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Death in Leamington

April 8, 2018




On Thursday I attended the funeral of an old family friend who had died recently in Leamington at the age of 98. As she had no close family of her own, the task fell to me of organising the funeral. It was the first time in my life I have been so closely involved in the practical arrangements surrounding a death and it made me reflect on that hidden, but most inevitable of, human experiences.

The funeral itself passed off well and I am full of admiration for the undertakers and the vicar whose combination of sympathy, dignity and attention to detail was exemplary. There can be no more difficult work than supporting strangers at a time of bereavement. It is immensely important.

Our friend had died peacefully after a long life. She had gone to university before it was at all common for women to do so, she had been a capable and devoted teacher in a secondary school in the North West. She was a woman of intelligence, of strong values and strong views. On retirement, she had moved back to her roots in Warwickshire where, amongst other acts of kindness, she had supported my great uncle, her former teacher, at the end of his life.

In the last couple of years her health had declined, and she had had to leave her own home and move into a nursing home. Like an increasing number of people surviving to a great age, she had lived out a tail to her life marked by physical frailty, some psychological distress and a growing withdrawal from the world. There was some sense of relief in her eventual passing from this life.

Reflecting on the funeral, I was struck by how awkward we are with death these days. To start with we have drifted away from a common narrative of what death means and what might be expected to happen after death. There is no right or wrong to this, and maybe behind the front of collective religion, it was more the case in the past than we suspect. However, it means that we have allowed ourselves less space to talk about death and less of a common language in which to express that conversation.

The events of death also used to be something which happened in the heart of communities and which we have now moved to the margins in hospitals or crematoria where they are not visible. Unless we are clinicians, few of us are familiar with the physical patterns and processes of death. When somebody dies we are, unless they are celebrities, less aware of the fact, less drawn into the ritual of marking their parting, which in the past, would have impinged on the whole of the community. Our more rootless existence and the more drawn out nature of life, mean more people are dying in loneliness and isolation.

It has also been interesting to observe the process of drawing someone’s earthly affairs to a conclusion. In a way I am very grateful that it is so straightforward, and, in any case, our friend’s affairs were in very good order. Nonetheless it has been striking to see how simple it is to make the transition.

I was struck, in preparing for the funeral, in looking at a poem by John Betjeman of the same name as this blog. It describes the quiet and lonely death of an elderly women in Leamington and the matter of fact reaction of her nurse, bringing her afternoon tea, and realising that her patient has passed away. It could have been written for our friend.

Death should be higher in our public consciousness. Facilitating a good death should be a more prominent purpose of health and care services, recognising the psychological, practical as well as the medical aspects of this. We should be more bothered about this, at times, than we are about our obsession to lengthen life beyond its natural limits. The circumstances of death of so many people should be a further reminder of the bitter consequences of loneliness and social isolation. Above all else we should make sure, as individuals, we are prepared to look ahead and consider ourselves what constitutes a good death.

It is in the nature of the human condition that it is hard to understand or reconcile ourselves to ultimate ending of our days. It is not helpful though, to ignore the issue.


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