Guest-blogger, Ray French, introduces a new book (which you can download for free) exploring ways of dealing with mourning and bereavement.
Death is a frightening subject to contemplate alone, but when we share our fears and experiences of it that fear often breaks down. That was what we hoped to achieve when we held 3 events aimed at the general public on Hull University campus last year. End Notes, a collection of 10 stories and reflections about loss, mourning and commemoration, was launched during Dying Matters national awareness week in May 2017. The following day a Death Café was held on campus, and in June a Creative Writing workshop, ‘Remembering The Dead: creative writing and archaeology.’
End Notes is dedicated to our colleague and friend David Kennedy, who died while Kath McKay and I were editing the book. As well as co-editing the collection Kath and I both contributed two pieces each. We chose writers we knew would bring a variety of styles and viewpoints to this most powerful of subjects, and who we could rely on to come up with something true and interesting.
We found certain themes recurred, one being the struggle to find a suitable way to mourn now that we have abandoned so many rituals. In Mandy Sutter’s story, ‘Seed’, a young English girl who’s been living in Africa uses a Nigerian ritual to mourn her beloved grandmother; Kath McKay describes the good and bad funerals she has attended and contributed to in ‘Seven deaths, seven funerals’; in my story, ‘Here, Now’ a man invites mourners to express their grief in whatever way they wish in a public park. In ‘A Time to Grieve’, Moy McCrory remembers the Irish professional mourners or keeners who were paid to cry, and the ‘sin eaters’ who went round villages taking on the sins of the dead. Tiina Hautala wrote a Finnish ghost story; David Wheatley delved into Hull’s Jewish burial practices; Brian W Lavery wrote about carrying out ‘the death knock’ as a young journalist.
The introduction was written by Sue Chard, an independent funeral celebrant. She described how her mother left her: ‘a green W.H. Smith spiral bound notebook with a neatly written label: ‘Notes for after my demise… Everything I needed was there, from her National Insurance number to the hymns and readings she hoped for at her funeral. She had written it over fifteen years, adding ideas and changing her mind as she regularly contemplated her own death and what it would mean to me, her only child, as I arranged her funeral… This little green notebook was one of the kindest things my Mum ever did for me.’
In ‘All of them Equal’ Steve Dearden also wrote about his mother: ‘I can’t explain why I took twenty years to begin properly grieving for the person I miss most. Psychologists say this was because I was a leader in the process of her dying – suggesting the others left, ringing the number the doctor had given me, seeing the men come downstairs with the wrap around stretcher, vacuuming up a houseful of her hair, sleeping that Sunday night in the bed she died in at lunchtime, to reclaim it for the living.’
Sometimes we need to acknowledge that words aren’t enough. In my story ‘Here, Now’, a woman struggling to find the right way to mourn her mother’s death says, ‘I compile crosswords. I wake up seeing words, I go to sleep seeing words. I’m forever twisting and turning and rearranging words in my head, looking for hidden patterns and associations, anagrams. A late bloomer? Evening Primrose. A poor opportunity for a snooker player? A bad break. A female supporter? A bra. An event for which one is late? A funeral. I could go on. And on, and on. Sometimes I drive myself crazy. No, no more words.’ She took a harmonica from her bag. ‘Will you listen to me play something instead?’
In ‘Finding Space’ Kath McKay captures a moment of unexpected grace when Marina, terminally ill, takes a trip in The London Eye: ‘They are nearly at full height now. She can see the Houses of Parliament and Big Ben, Waterloo, Tower Bridge, the Tower of London, St Paul’s, Canary Wharf, and all those new buildings she forgets the name of, The Shard, The Cheese Grater, The Gherkin. The snake of the river, the softness of the day. Her body feels removed and far away, with no pain. She stands up and feels a rush of blood to the head. Peers down to get a better view. The loveliness of this city she has lived in for so long. Home.’
Kath organised the Creative Writing workshop and the Death Café, which gave people time to discuss freely any aspect of death. In the two workshops ‘Remembering The Dead: creative writing and archaeology’, Dr Melanie Giles (University of Manchester) and Dr Karina Croucher (University of Bradford), brought grave goods (objects buried with the body in ancient times) for the participants to examine, and Kath ran a writing workshop around the theme of remembrance through objects. She found there was a real thirst for more events like these.
We also read from and discussed End Notes in The Great Writing Conference in July 2016, and at the Sheffield Death Group at the Sociology Department in the University of Sheffield in March. I also discussed the book at Café Psychologique at Seven Arts, in Leeds in February 2017 where people were keen to contribute their stories and reflections about loss and remembrance.
End Notes is available as a free download: Amazon.com
Ray French lectures in Creative Writing at The University of Hull, his publications include the novels All This Is Mine and Going Under, The Red Jag & other stories and Four Fathers. His talk, ‘I Wouldn’t Start From Here’, on the second generation Irish experience in Britain can be heard at: https://www.rlf.org.uk/showcase/wa_episode106/