My fantasy funeral would be a celebration with 80s party food

As I envision the grand finale of my mortal existence, the word ‘traditional’ is nowhere
in sight.

No coffins, no sombre gatherings, and certainly no hushed remembrances wearing black. I’m opting for a celebration that mirrors the quirky essence of my existence. A nod to my peculiar life that’s sure to leave everyone scratching their heads.

Let’s kick off the festivities with a grand entrance – or should I say, roll? Forget the fancy coffins or even a cardboard box; toss me straight into a wheelbarrow. Let’s keep it simple, and more importantly, get me cremated ASAP. There’s no need for my physical form to linger any longer than necessary. Efficiency is key to me, even in the afterlife.

Now, about that funeral service everyone dreads – not on my watch! The idea of a traditional funeral service makes me cringe. A group of people gathered around, speaking in hushed tones about what a nice guy I was? No, thank you. No whispers and black-clad mourners here. Instead, let’s throw a party – a bash that I’ve curated from beyond the grave.

Picture it: upbeat tunes I love, sprinkled with just enough morbidity to keep the mood appropriately eerie. A Joy Division track, perhaps? Nothing like a bit of post-punk to get the party started.

And speaking of parties, I’d love a shrine dedicated to the many (un)glorious faces that I’ve managed to ruin perfectly pleasant photos with over the years (sorry mum). The more absurd, the better – because why take life too seriously, even in death? It’s a celebration, after all, and laughter should be the centrepiece.

A photograph of a table of party food, including bowls of crisps, plates of party rings and a Thomas the Tank Engine cake.
Party rings and sausage rolls galore!

Now, onto the sustenance – the food. No fancy caterers or gourmet delicacies; I’m talking about the nostalgia-inducing delights of 80s party fare. Cheese and pineapple on sticks, party rings, and pork pies cut into quarters to make them go further. Cap it off with jelly and ice cream, a culinary throwback
to the simpler times when life was just as sweet.

They say you should never speak ill of the dead, but let’s not sugar-coat things. In the spirit of honesty, let the guests share all the things they thought about me – the cheapness, the grumpiness, the infuriating neck cracking when stressed. It’s a roast I won’t be around to hear, but I’ll be smiling from the great beyond, neck-cracking and all.

So, as I bid adieu to this mortal coil, remember me not with tears, but with laughter, music, and a questionable spread of 80s delights. After all, if death is inevitable, why not make the exit memorable?

In the end, let my send-off be a testament to the joy of imperfection, the beauty of laughter, and a celebration of a life lived authentically – warts, quirks, and all.

:: This story was from our Spring/Summer issue of Connect magazine. To read the full magazine, or to sign up to receive future editions, please click here.

A day in the life of a hospice housekeeper

Within the vibrant walls of our Centre for Awareness and Response to End of Life (CARE), one individual stands as the quiet force behind the scenes – Tracey Cooke, the unsung hero with a personal connection to the hospice that drew her to join our team.

Her connection with the hospice is deeply personal, rooted in family ties and a desire to turn a painful
memory into a purposeful career. Before joining St Christopher’s six years ago, Tracey worked as both a shop assistant and a teaching assistant. However, the turning point came when her sister spent her final days at the hospice, leaving an indelible mark.

Her initial hesitation, fuelled by preconceptions and painful memories, was palpable. Her mother, influenced by the shadow of grief, tried to dissuade her. She had preconceptions about it being a depressing place, however, the pull toward St Christopher’s persisted.

“When the time did come that I thought ‘I’m gonna give it a go,’ my mum, bless her, wasn’t around, so I thought ‘I’ll try,’” Tracey says.

Revisiting the hospice where her sister died was initially overwhelming. But Tracey found solace and purpose within these walls. She started by working in the public-facing areas before moving to the laundry team. Now she oversees our education space, which opened three years ago. Taking on the role of housekeeper for CARE in 2021, Tracey stepped into a domain where her love for the job, camaraderie with colleagues, and a profound sense of responsibility converged. “I love working over here, I get on with the staff, and I can get on with what I need to do,” she says.

Tracey begins work at 7am and as she’s the only one in the building at this time, she can prioritise the spaces hosting functions before moving onto her routine tasks. Although it’s predominantly a space for education and community engagement, the building’s high-ceiling atrium has also hosted quizzes, concerts, patient’s birthday parties, fashion shows and even a wedding fair. One consistent, however, is that it’ll be Tracey working to get CARE back into shape for the next event.

The scale of the centre often surprises visitors and colleagues alike. “When they have the course or functions on here, I get to see different people, and they pass comment and say things like ‘This is so lovely, do you clean this on your own?’” she says, smiling.

A photo of St Christopher's CARE from the outside
St Christopher’s Centre for Awareness and Response to End of Life opened in 2021

It’s the vibrancy of CARE during these events which bring Tracey immense joy. The bustling energy, a reflection of her efforts. She’s developed relationships and rapport with both visitors, staff and volunteers,
and her role is crucial to supporting this environment. “I see the building almost as mine and treat it as my own house,” Tracey explains, underscoring the pride she takes in her work.

Her role extends beyond the physical upkeep; it’s a labour of love. On some of the more quieter days in the Centre, she’ll bring in her dog, Casey, a chihuahua.

Tracey Cooke stands as a beacon of cheerful resilience, turning personal loss into a source of strength. Her journey at St Christopher’s is a testament to the transformative power of purpose and the profound impact one individual can have on the heartbeat of a hospice dedicated to education, community, and compassionate care.

Our dynamic centre is available to organisations and individuals for hire. To find out more email h.priest@stchristophers.org.uk

:: This story was from our Spring/Summer issue of Connect magazine. To read the full magazine, or to sign up to receive future editions, please click here.

Alan’s story of getting to France for the Rugby World Cup

How do you tell the story of Alan Newman?

“Who’s going to want to read about me,” he says. In his view. “It’s all a bit boring.”

That comment pales as he begins to reel off story after story.

Tales of kayaking in the French Alps in wild rapids with drops up to 7ft, or of driving 150mph in a Supercharged XKR Jaguar. And that is just what the 62-year-old has been up to since his cancer diagnosis in 2021.

Before that, Alan, whose nickname is Mr Incredible, spent his holidays mountain climbing in France, Spain, Italy and Switzerland, once sleeping next to a 600ft drop tied to a crucifix.

His wife Louise sits next to him in the St Christopher’s Anniversary Centre. Alan has just had an appointment with his pain team and his consultant, Dr Sara Robbins. When he was asked the question we strive to ask everyone who comes under our care – What Matters to You? – his response was instant: watching England’s Rugby World Cup game against Samoa in Lille.

Alan and Louise wear England Rugby World Cup shirts in the stadium with the pitch in the background
Alan and Louise at the match in Lille

“They were worried about me going, they were going to try and stop me,” Alan says. But Dr Sara soon got the measure of him, explains Louise. “Once they realised it was a goal that he wanted to achieve, Sara and the team were all over the pain relief,” she adds.

At this point, Alan – who has an advanced tumour in his head – had got used to challenging medical opinions. His oncologist advised him of the risks of going skiing in 2023, warning him that it would not be nice for his family to bring his body back in the hold of the plane.

“Well, my son Dan is driving so they can sling me in the boot,” was Alan’s reply.

To prepare for the trip to Lille, he had a brief admission to the hospice’s inpatient unit – fittingly he was on Rugby Ward – to get his medication levels right. After that first match, buoyed with optimism, Alan secured tickets for England’s quarter-final win against Fiji and then the subsequent semi-final defeat in Paris against eventual winners South Africa. That trip was booked with all the lads in the pub at 10.30pm, just six hours before they left for Paris.

It was not all plain sailing during the trips over to France, though. With Louise not there in Paris, his nephew and sons were in charge of the medication as well as helping with the wheelchair.

“They nearly piled me out of it a few times,” Alan says, adding: “To be honest, people looked at us like we were mad.”

When Alan was first referred to St Christopher’s in Autumn 2023, his oncologist at Guy’s Hospital had given him just a few weeks to live.

“Anytime someone says that I’ve only got roughly this amount time left, in my head I know I’m gonna beat it,” he says. “It’s never crossed my mind to not approach it like that.”

As a child, Alan had to try to keep up with his older brother and two older cousins. The four of them would spend all their free time out on their bikes, pulling crazy stunts such as cycling straight into a wall.
Alan’s dad was a Commander in the Police and would take all four of them out on his police motorbike. And he once built a zip-wire in the garden which ended with six-year-old Alan smashing into a wall. “Blood everywhere,” he says.

“We called it a ‘yabbadabba-doo’ machine. After I hit the wall my dad said, ‘oh I’ll just go and find a mattress that you can land into’.”

As he got older, he channelled this sense of adventure into rock climbing, off-road biking and skiing. His sons, Dan and Will also took to this way of life as did Louise when they first got together 20 years ago – also during a Rugby World Cup when they travelled over to watch England’s victorious campaign in Australia.

“We realised on that trip that we wanted to be more than friends,” says Louise. “Maybe we got overtaken by all the excitement of Jonny Wilkinson and England winning,” she jokes. “But it was an amazing trip and we started seeing each other when we got back.”

Alan is held up by his two sons after a night at the pub

For Alan, the main difficulty has been the physical impact of his illness, rather than the mental. Despite being able to defeat the odds of his diagnosis by going skiing last year or by that kayaking trip in July 2023, it is becoming harder.

“Since that kayak trip, it’s been downhill. This season I know I’m not going to be able to ski or kayak… so that’s going to be worse for me. Of course, mentally it is hard but nothing like I’d expected,” he says. “Getting up the stairs, getting in and out of bed, not being able to do what I want, that’s harder.”

“Al’s always been incredibly strong mentally and physically,” adds Louise. “He has a built-in resilience.
So, approaching his diagnosis in this way is just how he has to do it. The strength he shows in everything he does is incredible.”

It inspires other people too. A close friend of the couple’s also has cancer. “Al kept encouraging him to go out as much as possible as he knew it would help him,” Louise says.

One of the ways he has kept up with friends is his regular Friday night trips to the couple’s local pub in Chislehurst. Around 20 of Alan’s friends – including his sons and their mates – spend the evening together in what Alan’s dubbed ‘Moretti and Morphine’ Fridays (M&M).

“Then they’ll all pile around my house afterwards,” he laughs, showing me a photo of his two sons helping him home from the pub after a recent trip.

“My boys have been brilliant,” he says. “I’ve got an amazing wife and my big sons who can help me up the stairs or down the pub.”

The couple are also full of praise for the support they have received from the NHS and St Christopher’s.
“I’ve been blown away by the amount of support we’ve had,” says Louise. “When you first hear about palliative care in hospital, you think ‘have we been written off?’ A lot of people don’t realise that palliative care means helping with pain and helping to live. They just think you’ve got hours to live but it’s not like that,” she adds.

“That’s what I thought, to be honest,” says Alan. “But it’s not true. St Christopher’s have been amazing, the place is really great, Dr Sara, the nurses, receptionists, everyone is amazing.”

As the conversation comes to a close, Alan picks up his phone. “I’m gonna give my mate a call to see if he
and his wife want to go for a curry and a pint.”

Mr Incredible indeed!

:: This story was from our Spring/Summer issue of Connect magazine. To read the full magazine, or to sign up to receive future editions, please click here.

Meet your compassionate neighbours

Being diagnosed with a long term or terminal illness can leave people isolated and alone. In fact, illness aside, many of those living in our communities already face isolation, with few people in their lives to offer company and support.

Helping to combat and alleviate loneliness has become an ever more important part of St Christopher’s
work in the community.

For five years now, this has included our Compassionate Neighbours initiative, which pairs community-based volunteers with people who have long-term, life-limiting or terminal illness, or who are older and socially isolated. Volunteers are known as Compassionate Neighbours.

They connect with someone at home to help people feel supported and part of the community.

Hundreds of people have made valued connections with people they wouldn’t otherwise meet. On our fifth anniversary we wanted to thank those who have been involved, and we got to hear the stories of what being part of it has meant to people.

Billie, Compassionate Neighbour

Many friendships have blossomed since the scheme first started, and the volunteers who shared their stories at our event said the same thing: they have all got a huge amount out of being involved too.
Take Lorraine, who was matched with her community member, Raymond, over a year ago. “I thought: ‘Yes, he’s right for me,’ because I was also looking for someone to talk to, and Raymond made me laugh. That’s what I needed.”

How easy is it to be a Compassionate Neighbour? We think that all it takes is someone who would like to show support, kindness and friendship to someone else in their community. It works on the idea that whoever we are, we all have skills, interests and something special to offer. It doesn’t require specialist expertise or large amounts of training.

Ron, Community Member

Many current Compassionate Neighbours have jobs, families, and other commitments of their own.

We know that taking part needs to be flexible and local to fit in with people’s lives, and these are key features of the project. We think this is why lots of different people want to get involved: the youngest Compassionate Neighbour is 17 and the oldest is 92!

Most importantly, the relationship between matches is based on respect and mutual benefit and because of this, individual relationships flourish.

Ron and Ann Talking at the 2023 Compassionate Neighbours Event
Ron and Ann

We currently have over 120 Community Members across South East London who are matched with Compassionate Neighbours, but as people are really interested in being part of the project, we always
need more volunteers to join in! We would love to hear from you about becoming a Compassionate Neighbour and supporting someone in your community. Click here to discover more.

:: This story was from our Spring/Summer issue of Connect magazine. To read the full magazine, or to sign up to receive future editions, please click here.

Connect with St Christopher’s – Spring/Summer 2024 

This issue is packed full of interesting articles, from a feature on our Compassionate Neighbours to a look back at our first ever Fun Walk, as well as a reflective collective grief poem.

If you’d like to have future issues sent to you, please register your interest here

If you’ve got any questions or comments about anything you read, or would like to share your experience of St Christopher’s, please do get in touch by emailing communications@stchristophers.org.uk

Connect_magazine_web

Remembering Dr Colin Murray Parkes OBE

Beloved husband of Patricia, and father, grandfather and great-grandfather, Colin taught us that grief is “the price we pay for love”.

Colin worked closely with our founder Dame Cicely Saunders for many years at St Christopher’s and was dedicated to the understanding and care of bereaved people. He touched countless professional and personal lives.

An expert in grief and bereavement having worked with families after the Aberfan disaster in 1966, he established the first hospice bereavement service at St Christopher’s.

In 1960s Britain, bereaved friends and relatives were expected to hide their grief and carry on with normal life. However, the service was a success, partly because it recognised that dying not only affects someone with a terminal illness but also those close to them.

The service provided contact with loved-ones, and debriefing meetings for staff after each patient’s death, along with basic psychiatry training for nurses.

Bereavement services are now common and St Christopher’s continues the work Colin started by providing both informal and formal bereavement care to more than a thousand people each year.

He was interviewed for our Oral History project, The Voices that Shaped Us, which was exhibited in 2022, and you can listen to an extract of his interview here.

The thoughts of everyone at St Christopher’s are with Colin’s family at this time.

The power of peer support: why Mick returns to the place he thought he would die

When he first came into the hospice as an in-patient, Mick Reed was convinced he wouldn’t be leaving.

But the former sportsman has since learnt that hospices are not just there for people in the last few days of life and is now living independently in his own home in Croydon again.

When he was discharged, Mick was supported by St Christopher’s team of Allied Health Professionals (physios, dieticians, occupational therapists etc) as well as the community nursing team. He quickly regained some of his weight and now can get up and down the stairs again.

“When they advised me to go there, the first thing I thought was that I would never come out,” he says of the moment doctors at Croydon University Hospital referred him to St Christopher’s. “They tried to convince me I was going in for respite, but I thought it was to pass away. But they’ve done such a great job.”

Both Mick’s sister and brother-in-law died at the hospice, but it was only when his cancer stopped responding to treatment that he experienced St Christopher’s care first hand.

“I learned what St Christopher’s is all about and that’s care and attention,” he says. “They don’t leave you alone for five minutes. I had a room on my own and they left the door slightly open and they would not pass without coming in to see that I was ok. They look after you so well and I wouldn’t be like I am now if it wasn’t for those nurses – no way at all.”

Mick is now back home in Croydon

What stands out most for Mick about the care he received was being treated like an individual.

He added: “I wasn’t a patient; I was a person they all got friendly with. They made you feel different and looked after me so well, I can’t fault them in any way. Nothing was too much trouble for anyone.”

Mick certainly needed some building up. His weight had dropped from 11 to just nine stone when he was admitted. Now he’s back up to 10 stone two pounds and takes a regular weekly call from the hospice dietician. A six-week course in the gym with the physio has been another key factor in helping make him strong enough to cope at home.

“That pulled me round. I was very low. I was on the ward when they first took me – I was in a wheelchair –  and did all the minor exercises. I went for six weeks for an hour and loved it. It was the best thing ever. I love training – like for football or boxing and the physio pushed me.”

Despite putting on weight and building up his strength, Mick wasn’t certain he wanted to leave the comfort of the in-patient unit when the doctor told him he was ready to go home.

“I wasn’t sure I was ready. I just didn’t want to leave the safety of the hospice – I felt really safe in there. And I didn’t think I’d feel safe at home. They were right though to send me home and to do things.”

A new mattress and a commode were just two of the practical items the community team installed for Mick to aid his move home. He’s now walking about and climbing the stairs as well as working on restoring his garden to its former glory.

It was Mick’s physio that recommended a further service that’s had a hugely positive outcome on his mental wellbeing – a weekly bereavement group.

“The first time, I got to the doors and someone came up behind me and asked if I was new and offered to take me in. I said I was just going home but they stopped me and took me in.”

Mick at the weekly Bereavement Help Point

“I’m so glad they did,” he adds. It’s given him the space to reflect on the death of his wife of 54 years, Sandy. The couple met at Mick’s sister’s wedding and were inseparable until she died in October 2021.

“The bereavement group is so relaxing and laid back,” says Mick. “It’s really done me the power of good. We’ve all lost someone and it helps so much, even though I didn’t think it would. There’s really no pressure and you don’t have to talk about your bereavement.”

The volunteer-run group is one of a dozen facilitated by St Christopher’s across South East London, taking place in church halls, community centres and other spaces. The one Mick attends takes place right next to the Sydenham Hospice at St Christopher’s Center for Awareness and Response to End of Life.  It’s a real mark of the total turnaround in the way Mick thinks about hospice care that not only would he recommend it to others, but that he returns each week to the place where he thought he was going to die.

“I love to go back and see the people who looked after me. I just got looked after so well,” he says, adding: “If I met anyone who was nervous, I would just say you’ll get looked after so, so well and everyone has got time for you.”

Click here to find out more about St Christopher’s Bereavement Help Points.

Bereavement group helps young widow Jane rebuild her life

September 26 marked the second anniversary of Michael Mogford’s death. For his widow Jane, there was a long period when she really didn’t think she could cope without him, on her own. That is until, somewhat reluctantly, she found the Bereavement Help Point group at St Christopher’s. Now, after a year or so’s weekly get togethers, with a new, tight-knit group of friends, Jane feels strong enough to rebuild her life, has moved away from London and is looking for work.

Nursery worker Jane, 55, and university superintendent Michael, married in 2004, 14 years after meeting for the first time, and lived happily in Crystal Palace for seven years, until he was diagnosed with dementia. Jane then juggled work and caring for Michael at home right up until his death in September 2021 aged 82.

Jane fondly recalls the early days of their relationship. “I think I was probably driven to him by his car, if I’m honest. He used to come and pick me up after work and we’d go down to the coast – Brighton, Eastbourne, or somewhere like that. We’d have a walk on the beach and a meal. It was lovely. He was so funny, he really used to crack me up. 

Jane and Michael

“He was nearly 30 years older than me, but you’d never have known that back then as he was so fit and we used to go walking in Wales and for weekends to Blackpool. He loved Blackpool.”

Two months after Michael died, Jane was struggling to come to terms with her grief and decided to seek help.

“Because I’d had the experience of losing both my parents by the age of 21 and knew how terrible I felt then and how long that feeling had lasted, I thought maybe I should get some help, but I was worried they’d think I was stupid because it had only been a couple of months.”

When Bromley Hub suggested Jane contact St Christopher’s, she dismissed the idea at first, even though Michael had been a volunteer driver for them many years earlier.

“I knew nothing about the hospice. I just thought, why would I go there. I’m not going to die. But I phoned them and of course they didn’t think I was an idiot. Instead, they just showed me love, care and humour.

“The first few times I went to the group, I spent a lot of time in tears. It was just a small group then with everyone in a similar position – they’ve all lost someone and are all on the same wavelength.”

A St Christopher’s Bereavement Help Point

Jane says for any outsider observing them you’d sometimes struggle to know they were a bereavement group. “We don’t tend to look ill, upset or worried and sometimes people just want to talk about the football or even just sit and listen. But it has been amazing and really changed my life. Recently I’ve been helping some of the newcomers settle in too. Like a true south Londoner, I tell them, ‘this c*#p does get better!’”

Moving to the Isle of Wight (another place she and Michael used to enjoy visiting) this month means Jane won’t be able to attend the Thursday morning sessions anymore. She says though that she definitely won’t be severing ties with the group that now boasts around 20 regulars, about half and half, men and women, with a good mix of ages too.

“There’s a core group of us that have become very close, and we’ve been on trips together to Greenwich and Battersea Power Station. In fact, a posse is threatening to come and visit me here on the island.”

The volunteers running the bereavement group have also told Jane that she is welcome to drop in any time she is back in London.

“It’s so different to anything else I have ever experienced in my life and the volunteers are amazing. I want Michael back, especially now I’m living here as it’s perfect for him. But, this group of all different personalities has been the best possible therapy for me and I would recommend it to absolutely anyone.”

A number of Bereavement Help Points take place each week across South London, including at St Christopher’s CARE every Thursday morning. Click here to see the full timetable.

Cyril and Janet’s story

‘I’ll never forget her smile’

From the very first day he spotted Janet out of his basement window, to the day she died, Cyril Titus says he was always struck by her ubiquitous smile.

They were living separate lives as neighbours in Clapham in the mid-70s. After a while, then art student Cyril, plucked up the courage to write a letter addressed to the ‘woman in number 45’.

Cyril, who became a bookbinder at the British Library, and teacher Janet married in 1985 and, when they discovered they couldn’t have children, adopted two children, John and Cherelle.

“She was just a really nice person. You just had to hear all the eulogies at the funeral and what people had to say about her. The first time I realised what a special person she was when I went to see her at the school she taught at, and I saw all the parents coming up to her and thanking her and seeing their joy in meeting her. You could see how they couldn’t wait to thank her. She gave a lot and never had a bad word to say about anyone.”

The couple shared a love of travelling, visiting numerous countries during their 37-year marriage. For Cyril, one trip in particular stands out. Soon after they’d adopted John and Cherelle, he was invited to Ecuador for work. He was reluctant to go but Janet persuaded him saying it was too good an opportunity to miss. Cyril went but always wanted to go back with Janet.

“When I retired, I made a plan to go to the Galapagos Islands and, in the pictures, you can see how happy Janet was and how pleased she was to be there to see the tortoises. She was overjoyed being there with all this wildlife at your fingertips. That was the highlight of all the holidays we ever went on.”

Janet and Cyril had five grandchildren who became the real apples of Janet’s eye in her retirement, or her ‘biggest joy’, as Cyril puts it. He fondly remembers her ever-inventive cooking too. “She was always doing something to please me and never made the same meal twice.”

It was during a trip to Rome in 2016 that Janet started to feel unwell. Tests revealed she had ovarian cancer. After surgery, treatment and numerous hospital stays – all the while being cared for by Cyril – Janet became so unwell she was admitted to St Christopher’s in August 2022 and died at the hospice four days later.

Cyril recalls Janet’s bravery and honesty in her final days. “She told me, ‘you must be happy for me because I am happy to go because I am in so much pain’.”

“I’ll never forget her smile. And the way she was with everybody. We had a lot of friends – mainly her friends!”

Who will you never forget?

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