The ideal death show

14 September 2013

9:00 AM

14 September 2013

9:00 AM

I am in a yurt, talking about death. Everyone is seated in a circle, and I am the next-to-last person to share. The last of the summer sun is shining through the entrance. At one end is a display coffin of biodegradable willow — there’s also tea and coffee, and coffin-shaped biscuits with skeleton-shaped icing.

‘I am a reporter,’ I say. ‘I’ve come to cover this event. But don’t worry, I won’t report what you share in this yurt. Also, I have cancer. I have been in treatment for one year, but now the treatment is over. I take one day at a time.’

There is silence, then hugs. I thought I would cry, but I don’t. Instead, I feel acceptance and a strange kernel of satisfaction. For the rest of my time here I am Death Girl, shrouded in drama.

The yurt is on the grounds of a beachfront hotel in Bournemouth. I am attending the Good Funeral Awards, meant to honour the best in the business. Running up to the awards dinner there are a series of activities such as the ‘death cafe’ I am participating in, where people mingle to mull mortality. Death cafes are now taking place all over the world, as Mark Mason has written in this magazine, but the weekend also will feature a number of speakers on subjects such as the use of LSD in the care of the terminally ill, memorial tattoos and what to wear for your final journey. An award will go to the embalmer of the year — a miniature coffin in the style of an Oscar.

I arrived expecting a weekend of black comedy. This is what I find, but there’s something else — a sincerity and straightforwardness that takes me by surprise. Many of the attendees are involved in the death business, as coffin makers and corpse tailors and funeral celebrants, because they feel our society does not pay enough attention to death. We avoid it, plaster over it, try to pretty it up and Botox it out of existence.

Even old age is taboo. As we all live longer and longer, so our actors and actresses, politicians and pop stars get younger every decade.

‘Why do we do this, when death is something that happens to all of us?’ lamented one woman.

Why, indeed? I’d done it too, until I discovered my illness. Then I thought of little else — about the fragility of life, the permanence of death. Friends sent me amulets, prayers, ginseng, ‘positive energy’. My heart opened, and something flooded in. What if death were not disconnection, but connection? What if we were just going to meet our Maker? Then death would not be severance, but reunion. It is not at all a fashionable point of view, but I believe in God — and a good one, at that. The belief fills me with healing, wonderful hope. It is the hope not that I will live. It is the hope that I am loved.

The awards dinner is actually a happy affair. The great and good of the funeral industry quaff champagne and exchange jokes. Opposite me at my table is a woman who runs a funeral company. She is flanked by her husband, who also manages the business, and her brother, who is up for gravedigger of the year. The actress Pam St Clement, whose EastEnders character Pat Butcher died on-screen in January last year, is here to present the prizes. Everyone claps and cheers. In the midst of death, we are in life.

It’s a fine line between the two. Looking at the people around me, women in evening dress and men in black tie, it strikes me that death can be a glamorous affair. I wonder if, working with funerals and the bereaved, one can also be too attached to the idea of death, taking refuge in it. That’s another thing I’ve realised, too. Twelve months of ill health, hospitals, medicines — while they were tough, they also gave me an identity. I am a journalist and death gave me a story.

I realise that although I am frightened of dying, there’s a also a tiny part of me that’s always been scared of living. The finality of death is hard. The uncertainties of life can be harder.

After the dinner, the winners and losers of the Good Funeral Awards get up to dance. I peek into the ballroom bespeckled with lights. What will they play? ‘Born to Die’? ‘Forever Young’? Perhaps ‘I Will Survive’? Or ‘Stayin’ Alive’? I decide I’ll take a cab back to my bed-and-breakfast and watch Michael McIntyre’s Comedy Roadshow on telly. Perhaps this is not the time for me to dance with death.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

Clarissa Tan was the 2007 winner of our Shiva Naipaul Prize for unconventional travel writing. She passed away on 31 March 2014.

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Show comments
  • anyfool

    After you went to watch Michael McIntyre’s Comedy Roadshow, how morbid a corpse is funnier.

  • Eddie

    Coincidentally I wanted the movie Bernie on DVD last night – hilarious Jack Black comedy about a funeral director.
    I think sadly that our played-down way of doing funerals is slowly being replaced by an emotionally incontinent over-the-top cod-American way, possibly because we live in an Oprah-fied age that loves a good ole pity party group hug, and partly coz people watch shows like Six Feet Under.
    Me, they can feed me to the animals at the zoo when I croak. Actually I asked by solicitor if I could put that in my will, He said no, the law wouldn’t allow it. So it’ll just have to be burn or bury (though I leave instructions for no headstone, no grave, the cheapest coffin, no flowers and no memorials).
    I hate funerals and never go to them – I don’t see the point of rushing to one when people couldn’t bother to rush home and see the person when they were alive. Pah! Bah humbug!

  • george

    I appreciate the insights, and the truth-telling.

    ‘I realise that although I am frightened of dying, there’s a also a tiny part of me that’s always been scared of living. The finality of death is hard. The uncertainties of life can be harder’.

    Thank you for having the guts to say that.

  • Paula Rainey Crofts

    Clarissa – I sat next to you in the yurt at The Good Funeral Awards in Bournemouth – what an amazing woman you are putting your head in the deathly den. I admire your honesty and openness and I think that your question “what if death were not disconnection but connection?” resonated for me, thank you. Paula (Rainey Crofts, Heaven on Earth Green & Pink Funerals Bristol)

  • Claire Turnham

    Thank you for sharing your story and journey so deeply with us on that beautiful Bournemouth Day Clarissa. I was moved, listening to you speak from your heart with such courage, clarity and honesty.

    I dedicate this blessing to you and all those who loved you.

    A Celtic Blessing…

    May the light of love shine forth on you, on those for whom you care and on those who care for you.
    May you be ever blessed with peace and understanding as you travel through your life,
    And may you come to the end of your journey in gentleness and joy.

  • jmjm208

    What matters is what happens after death. For those people who have repented of their sins, and accepted the Lord Jesus as their Lord and Saviour, there is eternal Heaven – for those who haven’t accepted Christ there is eternal Hell.