Modern death smells of alcoholic hand sanitiser and unfamiliar Travelodges.
It is often kept out of sight – apart from the kitschy display windows of funeral directors, occasional social media posts by friends-of-friends featuring a picture of someone you don’t know, or its aftermath witnessed during one’s teens, via drunken forays into summer night graveyards. People can wince, or shuffle if you talk about death or the experience of dying. They say sentences that curve down at the ends, performing some sort of ideal of respectfulness, for fear they might behave unacceptably. Sometimes, after a while, they ask to change the subject to something a bit more cheerful.
I have now seen my second dead body in ten years – my father. It was a lot less frightening this time around. After a heart attack in 2016, and a year of surgeries, therapies, pills, and multiple recoveries, he keeled over sideways on a sunny November afternoon in a faux-french bistro in Bournemouth, whilst on a mini-break with my mother. His ICD fired four times, and a stranger performed CPR. He didn’t breath or beat for twenty minutes. When they got him to hospital, they put him straight into cold sleep – a drug induced coma, and a cooling of the body to 32 celsius, in the hope of preventing neurological damage.
It was the day after Halloween, where I’d arranged a party for my friends. I’d made pie, and set up an altar – my religious background is pretty mixed, with a good splash of slightly corny 1980s neopaganism. We laid out little macaroons, that I’d made for the purpose, on paper love notes for the dead in our lives. We added candles and lit them. People took photos and sent them to each other and Instagrammed it – it was beautiful. The whole ‘death party’ idea was the first time I’d decided to do it, and I was a bit embarrassed, despite feeling for years that I’d wanted to do something ‘proper’ for the 31st of October. However, my guests were surprisingly into it – some people took their note home with them after the candle had burned. No one sneaked a look at other people’s notes, out of respect. On the 1st of November, I went to a conference, and left at lunch-time. By about 4pm my mother had called me telling me that my father was in ICU.
His death seemed somewhat inevitable to me even when we were in the 48 hour period of ‘sleep’. Some people occasionally recover and wake up from cardiac trauma. Working on a degree has somewhat ruined my approach to uncertainty in that whenever I’m faced with a stressful situation, especially if medical in nature, I immediately start trying to research it. Comfort appears in understanding the boring details of an illness from end to end, or the minutiae of a procedure. Within thirty minutes of my mother telling me exactly what happened, I’d googled survival rates, and guidelines for an Out Of Hospital cardiac arrest. It seems that if your heart stops for more than six minutes, you are probably done for.
The hospital staff pegged a laminated picture of three blue butterflies on his curtains. My mum pointed at it and said “it must be a code – so not to upset people”. I spent a good while scrutinising his face up close as he breathed intermittently, trying to memorise his eyebrows, the colour of his skin, the tags around his eyes, and his long dark grey eyelashes. It is not consensual to take pictures of dying relatives if they are unconscious – but I snuck a picture of his hand with my smartphone. Bonier, but still huge and brown, speckled, encircled in the lines of his cannula. He had been extremely explicit about the reality of the situation during the summer, while he waited for various surgeries that held stroke risks: “If it all goes wrong, just turn the machines off. I’m not sitting drooling in a chair for the rest of my life – I can’t think of anything worse.”
There is a sneaking guilty feeling in me that many people could find his statement very offensive. We are brought up to guard life, no matter how limited, and to fear death. The UK is still fighting to change legislation on euthanasia and assisted suicide. The NHS does have a page on the two topics, but only really to explain how both situations are illegal under UK law, and that withdrawal of life-prolonging care is definitely not ‘passive euthanasia’. But my father was not interested in living at any cost. He was interested in living well, which one could argue was also partially what killed him quite young.
In my personal experience, the post-war generation are not particularly great at death – the people who are now in their sixties, seventies and beyond. I am pretty sure I have been shushed more than once for mentioning ‘when I die’ or ‘if [someone] dies’. It’s like saying ‘fuck’ at the dinner table, or getting overly emotional around particularly stiff-upper-lip people – everyone gets a bit skittery and would like you to Just Calm Down (please). My father didn’t make a will – even when we asked him to. Neither did my paternal Grandmother, until someone intervened. Dad literally just gave us verbal instructions at one point in August to “raid the safe, split the contents, and bury me in the garden – I don’t care, but make sure you get the stuff in the safe”. This subsequently left my mother not just with her awful, lost-teenage-sweetheart grief, but with a mountain of paperwork and no access to cash that might have paid for his funeral.
Dying is expensive. If you want to die in a socially acceptable manner, a modest cremation will set you back at least five grand. Dad’s funeral ended up costing roughly £6k, and then a little more for the wake we put on for his friends. My mother paid for the lot upfront out of her savings – like many baby boomers, she had the space to save for a rainy day. If I died tomorrow, my husband would probably have to wipe out his savings and then borrow off of her or my father-in-law to give me the send off he thought I deserved.
We should probably plan it all better, and not repeat these stresses that can be so easily inflicted on people that will already be trying to breathe from the vacuum you’ve suddenly left. It doesn’t have to be awful – it can bring unexpected sweetness. I’m still flattered and humbled by the memory of my best friend ringing me up a few years ago and announcing that she was making her will – and that would I like anything? After my initial surprise, I said she could give me back a little mouse brooch I first gave her, for safe keeping, until I died as well.
In planning death and talking about it, we can include our people and show love – in the same way that one is thrilled when their friend asks them to be a best man, to help them choose a wedding dress, to come to a graduation, or to meet their first baby. It doesn’t have to be just tragedy and destruction. It is normal to die, and it should be dignified and as smooth as possible. It is a process. In the final hour of my father’s death, I kept on repeating to myself, my husband, and once to my mother: “This is natural, it’s just birth in reverse.”