Harriet’s Story

Harriet’s Story

Anyone who has suffered the loss of a loved one quickly realises that after the initial shock, the next most painful part is death admin. For all life’s modern conveniences - social media, online banking, decluttering apps and instant Spotify playlists - death is all the more piercing when you don’t know what to do.

Our focus on today, the here and now, is all well and good, but living in the moment means we may fail to plan for the moments ahead of us, let alone into the hereafter.

So, when Professor Richard Dawkins, the world’s most famous atheist and scientist, a man famed for his cold hard scientific reason, announces that he is planning his own funeral, the world should sit up and take notice. This is a man with a plan.

My father died when I was a kid.

Besides grief and shock, I recall busyness, tasks and endless strange things to sort out during this awful time. He was young. My mother knew little of his wishes, had no idea where the deeds of the house were, didn’t have access to his personal bank account and had no idea if he even wanted to be buried or cremated. She didn’t know where to start in organising a funeral.

People tried to help with the ordeal but I just remember my mother, looking like a broken child herself at the centre of this maelstrom, repeating,

I don’t know. I just don’t know. Death wasn’t a topic that came up much.

When my mother herself died a decade later, I too had to face this admin marathon.

It was a bleak period.

I was an orphan in my early twenties and while I appreciated the sympathy that this inevitably garnered, what I really needed was the number of a decent undertaker; I wanted to remember whether she liked Vaughan Williams or Mendelssohn, or maybe she wanted Elvis; and I would have highly appreciated help with the bills, the insurance, the bank and the pile of admin accumulating.

My grief became clouded by the headaches of deathmin.

Had we arranged the funeral as our mother would have wished? Which of her bills were paid by direct debit? How could I get into her bank account and was it the only one? I assume she had car and house insurance, but with which company? Where should I scatter her ashes?

If only I knew…

kept popping into my mind. Why didn’t I? The information I needed was not complex, but it was too late to discover now. Surely there was an easier way to get through this tough period.

Twenty years on, for all the supposed conveniences of modern life, I think it’s almost worse today.

Mass communication with friends via social media is great but do you do it via Instagram, Facebook, email, WhatsApp or just text? We can make a fabulous funeral playlist with a few clicks on Spotify but then forget to pass on our login details so no one even knows it’s there.

Access to almost anything nowadays requires a complex password, and the companies and websites we engage with daily are equally ill-prepared for our own demise. In some of our most vulnerable moments, when the existential questions of life and death clash with those about flowers and discovering Aunt Mabel’s surname, needed support is all too scarce.

My solution is the appropriately named “Death Book”. Rather than regret not having raised such topics previously, the book prompts us to think squarely about our last days, and to consider the pragmatic questions and tasks that our surviving friends and loved ones will face as we shuffle off this mortal coil.

Log-ins, bank account details, utility companies, important contacts, the location of the key to the safe, final wishes for the funeral, a guest list… the book takes a candid look at our “final journey”, dividing into the different spheres of activity you need to address and leaving a little room for a simple paragraph of ‘final thoughts’.

The Death Book contains no legal jargon and it certainly doesn’t replace a will. It strives to do two simple things: first, to help those left behind to get through the first few weeks as easy as possible – they are going to be tough either way but spending hours searching for the will and wondering who the cat’s vet is won’t help.

Perhaps more importantly it provides assurance to the person completing the book that their wishes are explained - wishes that might be hard to bring up over a cup of tea or in a care home.

The cover is a cheerful orange; the design is straightforward, practical and unsentimental. It’s my belief that there is too much reverence for death and too much pussy-footing around. (None of this is useful in the event of death, let me tell you.)

The Death Book meets that reverence head-on. You can give it to your aged parent for them to fill out - or even pass on your completed version to your own children - without it feeling mawkish or doom-laden, confident that now your (or their) nearest and dearest will know exactly what’s what following death.

Death remains slightly taboo in our otherwise modern society. My hope, given how many times we have sold out of print runs so far - is that the Death Book will make this final chapter of life a little easier for all concerned.