On the day before Christmas Eve my nan died. It wasn’t unexpected, quite the contrary. It finally happened after a month of sitting in a busy, beeping coronary care unit, trying to my best to sound soothing despite the fact that every fibre of my being would rather have been somewhere else.
As my immediate and extended family gathered around nan in her final weeks, what struck me the most was not her increasingly frail appearance or wild hallucinations, it wasn’t even the unbearable heartbreak which, day by day, became more etched across my grandad’s face. No, it was how totally crap my family were at talking about or confronting the painfully obvious: the fact that she was dying.
Perhaps that’s because of our stiff British (or in my family’s case Scottish) upper lip prevents us from talking about our feelings. A 2014 ComRes poll found that 83% of people in Britain think that we're all uncomfortable when it comes to talking about death, while only 36% of people have actually written a will. Death anxiety is also a very real condition - Thanatophobia - which some experts think is linked to mental health problems like ‘health anxiety’ and generalised panic disorder. And, a recent study also found that a fear of death and dying is what drives some people to full-blown veganism and 6am HIT classes.
OK, OK… I may have made that last bit up but, it’s not a totally ridiculous thought. Erica Buist, who has been researching death around the world as she writes her book This Party’s Dead, explains that leading experts agree that facing our own mortality makes us react in a variety of ways: ‘we're more likely to denigrate foreigners, and vote for more right-wing leaders - ever notice how often Trump mentioned death in his campaign speeches?’ she says, ‘we're also more likely to hate those who disagree with us and cling to our beliefs - ever notice how many clickbaity headlines, in amongst the constant death reminders in the news, are designed to arouse that exact fury in you?’
Our instinctive fear of death and parallel desire to survive is also very lucrative for some. ‘There was a huge shopping boom in America after 9/11’ Erica points out ‘and adverts often prey on our fear of death because it’s such an effective way of getting us to part with our cash’.
We are all walking around knowing that death is at once inevitable and uncertain. We know it will happen, but we don’t know when or how so we avoid it. Perhaps that’s why we talk about in roundabout ways – people do not die, we ‘lose them’ and they ‘depart’, ‘leave us’ and ‘pass away’. We don’t console our grieving friends and acquaintances by saying ‘I’m sorry so and so died’ we say ‘I’m sorry for your loss’, alluding to the absence of their loved one without actually addressing it.
When I found out that neither my dad nor his brother knew what my Nan’s final wishes were until she was gone, I was shocked. Surely this is the sort of stuff you need to know before somebody dies? Are we so terrified of something so inescapable that we’re prepared to totally ignore it and risk other people messing up what happens to us afterwards?
Shortly after all of this, I turned 30 and planned my funeral. Yes, you read that right. I didn’t want the people around me to be fumbling around in grief should something happen to me, never having had a conversation with me about what I would want. Birth is probably the only other physical experience that we all go through in one way or another and that is talked inside out; you wouldn’t have a baby without talking about what sort of birth you want to have (water, home, heavily medicated) so why are we living in the knowledge that we will all die one day without openly planning ahead for it?
In a google doc I made a plan and shared it with my boyfriend and sister:
I LOVE YOU.
My death: if at all possible I, like 70% of the population, would like to die at home and not in hospital.
Funeral music: when it comes to the funeral, I’ve made a Spotify playlist of the songs I would like played (Bruce Springsteen, Racing in the Street and Fleetwood Mac Gypsy among them).
Flowers: all wild and as colourful as possible
Coffin: a wicker basket please because they’re more eco-friendly
Readings etc.: don’t worry about it too much, don’t put yourself under any more stress but if anyone really wants to say anything then they should go for it. You know I’m very choosy when it comes to literature but I’m not going to tell you what you should read, that’s a bit like telling someone what you want for your birthday. What I will say, though, is this: under NO circumstances – and I really do mean absolutely none – should one of those awful stock funeral poems like Stop All The Clocks be read.
The wake: order loads of pizza to be washed down with pale, crisp Provence rose (Whispering Angel obviously lol) and play UK garage. If I die old, this will remind everyone what it was like to be young. If I die young, this will stop it all being too sad.
My body: I feel weird about cremation (TBH who doesn’t) but it seems like the best option so go for it. And, then, if turning me into a diamond Kris Jenner style is totally unrealistic, scatter me at that bit of the river I like in the Lea Valley.
Misc: Hopefully I’ve paid it off by now…but…if not…I’ve got £1,500 on a credit card from that time I decided to go to India with, like, three days’ notice in a half-cocked attempt to find myself. I’ve been paying the minimum on for a while. Sorry. Sell whatever you have to, pay it off and keep the change.
Far from frightening, I found putting all of this into word oddly soothing. But, after finding out about Swedish Death Cleaning (Döstädning) I think I understand why. The literal meaning of death cleaning is very straightforward: getting all of your affairs in order before you die, particularly if you are very old or terminally ill. More broadly, though, since Margareta’ Magnusson’s book The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning, it has been tipped as the ‘new Marie Kondo’ because she says that it can also be interpreted as giving your life a ‘good and thorough cleaning’ to make things ‘easier and less crowded’ by generally thinking about what you do and don’t need in the loose context of the fact that, on day, you will no longer be here.
I asked Louise Winter, founder of funeral service Poetic Endings, why she thinks it’s important to think about death even if you’re young and healthy. She said that in her work she comes across people of all ages who ‘thought they had tomorrow, but only had today’ so it’s really important ‘not to take life for granted’.
Far from being gloomy, depressing or morbid, Louise says talking and thinking about death can help us to ‘live a better life’ because we ‘reduce the fear and anxiety around it’.
How has this worked for her? ‘Just before I started working in funerals I expected to find them draining and overwhelming but I actually felt enriched and enlightened when I went to them’. She says that ‘listening to how other people had lived their lives so inspiring’ and ‘if anything’ it made her ‘want to make the most’ of her own.
Most noticeably, Louise says that thinking about death has improved her mental health. ‘It’s been more effective than any antidepressant I’ve ever tried’ she says. I ask her to explain this a bit more to me, I certainly feel more positive since I started to confront it but I can’t quite put my finger on why. ‘When I first started thinking about the fact that we might not have tomorrow’ she says ‘I got some gelato, bought a dress I really wanted, and called someone – who I was very much in love with – to tell him I wanted to be with him. But now, I constantly think about how I can make the most of every single moment of my life whilst planning ahead sensibly. It’s not about living as though you won’t be here tomorrow, it’s about being truly invested in all of your decisions.’
More than anything, this is what Swedish Death Cleaning is about. It is at once accepting the need to let go sometimes, both literally by getting rid of stuff you don’t need and emotionally because you can’t control everything and - no matter how much kale you eat – you can’t cheat death. It’s not a one off act, it’s a constant process or, as Magnusson herself has put it ‘a permanent form of organisation’ which asks you to keep asking yourself ‘what really matters’?
Ultimately, Erica agrees. ‘We stand to gain so much from embracing death’ she says ‘we can recognise when our urge to splurge or punch a Tory is more about our own death anxiety than anything else. It also means we can talk about our own deaths, and have the conversations that will make things so much easier for the people we leave behind’. She adds that for her personally, ‘embracing death earlier’ would have saved her ‘a year of crippling anxiety’ after her father-in-law died suddenly from a fatal heart attack’.
Since I started trying to give this whole ‘being alright with death’ thing a crack, I don't think I've completely made peace with it but I do think I’ve felt more present in my day-to-day life. I sat down, looked at my life and analysed what I actually care about. Kim Kardashian might have a clause in her will about who should do her hair should she become incapacitated but, for me, it’s been a lot more mundane. I gave loads of old clothes to charity, resolved to stop beating myself up about the fact I’m never going to be an early morning gym person and worked out how I can make more time, away from work, to meaningfully invest in my friends and family
I doubt that spending all of your time thinking about or planning for death would be the best idea in the world. However, I really do think that by embracing it, trying to do away with some of the stigma around it and accepting that it's an eventuality we all face, you can life a better life. It sounds so cheesy and trite, and very unlike me to say but, coming face to face with death in my own life has definitely made me rethink some stuff I'd been actively avoiding: are bulk ASOS orders really the way to happiness? Is working more than you do anything else something to aspire to? Why do we rush through our lives? Nothing in life is certain, apart from death, so maybe we should all stop worrying so much about things we can't control.