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.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Sticking around a bit longer

I was catching up with some of Michele Hanson's columns in The Guardian, where she writes about "life as a single, older woman" and the challenges of growing old. When she was 72 (two years older than me), she wrote, "You may not realise how quickly life whizzes by. So we are here to warn you. Have a lovely time. While you can." I realise, all right. Summer went whooshing by, and it's winter again. I have groundhog days, mostly, since I stopped work. Have to check what day of the week it is, before I decide what to do, if anything.

Anyhow, among Michele's stuff I came across an article by Ezekiel J. Emanuel in The Atlantic, entitled "Why I hope to die at 75". In it, he writes, 
"... living too long ... renders many of us, if not disabled, then faltering and declining, a state that may not be worse than death but is nonetheless deprived. It robs us of our creativity and ability to contribute to work, society, the world. It transforms how people experience us, relate to us, and, most important, remember us. We are no longer remembered as vibrant and engaged but as feeble, ineffectual, even pathetic."
Emanuel is an oncologist, a bioethicist, and a vice provost of the University of Pennsylvania, and the author or editor of 10 books. Maybe his work as an oncologist has influenced his attitude towards ageing. Cancer is one of the potential challenges of old age. I first had cancer in 1986. It could finish me off, or it may not. My friend Don, aged 89, has just learned that he'll have to have chemotherapy for the rest of his life. Old people with cancer frequently die of something other than cancer. You just can't predict these things. Don's more upset about the disruption to his routine and the hassle of weekly trips to hospital than the actual cancer.

Emanuel doesn't want to be remembered as "no longer vibrant and engaged but as feeble, ineffectual, even pathetic." Sounds like vanity to me. 75 is no great age these days, at least if you're fortunate to live in developed country with good healthcare. I'm not ready to go in five years time, it's too soon, though my life isn't very exciting and I am a physical wreck. Life is still interesting, if uneventful, so I'll hang around a bit longer, if I can.

Older people don't have to be feeble and pathetic. If you don't care what others think about you, or how you'll be remembered, age gives you the freedom to express yourself as you please. Ari Seth Cohen photographs stylish eccentrics around New York, all of them old. His latest subject is Linda Rodin, described as a "skincare guru", who's 65, which isn't especially old. Rodin isn't bothered by being grey, unlike all those silly people who waste a fortune on hair dye, and Cohen's photos show her looking glamorous. Of course, she has the advantage of being wealthy and probably healthy but, just the same, it's good to see someone who isn't ready to become invisible in old age.

When conducting funerals for very old people (the eldest was over 100), I've felt it was important that the younger members of a family, who'd only remember them as old and frail, should be encouraged to picture them as they were when they were young, like them. One woman had been a flapper in the twenties. She'd been very fashionable, which wasn't difficult as she worked as a seamstress and made all her own clothes. She'd saved up and bought herself a motorbike, roaring about on it despite the disapproval of her parents. A man had had to share a pair of shoes with one of his brothers because their family was so poor; they took turns to go to school. He worked his way through night school to get an engineering qualification and ended up as a senior member of an international company, travelling the world, and sending his children to university. If they'd only been remembered as feeble and pathetic, that would have been because their relatives didn't care to use their imaginations.

I'm too lazy for glamour but I've resolved to smarten myself up a bit and do something creative while I still have my marbles. If I lose them, I won't care how anyone remembers me. I may be a physical wreck but it would be such a waste if I pegged out at 75, after all the money I've cost the NHS.

I've just remembered a woman I used to see in Hadleigh, my nearest town, when I went shopping. She's probably dead now, as it was a long time ago. She must have been in her early eighties. She was slim and elegant, wearing the sort of clothes that would have been expensive but lasted years because she cared for them. She was never without a hat, worn at a jaunty angle, gloves, and a smart handbag. I once smiled at her and said I liked her hat, and she smiled back and said thank you. I knew nothing about her but like to think that her family wouldn't remember her as feeble and pathetic.

Photo of Linda Rodin by Ari Seth Cohen

Tuesday, November 04, 2014

How to meet people when your job's about death

If I was younger and fitter, I might try this out.
Dead Meet is a dating and networking site to enable people in the death industry to meet like-minded individuals.
Whether you have a background in pathology, organise funerals for a living or are a medical historian looking for a research collaboration then feel free to join Dead Meet.
Taxidermists, SOCOs, Crematorium Techs, anatomists and APTs should all feel at home here.
If you’ve been dying to meet someone who shares you’re interests, you’ve come to the right place!
And I love their logo!

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Framed for posterity

Fancy a bit of Granny's bum on your wall?
There are all sorts of ways to preserve bits of your dear departed; turning their ashes into paperweights or incorporating them into a 3D artwork, for example.

I've toyed with the idea of having a zip tattooed on my mastectomy scar, after seeing some rather elaborate flowery ones, but it seemed a bit of a waste when no one else was likely to see it and appreciate the joke. I've met a man who was covered with tattoos, including his scalp, and wondered what he'd look like when he got old and saggy. Like soggy wrinkled wrapping paper, probably.

If you have spent a fortune on tattoos and don't like the idea of all that creative effort going up in smoke at the crematorium, you can have the best bits preserved for your next of kin, to remind them of when they were soft and warm to the touch. The Foundation of the Art and Science of Tattooing offer this service, so that your tattoos won't just last a lifetime; they'll last much longer.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

John Hunter's legacy

My '60s art college course included anatomy. Our lecturer was a retired surgeon who wore a green operating gown, for no apparent reason. He drew the body parts with a felt-tipped pen on the naked flesh of life models. One new male model arrived in a pair of shorts, the sort worn by boxers, with an elasticated waistband and shiny fabric. It hid a substantial part of his body from above the waist to mid-thigh. When our lecturer wanted to talk about the gluteus maximus he hooked a finger around the model's waistband and hoicked it down, around his buttocks. The poor man blushed from the neck up. After the lecture was over, we never saw him again.

I enjoyed those lectures. Our lecturer brought pickled body parts in jars to show us. I remember a slice of a human brain. When we were invited to go on a trip to the Hunter collection at the Royal College of Surgeons, I leapt at the chance. I'd already done some pickling myself, preserving stuff with formaldehyde, which stank. My poor flatmate didn't complain.

One of these days I'd like to go and visit the collection again, now displayed in the refurbished Hunterian Museum. Meanwhile, I'm glad to have found a short film called 'Narrative Remains' on the Wellcome Collection website, described as follows:
'Narrative Remains' is a collaboration between artist and writer Karen Ingham and the Hunterian Museum. This film accompanied a site-specific installation at the Hunterian, which contains a large number of 'wet specimens', preserved elements of human anatomy,  collected by the anatomist John Hunter.

Ingham's work brings the dead back to life through their displayed organs, giving the patients a voice and a narrative that connects to the preserved specimen. One such is the throat of Marianne Harland, a musically talented young woman who lost first her famed voice, and then her life, to tuberculosis.
Click here to see it - I recommend full screen.

I used to have a copy of a paperback book by Garet Rogers called 'Brother Surgeons', about John Hunter and his brother William, who revolutionised surgery in the 18th century. I wish I knew what's happened to the book, which is now out of print. Copies fetch between £50 and £70. I remember reading about the 18th century "treatment" for syphilis, which was mercury; a highly toxic substance. They used to say, "After Venus comes Mercury".

18th century surgeons obtained cadavers from the so-called "resurrectionists" or body-snatchers. It wasn't until 1832 that the Anatomy Act outlawed the practice. Nowadays the medical schools obtain cadavers through bequests, such as the one I've planned. Click here to find out how.

Portrait of John Hunter (13 Feb 1728 - 16 Oct 1793) by John Jackson.

Friday, February 21, 2014

Grief and mourning rituals are two different things

A Telegraph sub-editor has headed an article about grieving by Clover Stroud, "Have the British Forgotten how to grieve?" I've commented:
Generalised statements, like "Have the British forgotten how to grieve?", are meaningless. There is no collectively British way to grieve, and never was, though there have been socially acceptable rituals surrounding death for millennia. The two shouldn't be confused. Clover seems to be going through a list of options, in search of some sort of structured grieving process. There isn't one, though some people may find comfort in sharing rituals because they don't need to think about them; you just follow a prescribed formula, which is an easy option when you're emotionally fragile.

As someone who's been bereaved several times, in different ways, and as a humanist celebrant for over 20 years, my experience has been that grief is personal and everyone grieves according to their own personality and the relationship that they had with the person (or pet) who died. A mother who'd lost her baby once asked me, "How long will I feel like this?", as though there should be a time limit to it, or desperately hoping that the pain would end soon. Some self-styled grief counsellors used to tell clients that there are stages to grieving, to be followed in order. This is nonsense. Months, years after a loss, something may remind you of the one you loved and the feelings may return, perhaps less acutely, but still in a wave of emotion. No one has forgotten how to grieve; we just can't help ourselves.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

To rot, or not?

The worms crawl in
And the worms crawl out
They crawl in thin
And they crawl out stout

Your eyes fall in
And your teeth fall out
Your brains come trickling
Down your snout ...
The Worm Song has been attributed to British soldiers serving in the Crimea in the 19th century. I learned it as a Girl Guide; it was one of the scary songs we sang around the campfire in the dark. Essentially, it's about what happens to buried bodies; a gradual process of decomposition. Horrible as it may sound, if this didn't happen, we'd have a problem; bodies piling up, refusing to rot. This is what's happening in Norway, according to Ashley Feinberg:
Norway's got a major corpse problem that isn't going away anytime soon. Literally—they won't rot. What's the culprit behind this profusion of bodies that refuse to take their place in the circle of life? The same thing that's also working to keep your sandwich fresh: plastic wrap.
The Norwegians answer to the problem is to poke a long tube into the grave, puncturing the plastic, and injecting lime into the space, to hasten decomposition. If you imagine that rotting bodies are horrible, how horrible are corpses that won't rot?

I sometimes wonder about American corpses. The Americans embalm a lot more bodies than we do and like to display them looking as fresh as the day they died in open coffins. Many of their coffins are great heavy things, made from metal, so they seal a corpse in and prevent it from decaying naturally. Instead, the action of anaerobic bacteria will cause the corpse to putrefy, turning it into a disgusting semi-liquid soup. If you've ever watched an episode of CSI where they tip a corpse out of a sealed plastic or metal container, you'll know that the smell it produces is indescribable - far worse than the smell of a naturally decomposed corpse. The dear departed's relatives might go to the grave to pay their respects, imagining him or her as he or she was when last seen. What's happening in the grave or crypt is nothing like that; it's the real stuff of horror stories.

Face it; death means decomposition. Trying to prevent it may only make matters worse, and as we're running out of burial space, the sooner we rot, the better - but not until after we're dead, of course.

Photo © M Nelson - a newly dug grave immediately after a burial, Greenwood Burial Ground, Farnham, Suffolk.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Making room for the dead

The news that most British cemeteries are either full, or nearly full, shouldn't be a surprise. The population continues to grow, and so does the demand for burial space. Cemeteries can be fascinating places, with historically interesting headstones and thriving wildlife, but it makes no sense to expect to stake your claim to a burial plot and expect it to remain yours in perpetuity. Many graves are neglected, forgotten or ignored by the descendents of those who occupy them, while the newly dead must be buried wherever there's room.

Maybe it's time to coax the squeamish into considering burying people long enough for full decomposition, before exhuming the bones and storing them in an ossuary? Neatly stacked bones take up far less space than bodies.

Of course there's cremation, which is popular here and in Japan, but even with efficient new cremators, it's not an environmentally-friendly option. Other new methods of disposal include bio-cremation and freeze-drying, but they still use energy, which is also is increasingly short supply.

Dealing with the problem of burial space shortages means dealing with death and with the population problem; two subjects that most people would rather not know about. It's not going to be easy.
________
Here lies father and mother and sister and I,
We all died within the space of one short year;
They all be buried at Wimble, except I,
And I be buried here.
Headstone in a Staffordshire churchyard.
________

Photo of headstone fragments by the wall of St. Peter's Church, Elmsett, Suffolk © M Nelson.
Photo of bones in an ossuary in Sedlec near Kutná Hora in the Czech Republic from the Czech Tourism website.