4 – 21 Aug
For many years I lived in a cul de sac just off the main route to my local crematorium, so I had a daily reminder that death was waiting me at some point in my life, and that I would inevitably make that journey up the hill. Later on, when I was a professional singer, I was happy to sing at funerals, either as a soloist, to sing hymns in case no-one else did, or simply to pad out the sound. I also sang at my brother’s and my mother’s funerals, and was glad to be able to offer this gift to them and everyone else present.
Most people don’t have this regular exposure to the inevitability of death, and western culture seeks to hide this from us, trying to persuade us that we will live for ever, and that modern medicine has the answer to everything, even death… There is now a growing reaction against this, a realisation that we need to talk about death and dying, that being in some way or other prepared for that eventuality, rather than sticking our heads in the sand and trying to deny it, is a good thing, something to be encouraged. There has been a growing ‘Death Cafe’ movement, a proliferation of organisations offering information about green funerals, dying well, preparing all that we can to take the burden off those who survive us, and so much more.
Liz Rothschild is a performer, a celebrant, and the manager of a woodland burial ground which was declared Cemetery of the Year in 2015. She enters and immediately engages us with an account of “my first death” – Molly Gilmour, an old lady she had been visiting: she is grateful for such a calm and gentle introduction to death – there is nothing to be afraid of, nothing to worry about, it was calm and peaceful.
Birth stories are common to all cultures: we have a National Childbirth Trust: but where are the death stories, the Death Trusts? Like the underside of a leaf, or the sole of our shoe, death is there – but generally hidden from our sight. Liz doesn’t like the Death Industry – the covering-up of that which is natural, hiding it away, even disguising it with makeup and/or embalming, covering the mound of Earth by the grave with plastic grass: “We all cover up in a myriad of ways”.
She tells stories from her own life, her work as a celebrant and as manager of a natural burial site. She has seen the chaos and pain people can suffer when someone dies without leaving any instructions or expressing any wishes – the “exposure of the fault lines in a family” as they quarrel over “what mum would have wanted” – and the unifying effect of working together to make arrangements about which everyone is happy (only to discover written wishes, too late, which are completely opposite to that which the dead person had chosen!).
70% of people in the UK die without leaving a will or letter expressing their wishes. “What can be healed when you know you are dying?” The huge rise in the number of suicides among South Korean office workers’ led to ‘death courses’, where people were encouraged to realise and come to terms with the fact they would at some stage cease to exist: the suicide rate dropped markedly. You can now go on coffin-weaving courses: Liz has hers on stage, and adds to it during the show.
Music interweaves the sections: “Always look on the bright side of life” is apparently the nation’s favourite piece of funeral music. We hear a movement from one of the Bach solo cello suites, lively klezmer-type music, and other pieces: what would I want?
The sudden unexpected death of an atheist lesbian friend pointed up that there are no guidelines for “how to do this”: her friends get together and spent time remembering her, and devising a celebration. The coffin was brought to the house and to everyone’s horror the friend’s face had make-up on it, something she hadn’t worn since her early teenage years – this exposed underlying assumptions that ‘this is how you would want it to be’: what we might want is not what the funeral director would see as ‘usual’ (and vice versa): all the more reason to talk about things and ask questions.
There are far fewer regulations surrounding funerals than we might think. Different cultures work to different timescales – in some the body must be ‘dealt with’ the same day, but in others there is actually no ‘deadline’. The cost of funerals varies enormously: shopping around is not ‘bad’ or ‘tasteless’; one family sought crowd-funding; funeral firms can apply emotional ‘blackmail’, pressuring people to spend more ‘because they deserve it’, using emotive language – ‘economy coffin’ triggering “oh no we can’t let him or her have that” resulting in spending more than you can afford; learning that pre-paid funeral plans don’t always cover everything….
There was so much more! We laughed, we cried, we recognised experiences, feelings, and frustrations: we were told that “most of us have no idea what is possible” and that even the strictest of regulations can be subverted. Did you know you can bury up to three people in your garden? (Though not if you are renting…) We were encouraged to keep talking and listening to each other, to address people’s concerns rather than hushing them and soothing them away.
The hour passed so swiftly, and there was so much more to share. Those who were able were invited to stay on and talk; we were given a list of extremely valuable resources of all kinds, and encouraged to contribute our own stories – which could find their way into Liz’s show, as did the story of the publican buried in the garden of his pub, with whom loyal customers would still share the odd pint…
Once again, thank Summerhall for an inspiring, thought-provoking, moving, funny, blunt, unforgettable show: and thank you, Liz, for presenting it!