So the UK TV channel ITV had a two part documentary on the topic of death, presented and produced by Billy Connolly. For those of you who don’t know who Connolly is, he’s a Scottish comedian who has courted controversy for the topics that he has covered in his routines, from blasphemy to masturbation. He is a very popular comedian and musician and has appeared in many films, including The X-Files and the best film of all time, Muppet Treasure Island.
However, Connolly has not been in the best of health recently. Fairly early on into his Big Send-Off programme, he tells how he had a very “funny” week: On Monday he got hearing aids, on Tuesday he got tablets for heart burn and on Wednesday he was told that he has prostate cancer and Parkinson’s Disease. Needless to say, this series of revelations had quite an effect on Connolly and while apparently he had been wanting to do a documentary on death for a while, having his life shaken up made him want to actually get on with finally making it.
In the first episode, Connolly took us on a (mostly) US-centric death journey with lots of interesting examples of funeral directors (including one that had a drive-thru viewing room…a classic example of the separation from the realities of death) as well as a fabulous tour of the necropolis of Colma, California. Connolly also went to a funeral directors’ exhibition where he saw lots of different services, including the exciting fungi suit that breaks down the body through providing a growing space for fungi. Connolly really wasn’t convinced by the fungi suit which made me sad as I think it is awesome! I read a few comments on reviews of the programme from around the Internet and the fungi suit wasn’t popular with viewers either. Strange. Connolly also met up with the hilarious Eric Idle who sang his “Five Stages of Death” song which was brilliant yet regrettably unreleased so I can’t link to it here.
In the second episode, Connolly continued on his journey but the tone of this part of the documentary was certainly different to the first. We saw a memorial wall to young people who had been killed in New Orleans. The local pastor for one of the areas affected said that young people in New Orleans were more likely to be killed than a soldier serving in Afghanistan. Needless to say, it was quite moving to see how the community mourned their dead and fought to keep their memory live through tshirts, processions and other forms of ritualisation.
Connolly saw lots of things and met lots of fascinating people, including a 91 year old artist who had come to terms with his inevitable death and was incredibly inspiring in the way that he approached his remaining months of living and just didn’t take anything too seriously. However, the part of the documentary that really resonated for me was when Connolly visited the anatomy department at the University of California (San Francisco) and read the many cards that anatomy students had written to the people that they had studied as part of their learning. I found the process of talking to the person who gave their body to science and learning must have been quite poignant for those students, especially after hearing lots of varied reported experiences of medical students at Death Salon UK (they ranged from naming their cadavers to trying to keep them as anonymous as possible). One of the cards said that they especially liked the deceased person’s “badass tattoos”. This made me chuckle.
Interestingly, Connolly was very unsure about donating his body to science and made lots of jokes about his physical appearance. However, after speaking with the wonderful anatomy staff, he clearly was convinced about its worth as an endeavour.
I have summarised this documentary hugely for the purposes of this post. There were lots of cool things that I haven’t mentioned and if you are in the UK, the ITV player catchup service should still have the programme up for a while. If you’re not in the UK then I’m afraid you will have to get creative or have a friend who can tape it for you, old school style!
Overall, I found the documentary to be really interesting but I found watching Billy Connolly to be quite difficult at times. I’m used to him being a force of nature, racing around a stage and swearing profusely while making his opinions known with energy and enthusiasm. The man I saw on my TV screen was a shadow of that person. Of course, this is mostly down to age and his various recent health scares but it wasn’t just that. He seemed to be nervous and afraid throughout a lot of the programme. He turned away from things that I wouldn’t expect him to, and he reacted negatively to certain situations in ways that surprised me.
I can’t possibly criticise Connolly for responding to death in a very human way. His view of life and existence has clearly changed over time and has definitely been affected by his health problems. I am grateful to him for having made this programme and I am grateful to ITV for agreeing to air it. I can only hope that Connolly finds some peace when his time comes and that he has learned a lot from making his documentary, because I know I certainly did.
When faced with our own mortality, it seems that even the most vibrant and spirited of folk can become cowed by the reality of it all and in a way, I respect the honesty that that showed throughout the documentary.