, reading good books, gardening, all the things you enjoyed in life, are OK for short periods, but could grow tiresome. And then there's the business of who else is there. It's either very crowded, or you have a system that permits you to choose your companions, assuming they want to share with you. How old will you be? Twenty-one forever? You see, it's not straightforward, is it?

Give me oblivion, forever.