“I’m sorry for your loss” becomes Swindon’s gain

5 May

We may not all agree why the chicken crossed the road but in his Nine Ways to Conquer Death Zoom talk, Kevin Toolis was very clear that we English cross the road to avoid death and Irish people cross the road to show empathy for death.

Of dual identity, Kevin grew up in Scotland but with a strong Irish tradition that had a different attitude towards social death. By way of vivid example, he described that recently his aunt – aunt had a full-scale Irish wake with an open coffin next to the Christmas tree.

Kevin and all the others there viewed and touched her body and kissed the corpse over a two-day event even during Covid restrictions. This new virus death cause would not be allowed to stand in the traditional Irish way of meeting death head-on.

In this Irish way, there is an open understanding of death, which is a human condition to be learnt about in order to live our own lives more meaningfully.

Kevin went on to say in his introductory remarks that where the death is regarded as premature or tragic or at a great age, these are all are the inevitable “end of life span”. Kevin saw no purpose in using the cliché that there are only two certainties in life: death and taxes; so I will not mention that either in this review.

“The English have a very odd way of silencing death,” Kevin stunningly asserts. “Hey. Hang on a minute, Kevin. Now steady on young man!” were my first thoughts – but quickly banished when I fully engaged my heart and brain. Kevin is dead right here.

Another pearl we heard was “Life is a great learning experience guiding us towards our coffins”.

We all have to deal with the death of significant others and yet are largely unprepared for that. We don’t know what to say or do – nor yet do friends, work colleagues or close or extended family. Much crossing of the road is resorted to.

Kevin turned to the unreality of theatre and fables where characters get up again to live to fight another day as hero or heroine. Bad guys lie down dead and good guys fight another villain another day – escapism divorced from reality where lovely people die daily.

As this session warmed up we heard mention of Kevin’s intense experience with death as he was a reporter in the Mid East making films on terrorism and suicide bombers. He has also reported on plagues and famine in Kenya and Sudan. He has witnessed the aids pandemic in Africa and reflects upon the quietly stoic responses to deaths in Malawi.

All this experience informs Kevin’s new book Nine Ways to Conquer Death so clearly there was much more to it than could be covered in a short, but tantalising zoom room.

At one point Kevin posed the question as to how our ancestors coped with disease and viruses thousands of years ago without vaccines. With vaccines being only about two hundred years old clearly death was much more commonplace and open and seen as a part of life – stoicism called for indeed. Yet I sense Kevin is inviting us to go further and embrace death.

We never get to choose the time and manner of our death – that is the essence of being mortal – and when being our body is being viewed by our family and friends they can simply say “You are a dead one of us”

Another gem from the Zoom was “in individualistic society people become more isolated and detached.”

Matt asked about unfinished business when people pour it out at the graveside so why had they not said it to Sally when she was alive? Matt remarks that he is inspired to make sure he says things that need saying to live people not corpses.

Kevin gave the example of car driving that gets easier to manage when do it and when we talk about it. In Irish communities we talk in great detail of illness and lots of people came to see my father before he died; there was a queue of ‘suitors’ who spoke with my father on his pancreatic deathbed. In Ireland there is little public shame about death.

Kevin continued to emphasise that there is a problem with grief in western society; people don’t die they disappear. People never see the transition state of their loved ones; they see them at their last visit perhaps a month ago and then the next time their friend is in a box, leaving a damaging psychological gap.

Kevin disagreed with Matt’s quoting of Plato’s “dry up your tears” that perhaps it says people may be right to be non-weepy road crossers.

It was noted that six months after deaths some people are still trying to recover from the trauma at which point Kevin responded that we reduce ‘traumatic’ grief by changing how we understand and manage death within our societies.

The English silence on death, says Kevin near his concluding remarks, could mean that that showing of indifference to the fate of others which is bad enough but taken to its logical conclusion means that when we pass on, no one will be that bothered!

English incredibly uncomfortable about death with cross to the other side of the road to avoid dealing with death In Ireland people do the opposite they cross the road to deliberately acknowledge and show concern and empathy – this is much more healthy.

You are dead right Kevin Toolis. I had already lived twenty-seven years before I glimpsed my first dead body. Look how early on I am attempting humour to evade addressing the taboo surrounding death in English society. Point proved, Kevin Toolis.

Back to my first corpse. (no pun intended!) I was on the balcony of the YMCA in Calcutta (Kolkata), overlooking the busiest of main roads, Chowringhee by the lung of the city, the Maiden, when a white-shrouded corpse, with only its head showing, was being carried several miles through the city to the dead centre named Kalighat, where it was to be burned on a funeral pyre.

“Kali is the Hindu goddess of death, time, and doomsday and is often associated with sexuality and violence but is also considered a strong mother-figure symbolic of motherly love,” says Mrs Google – hence all human life is here and death wrapped up within this idol and concept.

I wrote a poem for the funeral of a mature student of mine who was a vibrant member of the West Indian community. I was somewhat taken aback in St Barnabas Church, Gorse Hill as the coffin was open and her body dressed in fine clothes. Indeed, apart from my two parents and my sister and that distant Kolkata body, that was one of the few corpses I had seen. On this Kevin scores again.

I fall exactly into Kevin’s ‘fingers of one hand’ analogy used to show how hidden death is in our society. Dead bodies I have seen in seventy years number only the five fingers on my hand.

Accepting death issues avoidance within myself death is a subject about which I know little and have not yet been brave enough to explore. Note to self to go buy the book and start that deathly journey that is likely to bring more light into my eyes.

I was a bit disappointed that the session focussed so much on what Kevin clearly has intimate knowledge and experience of: Irish Wakes compared with English Far-from awake about death.

In fact, I picked up from Kevin’s clear and forthright talk, that we in the UK are asleep on the job of dealing wisely, in a life-enhancing way, with this key inevitable, end of life matter. We seem to be blind to what happens, by definition to us all, and on a daily, second by second basis, in our nations and worldwide.

I would like to have heard about how other cultures deal with death eg India, Buddhists and Socialist Scandinavian countries, for example.

This topic catches my attention personally as I am still smarting ie processing or dealing with the deaths of two siblings, within seven weeks of each other, a few years ago.

One take-away from that is that I feel they somehow with me in spirit and saying, “Yes do it Tony. Dance that maypole, buy that rusty campervan and yes, write that review as promised!”

My dead parents and siblings that I am driven to live the unfulfilled lives they never seemed to be gifted with. At his funeral, I only learned in what high esteem Edgar’s work colleagues held him. Why did it take for him to die for me to learn that?

It was not Kevin’s aim to deal on this webinar with those aspects but I think that is one of the, perhaps also hidden, outcomes of Swindon Festival of Literature events – that speakers sharing their thoughts and creativity spurs we listeners to our own self-examination and towards fresh, creative thoughts and choices and newly understanding the world and our behaviour within it. Bring it. And Kevin brought it; arguing passionately that to hide from death is to hide from life.

Kalighat interestingly in this context was one of the places from which Mother Teresa and her internationally recruited nurses often rescued destitute and dying children in their efforts to show compassion and the sanctity of life.

Her work, different to the extended life machines and expertise of the more westernised world but nevertheless, filled with a Christian notion of service and degrees of empathy.

Matt observed that Kevin might change the title of his book to Nine Suggestions to Deal with Death … watch this space folks and watch the YouTube replay of these lively ideas about death.

A National Education Union (NEU) friend has today published about schools Normalising the Menopause which made me think of the several human conditions in addition to death, that we in English society, fail to deal with effectively eg menopause and periods, sex, healthy eating and sex. Kevin Toolis, as topics for your next book, I invite you to take your pick!

Words by Tony Hillier

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