Seeing My Grandfather Die Sparked My Life-long Fixation With Death

Death, to me, is something we need to ‘figure out’ and demystify. Only then can we be freed from our fear of it, writes mortician and BBC podcast host Carla Valentine.
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I was only seven or eight when I saw my grandfather die. I didn’t have many years to get to know him so I don’t remember much about him, just small fragments like his Sid James laugh and how he always used to say “two bob” instead of 10p.

However, one thing which is clearly imprinted in my memory is the look on his face when he died. The fatal stroke seemed to come out of nowhere. He was sitting in his favourite chair watching TV, me on the floor beside him, when he suddenly started to convulse.

From my vantage point at his slippered feet I looked up and found myself staring into the face of death itself. My grandad’s eyes rolled back into his head, one lone droplet of blood trickled from the corner of his lips and painted a delicate crimson trail across his crêpey cheek. Then, like an exclamation point, his dentures comically shot out of his mouth and landed on the carpet with a thud. At least, that’s how I saw it all through my childhood eyes.

Just like that, he was gone. He never gave me “two bob” again.

“I went about the task of demystifying death so I could have power over it and free myself from future fear”

My brief encounter with death might have frightened many children, but as well as feeling shocked and sad, I was fascinated. I became convinced there must be some way to see it coming if only I knew what to look for.

Inquisitive, precocious and determined, I went about the task of demystifying death so I could have power over it and free myself from future fear, or so I thought. I hypothesised that the more you know about something, the more you can control it. In the case of tragedy, demystifying it helps regain control of the emotions, and I did that with death. Keep your friends close and your enemies closer? I kept my enemy, Death, so close to me he ended up becoming my friend.

My career in pathology has taught me that had I been older, I may well have been able to see my grandfather’s stroke coming. Ischemic strokes like the one my grandfather had are caused by blood clots blocking the flow of blood to the brain, and we know smoking contributes significantly to this process, as does an unhealthy diet and obesity. And, well, my grandfather had been a smoker.

© Elliot Caunce

The ‘puzzle’ of death and mortality drew me not only to the field of pathology as my chosen career but also to the books of Agatha Christie, to crosswords and to jigsaw puzzles. But for me, pathology is about more than just being able to solve that puzzle – it’s about trying to divine the future and ‘correct’ the past. What happened? Who did this? When did it occur?

The enquiries which hope to answer these questions are conducted by skilled scientists and investigators, and it is their roles we will focus on in my new BBC Sounds podcast, mortem. In mortem, listeners meet real forensic experts, retracing their investigations and unearthing clue after clue to see how a case is solved. Our podcast’s victim may be fictional but the science and the scientists we speak with are very real.

“Pathology is about more than just being able to solve the puzzle of death – it’s about trying to divine the future and ‘correct’ the past.”

mortem will bring you into death in a way you won’t have been before too, through mortuaries. Mortuaries are regulated spaces, and post-mortems privileged processes – understandably criminal autopsies aren’t open to everyone. But by creating composite cases from a variety of different real investigations, and therefore keeping the genuine details of the victims confidential, mortem can paradoxically take you further into the mortuary than any other podcast has before.

It’s just up to you to decide if you’re ready to enter.

mortem is available on BBC Sounds now and Carla’s book Past Mortems is available to purchase. Listen to the trailer now and follow the #EnterTheMortuary hashtag.

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