The Funny Thing About Death

I’ve written a book which I hope is in part a celebration of my big sister who died of cancer age 57. People have said to me that it must have been hard and upsetting to write but strangely it wasn’t, it was like spending time with her again.

My sister Annie was a writer and when I was writing I felt connected to her, as though I was feeling what she had felt being a writer, sitting at her computer, why she loved it so much, just you and a laptop, like a muscle memory but it was hers not mine. I have the same muscle memory when I’m gardening, I seem to know how to do things because I saw my Dad doing it, it’s him doing it not me. It’s a comforting feeling that sense of whoever you’ve lost moving through you, fleetingly.

I have used some extracts from her writing in the book, as there’s no better way to get to know her than to read her own words and also I can hear her saying “Oh so you’re a writer now are you? Hmmm… would you like to point out my books to people”. Yes I will Annie.

Six years ago, Jo Caulfield was about to go on stage when she found out that her big sister Annie had cancer. Not the best way to start a nationwide comedy tour. But the tour turned out to be a welcome distraction for both sisters. As Jo reported back from various hotels and service stations, they revisited their childhood and adolescence while navigating Annie’s illness, learning through trial and error how to behave when someone you love gets sick. 

The Funny Thing About Death began by Jo writing a few articles to help herself process what had happened, it is now a hilarious memoir of two unconventional girls growing up in the 1970s. It will was published on 3rd August by Birlinn Polygon.

Like her stand-up, Jo Caulfield’s caustic wit and razor-sharp observations make her account of life with her sister, even in the worst of times, as entertaining as it is touching and relatable.

All of Jo’s profits from The Funny Thing About Death will be donated to MacMillan Cancer Support – a charity which Jo has already raised over £50,000 for through bucket collections at the end of her Edinburgh Fringe shows. There will be a chance to buy a copy of the book at the end of each tour show.

Comedians Who Have Read My Book

GRAHAM NORTON :

“There’s so much I’d like to say about this book, it’s a wildly satisfying and moving read. Big laughs combined with rare insight and heartbreak… I loved this special book.”

JO BRAND :

“Jo navigates the treacherous waters of bereavement and its unpredictable  behaviour and emotions in this open, funny, sad, wry and highly readable gem.”

JIMMY CARR :

“Laughter isn’t just for the good times. Laughter is what gets us through the toughest times, and Jo Caulfield demonstrates that beautifully in this heartfelt and hilarious book.”

JASON MANFORD :

“One of my favourite comedians Jo Caulfield has written this beautifully funny and moving book which I loved! Not only is it worth your time, all proceeds go to Macmillans too!”

JENNY ECLAIR :

“Warm and tender, frequently very funny and ultimately incredibly moving tale of siblings and cancer”.

SHAPPI KHORSANDI :

“I have the great good fortune of a copy of this book before it is officially out. I’m on holiday and I did not go this evening in beautiful Valencia because I cannot put it down”.

“Captured her big sister’s sense of humour and humanity beautifully.”

LENNY HENRY

‘The Funny Thing About Death’ — Scottish Sun Newspaper

THERE is no guidebook to dealing with cancer.

These past couple of weeks, though, I’ve read and re-read maybe the closest thing to it yet.

It’s called The Funny Thing About Death, it’s written by comedian Jo Caulfield and it’s about losing her sister Annie to this ratbag of a disease.

Annie was a writer, an adventurer and when it came to her demise she was very much a planner.

She did the running order for her own funeral – “if this bit runs over, cut that

bit and left the most beautiful quote to be read out on the day:

“If you don’t know how to die, don’t worry; nature will tell you what to do on the spot, finely and adequately.

Isn’t that perfect? Sad and happy and wise all at once. Just like this book.

Jo’s retelling of her life with and now without

Annie is full of frustration and confusion and anger and wonder, all these emotions tied together with a ribbon of humour, sometimes dark as night, other times laugh-out-loud, always on the mark.

Too many of us have been on the journey these two sisters shared, too many more will embark on it. My guess is that every one of us would read The Funny Thing About Death and nod at so many moments that echo what we’ve gone through or are going through.

And hopefully we’d also nod our appreciation at the fact that every penny from Jo’s book will go to Macmillan Cancer Support, a charity she has raised more than £50,000 for since Annie’s demise. Please get a copy and add a little more to the fund. Bill Leckie (25th July, 2023)

GoodReads review (31 Oct 2023)

The Funny Thing About Death is comedian Jo Caulfield’s memoir about her sister Annie – a successful writer who died far too young in 2016 aged just 57.

Jo charts the progress of her sister’s cancer from the initial diagnosis to her untimely death. By delving into their shared past she gives us an honest and unflinching portrait of her older sister, strong-headed, funny, vibrant, inventive, vulnerable and acerbic. When Annie does the unthinkable and dies, leaving Jo behind, the depth of her grief shines a light on the genuine and joyful relationship they shared. Their mutual love of the absurd and the irreverent stories they concoct together is a delight to read.

Annie gets her say too, as short excerpts of her writing are included within this book. It’s a great way to get to know her, and whets your appetite to discover more of her work.

Jo Caulfield is well known as a clever, sharp and witty comedian. But now she is an author too. In fact, I can’t help but wonder if Annie might be slightly put out (if also proud) by how good a job she has made of this personal and tragic story. I’m certainly hoping that this isn’t her last book.

The Funny Thing About Death

All of Jo’s profits from The Funny Thing About Death will be donated to MacMillan Cancer Support – a charity which Jo has already raised over £50,000 for through bucket collections at the end of her Fringe shows since 2017. There will be a chance to buy a copy of the book at the end of each tour show.

‘The Funny Thing About Death’ book review from Chortle website

Understandably, there’s a sizeable part of the publishing industry devoted to well-meaning cancer memoirs. From writers ‘battling’ the prolific killer chronicling their struggles, or from those caring for ailing loved ones sharing their experience. Often for readers desperate to understand the disease after diagnosis.

The writer Annie Caulfield would have been furious to be the subject of such a memoir, to be bested or defined by the disease in that way. And her younger sister, Jo, the stand-up, would have hated herself for writing it.

Yet here we are. A moving, occasionally beautiful but down-to-earth account of family ties, creative ambition and lust for life, The Funny Thing About Death is the comic’s first book and it admirably succeeds in conveying Jo’s assertion that ‘cancer was the least interesting thing about Annie’.

Indifferent as to whether it attacks fierce, rebellious individuals like her sister or ‘arseholes’ like Lance Armstrong, cancer did not provoke the Caulfields to open positivity in the face of adversity. Rather, there was incomprehension, some recrimination, reconciliation, secrets, lies, and a mutual refusal to let it dictate the course of their lives.

There wasn’t even awareness of just how devastating it could be. Almost right up until Annie died in 2016, aged 57, Caulfield admits that she was often ignorant of her sister’s prognosis, believing that she would recover, leave the hospice and simply go home.

Partly this was self-protection. But partly it was allowing Annie, who preferred the freedom of writing for radio to the compromises of television, to retain control of her own story. 

The sisters and their Catholic priest brother shielded their mother, still grieving the recent loss of their father, from reality. Annie too though, was always more of a do-er than a reflective type. She seems for the longest time to have been convinced that death wouldn’t get her. She still had so much left to write.

With the blessing of Annie’s partner, Martin, Jo includes several pieces penned by her sister in the book, invariably droll, witty vignettes. Annie devoted much of her life to writing about other people, those she believed to be far more interesting than her, the product of a boring, Anglo-Irish, itinerant Forces upbringing who never settled anywhere for long when they were young. That and her cloistered convent education inspired a restless, sometimes reckless wanderlust and desire for adventure in her, manifesting in a particular preoccupation with Africa and the civil rights movement.

Nevertheless, her posthumous book, My Cambodian Twin, about her relationship with Sophea Kagna, a dancer who survived Pol Pot’s massacres, was part of Annie’s growing willingness to write about herself in the years leading up to her death. Jo maintains that one of the most wretched aspects of her sister’s passing was that she never got to explore this more.

For would-be comedy writers, meanwhile, there’s a splendid essay by Annie on the need for time and space to simply stare out of the window, with her resulting insight into rats opening up a whole sitcom storyline that she had been struggling with.

Elsewhere, Annie shares a poignant encounter with a homeless Romanian man that really tugs at your heartstrings. Jo then bluntly offers some context by suggesting that her sister was probably off her head on medication at the time and it probably never happened.

Who cares? From childhood, Annie seldom let the truth get in the way of a good yarn and was predominantly an emboldening influence upon her sister. Jo recalls the pair embarking on hair-raising hitch-hiking adventures around Europe as teenagers, marvelling that they were never raped or killed. Despite the limitations and strictures of their oppressive Catholic education, Annie fought the power and won respect from the nuns.

All the same, one struggles not to read the sections about being an artist in 1980s London with envy, where hard graft and a willingness to slum it were at least rewarded by feelings of opportunity, time to find yourself and broader horizons than appear possible for the less affluent now.

Those were fun, heady times too. Kathy Burke and Jerome Flynn were at Annie’s house parties and the artist Bridget Riley was an employer who became a friend and mentor. Annie writes amusingly about fleetingly meeting Nelson Mandela and Denzel Washington. She established an enduring working relationship with Lenny Henry. And Sandi Toksvig conducted her funeral.

Marvellous though she appears to have been in the main, Annie’s ego and insensitivity are aspects that Jo doesn’t shy away from. These were also traits that she shared with their RAF officer father, whose class pretensions clashed with Annie’s renegade, bohemian affectations. Neither does the comedian refrain from mentioning her hurt when her sister wounded her, though their abiding love for each other never truly seems in question.

Acerbic, incapable of small talk and unwilling to suffer fools gladly, neither sister could be said to lack emotional intelligence based on their writing – but expressing it was another matter.

Jo also offers quite a few of her once frequent, now out-of-character episodes of timidity. There’s a telling passage late in the book where she admits to only finding her stand-up voice in her 50s, with that voice simply being to tell people to fuck off. It reads like the clarity of distilling oneself down to one’s essence rather than an admission of failure.

Was it the thrill of making her elder sister laugh that turned Jo into a comedian? She isn’t sure. Hilariously though, the otherwise supportive Annie loathed stand-up and had no compunction about running the artform down.

In brief, measured chapters suffused with tenderness, warmth and some heartbreaking fragility in spite of herself, Caulfield has delivered a fitting tribute to her sister that, crucially, you suspect Annie would sneakily delight in. In the process, the comic reveals a vulnerable, conflicted side to herself that she never comes close to revealing on stage.

Might she now follow Annie’s example again and belatedly begin to share more of herself there as she increasingly gives fewer fucks? Or is the comic who prides herself on lashing idiots with her tongue – her show carrying on as she inwardly mourns the victims of the Manchester Arena bombing or her fading sister – a more ‘authentic’ performer? 

We may never know. But The Funny Thing About Death remains an affecting portrait of two distinct yet forever entwined personalities.

Book cover featuring a photo of Jo and her sister as children with the text 'The Funny Thing About Death'.

The Funny Thing About Death