Let’s talk about death, baby

Meet the people reducing the stigma around dying

Death, doulas and decay | Image by TOPIA

Meet the world’s first “Acid House undertaker”, a death doula and the end-of-the-road animators who have an open, honest approach to being six feet under – and find out what The KLF and Blackadder have to do with death

So, we die.
Every last one of us.
It’s a f***ing outrage.

The Green Funeral Company

My phone buzzed. I clicked on the new email in my inbox. It read: “Can we reschedule? I have to go and collect someone who has died.” I chuckled. I had never had my call postponed because of a body pick-up before. The email was frank and refreshing. There was no beating around the bush – just plain old death-logistics. Let’s face it, death is rarely a conversation starter, but maybe it’s time we faced the end of the road in a less roundabout way?

Radical funerals

That email came from Ru Callender, an “Acid House Undertaker”, TEDX speaker and the author of What Remains? Life, Death, and the Human Art of Undertaking, a book that asks how we can face death in a brave and compassionate way. Inspired by his mother’s work at a hospice and his early encounters with grief and bereavement, Callender decided he wanted to become an undertaker. But he didn’t want to become a traditional undertaker. Instead, he wanted to “deal with the dead for the sake of the living”.

Without any formal training or experience in undertaking to his name, he transformed his Volvo into a hearse and took a new DIY approach to funerals. From caskets on sticky, beer-stained pub tables to funeral pyres, ignited with flaming arrows fired by the children of the deceased, Callender’s rites of passage are anything but conventional. 

Death is not my friend, neither is it my enemy; it is my destiny.

Ru Callender

Vehemently opposed to embalming because of the cognitive dissonance that can be caused by making the dead appear alive through the use of chemicals, Callender is an advocate of honest discussions around death. “When someone you love dies, the head and the heart are often in disagreement,” Callender explained to the audience during a TEDxTotnes talk on death, grief and radical funerals in 2015. “The head understands or pretends to. It repeats the facts like a stutter, but the heart rebels at such an outrage, however unconscious that may be. By seeing the person as they actually are, naturally dead, not fussed over or made-up, it can reset the head and heart like a broken bone.”

When he established The Green Funeral Company in 2000, Callender was keen to challenge the widely accepted norms of the funeral industry and the euphemistic taboos around death and dying. There was no reason why a funeral couldn’t be a form of performance art that promoted participation rather than a Dickensian affair where muted grief and sombre hues were encouraged.

The work of Callender and Claire Philips-Callender has helped people to be confronted with death in their everyday lives, normalising this fact of life, albeit in quirky, unexpected ways. 

In collaboration with Bill Drummond and Jimmy Cauty, the musicians-turned-undertakers of British electronic band The KLF, Ru Callender and Claire Phillips-Callender are constructing The People’s Pyramid, in Toxteth, Liverpool.

In mortal contemplation: Ru Callender, Bill Drummond, Jim Cauty and Claire Phillips-Callender

This structure, which is in the process of being built, will be made of 34,592 bricks containing the ashes of cremated people. Each brick that is used in the pyramid, which will be 23-foot-high at its completion, will contain 23 grams of human cremation ashes. People can sign up to have their ashes placed in one of the bricks that make up the People’s Pyramid, a process that Drummond and Cauty have affectionately termed “Mumufication”, for a £99 fee. 

Every year, on 23 November, the Toxteth Day of the Dead, those who have signed up for the project and died over the course of the previous year will be added to the People’s Pyramid, which is gradually being constructed in this way year-by-year. Intrigued by the concept of The People’s Pyramid, filmmaker Paul Duane made the provocative feature-length documentary Welcome to the Dark Ages about this unique structure, which turns death into a talking point, rather than a topic to be avoided.

Becoming a death doula

When it comes to talking openly about the emotional processes that accompany death and dying, there are few people who can do so more comfortably than death doulas. Sarah Hill, a former management consultant who became a death doula after finding her calling in the waiting room of a paediatric oncology ward, now lives and breathes all things death-related.

“I feel like I’ve been in training for this my whole life,” Hill comments. “My mum died of an arteriovenous malformation when I was four years old, and I was alone with her when it happened. A lot of folks have some degree of death-denial as part of their living experience. I really didn’t have that opportunity. I knew we were mortal.”

Through her college years, Hill was fond of going for walks through cemeteries, as she found them to be places of great contemplation, but when she invited her friends to accompany her, they turned her offer down, accusing her of being macabre or edgy. “We are really weird around dying and death, and that sets us up for a lot of angst. But each and every one of us is going to do it, so why not talk about it?” Hill says.

Her fascination with the process of dying followed her into her adult years. From an inexplicable urge to apply for a job at a funeral home to her desire to help people to navigate the end-of-life process, death was ever-present, but she wasn’t sure how to make it part of her career.

The revelation dawned upon her when she accompanied a friend in labour to the hospital. Exhausted after several hours at her friend’s bedside, Hill asked the nurses whether there was a quiet spot in the hospital where she could catch forty winks. Directed to the paediatric oncology ward, Hill found herself confronted with a strange juxtaposition: “My friend’s baby was coming into the world, but as I sat in the lobby of the children’s oncology ward, I couldn’t help but think of the degree of pain that the parents of those children with terminal conditions must be experiencing. That was a light-bulb moment for me. The only thing I could approximate it to was a birth doula, but I realised I was a doula on the other end of the life spectrum.”

After Googling the profession “death doula”, effectively a midwife for the process of dying rather than giving birth, Hill finally found the missing piece, and enrolled on a course with the International End-of-Life Doula Association. Initially, Hill continued working full time alongside hospice and volunteer work, but as her calling grew stronger, she decided to quit her job and change career to become a full-time end-of-life doula in 2019.

Day job: death doula

“It’s always fun at cocktail parties when people ask, ‘What do you do for a living?’ It’s a nice experiment,” Hill comments. “There are usually two types of response when I say I’m a death doula. Some people literally walk away. That’s okay. I’m not here to overexpose anyone, and I hope even just meeting me makes them think about their reaction. But then other people really open up to me and tell me death-related stories that they haven’t metabolised well.” 

By her very existence as a death doula, Hill hopes to help people to reflect and normalise conversations around death. In a fitting medical analogy, she describes her work as a death-titration process, where she incrementally exposes people to death, allowing them to view it as a less taboo topic.

Through her work, Hill shares people’s vulnerability, their fears and their love for one another. “Having the privilege of accompanying people throughout their dying time, gives me the opportunity to learn so much. I ask myself how I want to invest in my life. I tell my loved ones I love them very often now. I’m much calmer and more grounded. Strangely enough, I have less fear now.”

While most of Hill’s clients are either terminally ill or in the process of bidding farewell to a loved one, Hill also has clients who have realised that they want to make their peace with death as far in advance as possible. For Hill, who wrote her own funeral plan when she was 27 and regularly updates letters that will be sent to her loved ones in the event of her death, it is a good idea to face your own mortality ahead of time. “I told a high school friend of mine, Todd Stevens, that I want a green burial without any chemicals. He turned around and asked me if he could dig my grave if I die before him. I said, ‘Yeah, totally! We can do BYOs (bring your own shovel).’ Whoever would have thought that ‘I love you so much that I’m going to dig your grave’ could be a term of endearment?” Hill comments, laughing as she goes on to tell me the reverse plan that she will carry out for her friend if he dies before her.

Everything is planned out, but it’s fun and tongue-in-cheek, instead of morose and foreboding. Hill helps her clients with various aspects of death contemplation, from vigil planning to reflecting upon the legacy that they would like to leave behind when they die. Clients also consider the list of people they would like at their bedside in their final moments, and they think about the lives that they have touched. “One of my clients records himself on Zoom and talks about his life stories. He is getting new dimensions of understanding about his own life,” Hill says.

As a death doula, Hill’s task is to listen to her clients and meet them at the emotional stage they are at, thereby helping them through the end-of-life process. Some people, like solo-agers, will be alone without any family or friends nearby. Hill highly endorses the No One Dies Alone programme, through which strangers accompany the dying in their final moments. Others might have a solid support system, but they may still be in complete crisis, as they are unable to accept what is happening to them.

Death contemplation, while it may sound off-putting, is a good way of coming to terms with the reality of the process. In A year to Live: How to Live This Year As If It Were Your Last, Stephen Levine encourages the reader to appreciate every moment, hour and day within the context of their mortality. This idea is inspired by Socrates’ plea to his followers to practise dying as a means of unleashing the highest form of wisdom. The process delves deep into death, and readers are even encouraged to imagine themselves decaying and returning to the earth.

Hill embarked upon this daily death-contemplation challenge and vowed to contemplate her own mortality every day for a year. As part of the process, Hill bought herself a traditional Tibetan wrist mala: “Typically, they are made of little skulls carved out of yak bone. Mine was not made of yak bone, but it definitely served its purpose. Every morning, when I woke up, I would put it on and start the morning by giving thanks for another day of life, which sets this intention for the coming day. You ask yourself, ‘How do I choose to use this day? It’s pretty powerful.”

Since starting to work as an end-of-life doula, Hill has begun writing her doula diaries, where she documents some of the most touching moments that she has experienced through her work. In a particularly intimate moment, she witnessed a son being given his newly deceased father’s wedding ring by his wife, who effectively re-married him next to his father’s deathbed. “People tell me all the time, ‘How do you do this work? It sounds so upsetting and traumatising.’ It’s not easy work, but it’s beautiful work.” Hill reflects. “You see the best of humanity at the end of life.  There’s beauty, connection, love and the fullness of the human experience.”

We have sex-education – why not death-education?

One of the reasons that death is such a hard subject for many people to broach is that it is not openly spoken about in schools. Introducing death and grief to school curricula could be an effective way of normalising the discourse around loss and its aftermath. That is the hope of Louise Poffley, the founder of Project Eileen, a registered UK charity that provides a free programme of multimedia lessons for 13-to-15-year-old pupils in schools across the UK.

“When I was a teenager at school, my really close friend’s parents died of completely separate things within weeks of each other,” Poffley recalls. “I remember we were in a lesson, and she put her hand on my shoulder, and told me, ‘Louise, I feel so sad’. And I just didn’t know what to say. It really struck me that I didn’t know how to support her.” It was this recognition that stayed with Poffley and led her to found Project Eileen to help schoolchildren to talk more openly about death. Up to 6,000 children die in the UK every year, meaning that many schoolchildren are confronted with loss of their peers at an early age, making the need for this type of programme yet more evident.

Poffley began developing Project Eileen’s multimedia programme for secondary schools by writing a fictional story that focuses on a group of teenagers who experience the death of a friend. The narrative follows the way in which they and the wider school community cope with the loss of their friend and fellow pupil. The story also includes other deaths, which occur for different reasons, allowing young people to process loss in a variety of situations. It was important to Poffley to include a type of music that promotes unity to make it clear that the message of this story is for everyone. 

“Ska music is a very important part of the programme. It’s all about racial integration. Ska is known for bringing together black and white instrumentalists in individual bands. One of the composers wrote a lot of original Ska music, and the other composer wrote a classical violin solo, so we have multiple types of music, which makes it more musically diverse,” Poffley adds.

The 45-minute animation moves at a slower pace than many other animations and video games aimed at this age group to give the schoolchildren a chance to reflect on the topics that are being dealt with rather than just dwelling on them momentarily.

“The advantage of using an animation is that it illustrates the story in a way that the students can relate to it,” Poffley comments. “They’re presented with the story because that means they don’t have to give their personal experience, so there’s that crucial distancing that encourages children to talk about it in class.”

Sir Tony Robinson, perhaps best known for his role as Baldrick in the BBC television series Blackadder, voiced Project Eileen’s animation. The programme’s lesson plans were written by Annabelle Shaw, the programme director, who also works as a secondary school teacher. In total, the multimedia programme consists of six lessons, which draw upon different aspects of the story, which can easily be used for cross-curricular activities.

“The students are made aware of how to help their fellows,” Poffley says. “It’s about the grieving process. Why are we grieving and how can we handle it? And there’s no right way to grieve. People might feel angry for various reasons. They might feel a whole load of things.” The programme stresses that there is no hierarchy when it comes to grief, as an individual’s grief will be defined by their personal experience and their relationship with the deceased. For example, the loss of a pet could be as traumatic as a human death, in some cases. Grief is also dealt with in a more general way in the programme, as it is acknowledged that grief can arise from situations that are not connected to death, like a break-up or someone’s decision to move abroad. In addition to this, the programme covers some of the practicalities that accompany the loss of a loved one, like funeral arrangements and death certificates, so that pupils are equipped to deal with these situations when they arise.

“How we differ from many other organisations and charities is that we are working proactively and trying to help those who haven’t yet experienced bereavement, so that they can help those who have and themselves in the future,” Poffley says.

Bereavement often results in isolation, and through the programme, Poffley hopes to bring classmates together and make them realise that there are other people in their class who have also experienced loss. It also covers the best language to use when consoling someone who has lost a loved one, to keep people from clamming up or panicking.

In October 2022, Project Eileen launched the #hairraising campaign in collaboration with barbers and hairdressers in the UK, in acknowledgement of the role they often have in consoling and listening to grieving clients who have experienced bereavement. “Barbers and hairdressers are almost like unpaid counsellors for their clients, so we teamed up with hairdressers and barbers to raise funds and awareness in October 2022,” Poffley says. TV celebrity hairdresser Andrew Barton also recently came on board as Project Eileen’s new patron and two of the charity’s ambassadors are also hairdressers, who like the rest of the ambassadors, have all experienced bereavement in different ways and believe in the need for an open discourse around death and its repercussions.

Grief and technology

Increasingly, apps, video games, and other digital experiences are being used to help young people to navigate grief. For example, Breonna’s Garden, an AR and VR reality experience that was developed after the tragic death of Breonna Taylor during a Kentucky police raid in March 2020, hopes to celebrate the life of Breonna Taylor, while also creating a safe space for people to deal with grief and the resulting emotional turmoil.

The project was developed by Lady Pheønix in collaboration with Breonna’s younger sister Ju’Niyah Palmer and award-winning XR company Big Rock Creative. Users of Breonna’s Garden are able to learn about Breonna’s life and hear stories about her from her family and friends, which act as a digital memorial of her life. This space for healing won the 2022 Auggie Award for Biggest Societal Impact. Even for those who did not know Breonna personally, this experience offers a respectful, thought-provoking way of processing death for all users.

Similarly, Apart of Me, a charity and application that helps young people to deal with loss of loved ones, aims to normalise the discourse around death. Louis Weinstock, the founder of Apart of Me, was inspired by his experience working as a child, adolescent and family psychotherapist and saw the need to aid the healing process.

By creating a gamified online experience that allows users to find their inner calm and hear the stories of other bereaved young people, Weinstock hopes to foster more conversations around death and grief. “I help people find a light in the darkness, especially in grief, in the shadow, in the things that are unseen, unheard, unspoken,” Weinstock writes on his website. “I see death as our greatest teacher, and avoidance of it our biggest mistake,” he goes on to write.

“‘It Is only when we face death that we become most fully alive”

Apart of Me certainly seems to have been effective. It won the award for Best Youth Focused Emotional Support Application 2018, it was a finalist in the Tech4Good Awards 2018, and it even has celebrity advocates such as Stephen Fry. The app offers users the chance to move between different spaces, such as the “cave”, the “rockpool”, the “guide’s hut” and the “landing zone”, in a world where the emotions that arise when one is grieving are acknowledged and respected.

Alongside the development of the app, Weinstock also created the Life Death Wisdom Course, an audio course composed of six lessons that include meditation, storytelling and journaling exercises to help people to understand what they can learn by engaging with the topic of death rather than shying away from it.

Related reading

Now that we’re talking all things death, why not transform the end of life into part of your everyday life by exploring one of the following death-related books?

1. When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi: This neurosurgeon’s moving memoir of how his diagnosis of stage IV lung cancer changed his life and his perception of it will make you reflect on patient-doctor dynamics and the bigger questions in life.
2. Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End, by Atul Gawande: Author and practising surgeon Atul Gawande reflects on how modern medicine can help to make people’s lives – and deaths – better.
3. If Cats Disappeared from the World by Genki Kawamura: The narrator, who lives alone with his pet cat Cabbage, has just received a surprise diagnosis, and he doesn’t have long to live. An unexpected visit from the devil, complete with an enticing offer of an extra day of life, makes for a bizarre and enchanting take on mortality.

What’s so good about this?

Death, the great equaliser, is a fact of life, but considering it happens to every single living organism on the planet, we are pretty bad at talking about it. By encouraging open conversations about death and acknowledging the reality of the grieving process, more understanding and support can be fostered for those who have lost a loved one, are facing death themselves or are contemplating their own mortality.

Meet the writer

Melita Cameron-Wood is a half-British, half-Maltese freelance journalist, voice-over artist, language tutor and creative writer, based in Valencia, Spain. She usually covers business stories and all things culture-related, in particular indie and art-house films. In her spare time, she can be found wild swimming, writing poems, moon gazing or salivating over a plate of spaghetti.

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