An incongruous coupling, I know; I’ll try to explain. I came across the campaigning organisation Dying Matters a few years ago in the wake of the death of both my parents and an old friend, and was immediately struck by its necessity. A loose-knit coalition of healthcare professionals and other interested parties – anyone can sign up – it’s trying to promote a more open discussion of death and dying, and to encourage people to make plans for the time when their lives come to an end.
The Dying Matters Coalition has got its work cut out in tackling what is a peculiarly deep-rooted taboo. In modern Britain, you can easily live into your forties without experiencing any real contact with death. In a culture largely in denial about the reality of death, the odd fatal accident or triumph of cancer is often brushed off as an outrage, an exception to the natural order in which life goes on indefinitely.
My own experience is a case in point. I had never seen a corpse until I saw my father, lying stilled on his hospital bed. Nor until that day had I had any experience of a deathbed or the process of another’s dying. It was the little things that threw me: I didn’t know how to talk to my father, who except in sleep I’d never seen prone and unseeing before. I was struck by the way the vicar’s wife – a nurse – swept into the room and, enfolding his hand, began talking into his ear. It was a lesson in the fact that the needs and etiquette of the deathbed are different.
British denial about death afflicts even the NHS. A friend of mine was with her father when he died in a cafe. It was expected: he had was nearly 90 and had been diagnosed with a fatal heart condition. But when the ambulance came, the paramedics wanted to pump the dead body into life, a prospect which horrified my friend and her watching mother. Unmoved by their protestations, the medics wouldn’t give up their plan until my friend, who happens to be a hospice nurse, got the GP on the phone to enforce the ‘Do not resuscitate’ order.
Of course the biggest denial concerns one’s own dying. It didn’t used to be this way, but the fact of my death, as a certain event in my future rather than a theoretical possibility, goes through my mind on all except very busy days. The thought isn’t remotely gloomy; if anything, it makes me more resolved than ever to enjoy my life while it lasts. And the corollary of that is taking my bucket list seriously; not just adding to it, but acting on it.
That’s why on Thursday I’m flying to Vienna on for the Eurovision Song Contest – something that has been on my bucket list for a while. Why, I hear you ask? I’ve loved Eurovision since a child for its sheer exuberance, its shameless, untrammelled display of frocks and spangles and silly costumes, in combination with a moving ballad or a good piece of pop. I love it still, despite the voting politics, and despite the fact that in Britain its cheesiness is only just tolerated by the prevailing irony.
As a demi-Austrian, I have a special affection for Conchita Wurst. That a bearded lady should trump the deep conservatism of the Austrian culture I knew as a child is wonderful; that she should do so with a song that made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up seems little short of miraculous. And contrary to the British tradition of drag (and Aussie, thank you, Dame Edna), Tomas Neuwirth bases his female persona on his considerable natural beauty and the result is something that is more than comic.
In the run-up to Eurovision, Conchita has been touring the UK, and the interviews give the impression of someone who has got to grips with the choices of life earlier than most. They reveal someone motivated primarily by the need to be who s/he is rather than a drive for fame or success. In this respect, I find her a model of authenticity.
So, as I prepare for my first trip to Vienna since the age of 13, the message of Eurovision 2015 for me is ‘Rise Like a Phoenix’ – in the knowledge that you will die.