Bob Bury

Forget the Bill, death is this week’s big subject

I bet you thought I wouldn’t be able to resist my pledge not to write about THE BILL any more, given the fact that Lansley is on the run, and that our College has ignored the craven capitulation of the Academy of Medical Royal Colleges, and stuck to the original stongly-worded statement of opposition that the AMRC retracted after late night phone calls from the increasingly desperate politicos. You did, didn’t you – especially after today’s call by the RCGP for withdrawal of the Bill?

Well, you’d be wrong – I’m not going to mention any of that. I’m not even going to lambast the surgeons for their self-serving toadying up to HMG – Jerry Nelson says all that needs to be said about their motivation. No, I thought I’d talk about death.

I’ve been thinking about it quite a lot recently. Not just because I’m getting older, and have recently acquired a proper illness for the first time in my life (yes, much better now – thanks for asking), but because during the past year I trained with the British humanist Association (BHA) to become a humanist celebrant, officiating at non-religious funerals. It may seem like an odd thing to take up in retirement, but it actually turns out to be very challenging and rewarding job.

And when you think about it, it’s a natural extension of a medical career. We deal with patients and their relatives at a very fraught time in their lives, and some of the patients die (although not all, hopefully, even in my hands). This means that we are used to talking to relatives and helping them to cope with worry and distress. When I did the training course, I realised that this gave me quite an advantage over some of the other trainees, who were coming from backgrounds that didn’t bring them into contact with people in the same way (one exception, I suppose, being the young metropolitan policeman on the course).

That’s not to say that the training was easy. I had naively assumed that the public speaking aspects of the job would be a bit of a doddle. After all, I had spoken at numerous medical meetings and conferences, and had also done quite a bit of after-dinner speaking. When, early on in the training, it became clear that the trainers were assuming that we would all prepare written scripts for our ceremonies, I was quietly contemptuous.

What did I need with a script? I had never read from a script in my life – I’d just wing it, like I always did. But of course, they were right. You can’t afford to make mistakes; you only have a short time to meet the family, get all the information about the deceased and produce a eulogy. I suddenly realised that this was much more important than any other speaking engagement I had undertaken. If I made a mess of a presentation at UKRC, it didn’t really matter – no one died, as they say. Well, here someone had died; this was the only funeral the family would have, and I had to get it right.

I actually almost gave up the training at that point. I’m glad I didn’t, but it’s a fact that I get much more nervous before a funeral than I ever did before the biggest conference presentation. It has been a privilege, though, to go into people’s homes and hopefully to be able to help them through a very difficult few days. I’ve been impressed by the dignity and courage of the bereaved relatives and friends, not least in a recent case of the sudden death of a 56-year-old man from a sub-arachnoid heamorrhage.

In an odd way, it makes me more sanguine about the possibility (or I suppose that should be certainty) of my own demise – I think I can see my own kids behaving like that relatively young man’s sons – not being afraid to shed tears on the day, but still producing an affectionate yet witty eulogy, and then getting on with their lives.

As for why I became a humanist after forty plus years as a card-carrying member of the C of E, well I didn’t. Like most humanists, I just suddenly discovered that I already was one.  And yes – I am planning my own funeral. It’s going to be a cracker, but I hope to keep you all waiting for a while yet.

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