Sue is the daughter of a dear elderly friend and distant relative I met through the death of my Uncle Bob. I am staying in the home of Sue and her husband Murray in Kaikoura, overlooking a strong and beautiful mountain range. As the conversation turns towards the death of Murray’s former wife, I reach for my voice recorder and asked their permission to use it.
We arrive in different ways, don’t we, about how we accept things, and what we do from there…
Murray: Well, if the information you get is right, that you are terminal, I guess you think about that and how do you want to spend the rest of your life. I mean you could spend the whole time being angry and anti, but you may as well just grab what you can. In Judy’s case she’d travelled overland from England years ago, before she met me, and she loved India. She’d always gone on about wanting to go back to India. We came away from hospital when she was diagnosed, and I said, ‘If you want to go to India we’ll go’, and she said, ‘No, I’ve got passed that now. I just want to be able to do my job’.
She had a walking postal round in Greymouth, which was just two hours, eight till ten. She’d go in and sort the mail for that round and then she’d be dropped off and make her way through town and deliver to all the shops. So she continued to do that and we supported her. Over time it got to be more and more of an effort for her, but it was what drove her. She was going through treatment as well. The radiation was effective; the chemo was not. The hardest thing is that they scheduled six chemo treatments and at three they did some x-rays and said, ‘Things are getting worse; the chemo’s not working so we’re going to stop it’. She said, ‘Can we just …’ and the doc said, ‘Look, it’s the best option we’ve got and it hasn’t worked; there’s no point’
So it just went from there. She kept doing the round. She got to the stage where she needed help getting up and getting organised. She’d go off to work. I’d get home and she’d be just collapsed on the sofa. It was all she could do to do i
Leading up to Christmas she loved. They were not allowed to change their uniform, but she always wore a Father Christmas hat, and used to buy lollies and give them to the shopkeepers. About a week before Christmas, she just had to stop. They offered her a helper, but she said, ‘I’m not going to have a helper!’ She did come around to accepting help, but it was just too late; she couldn’t have got around. That was only about six weeks before she died, so in terms of intensity, it was not too bad. You see so many who are more or less bedridden for a year, and that would be awful.
But she really knew how she wanted to spend her remaining time, and had very good support to do it.
Murray: The kids were concerned about her driving the car, so I asked the doctor what was the story and he said, ‘Is she doing all right?’ and I said, ‘Yeah, she can drive all right’. And he said, ‘Well let her do it, it’s the best thing. Leave as many things as possible normal’.
The other thing is that the cancer specialist nurse at the hospital was very helpful. She was West Indian. We were there one day, about three months, I suppose, before Judy died, and she said, ‘Now this is very serious, Judy. You realise this?’ and Judy said, ‘Yes, yes’. And she said, ‘Now do your family know what you want?’ And Judy said, ‘Yes, yes, they do’. I was there, which was good. And the nurse said, ‘What is it you want?’ She said, ‘I’d like to die at home if I can, but I don’t want any pain’.
They were of the view that they just pump the morphine in once it gets very serious. So she got both of those; she got what she wanted. So that, and other things, is what make it easier for the family. If it’s going to happen, it’s best if it can be as good as it can be for what the deceased wants. After death that’s fine. We know we did all we could.
Yes, because then you’re not living with wondering, or guilt, or wishing…
Murray: That’s right. So we just responded to what she wanted.
Sue: Did you arrange her funeral with her?
Murray: No. She didn’t want anything, and she didn’t want any embalming, and she made that very clear to the cancer nurse. She said, ‘I’m to be cremated as soon as I can be after, and that’s that. There’s to be no service. There’s to be nothing’.
Sue: Well, that’s very difficult for people left behind.
Murray: You’re right. In a discussion I had with the cancer nurse afterwards, she said, ‘You know, after death the patient doesn’t know what you do, so you can do as you like’. It didn’t worry me particularly, but one of my daughters particularly was very keen that there be some marking of it, something tangible. So a few days after Judy died we had a sort of funeral service that was of the nature of a celebration of her life. I arranged for about five people to speak – people who knew her from birth, long before I knew her – people she went to school with, that sort of thing. Being a small town, a lot of those people are still around. And so we arranged all that.
Judy played the bagpipes, and she had a ten-year-old kilt. When she was ill, we were staying in Davidson House, which is the Cancer Society place in Christchurch, and there’s a little Scottish shop nearby. We were in there one day and she was looking at kilts. The girl said, ‘Do you want to a kilt?’ and she said, ‘Aw, I don’t think so; it’s a bit late now’. And the girl said, ‘We just made a kilt, and when they sent the material they sent double the amount, so we can do you a kilt for $600’. I said, ‘Right; do it!’
So they made it and she never wore it. It arrived only a few days before she died, and she saw it, and said it was nice, but had no will or occasion to wear it. I’ve still got it; it’s here and I wore it on that day – which I normally would never do – just as a mark of what it meant to her.
Murray: A friend of ours did the service. It was a guy I worked with who had become a minister in the Anglican Church, in Blenheim. He himself was unwell with MS, in fact I went to his funeral earlier this year. I rang him up and said we were having this funeral and was there any chance he could take it. By that stage he was driving a hand-controlled car; that was where he’d got to. He said, ‘When are you having it?’ and I said, ‘It’s on Friday’. He said, ‘I’ll be there Thursday’.
Judy died late on Saturday night – like one o’clock Sunday morning. We knew she’d died. She had a hospital bed in the lounge, and all the gear. Her breathing got laboured and then stopped, so we knew, but we didn’t do anything about it then. We just covered her up and went to bed and that was that. And in the morning I rang the undertaker, who I know, and told him the story. He said, ‘We’ll come up’. I said, ‘Just you come; we’ll help you’. So he came, we had a cup of tea and we told him what was required and so we got her into the hearse. He took care of everything. The doctor had seen her; he’d called in home a day or two before she died, so he knew exactly what was going on, so there was no issue with the Death Certificate.
The undertaker said, ‘She’ll be going to Christchurch this afternoon’.
So there’s no closer crematorium?
No, Christchurch is the closest to Greymouth.
I said, ‘Well, bring her home first’. So his assistant came up, and we got the coffin out of the hearse and put it on a stand on the lawn. Because of the Scottish thing we draped the Scottish flag over the box. We had the bagpipes sitting on it and took a few photos. All the family were there, the kids and the grandkids, and we just got that little record, and then into the hearse and away she went. And then of course on the Thursday we got the shoebox back…
Thinking back on it we did what we could. It was her wish that nothing happened; I felt a bit bad about having the service, but as I said, the funeral service is for the living, not the dead, so that was fine. And then the ashes sat in the lounge for a long time.
I have a friend who’s a potter, so I got him to make an urn. He said, ‘I’ve never been asked to make one of them’. He made two because he just wasn’t sure how big it would turn out. I got the one that looked about right, and then that sat there for a while. When I was coming away [moving to Kaikoura] the family were not too concerned, except my second daughter again felt the ashes needed to be sort of somewhere, so there’s a plot in Greymouth which my brother-in-law bought for himself. He’s got his mother’s ashes there and a memorial thing for his father, though he’s actually buried elsewhere. So he said, ‘There’s a wee spot there if you want it, so we made arrangements. I suppose the funeral director dug a little hole and we had a little ceremony there. So again, that was all finished off, and now, particularly my second daughter, who only lives a five-minute walk from it, can walk around there, and there’s Mum.
Sue: I think it’s good to have a plaque, or some place you can go to.
Murray: Well, I don’t think it would have worried the others.
People are different about whether it’s important. My younger sister had always felt there was a lack of a ‘place’ for my parents, because when they died my elder sister and her husband took the ashes to their place and buried them on their land. Then they moved. It hadn’t worried me, but it had always felt incomplete for my younger sister. She wondered if we could have a memorial seat or something that. She thought Plimmerton would be the best place because Dad was in the Plimmerton-Paremata parish for about ten years. She asked about seats along the waterfront, but the Council indicated that they didn’t need any more there. But there’s a little park in behind the church and the manse where we lived. We got a big strong macrocarpa bench. It’s in a perfect spot, over the fence from what was the manse and what was the church. It hadn’t occurred to me to do anything, but it’s lovely to be able to go there.
Next morning the subject rolls around again. I get the feeling people like the opportunity to speak freely about death, and I certainly enjoy joining them. Murray had been telling us about speaking with an Indian man about how his culture sees death, as part of his ambulance officer qualification. I’d reflected something I’d recently read, also about India – that at birth there’s some sadness because the baby is taking material form and life is going to be harder, and at death there’s much more joy.
Sue: It’s interesting, isn’t it, how we perceive.
And how we perceive directly affects how we experience, so if we picked one of us up and put us in a different culture, especially a more traditional culture, and we were in that culture from birth, we would see death entirely differently. I find that fascinating.
Sue: I think we’re starting to see funerals differently now though, more as a celebration of someone’s life, rather than all doom and gloom. That’s changing.
I have a hesitation around that inasmuch as we’ve almost swung too far. Occasionally I hear of funerals where there’s not really been any space for a very natural sadness.
Sue: Yes, everybody puts on a brave face.
I think there’s a very important balance to keep between sadness and celebration.
Murray: Historically, when somebody dies, there’s always been this, ‘He was the best person in the world. What a tragedy it is’.
Judy was asked to play the bagpipes at the funeral of a fisherman. Everyone had been getting up with all these platitudes about what a wonderful fellow he was. Then a bloke got up who had worked for him. He had the white gumboots; he was off the street almost. He said, ‘I’ve listened to all this. He was a bit of a bastard at times. He could get a bit bloody snarly. We’d be away for a couple of weeks on the fishing boat and it could get a bit tense at times. He’s not a saint; he’s a real person’. And he told the story of him losing his false teeth overboard into Milford Sound after being on the grog one night. He reckoned there’s a seal out there with a great big smile. It went over very well. So there’s certainly a change from the whole somber thing. But what’s too far? Where’s right? I don’t know.
It’s another balance thing, the balance between truth and compassion is how I express it. I love writing tributes or eulogies for so-called ‘difficult’ people, where you’ve got the family tearing their hair out because they can’t think of a nice thing to say about them.
Sue: No redeeming features! They tell me there are people like that.
Well, there are people where an ongoing relationship of bitterness and anger has developed, and there’s been no way of breaking through it.
The very first funeral I took in the UK was for a chap of 84. He’d been a motorcycle mechanic all his life. He died shortly after the family noticed him dropping spokes as he was remaking a spoked wheel. I went to see the family. There were three sons and two daughters, all middle-aged. The women were connecting with me a bit, but the men – I felt as if they were just holding their anger in. So I said, ‘Tell me about your father. Tell me the whole lot. I need to be able to create a really broad picture of your father, so tell me the works’. Gradually they opened up. It took me hours to write the eulogy, but I was able to weave the facts of his history, in amongst wonderings like, ‘We can guess that Robby didn’t have a kindly relationship with his own father, so it’s not surprising that Robby’s sons found him a pretty harsh father at times’ – that kind of thing; giving it some context. I didn’t know, but I could wonder.
Another thing… once they were able to say how it was and be heard, then I felt they were able also to begin to see some good things. I remember one of the sons saying, ‘You know, none of us ever got into trouble. There would have been hell to pay. Dad worked hard, and he expected us to work hard’. It was as if all this was dawning in the hours that we spent… because they’d been heard.
Sue: You made a space available for them to move on and find a new context, whereas if they’d sat there on their own, they’d have just been bitter and twisted.
I guess so, and would have really struggled with what to say.
Sue: And to live with it, too, because that’s the consequences afterwards. They have the rest of their lives to live with that.
That’s true. I did another one. The woman found me on the internet. I never met her. They had a local clergyman to take the funeral – that was already set – but they wanted someone to write the eulogy. The woman’s brother, son of the man who had died, wanted to do it, but he didn’t know what on earth he could say. I can’t recall whether I spoke with him or whether just with the woman as a sort of go-between, me feeding her questions to ask him. He was resistant to talking about his father, and at the same time had this strong sense that he should say something at the funeral.
In the end I wrote the eulogy, from his point of view, so that he could read it. I gave him heaps of time to digest it and get back to me about anything, the tiniest thing, that didn’t ring true. He was so proud, and so pleased. He’d never spoken in public, and he was able to speak about his father. I think that would have been the beginning of real healing for him.
So for me, it’s one of the best things I can ever do, to write a eulogy for someone who is ‘difficul
Thank you, Sue and Murray, for sharing your thoughts and experiences, and being willing for me to share min
I was so moved by preparing the eulogy for Victor that I wrote a poem and sent it to the family.
Eulogy for Victor
Sometimes a man emerges on the world
full of his own importance,
so sure of some things that
he rattles our cages,
yet somehow sad and incomplete within himself.
He may be a Winston Churchill.
He may be a recluse.
He may attract
high praise or
Only some strange twist of
place and time
seems to make the difference.
We may love or hate such a man
but seldom do we feel indifferent.
He splits open our security.
He batters on the door of all things proper.
He upsets our apple carts
yet in so doing
gives us something
by which to define ourselves,
something uncomfortably scratchy
to rub against,
something growthful and wonderful
if we can but bear