It’s a month, almost exactly, since Dad died. The dust is beginning to settle, except that I seem to have a thousand letters to write. Jeepers but my Mum writes a lot of letters, or at least, she doesn’t any more, I write them for her. But she thanks everyone for everything and to be honest, I haven’t yet. There are lots of folks who couldn’t come who need to be sent a service sheet, and a godmother who only communicates by letter who hasn’t been told (my bad).
There is a partial reason, I’m slow at things I stress about, and for some reason I really stress about making calls, writing letters etc. Don’t get me wrong, I actually love writing a letter when I have the time and space to do so, but time and space … that’s not really something I know about anymore.
On the upside, I have kicked some royal bottom with the forms. Dad’s affairs were pretty simple. We’d spent every last penny of his assets on his care so all he had left was half of what was in the bank account, because although it officially came from Mum’s savings the account was a joint account. He also had a pension which I needed to sort out and his state pension. I think I managed to get onto the ‘tell us once’ register which means the information filters through to everyone, although as I understand it, it was the lady I rang at the pensions enquiry line who put the information on. HMRC rang anyway, and they’ll look into whether there’s any tax on Dad’s teacher’s pension that they would need to refund. Yes, despite being retired Dad paid tax on his pension. How does that work? It’s money he’s saved up while he’s working so it’s already taxed surely?
One of the things you have to do when someone dies is register the death. The undertakers, who were chuffing marvellous, helped us with all this, booking an appointment. They told us that when the death certificate came through they would call us. My dear brother had booked this registration for nine o’clock on the morning of the Friday after Dad died. However, as he made to leave the day before he realised that someone or something had smashed the back lights of his van. So he had to get it fixed. On the up side, the appointment with the registrar had been changed to four pm on the Friday. On the downside, he might not be down in time to register the death, he warned me, because he couldn’t come down until the parts were fitted and they weren’t arriving until Friday morning. If I was doing the trip, afternoon was a lot easier for me, a very much non morning person.
You have to register the death within five working days. In order to do so, you need a death certificate which you get from a Doctor. Clearly there are sometimes exceptions, if there’s a post-mortem etc. In our case the death certificate was sent to the lovely undertakers who were unbelievably fab. To register the death, you collect the death certificate from the undertakers and you go to a special office run by the Registration of Births Marriages and Deaths for your area. Usually it’ll be in your nearest big local administrative town. You need to make an appointment and they can get quite booked up so it’s wise to ensure that either you, or the undertakers, ring up to do that pretty sharpish after the death. You have ten minutes’ leeway to be late for your appointment. After that, you have to make another one.
In my case this was in Worthing, the Chichester end rather than the Brighton one. I had been foolish in that I’d been copied in on some of the email correspondence between my brother and the undertakers about this but didn’t really read the emails properly because I wasn’t expecting to be that closely involved. I just knew I had to pick the death certificate up from them sometime on Thursday, which I did. It was clear I might have to attend the meeting if my brother couldn’t make it in time, but until the van prang, I’d doubted that would happen.
Once collected, the certificate came in an envelope upon which someone had thoughtfully stamped the address of the registration office along with their phone numbers. I googled it and one of Dad and Mum’s carers, whose own father died suddenly a year and a half ago, explained that there was no parking at the offices, you had to park down a side road. That in mind, I decided to make sure I left myself plenty of time and set off early.
I arrived at 3.30 and drove in, confirmed there was, indeed, no parking, and drove out. I noticed the registration of births marriages and deaths sign straight away but my mental warning klaxons started to sound as I realised it was denuded of any actual lettering, and that this building was proclaiming itself the home of the Registration of Birth Marriages and Deaths merely by dint of dirt sticking to the glue where the letters had been.
‘Hmm,’ I said to myself.
I parked as close as I could and walked as briskly as someone who isn’t physically able to run anymore can to the reception. Naturally there was a queue.
‘I’m here to register a death,’ I said cheerfully when, after a few anxious minutes, it was finally my turn. It was one of those booths where the bullet proof glass is so thick you can’t hear the person behind it so you speak to them through an intercom.
The lady stared at me with a blank expression.
‘One moment,’ she said, her lips moving but the sound of her voice surprising me tinnily from a speaker a few feet to my right. Behind the bullet proof glass she turned to her colleague as if to have a private complication but naturally the mike amplified it all.
‘Registration of births marriages and deaths? That’s not here is it?’
‘No … I’m not sure where they are.’
‘Please help me, I can’t miss this appointment my dad died last Saturday and I have to register his death within five working days.’
The lady pursed her lips and weighed up this further information.
‘Ask Dave,’ said her colleague.
She turned back to me, as if I’d neither heard nor participated in the previous conversation and said.
‘I’m going to ask a colleague. Please wait here.’
She strolled to the back of the office and picked up a two-way radio.
‘Dave?’ she said.
Click, hiss, crackle.
‘Lady here’s looking for the Resister of Births Marriages and Deaths. I heard her tinny amplified voice say.’
Crackle, crackle pop.
Hiss, click, crackle.
‘D’you know where it’s gone?’ I asked through the glass.
‘D’you know where it’s gone?’ the lady asked Dave.
Crackle, hiss, click, pop, crackle …
‘It’s near the law courts,’ he replied. ‘Next to the station.’
‘Thanks Dave,’ said the lady and I, in unison.
She returned to the window.
‘It’s near the law courts,’ she said.
‘Thanks,’ I told her, again but I was already stepping back googling the fastest route on my phone as I went.
A quick glance at my watch showed it was quarter to four. I had to get back across town but I might make it. I’d give it my best shot anyway. First I must ring the number on the envelope and tell them I was going to be late. Except the number on the envelope was as out of date as the address.
Balls! The wrong bastard number!
Ah yes, ring the undertakers they’ll have the number because they made the appointment. I found their number on my list of made calls, phoned them and breathlessly explained my predicament as I speed-limped back to the car. They told me not to worry, that they’d ring and say I was going to be late. They were pretty sure I’d have ten minutes’ leeway. By the time I got back to my car it was ten to four, I might make it … possibly … but I needed the name of the building I was heading to. If it came down to minutes, ‘next door to the law courts’ wasn’t going to cut the mustard. I had to know exactly where I was going.
After a mile or so, I pulled in and googled, ‘Registration of Births Marriages and Deaths, West Sussex.’ It came up with the main office number in Chichester. I dialled and then as the plastic google lady shouted instructions to get to the law courts next door to their Worthing office – which was better than nothing – I drove at a very tense 30mph towards my destination, speaking to a kindly young man as I went. He eventually managed to give me the the name of the building. It turned out it was also next to the Library, which was far more helpful as I knew exactly where that was. Yes, they would give me ten minutes’ leeway but if I was later than that, I’d have to rebook.
Stuck at an interminably long red light, I put the name of the building into google and started a new set of directions.
Worthing is absolutely infested with traffic lights, and I was the one on the end of the queue who either stops and heads up the next one, or goes through every single set on the orange. Two of them had red light cameras that I hadn’t seen until I’d gone through on amber, only ramping my anxiety levels up still further. Luckily neither of them flashed. A small mercy. At last I got to a set of pedestrian lights which were going red every thirty seconds or so as the good burgers of Worthing crossed the main road going about their business. It was mostly parents with kids from my old school heading for the library on their way home.
Roundly cursing the lights, which added another precious minute to my journey time, I finally got through and turned left, where google directed, down a tiny side alley, only to be confronted with a locked bollard blocking my way and an empty car park beyond.
Now thanking the good lord for the traffic lights I’d cursed, I reversed back up the narrow alley at speed and out onto the main road, with a slight squeak of tyres, as the traffic sat backed up behind the lights.
‘Your destination is on your left,’ said the plastic google lady as I passed the side road to nowhere.
There was a parking space too. Small but … there. I reversed in, badly and after a couple of backs and forths to at least get the wheels off the pavement. I leapt out and after checking with a passer by, parking free for an hour, double woot! I ran in.
There was a reception desk, no bullet proof glass this time. I explained why I was there, they pointed me to a doorway, I pelted through and met the registrar walking down the hall. I explained what I was there for and she explained who she was and showed me into her office, with two minutes to spare …
As I sat there, a sweaty slobbering heap, she explained she’d need to ask me some questions. Listen, if you ever have to register a death in England, there are things you need to know.
Firstly, you have to have the death certificate, of course. It’s also useful to know the name of the doctor who has signed it, they couldn’t read his writing so it took a while to work out which surgery it was, look up the names of the doctors and decide which one fitted!
You will also need the person’s date of birth, National Insurance Number, date and location of death and very importantly, you need to know where they were born. If you cock any of this stuff up, then, as I write, it’s £90 to change it. So you do want to get it right. The only one I fell down on was where Dad was born. I was pretty sure but not 100% certain so I rang Mum to check.
‘No that’s where you were born.’ I glanced over at the registrar. She was smiling kindly.
I remembered the name of the house Dad was born in though, and I knew that, in a complete fluke, Mum had lived there too. She might not know where Dad was born but she still knew where her old house was. Phew.
Death registered, I thanked the Registrar for staying back late on a Friday, she gave me a green form to deliver to the undertakers, without which they couldn’t bury Dad, and I headed home.
There’s nothing wipes a person out more than trying to register a death in the wrong fucking place. But it also made Dad’s death very real. It’s a strange thing, I wouldn’t have wanted him to suffer any more, indeed, I almost wanted him to die because I wanted his suffering to end and, more selfishly, I wanted my suffering to end, watching it. But on an even more selfish note, he was my Dad and so, a part of me wanted him to stay. It’s complicated and difficult to explain.
Driving home, I headed out of the back of Worthing and took a tiny road off the A27 that goes over the downs and into Steyning. I love that road. It’s like being on the roof of the world up there. That’s the thing about the downs, they’re quite narrow, so if you stand on top of them you can see the sea stretching away into the distance one side and the Weald the other. It was bright sun and I walked through a gate and into a field and lay in the grass for half an hour or so, looking at the blue sky, listening to the larks, letting the dust settle.
So yeh, as well as knowing your loved one’s date of birth, place of birth, date of death, place of death, national insurance number, address they died at and full name, double check by phone with the Registration of Births and Deaths for your area you’re going to the right chuffing place before you set off, alright?