Life at Death's Door by Ann Theato and Steve Spence

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Download Life at Death's Door from the Wireless Theatre Company

Wireless Theatre Company, 2013
When it comes to death, different cultures handle the experience in different ways.  The sight of families mourning the loss of their loved ones in the Turkish city of Reyhanli, following the bomb blast recently, might have seemed rather embarrassing to western Europeans, as the women threw their hands in the air and wailed.  The British are supposed to be far more stoical at dealing with such experiences: memories of the so-called "stiff upper lip" come to mind as I recall how my mother dealt with the passing of her eldest brother in the Seventies.
Narrated by Brian Blessed, this dramatized documentary looked at the different ways in which individuals respond to death, contrasting our contemporary attitudes with those expressed by our ancestors during the Victorian period.  A quick tour round Highgate Cemetery will reveal that at that time death was actively embraced - a passage, perhaps, from one life to another.  Now people are much less positive about the experience; and several institutions have been created to help them deal with it.  The Death Café offers a warm, snug environment in which the topic can be talked about freely.  Coffee and biscuits are provided so as to create a social atmosphere.  Other organizations offer holistic palliative care, in which specialists can offer the kind of help - both active as well as psychological - that can help families come to terms with the experience.  The Dying Matters Coalition exists to break down taboos about the subject.
While all these organizations offer valuable services, I did feel that the programme was a little dismissive of the work done by care homes in ensuring that elderly relatives can die with dignity in a friendly environment.  My own mother passed away at the end of last year; as she died, a member of staff held her hand for nearly twelve hours, singing my mother's favourite songs.  During her funeral we played Glenn Miller's "In the Mood," to emphasize how much she enjoyed life; rather than treating the occasion as a grievous one, we wanted to make it a celebration.  While agreeing with many interviewees that death can be a traumatic experience, it can also be approached positively; it depends on individuals, rather than organizations.
The programme also dealt with the more practical aspects of death - post-mortems especially - as well as some of its perversions (necrophilia).  A cast of actors, including Jenny Runacre, Greg Page and Ann Theato, supplied voices where necessary.
Jack Bowman's production was an informative as well as an enlightening experience.  I look forward to hearing the next episodes.