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‘We All Know How This Ends’: Discussing death and dying through writing

For many of us, death and dying can be difficult to engage with, a final taboo in the lives we lead. In light of this, Louise Winter, a progressive funeral director at Poetic Endings in London has embarked on a journey to confront these discussions in a colourful, accessible new book. Co-written by End of Life Doula Anna Lyons, ‘We All Know How This Ends’ is an engaging read that brings conversations around illness, dying, death and grief to the masses. Drawing on their own experiences in the industry, and hearing from the experiences of others, ‘We All Know How This Ends’ explores how we can adjust our attitudes to death, dying and everything in between. We spoke to Winter to find out more about the book and writing process. 

Poetic beginnings

Louise Winter, co-author of the book, has had a varied career in the funeral. She is currently a funeral director at Poetic Endings, a modern funeral home that provides creative, bespoke funerals with a fresh approach. Winter’s experience in the funeral industry did not begin until later in her life, however. “I didn’t become a funeral director because my family was in funerals, and I didn’t inherit a business,” she says. “I hadn’t even been to a funeral until I was 26. So I perhaps had a very different history to others in the industry.” Winter had instead embarked on a career as a creative strategist, working with different brands to create ideas for their campaigns. 

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“Then my Grandad died, and it was the first funeral I ever went to. I just had this moment of wondering, ‘what we were doing?’. I remember being in a crematorium, seeing a fusty old carpet, and looking at the funeral directors and thinking ‘what is going on here, why do we do funerals this way?’. That day I could feel that what we were doing for my grandad was really important, but maybe the way that we were doing it didn’t honour quite how important it was. That was a lightbulb moment for me.” 

While Winter did not make any decisions to move into the industry straight away, that moment sparked a period of contemplation, as she believed that funerals were “something that could absolutely be changed and modernised”. In light of this, Winter was inspired to become a celebrant first of all. “It meant that I got to work with lots of different kinds of funeral directors,” she says. “I worked with very modern funeral directors, alternative funeral directors, and very traditional funeral directors, so I saw the scope of how people worked.” 

She says: “As a celebrant, I had some incredible experiences, and I had some really negative experiences. But I just couldn’t find a funeral director who was doing what I felt was needed. I didn’t understand why some spaces in funeral homes had to be so ugly, for example, with horrible retail units that were poorly converted and just felt like miserable spaces. Spaces where people needed to go to say goodbye to someone that they really cared about.” 

Eventually Winter became a funeral director myself, first training with an Irish Catholic funeral director. She says: “He took me under his wing and taught me everything I needed to know about more conventional funerals, and then I launched Poetic Endings in 2018. We have been putting together beautiful, meaningful, very thoughtful funerals ever since.” 

Flexible, transparent, modern

According to Winter, while the core service provided by Poetic Endings is similar to other funeral directors, it is their approach that is “completely different”. “We work very much on a one-on-one basis, for example, and we’re very tech savvy,” she says. “We also don’t have package funerals that we slightly adapt for each person. Each funeral is genuinely completely bespoke. It’s about our approach and the way we arrange the funeral that makes us modern funeral directors. Our branding is very different too, as we have a fresh, creative looking aesthetic which attracts people. And we can still offer really traditional funerals, but we can also offer something much more contemporary as well.” 

Winter says: “We find it so important to be flexible, but also to be transparent. We’ve been transparent about pricing from day one, for example. It was never an issue for us to put our prices online straightaway, and in all aspects I wanted to bring everything funeral directors do out into the open. I wanted to make it so it wasn’t hidden behind closed doors, but it was there for everyone to see. I also wanted people to realise that they don’t just have to go to the funeral directors that happens to be on the high street. They can look around, and realise there are other options out there that’s more suited to them.”

‘We All Know How This Ends’

The idea of writing ‘We All Know How This Ends’ came about in 2016, when Winter was working as a celebrant. “My colleagues and I were given a National Trust property in London from where we could run a festival about death and dying for a whole month. That’s really where the initial idea for the book came from,” she says. “We wanted to find a way for people to engage with death and dying, and so we took over this house, and we filled it with artwork and installations and events for a whole month.” 

It was at the ‘Life.Death.Whatever’ festival that inspired the idea of the book, as “we realised people really needed to engage with everything related to death and dying, but they needed to do it in a way that is accessible and approachable, in a way that wasn’t intimidating or overly medical or macabre and gothic”. 

The book itself is a “mix of everything”, according to Winter. “ It’s divided into sections to cover everything you need to know, from diagnosis to illness, dying, death itself, funeral, grief and exploring mortality. There are lots of different sections in there, and Anna and myself shared quite a lot of ourselves in the book. We definitely talked about our own experiences and learnings, but we also shared experiences from others as well. People have been very generous at sharing their insights and stories, particularly in the form of Five Things.” 

Five Things is a project run by Winter and Lyons on their joint Instagram account. “People simply share five things about the experiences that they have been through, in order to help tell their own stories but also to benefit others, so others can learn from what they’ve been through,” she says. “The book is full of them. Whether it’s ‘Five things I’d like everyone to know about funerals’ written by Fran Hall, author at The Good Funeral Guide, or it’s someone writing about what it was like to find out they had cancer in their twenties, for example. It’s full of others’ life experiences as well as our own experiences of working professionally, as well as death and dying.”

The writing process

Winter felt it was important that “I didn’t just write it as a funeral director”. She says: “Both myself and Anna, who co-wrote it as an End of Life Doula, believed it was really important for us that we did it together, so that we could cover dying and death from both of our perspectives. I think there’s such a divide between the two when people are going through it, and there’s not always a huge dialogue between the two. So we wanted to come together to give everyone as much information as they could have all in one place, and also to begin to bridge the gap between these two worlds.” 

In terms of the writing process itself, Winter says that she and Lyons have a “really good working relationship”, having done several different projects together. “I also think writing can be quite a lonely process,” she says, “so it was a positive experience embarking on this together. We would write some parts of the book together in a Google Doc, then some of it we would go away and write and then share with each other. But writing can be quite a tense process as well. It’s a really personal thing to share your writing with someone, never mind the whole world. There were a few hurdles to overcome, but we got there in the end and it was a really enjoyable process to collaborate in that way.”

‘We All Know How This Ends’ was not Winter’s first foray into writing. Both her and Lyons have written numerous articles in the past. “People have come to us to commission articles, for example for The Guardian. But this was the first major project of this scale. It’s around 130,000 words in total, so it was definitely quite an accomplishment.” 

The journey to publication

Winter notes that the pair had an agent very early on who had discovered them through the ‘Life. Death. Whatever’ festival they hosted in 2016.  “We arranged a proposal with her about the kind of book we wanted to write, and then she went out and pitched it to lots of different publishers.” She says: “We had a lot of interest, and there were different ways the book could have gone. I think it depended on which publisher we chose, and they all had different ideas for it. Some wanted to do something that had a very quick turnaround and would be a paperback, or across a series.” 

The book was eventually snapped up by Bloomsbury. “The thing that we really liked about Bloomsbury is that they wanted to do something really solid that was in hardback, and something that we could take our time with and put together,” says Winter. “We also wanted it to be really beautiful. We didn’t want it to look or feel or read like a medical textbook. We wanted it to look as beautiful as the cookbooks, yoga books and lifestyle books that you see on the shelves. And importantly, it’s a book that is as relevant now as it will be in ten years’ time, because everyone is going to have to engage with this at some point, so we wanted to make it as much as an accessible and informative read as possible.”

A smash hit

The book has so far been very well received, by those both within the funeral industry, as well as the wider public. “It’s been really incredible,” says Winter. “A funeral director recently told me that she’s ordered 31 copies so far, because she’s buying them for everyone she knows. She was ordering copies for people she worked with, people in the community, doing giveaways, and all sorts of things, because she believes that this book is something that everyone needs to have.” 

She adds: “Other funeral directors have said to me that everyone that works in the funeral world needs to read this book. So it’s been a phenomenal response. It’s just great to see it out in the world now. When we first launched it on 18 March, we even launched a ‘Cake and Death’ campaign where people shared pictures of themselves sharing a cake whilst reading about death.” 

Winter notes that the books’ readership also transcends those that are in the funeral industry. “We had it designed so it didn’t look like a book about death,” she says. “The idea was that it would just be intriguing, and people would pick it up, because it’s quite unusual looking and quite beautiful. Also, it wasn’t just a book for people that have a particular interest in talking about death, or those who already attend Death Cafes or know about funerals. This was in many ways about the general public, who might want to know about this stuff and could benefit from it the most.” 

Takeaways and lessons

The book is ultimately about finding a new approach to death and dying, and how we, as a society and as individuals engage with this. In Winter’s opinion, how do we need to approach this differently? “I think we just have to accept that it’s part of life, and bring it into everyday conversations and try not to shy away from it,” she says. “I think one of the key things is to talk about death with children, and not try to shield them from it or protect them from it or talk in euphemisms. It’s important to just be very honest and real and have those conversations very openly at the dinner table. I think if we can do that, then we will have future generations whose attitudes towards death will be completely transformed.” 

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