#NHS70

food-sweet-cake-candles-6203.jpgHappy Birthday, NHS.

Thank you for being there for us in the darkest of times; accident, injury, illness and death. For also sharing in the best of times; the all clears, the births, the recovery.

Thank you for the buttery toast you gave to a little girl whose world had just crashed down her ears.

Thank you for the banter of the paramedics who made the worst 18th birthday a girl could wish for a little bit more bearable.

Thanks for the physio and for the physiotherapists who were just too darn nice for me to hate. Physio was the worst.

Thank you for the words of encouragement. The support I needed to get back on my feet (literally and emotionally). The counselling. The firm talking tos. The discretion.

You’re not perfect and we’re partially to blame. We should reflect on how use you respectfully and fairly. To not litter your A&Es with drunkards on a Saturday night. To take ownership of our lifestyle choices. To not take what we don’t need. To not bite the hand that feeds us.

But thank you, for your tirelessness, your devotion and your dedication.

We are all very grateful.

Event/Book Review: All That Remains by Sue Black

Is this a book review, an event review or review of the author? I am not sure. There is no way this could be impartial as I have followed Sue Black’s work since I was in high school and I admire her greatly. I recently had the pleasure of hearing Sue Black talk about her first non-academic book All That Remains and she did not disappoint.

Let’s begin with the book. All That Remains is beautifully presented. The cover is understated and elegant; a lone skeleton on a cream background and each chapter is demarcated by a relevant image or illustration and quote. The beauty of the book took me by surprise – you should never judge a book by its cover but the look of All That Remains is as fantastic as its content. The book is a poignant blend of science, memoir and unintentional motivational life guide. Having penned textbooks, Black excels in her elegant descriptions of the body’s systems, which highlight the beauty and complexity of our bodies whilst still allowing the layperson to digest it. As a humanities student with no link to medical science, I felt like Black was divulging secret information that I shouldn’t be privy to – quatsch of course, but a fun thought none the less. Isotope analysis fascinated me when I was younger and saw it discussed on archaeological shows and Black’s own History Cold Case, it was amazing to hear of how this process worked and hear mind-blowing facts about how our bodies are maps of where we (and even our parents) have been. It made me laugh to think that, in an age in which we are so paranoid about CCTV and smart trackers, our own bodies will reveal our secrets to anyone with the knowledge to ask the right questions. Black reveals our bodies to us with expertise, humour and a skill for teaching complex ideas.

It’s no surprise that Black explains well as she is, amongst many other things, an educator. What you wouldn’t expect, necessarily, is the wit and poignancy with which she writes; from her descriptions of her first dissection to her ruminations on human frailty, identity and family. I didn’t expect All That Remains to have such poignancy, but one thing that really struck me was Black’s focus on the interconnectivity of not only humanity, but our actual bodies. I think because of our individualistic culture, we acknowledge that our bodies follow roughly the same spec; they share limbs, blood types and so on but focus on the divisiveness that our differences in strength cause. We ignore the commonality of our frailties or the fact that the location of our pregnant mothers can be traced through our skulls. Our bodies are a testament to the places we come from, the places we are, and will map where we will go. From our hair to our bones, we exist within a context and I find that comforting.

Now for the woman herself…

I hate the phrase down to earth. When people say it I always have the mental image of someone’s face being smushed into mud. That being said, Sue Black is amazingly gracious and relatable for someone who has done such good in the world. She held the attention of the room effortlessly, not through any artificial showmanship but by being a genuine and interesting person. Her talk wasn’t rote either – when a man coughed whilst she described her grandmother’s lung cancer, she zeroed in on him like a hawk, laughing at the misfortunate timing of his coughing fit. There were two things that I especially appreciated about Sue Black’s talk and by extension her book; that was her focus on family and her delight in the folktales that she grew up with. In her book and within her talk, she spoke about the importance of family and folktales or the spooky ways our grandmas claim to have a sixth sense. She told us to write our loved one’s stories down, not out of vanity but out of ‘family’; our children and children’s children will want to know from whom they came from. I loved this, as a girl who grew up in a family of Irish descent, I grew up with ghosts and have always found the conflict between faith and science uncomfortable. I asked Black about this in the Q&A, ‘Science and faith/the folk are presented as the antithesis of each other, how do you balance the two?’

‘Balance’ She said, ‘Is exactly the right word.’

Black’s book gave me an insight into the body, to the important work Black has done, to the poignant frailty of life. Black herself gave me a friendly memento mori, a reminder to laugh and love my family and a desire to head to Paperchase to buy a notebook in which to chronicle my family’s mad, mundane but equally wondrous tales.

Book Review: From Here to Eternity

 

 

Book Review: From Here to Eternity, Caitlin Doughty

I was first introduced to Caitlin Doughty by a friend who recommended her YouTube channel Ask A Mortician. Due to experiencing both a bereavement and a personal brush with death within an eighteen-month period, I was paralysed by a fear that something bad would happen to me or someone I cared about. I was anxious that it was negatively influencing how I was living (read: not living) my life. I was pretty sure the last thing I needed was to listen to someone talk about death, but I was quickly proved wrong. I was being incapacitated by a fear of the unknown and it was Caitlin Doughty, with her perfect bangs and cheerfulness (and taxidermy), who opened the door on the world of death literacy. Through her videos, Doughty broke down the stigma around talking about death and gave me a space to confront what was troubling me. Remember, Deathlings, you will die.

It is unorthodox to start a book review, a piece which is by nature about the book you are reading, by talking about yourself. However, I think it highlights the profound effect that Doughty has on the lives of those who follow her. In a Western culture which deems any talk of death a taboo, most of us have become ill-prepared for facing the death of loved ones and ourselves. Doughty’s debut, Smoke Gets in Your Eyes, is a moving account of her journey into the funeral business. Her second book, From Here to Eternity, is a global tour of death practices, shedding light on the differences between cultures but also highlighting the universal qualities of mortality and bereavement.

There is always an element of voyeurism to learning about another culture’s rituals, but Doughty is aware of this and approaches each chapter with the sensitivity it deserves. What makes From Here to Eternity stand out from the online listicles and videos on ‘weird death rituals’ is precisely that she does not sensationalise or fetishize these practices. Instead, Doughty takes us on her travels as a guest, grateful and appreciative to be allowed into these private moments. By providing the stories of the people featured within the book, both deceased and living, we are reminded that it is the same deep love and respect for the deceased behind each practice, despite how different they look to each other.

Following suit from her debut, From Here to Eternity does not flinch away from difficult topics, such as the loss of an unborn child. Doughty shares the moving and poignant story of fellow death acceptance activist Sarah Chevez, whose reconnection with her Mexican heritage gave her the space to grieve her loss. From Here to Eternity covers expansive ground, both geographically and thematically, exploring not just the practicalities of different death practices themselves, but the tensions and issues that arise from them. From the contentious relationships between traditional magic and religion to the use of technology to honour the forgotten dead, Doughty provides a comprehensive and nuanced depiction of each culture’s practise. Woven throughout the book is Doughty’s trademark humour. Humour and death may seem like strange bedfellows, but many of these death rituals are times of celebration and gaiety as well as poignancy. What’s more, sharing a chuckle with Doughty felt like a small subversive triumph over death itself; you can’t be afraid of something whilst laughing at it.

From Here to Eternity is also a visually stunning book. Landis Blair’s illustrations capture the beauty of the death traditions. Some are busy scenes of ritual celebration, some are quiet and meditative. I sincerely hope that the frontispiece illustration is available as a print because it is a striking Memento Mori. Not just a traditional ‘remember you will die’ but a ‘remember you can return to the earth. There are options out there aside from those encouraged by the mercenary funeral industry.’ A sentiment which very much encapsulates the message of From Here to Eternity.