Saturday, 2 May 2020
The Death Lollipop Lady
So, this is weird. We're all locked down, facing our mortality on a daily basis, many of us coping by becoming Really Very Serious about sourdough. One thing no one seems to be doing to cope is having the, "if I die" conversation. Below is an interview with the brilliant Amy Pickard, who runs Good To Go, a "get-your-shit-together-before-you-die" business. No one likes a death reminder and even fewer people like the idea of homework with it, but trust me: read on.
So in the interests of not being a massive hypocrite – Little Miss We Should Talk About It when I haven't had the conversation myself – I'm just going to briefly kick us off, ok?
If I die, do whatever the eco-thing-du-jour is with my body, especially if the catholic church isn't on board with it yet. If anyone wants bits of my ashes to put in a necklace or whatever, have at it, it's a free-for-all, and frankly none of my business. Give all my books to Steph. Take whatever is in my bank account and order good pizza for the funeral. Tell my sister to relax 25% more, tell Alex to drive slower, tell Toby to write a book. I was funny – talk about that. I was wrathful – gloss over that.
And don't read my unpublished writing; it's probably not ready, and there is nothing more horrifying to a writer than the prospect of being remembered by a first draft.
Without further ado, please join me behind the scenes of This Party's Dead with an interview that sadly, had to be cut for length: Amy Pickard, the Death Lollipop Lady.
Amy Pickard thanks me and thanks me and thanks me when she answers the Skype call. It seems a baffling way to begin an interaction, but she explains: when I asked if I could speak to her about her business Good To Go, she realised she had seen my name before. She’d read my Guardian Weekend article about the day we found Chris, and it had made her decide to travel to Ohio to spend Christmas with her dad. It turned out to be not only the best Christmas she’d spent with him, but the last.
Amy is delightful; she shares heartily, swears liberally, laughs a big laugh easily. She was a freelance TV producer and filmmaker in LA, and while she was between gigs her mother died unexpectedly of pneumonia. She went to her house in Chicago and realised she had a huge amount to take care of – she didn't even know which electric company her mother used, or even which ones exist in Illinois. She found herself googling 'electric company in Chicago' and calling, hoping it was the correct one, to find out answers to mundane but pressing questions such as: when is her bill due? How much is it? She didn't have the password for her mother’s laptop, phone or online banking. “It was a complete fucking nightmare,” she says – not least because she was trying to deal with these thousand details while still in shock.
“I started talking to my mom's friends and then my friends' parents about it and they sympathised, and I said, ‘Yeah, well do you have your shit together in case something happens to you?’ I told them all the stuff I was encountering and they said, ‘I never thought of that’. I started recording all the crap I had to encounter, the million questions. Luckily I was super tight with my mom so I knew she wanted to be cremated, but I didn't have the details – what did she want to be put in? Did she want her ashes sprinkled somewhere? It took me about a year to write a booklet just to help my friends, and they suggested I make it a business.”
Amy realised she wanted to help people with their advance planning, “I wanted to be the death lollipop lady, ushering people to the other side, making sure they have what they need.” Though she’s had clients who are in a hospice or recently diagnosed with a terminal illness, Amy is primarily targeting people who are young and healthy, people for whom death is still an abstraction. So she decided to sell it as a party. They drink and play a death-themed soundtrack – Another One Bites the Dust, Knockin' On Heaven's Door – while filling in the booklet, every conceivable bit of information that a loved one might need: bills, companies, passwords, security information, wishes for after death, and so on. It cuts out all the detective work. Parties last around three hours, “with breaks for hugs and dessert”.
“Movies skip right over this bit, don’t they?” I say.
“Yes!” says Amy, “People think there's a funeral and that's it – but what about the death chores? I'm trying to make people aware of this whole new area that can make grief less complicated. When their shit's taken care of you can spend that time focusing on the love you had and trying to navigate the loss, instead of having to sit on the phone to Bank of America to find things out.”
I’d nominate Amy’s business for the world’s toughest sell. This is something any of us could do for free, but omit to (87% of Americans don’t even have a will or a living will). It’s boring, upsetting, and involves a reminder that we’re going to die, a fact most of us have been trained to reflexively ignore.
“It's a hard sell,” I say, “because we've decided it's normal and acceptable to never think about your own death. We love murder mysteries and shootouts, but talk about your own death and people get upset. What's wrong with us?”
“It's the cultural narrative,” she says, “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. I’m not saying it's easy when your loved one dies, I'm saying that if we just accept it's coming, it's going to be less of a shock, less of a foreign entity. In LA everybody has earthquake kits, and that's something that might happen, yet when you're faced with death which is going to happen, we don't want to prepare. I just don't understand that.”
“In your wildest dreams,” I say, “what does the future look like for this industry?”
“I’d love to elaborate preparations, like: what do you want for your ‘sound will’?”
“A sound will?”
“Yes,” she says with enthusiasm, “Hearing is the last sense to go when you're dying, so what do you want to hear when you're dying? You don't want the beeps of a heart monitor. My dad loved fishing, so if I'd thought of it when he was dying in hospital I'd have played an audio file of the sound of a cast hitting the water, reeling in, waves lapping against a boat. I like the idea of virtual reality in dying people's rooms, letting them be wherever they want to be.”
This is a revelation. Using technology not to fight death, but to create a hyper-accepting luxury death experience. In life we surround ourselves with sound-proofing, decorations and plush fabrics, yet when we're dying our surroundings are harsh, angular, and soundtracked by a stressful BEEP... BEEP... BEEP…
“And a shitty crisp white blanket!” Amy continues, “If you're not able to speak for yourself, what do you want people to know? I wrote that if I'm in a coma I want all my senses stimulated, that my feet are always cold so I want to be wearing slippers, I want to always be wearing lip balm, to hear The Beatles, I want smelly candles, I even wrote down the scents I want. When your loved ones are feeling helpless, with a list they can feel helpful doing what you asked them to do.”
This is a step up from the privilege of thinking you’ll die in a hospital with a staff dedicated to your care. But why not? It’s inexpensive, and it gives your family a sense that they can help, even if just by applying lip balm.
“We put more thought into building our own burrito than we do about our own deaths!” says Amy, throwing her hands up, “People say ‘no one wants to fill out advanced planning forms’ – well, no one wants to fill out tax forms, but we do it. If it's offered as part of your paperwork then there's no stigma.”
“What’s something you always tell people to write down?”
“That there's no time limit on sprinkling the ashes. Also mention if you're in possession of someone else's cremains – if you and your husband died today, your family wouldn't know what to do with your father-in-law's ashes.”
But while Amy’s business falls under the umbrella of death acceptance, she’s having trouble finding her place among all the different death positive movements. The medical community are resistant because they have their own paperwork they want patients to fill out. She’s tried fitting in with the spiritual community, because surely you can’t live mindfully and then reject dying mindfully, but they “don’t want to take it to that level”. She went to The Order of the Good Death and Undertaking LA in the hopes of joining Caitlin Doughty’s funeral home to give workshops, but she says, “they don’t want to know”. She loves death cafes for the open conversation but says, “it doesn't give you anything that's going to make it easier for your loved ones”.
“You're the detail in the death positive movement,” I say.
“Right. Good To Go is like a death cafe with homework.”
Her father came to a Good To Go party a year before he died, while he was healthy. With no idea that he would be dead a year later, he organised his entire death with Amy in mind.
“It made my grief less complicated and much easier than my mom’s death,” she says, “I’m living proof that advance planning cuts down on anxiety, anger and confusion. When you have your loved one instructing you on almost everything, even words of comfort they give you on mourning their deaths, it makes grief so much easier. It allows you the brain space to grieve, celebrate your love and focus on navigating your new normal, instead of being stuck in a nightmare of logistics.”
Amy sent me a departure file.
I haven’t opened it yet.
But I will. I swear.