The Cotswold Funeral Director on: Waiting for God
Sep 17, 2013
After twenty five years slipping quietly in and out of nursing homes I’m getting to see the other side of the coin now my grandmother is resident in one herself. In her 90’s, reasonably fit of mind but not of body, it’s a miserable existence for her and she’s impatiently waiting for God. In fact, due to postponed service and delayed departure the Almighty is in more disgrace than First Great Western. All my grandmother’s friends and fellow travellers through life have already left this mortal platform and she’s anxious to join them.
One night I ended up removing the lady from the room right next to my grandmother’s. I didn’t mention it next time I visited, but she knew of course.
“That should’ve been me. I’m older than she was.” Granny remarked, genuinely annoyed her neighbour had the temerity to jump the queue and die before her. But how do nursing home residents cope with the ever-present shadow of death?
My colleague and I arrived at one particular home on a Saturday morning. With our removal ambulance parked discreetly out of sight, I slipped past two residents sat by the front door – a man on a garden bench and a lady in a wheelchair. Once inside and waiting for the senior nurse, my attempt at being inconspicuous was nevertheless defeated by another resident sitting in the hallway.
“You lookin’ for the nurse?” The elderly lady looked up at me. “ ‘Er’s doin’ the drug round at the moment. She’ll be along in a minute. I’m waitin’ for my son to arrive.”
“Ah, right. Are you going out somewhere nice?” I asked politely.
“No I ain’t!” She replied, as if I’d asked a stupid question. “ ‘E’s just bringin’ some shoppin’ for me.”
I’ve noticed the elderly really have the knack for wielding the truth like a blunt instrument and I was mightily relieved when the senior nurse finally appeared. After being shown the deceased’s ground-floor room I pointed at the adjacent fire exit.
“Shall we use the rear door?” I asked, instinctively inclined towards the most discreet route. I’d forgotten that particular home was unique in having a staff “guard of honour” whenever a deceased resident was removed.
The nurse gave me a coy look, then said in broken English: “No. I not want that. They come in front door. They go out front door.”
“Yes of course.” I replied, slightly embarrassed. I didn’t want her to think I was being disrespectful to the deceased, but I really couldn’t see any sense in disturbing the residents I’d encountered out front.
But as the nurse requested, we wheeled the body-laden stretcher through the corridors towards the front door. She and three care assistants stood in line-up, but the elderly lady waiting for her son hadn’t been moved. Sat there with her head firmly bowed, I sensed the gesture was born simply of resignation rather than respect or just a disinclination to watch.
But it was something that happened just before we removed the body out which stuck in my mind. When I’d first arrived I’d purposely ignored the elderly pair sat outside the front door, figuring an unseen arrival was the kindest way. But after speaking to the nurse I’d gone back outside and signalled my colleague to reverse our vehicle round to the front door. The man & woman were still there. She was clearly lost to dementia - I assumed the man was too, otherwise the nurses would surely have moved them both. Even so, I felt awkward with them sitting there as I opened the tailgate ready to pull the stretcher out. At that moment the elderly man suddenly spoke up:
“Are you chaps going to remove a body?”
“Er, yes we are.” I replied.
“In which case may I just move my Wife first?” He said politely. He gingerly heaved himself up from the bench and slowly turned the lady’s wheelchair to face the other way. “There dear. Let’s look at the flowers for a little bit shall we?”
Nursing staff have feelings too, but I really wished they’d performed their guard of honour by the back door instead.
James Baker owns and runs Fred Stevens Funeral Directors of Nailsworth, Glos.
He is the author of “A Life In Death – Memoirs Of A Cotswold Funeral Director”