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.

Friday, July 01, 2016

The ways of God are strange!

Wire, 1918, by Paul Nash
It's the 100th anniversary of The Battle of the Somme today. The event at The Thiepval Memorial in France shown on TV was moving but although it included a reading from Sassoon and stressed the loss of so many ordinary working men, it didn't make any reference to the cynicism of some soldiers, the desertions, the suicides and the minds wrecked by what we now call "post-traumatic stress disorder", which was then called "shell shock". Yes, there are many tales of heroism under fire, but what about all the other stories?

The Bishop tells us: 'When the boys come back
They will not be the same; for they'll have fought
In a just cause: they lead the last attack
On Anti-Christ; their comrades' blood has bought
New right to breed an honourable race,
They have challenged Death and dared him face to face.'

'We're none of us the same!' the boys reply.
'For George lost both his legs; and Bill's stone blind;
Poor Jim's shot through the lungs and like to die;
And Bert's gone syphilitic: you'll not find
A chap who's served that hasn't found some change.'
And the Bishop said: 'The ways of God are strange!'

Siegfried Sassoon, 1916

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Just passing by

In all the years that I've written funeral scripts, I've never used the euphemism "passed away" rather than "died". Apart from a feeling that it's religious, suggesting that you're going to end up somewhere else, like heaven, rather than simply being dead, I've never been convinced that it makes things any easier for the bereaved to accept their loss. I've read that it's supposed to be a "gentler" term than saying that someone's died. No one's complained about it, or suggested that I should say something different. Rather, I've sensed a sense of relief that I haven't used that sort of language.

The term is being used by journalists in news reports. I find it as irritating as the common reference to anyone dying of cancer as having "lost the battle" or "fighting" their illness. As has been said by various people with cancer, including me, you don't die of it because you didn't try hard enough.

I read that funeral directors have noticed the term being used more often since about the 1970s. If that's true I suspect that it's due to a general reluctance to accept the reality of death and the consequent pain of loss. Some people seem to regard grief as a form of mental illness that should be treated with pharmaceuticals, rather than a natural reaction to losing someone you've loved. Pain, of any sort, shouldn't happen, they seem to think, and using "gentle" euphemisms might help to avoid too much of it. Except that it doesn't work. You've no control over grief. Suppressing it will make you ill.

One of my favourite journalists is Michael Goldfarb, who apparently wrote on Facebook,
When did the verb “to die” and the nouns derived from it—dead, death, etcetera — get excised from American usage to be replaced by “to pass.”

Wind gets passed. I hereby authorize all 500 plus of my Facebook friends to say of me, when the moment comes, that “Michael died, is dead, his death was a tragedy,” etcetera.  Please don’t say, “I’ve passed.” If you need a euphemism, say “I’ve shuffled,” as in shuffled off this mortal coil.
"Wind gets passed" - I like that. One day I'll die. I won't be passing anywhere except, probably, the dissection room at Cambridge medical school before they dispose of what's left of me in a suitably hygienic manner. 

Image: 'The Last Dream', a monument by J. Edwards to the Late Miss Hutton of Sowber Hill near Northallerton. Nice to see that she changed into her nightie before passing away.

Thursday, May 12, 2016


Found on the web - source unknown

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

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.