Richard Wilson explores death and dying
Death is the only certainty in life – so why do so few people want to talk about it? In a landmark documentary co-produced by The Open University and the BBC, actor Richard Wilson goes on an emotional journey to explore why we’re so afraid of death, arguing that it’s our mortality that makes life so precious.
Nearly 2,000 people die in the UK each day, yet death has been sanitised and shut away. Richard Wilson: Two Feet in the Grave investigates the processes, traditions and taboos to discover if there’s a better way to approach the end of life in twenty-first-century Britain than simply ignoring it.
Richard, who famously underwent his own fictional death as Victor Meldrew in the final episode of the BBC’s One Foot in the Grave, says: “I’m 72, but like the vast majority of us, I’ve done nothing to prepare for my demise. So why is it we don’t make plans? Are we scared because we don’t know enough about what happens when we die?
“Making this programme, I’ve thought about death more than I ever have in my life – and it’s changed the way I approach it. Making a journey like this makes you appreciate life so much – one should live for the day and enjoy it.”
Infused with Richard’s inimitable humour and warmth, the programme explores the end of life to find out what happens to us when we are facing death, the choices we have and the very different ways people deal with death and grief.
He meets 60-year-old Andy Johnson, who is facing the reality of his own impending death, after tongue and throat cancer spread to his lungs. And he visits Rab Milloy, whose 18-year-old son Boab was killed instantly at a level crossing near Kilmarnock. Rab decided to bury his son in his back garden so he will always be close to home.
The majority of people (around 60 per cent) die in hospital today but in Victorian times death frequently occurred at home, so being around the bodies of friends and neighbours was a common experience, and therefore less frightening. The Victorians also visited cemeteries for a picnic next to a loved one’s grave, built memento mori and took part in other rituals such as wearing mourning clothes. Richard explores how ritual is still important today – with roadside shrines and memorial websites filling the gap generated by an increasingly secular society.
Other cultures are more comfortable around death than the British. Richard attends the funeral of Barbados-born Dennis Cumberbatch, whose family give him a lively send-off and celebrate his life with songs as they fill the grave.
He also meets the army of people whose jobs bring them into daily contact with dead bodies, from funeral directors to pathologists and from embalmers to post-mortem photographers – including Walter Schels, who faced his fear of death head-on by photographing terminally ill people before and after they die.
Dr Carol Komaromy, a senior lecturer in health studies and one of two Open University academic advisors to the programme, calls the documentary an attempt to “de-terrorise death” and encourage greater debate about the choices each of us have about the end of our lives – before it is too late.
Dr Komaromy said: “We live in a technological age, with an unspoken expectation that there should be a fix for everything. But we can’t fix death. It is not a disease or an accident, it is a natural and inevitable part of life.
“I think there are great similarities between death and childbirth. It is not about dying the right way or the wrong way. It is about allowing people to choose to die as they want to die.”
Richard Wilson: Two Feet in the Grave is accompanied by a free booklet entitled, Death and Dying: Making sense of the end of life which explores the traditions and taboos surrounding death. To order a copy call 0845 366 80 16, or visit open2.net which includes a wealth of content linked to the themes explored in the programme.
Richard Wilson: Two Feet in the Grave will TX on BBC ONE a 10:45pm on 29 September