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I'm not having a funeral

Posted 22/06/2016

A good funeral can be a lovely thing. It is an opportunity to gather together in shared remembrance of a friend and in shared loss at the passing of that friend. I wrote down some thoughts a while ago after going to the funeral of a friend and neighbour. The funeral was a classic, traditional, by the book, C of E ceremony, familiar to and in a sad way enjoyed by everyone there.

The setting was a small 14th century church in a beautiful village. The church was packed with relatives, friends and neighbours and the ceremony followed a pattern that would have been recognised by anyone attending a funeral in that church during several previous centuries.

I knew the format, the hymns and the words and, as much as one can enjoy anything connected with the death of a friend, I enjoyed taking part and being there to witness the final journey of a lovely man. Wouldn't we all want a funeral like that? Well, since you asked, no. Not me.

After Tom's funeral I decided that my funeral would need just a few friends at the crem, followed by some good wine and cake, but my thinking has changed. I'm not having a funeral as such at all.

In the UK we benefit from the National Health Service - the NHS - and over the thick end of 60 years I have occasionally had the need to make use of its services. I was born in an NHS maternity hospital and had all my childhood vaccinations at the local NHS clinic. I've paid numerous visits to Accident & Emergency, what with two dislocations of the same knee, a couple of epic nosebleeds, a few stitches and a dog bite. Then there have been the regular appointments with doctors for coughs and colds and maintenance checkups along the way.

Up until a couple of years ago I had only stayed in hospital as an inpatient a couple of times (that knee again) but then I got a socking great tumour in my chest. Long story short; one small op, one big one, scans galore, x-rays by the sack full, enough radiation to burn a hole through a tank, needles, knives and drugs. And I came through the other side of it all intact. Saved by an NHS surgeon and a great team behind him.

Having worked in hospitals, and specifically in operating theatres, I am the most relaxed patient ever to be opened up like a cheap suitcase. I look up at the circle of masked faces, smile, chat and then let them do their work. And what a job of work they do.

A politician recently said that "people in the UK have had enough of experts". Hmmm. Try that theory next time you want a surgeon to carry out a thoracotomy on you. You'll be looking for the most expert and knowledgeable surgeon in the land like the rest of us. But how do those surgeons, and every other kind of doctor, the "experts" he derides, learn their stuff? Because they practise on dead people.

All doctors have to start somewhere. The first time they pick up a scalpel, or an endoscope, or a laryngoscope, you wouldn't volunteer yourself to be their first victim. Many of the procedures carried out by all doctors, not just surgeons, are pretty invasive and done by an inexpert hand, would be unpleasant and probably painful for the patient. And that's where dead bodies come in.

Anatomy books will get you only so far. Every medical doctor you ever met has practised on a cadaver. They study the bodies as anatomical models and they practise surgical techniques on patients who won't complain, won't flinch and won't die. Again.

I have been fortunate to live in a country with freely available healthcare, and I have been treated by doctors of every colour from every corner of the globe. My life was saved by a team of surgeons, anaesthetists, radiologists and nurses whom I will never be able to thank. So how can I put something back into the system which kept me alive? By going back for one more visit.

This is how it works. I die, my body goes to the medical school, people use my body to learn how to be good doctors, The End. It is referred to as a 'bequest' - you are bequeathing your body to a teaching hospital.

The Human Tissue Authority has some good information and answers many of the questions you might want to ask. You contact the teaching hospital of your choice, fill in the consent forms and then carry on living. When you die, as die we all must, instead of a being collected by a local undertaker, your body is collected by people from the hospital.

There are various options about what happens next. You can specify the length of time the hospital can use the body and exactly what the body can be used for. When the period of the bequest is over you can request that your body is returned to your family for a traditional funeral, or the hospital will cremate you and conduct a committal, memorial or thanksgiving service, attended by people who have used your body as part of their training.

Squeamish? Well, it's nobody's idea of fun, lying there, dead, being operated on. On the other hand a regular cremation or burial involve the eventual destruction of the body too, so one way or another - dust to dust and all that.

But what about those left behind? What about the wake? Getting everyone together to laugh, cry and remember the time he...? Well the problem with a traditional funeral is that it inevitably happens in a rush. Death, funeral, wake, sometimes within a week, these days more likely a month. Nowadays circles of friends and family can be widely scattered. Getting everyone together for the funeral and wake can be difficult at short notice and organising all the details at a time of bereavement and loss is awful.

A few years ago a great friend of mine gave his body to be used for medical training. His celebratory lunch - his wake - was held three months later. His family had time to plan, to make sure everyone was there and to allow the shock of the death to subside a little. Standing up to speak about my old friend was still hard, but everyone was there and we were all ready to see him off in style.

So this is my plan. Hopefully some of the young medical students who use me to develop their skills will go on to become experts, life savers, better doctors. Meanwhile my family and friends will be able to let the dust settle, plan a decent party and make sure everyone is there who wants to be there.

Nobody gets out of here alive but meantime we rely on doctors to help save us from disease, infirmity and occasionally our own stupidity (that knee again). I'd be happy to donate my old car to a promising young mechanic to learn her trade. I'm even happier to donate my old body so that young doctors can develop the skills which will save someone else's life in years to come.

© Copyright Poor Frank Raw, 2016