Monday 26 September 2022

Artists as Designers of Dying and Funerals

 I've been thinking about death and dying a lot lately. Maybe that's because I watched all of the Queen's funeral or maybe it's because I read about the actor Alan Rickman's newly published diaries, Madly Deeply in The Guardian yesterday. 

It wasn't the diaries that caught my breath (although those are a delicious read), it was his wife Rima Horton's description of Alan's dying days: 

Alan’s last diary entry was on 12 December, but he had been getting weaker and writing less for some time. All through the autumn he was eating less and often feeling sick. But we continued to do most of the things that had always been part of our life. We saw films and plays, met friends, went out to dinner or entertained at home. Alan also spent a lot of time watching TV – his two favourite programmes at that time were Don’t Tell the Bride and Say Yes to the Dress. Our trip to New York in November was very important. To stay in our flat again and see so many of the friends who had meant so much to us over the years. Alan loved New York.

He went downhill after that. He was admitted to hospital on 20 December and never left.

The last two weeks of Alan's life were extraordinary. His hospital room was turned into a salon. Belinda (Lang) produced a table-top Christmas tree, Emma (Thompson) brought in a standard lamp, cushions and a throw to cover the sofa. And an infuser. Miranda (Richardson) added a window bird-feeder. I brought a beautiful table lamp from home.

Different friends came in each day. Sometimes, Alan told me who he wanted to see. Otherwise, they just came. There was often a lot of laughter. Alan was in bed but always a major voice in the proceedings.

He designed his own funeral. Ian Rickson (theatre director) was put in charge. Alan chose where it would take place, who would speak and what music would be played.

He was surrounded by people who loved him and up until 13 January was still in control of everything that was going on around him. But he wasn’t there after that, and he died at 9.15 in the morning of 14 January 2016. I was there. He wasn’t in pain. He just went.

    Alan was cremated on the morning of 3 February with close friends and family present. The funeral service was held that afternoon in the Actors’ Church in the heart of London’s theatre district. The chosen music was Uptown Funk and Take It with Me by Tom Waits. We finished with everyone singing The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore. Then, in keeping with tradition, the Reverend Richard Syms asked us to give Alan “one last wonderful standing ovation”.

    The beautiful image of Alan Rickman's hospital room so full of love expressed in the presence of friends and in brought objects of beauty and comfort made me think that we need artists to demonstrate guide us in creative solace. We need the fearlessness of actors to attend to the moments of dying. There is something so resolute and loyal about the gifts bestowed on Alan - and it seems to me that each person asked himself, "If I were Alan, what would comfort or delight me? What would demonstrate to me that I am loved?" 

    There were touches of this love and creativity in the Queen's funeral too. Centuries-old traditions of fanfare have been honed by artists throughout the ages for the monarch's send-off. And these traditions are familiar to the British people - they represented a heartfelt goodbye from everyone in the country.

    I want artists at my deathbed. I want actors to visit me and not be afraid to laugh. And at my funeral, dance music and a standing ovation would be awesome. I hope my family reads this. ☺


    Diane said...

    So lovely, Donna. All of the little things are really the big things, yes?

    Anonymous said...

    What a beautiful thing to celebrate the end of life..your way ❤

    Linda Perry said...

    What a wonderful concept. My husband is a musician and have conversations about our funerals just as part of our usual banter. Music, is of course, a key consideration. This is such a lovely inclusion.