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.

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.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Dressing for dusty death

Silk, hemp and cotton fabrics used by Pia Interlandi
I've heard that, before the law was changed to prevent pollution, the dead could be cremated in all sorts of unsuitable outfits. One example was a farmer who was cremated wearing his wellies; the burning rubber smell must have drifted around the area and probably didn't do the cremator much good. Similarly unsuitable outfits were worn by those being buried; man-made fibres don't biodegrade. Now there are rules about the materials that can be used to line a coffin and dress a corpse, but some clothes may still make it tricky. Fiddling about with buttons on a body isn't easy. If you're not expecting to view the body, what does it matter what it's wearing? The funeral director will take their usual shroud off a shelf, and you'll never see it. But if you do want to be seen by your dearly beloved, you might want to look as good as possible, bearing in mind you won't be at your best. I wouldn't want to be embalmed, which is far more popular in the US than here; that's about creating an illusion. So Pia Interlandi's clothes for the dead are a good idea. They're made from fabrics that will rot as the body rots after burial; they've all been tested on pig corpses.
“The body is a gift,” Interlandi says. “It’s a big bag of nutrients and water and protein. When you place it back into the earth, I think the garment is almost like wrapping paper.”
This story reminded me of Mr Bun. I was visiting a funeral director after interviewing Mrs Bun about her husband's funeral. My undertaker friend was keen to show me around the premises. Standing over an open coffin in the morgue, she patted the skinny corpse's knee and said, "This is Mr Bun." His face was veiled by white lace, as though partially gift wrapped. Knowing what I did about Mr Bun, having just heard his life story, it seemed bizarre to cover him in the sort of lace you'd see in a bridal veil. He wouldn't have been seen dead in it.

HT to @megatonlove for the link.

Friday, July 12, 2013

On a good man's death, and a difference of opinion

I've just been talking to a young woman about her grandfather, who died recently. He was a friend and I know his views about religion, which were that it's all nonsense and he couldn't understand what anyone sees in it. He recently wrote,
On the rare occasions that I’ve discussed religion with a person of faith, I’ve asked if God made everything. The answer was always "Yes". I then asked why he made, for example, cancer. End of conversation. It all remains a mystery.
I don't know what it says on his death certificate about the cause of death, but cancer was part of his problem. Seems that he never discussed any of this with his granddaughter, who told me that the family are all Christian and it will seem strange having a humanist funeral. She expressed regret that he died without religion. I find it sad that she feels that way. I said that her grandparents had a very happy marriage, despite their differing views on religion, because they adopted the philosophy of "Live, and let live." She said we'd have to agree to differ. Made me wonder if she expected him to adopt his wife's faith, to make the family happy? They were happy, as far as I can tell. Incidentally, his wife is a non-conformist from an organisation that doesn't proselytise.

My friend was one of the kindest, gentlest people I've known; a man of few words, but when he did say anything, it was often after careful thought and worth listening to. He had a very dry sense of humour and very green fingers; his friends will remember his gifts of runner beans. Why does his granddaughter feel that it's regrettable that he rejected religion? Surely not because she fears for his salvation? If there was a god, and if he, she or it judged my friend wanting, I'd question its judgement.

I look forward to conducting my friend's funeral, and to making it clear that there is no reason to feel that there was anything missing from his life.

Tuesday, April 09, 2013

In case you hadn't noticed, someone important has died

"I have never killed a man, but I have read many obituaries with a lot of pleasure." -- Clarence Darrow (1857 - 1938)
I may be wrong, but I think I read somewhere that Mrs Thatcher liked Anthony Trollope's novels. In Dr Thorne, Trollope wrote, "In these days a man is nobody unless his biography is kept so far posted up that it is ready for the national breakfast-table on the morning after his demise." The obituary writers will have been updating their Thatcher files for some years, in anticipation of her demise, just as they do with other public figures. The difference between those written in Trollope's time and those published and broadcast this week is that it was far easier to avoid them 130 years ago. You just didn't bother to read them in a newspaper, or you never read a paper anyway. Now, it's almost impossible to avoid the interminable eulogising on the TV news, especially the BBC, when anyone of any importance snuffs it. The day someone invents a news channel filter, I'll scrape together my pennies to buy one ASAP.

The current hoo-ha will go on until after the funeral on April 17th, over a week away. Meanwhile, I'll be recording the news bulletins and fast forwarding through anything Thatcher related.

Wednesday, April 03, 2013

Today on Twitter

Just a few of the death related tweets today. Just do a search and you'll find more.