If there’s such a thing as good death then I think hers probably qualified as such. It was strangely fascinating to watch how things unfolded beforehand and I knew to pay careful attention.
When my grandmother first entered the nursing home she had a second wind, regaining her appetite and continuing to enjoy the snooker on television. This was in spite of the fact that in earlier years she’d developed an irrational dislike of the snooker player Stephen Hendry. History doesn’t record what Mr. Hendry did to annoy her but she simply couldn’t stand the man. It was hilarious.
But latterly my grandmother lost interest firstly in television and then the outside world altogether. Instead she retreated entirely into her memories. My uncle made a little album of old family photo’s and my grandmother spent literally hours poring over every photo. She was especially proud of having flown on Concorde for her 80th birthday and made sure everyone knew about it. Visitors all saw the framed commemorative photos of her as a passenger on the big white bird, proudly displayed on the wall.
She then went through a phase of questioning and regret, wondering whether she’d done the right thing by having first the dog and then the cat put down when she had, so many years before. That was difficult to listen to.
Gradually her interest in even her memories waned and she took to her bed and just a few weeks later it was over.
It wasn’t remotely strange going to the nursing home to remove my aged ancestor’s body. My family were there, gathered round cups of tea in the conservatory like so many families before them. Even going into the room and seeing my grandmother dead was a peculiarly detached experience. My father & I wheeled her out and together with my mum & sister we went returned to my funeral home and the four of us put her into the fridge.
The funeral was scheduled for a Friday two weeks later; but it was Sod’s Law that on the appointed day we had another funeral going on, with the consequent pressure on staff availability. I’ve always firmly believed that ‘what’s good for the goose is good for the gander’ and so I simply reverted to taking the professional and pragmatic view. Because of the way my grandmother’s funeral was structured it didn’t necessarily need anyone to ‘direct’ it, so with a full team of coffin bearers being far more vital than simply having someone in a top hat and dressed like a turkey dinner to walk in front, I demoted myself from Chief to Indian. In some ways that was a blessing, because I didn’t relish having to balance the role of funeral director with that of family mourner. Not only that, but all the folks who were going to attend knew who I was and what I did for a living anyway, so there was nothing to prove to anyone. Myself and three of my staff carried the coffin into church with just the vicar leading us in, which was pleasingly simple.
It was later that night and the following day that the finality of it all suddenly hit home. I started thinking of all the hundreds of different memories I had and I endured an overwhelming end-of-an-era feeling. But even so I didn’t feel remotely sad for my grandmother herself, because she’d got what she wanted, which was to be released from her tired, confined existence.
But going back to where I started, what sticks in my mind more than anything else was how she’d regarded her life as full and rich enough that at the very end she was more than content to withdraw from the world and retreat wholly into her memories. Then all my grandmother had to do was wait till the nurse had left the room and slip away while no-one was looking.
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”