17 November 2018

Happy Endings: What is a good death?

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How to have a ‘good death’? It’s not a bad idea to start talking about it with your loved ones.

What exactly do we mean when we talk of a ‘good death’? This is a question that the National Council for Palliative Care tried to answer in a recent survey. What came out as the UK’s top priority may not be a surprise; 32 per cent of people said they would like to die pain-free. A further 20 per cent said that they would prioritise being with family and friends. While neither of these can be guaranteed, they can at least be made more likely if proper planning is put in place to avoid miscommunications around our end-of-life wishes.

But to achieve this, we need to learn to talk about death in the first place. A 2015 survey revealed that fewer than 20 per cent of respondents had asked their loved ones about their end-of-life wishes. If these attitudes changed, everyone would benefit. Because when it comes to letting go, talking openly about death is an important way of helping those left behind to deal with our departure. It’s about their emotional needs as well as our own.

To further understand this subject, we talked to three people who have worked with death in creative and professional capacities. Here a Bafta winner, an artist and a funeral director tell us what a good death means to them.

Kevin Toolis
Kevin Toolis has worked as a foreign correspondent in brutal war zones, won a Bafta for his film Complicit and most recently written My Father’s Wake: How the Irish Teach Us to Live, Love and Die. Toolis’ book encourages us to be braver about facing our destiny and praises the openness and sense of community that surround death in Ireland. “Death is a whisper in the Anglo-Saxon world, we think we need to lower the lights, we don’t want to intrude on it. But really what we don’t want to intrude on is the mirror on our own death,” says the 50-year-old. “Death is mundane. But what we’ve lost is the ability to talk about it in the ordinariness of life.” As for his own funeral, Toolis would like it to play out in a similar manner to his wedding. “I got married in my sitting-room in Ireland,” he explains. “I wouldn’t mind being there with a few wailing women. Even if I had to hire them in…”

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Shortly after two big bereavements, Steven Eastwood spent a year filming in a hospice on the Isle of Wight. Rather than make the bereavements harder for the 46-year-old, he says this experience came at just the right time.

The original idea was to make a work for an exhibition at Brighton’s Fabrica gallery, but during filming Eastwood realised there was a feature film in the project, too; Island premiered at the London Film Festival 2017.

“I met some extraordinary people, one of whom said, ‘I think you’d like to stay with me to the end and I think I’d like you to do that,’” says Eastwood. “I even had to become his next of kin so the hospice could contact me when he was ‘actively dying’, as they call it, in the last 48 hours.”

As well as this man, who was in his eighties, Eastwood worked with a younger man who was terminally ill and had two small children. “His friendship circle and family were in shock, so he had a different role in the film, to talk about how people struggle to cope with a young death.”

Being strong and darkly humoured helped this man in his last days, says Eastwood. “I found his attitude very empowering, how he talked about his death to his four-year-old daughter. And the jokes he cracked will help the audience when they watch this.”

Like Toolis, Eastwood suggests we need to change our attitudes to death. “Both cancer and death have a phantom role in society; death is actually a perfectly natural thing,” he says. “Personally, I take a slightly fatalistic attitude to death.”

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Louise Winter was 25 when she went to her first funeral, her grandfather’s. “It was just so expensive and nothing about it seemed relevant to the times we lived in,” laments the now 30-year-old.

Winter began her career in fashion, but by 28 had taken a radical turn to work in the funeral industry: “I was working long hours, doing lots of presentations, working for clients in boardrooms. And it didn’t mean anything.”

Working with death has been transformative, says the funeral director and founder of Poetic Endings, who has suffered with depression for much of her life: “It’s given me purpose, something to work towards and the sense that life is finite.”

More than 300 funerals have given Winter insight into what makes a good death. “A good death is a good life; it’s about dealing with what life throws at us, being a good person and not avoiding difficulty. We don’t have control over our death, but we do have control of how we live our lives.”

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