This often surprisingly light hearted BBC documentary, fronted by Richard Wilson, broached a subject that’s something of a pet passion of mine; that is, talking about and accepting death, and in doing so, making it far less of a scary pastime.
And there can be few people who could better Richard’s presententation of such a challenging issue. The mellifluous, calming Richard – whose sense of humour is equal to his sense of humanity – didn’t try to attach any humour to the issues he raised, that just sort of happened. Because it’s so true, albeit a cliché, that in the midst of life, we are indeed in death, and some deaths carry an amusement factor.
For instance, Richard met with a chap who makes coffins for a living, and we saw some of his bespoke coffins which included a coffin in the shape of a ballerina’s slipper, a yacht and, most smile-worthy, a holdall.
He also met with the manager of a crematorium and we heard how some members of the clergy who perform funerals there object to final songs such as Prodigy’s Firestarter or the famous tune from the film Life Of Brian, Always Look on the Bright Side of Life. And although it wasn’t mentioned, I should imagine these venerable ladies and gentlemen might object to Highway to Hell also.
One of the most amusing moments for me though came when Richard was at the Salisbury College of Funeral Sciences and the head of the school, a very lovely lady called Sheila, said “None of us wants to look dreadful, and people don’t look well when they’ve died.” As statements of the obvious go, that’s got to be one of the best I’ve ever heard.
In his opening words for this programme, Richard said, “I want to find out whether we can deal with death better” and again, that’s a subject that’s close to my heart in that I find it singularly frustrating that we are such a death denying society.
As Richard pointed out, there are few certainties in life other than the fact that, if you’re born, you’re going to die, yet so few of us actually believe it’s going to happen to us. We sort of vaguely know it must, but it’s a long way off, so no need to give it thought now.
Unfortunately, that’s not necessarily the case and Richard met with Rab, the father of a young man, Boab, who met his exceptionally untimely end while walking over a level crossing. However, Rab decided that he wanted Boab’s funeral to mirror his life, and therefore, Boab was placed in a wicker coffin, taken to see his beloved calves one last time – on the front of a tractor – and finally buried in the family’s garden with a “twisted willow” planed atop him.
Although Rab’s conversation with Richard elicited some tears, both from Rab and myself, as Rab explained why he wanted to bury his son in his garden, he said, “It’s like tuckin’ your wee’un up for the night, y’know. I don’t have to worry about him anymore, he’s done his worst, and now he’s safe.”
It was incredibly moving but I totally understood why Rab would want to eschew the traditional methods of dispatch and favour keeping his wee’un near him.
Another moving scene came when Richard witnessed a ceremony in which the deceased lady had asked to have her ashes scattered by means of being part of a firework display. What a fantastic way to scatter your earthly remains – by firing them into the sky amid a blaze of colour. It was beautiful.
Richard also met with Andy who’s dying of throat cancer and he and his family talk about the fact of his impending death openly, and with no trace of sombre and reverent tones. And in so doing, Andy was able to talk to his family about his dying and what he’d like to happen by way of a funeral.
And as we saw in this programme, there are many, many variations on the ‘standard’ funeral these days, yet so few of us even give them thought, much less voice those thoughts. It’s as if we fear precipitating death by discussing it; as if talking about it might actually allow the reaper a shoe-in.
As I mentioned earlier, this is a subject about which I’m rather passionate, and this programme – and many of Richard’s musings about death – reflected my own thoughts and feelings about it. As part of my degree, I took a module called Death and Dying which actively promotes open discussion of death and all the issues surrounding it.
However, I think it’s fairly indicative of our society’s view of dying that whilst we have thousands of maternity units ready to welcome our births, we have only a handful of hospices and palliative care units ready to help us into our deaths.
But hopefully, programmes like this one will be the catalyst that we need to discuss the subject of our mortality and what we’d like done about it when we do shuffle off the mortal coil.
And having people like Richard openly discussing this issue, with often a wry smile and a witty word, we’ll remove the veil of darkness that surrounds death and see it for what it is; a transitory period in life that will inevitably come to us all.