On 22nd November 1984 I took the funeral of Bill Brown. He was my first. My preparation had been a few sessions at College, a visit to an undertaker, a 'behind-the-scenes-at-the-crem' tour (did you know artificial hip joints make good clothes hooks?) and accompanying Ian, my training incumbent, to a few funerals. When it came to 'having a go' Ian reassured me that I had already been to more funerals than most people go to in their lives. It was helpful advice and I pass it on to all I train. My second funeral was my grandfather's and from then on it has been a normal part of my life to visit the bereaved and help with the exit music. I have lived amongst the dead more than most.
What I know far less about is the whole business of dying and preparing for death. So, without delving into the academic literature, I thought it might be nice to produce a reading list about death, for the ordinary reader. The thing about the books I will recommend is that they are not, probably, the sort of books to pick up when you have just been told you have six months to live. Better read them now. My mother's superstition that this will somehow bring on the terminal illness is true - for some of you it will happen, coincidentally, within a few months, but by and large these books will prepare you for your own demise very well and will entertain you the while. She will still say 'Told you so.' Live, no I mean die, with it.
Philip Gould, Lord Gould, was the academic mover and shaker behind New Labour. Remarkably, for one who lived next door to spin for so many years, he was never tainted by his neighbour's excesses and was widely respected across the political spectrum. His discovery of cancer, the lengths he had to go to to get advice and treatment, and the way he felt it took him into a new, and beautiful, phase of life and relationships, is what he chronicles. At the end of the book (finished by his family) I was in tears and made a donation to one of the cancer charities I was pointed to, immediately. How do you get the best advice if you are not a person of such influence? Why do we ignore the signs of illness until it is too late? What is really important to us? These are the questions posed by Gould's lessons from the death zone.
John Humphrys has lost a wife and a younger brother to cancer. Alongside TV doctor Sarah Jarvis he talks about how to die well, how to prepare for your death and the whole ethical minefield of assisted suicide. The cases Sarah Jarvis discusses bring the book to life along with a history, in passing, of twenty years of medical progress in palliative care, early diagnosis and pain relief.
I also recommend:
Thomas Lynch - The Undertaking
An American poet and undertaker tells stories from the dismal profession. Lynch writes beautifully, the comedy is very black but the insights beautiful and full of dignity.
Philip Pullman - The Amber Spyglass
The third volume of the His Dark Materials trilogy includes a voyage to the place of the dead and a meeting with a people for whom death has no fear because they live with their own death accompanying them through their life as a personal daemon. Touching, comforting and remarkable.
Christopher Hitchens - Mortality
The last words of a great writer and grumpy curmudgeon. The book isn't finished. It runs out. But if you want to know, in detail, what it is like to face death as the absolute end this is it.
St Paul's great letter of hope for those who wondered if it was bad to have died before their Messiah returned in glory.
Julian Barnes - Nothing to be Frightened Of
A meditation on life and mortality, the existence of God and death without God. One of our greatest writers asks himself why he is scared of death and comes up with some interesting answers.
Although not within my experience my social media friends have recommended:
Grandpa and me (for children)
Flight of the Solar Ducks
The Death and Life of Charlie St Cloud by Ben Sherwood
A Walk to Remember by Nicholas Sparks