Wednesday, July 22, 2015


Yesterday I attended a seminar at the Richmond Town Hall, which was entitled Death Matters: You Only Die Once. It provided an opportunity for those present to debate, question and hear about death and dying. The keynote speaker Molly Carlile, a qualified nurse, palliative care specialist, grief and loss counselor began by reading a poem that will be read at her own funeral. It was from Afterwards by Thomas Hardy (1917) and the sentence that captured me the most was: 'that I have been stilled at last'. Death comes to each of us and one of the main messages from this seminar is for all of us to become 'death literate', for, as Molly said 'we live in a death denying society'. We lock dying people away, smuggle their body away to a mortuary, engage the terminally ill in futile treatments, encourage them to keep surviving although they may be in extreme pain, all in the name of trying to appease relatives who continue to hang out hope for a miraculous cure.

Death must be reclaimed for the individual,  it is not the providence of the medical profession, death is a reality for all of us and we should not be forced to die in a way that is contrary to our wishes  but rather, in the service of the medical profession. We should, it was suggested,have in place what is termed an Advanced Care Plan and a nominated decision maker who will carry out duties and make necessary decisions about our 'good' death. This list can be written on paper and can be carried out by a trustworthy friend or member of the family. Remember, your good death will ultimately provide comfort to your family, because they know that your end of life desires have been satisfied.

Part of Molly's ACP, which she has discussed at length with her family is her desire to be buried in a biodegradable burial shroud and be placed in a simple timber coffin that has been decorated by her family and friends. I personally love both of these ideas. After much discussion it was agreed that the ACP should be as specific as possible and should include strict instructions, for instance, if you survive a massive stroke, but cannot walk, stand, feed yourself or wipe you own backside or communicate you may order a  Do Not Resuscitate notice. Being specific about such things is important for it takes the burden off family members whose emotional state of being may make it extremely difficult for them to make such a decision.

A range of subjects were discussed and they varied from individual to individual. I personally raised the question about Digital legacy and the fact that individuals need to provide updated login details for virtual sites such as Facebook, Twitter and blogs so that they may be claimed and archived. I discovered interesting details such as the fact that you do not have to employ a Funeral Director if you can organize cartage of your loved one to the crematory, bearing in mind that you can by law only keep someone at home in a cooled environment for five days.  Many people attending did not have formal 'funerals' for their family and had engaged in other kind of celebrations and internment. You are unable to bury a naked person and you cannot bury them in your backyard, though I personally think that the notion that a naked person imparts some kind of toxin into the soil is absolutely absurd and this is more likely to happen if you or your relative is embalmed. By the way you don't have to embalm a corpse!

As I listened with interest I realized that there is much we don't know about death and dying and that the suggestion of having a central website that contains all the information is not only ideal but necessary.  For too long it seems the care of the dead has been left in the hands of funeral directors who have had it all their way. It is possible to make change so that a person's end of life wishes allow them to have control. Strangely enough with all the in depth conversations had during the day Euthanasia and organ donation was not discussed. Perhaps these topics could be included in the next seminar? 

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