Have you ever thought about your fantasy funeral, pondered your dream epitaph or wondered what you do if knew you had a week left on Earth?
A selection of six writers, comedians and actors shared their innermost feelings about death, dying and loss with us with a carefully crafted combination of candour and comedy in our podcast series Dead Good.
We’ve picked out some of the best bits in a new series of article and if you like what you read you can then click on the link at the end of each one to hear the whole of that interview. They really are rather good – Dead Good in fact.
A childhood haunted by the Holocaust in post-war New York combined with deeply challenging relationships with his parents, left London-based comedian Lewis Schaffer struggling to cope with his response to their deaths. Now though, after something of a mid-life crisis focused on his own mortality, Lewis is looking ahead with positivity and a resolve to ensure he retains a close bond with his own children – right to the end of his life.
Growing up in a Jewish neighbourhood in New York soon after World War II, Lewis tells podcast host Sajeela Kershi he remembers being aware and afraid of death from a very early age.
“You saw lots of people walking down the streets with numbers written on them, you know, tattooed on their arms that the Nazis had put on their arms… You live knowing you’re going to die. You die knowing you’re going to die. I mean, I just lived in a constant state of fear.”
Lewis was 18 when his first close relative died – his grandfather and his strongest memory is that of not coping well with the way people reacted at the funeral. “I remember being really upset. Not that I cared that much about my grandfather, I wasn’t really that close to him. But I just thought that they shouldn’t be laughing.”
Twenty years ago, by which time Lewis was living in London, his father had a stroke. Domestic life in London affected the decision he took about being with his father, now thousands of miles from his new home.
“Before he died I went and visited him. Then I flew back to England to be with my kid because I thought my kid was more important than my father dying. I’m childlike in a way. I wasn’t able to handle these things.”
Looking back now, Lewis has mixed emotions about his actions two decades ago as he ponders his expectations of his children when he approaches death. “I don’t totally regret it…It’s sad because now, I’m approaching the age of my father and I see how my children are with me. And I’m thinking I don’t want them to feel bad about their failure, possible failure to take care of me when I’m older. I don’t want to burden them either.”.
Things certainly weren’t any less complicated emotionally when Lewis’s mother died eight years later, news he says that made him feel relieved.
“It was a very bad ending for her because I hadn’t spoken to her in a very long time. Basically… I couldn’t deal with her. I mean, I’m a man of total guilt and resentment for this. I just wasn’t a good person.”
Like many performers, Lewis found a way to deal with his emotions through his work, only in his case he chose to really expose himself. For each night of his Unopened Letters from My Mother show at the Edinburgh Festival, Lewis opened and read for the first time one of the 22 letters his mother had sent him which he’d left sealed and unread for more than ten years. It was like he was performing therapy on himself.
“It was absolutely brilliant for me. I don’t know if people who saw the show, thought it was brilliant, but it made me think about the life of this mother. My mother this woman was my mother and my life.”
Lewis is aware that his behaviour and attitude towards his parents may not play well to the gallery.
“I don’t know what you’re hearing. I must sound like a horrible person with my parents and my fear. I feel sadness and regret and loss. But I also feel, thank God my parents aren’t here, that I don’t have to focus on them.”
So what of Lewis’s approach to life and death now? It turns out he’s undergone something of a transformation following a three-year period in his 50s when his body started to crumble and he convinced himself he only had a year to live.
This inspired Lewis to list off the essential tasks he needed to take care of. Most pertinently, he resolved to think about being healthy, in part because he realised how much he really didn’t want to die and also because he didn’t want to be a burden to his children like his parents had been to him. The change has been huge.
“I believe I’ve completely turned myself around that way. I’m not depressed anymore. And all those problems that I listed are gone, plus tons of others that I had.”
Lewis’s Departure Lounge
How would you spend your last week on Earth: Trawling the internet looking for an alternative diagnosis or second opinion
Fantasy funeral: A huge event at which all the guests make speeches about the funny things Schaffer said!
Epitaph: Two boats and a helicopter (the punchline to a joke that guests will need to find).
To find our more about Lewis’s theory of why all children are obsessed with death, why Jewish people are buried in simple coffins and his determination not to make his kids feel guilty, listen to this episode of our podcast Dead Good here.