Once a year I have the privilege of showing a group of teenage students around one of our funeral homes. The question is, what do you tell them? There they are, sat in front of you, with the rest of their lives in front of them, so much yet to do, to experience, to enjoy, and yet here they are in a place concerned with the things to do with the end of life, the loss of a loved one and changes in what a family is and holds dear. Well, here’s my answer.
I hold up a five-pound note.
I tell that it’s their’s if they can tell me why coffins are shaped the way they are. (The answer isn’t that straightforward, and you need to know your 19th century history to even hazard a guess). My money’s safe. But I’ve got their attention. All the way through the morning they’ll be shouting out ideas. One or two are on the right lines, but nowhere near.
I ask them to forget all that they think they know about undertakers. It’s invariably wrong, based on drama programmes on the TV or a Hollywood caricature of the truth. I reassure them that I’m a fairly normal human being making a living by helping those in stressful and sad circumstances through the beginning of a process of saying goodbye to a loved one. I talk about the history of the company I work for; of how in the last century every village had its own undertaker (he would ‘undertake’ the arrangements for the funeral – hence the name), who would usually have another string to his bow – building or carpentry – to see him through quiet periods. These days with the increase in population and the demise of smaller one-man businesses most of the profession do the job as full-time employment.
We then move from the reception area to look at the various areas of the funeral home. In the garage I have usually parked one of the vehicles we use for home visits to take the deceased into our care. We discuss the consequences of a population which is increasing in weight and look at the stretchers we use to do the job. Then comes their favourite bit – the visit to the mortuary. The teachers have told me not to skimp on this part. So I don’t. Of course there are no deceased in there at the time of the visit – but I don’t tell them that. I show them the equipment we use to do the various jobs. I also tell them about how the layout of the funeral home allows us to facilitate washing and preparation ceremonies for various religious groups.
After a brief look at the chapel of rest I take them back into the reception area, and answer any questions they may have. Then comes the important bit. This is what I want them take to take away.
I hold up a sheet of paper which reads:
1961 – 2011
Rest in Peace
I ask them which is the most important part of this monument inscription. ‘Rest’ is the usual first answer. Sometimes the name. They never get it. ‘It’s the little mark between the dates’ I tell them. The dash between the dates. The brief flowering of love, life and all that goes into what we call a lifetime. A monument isn’t a person, it’s a cold statement that someone who loved, was loved, lived, felt the warmth of the sun on their face was once here. It’s what we make of the dash between our dates that really matters.
I finish the morning by quoting from a book by palliative care nurse Bronnie Ware –
‘The Top Five Regrets of the Dying – A Life Transformed by the Dearly Departing’.
“People grow a lot when they are faced with their own mortality and some changes were phenomenal. Each experienced a variety of emotions, as expected, denial, fear, anger, remorse, more denial and eventually acceptance.”
“Every single patient found their peace before they departed though. When questioned about any regrets they had or anything they would do differently, common themes surfaced again and again.”
The most common wish, Bronnie explained, was “I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.”
She said “When people realise that their life is almost over and look back clearly on it, it is easy to see how many dreams have gone unfulfilled. Most people had not honoured even a half of their dreams and had to die knowing that it was due to choices they had made or not made”.
So I wish them well as they leave the funeral home to go on with their lives. I hope they don’t forget: The dash between the dates is all that really matters. One chance to get it right.
I tap my top pocket. My fiver’s still safe.