When I go, tell them I died

Not one for beating about the bush Fran Taffel gave her daughter Jacqui clear instructions to call her death for what it would be: she had died.  Not passed away, not resting in peace, not joining the choir invisible, plain and to the point, died, dead.

Jacqui Taffel writes in “I’m sorry for your loss” (SMH, Good Weekend, 19.09.2020) that she ‘dreads these five words.’  She says: ‘… they sound like the kind of bloodless corporate-speak that has colonised our everyday language.’

Says Taffel: ‘She hasn’t passed, or passed on, or gone to a better place.  She is not lost; we know exactly where she is.  Under a cameillia bush at the house she and Dad built and shared for more than 50 years of their 60 years together.’   And later: ‘I see her wielding a red pen, firmly crossing out “for” and “loss” and offering a simple solution for those who baulk at the D-word.’ 

The point of this article is to encourage us: ‘to call a spade a spade, like Harry Potter speaking Voldemort’s name out loud: “I’m so sorry your mum died.”‘

Euphemisms have their place but Taffel doesn’t think they serve much of a purpose when it comes to dying and the ending known as death.  She writes: ‘So please, on her behalf [that is her mum Fran Taffel], no euphemisms or platitudes. No resting, or passing, no losing. No shuffling off this mortal coil or joining the bleedin’ choir invisible.  Her name is Sue Taffel, and she is dead.  Thank you, my dear mother, and goodbye.’

And so say all of us.  The full story is here: No more euphemisms. My mother died.

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A timely book for children with parents – for everyone really

Just when you think that the death and dying subject has been done to death, along comes a book that is very timely considering the imposed separation that is the experience of many families with elderly frail loved ones shuttered away in nursing homes.

At a recent Die-alogue Cafe meeting held online, this book was on the agenda with the book review by Margaret Studley prompting some lively discussion.

We Need to Talk About Mum and Dad: A Practical Guide to Parenting Our Aging Parents, by Jean Kittson (see credits at the end of the review).

Writes Margaret:

Here is another book that I think should be in every home where one has an elderly parent or friend for whom they will have responsibility, or is likely to have at some time.  Whilst primarily focused on those with ageing parents, I think it is an excellent book for those like me to improve the plans I have in place, or may not have in place, and to ensure that my children can find any information and documents they may need when they need it.

Written as a result of personal experience it is a very practical guide and Jean covers an amazing range of issues.  She writes well and with much humour, about all matters concerning the elderly as they age, including –

  • Advance Care Directives (a very good guide)
  • Looking for the signs of change
  • Dealing with illness and frailty
  • Family dynamics
  • Medical,  financial and legal requirements     
  • Complexity of dealing with Government Departments   
  • End of life care issues – Retirement villages -questions to ask
  • Need for residential or home care and what problems can be  encountered  
  • Later issues – nursing homes, palliative care, euthanasia, funerals, grief.

Included are some cautionary tales.

One chapter lists 10 tips for dealing with government agencies.  She stresses the bureaucratic nightmares that can result from these and says it is essential that anyone looking after the interests of others should carry a notebook at all times (editors emphasis) and keep a diary that records every single meeting, email, telephone conversation, time, date, name of person to whom they speak with, reference number of the call – whilst trying to remain polite at all times! Practice can help master these skills, so best we start on lesser important issues now.

Jean lists documents that you will need, and suggests you get multiple certified copies.  These are listed in the book.  At the end she also lists the websites for age related organisations, departments and so on. There are several pages of questions that should be asked if considering residential care – of course these will be prompts since each situation will throw up different issues, but the principles apply regardless.

From personal experience I quickly noted her suggestion that no matter where the aged person is living there should be a medical information sheet behind their front or bedroom door to provide information for paramedics or anyone having to deal with an emergency on their behalf.  Such a document should contain information about medical conditions, medications etc. and also information as to where spectacles, teeth, hearing aids may be found if applicable.   In any case it is important to mention if the person has any hearing problem, otherwise they may be assessed as senile and given low priority in treatment.

This book is very well put together and at the end of every chapter she lists the key points for quick reference.  For added enjoyment there are some fun drawings by Patrick Cook.

Also included there is a template of good questions to ask our elderly loved ones about their preferences whilst they can still tell us.  Of interest also was the fact that 70% of everyone at the end of their lives will not be making their own decisions.  This is a sobering thought and increasingly relevant at this time.

I can absolutely recommend this book.  Price range is $24 to $35 depending on the retailer.

Jean Kittson, author, comedienne, radio personality, Patron of Palliative Care Nurses of Australia, Ambassador for Muscular Disease Foundation, the Australian Gynaecological Cancer Foundation, the Raise Foundation and Amb. for the Ovarian Cancer Foundation.

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Buyer beware in a changing marketplace

When dying and death were normal, that is when it was accepted that death was to be expected if we became seriously ill or very frail as a result of aging, there was no talk of pre-booking a funeral.  The prepaid, not unlike a fully paid up lay-buy, was unheard of.

But with the medicalisation of health, we’ve become distanced from death and adopted death denial as a so called means of managing the inevitable, such that fear has become a ploy of the funeral industry to pay forward the  anticipated financial outlay. That wasn’t there when we took care of business ‘in-house’ – as households – as a matter of family responsibility.

Fast forward to 2020 and we have a new funeral landscape where large gatherings are off limits and remote attendance using online streaming services is gaining in popularity.

The other change has been the increase in direct cremations. To use the funeral industry jargon, an NSNA (No-service, No-attendance) arrangement, has doubled in some areas and the trend may well continue to increase.

What does this mean for those who have paid for a funeral, where it would have been expected that perhaps 50-100 people would turn up?  On such an occasion it is most likely that the coffin would be present, there would be a floral wreath, visitors book and the associated costs of having staff taking care of mourners, a hearse, a celebrant or minister of religion and of course the venue and its associated costs.  Most of these are unnecessary when no one is required to show up.

You would think that would equal a marked reduction in costs and therefore charges to the family.  But this might not be the case if the prepaid agreement doesn’t contain some clauses stating there will be waivers of costs and reimbursement of money should the original plan not be required.  For example, why pay over a thousand dollars for a coffin that no one will see, when a coffin costing a couple of hundred dollars would do the same job?

Saimi Jeong, writing in: New Mourning, Social distancing measures have spurred innovative ways of thinking about funerals (CHOICE, June 2020), reports that consumer laws differ across Australia and there might not be as much wriggle room as we would like when it comes to getting refunds for services not delivered.

Online video conferencing is just one way mourning families are learning to cope and connect at a time when large funeral gatherings are strongly discouraged because of social distancing guidelines.

If ever there was a time for caution this is it. Buyer beware doesn’t only apply to the purchase of a fridge, washing machine or big ticket item like a vehicle.  Funerals for some people end up being big ticket expenses, and a serious rethink would not be out of order in these changing times.   A memorial service at a later time may well be what is offered to keep the family happy without any obligation to refund part of the prepaid account.

But this can be organised for much less using a community hall not only for the memorial service but also for catering purposes.  Contact with those potentially attending can be arranged when there is no urgency to get it over and done with in a hurry.

We would suggest this is a good time to rethink the stories we tell ourselves about dying and death and what comes next in terms of funerals and grieving.  Not only the stories, but also the practical aspects of how we handle this most important aspect of living A Good Life To The End, to quote the title of the excellent book by Professor Ken Hillman.

The June issue of CHOICE may be at your local library, otherwise visit this link for a report about prepaid funerals from October 2019: Should you get a prepaid funeral?

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A long hard look at what it’s like when we’re getting on – getting older

At a time when we’re getting on, that is, getting older, are we also getting wiser about aged care?  According to this report we’re not. What needs to happen to change the direction we’re currently heading in? 

It’s a rather horrible reflection on the standards of aged care in Australia that a Royal Commission had to be called to examine why it has become such a nightmare for so many residents and their families.  It’s one thing to be in your sunset years, it’s another to think that the system doesn’t deliver on the message sprouted by many of the providers.

During recent isolation periods it has been even more distressing for those inside as residents, and those outside as family and friends, attempting to access their loved ones.

What the Aged Care Royal Commission has shown is that:

‘Neglect of the elderly is rife in Australia. An ageing population also means an increase in dementia, with many saying they would rather end their life than endure the disease. Our assisted dying laws, however, cannot accommodate this. In: Aged care, dementia and assisted dying, reporter Paul Barclay (Big Ideas, ABC Radio National, 1 July 2020) talks to a panel of writers about restoring dignity and empathy to aged care, and the limits of euthanasia.’

Speakers are: Andrew Stafford – freelance journalist, author, Associate Professor Sarah Holland-Batt – poet; editor, critic, witness at the Royal Commission into Aged Care Quality and Safety and Melanie Cheng – writer and general practitioner. 

……..  Extract from the introduction to Getting On, Griffith Review, No 68.

‘In a world where seventy is the new fifty, old age isn’t what it used to be.

By 2060, the ratio of Australians aged over sixty-five will have passed one in four. This unprecedented demographic transformation marks a quiet revolution with far-reaching consequences for both individuals and wider society.

As the proportion of older people continues to rise, how will working patterns, leisure habits and modes of living be reshaped and refashioned to answer future needs? How will this shift in the balance of the population be addressed? Will our seniors be celebrated or marginalised, powerful or powerless? What approach will Australia take to the global phenomenon of long life? And how might listening to the wisdom of our elders change everyone’s world?’

……..  The ABC RN Big Ideas program is presented in conjunction with the Griffith Review. Recorded on May 28, 2020.  Duration: 54min.  Listen to the program here:   Aged care, dementia and assisted dying

For a link to the Griffith Review, click here.

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A return to the past for funerals of the future

As traditions lose their grip on many people within our society and as children move away from the ways of doing business practised by their parents, there are also changes in the way we do funerals.  The future looks very different from the past.  And yet for some it is a return to ancient practices that served many a family well as well as society in general, for eons.  As always some people never adopted the new commercial, leave it us we know best, approach.

In The future of funerals, Saimi Jeong (Choice, March 2020 – Funeral Investigation), the case for home vigils, which is one aspect of the change, building your own coffin is another, natural burial, price comparison websites and community-led services, are also in the mix.  One of these new kids on the street is Tender Funerals who ‘lay bare aspects of the funeral process that are usually concealed from us: the specific ways you can prepare a body, or the placing of the lid on the coffin,’ reports Jeong.  “There’s a trend towards more people coming into the mortuary, doing wash and dress, creating their own ceremony,” says Jenny Briscoe-Hough, CEO of Tender Funerals.

Also ordering a cremation online and how to cut out the funeral director from taking control of what is for many a most intimate and personal experience.

Those who are leading the push for change and who are not waiting but getting on with what they see as innovative and visionary, are viewed rather sceptically by the big end of town. Big funeral companies see all this as a threat to their lucrative profit margins.

Get the full story at this linkThe future of funerals, Choice

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The hardest speech of all is the eulogy

What makes a great speech great?  Is it the content, the delivery, a combination of the two?   Great art, so they say, is in the eye of the beholder.  Whatever the equivalent for speeches, the circumstances of the listener, might also play a part.

When it comes to speeches, they aren’t necessarily what they appear to be.  Behind the words there can be a great deal of preparation and research.  Also the subject about which the speech is written can be highly emotive.  This applies very much in the case of death and the eulogy delivered at the time when the deceased is remembered by family and friends.

Writer Tony Wilson is mad about great speeches, and not just the classic ‘we will fight them on the beaches’ kind.

Tony Wilson has taken it upon himself to collect great speeches and compile them into a digital library – Speakola, All speeches great and small.   The collection that is ongoing, is not limited to what he says are the stars that burn the brightest.  There are many great speech given by ordinary people, and some of these have made it into the list.

He began the project after he had to give the most devastatingly sad speech of his life.  The sudden death of a close friend who committed suicide.  Not unsurprisingly, one of the 13 categories is Eulogies.

Tony talks in detail about his love of speeches in this interview with Richard Fidler: The speech collector, (Conversations, ABC radio, Monday 4 May 2020)

When it comes to writing a eulogy for example: “There’s a certain pressure that descends on you, gee I need to get this right.”

“What I’ve learnt over curating the [Speakola] site is compiling anecdotes and collecting stories about the relationship (with the person who is the subject of the speech) are what ends up increasing the power of the speech …. it’s not unusual to lose it pretty much, when you’re in the preparatory stages of writing a eulogy,” says Wilson.  But that’s what goes to making it authentic and sincere.

Eulogy – to heap praise on somebody.  It’s different to an Obituary – a factual report or story of a persons life.

Jacinda Ardern, New Zealand Prime Minister, knows how to prepare and deliver a great speech. “She speaks with an empathy for the moment and also with a certainty of purpose,” Wilson tells Fidler.  This speech would have been scripted.  Remember that scripted speeches can be just as genuine as unscripted off-the-cuff words delivered on the spur of the moment. 

In fact most great speeches are well prepared scripted works written by or for the person who will deliver them.  

Tony Wilson loves all the uplifting, tear-inducing, nation-building, heart-swelling words said during awards ceremonies, at funerals, at University graduations and to near-empty houses of Parliament around Australia and the world.

He doesn’t mind if the people giving the speeches are brilliant orators, or have never made a speech in their life.

One of the take home lessons for us is that as far as eulogies go, since we all know that we are going to die and those close to us are in the same boat, collecting some anecdotes and stories and compiling them into a coherent draft speech wouldn’t be a bad idea.  Just like preparing for the ending of days of the body, preparing for the funeral event of which the eulogy is an important ingredient, is best done well before the event. An added bonus, it could be a very cathartic process for all involved.

To listen to the full program click on this link: The speech collector on ABC local radio

Further information: Explore Speakola  :::  Tony also has a podcast about great speeches



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Death on a large scale and how to get our heads around it

What prompts us to think about what we normally don’t think about.  Well if the COVID-19 pandemic has done anything it has certainly made us sit up and take notice about death on a scale we haven’t seen for many many years.

Amanda Vanstone hosts Counterpoint on ABC Radio National and true to form since she is no shrinking violet she has not shied away from talking about death, as large numbers of people have been ‘carried off the field’ so to speak, as the virus has spread around the world.

Last year roughly 155, 732 people died around the world every day. As the saying goes: Death, just like tax, is normal.  In Death and home, Vanstone interviews Dr John Troyes, from the Centre for Death and Society, University of Bath, U.K. about how the scale of death as ‘a novel virus sweeps the world and produces a dead body count with life altering repercussions’.  

‘”A lot of the dying that goes on is largely invisible in our modern society  … [taking place as it does in institutions and not the family home as was the case in earlier times] … so we don’t see or hear about it.  We tend to ignore it.  It’s not in the consciousness of people,” says Troyes.

“Because of COVID-19 and death being a more imminent possibility, it’s brought the everydayness of dying to the forefront of people’s imagination in more ways than just a few months ago, when it just wasn’t.”


 Dr John Troyes explains that in order ‘to manage and cope with the millions of dead bodies produced every year, different countries create what I call a “national death infrastructure” or NDL’. Will this NDL help countries with the unexpected enormous amount of death and its consequences as a result of COVID-19 or were some countries not prepared for what has unfolded?

Amanada Vanstone asks about different ways to dispose of bodies – what new forms of formal disposition there are today.  To be buried vertically for example? Or put in a shroud and left to compost? Difference countries have different traditions.  What we call the final dignified disposition of the remains of a body. 

“As a species we will always be producing dead bodies and so there will always be a need for the handling of the human corpse and as technologies change it becomes possible to think again about what a dead body is,” John Troyes says.

Responding to a question about talking openly about death as a means of reducing fear, Troyes says it’s important that adults and parents become sufficiently familiar and comfortable to discuss dying and death as normal – especially at this time when death is so much in the news.

It has been proposed that news channels broadcast every day for a year how many people died around the world and in what circumstances these deaths took place.

“It is very beneficial to be brought up with death as an everyday fact of life. What we come away with is a better understanding of how we might live … “

To listen to the full 14 minute interview log on here and drag the program dot forward to 13 min. 30 sec. Death and home interview with John Troyes




and dying pro

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Rethinking rituals

There are lots of little things we engage in each day – call them rituals – that depending on your point of view are done as part of family tradition or the larger social culture.

Some rituals are handed down from generations past, others are connected to religious customs, others are associated with the changing seasons and so on.

The current coronavirus is, whether we like it or not, resetting some long standing rituals especially around greeting and social gatherings.  What was once acceptable is perhaps now out of line, and so it’s time to reflect on those rituals we can let go and those we want to maintain, albeit in a modified form.

This story by Jill Suttie: What Happens When We Lose Our Social Rituals, and How to Make New Ones, (Yes, May 5, 2020) points out that longstanding rituals such as weddings and funerals that have been a taken for granted part of what we do, are hard to forgo in the face of forced isolation – even though we know it’s for the greater good.

As we lose of face-to-face interaction with other people, can email, phone conversations, and Zoom meetings make up for that loss?   Yes and no.  There is no substitute for being in the physical presence of another person, but for a short time technology might provide sufficient solace to get us through.

We need to keep in mind that in times gone by, being separated for long periods was not uncommon.  Think of those who migrated from Europe to Australia in the 1700 and 1800’s.  It would be a very long time before they would be reunited with family.  In some cases this never happened.  And they were moving to a place that went about life in very different ways.  Calling on familiar rituals can help ease us into new realms until the rituals of the new country are integrated into our lives.

For now we’ll put these aside and share a few ideas from Jill Suttie …

“As parents, partners, family members, and friends, we need to allow people to talk about the things that they’re missing,” says Lori Gottlieb, author of Maybe You Should Talk to Someone.

How to Make New Rituals

Jan Stanley, who works as a celebrant—someone who designs rituals for weddings and funerals—says that it’s not hard to create rituals online, if you keep certain things in mind. She suggests that you:

• Ask people to bring to their online gathering something symbolic to share, such as a candle to light, a memory or story, a picture, or a poem. Getting people to contribute in that way can help create a sense of oneness.

• Mark the moment by having someone provide an opening statement that designates the beginning of any ritual and explains the purpose of being there. That sets the tone and makes people realise that this is a special moment in time and not just another online meeting.

• Create emotional highs, perhaps using music, dancing, poetry, moments of silence, or something else with high emotional resonance to augment the experience.

• Always have a distinct ending that includes an emotional peak, because people tend to remember an event better that way.

Though an online ritual may lack some of the power of an in-person ritual, says Stanley, it still has value. Even doing rituals alone can be useful, she adds, if it’s meaningful. Research suggests that creating rituals just for ourselves can help alleviate grief after loss and make us feel less out of control, which could help now, when the world seems so uncertain.

“If you can design a ritual to be meaningful—so that it actually touches your heart or brings someone to mind or gives you a sense of your own purpose—all the better,” she says.

Read the full story hereSocial rituals This associated story is worth noting as well:  Why rituals are good for your health


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Music for our passing of days

Music is a great leveller that speaks across many sectors of what has become a fractured society.  A quick search on the internet reveals the most popular songs sung or performed at this time.  It’s somewhat like the top 40 but in this case it is the top 10 or 20, funeral songs or ending of days songs.  Not only chosen by the one dying but also by family and friends as part of their memory stick to use an indigenous term.

Some songs that don’t make the list might be worth considering because they speak to the particular emotions that we feel or because they fit into a musical taste outside of the crowd vote. These are classics for many people. One of the songs that has touched a cord with many people regardless of their musical taste, is a cross-over piece titled: I’ll Fly Away, made popular by Johnny Cash.

I’ll Fly Away

Alan Jackson

Some glad mornin’ when this life is over
I’ll fly away
To a home on God’s celestial shore
I’ll fly away

I’ll fly away, oh, glory
I’ll fly away
When I die, Hallelujah, by and by
I’ll fly away

Just a few more weary days and then
I’ll fly away
To a land where joy shall never end
I’ll fly away


Two YouTube selections here … Alan Jackson (2013)- I’ll Fly Away;

Johnny Cash (2010) – I’ll Fly Away

Cash’s daughter Rosanne Cash is also pictured here …


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Let’s talk about the prickly subject of our ending of days

Considering that we see it all around, hear about it on the daily if not hourly radio news bulletins, let alone watch events with deadly outcomes on the nightly news, you’d think we’d be across death as a part of life without any hesitation.  But no, this is not the case.  Denial in the face of it being in our face is the default for many many people.  

Now with the COVID-19 pandemic taking its toll on thousands of lives across the world, to take literally the “it won’t happen to me” approach, is looking more selfish than certain.  But is that notion changing?  Does the acceptance of the limitations of freedom that has brought our “global society to a screeching halt” indicate some doubt is creeping in? When people realise that what we are up against “is little more than a packet of genetic material surrounded by a spiky protein shell one-thousandth the width of an eyelash,” (Washington Post, March 23, 2020 – see story below), they perhaps know that people are succumbing to something much smaller than them – that is at the same time in some ways more powerful than them.  Fear of the unknown let alone the unseen is another factor.

Billions of years of evolution means these little ‘creatures’ have had plenty of time to work out how to survive regardless of what we humans think is a good idea or not.  Best we learn to live and coexist with them, rather than fight them, which seems to be the order of the day as we conduct a war on the virus as well as many other species within nature.

This backdrop provides us with the opportunity to listen and learn to a series of podcasts titled: Let’s Talk about Death, compiled by the Pineapple Project, an ABC Radio production. There are 8 in the series. Here’s what program One (1) is about.

S4 01 | There’s a body, what next?

Here’s what you need to know immediately after someone has died, because a tsunami of decisions is about to hit. How the heck do you get a death certificate? Will there be an autopsy? Um, literally, who are you supposed to call first?

That’s the quandary Emma Gray found herself in, when she woke one day to discover her husband had died and her entire world had changed.

Listen to one or more here at this link: Let’s talk about death

For background stories about COVID-19 these links might be helpfulThe science behind what makes coronavirus hard to deal with

    So what is a virus


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