“I am actually writing a book about life, not death; and living life through the oddly invigorating lens of death, perhaps the better for it.”
New book about working with death
There’s a new book with a fresh perspective on death and funerals, and it is great. Evie King’s Ashes to Admin is a chronicle of the author’s work for her local council, where she is in charge of carrying out funerals under Section 46 of the Public Health Act. The act applies when someone dies and there is no-one to take on the cost of arranging a funeral. Whether due to isolation, estrangement or poverty – the traditional term was once the “Pauper’s Funeral” – the responsibility falls to the local authority. Read on for our Ashes to Admin book review.
Evie (a pseudonym) takes us through a series of her cases, each time encountering an apparently lonely death, and each time discovering a life. As she learns the work, she explores what it teaches her about life, family, community and herself.
The importance of a good funeral
There is much of this book relating to the death conversation and our work that recommends it, but first I’d say – read it if you’ve ever had a bad thought about your local council and the distant, uncaring drones who staff it. Evie takes us through a series of her cases, and in each one we see the extraordinary effort she puts into her work and how much she cares about “her people”, as she calls them. As well as the admin, she’s a detective piecing together people’s lives from the evidence in their houses. She calls whatever contacts she can find, looking for relatives and friends – breaking the news and explaining the situation, helping those people grieve and even effecting reconciliations. She doesn’t just register the death and arrange the funeral, she promotes it to the person’s communities – hoping to drum up attendance and often proving that even a reclusive life involves others around it.
Evie’s district is lucky to have her. It’s clear that her kind of service is not universal across the councils of this country. Some might simply want for resources, or the experience and commitment she has found, others though see the stigma of a Section 46 funeral as a means of deterring applicants – actively designing their funerals to be unfriendly and difficult. Fortunately though the author sees her role beyond her council’s boundaries, and wants to export her ideas and methods to other authorities.
Compassion, competence and humour
Evie’s discovery of the work that a death demands will be eye-opening for many and will resonate with those of us who have also found ourselves working in that world. Her depiction of the banality and beauty of funeral work, the mixture of compassion, competence and humour that is needed in the aftermath of a death, really strike a note. Also she talks about the difficulty of the work, and the impact it has on her life.
Death as part of life
She describes herself as a “morbid Mary Poppins”, a professional who finds genuine connection with the people she helps – but then has to move quickly on to the next lot who need her. She finds herself often in conversation with people in the first days and even moments of grief – an elevating but exhausting experience:
“Death is so profound, bemusing, existential, distressing, that it obliterates small talk and raises the conversation far and above the norm…As the job goes on, I find that spending so much of my time inhabiting this hinterland where the usual rules and walls are gone, has left me permanently open. This proves to be both good and bad for me; far less bullshit but much more crying.”
Though she maintains a life and identity outside the work, it becomes a permanent perspective and affects how she experiences everything. It also never really stops:
“The second I draw a line between myself and the job, I deem my people to be a task and place them and their family on a par with a website update or license variation. If you’re going to do a job so tied up in life, you have to let it into your own and draw on that.”
Ashes to Admin book review – highly recommended!
This aspect of the work can be overwhelming and I hope that writing the book has helped her deal with it – and that reading and recognising it will help other death professionals gain perspective..
But it is not a book simply for industry insiders – it is a funny, moving and enlightening experience for any reader. It’s about universal experiences, not just death, grief, admin and covid, but also family, friendships, service and joy.