By Erica Buist

Grief, Joy and Spilled Rum at the World’s Death Festivals

Monday, 16 December 2019

120%, you say? Have an interview with standup comedian Dr Phil Hammond

Hello This Party's Dead subscribers! 

I have several things to tell you and they're all exciting. ALL OF THEM.

  • I didn't make a huge deal of it at the time, because I was busy drinking champagne in my pyjamas, but the book sailed over the 100% preorder target a while ago. THANK YOU. That was you, that was. You'll be rewarded with my eternal gratitude and also a book, hopefully around summer 2020 but I'll keep you updated.
  • The manuscript is finished, and about to be sent for edits.
  • Preorders are still ticking up. It's just hit 120%, and I've decided that for every 5% milestone, I will release one of the MANY interviews with fascinating people I did that, for reasons of length, I won't be able to include in the book.
  • Which means you're getting the first now. Scroll down for an exclusive interview with probably the funniest man who could resuscitate you if you needed it: Dr Phil Hammond. (Catch some of his excellent standup here.)

Here are the interviews I have lined up, and their associated targets:

120%: Dr Phil Hammond, GP and standup comedian, half of the 90s duo Struck Off and Die (scroll down for the full interview)

125%: Jesse Karmazin, the doctor who is injecting his patients with teenage plasma at $8,000 a pop to turn back the clock on the ageing process. "A lot of people see ageing as a natural thing, and I just disagree."

130%: Liz Rothschild, award-winning burial ground owner with a brilliant one-woman show, Outside the Box. "'Yes, it’s for me,' she says of the cardboard coffin she's weaving. She lies down in it, and tells the story of a woman in a coffin-weaving class who complained it wasn’t comfortable. 'We forget,' she grins, 'we won’t be there!'”

135%: Katie Williams, who started the Kiwi Coffin Club which spawned this fantastic music video. "I’m a big girl so my coffin is rectangular, it's got wallpaper on it which I got for $20 in the bargain bin, it's got six handles, and I'm currently at age 80 making friends with strong beautiful young men, and hoping they'll love me enough to be a pallbearer, because that's what I'll need to carry me."

140%: Amy Pickard, who runs Good To Go, a service to remove all the death chores for your loved ones when you die. “We're taught that death is a punishment. And it’s even worse when you live in LA, where it’s a sin to age."

145%: Eugenia Kuyda, who made an AI bot version of her best friend Roman Mazurenko after he died. "A lot of motivation came out of it. His bot would text things like ‘get back to work, think of your life like there’ll be a movie about you; it has to be good, it can't be you just eating chicken salad’."

150%: James Norris, founder of DeadSocial, a social media tool that allows you to post messages after you've died. "'The photograph is a form of immortality. I don't think DeadSocial is death-denying at all.' Then he says the last thing I'm expecting him to say: 'I really want to die sat on the toilet. It's so mundane, it's rocknroll.'"

155%: Jason Moore, who founded SwanSongs to allow customers to send letters decades or even centuries in the future. "I was very close to my great grandmother, who was born in 1898. She died when I was in my mid-twenties. I thought, why has she not left any letters? She had such an interesting life in Victorian times, and it was all lost... I thought, ‘That can't happen to me'."


An interview with Dr Phil Hammond 

I’m in a dark auditorium telling a stranger he’s going to die. He’s grinning at me. It’s annoying. I tell him again, “YOU’RE. GOING. TO. DIE.” He’s just smiling. This guy might be an idiot.

We’re watching a play called My World Has Exploded A Little Bit at the Edinburgh Fringe, part of a side-festival called Death On the Fringe. The writer and star of the show, Bella Heesom, has instructed the audience to turn to each other and break the news. We chuckle awkwardly at the notion of being made to talk at all, let alone to say something so, well, rude.

We make the kind of brief, stilted chat you have with strangers in dark theatres when someone’s making you to announce your mortality to each other. Once we’ve broken the considerable ice, I say, as matter-of-factly as I can, “You're going to die".

"Ok," he says, smiling.

"You're supposed to say it back to me now."

“Ok. When are you going to die?”

“No, it’s: YOU'RE. GOING. TO. DIE."

“Ok! Maybe you too – I hope not!"

I coax. But he won’t tell me the truth.


After the show, I meet Bella and tell her about my tight-lipped audience buddy. Apparently, I’m not the first to have a partner who wouldn’t say it.

“I feel kind of cheated.”

“You shouldn’t,” she says, “It’s to acknowledge that another person is going to die. That's the thing that I was trying to get people to accept. He denied himself that experience.”

Why wouldn’t he tell me something I know, something we’ve all known since our dads blurted it out and pointed and laughed at us? Perhaps because it's rude; we’re not even supposed to ask people's ages, surely because it's impolite to remind people they have an expiry date. At the risk of oversimplifying one of the central votexes of anguish at the core of our humanity: can’t we just accept it?


There’s a queue snaking around the reception of the Fringe venue, The Space. We’re filing in slowly because Dr Phil Hammond, the stand-up we’re about to see in a show called Life and Death (But Mainly Death), is on the door, shaking the hand of every audience member as we enter. I hear a voice I vaguely recognise saying, “Hi, big fan, big fan, especially your early nineties stuff”. Once we’re all seated, with little fanfare, Dr Phil gets onstage and announces that people who see shows with ‘death’ in the title are statistically more likely to die.

This should be tougher going, given that he's talking to us – as advertised – mainly about death. We're led into the discussion via a PowerPoint presentation about Dr Phil's family history, with some wonderfully goofy pictures of him. In a sharp steer into the tragic, we learn of the death of his father at age 38. Phil was convinced that he, too, would drop dead of a heart attack. He trained as an NHS doctor and started writing for Private Eye, always figuring, “I might as well do it, I’m going to be dead at 38”.

He finally told his mother he feared for his heart, and she said, “I think it’s your head you might want to worry about”. That’s when Phil found out his father's death was, in fact, suicide. 

“We didn’t tell the truth about death,” Dr Phil confesses about his time as a doctor; they used euphemisms, and told outright lies like, “it’ll get a little worse before it gets better”, to squash the bitter facts of the prognosis. When the duty of candour came in in 2014, doctors had to start being honest about a patient’s prognosis, however bleak.

And candid he truly is about ours: “There is no great purpose, there is no grand design; we’re all slowly returning to room temperature.”

Both the show and my subsequent conversation with Dr Phil are comforting. I feel I’ve been gently slipped into a world where dying is commonplace – like the existence of banana splits, just a thing in the world – not something we're supposed to rage, rage against after all. In this haze of rosy acceptance, I approach Dr Phil in the lobby where he’s surrounded by fans and friends. I recognise the actor Tony Gardner – just a few days before I’d been watching him play a pervy middle-aged professor in the show Fresh Meat. Tony and Phil met when they were junior doctors and then in 1993 started appearing in the comedy duo Struck Off and Die. I get close enough to hear Tony joke, “…he’s great, especially his early nineties stuff”. The penny drops. I smile. The joke was worth repeating.

Dr Phil sees me and says to his crowd, “Ah, you’ll have to excuse me, I’m going to do an interview.”

Tony turns to me and says, “Oh you’ll have a lovely time, he’s great – especially his early nineties stuff.” I have a feeling he’s going to tweet that later.

The great social taboos have historically been sex, money and religion, but in the west, death seems to have ascended to the top of the Do Not Mention list. Dr Phil thinks it might have started when we moved life and death out of the home, "The anthropological bookends of life, birth and death, used to happen in the home and therefore we weren’t frightened of them. People used to lay the bodies out, they wouldn’t call the undertaker immediately, the whole family would be there, the kids would be playing at the person’s feet. The fact is that now most of it, too much of it, happens in a hospital. It takes it away from our cultural experience and that makes us frightened of it."

I have trouble picturing a world where death is less frightening because of proximity to my bedside table, but perhaps that’s because I get to live in an age where there are hopes of survival – provided by science, not prayer. I live in a time and place of such astounding privilege that there are dedicated buildings packed with equipment and people whose main objective is to make me better. And because of my passport, the right to go there doesn’t even hinge on my wealth. We died at home when there was nowhere to go that offered any hope that we’d be saved. Now, we’d be mad not to try everything – and to try everything, we can’t be at home.

On this, Dr Phil seems to agree. “I say that maybe we actually did it better in the old days – as a junior doctor, a nurse would come to you at the end of the day and say 'Can you sign up these drugs for these patients?' and the patients would die overnight, nearly always when there was nobody around, and they’d have decent, kind, gentle deaths. I guess one of the side effects of advances in technology in medicine is we have the capacity to pull out all the stops, and give people high-tech deaths that are actually quite unkind. Just because we can do something doesn’t mean we should."

The further technology advances, the more we feel we have something on which to hang our hopes of survival, and the more anxious about dying we become. Atheism is at an all-time high, but we still go to hospital hoping for miracles – in fact, it’s often said that the NHS is our national religion, which makes doctors the unfortunate deities to whom we turn for salvation. Yet when doctors are facing their own deaths, the "pull-out-all-the-stops-to-save-me" approach isn't what most of them want.

”Doctors want virtually no intervention at all,” says Dr Phil, “They don’t want dialysis or resuscitation, they just want to be kept comfortable." Why, I wonder, hasn’t this incredibly telling fact been made clearer? I want that on a poster in the waiting room. I’m sure it’s hard to hear when a loved one is crashing, but come on: if the chef doesn’t recommend the clams…

Another little-discussed fact about resuscitation is that it doesn’t often work, particularly outside a hospital. TV has given us the idea that it’s all rather routine: an important character collapses, someone who went to bloody drama school for this yells, “Is anyone here a doctor?!”, a good-looking man steps forward, demands space and gently presses on their chest, breaks none of their ribs, and the patient coughs back to life having learned a valuable lesson about what’s really important. It’s a great dramatic tool, but it’s not realistic. If you have a heart attack outside of a hospital, you have around a 7% chance of survival.

”Resuscitation isn’t usually successful because it generally happens to older people,” says Dr Phil, “When your heart stops, it’s generally telling you something. There are rarities like that footballer, Fabrice Muamba, who was 23 and very fit and athletic when he suffered cardiac arrest – but once you get older your chances of survival are pretty poor."

“Speaking of heart attacks,” I say, because I’m a master of the tactful segue, “you believed for a lot of your life that your father died of a heart attack at 38. When you found out he didn't, did that ease your anxiety?”

"Well, I didn’t want a genetic predisposition to a rare condition that makes your heart stop, but if you have severe depression and suicide in your family it gives you a 40% increased risk. But I’m not my dad, I’ve learned. By the time I found out I’d done lots of stressful things and never suffered any mental illness and I don’t think I ever will. I’m very lucky. So in a way it was a relief."

So what can we take away from all these death discussions? Should we all just bloody well accept that we're "leaves on the death tree" and get on with it? Well, yes, but there's no need to be a dick about it – which Tony Gardner kind of was. As Dr Phil recounted in his show, Tony would break the news of a cancer diagnosis by saying, "You know what your problem is? You've got cancer and you're going to die." He said occasionally patients would admire his honesty and frankness, but others would be very upset. "I think a bit of honesty is important," says Dr Phil, "but kind truth is what we need, not brutal honesty."

“Well, there's a death festival happening around us, there seems to be a lot of frank conversations happening around death. Do you feel that's changing anything about the western habit of feeling horrified about it?”

"I think we’re sort of becoming more accepting of it," says Dr Phil, “It’s never too late to talk about things. Talk about your wishes with your family and what you want, commit it to paper and plan it. If you don’t, you’re risking having an unpleasant and over-technical death.”

When I picture my own death (which, I admit, is still as little as possible), I see myself as old, and I see hospital beds and tubes, I hear beeps – in short, I see technology. I guess what this says about me that is I’m privileged – I’m assuming I’ll reach old age, within a medical system that will take care of me. But it also means I can’t picture a death that isn’t “over-technical”. Until talking to Dr Phil, I thought people yelling, “CLEAR!”, the beeps, the zaps and the dramatic circling of the drain were par for the course, just the way we die now. I’m stunned at the suggestion that every high-tech bit of that scene is, if you plan for it, a choice. And if you don’t, if it’s left to the people who are trained to save you at any cost, it becomes your only choice.

In a much softer manner than he announced during his show (“We either get cancer, heart disease or stroke. That’s how we die in this country. Get used to it.”), Dr Phil tells me how I, and indeed he, will probably die. "If we don’t kill ourselves, generally we are going to die of one of those three. Those are the normal ways of dying."

Well, I guess we're all friends here now – so which of the three would he go for, given the choice?

"I think I’d like to go quickly. Probably a heart attack. Quick, boom – and not be resuscitated."

It’s months before I realise the death he described was my father-in-law's.

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Mike Grenville
 Mike Grenville says:

Great interview!

I wrote an article for the Natural Death Centre magazine with some thoughts about how we have become so death phobic. The trauma of WW1 has a lot to do with it I concluded.

posted 17th December 2019

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