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A pathologist, obituary writer and funeral director tell us what death can teach us about life

"Life is random, awful things happen"

A pathologist, obituary writer and funeral director tell us what death can teach us about life
10 October 2018

The funeral director

Former police detective Andy Holt is a senior funeral director with the Co-Op Funeralcare

Every death is sad. But there is something a lot harder about younger people’s funerals. It draws attention to your own mortality. If someone dies at 105 you can rationalise it: they’ve hada good run. You can’t do that with someone your age or younger.

It’s a fine line between living life to the max and not doing silly things, such as booking holidays you can’t afford. If you are one of those lucky people who lives to 105, you need to be able to make provision for that. It’s difficult to make sure you’re doing both at the same time.

In this business, you never meet the person you’re dealing with. But you meet their families. And you can always tell the people who have lived a full life because their families never stop talking about the things they did together.

You do end up being emotionally involved. We don’t treat the person who is dead any differently from when they were alive. We treat them with respect. We have a duty of care to them and to those they have left behind.

For me now, life is not about the shiny stuff. I’m much less fussed than I was as a young man about what car I drive or how large my house is. I’m much more worried about making memories.

I hear what people have to say about the deceased. They say more about altruistic people: those who were involved in charities or whose work wasn’t all about them. They touch more lives.

Some funerals do catch me, and it’s not the ones you’d think. I do struggle with it for a few days. But it helps me to know I am helping those around that person. It gives me perspective: if I compare what’s happening with me and with them, it’s not such a big deal.

The horror director

Horror director Jeff Burr has brought death to the big screen in Leatherface: THE Texas Chainsaw Massacre III

I don’t know how many people I’ve killed in my movies. It would be in the lower end of the horror directors’ scale, but there is always the spectre of death.

We come out of the womb with an expiration date. It’s stamped on all of us and it is inevitable. It’s something you never want to think about. The best horror films make you think about it.

I saw Halloween in a packed cinema. There was screaming from beginning to end. I’ve never seen anything like it in a screening. There’s an adolescent glee in subversion and perversion, which you can’t deny horror films bring out. It’s still lurking. It’s joyful; the sense that you can’t believe what you just saw.

Watching death on screen is cathartic. You go through this experience and you get spat out at the end and you’re alive – you’re more alive than ever. The best horror films have an illuminating effect. They make you glad to be alive. They also make you understand how difficult it is to be alive.

Horror can be a metaphor for many other things on life’s journey. Survival mode is in our DNA and the best horror films show what a human being can accomplish, and how resilient we, as a species, are. That sounds pretentious, but it’s true. It’s amazing what you can go through and survive.

I’m very positive about life and humankind. One of my favourite movies is Sorcerer, which, for me, is a metaphor for life. Four of the most unlikely guys are put together to accomplish a task and they work together to do it. It’s a wonderful movie and metaphor for what we can accomplish.

The obituary writer

During his 18 years as BBC obituaries editor, death was part of daily life for Bob Chaundy

We’re here for a limited time. Obituaries are about people who have gone the extra mile. Most of us aren’t that driven, but obituaries teach us that making that effort when opportunities arise can make a big difference.

An obituary is really about a person’s life; their death is just the excuse for writing one. I am often surprised family members or friends I interview don’t know about aspects of the deceased’s life. Often people do interesting things but don’t share them. People don’t know each other as well as they might.

Everyone says nice things about people when they die. People are not always that good. If someone says, “He was very kind,” I ask, “How?” One story really struck me: a BBC editor cycled a round-trip of 50 miles to see a young sub editor who was suffering from depression. That said so much more about him than, “He was very kind.”

There’s an art to the obit euphemism. Someone who “gave colourful accounts of his exploits” was a liar; if they had “no enthusiasm for human rights” they were a Nazi; “an uncompromisingly direct ladies’ man” was a flasher.

The important things in life – how you relate to others, being a good parent – do not necessarily make entertaining reading. That’s the problem with obits.

Find out what you are good at and keep doing it. Occasionally you read an obituary and think, “I really ought to do something.” So do the best you can.

The forensic pathologist

Dr Richard Shepherd is the UK’s foremost forensic pathologist

I have performed more than 23,000 autopsies. Often, they’re on people who have died in the most awful circumstances. In bombings, such as Bali in 2002 or London in 2005, I have to go deep down into that darkness and understand why and how death has happened.

Man’s inhumanity to man is what human beings are like. I have a wood carving of Cain killing Abel that I found at auction. It’s somewhere in the human psyche, this glitch: it’s always been there.

It is important to understand that these awful things do happen. We have to accept that. When you look at the victims of the 7/7 bombings, you think of the randomness of getting on to a carriage with the bomber.

How do I cope with the randomness of life? I fly aeroplanes. The chances are me and my family and friends will get through life without anything awful happening but I know they do happen.

Randomness exists, but I’m going to do everything I can to minimise it. Would I drive in my car without a seatbelt on? Of course I wouldn’t. I’m very conscious of risk. I was due to go flying at the weekend recently and the weather was marginal so I didn’t go. I’m not risk-averse but risk-conscious.

I’ve seen the damage we do to our bodies up close. What would I advise someone health-wise? Don’t live in London. With all the pollution, it can’t be good. I gave up smoking. I still have a whisky and soda. I’m not prissy about it. I know the risks. My job is always about assessing.

Do I want my bodyto be donated for science? No, because I’ve seen what medical students are like. I want to be cremated.

Unnatural Causes: The Life And Many Deaths Of Britain’s Top Forensic Pathologist is out now, £20 (Michael Joseph)

The one who came back from the dead

Few people who have seen the other side and returned. Jeremy Carter* who was impaled on a spike aged 12, is one of them

The endless sleep

“When I fell on to the metal spike, conscious thought stopped. It was as if I was floating over my body, watching it happen, rather than actually experiencing it. The being-out-of-it state was like a long sleep. It was comfortable; it’s like that feeling when you wake up and you don’t have work that day and you can stay in bed without feeling guilty.”

A new lease of life

“I remember, as a kid, being afraid of death. The experience made me a little less afraid: I’ve had this near-death experience and it wasn’t so terrible. If I’ve gone through it once, I can go through it again, right? I know that it was very lucky that I’m still here. It certainly makes you appreciate the small stuff more, for sure.”

Resting in peace

“I’m certainly a lot less anxious about things now. I’m a religious individual. I’ve had some people close to me pass on - recently I lost a very good friend to brain cancer - and my experience made me less anxious knowing that those last moments for him wouldn’t have been too terrible. It helps put me at ease.”

The funeral singer

Funeral singer Briony Rawle shares the most moving pieces of music requested by mourners

’Hallelujah’ by Leonard Cohen

“A stunning song with tragic lyrics, so it works best when it was a person’s favourite rather than it being chosen simply for the funeral setting. You have to be aware of the atmosphere you’re creating: performing the original a cappella is very different to singing Alexandra Burke’s pop version with its swelling strings.”

’For Good’ by Stephen Schwartz

“It’s a duet from the musical Wicked, sung by two female vocalists. We occasionally receive requests for songs from West End shows – it can represent a person’s life better than a traditional hymn or classical tune. Theatre actors have to sell the song and character. At a funeral, it’s stripped back, but the raw emotion remains.”

’Bright Eyes’ by Art Garfunkel

“Services are now more about healthy, fulfilling goodbyes. When we perform ‘Bright Eyes’, you can see its positive effect on the room. Music done the right way can release tension and free the grieving process.”

Briony is a member of The London Funeral Singers;

The documentarian

Roving documentarian Simon Reeve on how his travels taught him to confront his fear of the Reaper

My dad died in my arms. I saw the light go out in his eyes. I haven’t really mentioned it, but the last thing I said to him was, “Is everything OK?” “Wonderful” was his final word. I’ve clung to the sense that, in those final seconds, there wasn’t fear. There was love.

Death terrifies me, and I wish that, before he died, I’d had a better understanding of it. We avoid it to such a ludicrous degree it borders on unhealthy. I had panic attacks as a child on realising what death actually means. But seeing it close up, in different forms around the world, has helped me manage my fear.

Madagascans talk about death more than any other culture I’ve visited. My guide, a Malagasy princess, taught me that death is more important to the Madagascan people than life. Ancestors are worshipped there like few other places in the world. She told me, “Death is a chance for a humble human being to become a powerful ancestor.” It’s an incredible way of thinking. When death is a beautiful part of existence, how can it be feared?

Part of the reason that we fear death, I think, is because it’s not as present as it was. The majority of the West is no longer dogged by sickness and pain. In Culiacán, Mexico, I found a culture in which death is still a normal part of life. I visited a public ceremony where 90 per cent of the graves were for people linked to the drugs trade. These violent demises had become so expected that they’d become an acceptable thing to glorify, in a way that other parts of the world would deem inappropriate. Forget gloomy graveyards, there were enormous mausoleums with aircon, stereos, TVs, sofas and displays of the deceased, which often meant a guy stood by a flash car, holding an assault rifle.

I don’t think you can understand life without comprehending how fundamental death really is. And nothing helps you assess your own mortality like seeing death up close. That got very real for me in the holy city of Varanasi, India. People go to great lengths to die there – checking into ‘death hotels’ to do so – or to have their family members cremated on the banks of the Ganges in a bid to achieve moksha, liberation from the cycle of reincarnation. But many families cannot afford enough firewood to burn the entire body, which often leads to unburnt limbs being put into the water to float away.

Without exposure to death, you lose the sense of life’s fragility and spend it worrying about things that do not matter. Celebrate living every day, living the best possible and most memorable existence that you can. Focus on love, family, friendships, memories. Everything else is irrelevant. Death is your reminder to live.

Simon’s autobiography Step By Step: The Life In My Journeys is out now, priced £20 (Hodder)

The mausoleums

Draw gravespiration from the fancy final resting places of the rich and famous

1. Nicolas Cage (1964-)

While Nic ain’t actually dead yet, he has built himself a pyramid in New Orleans. On the scale of Cage weirdness, it ranks somewhere between getting a tattoo of a lizard in a top hat and The Wicker Man.

2. Oscar Wilde (1854-1900)

Ozzy’s monolithic sphinx in Paris has caused a whole lotta controversy, having been both encrusted with lipstick smackers and had its oversized knackers biffed off in anger.

3. Harry Houdini (1874-1926)

The escapologist couldn’t wriggle his way out of death’s chokehold on Halloween 1926. His family’s gravesite is allegedly being sneakily sold off in chunks by the cemetery.

4. Andy Warhol (1928-1987)

It’s surely what the chronically shy artist would have wanted: to have his Pennsylvania grave live-streamed 24 hours a day, with cans of soup left atop it so it REALLY stands out.

5. Johnny Ramone (1948-2004)

Johnny’s $100k tribute shows him doing what he did best: shreddin’! Makes you think, doesn’t it, whether a statue of you inventing ‘The Jäger-Bong’ is really how you saw your legacy.

(Illustrations: Josh Holinaty)