Young sad, beautiful fragile Madonna Angel, Recoleta cemetery, Buenos Aires

Life lessons from working with death

It’s 5pm on a Wednesday afternoon and I’m sat in a wardrobe with a funeral planner and a death doula, listening to a story that’s giving me goose bumps.

“One of the most powerful funerals I ever did was for a girl my age who went to bed and just never woke up,” Louise Winter, the funeral planner, is telling me.

“We were quite similar, her and I, and had similar taste in our friendship groups. It could have been my funeral. It could have been my parents in the front row. I could have gone to bed and never woken up.

“She didn’t have a tomorrow and she had absolutely no idea.”

At this, there’s a pause. It’s an extraordinary story, and one that has packed its intended punch.

Over the next hour and a half I will hear a number of similar tales, as Winter and her collaborator, a death doula named Anna Lyons, help me understand how working with death has taught them to appreciate life.

I’m meeting the pair at their first exhibition, Life, Death, Whatever, and it’s full of so many people we’ve had to take refuge in a wardrobe at the top of the building. I’m surprised there’s such an appetite for death – there are whole families wandering around the space below us – but both Winter and Lyons, who met on Twitter in 2015, are keen to educate people on this great unknown.

Funeral planners

If that sounds macabre, fear not: the pair’s experiences of working within the death world are more inspiring than any of the motivational quotes you’ll find on Instagram.

“Being a funeral planner has made me very reactive, and I won’t sit with something I don’t like any more,” Winter tells me.

The 30-year-old is talking both literally and figuratively. Two years ago she walked out of her career in fashion to launch a modern funeral planning business, Poetic Endings, and spent a whole summer watching funerals take place at a local crematorium before enrolling in funeral school. Now, she plans around 100 of them a year, alongside editing The Good Funeral Guide.

“I already knew I wanted to do something within funerals and I came to the conclusion I didn’t want to spend one more moment, let alone another evening, of my life doing something I absolutely did not see the point of,” she says with a shrug.

She makes a good point, and it is one that is reiterated by Lyons, whose work in the death world has also propelled her to keep moving forwards in life.

“If we think we’re going to live forever then we put things off,” she says from her seat next to Winter. “But actually, we might not have a next year.”

As a death doula, Lyons works mainly with clients who are approaching the end of their lives: a time that can be – understandably – terrifying.

Alongside doctors, nurses and medical assistants, she provides an extra layer of emotional support, either in person or over the phone and email. She can visit clients in hospital to help explain confusing medical jargon, or lend a supportive ear over email.

“I allow them to have enough space to enjoy their lives as much as they possibly can,” she says of her role, which is unpaid. “I help them live as good a life as possible, right up until the end.”

Somewhat surprisingly, some of Lyons’ clients prefer to keep their conversations private to avoid the risk of offending their families, and the 41-year-old recalls a time when a client simply stopped responding to her emails. It was only when she Googled their name and found an obituary online that she realised they had died, but of course no one knew to contact her.

“One minute someone’s breathing, then the next they’re not, and that’s it,” she says simply.

I am suddenly thankful our own breathing is so tangibly evident in the tiny space, charging the dust particles and making them dance away from our mouths as we speak.

Lyons goes on to tell me how her work in the death world has taught her to be more appreciative, as I take note of yet another lesson we can all take heed of.

“I feel extraordinarily grateful for the things I have,” she says. “You realise how fragile and precious life is and how quickly it can be taken away.”

Of course, it’s practically impossible to feel continuously appreciative of life and the various ups and downs it throws at us.

But the matter of regret comes up again and again as we talk: the regrets of those who are facing their last days on earth, and the regrets of those they leave behind.

“The one thing I come up against most is time,” Lyons tell me. “People wish they’d spent more time with the people they love and not worked so bloody hard. They wish they’d gone on holiday rather than staying in the office until midnight.”

Inevitably though, it is mostly in retrospect that we see how we should have spent our time. When we imagine 10, 20, or even 60 years of our lives rolling out ahead of us, it can feel exhausting to try and make every second of it count, but perhaps it’s vital that we try.

“When time is taken away from you, you realise how precious it is,” Lyons adds. “Once you only have a certain amount of time left, every second of every minute feels essential.”

And while we might spend a lifetime working towards arbitrary goals that we have set ourselves, it is often the seemingly insignificant moments that really make a life.

“At funerals, I don’t hear people being defined by their achievements,” Winter says.

“It’s less about the MBEs and the CBEs, and more about the people they went to Tesco with, and how they made people feel. It’s about how they valued the people around them.”

Sadly, it goes without saying that not valuing the people around you is a painfully common regret. On our way to the wardrobe we had walked up a creeking staircase covered in pieces of paper tied to the posts with black ribbons.

This is the Unsaid Exhibition, and each piece of paper contains a message written by a visitor for someone they have lost:

“I still miss you. And I’m so, so sorry. I didn’t deserve you, and I would appreciate you now. I love you so much. Still.”

“Janey, I wish I’d said goodbye. I was looking for the right words, and then you were gone. I still haven’t found them. R.”

“To the four I lost… You are forever with me x”

“I’m 43 and I don’t think I’m living the life I was meant to, yet.”

Some of the messages are heartbreaking in their simplicity, while others are a chance for people to get something off their chest.

“So many people have unsaid things that they will never get to say to someone they were taking for granted,” Winter says.

“We don’t get all of these chances to say things again, or to say them right,” Lyons adds. “I’m not brilliant at it either but I think it’s really, really important that we are aware of our own mortality.”

It’s easy, now, to understand why the pair are so keen to educate all of us about our inevitable demise: our conversation in the wardrobe has started to convince me of the benefit of accepting death in order to fully live my life.

As I leave the exhibition and step into the dark night outside, Winter’s words are still turning in my head.

“Seeing how other people live and die, and the regrets they have, has changed everything,” she told me. “I’ll quit my job or I’ll call the boy. I don’t assume that will happen tomorrow.”

I turn on my phone and take a deep breath. After all, there’s no time to waste.

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