I walked into the Long Room in the Public Hall, Liskeard and was confronted by an elephant. There he was, Gilbert the elephant, standing proudly, surveying the plates of cakes set out in front of him.  Mugs and quotes littered the table, surrounded by women in deep discussion. Could I get past and sit down without interrupting or disturbing the elephant?

But that was the point of the day organised by Confortia- talking about the elephant in the room- death and dying.

Death is the biggest taboo subject in our society today. We have given our dealing with it over to medical staff who try instead to prolong and save lives. Where it used to be part of the everyday, now we strive to put it out of our minds. We have made death something to be feared. We are scared to face the reality of our finite lives. And in consequence, we refuse to talk about it. Especially to those, our loved ones, who are nearing the end of their alloted span.  Perhaps they want to talk it through but don’t want to upset us. We don’t want to admit that we are losing them. And those of us facing our own demise are wanting to spend the time left living life to the full, not wanting to think of the time when we are not here to offer advice, comfort, love. All of us caught in the tusks of the elephant in the room.

Confortia is a not-for-profit organisation of older women based in East Cornwall with a great deal of experience and knowledge around death and dying, who feel concerned at many of the issues around the subject today, and feel passionately that they want to see improvements in:

  • opportunities for people to talk & share their concerns in a safe environment
  • the choices available to everyone around end-of-life and after-death care and support
  • the availability of appropriate and user-friendly information about death and dying matters
  • understanding where and how to access information and support.
  • ( http://www.confortia.co.uk)

They were founded two years ago and have since organised talks, Death Cafes, concerts etc all to raise awareness that dying matters. This year they held a day symposium during Death Awareness Week on the elephant in the room and Gilbert the elephant was there to greet me.

Devouring lusicious lemon cake and gorgeous gluten free fruit cake we shared experiences of death and being with people as they were dying.  As always when describing human stories there was a little laughter, a little sadness, a lot of support and caring. One was propelled into caring for those nearing the end of life.

I had a look at the Wall of Words, writings on death and dying by those who were facing it or those left behind. Some struck home.

Lynne Dunne, qualified in both nursing and law, took us through ‘Advance Directives’ or living wills. She led us step by step through the maze of acronyms that seem to proliferate anything medical these days. Basically, you have to prove you are at that moment in time, mentally capable of understanding what is said to you,  making a decision and communicating that decision in some way to others.

Discuss it with your family. Let them know in which circumstances you want it enacted- you have to write it on the form. Lodge a copy with your GP and with your consultant so it is with your notes. Also make sure your family know where your copy is. However, you can revoke it at any time, if you say you don’t want it enacted. You will have to make a new one afterwards, but better safe eh?

In the Death Cafe that followed ( I have to admit I secretly wished Mort to appear- he doesn’t have to bring his scythe, I have one rusting in the garage!), the talk ranged from cultural traditions, to family feuds, to burial grounds. All fuelled by more coffee, tea and lots of  scrumptious cake. It was a relief to be able to say, you know, after my diagnosis I went on a search of the cemeteries to see where I would like to be buried and no one think it odd. They laughed when I said I dragged one of my sons with me to a couple of them and that we walked up and down searching for the Jewish sections, (we didn’t find any headstones, so I might be the first but not for many years yet). That it seemed was almost normal. The fact  I have a bag of earth from Mount Zion, bought on my first visit to Israel when I was eight ( I had read a story), ready to go in the coffin with me that my family have known about forever was accepted as yeh, we can see that. This I know is not normal- you don’t have to tell me.

In the evening, Independent Funeral Celebrant, Kate Ward, was giving a talk on her work  ‘Celebrating Life’. Followed by discussion, more cake, more tea. It seems Gilbert loves his cake.