Living Out Questions of Death

It was sudden, unexpected. The naked bleakness of a dead woman – my mother – in her bathtub still haunts me; well it surely would. It is a memory that has the quality and starkness that gets etched into one. There are good memories of her death too – that she was picked up by a guy who later became a colleague, who happened to be on Coroners call that day; the kindness of both the Coroner’s Officer and mortuary attendant and the steadfast love and support from my pastor and friend Neil Thomas. Neil was also a friend of my mum’s and he accompanied me to the public mortuary to identify her body and sat next to me at the two Inquests that followed her abrupt death…he also spoke at her funeral which, due to the apparent complexity of her death, wasn’t held for many weeks.

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– Angie McLachlan –

Angie

As someone who has had 24 years experience of caring for the dead, Angie shares her knowledge with students from the whole spectrum of death care. Her ‘Care of the Body’ classes with Ichabod Smith can be mortuary based with trainee Funeral Directors, or home based, with courses catering for a range of Home Funeral and Death Companion organisations.

Angie is also called in to work with the hospice and hospital sector to advise on policy and care plans for End–of-Life and in an advisory capacity by Funeral Directors who are faced with complex cases. In addition to this work, she have been invited to speak at several conferences, and honoured to have given papers regularly at the ICCM (Institute of Cemetery and Crematorium Management) Learning Convention. In September 2015 Angie was nominated for the Good Funeral Awards and was proud to be among the five finalists in the category ‘Major Contribution to the Understanding of Death.’

With few people working within the funeral and death care sector having had the opportunity to bridge gaps between the Traditional and Home Funeral sectors Angie takes great pride in being able to provide bespoke training, knowledge and much needed support to people on the ‘front line’, wherever they encounter death.

Proud member of the Dying Matters Coalition

Further Information may be found at Red Plait Interpretation


The invitation to write this guest blog has given me the opportunity to share my own experience. What follows is simply one view – mine. It must be said that in death care, there are many views and ways; variations springing through culture, religion or social needs. Death care is expressed via a complex web of ritual and behaviour with roots at the dawn of time. No ‘one size fits all’- so, as far as my own opinion and practice go, what Nietzsche says in Thus Spoke Zarathustra might be applied:

All my progress has been an attempting and a questioning – and truly, one has to learn how to answer such questioning!…’This is now my way: where is yours?’ Thus I answered those who asked me ‘the way’. For the way – does not exist! (1961/2003: Nietzsche, p.213)

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Ichabod ready to go out (Red Plait Interpretation)

Over the years, I have heard and read many words from people who work within the area of death and dying and one thing has struck home time and time again. So many of these people say that they got caught up with some aspect of death work as a direct result of experiences that they had when someone close to them had died – they wanted, in response to their own insight, to explore death from other points of view, to get involved in some way. Many of these people express a need to ‘do death differently’ perhaps in order to provide that extra bit of TLC (Tender Loving Care) at the end, or to avoid whatever was awful for them in their loss happening to anyone else. Often, I heard or read that this impetus to act was spurred because they had not felt that there was much choice available, whether this was around funeral provision or some other aspect of end- of- life –care as they perceived it.

I am no different to these motivated death workers. I came in at the sharp end of death and when the funeral was over, I simply didn’t leave the funeral directors. My work, my motivation and my current practice have evolved slowly and surely out of that first experience over 24 years ago when my mother was found dead.

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Ichabod getting ready to teach (Red Plait Interpretation LLP)

It was sudden, unexpected. The naked bleakness of a dead woman – my mother – in her bathtub still haunts me; well it surely would. It is a memory that has the quality and starkness that gets etched into one. There are good memories of her death too – that she was picked up by a guy who later became a colleague, who happened to be on Coroners call that day; the kindness of both the Coroner’s Officer and mortuary attendant and the steadfast love and support from my pastor and friend Neil Thomas. Neil was also a friend of my mum’s and he accompanied me to the public mortuary to identify her body and sat next to me at the two Inquests that followed her abrupt death…he also spoke at her funeral which, due to the apparent complexity of her death, wasn’t held for many weeks.

It was a time of curious limbo, during which my mother was deep frozen. She was, of course, not the first relation of anyone’s to be frozen solid, but she was the first (and only) one of mine. Not only this, but she was the first long term deep frozen person that the funeral director had been asked to look after.

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With a group of students at Green Fuse in Devon (Jane Morrell: Green Fuse)

Unbeknown to the Funeral Director at the time, frozen people present interesting challenges. First of which is that they decompose very rapidly after thawing and secondly (not unrelated to the first point) is that the ice crystals burst through the cellular structure and so even embalming may be patchy or ineffective. My mother apparently looked beautiful in her coffin on Friday night but by Monday morning she had deteriorated enough to look and smell awful and so her coffin lid was screwed down (with my knowledge) and that was that. If I had been somebody else, I might have been deeply traumatized by not being able to see her for the last time – as it was; I sat in the chapel of rest armed with a Harrods Air-Freshener… and a number of logistical questions about death, which up till that point had not occurred save dealing with the odd hamster, budgie or guinea pig.

So – as for choice, on one hand, I couldn’t complain really; my mum had the most fantastic funeral. All her friends were there. Priests from four different denominations took an active part.  My ex husband sang a beautiful, heart wrenching tenor solo from the Verdi Requiem. I said my bit at the beginning and Pastor Neil, in a eulogy that could only have been written by a close friend, disclosed a juicy tit-bit that made my Aunt draw breath audibly… Mum’s funeral culminated in a wonderful burial in a coffin that I had hand polished (as therapy during the waiting time) in the plot that she had chosen and purchased next to her secret lover (hence Aunt’s gasp). Nevertheless I hadn’t seen my mum’s body since that time in the public mortuary and so my last physical memory of her is one of surreal detachment – a view of her face, hair wet from the Post Mortem Examination –  her body shrouded; a disembodied view through a large Perspex window. There were things I would have said in her bodily presence, had I been given the opportunity of a personal and physically proximal visit to the Chapel of Rest on the Friday before she deteriorated. [Through my experience, questioning and subsequent qualification, the Funeral Director understood better the challenges of a frozen body and was able to develop a suitable care plan for the future.]

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With a group of Soul Doulas: guest lecturing for Solace of Souls (Red Plait Interpretation LLP)

It has been a learning curve and to cut out several intervening years of anatomical study, exams and qualifications and many, many, many hours of practical application, I have acquired a level of knowledge and skill that has allowed me to facilitate many seemingly impossible open coffin visits. Visits for people whose loved ones have died either from unpleasant illness, or traumatic injury perhaps with a long term stay within the system of Her Majesty’s Coroner. Professionally, I am not the only one of my kind; we are a little known and mostly silent group of practitioners who make up the numbers of The British Institute of Embalmers.

Back to choice then; there are many wonderful and appropriate new ways to do funerals in 2015. The Green Burial Movement is growing and alternatives to the traditional funeral are springing up all over the UK and beyond. I love the green and home funeral movement (for the record, I have bought a plot in a green burial ground where my ashes may be placed overlooking a beautiful harbour). Furthermore, the Green Burial and Home Funeral Movement is quite clearly the best way to avoid being stung by funeral poverty. But, how do people who work as these new funeral facilitators really cope when faced with looking after a person who has had a very complex death, an accident for example or a case such as my mother’s? Does the new wave of funeral facilitators have training to recognise the potential in a body-care situation, to be able to help families to make informed choices to say goodbye to the one who has died in person, sometimes possible only if access to a skilled practitioner was available? (Here, I am referring to people who have had difficult or complex deaths resulting in injury, trauma or anything that might cause the exacerbation of natural changes – clearly there are some people who it is not possible to reconstruct for one reason or another, but assessing each case individually is an acquired skill in itself).

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Guest lecturer at The Soul Midwives’ School (Red Plait Interpretation LLP)

There is of course a huge debate as to the real value of visiting and seeing someone after death – those that provide funerals with no visits will argue one way and those who make seemingly impossible visits possible wherever they can, will argue the other…There are Zealots on both sides.

As a retired reconstructive embalmer who in the course of my work made possible the impossible last visits for many family groups, many times; of course I would say that from the response of the people I have helped, this particular area of choice seems important. Furthermore, it could even be a choice that might be offered by all funeral providers and facilitators (with the help of someone with the right qualification, skills and suitable premises). But pertinently, as someone who missed seeing their mother for the last time in her coffin, I would say that it’s a ‘no brainer’, of course the choice should be there. I am not saying by any means that everyone has to visit or see someone after their death – simply that, if the main object of any funeral provider’s remit is to provide a choice, then choices given surely must extend beyond the limits and boundaries found at both ends of the spectrum – whether this is from the Green or the Traditional viewpoint. Importantly, the choice ought therefore to include and extend to choices about the care of the body as well as being able to choose to provide a wonderful and appropriate send-off through a funeral or ritual – or even to choose the lack of a ritual. Choice might well be seen as a bridging and encompassing, a sharing of knowledge and skills rather than a polarizing and separating action. To each, their own – or as my mother would have said, ‘chacun à son goût’.

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Ichabod’s Coffin – thanks to Greenfield Creations LTD (Red Plait Interpretation LLP)

Having retired from embalming, I am proud to have stepped sideways. Now through our company Red Plait Interpretation LLP, we work with people at both ends of the funeral spectrum – I teach ‘Best Practice Care of the Body’ with my ethically neutral but surprisingly complex Death Dummy Mr Ichabod Smith. Ichabod and I work with Funeral Directors and Death Doulas/Soul Midwives, with Home Funeral providers and anyone in-between. We may also be called upon to help teach aspects of end-of-life to home carers and volunteers within hospice settings, or to attend death days or give talks or conference papers. In teaching sessions, the dialogue with my students is always fascinating, the questions whatever the event or venue, seem endless and wide ranging and the feedback indicates that this work is both appreciated and necessary. For me, it is the opportunity to make links within the community and between professions, in short, to dispel myths. With Ichabod, I may be teaching laying-out-skills in a home or mortuary environment and although I do not teach embalming, if asked, I am able to explain what embalming is and what really happens as there is a good deal of hearsay and misinformation about the art and science of the practice.

Through my workshops I am able to share a unique and informed perception of death care which has been gained through the personal care of thousands of people over a 24 year period; as well as my practical work, my experience has been gained through academic death studies. My evolving vocation is therefore one of huge privilege and I believe that due to my breadth of experience, it stands uniquely albeit alongside the many others who teach death-care from other perspectives within the alternative funeral movements. All standpoints are valid and compliment the need for consumer choices in death care.

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With Felicity Warner and a group of Soul Midwives at The Soul Midwives’ School (Melissa Grassel White)

My family and sadly, far too many of my friends have helped me so much in this journey of death-care. My grandma knew that I would be there for her at the end and at the age of 104.4 she is so far, the oldest person I have embalmed and cared for after death. However, through my first sharp experience of human death, it was my mother who gave me the greatest gift – the gift of asking questions about death, dying and death-care. Mum died at the age of 58 (as did both my aunt – her sister – and her cousin). It is perhaps not by chance that I am writing this on the occasion of my 57th birthday, it is a time of deep personal reflection. The only thing I can be sure of is that I too will die in time (hopefully not next year…). I believe that it is through looking after the needs of our own dead – my own, your own and ourselves– not only practically, but in the act of carefully planning for our own ends; by having the sometimes difficult conversations about death and dying before they are actually necessary, that it may be a positive approach – more than that, a real gift – through which we can learn so much about not only our mortality but also enhance our own quality of living too.

Considering the fragility of our life, the importance of living with kindness and love must surely the key to unravelling what we each feel to be best practice death care for us when we die – however, wherever and whenever it is carried out.

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Ichabod himself… (Red Plait Interpretation LLP)

All lives are unique and every end of life and death is different – My passion is to encourage the people who are there to help and support others in their time of need. To equip them with the knowledge that enables their clients to make choices. Choices that hopefully – whatever those choices might be – will not lead to the death of their loved one being etched quite so sharply on their minds as the death of my mother has been on mine.

 


References


Nietzsche, F; 1969/2003. Thus Spoke Zarathrustra. Translated R.J. Hollingdale. London: Penguin Books.

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