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I saw the death industry up close – it changed my life

I was invited into a mortuary to help dress a dead man for his funeral. It was the gift of a lifetime

Hayley Campbell
Thursday 24 March 2022 15:10
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<p>We need to look at death, even when it’s hard – especially when it’s hard</p>

We need to look at death, even when it’s hard – especially when it’s hard

There is no good time to talk about death. Nobody wants to hear about death on a nice day, because it would spoil the mood, and nobody wants to talk about death when it is upon us because it’s too close, too insensitive, tonally off.

We wouldn’t want to bring the mood down any lower than it is. Let’s be upbeat. Let’s talk about it later. Let’s think about talking about it one day when death is no longer here. But there has never been a point in history when death wasn’t everywhere. Where living things are, death follows. And sometimes – when we have the privilege – where death goes, so does denial.

When the pandemic began I was in the middle of writing a book about how not only do we not talk about death – despite the fact that we have filled our pop culture with it – but that we have created a whole industry of people who serve as a barrier between us and death in a physical sense. A body does not magically disappear, or transport itself to the grave. There are people who shepherd it from deathbed to cemetery plot, who care for it where we do not go.

We pay strangers to give us the distance we believe we need between us and the dead, because that is what modernity bought us: the space for denial. I interviewed them. Kevin Sinclair, an embalmer, told me that in his 30-plus years of work, his experience is that nobody wants to think about what he does for a living until they have to, and then he is their best friend for two weeks.

After that, he goes back to non-existence, back to avoiding chat about his job at dinner parties because it shifts the mood downwards. We think about the practicalities of death only briefly, when we have no choice, and then we strap our blinkers on once more.

I am not the first to suggest that these blinkers are unhelpful, even damaging. When I interviewed Poppy Mardall, a young funeral director in south London, she told me about a time prior to becoming a funeral director, when she was extremely ill with typhoid in Ghana.

Like most of us, she had never been around the dead before; and says that because of this, her fear of dying was more intense. She likened it to pregnancy. “If I was nine months pregnant and I was going to give birth any minute, but I’d never seen a child under the age of one, it would definitely be more scary for me,” she told me.

“I would be giving birth to something that I’d never seen before, and could not imagine.” Now, through her work as a funeral director, she wants to change this – she wants others to see what death looks like, to allow them to be near it, to provide them space to reckon with death before they are forced to. She invited me into her mortuary to help dress a dead man for his funeral – and I genuinely believe she gave me the gift of a lifetime.

But as I was getting closer to death, many were getting further away. Daily death tolls no longer featured in the nightly reports. Friends would say they had stopped reading the news altogether, or banned talk of Covid in the house.

I would hear others in the media offering methods of light escapism – TV shows like a baby’s mobile: distracting, calming. Gyles Brandreth cheerfully told BBC 5 Live that he stopped watching the news in early 2020, and urged others to do the same.

Many didn’t have the choice to ignore it. But for those who did, and still do, what right do we have to look away? How is anything understood, reckoned with or solved if we act like the bad thing isn’t happening? What is gained from a magazine spiking a story that might be upsetting, if what is upsetting is actually happening?

I don’t mean you need to strap yourself to a chair like Alex in A Clockwork Orange, eyelids pinned open for the 24-hour news cycle. But there is power and strength in facing up to darkness. Put it off, and the interest only accrues.

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We need to look at death, even when it’s hard – especially when it’s hard. When you have the luxury of time and distance, it is your role to try and understand, not only for those who are going through it, but to give yourself a sense of context.

The pictures we see in the news of death and suffering in other countries – the ongoing crisis in Yemen, the mass graves in Ukraine, the bombed-out maternity wards and dead children – are hard to process, especially when they are delivered in the timeline incongruously sandwiched between the banal and the comedic.

Something Poppy told me years ago still runs through my head daily: the first dead body you see should not be someone you love. She said we should be able to separate the shock of grief from the shock of seeing death for the first time. How many millions have missed this chance in the last two years alone?

For a significant number of us, death feels closer now than it ever has – but still we cannot talk about it. If not now, when?

Hayley Campbell is the author of All the Living and the Dead

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