Tributes are being paid to a family man who will be remembered for his inspiring charity work along with the lasting impact he made in his community and across the world.
Tony Bonser dedicated many years of his life to helping others and raising awareness about important end-of-life issues.
A retired deputy headteacher from Hoghton, Tony volunteered as a trustee at his local hospice – St Catherine’s in Lancashire – for more than 10 years, and was the chair of the national Dying Matters coalition, which aims to get people talking more openly about dying and grief.
His commitment to these causes was recognised with the prestigious League of Mercy award in 2021, which is presented to only 50 volunteers across the country each year.
Tony sadly died unexpectedly on 9th December after developing sepsis. To mark Dying Matters Week – a Hospice UK campaign which Tony supported for more than a decade – his devoted wife Dorothy is celebrating all of his incredible achievements and the wonderful legacy he leaves behind.
“Tony was full of life and had a great sense of humour,” she says. “He was greatly loved and respected by so many people. I’ve been quite overwhelmed by all of the messages I’ve received saying how much Tony helped people and the difference he made to their lives.
“He had time for everyone, he was very approachable and down to earth, and was very passionate about the things he believed in. Tony was never judgemental and people really valued his advice and opinions. He was a gifted speaker but he was always humble.”
The couple were keen to tackle the taboos surrounding death and bereavement, and travelled across the world to speak at events and break down barriers around planning for the end of life. They taught people about Mexico’s Day of the Dead holiday, which is a vibrant and colourful celebration, honouring the memory of loved ones.
“We did a summer camp in America about 10 years ago through our Dying Matters work,” Dorothy recalls. “We met people from a wide range of cultures with various beliefs and customs.
“We ran some workshops which were really interactive and engaging, including making and decorating special Day of the Dead biscuits. It made the subject matter a little less daunting, encouraging people to open up about those they’ve lost, their own views and feelings about what happens when we die, and how we can pay tribute to our loved ones.”
She adds: “Tony wasn’t afraid to talk about these kind of subjects, and it meant that he had plans in place even though his death was unexpected and came as a shock to us all. He’d written a will and had ticked many items off his ‘bucket list’, which brings us all some comfort.
“It meant we could focus on celebrating his life in a meaningful way. Our family’s wish is for Tony’s ashes to be scattered at Derwentwater in the Lake District – that’s where he felt most at peace.”
Tony and Dorothy’s son Neil died from cancer in 2009 when he was aged 35, which motivated the couple to raise awareness about the importance of people sharing their wishes and writing a will to record their end-of-life preferences, so that everyone is better prepared when the time comes.
Tony joined the National Council for Palliative Care and the Dying Matters coalition shortly after Neil died, and was also a lay-member of the Palliative and End of Life Care Strategic Leaders Network.
“Tony had chosen a poem for his funeral, and we also included a Bible reading which we’d used at Neil’s. We had uplifting music like ‘Bring Me Sunshine’; our daughter Sam chose that song because Tony used to sing it, and it reminds her of her dad. We enjoy talking about him and sharing our memories. It helps us to keep his memory alive which is what he would want.”
Speaking about Tony’s ambitious bucket list, Dorothy adds: “We saw humpback whales in Massachusetts and did an American music trail covering Atlanta, Memphis and New Orleans. We went on quite a few adventurous holidays; we also did Cuba and New York.
“One thing I would like to do in his honour is see the Northern Lights, which was something he had wanted to do. He wanted to skydive too but I certainly won’t be doing that!”
Tony was interested in playing the guitar, cycling and enjoying long walks. He was also a Methodist local preacher and had strong Christian beliefs, and was known for his love of gadgets.
Tony had stepped down from his trustee role at St Catherine’s Hospice shortly before he died, but continued to champion the charity which meant so much to him. He had been chair of the Patient and Families sub-committee, which drives public involvement in the charity’s decision-making, and the Knowledge Exchange Committee, which works to share skills and advice across the health and social care sector.
Lynn Kelly, chief executive of St Catherine’s, said: “Tony was innovative, courageous and confident in his beliefs, whilst remaining humble and personable. He was a fantastic ambassador for our hospice and we were privileged to have him as a valuable member of our board.
“He took great joy in delivering presentations to medical students, as he knew that the knowledge and inspiration he was sharing would go on to benefit many thousands of people throughout their careers.
“He supported our charity to develop and progress to meet challenging demands, always keeping patients and their families at the heart of everything he did. His amazing contributions will continue to shape the way we reach out to those who need us, as we push forward with our mission of promoting quality of life, to the end of life.”
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