Jim Carter OBE
Marie Curie Ambassador (pictured)
Downton Abbey star Jim Carter OBE reveals how his father’s death when he was a teenager shaped his own end of life plans.
We probably know him best as Downton Abbey’s loyal butler, Mr Carson – a man who never likes to share his feelings or talk about private matters. But actor Jim Carter OBE wants to do the opposite. He’s a vocal supporter of Marie Curie’s Talkabout campaign to break the taboo about the subject so many of us shy away from – dying.
Planning and preparing
“I don’t think [talking about death] has to be depressing,” says Jim. “I think it really helps if you can talk about it and prepare. We all know that we’re going to die – I don’t wish to sound hard-hearted, just pragmatic.
“Thinking about my mum, when she was in her 90s, she said to me: ‘Look, I just want to see Jessica Ennis win a gold medal at the London Olympics.’ She saw that, then she got up to being 100 and we had a wonderful family celebration. She died six months later. But she had planned for her funeral, she’d said what music she wanted to be played and had even written a poem to be read out on the day. It made us all feel that she was very much part of the occasion and that we were remembering her as she would have wanted to be remembered.
“Some people are very superstitious and can’t bring themselves to talk about death – they think that not talking about death is a loving act. I don’t think that’s true, because if you don’t talk about it, you don’t prepare. It can cause a lot of regret, a lot of anger, a lot of upset. You ask yourselves: ‘Well, what music does she want at her funeral? What should we do?’ When people want to grieve, they don’t want to be bogged down in the petty details. Make a Will.”
Some people are very superstitious and can’t bring themselves to talk about death – they think that not talking about death is a loving act. I don’t think that’s true, because if you don’t talk about it, you don’t prepare.
“My dad’s death was a shock. It came out of the blue. I was 16, my sister was 11, my brother was 19. It affected us all differently. We didn’t talk about it and my sister wasn’t allowed to go to the funeral. I think the thinking was that she would be saved from a trauma, but, actually, it has caused a lot of problems. She felt she was excluded from the grieving process. That still has an effect today.
“Whereas my mum’s death was all open and prepared for, so there’s no emotional fallout from that. Fifty-odd years after my dad’s death, there’s still emotional fallout because of the way it was handled. Maybe witnessing his death and my grandparents’ deaths – all before the age of 60 – made me feel more pragmatic about it. I don’t wish to seem callous; I just accept death as a fact of life.
“If you can’t say the word ‘death’, it doesn’t matter if you say, ‘passed away’ or ‘popped his clogs’, that doesn’t matter, just talk about it and it becomes less frightening.”