Saturday 29 March 2014

Conversations, End of Life Chats, and a new Jesus on the Tube

Following on from last week's blog, in which I wrote about my time with Elizabeth Way Funeral Services in Lancashire, I woke in a panic one night this week.  I had dreamt that Mr Bedford and I were due up in Lancashire to take a funeral together.  As happens in dreams, I didn't stop and explain that I am not a funeral director and that I can't possibly do it, instead I went ahead with my preparations, such that they were, in a state of bewilderment, to go up to Lancashire and take this funeral.  In the dream, Mr Bedford was absolutely no help at all. He didn't react or have any opinions, he just kept packing his suitcase.  No way to get a funeral done, I told him in the dream, as I tried to work out why on earth we were doing it, at the last minute, all the way from the South Coast of England.

Gail, at Elizabeth Way Funeral Services.  I am grateful that she is not preparing this for me to take over.  Thank you Gail.
Indeed, I am due up again to see Elizabeth Way Funeral Services on Tuesday and Wednesday this week.  No one is going to be buried or cremated by me, a great relief for us all.  I am joining owner Gail Martin Stevens and her colleague Tami to pilot the first of many informal conversations with the public about preparing for dying in our busy world.  We aim to set up casual drop in sessions with tea and cake (of course) so that members of the public can come in and talk with us, with each other, on all matters end of life.  The aim is simply to start the conversation.  After this first one we are doing together, Gail and Tami will do it in their area, and I, God bless me, will start in Bognor Regis.

It is so hard to find the right time and place to talk about these things.  Why on earth should we? Death, dying, all that kind of stuff, such enormous topics, how on earth do we start?  What words do we use?  Where do we begin?  What if we are laughed at for being weird?  The subject touches us all, we know that, and intellectually, we all know we are going to die.  But some of us don't allow ourselves to accept it.  It is so very appalling, so very unbelievably terrifying, that we will do anything to avoid it.  In any shape or form.  And then, someone gets ill, someone has an accident, someone dies - maybe you become ill yourself, and the reality that death is here hits you with the force of all the denial and fear turning in on itself, and you go under.  When we are faced with something terminal in our busy lives, when we have done all we could to either avoid acknowledging death, or that we are just inexperienced, we have to take a crash course on end of life matters at the very time we are in no fit state to do so.  When my partner Steve was dying, I muddled on through, not knowing what on earth was happening or what to expect.  I didn't have a clue what to ask, what I should know, or where to go.  It was close friends who took me in hand and told me in gentle but clear words that I could understand, that he was going to die, and soon.  I had no idea we could talk about it, Steve and me.  I had no idea anyone could talk about death.  I'd never come across it before, it was not something that could possibly happen to me or to anyone I knew.  And yet, I knew how to look after him.  I knew what to do for him, I just didn't know that what I was doing was right or that I could get help.  I know an awful lot more now, with hindsight.  I also know that if I had been prepared a little more, we would have coped so much better.

From the A Graceful Death exhibition.  Steve and I arrive at the hospice, for his last week of life.  I  didn't see the extent of his illness, I was with him all the time and had no distance from which to look in from outside.  I still did not know how ill he was here.  
This is why Gail, Tami and I are setting up these informal, conversational drop in opportunities to create a safe and normal place to start asking questions. Questions you always wanted to ask, but felt you shouldn't. Like, what do you say to a dying person?  Excellent question.  What dies a dead person look like?  What indeed!  Good question. Does dying hurt?  When should you write a will?  How do you bring up the subject of care and last wishes with an elderly parent?  Someone's husband has died in my road, what should I say to her?  And so on.  We say, let's talk it over.  We have a venue booked for two hours on Wednesday afternoon, and we will see who comes and what happens.

I was talking with someone recently, who is coming to terms with the diagnosis that her cancer will not now go, and is not, after all, curative.  "It was important for me," she said, "not to come home after my discussion with the consultant, to an empty house.  I needed someone with me, someone to stay with me and to let me talk it through.  Can you imagine," she continued, "coming home with that kind of knowledge, and sitting in silence at home, letting the fear and dread engulf you?"  She went on to say that the worst thing for her was the lack of certainty.  Would she live with this cancer, or would she die?  It would be good to start people chatting about these things, so that if someone else comes home to an empty house from a frightening diagnosis, the neighbours may feel confident to help.  This ties nicely into the compassionate communities idea that I have spoken of before.  I feel very strongly that the answer to so much of our loneliness and isolation lies in community action, community spirit.

Moving swiftly on, this Wednesday, I am delighted to publish a guest blog on Old Age (I Am Not Old, But I Am Getting Older) by Alan Bedford.  Alan is not old, but is getting old-er, and writes of how it feels to suddenly realise that other people may think one is old.  Thank you Alan, I think you are very young.

And, I have revamped the A Graceful Death blog so that all the relevant information (dates, times, talks, speakers and so on) can be accessed there as well as here.  The link is

It is late.  Time has marched on.  It has marched on so much that the clocks are going forward tonight, and tomorrow I shall be all of a muddle.  To finish this week, and before any muddle sets in, here is the latest Jesus on the Tube from the Valentines special offer recently, half the price double the love.  The first five to respond to the offer got a half price Jesus on the Tube.  Here is the McKenzie family on the tube with a Jeus of their choice

A personalised Jesus, all of your own, to sit with you and your family on a tube train of your choice.  It does not get better than this.

Friday 21 March 2014

A Funeral Company caring for Living, Dying and Dead. Introducing ....

Elizabeth Way & Company.  
Independent Family Funeral Co-ordinators.
"Our Family Caring for Yours"

I want to introduce you to a Funeral Director with a difference.

Funeral Director Gail Martin Stevens in her bright and colourful family meeting room
Introducing the very glamorous and dedicated Gail Martin Stevens.  I have long wanted to visit Gail and to see her in action as a Funeral Director in her independent family run business in Mossley, Lancashire.  And so, three years or so after we met, I came up to visit Elizabeth Way Funeral Services.  I have often asked Gail about her work, and been fascinated by how much variety there is in running her funeral business.  I could never, though, quite get a handle on what she actually did.  There seemed to be so many different strands to her work, so many people involved, it was never simply a matter of getting the bodies in and disposing of them. There is the community work Elizabeth Way does, there is the after care service Gail and her staff offer to the bereaved, there is the way Gail writes all her services from scratch after a long day in the office, and there is the way she and her staff take each family as unique, and spends time on their care alongside the care of the person who has died.  Gail can, amongst other things, drive the cars, wash the bodies, embalm if required, plan personalised funerals, comfort the bereaved, improvise, think on her feet and think outside the box. (So to speak). And actually, so can all of her staff do these things.  "We are a team," they say.  "We help each other, and we can do much of each other's jobs."

It's easy to look into the Elizabeth Way shop from outside.  It is painted black outside, but it is light and bright and colourful inside.  Warm and friendly, it is intended to be welcoming and comforting - the walls are hung with prints by Gustav Klimpt, which I like and consider a bold move.  Bright flowers everywhere, bright soft chairs and sofas, cushions, bright gentle lighting, plenty of daylight coming through large spotlessly clean windows; the shop is not a gloomy, distant, bleak place in which to talk in hushed tones about coffins and ashes. It's not a place you have to go to because there has been a death, a place you would avoid it if you could because the need to visit implies loss and horror and bodies;  it is not a place to be told gravely what you can have by people who you don't know.  Gail and her staff make you feel  like you are visiting a friend in a loving environment; a place where the staff will sit with you and listen, give you mugs of tea, advise you and help you plan exactly what you want.  (You don't like coming to the funeral of your dear family member in the big funeral limo?  Take your own car, no problem.  You want to help carry the coffin?  Fine, we can arrange that. And so on.)

It's a place of life and living, while dealing with death and the dead.  "I had a lady knock on the shop door once," said Gail. "I'm dying," she said to Gail who answered it.  Gail's reply typifies Elizabeth Way -  "Come right in. I'll get the kettle on."  The lady, now dead and gone, was able to sit in comfort with Gail - over many visits - as if over a kitchen table, and plan and talk and take her time to do what we all could not imagine having to do, plan our own impending funeral.

Bright windows, fresh approach, feminine approach
Flowers, Klimpt prints, welcoming and comforting

The staff at Elizabeth Way are made of the same stuff as Gail.  The three branches of Elizabeth Way are staffed mostly by women. Though this is incidental, Gail employs anyone who does the job well, I wonder if it is possibly why the shops are so comfortable, bright, light and friendly, and why the atmosphere of the place is so different to what we expect of a Funeral Parlour. The branch manager though, Anthony, is most definitely not a woman.  Anthony says that you only get one chance at a funeral, you have to get it right.  Each member of the team is proud of being of service and spoke today of the attention to detail that they consider so vital.  These are our families, they said, this is our community.  We all help each other, we are a small team and we can all do each other's jobs if necessary. Anthony told me he would work for nothing if he had to.  He loves his work, and takes pride in being responsible for the three branches.  He showed me the software that he has installed to log all the information necessary for each client. It is very detailed indeed, and enables him and the staff to know exactly who is who and what each funeral plan entails.  He came, he told me, from another large funeral chain, where there was no attention to detail, no kind touches, no team work.  It was a conveyor belt where to get as many funerals as possible through the books was the goal.  At Elizabeth Way, Anthony said, there is pride in each funeral.  There is a personal interest in the welfare of each client and their family, and a policy of doing the best for everyone. We all, he said, help each other.  Gail tells me that all the families love him.

Manager Anthony.  Dedicated, experienced and able to turn his hand to most things in the business.  And most definitely not a woman.

Tami is the Mortuary Assistant.

Tami, dedicated to making the dead look the best they can for the viewings, and taking enormous care to get everything right.
Tami is young, energetic and efficient and very kind.  Tami works solely in the tiny Mortuary at Elizabeth Way, preparing the bodies for viewing and arranging the viewing rooms.  She has another job as a nurse, and has often nursed the people who then come in to the funeral home to be prepared by her.  Today, there was one such customer, beautifully washed and brushed and lying in the viewing room in his pyjamas in the bed that is kept in there for this purpose.  I am told the bed makes the experience more normal, and less alarming.  Tami had nursed this fellow, and then had continued his care after his death, preparing him for his family to view and then to be buried.  Once again, in the mortuary room, the attention to detail was evident.  Tami has organised folders and white boards to contain all the possible information she could want.  Who was this person?  Where did they come in from?  Family?  What clothes did they have? Where were they going and when?  Personal details?  And so on.  Sometimes, Tami said, when they are really busy, she attends to the bodies in the viewing rooms which are kept cold.  Once, she said, there were fourteen bodies. "I had to take my washing and preparation equipment with me and go round to them, one after the other in various rooms, and dress them, preparing them for their viewings or funerals." Tami was very nice to me indeed when I spent time with her, as during one of her necessary procedures I fainted.  She had warned me that it was a bit difficult to watch at first, but I gamely said Ha! I'll be OK!  I had to sit down with my head between my knees half way through, as Tami had to call out that she has a fainter.  And then got me a cup of tea and a fan.  I just admired her skills.  Careful of both the living and the dead.

Jane, another very nice and kind blonde (ish) lady who works for Elizabeth Way. 
Gail runs the business with her daughter Elizabeth.  What is a funeral business?  I asked. What is it to you?  Gail and Elizabeth described it thus.  A large, soft, mohair blanket, wrapping you up with your arms free so that you are able to find your own way through your loss, but held and protected with warmth and softness by the team.  Gail added, that she approaches her work with the heart of a pupil.  I am always learning, she says.  And her daughter Elizabeth agreed.  We have care of and disposal of the body, and look after the families she says.  But don't get me wrong, they both say, we get some very difficult customers sometimes.  We do our best, but sometimes they really need understanding.  Sometimes, we only know a fraction of the story.  This is where we have to listen and follow our instincts.  Diane, who runs another of the branches of Elizabeth Way, says that people give a lot away by their body language.  Diane is firm but kind, and experienced. (Diane is blonde and glamorous.)

Gail is a Buddhist.  I wasn't always so calm, she says and her daughter Elizabeth laughs.  But I have found something that gives me a goal, says Gail, and I practice compassion, kindness and patience.  Gail's health is not too good these days, and though you would never know it, she has to practice patience with her own body.  Like her mother, Elizabeth has experienced some difficult times with her health.  It makes us understand more, she says.  It means we are able to deal with some very hard hitting issues.  

Gail's philosophy, and that of her staff, is to attend to the details in order to create a perfect funeral experience.  All types of people come to Elizabeth Way.  Some who are dying come to talk things over.  Families who have lost babies and children, families who have lost someone to suicide, people who want to be involved in the planning, people who are there under duress and don't want anything to do with funerals.  The staff take care of them all.  Elizabeth Way is open and cares for them all.  Gail's next project is to help raise awareness beyond her own community, of how wonderful a good funeral can be, and how it can be a powerful aid to managing the grieving process.  We all know this in theory, but Gail has worked on it in practice.  She will be a wonderful teacher, and I look forward to hearing more from and about her.

Gail, thinking outside the box.  Literally.  

Elizabeth Way & Company - Your Family Funeral Directors.  

18 Stamford Street, Mossley, OL5 0HR.

Tel: 01457 839247


Tuesday 11 March 2014

Receiving, in a Domestic Bubble of Niceness.

This week's blog is a gentle domestic ramble.  It is late, it is sauntering into your lives midweek, and it is very laid back.  I will hint at what I am doing this week, but uppermost in my mind is a need to be in a nice clean house with food in the larder and everyone saying a cheery Morning! in the morning, and Lovely Day! in the afternoon, and More cake? in between.  I have come a long way over the last few years, and am in a position to glance backwards to see what was happening then, and gazing forwards to where I am going next.  I am filled with thoughts of the future, and no real way to articulate them.  So I am placing myself in a position to receive.  I am open to all possibilities, I am going with the flow (providing I agree with the flow), I am watching to see who comes along and what can be done.  Uppermost in my mind is the idea of community.  Something in the community, something useful, something life enhancing, something so simple it is as if we all knew it any way.  I have some ideas.  I have made some contacts.  It is possibly as simple as meeting in a small public place once a month to discuss things.

But now, back to my home and the pleasure of keeping it all ticking along.

Hallway is clean.  Cow is hoovered. All is in order.
I live in a very nice house.  At the moment, we, my four lodgers and I, plus Giant Boy, live in a jolly Bognor bubble of niceness.  The household right now is wonderful, and I am grateful to the house for selecting my current lodgers for me, they make life easy and interesting, and I am very much at one with the choices the house has made.  I always say that this house attracts to it the people it wants, and so we have had some very interesting indications of what the house thinks it needs.  We have had a Polish grandmother who looked like Barbara Windsor, and could not speak a word of English.  We have had a Russian man who left very quickly to live in another country, just in time it seemed, as the debt collectors arrived within a few months. He did leave me his nice new fridge though, which I did not give to the debt collectors.  I felt that they did not need it as much as I did. I have had a Martial Arts expert, an Anxious Pole, a Grumpy Pole, and a quiet Hungarian teacher.  I have had a  nice Pole and a frightened Pole (put here by his sister who was very determined.  He was very young and ran off back to Poland as soon as he could lose his job) and I have learned much about people passing through my life, moving into my house, staying a while, and then moving on.  A new lodger moves in next week, a Sensitive Pole; I have given instructions to everyone here to move slowly and to be aware that he is delicate and may cry.

Giant Boy has been told that to pop out of a doorway and to rugby tackle him may lead to him dying of fright, so he is not to do it on any account.

Giant Boy has found a spiritual home.  He has found a gym where he can be taught MMA, or mixed martial arts, which looks to me like sanctioned attempted murder.  Giant Boy has always had a deep affinity with cage fighting, and has often whiled away an afternoon practising arm locks and hip throws on me, ignoring all my squeals, and only responding when I tap three times.  Last night we watched a huge MMA event on telly, a kind of Mother Son bonding thing, and I saw grown men shake hands, then knock seven bells out of each other and tie each other's limbs into knots, sit on each other's heads and try and stop each other from breathing, before the ref signalled the end of their five minute bouts.  Then they gave each other a hug and that was that.  I'll be doing that one day soon, said Giant Boy excitedly, visibly moved and full of admiration.  I see, I said, trying to imagine him with cauliflower ears and a broken nose like a cartoon gangster.  As long, I say, as they don't pull his fingers out of their sockets, he needs them for his piano playing.  He hadn't thought of that.  Perhaps he will have to wear special gloves, and learn to use his elbows more.

Today I am seeing an new friend in Bognor.  A lady who works in the community on some very imaginative art projects. I want to stick to her like an adoring limpet to see how she works, to get some idea of how to move forward with community based end of life awareness stuff.  She has gamely agreed to allow this, and since she has a fine sense of humour, much of the time we are laughing.  At the end of the week, I am going away to Lancashire, to spend four days in a little cottage near to my friend and colleague Gail, of Elizabeth Way Funerals (  I have often wanted to see how Gail works, so next week I will do so.  Gail has bought a painting too, so this is by way of a fantastic delivery service that includes a holiday, her cooking lunch for me a lot, and a tour of her Funeral Business.

Talking of Funeral Parlours, the very nice man indeed (hello Joe!) at Dying Matters put me in touch with Philip Evans and Sallie Clark at Sussex Funeral Services in Brighton. Very nice couple, and very inspiring.  Sallie is an artist too, and it was the first time I have seen paintings in an undertakers with swirls of colour and glitter.  The paintings were lovely, and our meeting was full of promise.  I thoroughly enjoyed our afternoon.

There is much more happening, but I am drawn, as I said in the beginning, to mindless domestic ramblings.  So yes, I am completing my last Jesus on the Tube for the Valentine Half the Price Double the Love offer.  Exciting, yes, I have another painting to do for someone for April and gosh.  Yes.  The two AGD events in May are swinging ahead with bells on.  I have been filmed for a taster for a documentary on Soul Midwives and End of Life Care, I have another AGD event in Swansea at the end of the year planned, and I am possibly taking part in a panel of experts (I am the expert on being a member of the community) at a one stop end of life drop in clinic in Brighton, as part of Dying Matters Awareness Week.

But you need to know the washing machine is mended, and that the dishwasher no longer floods the kitchen.  You have to know that I put potatoes in Giant Boy's lasagne in an effort to get him to eat more veg, and that I have hoovered everywhere.  Even the doors.

And so.  Farewell for the time being from a Bognor bubble of niceness.  Time to put the washing out and plan my next meal.  Time for a spot of receiving.

Kitchen is clean and tidy. Flood from washing machine and dishwasher yesterday has cleaned the floor. God is good.

Sunday 2 March 2014

On Being a Gauzy Butterfly in Dublin

I have left the country.

I am neither on my sofa at home, nor in my bed, writing this blog, I am on a sofa bed in Dublin, with a pot of tea beside me and a crisp white duvet with gauze butterflies sewn on as if they have just flown in through the window and rested.  I am here with Eileen, my photographer friend, and we are as those gauze butterflies, we have flown in (not through the window) and rested.  We are visiting our old friend Rhona, and her family.  Both Eileen and I think we are in Heaven. I will check with Rhona in a minute to see if she thinks she is in Heaven too with us here, I expect she does, she is very nice indeed.  

It will be a short blog this week, I am needed next door in the kitchen.  Ah, you say with approval, you are cooking breakfast for your friend and her family, how they must love having you.  Well actually, we have taken over the kitchen a bit, Rhona has a whole studio full of craft materials, paints, pretty things, papers, pens, metal stamping stuff, beads, feathers, fancy bits and pieces. Eileen, Rhona and I are spending our time playing and making whatever comes to our minds, and saying To hell with cooking and cleaning, away with you, sight seeing and strolling the Dublin streets,  I'm going to make a bag out of old dresses and Eileen is going to make a mysterious collage and Rhona is going to make some birds.  So the whole of yesterday was spent in happy, messy, silence.  We sat in deep concentration, cutting, sticking, sewing and creating. There was a flurry of movement at about 3pm when Eileen and I went out to buy chocolate, and Rhona still had to look after her family, but on the whole, this is how we spent yesterday.  

Me, Eileen and Rhona, making wonderful art at the kitchen table.  We did stop for lunch, and the food was as colourful as our arty stuff. 

Today, Eileen will photograph us for a painting  I have in mind, a painting of the three of us based on the idea of the Sacre Conversazione, a sacred or holy conversation, from the Italian Renaissance.  Paintings of a Sacre Conversazione involve a group of saints having a conversation with the Virgin and Child, in an informal and unified space.  I love this idea, and though none of us are that divine, Eileen, Rhona and I have known each other long enough, and well enough, to take part in a composition such as this. The idea is that it is possible to be in the presence of the Holy Family, and to talk informally. Here is an example of a Sacre Conversazione from about 1445, from Domenico Veneziano.  It is part of a St Lucy Altarpiece, and it shows the Virgin and Child (baby Jesus), with saints identifiable by their clothes and the objects they are holding as part of their story.  Here, from left to right are the Saints Francis,  John the Baptist, Zenobius and Lucy. Even though they don't look as if they are chatting, they are informally grouped, and are within the sacred circle.

Sacre Conversazione, the Saint Lucy Altarpiece by Domenico Veneziano from about 1445.  Mine won't look anything like this wonderful painting, it is to show you how a Sacre Conversazione works.  I could put Eileen in a mitre, Rhona on a throne and me in animal skins, it may work.

My painting will take the idea of the sacred conversation, and will be more base on this composition of three angels, taken from an old Greek icon

A lovely grouping of three angels, I will base our painting on this format.

Except, and we all know this, what I say I will do in a painting, never turns out that way.  When I start a painting, it takes over and I never know what will actually materialise.  My aim is to begin, with the intention of creating something for the three of us, and to go with the artistic flow. 

Other news

Here on my sofa bed with the floaty gauze butterfied duvet, I can see some of Rhona's husband's family arriving.  I must go and say hello, so the news here will be short and succinct.  I sense breakfast too, which means I am needed in the kitchen to eat something.
  • I am in a bit of a Place of Unknowing at the moment.  I have many ideas, but what is it all for? A bit of angst probably doesn't do anyone any harm.
  • I am meeting with the documentary film maker on Tuesday and we will talk and do some preparatory filming.  This is to see how it all comes across, the work this lady is doing involves many people and ideas, I may or may not be right for her.  I will have a bath and practice my most sincere expressions so that she likes me.
  • AGD Brighton is going ahead big time.  We are all just getting on with the organising.  Rhona here is a graphic artist and does the invites and posters for me, and so we have had a little chat about what I need.  (Rhona, can you do another AGD invite?  Yes.  Thanks.)
  • I spoke to St Helier's hospital on Thursday last week, and oh.  I went to the wrong hospital and messed it all up.  I was half an hour late, and kept everyone waiting.  They were so nice, but with less time, I think I spoke like those cattle auctioneers in the USA, who speak so fast you can't understand a word unless you frequently buy cattle from them.  Not my most inspired talk, but life is full of mishaps that keep us on our toes.
  • I am meeting an interesting Funeral Director in Hove this week.  The nice man from Dying Matters put us in touch with each other, we have the same outlook I believe, so he must be pretty fab.
  • I am speaking to the Martlets Hospice in Hove too this week, about the Swansong Stories.  This, if you rememberer, is the one to one creative projects I want to do with people at the end of life.
And now!  The Artist needs to fly away, unlike her gauzy butterflies sewn onto her duvet. The Artist has seen, amongst all the arty stuff on the table, breakfast.  It has galvanized her into action.  I will dress, she says, and fly away next door to be fun and frolicsome, and have something to eat with my Irish friends.  

Here then, are the bags that I have made.  

Little bag, front and back, a teeny creation for teeny things

Unlike this one, the absolute star bag of all time.  It is, as we decided, for putting things in.

This is a big bag, and it could be a teacosy too, for a very big, long, low pot.

Inside, we have polka dot lined pockets.  A useful kind of bag, undefined, but useful.
Until next week my darlings.  I may see if the big bag could be a hat.  With secret compartments inside for loose change.  It is all go here, creatively, in Ireland.