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Diary: Chine McDonald

24 November 2023


Larger than life

WE ARE still getting letters addressed to previous residents of our house. One recent mailing was from a company advertising direct cremations, “a ‘fuss-free’ way to say goodbye”. I noticed it only because we at Theos have been researching attitudes to death and dying in the UK.

Post-pandemic, there has been a sharp increase in the number of people wanting direct cremations — where a body is cremated after death without a funeral or any sort of ceremony. The deceased’s loved ones may request the ashes, but that’s about it.

This type of cremation is increasing in popularity, because people got used to the idea of abrupt farewells to loved ones during the pandemic (Feature, 13 November 2020). But the trend also reflects a cost-of-living crisis, and a society squeamish about death and anything that asks us to focus on the transcendent. A body is a body. What’s the point of ceremony when the person is no more?

As a Nigerian, I find such a concept unthinkable. Our culture does funerals as we do weddings: big, loud, and proud; hundreds of people mourning; great food and dancing. Our people are the opposite of no-fuss.

Flying angel

IN THE past few weeks, I have undertaken a host of speaking engagements. I gave an after-dinner speech to the House of Bishops on the national context a year before a General Election; I spoke to UKME clergy at Swanwick, in Hampshire, about rest as resistance; and I interviewed the veteran journalist Edward Stourton and long-time BBC producer Amanda Hancox at the launch of their new book, marking 50 years of the Radio 4 Sunday programme.

But my most glamorous event was in Washington, DC, where I spoke at the inaugural summit of the Center for Christianity and Public Life. It was an opportunity that I could not turn down — but there was just one small thing: I really hate flying. The pandemic and climate catastrophe have enabled me to reduce the number of flights I take each year. But the less I fly, the more terrified I am when I do.

So, this time, I used all the hints and tips from the Fear of Flying course that I went on a decade ago: get a seat by the window; tell the cabin crew about my fear so that they would check in on me during the flight; listen to fear-of-flying podcasts.

The flight to DC was one of the smoothest that I have taken, but my return flight was horrendous. As we bumped up and down, all I could think about was all the talk of death which the team and I had been having in recent months. Thank God, I was seated next to a woman who had worked as cabin crew for many years, and who kindly held my hand as I gripped the seat during a particularly bad bout of turbulence — for my sake, not hers.

When I asked her, once we had safely landed, whether she had been scared, she said: “No, not even a little bit.” How wonderful to have such a companion, a peaceful presence through turbulent times.

O rest in the Lord

THEOS’s annual lecture was given by Dr Kathryn Mannix, on All Saints’ Day. A former palliative-care doctor, she has dedicated her life to increasing the public’s understanding of what happens when we die, and why it is important to have conversations before the event.

Theos lectures have, on the whole, been purely cerebral affairs, but this year — given the subject matter — we wanted to engage people’s minds, bodies, and souls. So, those attending were surprised to hear, at the start of the event, harmonies from the singing group Companion Voices emanate from the back of the lecture theatre. Founded by Judith Silver, the group meets to learn songs and prepare together for singing at the bedsides of the dying.

As a mother, I held back the tears as they sang a Nigerian lullaby, Yono Nikau, meaning, “No matter how long I rock you, I can’t quite get you to sleep.”

Let them eat cake

WHILE I was battling jet lag during my trip to Washington, DC, there was one thing on my mind: how on earth, when I got home, I was going to make my eldest son’s sixth-birthday cake.

I pride myself on baking and decorating elaborate cakes for my boys: we’ve had digger cakes and a Noah’s Ark, and cakes themed around favourite children’s TV shows: Blaze and the Monster Machines, Blippi, and In The Night Garden. My DC trip was for the best part of a week, and I knew that, less than 24 hours after I returned home, I would be heading off to Greenbelt’s board residential, returning just a few hours before my son’s birthday and his clip-and-climb party with friends from school.

I had planned to draw on superhuman — or Supermum — skills, and bake and ice the cake during that quick turnaround. But I was already exhausted. So, at 4 a.m. in DC, I found myself contacting a baker in south-east London and commissioning her to bake the cake for me and cover it in fondant icing, leaving me free simply to decorate it: this year, a fondant climbing wall, complete with a sugar-based version of my son, mid-climb.

It was a joy to see his face as he saw the cake: new memories created, despite logistical challenges — and relatively fuss-free.

Chine McDonald is a writer, broadcaster, and Director of

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