Helen Martin: We’re all dying to avoid subject

Coffins come in many forms these days, including willow. Picture: Phil Wilkinson
Coffins come in many forms these days, including willow. Picture: Phil Wilkinson
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NONE of us, except perhaps funeral directors, are happy talking about death. In homo sapien’s more than 270,000 years there have been some cultures which celebrate “passing”, many who believe in an after-life and there’s certainly nothing to beat a good ould Irish wake.

But all that’s after death has occurred. Even then, solemn funerals leave us all feeling depressed, while the few that involve humour, happy memories and anything that gives us a chance to laugh thereby relieving the tension, can lift our mood.

It’s completely understandable. Life is for living; contemplating death is something we push to the back of our mind until the day or moment when we finally realise our time is up.

The reality, of course, is that it comes to us all. It is the lifelong elephant in the room that we try not to recognise but, assuming we are not unlucky enough to be cut down in our youth or our prime, eventually with age the inevitability of death begins to creep into our consciousness.

You know you’ve reached that stage when you start getting junk mail about stair lifts or funeral planning literature from SAGA and a simple calculation is enough to prove at least three-quarters of your life is behind you.

Our beloved dog had to be put down last week. We mourn him at least as much as we would mourn most humans. But as a dog, we can be pretty sure he was spared the knowledge that he was about to “end” and had no concept of death. We can take comfort from that. We also had the responsibility of deciding how to handle his remains.

When it comes to fellow humans, death is easier for those left behind if the deceased has made clear as many details as possible of the send-off they want. Which brings us back to the root of the problem. Too many of us don’t even want to think about it.

Hence a rather beautiful £600 coffin, laminated with majestic Highland scenery, has been removed from the window of the Co-op undertakers in Portobello. Apparently funeral directors’ premises should be like sex shops – no window displays giving any hint of what goes on inside.

There’s a huge range of coffins available nowadays, everything from biodegradable willow to a fair copy of Mr Spock’s Star Trek death capsule. Services can be religiously observant or humanist. Eulogies can be dignified, respectful and sombre or hysterically funny, irreverent and jolly depending on the wishes of the Dear Departed who has either specified sandwiches and coffee in a nearby hotel or a pre-paid bar tab to facilitate the mourners drinking their own body weight while re-runs of Hibs/Hearts best-ever match moments loop on a big screen. But to deliver that, someone has to have had THE conversation.

We now know, though it shouldn’t have been a surprise, that crematoria staff sift through the ashes to pick out everything from dental fillings to hip replacements so that they can be recycled. Well, who wants grandad’s metal hip back? There’s probably a lot more we should know, learn and discuss about the whole process and the options available, if only we weren’t so queasy, superstitious and scared to talk about it.

The dog’s ashes will be scattered in the back garden because one thing I know for sure is he would want to be with us rather than alone on Blackford Hill.


LOVE him or hate him, Jeremy Clarkson is the one who makes Top Gear a success, brings in the money and pulls the viewers with his “edgy” humour and unpredictability. The BBC created its own untameable monster.

Nurses should start with basics

THE call from the Royal College of Nursing for Scottish hospitals to improve screening for cognitive impairment, malnutrition and bed sores among the elderly and improve care in general is laudable.

But part of the problem is that qualified nurses who could pick up on those issues no longer carry out tasks in hospital such as feeding, bathing and interacting with patients. Instead these duties are left to care assistants in many cases. Nurses also now train in specialisations such as paediatrics, the elderly or mental health rather than completing general training first as they used to do.

Given the ageing time bomb now faced by the NHS, every student nurse, no matter their preferred speciality, should spend at least six months, before or after qualifying, working in nursing homes for the elderly where they take their share of hands-on care, and learn as a result.

Priorities need to change, not the speed limit

EVERYONE loses common sense and financial probity when they are handling other people’s money. What other explanation – apart from insanity – is there for the council spending £2.2 million on 20mph speed limits while Edinburgh has a deficit, is cutting services, maintaining huge debts, failing to maintain schools and facing rising social and financial support for the poor? The obsession with road tinkering, which may also involve re-routing all traffic including buses from George Street at an as yet unspecified cost, is one of the symptoms of a council which has no sense of priority.

Every penny has to go into essential services. Prettying up George Street and cutting 10mph from the speed limit are projects for days of feast, not famine.