Life lessons from working with death

"Never assume you have a tomorrow"

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.

Life lessons from working with death 1

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.

I didn’t want to spend one more moment of my life doing something I absolutely did not see the point of

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.

Life lessons from working with death 5

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.

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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.”

You realise how quickly life can be taken away
So many people have unsaid things that they will never get to say to someone they were taking for granted

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.