Patrons: Bill Beaumont, Mark Lawrenson & Tisha Merry Reg Charity No: 512186

The 10 historical objects aimed at opening up conversations about the future

How can an object from the past help you plan for the future? For this year’s Dying Matters Awareness Week (14th-20th May), St Catherine’s Hospice has teamed up with the Harris Museum in Preston to host a special exhibition and event on Friday 18th May.

Ten people from across the charity – from doctors and nurses, to a patient, volunteers, staff and a trustee – have worked with museum curators to select 10 objects aimed at opening up discussion, memories and reflections on death and bereavement, in a positive and meaningful way.

Here, our contributors look at how traditions associated with planning for the end-of-life and coping with grief have evolved over the decades, and tell how some unusual objects – from a death certificate to mourning jewellery – have helped them think more about their own experiences and the importance of sharing their wishes with others.

  • Susan Eckersley, St Catherine’s Clinical Nurse Specialist patient
    Mourning pendant
‘As the daughter of an undertaker, I was born into the world of funerals and was brought up seeing death as just being a part of life. I’m grateful to have that attitude, because the idea of dying doesn’t frighten me, and I’m doing everything I can to make the most of the time I have left.
You will always have people who don’t want to face it, but if someone does want to talk about it, I think that can be really helpful.
I discovered a lump in my neck three years ago; and it turned out to be a slow-growing form of lymphoma – a cancer of the lymphatic system. Just before Christmas last year, they discovered that it had transformed into a more aggressive type, which is terminal.  
My consultant strongly suggested chemotherapy to prolong my life, but I didn’t want to spend months feeling ill with the side effects, throwing up and not being able to spend time with the people I care about.
He said treatment could extend my life by 12 months and that I probably have six months otherwise, but I’ll take my luck. Quality of life counts for me.
With the palliative care and medication I’m receiving from St Catherine’s, which is second to none, along with the wonderful support of my husband who really spurs me on, I have enough energy and motivation to do the things I enjoy. They’re keeping me very happy.
It was really interesting looking at the objects at the Harris Museum and talking about historical traditions and customs, and how they compare to the ways in which people cope with loss nowadays. I’ve picked a necklace which has a lock of hair inside, which was a way for people to keep their loved ones close to their hearts even after death.
In the past, people were much more willing to speak about death; as well as mourning jewellery like the locket, they wore black clothing to make an obvious statement that they were in mourning, so people knew what they were going through and how to approach them.
Everyone handles things differently, but my view is that if you try to take the misery out of it and celebrate life in the best way you can, that’s a positive attitude to have.’


  • Clive Eckersley, relative of St Catherine’s patient
    Memorial notice

‘I was drawn to a memorial notice for a man named Turner Turner who died in 1862, and his wife Mary, who died in 1869. I used to work as a chartered surveyor and I worked with a lot of Turners – and the original Turner family from Preston were big names in the building trade.
The notice includes a poem and details of where they are buried. I imagine they were put in churches for people to remember them by.’


  • Tony Bonser, Dying Matters champion and St Catherine’s Hospice trustee
    Memorial bookmark

‘When I saw the memorial bookmark it immediately jumped out to me as being the perfect object for me to include in the Dying Matters Awareness Week collection at the Harris Museum.
That’s because my wife and I had something similar made when our son Neil died nine years ago. It was also meaningful being in the Harris because Neil – who was 35 when he died from a rare form of cancer called a sarcoma – had spent a great deal of time at the Harris Library and book shops around Preston. His flat was full of books, and he was also mad keen on vinyl records and CDs.
Around 300 people came to his funeral, which we hadn’t had much time to prepare for because although he had been diagnosed five years earlier, neither Neil nor myself and my wife had been told that he was dying. 
It was after his funeral that we had the idea to hold an ‘open house’ at his flat for all of his friends to come along to, which we let people know about through Neil’s Facebook page. We offered them the chance to take a book, vinyl or CD of Neil’s which they could remember him by, along with a bookmark we had made and a square version of the bookmark’s design, to fit inside a CD case.
It included his name, a Celtic cross because he was interested in Celtic mythology, as well as his date of birth and date of death, and a meaningful quote.
The ribbon bookmark from 1917 at the museum stood out to me because it’s not too obvious or striking, but it brought back those memories for me. It includes the little girl’s name, her parents’ names, date of death, and a reading. 
I’m an advocator of speaking openly about death and dying, and very much support the Dying Matters ethos surrounding the importance of recording your end-of-life wishes and preparing for your final days.
As a family, we were not able to plan anything in advance. We had hoped to make Neil’s life as beneficial and happy as possible, but in fact most of his last six months were spent in a fruitless search for a cure, which denied him the opportunity to enjoy the time he had left.
I feel strongly that if we had had more time to prepare, we might have found the events leading to his death easier to accept, and would certainly have been able to move through the grieving process with greater understanding.
While it might have seemed kind to spare us the anguish of knowing the likely outcome of his illness, in the long term it left us tortured by doubts as to whether we had done everything possible for him, and painfully aware that his last six months of life could have been much more pleasant and enriching for both him and the family.’


  • Joan Langford, historian and volunteer advisor at The Mill café in St Catherine’s Park
    Victorian sampler

‘I was very close to my dad, and to have some of his personal belongings means a lot to me. I have a comb he used to keep in his top pocket, as well as his driving licence which he was very proud of. I’ve chosen the sampler from 1886 by a little girl aged nine, who the curators told us had died a year later. For her family to keep something so lovely which she had spent hours working on, to be able to touch it as she had, is something they must have really treasured. I imagine she would have been very proud of her work, and they must have really appreciated the time and effort she put into it.
It does make you want to know more though and ask more questions, like did she do it at school or at home? Did she have sisters who also created designs like this?
I’m very interested in local history and people’s stories, and have written a number of history books about my hometown of Farington, Leyland.
I think it’s important for people to understand their past and especially about their family history, and for this reason I’ve written my own life history and researched our family tree for my daughters.
That’s one of the ways in which I’m planning for the future; to know that our family history is recorded for years to come, and leaving something meaningful behind.
I’ve given it to them already because it allows them to ask me any questions they have now, while we still have the chance.
It’s not morbid, it’s simply leaving a legacy for your loved ones, like a memory box.’


  • Vincent Haworth, St Catherine’s Hospice Lottery Assistant
    First World War Memorial plaque

‘I have chosen a First World War Memorial Plaque, also known as a Dead Man’s Penny as it is made of bronze. These were issued to the next of kin of men killed during the war, and I remember my mum had one which I used to play with!
It had her uncle’s name on it; Wilfred Skingsley. Since seeing the penny at the museum, it made me interested to find out more about Wilfred and my own family, so I’ve spoken with a few relatives.
He was part of The ¼ Battalion (Territorials) Loyal North Lancashire Regiment, and before the war he worked as a painter and decorator.
Wilfred, who was from Derby Terrace in Preston and had attended Talbot RC School, signed the ‘roll of volunteers for service abroad’ in August 1914. He was sent to the trenches in France. He was killed during the Battle of Festubert in 1915 and was one of 110 reported missing, his body never found.
He died aged 23, and is remembered at the Le Touret Memorial in Festubert, France.
The Memorial Plaque was sent from King George V with the sentiment; “I join with my grateful people in sending you this memorial of a brave life given for others in the Great War”.
People are remembered by their families and friends in many different ways. Those who died during the war were honoured by their country, as they are today. I think it’s important for people to be remembered for their brave actions and sacrifices, but it’s also valuable to know more about the person as an individual, so I’m grateful that my family have this information to give me a better picture of Wilfred Skingsley, as a result of the memories which were jogged from the Harris Museum’s Memorial Plaque.’


  • Dr Claire Capewell, consultant in palliative medicine at Lancashire Teaching Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust
    Death mask

‘I was drawn to the death mask of Preston-born poet Francis Thompson. Death masks give you an accurate representation of the person’s facial features. When I see one it always makes me wonder, what was the person like and what life did they lead? One of the great privileges of my job is getting to know my patients as individuals.
As palliative care professionals we want to know what’s most important to each person and their family, as well as the physical and psychological symptoms they may be experiencing. People often say to me, “Your job must be so depressing”. But that’s not the case – my job is about helping people to make the best of a difficult situation and to live life as fully as possible.
Back to Francis Thompson – it turns out he was the son of a doctor, Charles. Francis went to medical school in Manchester but never practised as a doctor and instead lived a colourful life in London. Some even believe he was ‘Jack the Ripper’!
He left a legacy of poetry including ‘The Hound of Heaven’, and his words have spoken to people through the generations. Perhaps the moral of the story is, I mustn’t encourage my children into medicine if their talents lie elsewhere!’


  • Alex Garden, manager at St Catherine’s Hospice charity book shop in Ashton
    Death certificate

‘A death certificate can tell you a lot about a person. I’m very interested in ancestry so when I saw the death certificate at the Harris Museum, I was keen to find out more about the lady; Ellen Hunt.
It says she was a widow of a cotton mill manager in Ashton – which is where I volunteer as the St Catherine’s charity book shop manager.
However, what’s strange is that she died in a workhouse aged 72 in 1884; workhouses were associated with paupers and the destitute. I would have expected Mrs Hunt to have been quite well off having been married to a cotton mill manager, and couldn’t initially understand why she would have come to be in a workhouse.
I did some research on the ancestry website and sadly both Ellen and her husband had paralytic strokes and were living with their son in Bury at the 1881 census.
Her husband had been a power loom overlooker when they lived in Ashton according to the two previous censuses. So I think they fell on hard times. I suspect that she had to be removed to the Fulwood workhouse when her family could no longer look after her as that was the one nearest her own home.
I actually used my mother’s death certificate recently to find out more about her death, as there were some unanswered questions for me, and it was a real light bulb moment after 30 years of not having the full picture.
There’s also a note written on the top of Ellen Hunt’s certificate referring to the ‘Friendly Burial Society’, whereby people paid contributions towards funding their own funerals. The Harris Museum also has some ‘contribution books’ which show that collectors would go round weekly collecting money for people’s funerals.
It seems quite a sensible thing to do as it takes the burden off relatives having to organise and pay for a funeral when a loved one has died, which is a very stressful and emotional time.
I think if people opened up more and planned for the end of life without fearing speaking about death, it would help them and their family better prepare for the future, and ensure that people’s wishes are met as much as possible.’


  • Kay Taylor, St Catherine’s Hospice Communications Officer
    Egyptian shabti

‘One of the first items we were shown during our visit to the Harris Museum was a small ancient Egyptian statue called a shabti.
These were made of stone or wood and placed inside tombs to act as ‘servants’ to carry out tasks for the deceased in the afterlife, if called upon by the god of the dead, Osiris. They included the person’s name and a ‘spell’.
People have many different opinions about what happens after death, and I think this was a way for the Egyptians to plan for their future and give themselves the best chance of succeeding in the afterlife.
This must have brought peace of mind to not only themselves, but to their loved ones; knowing they had done all they could to prepare for what may come next.
Nowadays, people often place items inside coffins – some see this as a spiritual act, providing and which the person can take with them to heaven or the afterlife.
Others don’t do it for religious reasons, but see it more as a symbolic offering to their loved one, ensuring they are buried with something which meant a lot to them in life.
Likewise, people place letters and flowers in or around the coffin, and whereas some people keep the ashes of those cremated in an urn at home, others scatter the ashes somewhere special to the person.
Whether these acts are a way of ‘freeing’ a person after they have died, or rather a meaningful thing people do to help them cope with grief, I think these are good examples of how people can plan for the end-of-life and talk with their loved ones about things such as where they want to be buried or have their ashes.
This gives peace of mind to those left behind that they are carrying out their loved one’s wishes, and can also help open up other conversations such as what music they would like to be played at their funeral, what to include in their will, and other practical matters.
All of this can help the process of organising a funeral, burial or cremation a little less stressful and emotional; if the person’s wishes are known, it gives those left behind one less thing to worry about at a difficult and emotional time.’


  • Melanie Holmes, St Catherine’s Hospice Community Services Manager
    Mourning clothing

‘I remember as a little girl, going to a funeral, where everyone was wearing only black, even black hats with veils. How different it is today; it’s lovely when people can make choices about their own funeral, and now you regularly see people asking to wear their favourite colour to their funeral, and being able to make their own choices before death. My mum has already told me that she wants people to wear a splash of pink when it comes to her funeral!
However, some people might see wearing black as a way of communicating their grief and a way of being given permissions to grieve, being open about the position they are in.’


  • Bernadette Baxter, St Catherine’s Hospice senior staff nurse 
    Jet mourning jewellery

‘Mourning jewellery is a subtle way of letting those around you know that you are grieving, acting as a gentle reminder to people to be considerate about your feelings.
Jet mourning jewellery has been around for hundreds of years; it became prominent thanks to Queen Victoria following the death of her husband Prince Albert.
It’s classed as an antique now and probably isn’t worn as a sign of bereavement anymore, but I do think that tokens such as this offer a helpful and sensitive way of making people aware that you are in mourning.’

You can read more about the event and activities being held at the Harris Museum during the exhibition on Friday 18th May here.