A simple white sheet can be used to shroud a body but, if funds allow, silk ones like the one
pictured are available for around $500. Photo Courtesy Sacred Crossings
How I’d Like to Die Given the Choice
Death Midwife Olivia Bareham. Photo by Claire Fordham
How I’d Like to Die Given the Choice
Claire Fordham. Photo by Allison Schallert.
I’ve been thinking a lot about death lately. Witnessing my parents-in-law at ages 92 and 90—a long, slow and cruel decline with neither showing any signs of wanting to give up on life or hasten their end—I’ve glimpsed the possible twilight years of my husband and me. It’s 50 shades of grim.
Like so many families, mine is spread around the world. My sister and I live in Topanga. Our mother lives in England, with our brother conveniently (for us) nearby. My parents-in-law live in New Zealand, where my sister-in-law bears the brunt of the caring.
My daughter is in England and my son lives in Fiji. I tell them on a weekly basis that I don’t want to be a burden to them in my old age. And I mean it.
Barring accident, illness or evil-doer, I’d like to die in my sleep, aged 96 and dementia-free, while holding hands with my husband, following a wonderful day and dinner with my children and grandchildren that someone else cooks and washes up after. I’ve told my husband, children and sister that I don’t want to be given a feeding tube or put on life support if I have a terminal illness or I’m in a coma with no hope of recovery or cure.
If I did have a terminal diagnosis, I wouldn’t deprive myself of food and water and die what’s considered a “natural” death. It takes way too long—12 or so days—and the patient becomes just skin and bone. Even one teaspoonful of water can keep you going another 48 hours. I’d rather opt for a lethal cocktail so it’s quick and painless. A hundred Secanol should do it.
I hope I won’t need an autopsy, which is horribly invasive and carried out when a death is sudden and unexpected. I definitely don’t want to be embalmed, a disgusting and totally unnecessary procedure, as dry ice will keep a body “fresh” for days. A few other items on my last wish list: I hope I don’t die trapped in an inferno like the victims of London’s Grenfell Tower, or from Motor Neurone Disease, or at the hands of Isis.
Intrigued about what my own end could be like and to more fully understand death, I took a death midwifery course with end-of-life expert Olivia Bareham. (See Fordham’s article, “TKTK,” DATE TK, Vol. TK, No. TK)
Bareham is on a mission to change people’s perception about death. “I want to break the taboo where we are excited about birth but dread death,” she said. “What if they were both explosive, incredible events?”
Part of a death midwife’s job is to sit with the dying. “To be able to bear witness to their process,” said Bareham. “The midwife is also looking beyond the last breath. We hold the space, not just for dying but for the funeral, burial or cremation rituals, and even beyond that to help family and friends grieve.”
All passings are different and not everyone gets a terminal diagnosis where they have time to plan their final moments. Bareham has helped more than 200 people in Los Angeles as they die, or arranged their home funeral, through her virtual funeral home, Sacred Crossings.
Bareham has this advice for the living and dying, “Build a relationship with death. Befriend death. Be open to every little nuance of what it means to be alive—which includes pain, sorrow and loss, so you’re not thrown off by a catastrophe. Write your healthcare directive and death care directive because you never know when the end will come. And make peace with anyone with whom you have had conflict.”
For Bareham, a good death would be where she is aware of what is happening, where she is prepared and feels a sense of completion and fulfillment of the life lived…“so my dying is just another breath. I am ready and excited for what’s next.”
During the “conscious dying” part of the Death Midwifery course, we watched videos of different passings. Bareham leans toward the Buddhist view that one’s spirit must pass through the chakras, exiting through the crown of the head to ensure we don’t reincarnate. If it’s not done properly, the spirit can exit through one of ten orifices, including the anus.
This is now my worst nightmare. I reckon, with practice, I could envision my spirit moving up through my chakras bypassing my derriere and out through the top of my head just as those 100 Secanol work their magic.
Death guru Stephen Jenkinson has a different view to Bareham. He suggests a good death is one that’s quick and you don’t see coming. In his book, “Die Wise,” Jenkinson also wonders if it’s a good idea to have another round of chemotherapy following a terminal cancer diagnosis to get more time with loved ones when that time will most likely be horrible and patients are just getting more dying time.
My dear old dad died three years ago, just before his 86th birthday. His family was with him as he took his last breath. Not at home, as he’d have preferred, but in a hospital bed. Most people don’t get their wish to die at home. Dad was in hospital for a few days and we all believed he’d be coming back out. But his list of ailments was so long, it really would have been prolonging his agony for him to have lived on. He slipped into a coma. I held his hand through the night and found his passing easier to bear knowing that he hadn’t died alone.
For a few years before Dad died, I’d been hoping he’d go like Arthur Hall and not Uncle George. Arthur Hall was Dad’s golfing buddy who went, aged 82, suddenly and unexpectedly in his favorite chair. Uncle George, Dad’s brother, had been in poor health for years when he suffered a crippling stroke, aged 77, that left him unable to feed himself, speak or move. That state of limbo also involved other indignities and lasted 18 months.
My mother is 85 and in pretty good health, with no signs that she’s about to “snuff it”—as she calls dying. She has firmly rejected my offer to lovingly and respectfully prepare her body after her last breath.
“No, thank you. Bugger off with your mumbo-jumbo and incantations,” she said. Fair enough. Mum already has the money put by to pay for her funeral.
I have not been so smart or thoughtful for my family, but I intend to keep costs down as much as possible. A cheap and not-too-cheerful cremation will be just fine.
No need to put my ashes in a biodegradable urn with a seed and bury it so I grow into a shrub. Just dig a big hole and pour my ashes in with an acorn so I can become an oak tree. There will be tears. Of course, there will. I’ve been an absolute tonic and delight. Mostly. I would ask friends and family to carry out a random act of kindness in my name after I’m gone. I like the idea of knowing the world will be a better, kinder place because I lived.
Now I’ve fully explored death and dying and put any fear of it to rest, I feel free to live, love and, with luck, thrive for the rest of my time. If I do make it to 96, that’s only 8,730 more days. So, no time to waste.
You can listen to Fordham’s full interview with death midwife Olivia Bareham on The Chat with Claire Fordham podcast clairefordham/itunes or clairefordham.com.
Fordham worked for the BBC, ITN and Sky News in the UK and wrote a weekly anecdotal column for Britain’s biggest-selling newspaper, The Sun. She currently writes regularly for Huffington Post, The Malibu Times and the Messenger Mountain News. See "A Chat with Claire Fordham" on this website under Podcasts.