When I retired as a humanist celebrant I thought I'd stop writing this blog, but my fascination with all things death-related prompted more posts. They're just written from a slightly different perspective, that's all. Oh, and I still do the odd one, by special request.

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Flowers and candles - what good do they do?

Floral tributes near the Bataclan concert hall in Paris 
The latest terrorist attack in Belgium has had various reactions, from predictable shock and horror, especially from those directly affected, to crowds gathered to assert their defiance against Daesh's threats. In Belgium and in Paris, and earlier in London, some have left flowers, hand-written messages and lit candles to express their sympathy with the families and friends of the dead and injured. As a friend in the funeral trade once observed, these public expressions of sympathy seemed to begin with the Hillsborough disaster in 1989, when fans left their club scarves and other tributes on the gates of the stadium. Now almost every tragic death, from single road accident victims to multiple murder victims, seems to be marked with an assortment of objects; flowers, soft toys, candles, and more. It's become conventional to do this, so that if a tragedy doesn't attract a roadside pile of stuff, you might be forgiven for thinking that no one cared about it. Since 2006, Twitter has enabled messages of sympathy to be posted online; the Internet equivalent of flowers and candles.

Who benefits from all this? Isn't it enough to feel sorry for those affected, without feeling obliged to demonstrate it in some way? Does it make any difference to those who are bereaved? Maybe. Maybe not. I can't help feeling that it's like a kind of emotional blackmail. If you don't join the throng, you don't care? That's plainly not true. Is it something that will gradually fade away, just as the rotting flowers do? Will all the little metal cups that held the candles float away in the rain, and the sentiment they expressed go back to where it began, in the minds of those who cared?

In today's Guardian, Anne Perkins suggests that when terror strikes, you might consider doing something useful.
The urge to solidarity is a very powerful one. It’s why humans are such a successful species. But at some point the genuine if emotional gesture can teeter over into something else altogether. It becomes another version of exhibitionism. It stops being motivated by an outward-looking desire to demonstrate collective resistance and slides into the self-absorbed projection of the individual into whatever event of the day is shocking or enthralling.
Express your sympathy by giving blood, or donate money to the Red Cross or the air ambulance that ferries the injured to hospital. If all the money that was spent on flowers, candles and cuddly toys was donated to organisations that help people affected by disaster, they'd be a lot better off.

Picture: Steve Parsons/PA Wire/Press Association Images

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

On ending up as litter when you're dead

I've previously written about how scattering ashes (otherwise known as "cremains") qualifies as litter. It's tricky, because bereaved people get understandably upset if thwarted when trying to mark a loss with soggy teddy bears, plastic flowers, wind-chimes and so on. They're likely to get even more upset if you try to tell them that scattering Mum's ashes on a favourite walk isn't such a good idea. To some people, bereavement seems to mean a licence to do as you please, no matter what the consequences.

Another form of litter spread by bereaved people is the floating kind - balloons and sky lanterns. Both of these are a menace. Balloons can end up anywhere and many fall into rivers or the sea, where they're ingested by birds and mammals, killing them. Sky lanterns can cause fires (and have done) and the frameworks can kill livestock if accidentally eaten. Some farmers report the loss of very valuable animals.

I was reminded of all of this today while watching Griff Rhys Jones on TV, talking about a volunteer who spends a lot of his time on the top of Snowden, clearing up litter. People leave plastic bottles, fag ends, chewing gum, and all sorts of rubbish up there. They also leave human ashes, oblivious to the damage they cause. Ashes affect the ecology of the mountain. As Jones pointed out, they're not the same as the rocks; they're more fertile. Meanwhile, the mountain rangers report that, some days, they go up there and it looks like a dusting of frost, there are so many ashes lying about. The plastic flowers that are sometimes left with them are totally inappropriate. As Griff says, "Snowdon is not a public memorial in the sky."

If you were thinking of suggesting to your nearest and dearest that you'd like your ashes scattered where you used to enjoy all those lovely family picnics, think again. They can bury them under a tree (one that they've bought to plant for the purpose, and with permission) or keep them in a jar. Anything, in fact, except litter with them.

Friday, January 01, 2016

Think upon eternity...

Memento mori, c. 1640, with thanks to La Petite Mort-ician.

Monday, October 26, 2015

Body disposal - the greenest options?

I've blogged about body disposal before, including freeze-drying, ossuaries, 'bio-cremation' and 'green' burial. With population increase comes the increasing problem of what to do with corpses, when space is limited. Britain and Japan (for obvious reasons) favour cremation more than most other countries. In an article in The Conversation, Professor Robert Young of the University of Salford writes that about 80% of the British request cremation due to lack of space, but I don't think that this is strictly true. It was the reason that cremation was originally introduced to Great Britain in the late 19th century, when municipal cemeteries were full. There was a lot of resistance to the idea at the time, mainly from the churches, but the Cremation Act was passed in 1902. It's true that it's a popular choice now, but I think that this has less to do with a shortage of burial space than with a general reluctance to stand beside an open grave at a funeral, which some people find repellent. Cremation happens inside a nice warm building where the coffin disappears behind the scenes so you don't have to think too hard about what's happening to it. Silly, but out of sight, out of mind, is a common attitude.

I was interested in one point made by the professor in his article; that the energy used to cremate one person is equal to the energy they use in one month when alive. "In the UK this translates to a yearly energy consumption of a town of 16,000 people."

When I filled in the forms for my body bequest, I requested the burial of my remains when the students have finished with them. I had a choice between burial or cremation. Other options, such as freeze-drying, would be either too complicated or expensive for the medical school, I assume. However, if there's a glut of cadavers when I pop my clogs and they reject my body, my nearest and dearest will have to organise a funeral. Since a funeral pyre in the back garden is probably out of the question, an alternative must be chosen. I trust them to make the best choice, considering cost and climate change. This is one decision I'm happy to avoid.

Tuesday, August 04, 2015

Funeral flowers

Funeral flowers

I don't usually have funeral flowers on my windowsill but after a friend's funeral yesterday his family didn't want to take them home on a long car journey and decided that I should have them. My windowsill's the only space big enough.

I was surprised that my friend's daughter had chosen this floral tribute, as my friend had stipulated in his will that he didn't want a lot of money spent on his funeral - just a cardboard coffin and no flowers. These would have cost well over £100. However, he wasn't to know, was he?

Funeral flowers used to serve a practical purpose; their perfume helped to mask the smell of decomposition. Maybe these will help to mask the smell of any dead rodents my cats have hidden around the house.

My friend Meg has found another form of floral tribute, invented by a Japanese ad agency. I like it.

Wednesday, June 03, 2015

Dying without an appointment

… Not a whit, we defy augury; there’s a special providence in the fall of a sparrow. If it be now, ‘tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be now; if it be not now, yet it will come: the readiness is all.
William Shakespeare, Hamlet
Doctors do their best, mostly, but they can't always live up to other people's expectations. If you're really ill, you might ask how long you've got, but I don't think I'd bother, nor would I encourage my nearest and dearest to ask, unless my death was imminent and they needed to go and top up a parking meter or visit the loo.

I forget who it was, but I did hear a story about a woman who was given months to live and was still alive twenty years later. Doesn't happen often, but it happens. Another story, told to me by his widow, was about a man who died within days of being taken ill. He'd had an undiagnosed cancer. It wasn't so much the suddenness of it that upset her, as having to have a post mortem. As a Jew whose relatives had been subjected to medical experimentation in a Nazi concentration camp, she hated the thought of him being sliced open.

Trouble is, medicine isn't an exact science and you can't always predict how our bodies will behave. A consultant neurologist explains why doctors get prognoses wrong:
Every patient is different, every disorder is different, every disorder within a disorder is different. People are unpredictable, their illness even more so. But there exist other subtleties that are harder to admit to.
If you develop a life-threatening illness, you might write a bucket list, give away all your belongings, or even plan to go to Dignitas. The latter involves assuming that you'll deteriorate fairly quickly, but there's no way of knowing that. If you didn't commit suicide, you might experience remission and be around for years.

Then there's all the rubbish about bravely "fighting" an illness, usually cancer, or the other euphemism - losing a "battle". It's all such twaddle. But I've blogged about that before.

Thinking about the causes of death of the people whose funerals I've conducted, a significant proportion have had illnesses that lasted months or years, yet enjoyed life in spite of it. Some have been very old, and were just worn out and glad to go. Some have just gone - whoosh! - struck down by a heart attack, cerebral haemorrhage (like my mum), or a lorry. There's no point speculating about how you'll die. Concentrate on living, and don't expect your doctor to give you an appointment for anything other than a consultation.

Illustration © M Nelson 2000

Monday, June 01, 2015

The Shrewsbury babies' missing ashes

A pencil drawing of stillborn twins
Shropshire Co-operative Funeralcare and Emstrey Crematorium don't seem to have sorted out their customer care. There are some very upset bereaved parents demanding to know why they weren't given their babies' ashes after cremation.
The review into Emstrey Crematorium in Shrewsbury began after the BBC found the ashes of only one baby out of 30 had been given to families since 2004.
When someone is cremated, what remains (usually called cremains) isn't ashes but pulverised bone. Everything else is vaporised in the intense heat of the furnace. The bones are raked out and put into a machine that grinds them up after any spare parts, such as metal screws and plates, are sorted out. The cremains can then be scattered or buried, or (in some cases) kept on your mantelpiece.

Small babies, whose bones haven't fully developed, don't leave anything to be pulverised after cremation. If there is anything left, it's dust. It's not an easy thing to explain to parents mourning the loss of a baby, even if most people weren't so squeamish, so maybe it's not always done well, if at all.

Sadly, the distress that a bereaved parent will naturally feel can become focussed on the lack of a grave or any tangible evidence that their baby existed. One mother is quoted as saying,
"It's just I have got nothing. I need to go where he is because my life isn't complete until I know where he is."
When I miscarried at 18 weeks, a long time ago, I briefly fretted that my baby's tiny body had been pickled in a jar. I was told that wasn't true, and that he'd been "respectfully" disposed of. What almost certainly happened was that the body had gone into the hospital incinerator. A funeral director I know told me that they are sometimes contacted by bereaved parents decades after they lost their baby, asking where he or she is buried. It's only fairly recently that babies have been given individual graves, so it's not possible to tell them.

The Shrewsbury parents seem to have good reason to complain that they weren't properly informed, but what they need now isn't a box of ashes, which is impossible, but help to come to terms with what's happened.

The drawing (above) was my gift to the young parents of stillborn twins. It was copied from a photograph that was unsuitable for framing. I hope that the Shrewsbury parents have photographs, if nothing else.

Click here to read what SANDS (Stillbirth & neonatal death charity) says about cremation.

Update: 5/6/2015

The story rumbles on in today's Guardian. Parents accuse the crematorium staff of not telling the truth. It sounds more like a breakdown in communication and old cremators.
... by 2009 ... furnaces at Emstrey were decrepit. “The computer control system was archaic,” Jenkins said. “The system ran on obsolete floppy discs and staff had to recycle old computers to keep the system running.”

The report noted the cremators had no infant setting and staff did not realise they could override presets. Lower temperatures would have made it more likely that some infant remains could have been recovered. But Jenkins said environmental regulations may have banned that and other practises, such as cremating young children, at the start or end of the day.
What's meant by "some infant remains"? Burnt tissue? Is that really what you'd want to keep? I wonder if the parents have really considered what this means. Burning a cremator at a lower temperature has been described as "gentle" cremation, a euphemism meant to make the process sound pleasant.

In my experience, funeral directors and crematorium staff aren't unaffected by a baby's funeral. They are keenly aware of the parents' feelings, especially as most will have children themselves.

It seems to me that the buck stops with the funeral directors' funeral arrangers, who are responsible for making all the arrangements. They should know what is or isn't possible, and advise the families accordingly.

The moral is, if you want remains after the disposal of a small infant, don't cremate them, bury them.

Shropshire Council commissioned a report into what had happened. Click here to read it.

A similar babies' ashes story has been told in Scotland - click here to read about it.