The Perversity of the Business of Death

The Perversity of the Business of Death
John and Gwen Busby ballroom dancing
John and Gwen Busby in happier times c. 1955 Unknown photographer

My mother’s last illness has reached its logical conclusion, and I am struggling to deal with the business of death.

And now that I have lost both my parents, I am also struggling with my new status as a technical orphan.

As Oscar Wilde said:

To lose one parent may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness.
The Importance of Being Ernest

And as he also said:

Children begin by loving their parents; as they grow older they judge them; sometimes they forgive them.
The Picture of Dorian Gray

Who would have thought an absinthe-soaked playwright would seem so perceptive 117 years after his death? Except maybe him.

The Business of Death

The modern business of death is bizarrely complicated. I find myself longing for some good old-fashioned Victorian-era courtesy and morbidity about the whole thing. A good swath of black silk crepe around the mirrors and the hushed tones of other people taking care of all the arrangements.


Naturally, there’s a lot of paperwork.

It’s a little intriguing that my mother must be placed securely in the correct bureaucratic context of her parents, husband and children. Almost as if she has no place without us as anchors. I’m glad my father took up genealogy before he died because I at least have the papers I need to put her in her proper place.

The most satisfyingly perverse complication to date is the requirement to secure a permit for cremation. Not that I am the one applying for it – I just like the idea of it.

Interpersonal Relationships

I hadn’t noticed that the people representing the businesses I am dealing with had not offered their condolences until someone did. Which now that I think about it seems quite peculiar given their business, doesn’t it?

Of course, it’s not helped by being 2,721 km (1,691 m) away from where the action is. I’m starting to feel like I live on the wrong side of the country out of pure maliciousness.

Perhaps if I was seated before them dressed in black bombazine and a lace mantilla things might be easier. Or maybe they would think I was cruelly pranking them; it’s hard to know.

Should swap my plain, unadorned emails for black-bordered stationery instead?


Notices haven’t gone in the newspapers yet. It seems that these days the notices go out via Facebook, but I can’t bring myself to do that.

One of the sad things is that at 90, so many of her friends and family have gone before her that there are so few people to notify formally. And sadly I’ve lost touch with many of them.

But I’ve made some calls and sent some emails. I have some cards to post as soon as I buy some stamps (which given the state of the postal system should be a matter of urgency). Another area where those hush-voiced helpers would be useful.


On the bright side, I find myself in the satisfying position of having said my goodbyes. I have made peace with my childhood, and I forgive my mother.

However, given all those childhood chases around the kitchen table with the wooden spoon, the temptation to play the Ride of the Valkyries as the coffin enters the Chapel is almost insurmountable. You may know it from the movie Apocalypse Now but in Wagner’s Opera The Valkyries, the tune depicts the passage of fallen Vikings to Valhalla so doubly appropriate. If not socially acceptable in the post-Apocalypse Now world.

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