“Talking about sex doesn’t make you pregnant, talking about death doesn’t make you die.” This quote from Jane Duncan Rogers appears on the flyer for Liz Rothschild’s thought-provoking and unexpectedly jolly show about death. Although the subject matter is literally morbid and Rothschild’s description of washing the body of her dead mother moved me to tears, it’s hard not to smile while watching someone weave their own wicker coffin to the strains of Monty Python’s Always Look on the Bright Side of Life – apparently the UK’s top choice of funeral song.
Rothschild is a funeral celebrant who runs a ‘green’ burial ground and is full of lively passion about death. Through personal stories she exposes the taboos in our society, explaining how death has become disconnected from family, community and wider society in our modern age. She points out that every town will have NCT childbirth groups, but where are the death groups? After all, we’re all born, but we all die too. Most of the audience had heard of Braxton Hicks – the ‘practice’ contractions that start towards the end of pregnancy – yet only two people were familiar with Cheyne-Stokes, the changed pattern of breathing that can signify the end is near.
She also highlights the shocking fact that around 70 per cent of us will die without leaving a will or a less formal letter of wishes. This can mean that people end up without the burial they would have wanted, and even leave funeral costs unplanned for and unpaid. At the same time, we’re warned about the ‘death industry’, with some unscrupulous souls willing to exploit a lucrative and reliable customer base plagued with grief and guilt. The show certainly prompted me to think about the plans for my own demise (or rather, the current total lack of them) and realise that it’s a subject I’ve never broached with any of my family.
Medical science still cannot heal those who are finally dying, and at some point it will be our time to go. Although funerals are for the living rather than the dead, out of respect for human dignity and agency, we should be starting conversations about death right now. (KA)
Outside The Box - A Live Show About Death is on at 11.50 at Summerhall until August 21st. Relaxed Performances - https://tickets.edfringe.com/whats-on/outside-the-box-a-live-show-about-death
More on the Death on the Fringe series: https://deathonthefringe.wordpress.com/
Compassion in Dying: http://compassionindying.org.uk/
The DeathCafe movement, running events aiming to encourage public conversations about death: http://deathcafe.com/
The Good Funeral Guide: http://www.goodfuneralguide.co.uk/
Final Fling – advice on life and death decisions as well as planning tools: https://www.finalfling.com/
Hospice UK, for information about hospice care at the end of life: https://www.hospiceuk.org/
Living Well Dying Well train doulas (companions) for the dying and run public and professional courses http://www.lwdwtraining.uk/
Natural Death Centre, providing free advice about death and burial: http://naturaldeath.org.uk/
Research paper on public attitudes to death, dying and bereavement from Nottingham University: https://www.nottingham.ac.uk/research/groups/srcc/documents/projects/srcc-project-summary-public-attitudes.pdf
Cheyne-Stokes breathing: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cheyne%E2%80%93Stokes_respiration