Somewhere Towards The End: Book Review

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Somewhere Towards the End: A Memoir by Diana Athill is an uplifting memoir chronicling significant moments and lessons learned in this British book editor’s life. Athill writes in a reminiscent voice about important times in her life with honesty and directness. Each chapter is specific to certain events or realizations such as significant relationships, thoughts on religion, or encounters with death. The book is written from the perspective of someone who has acquired many years of life experience (89 to be exact!) and is infused with tidbits of wisdom. Her memoir is not in a chronological sequence or a typical autobiographical format. Rather, she bounces between younger life, middle age, and older adulthood, then concludes with what she discovered about herself. While I have always appreciated the elderly for the wisdom acquired naturally over the years, I was moved with admiration and respect for Diana Athill when I read her story. She writes her story simply as a way to share her experience, which she believed, correctly, to be of value. Her book would particularly appeal to the middle aged and older crowd.

            Diana Athill begins her story with a jovial anecdote that sets a light-hearted tone for her book. She first recounts her romantic life – a series of sexual relationships and affairs that are passionate and loving but that never culminate in marriage. When describing her only major heartbreak, she writes not with despair but with an uncanny ability to speak truth on the matter, such as when she states that “a broken heart mends much faster from a conclusive blow than it does from slow strangulation” (Athill, 2008 20). Next, Athill discusses her thoughts and beliefs regarding religion or lack thereof and shares her firsthand experience with death when taking care of her dying mother. Afterwards, Athill lightens the mood by telling the reader about her various hobbies or “escapes,” as she likes to call them. She describes her adventures in gardening, drawing, pottering, and reading, her favorite pastime that lead to a career in book editing, publishing, and ultimately, much to her surprise and delight, writing.

            Although Diana Athill’s escapades take up the bulk of her narrative, the heart of Somewhere Towards the End lies in the few concluding chapters. Athill relays how discovering she had an ability to write and publish written works helped her to heal in ways she did not even know she needed. First, by the public’s acceptance and enjoyment of her books, she gained a boost to her self-esteem. Also, by speaking in public events as an acknowledged author she overcame her shyness. Athill takes a whole chapter to recount her only two regrets in life, which she confesses have still never tormented her in any way. Her most poignant moments come from her musings on life, growing old, and the inevitability of death, which she views not with anxiety, but with comfortable acceptance.  

            Diana Athill attended the distinguished OxfordUniversity and is considered one of the great book editors of the twentieth century, which adds to her credibility. Athill writes with a candor that is both insightful and refreshing. Her style of writing makes the reader feel almost as if they are having a conversation with Athill about her life as opposed to reading a book about it. Although at times I disagreed with her perspective on particular subjects, it never altered my opinion of her and I found that it was precisely her openness about potentially uncomfortable subjects that made her book so engaging. One of the most enjoyable aspects, and surprising as well, was how Athill turned a relatively unremarkable life into an absolutely delightful read. She tells her story with no added frills or melodrama yet I felt absorbed from the very beginning. Despite the fact that I am less than a third of her age, I could connect to many of her experiences and there was a lot to take from her story. Even the British vernacular throughout the book could not detract from her story but rather added a distinctive flair.

            Somewhere Towards The End was truly a pleasure to read. My only qualm would probably be that I felt Athill could have wrote even more! While she does not seem to be writing for a particular audience, I would recommend this book to anyone who enjoys a good read but especially to those who like biographical non-fiction. I believe older people would really appreciate this piece as well. In her last chapter, Athill says that “one doesn’t necessarily have to end a book about being old with a whimper, but it is impossible to end it with a bang” (Athill, 2008, 182). Perhaps not, but Diana Athill concludes her book with a final resounding note that lingers in your heart. 

Athill, D. (2008). Somewhere Towards The End

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Directing A Funeral: A Solemn State of Affairs

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The funeral process is an important event that is not often thought about until the time comes when someone dear to us passes away. Some people may misconceive that they do not need assistance with planning the service and attending to the body, however once they begin the process they will soon see the preparations can be overwhelming to the untrained individual. This process can be even more difficult for someone who is in a state of bereavement (G. Swearingen, personal communication, October 26, 2013). Enter the funeral director. Funeral directors have the important job of helping people plan the perfect goodbye for their loved ones. The funeral directing career can be challenging due to the sensitive context in which it takes place and work-related stressors.

            Funeral directors have an array of duties vital to the funeral centers they work for. They are responsible for meeting with the deceased person’s family in order to determine details of the funeral service, burial, visitation or cremation (E. Lindstrand, communication, October 31, 2013). Directors may also handle paperwork, such as submitting documents to officials in order to receive the death certificate. (Bureau of Labor Statistics). The directors must also communicate with other employees, such as counselors, who are in charge of helping families choose tombstones or plaques and showing them the cemetery property (G. Swearingen, personal communication, October 26, 2013). What makes these duties all the more challenging is the emotional environment it takes place in.

            Like many careers, there is a high level of multi-tasking involved in funeral directing, but unlike others, directors work in an incredibly sensitive environment. Directors must arrange for many details simultaneously, sometimes within 24-72 hours of the death and may be working on multiple funerals at the same time (Bureau Labor of Statistics). Another demanding aspect is that many directors are also on-call twenty four hours a day (E. Lindstrand, personal communication, October 31, 2013). In addition, directors work in an environment that is often quiet, somber, and at times, melancholy (Hyland & Morse 1995). Funeral directors also have the distinctive duty of creating a sympathetic and supportive environment for their clients and forming a professional, caring relationship for a brief period of time (Hyland & Morse 1995). Funeral directors must not only work efficiently but empathically as well, which can be emotionally and professionally taxing.

            Funeral directing produces a unique set of stressors. This includes the lack of boundary between personal and professional life, depression, isolation due to profession, workaholism, and a preoccupation with death (Wilde 2012). As funeral director Caleb Wilde states: “To grasp the kind of stress surrounding a funeral, imagine planning a wedding in five days, except where there’s joy, sadness exists, and where there’s usually a bride, a body lies in state.” While Wilde further describes his career as rewarding because of the assistance he provides, he does not contest the burdens inherent in his profession. Death itself can be very stress-inducing so it is not difficult to imagine how challenging a career is that includes both the anxiety of death and the pressures of an everyday business.

             The funeral directing profession influences the perception of death and aging for those involved in this field. Constant interaction with the bereaved and being surrounded by the reality of death can engrave the adage “life is short” in a funeral director’s mind (E. Lindstrand, personal communication, October 31, 2013). As one funeral arranger (someone who performs essentially the same duties as a director without the director’s license) puts it: “We live in a culture that tries to put death out of our mind,” but when dealing with death is an everyday occurrence, it becomes natural to think about death and preparing for it (E. Lindstrand, personal communication, October 31, 2013). Regardless, bereavement is a painful process. When asked if the elderly seem to handle grief better, Lindstrand says they may be calmer during the initial preparations but still become emotional during the service and burial (personal communication, October 31, 2013). Thus it seems that even though older people have had more time to mentally prepare for it, death is no less difficult.

            Funeral directors have a career that is truly unlike many others. Due to the emotional environment and the work-related stressors unique to its field, funeral directing can be very demanding. While directors might seem fortunate to have an innate job security (there will always be people dying), the relentless necessity to deal with death, remain professional yet compassionate, and still operate within a traditional business is a task not for the faint-hearted. 

 

 

References 

Bureau of Labor Statistics (2012, March 29). Occupational Outlook Handbook: Funeral Directors. Retrieved from http://www.bls.gov/ooh/personal-care-and-service/funeral-directors.htm 

Confessions of a Funeral Director. (2012, July 16). 10 Burdens Funeral Directors Carry. Retrieved from http://www.calebwilde.com/2012/07/10-burdens-funeral-directors-carry/

Hyland, L., & Morse, J. M. (1995). Orchestrating comfort: The role of funeral directors. Death Studies19(5), 453-474. doi:10.1080/07481189508253393