There is a shoebox in a storage unit that’s packed full of condolence cards. Squashed into that 30ft unit, the legacy of a life: bubble wrapped crockery, all the fridge-magnets my mum and I collected on our travels in a Tupperware box, handmade Christmas cards, photo albums, clothes, shoes, diaries, files — the gathered detritus of 59 years.
My parents were.
They died almost exactly four years apart.
Humanity has often wondered what happens after we die. For those we leave behind, it’s generally grief, and a lot of paperwork.
Two days after my father shuffled off, my second mother and I go back to the hospital where he spent his last days on Earth, to find a special lilac office to collect and sign a form, which we then take to another office in town to turn into five neatly signed death certificates, costing £11 each. His death comes with its own number.
Cause of death: hospital acquired pneumonia, cardiac arrest, gall stones, an ailing NHS under austerity.
It took a lot to kill him.
Missing from the official record is why he was in hospital waiting for so long to be treated. The surgery required to remove gall stones, although invasive, is a fairly routine one. But in his NHS trust, the procedure was only done on Mondays and Thursdays. His was not deemed a priority case, so the first Thursday it was pushed back. Then it was a bank holiday. The surgery was pushed back again. And again. And by that time, he was too ill for them to operate.
His medical record expands to the width of two dictionaries. By the end, he was full of shit. Literally. They didn’t have the staff to disimpact his bowels with the frequency he needed. His yellowing eyes roamed the room. His urine turned the colour of Pepsi. He adopted the harsh smell of hospital detergent and morphine.
So he died.
There’s a special kind of crying, where the tears manage to fall into your mouth. The remains of my family politely thanked the staff. We walked out of that dull grey building holding hands. We went home. We drank tea.
130,000 preventable deaths since 2012. My father will be another statistic, used by opposing parties to debate a national health service that isn’t working. His body covered and wheeled to the morgue.
His passport and drivers license are handed in to the relevant authority. The bank gets a death certificate, the funeral home, the council. We save one, to prove it to ourselves. Until my parents died, I always thought getting a certificate was supposed to be a good thing.
The form to incinerate a person is lengthy and comprehensive. They have to make sure we’re sure, because once cremated, he can’t be uncremated. My second mother and I need to sign twice on dotted lines.
We sit through all the options for a funeral he never wanted. I stressed the importance of collective grief and there we are, choosing the same coffin my mother was buried in, debating what music should be played through a subpar sound system, picking flowers he will never see.
There was 87p left in one of my dad’s bank accounts. The spoils of death.
We are the lucky few. His death did not leave us destitute. I used the money from my mother’s inheritance to pay for my father’s funeral and shrug at the Dickensian word ‘orphan’ that now seems to apply to me.
Mum. 2015. Cause of death: metastatic breast cancer.
24 hours AD (After Death) my brother took it upon himself to phone everyone in her neatly kept address book to tell them that the person they knew no longer was. He felt he had to. He filled in all the forms, gathered all the files, while I sat on the stairs, barely able to eat. I was 22 and incapable of knowing what to do with the shoes she would never again wear, the house she’d never live in again, the money she could never spend.
She didn’t leave a will, so we hired a financial advisor to serve the probate. It took just under the maximum of two years to collect all the necessary deeds, bank accounts, and insurance documents, and distribute what was left between my brother and I. It wasn’t much, but it’s enough to pay for several more funerals.
Our story is not a unique one. It has happened many times over, and will keep happening until our health service gets the funding it needs to function, and until we move from a society that views people as cogs in a machine, to be defined by numbers and forms, to one that values us as humans.
A few weeks after the doctor filled in what would be my father’s last ever medical report, we receive a questionnaire. “Question no. 8: How likely are you to recommend this hospital to a family member/loved one?” It feels like the first time we’ve laughed in millennia.