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  • Ellie Harrison

Practising What I Preach

I have been making The Grief Series for 3 years now.


Over those three years I have spoken to countless people: people who laugh at death because they still can’t believe it actually happens and people for whom it is an imminent reality. People tell me their stories. From every conceivable type of person there have been laughter and tears. Other people often ask if this is ‘heavy’ or whether I find it a burden to listen to all these stories of grief. I have rarely felt any sense of burden in listening to others. I find it humbling and also strangely joyous to hear stories that are usually about love, albeit lost love. But I have become increasingly aware of my own mortality and this at times can get ‘heavy’. There is a standing joke amongst team grief that I must not die before the series end for fear of being suspended in a perpetual state of mockery from artists and students. ‘did you hear about that artist that was making all that stuff about death and then died half way through.'


I went to a brilliant talk ‘how to plan your own dead good funeral’ run by John Fox and Sue Gill of Welfare State International. As I listened to the talk like a keen researcher, I became aware of documenters photographing me and my fearless producer Pete. I assume they were keen to get shots of ‘young faces’ attending the event. And I realised only ten minutes before I would inevitably have done that while I made notes like a keen academic/performance maker that the majority of the other participants were, in a very real sense, planning their own funerals on a quickly diminishing time frame. And I was horrified. Horrified partly because it was my 29th birthday and mortality sneaks up at this stage as it is wont to do for many people, but also because I came up against a contradiction. On the one hand I wanted to separate myself from the dying, from the wheelchair bound lady talking cheerfully about Viking burial or the gentleman talking about the delivery time of bespoke shrouds. I AM YOUNG. I am worried about the death of others, not myself. And yet I cannot ignore what life and the series has taught me. That we may die at any time, at any age. I might be struck by a car tomorrow. And when we do die it really helps if we have put our wishes in place for those left behind.


So I began to try and practice what I preach, to put my wishes onto (electronic) paper. It’s tough and some decisions I change on a daily basis. And one of the issues here is conformity. I have long been a believer that people rely too heavily on prescribed ways of marking death. You don’t necessarily need a funeral director. You don’t need half the shit any group of people might try to sell you. You can make it more bespoke if you wish. Make it speak of the life lived rather than having to follow the traditional funeral structure blindly. We travelled to my mums funeral in her VW camper van, rather than the hearse. You can do the flowers yourself, pick a dress code where you banish black…all that stuff. But when I came to making decisions and putting them into words I hit problems. I think I’d very much divided stuff into conform or rebel. But really I’m just at the start of discovering whether I can combine the two.


Here is where I am up to. • I would like to be cremated but have a headstone somewhere. (They look cool, they last for ages and I think it might help the grieving to have somewhere geographically specific to visit if they want.) • I want to be an organ donor For the funeral I would like to put my research to good use here. • Flowers: Rosemary, Marigolds, Aloe, Cypress and Jasmine are all flowers with traditional associations of death. Also, I just love cornflowers…no relevance, other than they are in one of my favourite films and I picked them for my mother’s funeral. • Readings: Pick something that resonates with the reader but suggestions are ‘A grief observed’ by C.S Lewis and ‘A scattering’ by Christopher Reid. I won’t share all of my wishes on here, it’s not relevant. It is the act of doing that is important. I would encourage you to write down what you do or don’t want, and to let your family know that you have done this. There are lots of resources to help you get thinking about it but I recommend: dying matters website Dead Good Guides

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