Death Warmed Up

Death, like everything else in life, requires process. Complex systems have been developed to organise our daily fundamentals - health, finance, education; others shape the relative trifles of the seasonal and cultural calendar. Millions of businesses are out there systematising our Valentines Days, baby showers, birthdays and anniversaries, and we are mostly too busy to notice when we’re being templated. Death is no different: it can make an expert of you in a month as you move inexorably from casket selection to TV licence refund.

We’re increasingly forced to navigate systems made for humans with yes/no needs: so many automated phone options promising to “get you to the right person” do not. The tree of choice designed to guide us through everyday activities like ordering groceries or booking a smear test is a mere twig compared with the expansive, sedulous branches of computer gameplay, where every possible user action has been pre-empted. How modern it is that enabling Agent 47 to assassinate his target has had far superior coding skills applied to it than those used to close down a real person’s life.

The task of shutting up shop for the deceased involves a system in which you hope for simple encounters. Not the official bureacracy of probate which is mostly handled by solicitors but the digging out of all that routine, administrative knotweed which surrounds adults: bank accounts, utilities, pensions, taxes…can’t live without it, can’t die (taking your broadband contract) with it. This is what executors are for, though when we take up the role many of us are complete novices and most of us are still gobsmacked by loss.

Over the past month, I’ve had to immerse myself in the death industry. I have virtually rolled around in it and am now fully acquainted with its slimy properties. After the District Nurse, GP, Death Registrar, funeral director, crematorium, florist and celebrant, came the phone and energy companies, water board, appliance guarantors, council departments and insurers. Sometimes it was a relief to concentrate on yet another new set of questions but it was never easy to say or to enter my late mother’s details again and again from within the vacuum of bereavement.

I knew these things had to be done and I was grateful that specific phone lines had been set up to divert me from the crowd. What surprised me was how badly the call centre staff had been trained for dialogue with the recently bereaved. In some instances, so bad that I had to put the phone down before crying or laughing at their ineptitude. I pictured them, marooned in their Merseyside/Lancashire/Cumbrian kitchens, head mics on and washing machines off, typing my answers onto their screens, eager to get me through the varying stages and shake off yet another mournful consultation.

A Bereavement Line has, you hope, someone kindly and efficient on the other end. Someone who will steer you professionally through an impersonal procedure with a light touch on the shoulder and then release you back to your pain with a genial but respectful nod. Yeah, right. First, you must wait your turn. The queue’s longer than usual because, well, there’s a pandemic on. So you suffer the sham sympathy of a recorded voice as it advises “We’re here for you” or some such irony. The tone is modulated between serene and cheery, soft and strong; I imagine the director in the voiceover booth citing “a profound moment in a daytime TV drama” as reference. Then, as the pacifying message starts to grate, a live voice cuts through and you are in the hands of The Bereavement Team.

Who are, of course, reading from a script. There is little room to jemmy an authentic reaction into the proceedings but their handling of callers is still revealing. There was the bank service fronted by a man so keen to be businesslike that he took my details as though I were cancelling the Xmas turkey; the utility represented by a panicked middle-aged woman who tapped everything in without comment and then suddenly remembered to offer condolences five minutes into the conversation; the boy - a teenager? - who sounded so young he had to force compassion into the call as if swallowing a pizza topping he didn’t much like. Perhaps the worst was the woman who continually muttered to herself, reading out the directions on her screen “OK, so I’ve done that, now I go over to Bereavement”, exposing exactly how she was expected to package a death.

No-one who answers calls like mine all day, every day, can be expected to relate to the individual grief of the caller. There’s no time to become friends and how creepy would that be anyway? Faux compassion is also pointless, particularly if the advisor is too youthful to have even lost a pet. But some training in empathy would be welcome. I often considered the plight of these isolated workers, their hungry partner or restless child barred from their makeshift home office, but never felt that their employers had spent sufficient energy imagining my own. “Stand in the caller’s shoes” would be a good opener for the instruction manual.

So when you’re making the twentieth announcement of a loved one’s death to a stranger, who would you like that stranger to be? All hail to ‘Margaret’, voice of the only service provider who got it just right: a balance of good humour, patience and knowledge. She had been primed to interact rather than to remain seated behind the equivalent of plate glass; she was neither mawkish nor blunt; and while working towards a ‘sorted’ conclusion she was affable enough to make me think that if we’d met on a park bench, we’d find something in common. The fact that our current commonality was death is, unfortunately, just life.