I had to have some surgery in 2021. I made a film poem out of the experience, called Aphrodite's Child, which you can see on Vimeo here.
I have been so lucky this year in that the Arts Council gave me a Developing Your Own Practice grant to experiment with poetry films. I've been working with Janet Lees (here's an example of her work) who makes the most amazing poetry films and who has taught me so much. Also, my friend Kirsten Luckins has helped me focus and she and I took the footage for this film in Saltburn early one glorious morning in September.
The whole experience of discovering an ovarian cyst, then having it and the ovary removed, then wondering if this is an indication of something more serious, was life-changing. By this I mean I understood more fully what it is to fear your own extinction. Of course I have paid lip service to this in the past, joked about it, written about it. All so very superficial. Life feels massively more precious now. And uncertain.
It may be a question you have never considered. I can’t say this has ever been an issue for me, until, suddenly, it is. Funeral sites have advice:
When thinking about how to dress the person, consider what he or she would have liked to have been buried in, such as a favorite or special outfit. While many people are buried in formal attire, feel free to dress the person in any outfits they might have loved, such as a favorite pair of jeans, a lucky hat, or a beloved piece of jewelry.
This makes me feel a little sad, as I don't have a lucky hat, or any lucky garment. I am sure there are many people who do, although I have to ask myself how luck is being expressed by wearing said garment after death? In terms of jewellery, I think I’d rather leave what little I have to daughters and other relations. It seems you can take it with you, but perhaps I’d rather not.
"... fashion choices among the dead have changed over the years..."
Apparently, fashion choices among the dead have changed over the years. Not surprising, as elements of informality are now present in every sphere of life, compared to how things were even 50 years ago. People used to be buried in their best suit, in an era where the phrase “Sunday best” had meaning. These days, all such etiquette seems to have been lost, and people wear any old thing, from a football kit to a onesy. But who chooses?
It may be that deciding what your deceased love one is going to wear for the final curtain may be one of those choices that we glibly fit into “it’s what they would have wanted.” But would we ever ask? Or do we make a note of this in our wills, or speak to our relatives on this subject?
If we don’t ask, or make a note, chances are we will be buried in whatever we are wearing when we die. This might be a consideration re underwear when we dress each morning – I seem to remember advice on always wearing good undies in case you got knocked down by a bus. But the likelihood is it will be a care home nightie or pyjamas.
Do I care enough to think about this? Do I actually have a favourite outfit? I enjoy masquerading as Miss Marple, but I'm not sure the tweed and cashmere is such a good look post life: too bulky. I might prefer something more beautiful and ready for bed ish, like Auntie Dolly’s brocade dressing gown from the 1930s, with a long crepe de chine slip underneath. Or some very nice brushed cotton / wyncyette pyjamas with a gentle elasticated waist, long sleeves and nice buttons. Sleep wear seems to be mostly what comes to mind, but maybe you should dress in black, as you are going to your own funeral? There are options, after all.
"... dressing the dead is not an easy business .."
When my father died, I took a suit, shirt and tie to the undertaker’s. When my mother died, much more recently, I think I took a purple velvet dress along, but actually, this time is so blurry in my mind, I am not sure. Irrationality rules around this, and I don’t like to think of people messing with her dead body to get that dress on. And in fact, dressing the dead is not an easy business, in spite of the stillness.
However, there are people who make clothes for the dead. The more traditional of these make dresses and suits that can be easily fitted and look like the clothes you need for walking around. But Pia Interlandi, a fashion designer and researcher with an interest in biodegradable fabrics, makes beautiful grave garments. There are many ways in which an item of clothing worn in life is not suited for death. For one thing, clothing is made to be put on autonomously: a shirt that you can effortlessly shrug into and button up while you’re alive can be incredibly difficult to dress a corpse with. “The body becomes stiffer in the joints and unexpectedly heavy,” says Interland. “Because of this, dressing a dead body basically requires a new way of dressing someone, where you turn their garments upside down.”
"...a burial garment sewn from the sheets that the deceased slept in"
Interlandi provides one-size-fits-all garments to clients as part of her work with the Clandon Wood natural burial reserve in Surrey, she has also provided garments tailored to the needs of individuals, such as a burial garment sewn from the sheets that the deceased slept in along with their partner for many years. She has also made robes designed for specific faiths and cultures, as well as garments for people of all sizes and ages.
Perhaps there is something to all of this. Dressing someone in death in the same clothes they wore in life seems like a morbid mockery of both. You only die once; perhaps, like your wedding day, the occasion deserves an outfit of its own. You can see more of Interlandi’s work at her official website by clicking here.
It was just a small object for sale on a stall, in the shape of a teardrop; nothing fancy, but I loved it at once in the way that you do when things catch your eye and appeal, strongly. I knew I would want this clear glass paperweight to be one of my funerary objects, a possession to be buried alongside me, when I die.
Why? I didn’t know and I still don’t. It’s so hard to convey the inevitable in words, non-fictionally. I’ve been circling around this for days as if this article is bones, surrounded by red flashing lights, a dangerous question which I can’t solve or put right. I wanted to approach death reflectively, writing a stream of conscious thoughts, and couldn’t. Grave-goods are too culturally important and need careful consideration.
Surely, ornaments buried celebrate the adventure of life. Ancient Egyptians enshrined fantastic artefacts, symbolizing what had gone before. In fiction, Beowulf’s pyre was built, ‘hung with helmets, heavy war-shields and shining armour, just as he had ordered.’ My beloved Grandma observed the Catholic ritual of, ‘laying-out.’ When a member of her community died she tended to them. I’ve often wondered which special items she had placed alongside the person then, in the 1940’s and 50’s, and I’m thinking about which special items are buried today. https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00n58kh. Thought-provoking.
I’m sincerely hoping I have broached this subject as my Nana would have observed a custom, with soulful respect, preserved in dignity and with the lightest touch like a stroke on a cheek. So, I ask, what would you have buried with you?
It’s been a long winter, and so good to have a bit of Spring warmth. There were times over the past three months when I wondered if I would ever feel truly heated through again. This was partly because I was undergoing extensive bathroom replacement therapy, which meant I was using the strange and unfathomable macerator loo in my freezing cold attic. So middle of the night journeys involved extreme cold and discomfort.
"How could I possibly force myself outside in my nightie?"
In some part of my “what will happen in the end” future plans for my own death bed (sketchy, I admit) I have a scenario in which I decide to make my own way out via freezing to death. This would involve leaving the house on a below zero night wearing only minimal clothing and just hanging around until unconsciousness became oblivion. But this winter, it occurred to me that I hadn’t thought this through. I really hate to feel cold, and would rather face debtors' prison through failure to pay massive heating bills than get cold. How would I possibly force myself outside in my nightie into a blizzard?
Obviously, I’d have to be drunk. And in fact, this would help to speed up the whole process, apparently: hypothermia strikes more rapidly if you have consumed alcohol. So think about that, young people, in your skimpy Saturday night out garments. The body shuts down faster when you’ve been drinking and you may not be as lucky as this 19 year old. Plus, when you know the details of what happens, it doesn’t sound quite so appealing.
"Is it better to put your oldies in a home, or leave them up a mountain?"
Some cultures have used this as a means of assisting the elderly into the next world. Ubasute (姥捨て, "abandoning an old woman", also called obasute and sometimes oyasute 親捨て"abandoning a parent") is the mythical practice of senicide in Japan, whereby an infirm or elderly relative was carried to a remote place, such as a mountain, and left to die. However, this seems to be more the stuff of legend or a good topic for a film. It does, however, draw attention to our current attitudes: is it better to put your oldies in a home, as opposed to leave them up a mountain? This is one of those questions which might seem easy to answer when you are 30, less so later on.
Of course, there’s another way of looking at the freezing to death question: I’m talking Cryonics, or the use of temperatures below -130 °C to preserve both bodies and brains after “death”. I don’t think I really understand the motivation behind the urge to have yourself frozen for the future. It smacks of incredible optimism, or ego, or both. But nevertheless, cryonicists argue that true "death" should be defined as irreversible loss of brain information critical to personal identity, rather than inability to resuscitate using current technology. Cryonics uses low temperatures to preserve a body for future revival. However, even using the best methods, cryopreservation of whole bodies or brains is very damaging and irreversible with current technology. I can bear this out with reference to the contents in my freezer, some of which have been there a long time, and which I no longer plan to eat, but can’t quite bear to throw out.
Philip Larkin died in December 1985, holding a nurse’s hand and saying, ‘I am going to the inevitable’, and death was indeed his constant companion and preoccupation. He was faithful to/absorbed by death all his writing life, whatever the apparent distances between attitudes expressed and life lived in all the other aspects of his behaviour.
He bridged the worlds of ‘high art’ and ‘accessible poetry’. He wrote about everyday things like work, ambulances, windows, gin, with enormous skill, depth and intelligence. He was known as ‘the Hermit of Hull’ and affected disdain towards university socialising or the London cultural scene, describing himself as an isolated curmudgeon, but he often broadcast on the BBC, and had a national reputation.
Larkin is one of the few writers to have lodged a recognisable image in the public mind, well before the onslaught of social media, as a dour looking man in owlish glasses. He is famous for being born too early for sexual intercourse, and for having been fucked up by his Mum and Dad. However, subsequent revelations show that there was actually a considerable amount of sexual activity in his life, and that his relationship with his mother was close and supportive, if occasionally impatient and fretful.
His writing reveals much casual misogyny and fear/distrust of women, but he not only loved some women, he was loved by them, and some of those loving women (see Foxy article on Monica Jones link) were intelligent and discerning people. His loyal partners put up with a great deal for the pleasure of his company and affections, even while these relationships were being run in tandem.
He worked hard as Chief Librarian of Hull University, was proud of his department and of the university, but referred to work as ‘the toad’ squatting on his life (‘Toads’ 1954). Later in life (‘Toads Revisited’ 1962), he wrote ‘Give me your arm, old toad; help me down Cemetery Road’, this poem having been written just before sexual intercourse began. He adored jazz and was knowledgeable about it, writing occasional reviews for jazz magazines. He revered musicians such as Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington and yet is reported as speaking in vilely racist terms about, for example, fear of people on the tube in London.
‘Such attics cleared of me! Such absences!’
Throughout all of these contradictory attitudes, his one recurrent interest and reference point was death. In 1944, aged 22, he wrote of the ‘dream of death drawing close’ (‘Songs, 65’North) which did not seem to be a reference to the war, and in subsequent years he referred to ‘the desire of oblivion’ (‘Wants’ 1950) and ‘Such attics cleared of me! Such absences!’ (‘Absences’ 1950), sounding celebratory rather than afraid. In 1967, in ‘High Windows’, he describes ‘…the deep blue air, that shows/ Nothing, and is nowhere, and is endless’ and in ‘The Winter Palace’ in 1978 he talks of an eventual forgetting, when ‘My mind will fold into itself, like fields, like snow’. In ‘Aubade’ in 1977 he said, ‘Being brave/ lets no-one off the grave./ Death is no different whined at than withstood.” , thus covering both the complaining and the stoic approach.
So now, over thirty years since he went to the inevitable, Larkin does not offer a model way to live, but he does still offer a model way to write. Aspiring poets can still learn from him, poetry-lovers can still enjoy and admire his work, and, despite his many personal failings and ugly attitudes, readers like me can criticise the man, but still love what he wrote. I don’t know if it was a life well lived, but it absolutely was a life well written.
Just beginning, the slight crispness to the leaves, the sense of drying out, in spite of torrential rain. Autumn is a season of mixed blessings – beautiful, of course, so many colours and the architectural shapes of seed heads everywhere you look, the whole world a gallery. But the light leaving is always a bit scary, and we all know why that is: the Grim Reaper lurking in the trees, his skeletal form gradually uncovered as winter approaches. At what point will the bony finger be pointing at me is of course the question uppermost in my mind, and according to a recent memoir by Robert McCrum, uppermost in the minds of pretty much everyone over 60.
A new National Album has certainly added lustre to my September, and as usual it’s brilliant (check out the Pitchfork review). And also as usual, the lyrics provide much food for thought. I was struck by this little verse:
The day I die, the day I die
Where will we be?
The day I die, the day I die,
Where will we be?
(From Day I Die, Sleep Well Beast)
But it’s not like anyone can ever predict this. Probably, the clean between the sheets death is the likeliest scenario for most of us, especially as we get beyond the risky years. You know, the ones where you decide to relive your motorbiking days, take up hang gliding, or start an affair with someone young and inappropriate. In fact, according to this survey nearly 80% of us currently die in a hospital, care home or hospice, even though most of us would prefer to die at home.
"Will there eventually be specially designed terminal bots?"
I can’t make my mind up about this one. On the one hand, you assume that hospitals etc have all the pain management and other terminal gizmos that make the passing a little less arduous. It might also be easier on your family to be constantly monitored by health professionals. On the other hand, where would I get access to endless tea and coffee and cheese on toast on request? Will there eventually be specially designed terminal bots, who will not only provide those things, but also sing to me, read me poetry in a variety of voices, make me laugh, give me a foot massage?
Three out of four of my grandparents died at home. Both my parents died in an institution, my father in hospital, unexpectedly, the day before he was due to be discharged following a minor stroke. My mother died in a care home, although she was only there for the last six months of her life, having been diagnosed with breast cancer aged 90. Family visited as often as possible, but it was not ideal. Both in-laws also ended their very long lives in care, so perhaps this is the trend. The longer you live, the more needs you have which can’t be catered for at home. Although the same survey seems to indicate that with better organised community services, it would indeed be possible (and preferable) for people to check out in their own beds.
People have died in many strange places, as Prof Google reveals; in their parked cars, up trees, in office cubicles, in lifts, in public conveniences, in hotel rooms. Elvis, at 42, on the toilet in his Graceland home. Jim Morrison in his bath. Brian Jones in his swimming pool. Tupac Shakur shot on the streets of Las Vegas, Lennon in New York.
The saddest are the undiscovered ones, such as Joyce Carol Vincent , a young woman whose body lay in a London flat for three years. The brilliant Carol Morley made a film about this, which uncovers more questions than it answers. It would be nice to know you would be sufficiently missed for this not to happen. Or to be safe in the knowledge that the bot will let everyone know when the end is nigh.
Making an exit
Earlier this year (May), BBC Radio 4 serialised neurosurgeon Henry Marsh’s memoir Admissions. (at time of writing it’s still available on iPlayer http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b08q3xnv). In the first episode he talks about his suicide kit: a selection of drugs he has put by to help him shuffle off this mortal coil rather than wait for nature to take its sometimes tardy course. He goes on to say that he isn’t sure if he will be able to use his kit – as a surgeon, he has witnessed many people going through the last stages of their lives, and he observes that hope remains, and people cling on to life no matter how bleak things seem.
My mother had a suicide kit. No doubt it was much less sophisticated than Mr Marsh’s: a bottle of vodka, some paracetamol, a plastic bag. Nonetheless, it gave her some measure of comfort and control, however unrealistically. She let me know about her kit when I was in my 20s. I was very disturbed by the information, and urged her yet again to leave dad, strike out on her own, rather than live with a level of anxiety which only a final exit option could reduce. I was naïve, in spite of having left home at 17: I did not understand what living with alcoholism can do to a person, and how the symbiotic threads of my parents’ relationship had become so tangled that there could be no easy way to separate.
Looking back, I feel sad that she was never truly able to escape, and that the suicide kit was not the solution she had hoped. The one time, to my knowledge, she did attempt to end her life, she used a blunt breadknife to saw at her wrists. Tragically, this happened after she had made an attempt to leave her marriage and was living in a flat that I had rented for her not far from where I lived. We all got it terribly wrong.
My mother had never lived on her own. She was addicted to valium and pain killers, which made her paranoid and irrational. She was miles away from everything familiar, including my father. I was a virtual single parent with a baby and a full time job, so was already exhausted. I suppose I had had a half-baked idea that stepping into being a gran would help my mother settle: this was her first grandchild. But instead, she needed more from me than I could possibly give, and, after she had read some less than flattering things about herself in my diary, she went back to her flat and picked up the breadknife. She panicked and called 999, ending up in hospital.
I was in the middle of teaching a class of Vietnamese students when a colleague pulled me out to tell me the news. By the time I got to the hospital, she had been bandaged up and was waiting for a psychiatric assessment. I was furious.
“Why didn’t you use your suicide kit?” I hissed at her, poor old mum, pathetic in her blood stained dressing gown.
She shrugged. For years, I believed that the whole stunt was an attempt to punish me. Perhaps it was. But she was also trying to cope with a massive change in her life, to being thrown on her own resources. It was the first time I really knew I was stronger than my mother.
She spent a month in a psychiatric unit, which she perversely enjoyed. She was at her self-mocking best, presenting me with odd things she had made in the craft sessions, and telling me about her trips out with “the loonies”. Visiting her was not easy: I had to dash back from work, collecting my child from nursery, then get a baby sitter to look after her so I could head out again to the hospital. After that, daughter permitting, I had lessons to prepare for the next day. There was no way round any of it. It just had to be done. When she decided to go back to my father, I was relieved. Although I now wish she had stayed, and that we had found a way to help her have a new life, in fact she made some changes when she got home, and I think managed to carve out more of a life for herself for a while. She also became the world’s best gran. For this, and for many other reasons, I am glad she chose the blunt breadknife rather than the potentially more efficient suicide kit.
I have known several people who have taken their own lives, or have attempted to. I have very mixed feelings about this devastating act: huge sympathy for the terrible isolation that you must feel to be making this choice, and a kind of anger on behalf of those who are left behind. I know someone whose boyfriend shot himself in front of her. There’s something about that flamboyant act of violence that makes me wonder, but at least he didn’t shoot her.
It worries me that in the last 45 years suicide rates have increased by 60% worldwide. Suicide is now among the three leading causes of death among those aged 15-44 (male and female). Suicide attempts are up to 20 times more frequent than completed suicides. (Stats from WHO via The Samaritans website)
Anne Sexton who died in 1974, would have been 88 this year. The high-priestess of the confessional mode made her female physicality and mental health a fundamental part of her poetics. She was brave, wild, domesticated, deeply troubled and at the forefront of the movement towards, and beyond, the confessional lyric. Love her or hate her, Sexton’s poems examine the beauty, chaos and pain of life.
On October 4, 1974, Sexton had lunch with fellow poet Maxine Kumin to revise galleys for Sexton's manuscript of The Awful Rowing Toward God, which had been scheduled for publication in March 1975. When she got back, she put on her mother's old fur coat, removed all her rings, poured herself a glass of vodka and locked herself in her garage. She started the engine of her car, committing suicide by carbon monoxide poisoning. She was 45 years old, and a Pulitzer prize- winning poet.
Sexton is not the only female poet or writer who chose to end her life: Sylvia Plath, Beatrice Hastings, May Ayim, Charlotte Mew, Virginia Woolf. (For a rather tasteless fashion shoot on this topic, and a discussion of the ethics of this see this Jezebel post) It’s quite a long list, although male writers are also prone to suicide. It almost seems to go with the creative, sensitive territory (see this research). However, many of these women also suffered from mental illness, and Sexton herself was diagnosed with bi-polar disorder at an early age. In fact, the writing of poetry was suggested to her as a means to combat depression, and so perhaps it is not surprising that her work confronted previously taboo subjects:
"She wrote openly about menstruation, abortion, masturbation, incest, adultery, and drug addiction at a time when the proprieties embraced none of these as proper topics for poetry." Maxine Kumin
It’s both tragic and fascinating that the inner lives of women like Sexton become unbearable, and the release that writing affords ultimately fails. As Virginia Woolf said, in her last note to her husband:
“I feel certain I am going mad again. I feel we can’t go through another of those terrible times. And I shan’t recover this time. I begin to hear voices, and I can’t concentrate. So I am doing what seems the best thing to do.” (you can read the whole note here)
It’s hard to imagine a mental state so acutely painful that it cuts through what we might think of as the paramount female virtues of nurturing and caring for others. Both Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton left young children behind, clearly believing that their offspring would be better off without them. There is an element of self-sacrifice too – was Virginia doing this for Leonard, as much as for herself? Whatever the motivation, she was posthumously criticized for failing to “carry on”, putting up and shutting up being what was felt to be appropriate in a time of war.
Sexton’s personal life, laid bare in several biographies and memoirs, makes her a divisive figure: a privileged Pulitzer-winning poet adrift in a time of political and social upheaval. Prone to spin a yarn and tell her tales: can we really trust her? Come to the Voodoo Café in Darlington on Saturday November 19th, listen to her work, and work she has inspired. Raise a glass to a woman who paved the way for innovative and fearless female verse.
I was not allowed to see my grandfather after he died, even though this happened in the house both he and I lived in. So it wasn't until I was working as an auxiliary nurse in Enfield in the early 70's that I encountered death - as a process and as a final result. The first time, it happened in the evening. All day, the patient had been ill and complaining of how poorly she felt. I hate to say it, but I think people were not aware of just how ill she was: she was a woman who was seen as a moaner, a person who liked to complain (is this true? poor woman). Stoicism was massively over-rated on this ward. I was the lowliest staff member, the auxiliary who did all the dirty work, but nevertheless, I might sometimes find myself alone on the ward. In my memory, this was the case on this particular occasion. I was at the end of the ward, drawing curtains around beds and tidying up when a draft of air, some kind of swishing movement ruffled the curtains and passed me by. I thought perhaps someone had opened a window. Then I realised - it was very quiet on the ward. I walked back to look in on the poorly lady and she was dead. Mouth open, eyes open. No breath or chest movement. I got Sister in quick but there wasn't any doubt in my mind. I think (it's a long time ago) I felt relief on both her behalf and my own. But I remember that shift of air and the stark change of status from living to dead.
After that, several old ladies died in that ward, usually in the aftermath of a broken hip. Traction, then an aneurism. It did not look like a bad way to go. I helped to lay these old ladies out, and was not appalled by the process or the body after death. Maybe as a twenty year old girl, death seemed too far away to have any relevance to me. But it was done respectfully and tenderly with older women instructing me and instilling this notion: think of this person as your own mother or grandmother. It would not happen now. The body would be whisked away to the funeral parlour, and cared for professionally. I feel privileged to have had this experience, at an early enough point for me to come to terms with death without it seeming too frightening or overwhelming.
Since then, other deaths. I worked as an auxiliary when I was studying at university, in my mid-twenties, and again, witnessed several deaths: this was an elderly mentally ill ward. But by this time, laying out was no longer done on the ward. Then a long gap until more recently, as elderly relatives, and some younger friends, have become ill and died. I would say I am more anxious about death now than I was as a young woman. I am not sure what exactly I fear - except all of it - the process, the moment, the extinction. Maybe all three.