What it’s like to die

His oldest brother was the first to toss a handful of J’s ashes at the base of some tall eucalypts in the Toolangi state forest.   His sisters went next and then the in-laws, including me. Even the grandchildren had a go. We dug deep into the plastic canister where the chalk white and grey grit of J’s remains rested heavy and took a handful of him, then tossed it to the wind.

Some stuck to the bark of the mountain ash.

IMG_0692 (1)We transformed this scattering of J into a photo shoot of sorts, as people do these days, not out of disrespect but because it seemed a good way to keep his memory alive.

No one else would. His partners had long ago deserted him and he had no children. Not that any of us knew. The only ones loyal to J right up to the end were his sisters and brothers. But by the time this ritual of final release took place there was no sadness left.

J was the youngest and had wasted his life on a belief that he had the gene for alcoholism. It gave him the excuse to drink and smoke twenty-four hours a day and to replace the alcohol with morphine when the cancer that ripped into his jaw took away his tolerance for any other sustenance.

J had wanted to offer his body to science, but no one wanted it, given his flesh and bones had started their long descent into decay well before he died.

After a few halfhearted attempts at treatment, the doctors left it to the palliative carers to make J’s death endurable, and endure it he did.


Shortly before he died, Dennis Potter spoke on the radio about his life and anticipated death, again from cancer. He was reconciled to the idea, though it gave him a strange new hold on life, he told his interviewer. It made him aware of the importance and inevitability of time.

‘Life can only be defined in the present tense,’ he said. The ‘nowness’ of things is all we can rely upon. We can never be certain about the past. It changes with our memory and recall, and the future is unpredictable, as yet unformed, but not the present.

To illustrate, Potter described the blossoms that had just erupted on the cherry tree outside his door, as the ‘blossomiest’ of blossoms, so lush, so fluffy, so fragrant, so magnificent. Why had he not noticed them before?

Death, Potter said, puts us back in touch with the present in the same way as when we are children. The present is always with us as children in that moment-to-moment experience of being wholly absorbed inside an experience, whether it is one of terror – and there are many terrifying moments as a child – or of bliss.

‘If you see the present tense, boy, do you see it,’ Potter said. ‘And boy, can you celebrate it.’

During the interview Potter searched his pockets for a cigarette, half apologised to his interviewer and joked that he could do as he pleased now, as far as taking in poisons, but not everyone was happy.

He told the story of a time when he pulled out a cigarette somewhere in a café in America, and the look on the waiter’s face, as if to kill.

‘In America it’s easier to draw out a gun than a cigarette.’


It comes upon me in a flash that sensation from my childhood, unattached to specific memories just a flash, of light, of colour, of smell. A sensation that erupts when I remember the newness of things, the tiny flowers on the diosma bush outside my garden, pink baby’s breath, the smell of the Rockman’s doll I unwrapped on my eight Christmas, baby sized and pink in its nakedness, as if I had magically given birth to my own baby but experienced none of the pain, only the exultant joy of welcoming this new creature into life.

This sensation relates to newness, and now in my sixties, no longer new, I cannot expect too many of these, not in the way of childhood. But I look forward to their return when, like Dennis Potter, I anticipate moving into this new space called death.

As Phillip Adams quips, ‘I hope I’m awake when I die. I want to know what it’s like.’


2 thoughts on “What it’s like to die”

  1. I watched the Dennis Potter interview when it was first broadcast. I’ve seen it twice since and I have a copy of the transcript which was published under the title, ‘Seeing the Blossom: Two Interviews and a Lecture’ in 1994. The interview had a tremendous influence on me at the time. I was as impressed by his work ethic as I was when I learned of Bartók who, likewise, struggled to complete two major works as he lay a-dying (his Third Piano Concerto and the Viola Concerto). When ‘Karaoke’ and ‘Cold Lazarus’ were broadcast a few weeks after Potter’s death I felt almost duty-bound to watch them and I’ve watched them both since. I don’t have a copy of the scripts but I do reference them in my new book along with ‘Stand Up, Nigel Barton’. Channel 4 has blocked the full interview on YouTube but there is a three minute clip on The Guardian site here: http://www.theguardian.com/news/video/2007/sep/11/dennis.potter

    I’ve never scattered anyone’s ashes but there’s a long section in my new book where Jim puzzles over how one would divvy up the ashes amongst a family. I find the whole thing rather odd but then I’ve never been big on ceremonies or even etiquette if it comes to that. I could never be a diplomat.

    If I can counter your Phillip Adams quote: I am not afraid of death, I just don’t want to be there when it happens. – Woody Allen. I think from now on I’m only going to write in quotes. People pay far more attention to them than great works of literature. I guess they were the tweets of their day. I’m not afraid to die. I would say it’s not something I think much about and yet it’s a subject that permeates my books. I wonder why?

  2. Thanks, Jim. It’s so quiet here now that i’ve moved house I have plenty of time to respond to your response. It’s interesting that you don’t think so much about death, and then write about it all the time. Maybe that’s your way of thinking about death. There’s some good comes out of this writing journey. It’s one way to think about difficult things that might otherwise not come up for us, at least not consciously. Though unconsciously and in fact we can’t get away from death. It just won’t leave us alone.

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