About The D-Word
What is the D-Word? – It’s a 30-minute documentary that attempts to explore our rather neurotic relationship with that five-letter word: death.
It was produced as part of my thesis project for an MSc in Science Media Production at Imperial College London and so is my first try at producing a feature length documentary piece. It explores the subject through the voices of those who deal with death on a regular basis and is my attempt at making sense of a particularly complex human issue.
It’s a subject that resonates with me personally – just under two years ago a close friend of mine decided to take his own life. Being 23 at the time, death wasn’t really something I’d had much ‘experience’ with and I found it particularly difficult to make sense out of what had happened. I realized that I’d gone through most of my life not having to confront or even think about death. It was through this event that I was forced to finally pay attention.
At the time there was a huge degree of emotional confusion and I often felt many different, conflicting things at the same time. Grief, anger, guilt and apathy were all things that I experienced and I never knew what it was that I was meant to be feeling. I had no point of reference.
I also discovered that experiencing death in this way was quite isolating – people don’t like talking about death (it makes them nervous I think) and they treat you differently as a result – I believe that this stems from the fact that most people don’t really know how to talk about death anymore.
Delving into Death
Following all this, I really wanted to create something that delved into the subject of death and attempted to address some of the issues, which I myself had experienced. As such it became a very personal project, but I was keen to avoid focusing upon my own experiences. Instead I used them more as a guide to allow me to ask the right questions.
Travelling to the north of England, I went to visit pathologist Dr Stuart Hamilton at the mortuary of the Sunderland Royal Infirmary. This was one of the most interesting interviews I recorded for the piece, but one I entered into with the greatest trepidation.
I simply didn’t know what I was going to encounter, I’d never been to a hospital mortuary before. It obviously brought thoughts of my friend’s death to the forefront of my mind, but at the same time, there was no denying that I felt a sense of excitement. As a Biology graduate it’s hard to gross me out, so there was a real sense of fascination accompanying my visit to the mortuary. It felt like I was getting a rare opportunity to peer into a world which most people would not ordinarily see.
There was some apprehension as I first entered the central refrigeration room. The temperature drops immediately as you step into it, causing the hairs on the back of your neck to stand up in the most cliché of ways. The mortuary was also a sonically rich environment, with the mechanical hum of the refrigeration units becoming one of the dominant characteristics of the room.
When Stuart later came to open up the doors of the refrigeration units, it was as if he purposefully intended to ramp up the suspense, opening several of the doors before we eventually came to one with a body lying inside. It was strange looking in at that body, once belonging to a conscious being, but now covered by a white sheet. But it was strange not because of any fear or repulsion. It was because I didn’t really have any reaction to it. I think that surprised me.
Death is what it is…
What was obvious from this interview, and in fact all of the subsequent interviews, was that death was a very normal part of life. Those I interviewed demonstrated that death shouldn’t be something that we fear, nor strive to hide from. I found this to be an extremely refreshing perspective, but I must admit that I do still find the thought of my own death quite troubling, although perhaps this is a symptom of my (dwindling) youth.
It seemed to me that all those I spoke with were actually enriched by their openness towards death. They seemed almost empowered by the acceptance of their own mortality. After speaking to Jeremy at environmentally conscious funeral directors, Green Endings, I was even inspired to become an undertaker myself!
The people who worked with the dead were every bit as normal as anyone else and the places in which they worked conformed to all the usual workplace stereotypes (tea breaks, jokes and daily routine). They weren’t neurotic, cold or distant – but compassionate towards both the dead and the living.
You might especially expect a pathologist to have a very clinical view of the cadavers they deal with, but when I asked Stuart whether there was a ‘body’ in the fridge he replied ‘Yes,’ adding ‘there’s a person in there’.
Special thanks go to my contributors and also to my course supervisor Gareth Mitchell.
About Ed Prosser
Ed Prosser is an independent audio producer based in London. He has a degree in Biology and has recently completed an MSc in Science Media Production at Imperial College London. He currently works as an editorial and digital intern at the Royal Institution of Great Britain.
If there’s any time left after that he also produces his own audio work and blogs over at onthenatureofthings.wordpress.com.