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, April 22, 2015

Life with and after sorrow

A bereaved mother, who'd lost a small child, once asked me, "How long will this feeling last?" Sorrow has no time limit; it just changes. Sherry Amatenstein explains:
I am a therapist, and when I see the fortitude of my patients in dealing with catastrophic events beyond their control I am reminded anew of what human beings can discover about themselves once they accept that they can't undo a tragedy — but they can relate to it in a new, healthier way. Here are six positive things that can emerge from grief.

Monday, April 06, 2015

Selfish suicides

Much has been written about, and speculated about, the mental state of Andreas Lubitz, the Germanwings co-pilot who deliberately crashed his plane full of passengers. He'd apparently researched suicide methods and had written about his wish to be remembered for the dramatic nature of his death. This reminded me of the words of the American trans-gender teenager Leela Alcorn, who wrote in her blog, "My death needs to mean something." She walked into traffic and was killed by a random motorist. She presumably meant that her death should attract attention to the bullying that she and others like her had suffered, and to a large extent it did, but it was also significant because she didn't appear to have considered its effect on the man who killed her. If he had swerved to avoid her and caused a pile-up, other people may have been killed too. In a previous post about suicides, there's a link to a news report from America in which a would-be suicide drove his car into a school bus; on that occasion, no one was seriously hurt.

The Lubitz story has attracted a lot of attention because he killed 149 people by his action, resulting in irrelevant reports about his pregnant girlfriend and other trivia, as well as calls for more care about the selection of flight crew. In hindsight, it seems absurd that airlines should have introduced reinforced doors to the flight deck that can't be opened from the outside in response to the 9/11 terrorist attack, without considering the potential for just such a tragedy as the Lubitz one, which left the pilot helplessly hacking at an impenetrable door with an axe. The odds against such an event happening again are enormous, and flying is still far safer than travelling by car, but this is little comfort to the thousands with a fear of flying.

The point of this post is that the Lubitz case is especially remarkable because of the scale of the deaths, people he didn't know or care about, but there are many other cases of suicide that put innocent people at risk of death or of trauma that affects their mental health, in some cases even leading to their suicides. As I've written before, suicides are notoriously oblivious to the effect that their death, and the methods that they choose, will have on other people. Taking an overdose of a prescribed drug may seem relatively less likely to cause harm to others, apart from the grief that friends and relatives may suffer, but it's not necessarily that simple. I once did a funeral for a woman who took an overdose of Paracetamol, not realising that it can cause a slow death if not caught in time - the stomach must be pumped quickly. By the time she began to regret her action, a day or two after she'd taken the tablets, and walked into the local A & E, the damage was done. All her family could do was watch her die over the following couple of weeks.

Mental illness drives people inward, preoccupied by their own feelings and fears. I've been criticised for describing some suicides as "selfish", which has been called judgemental, but the dictionary defines selfish as "lacking consideration for other people," which is a statement of fact. What could be more selfish than wishing to be remembered for the manner of your death, rather than how many people you killed in the process? The only answer that I can think of to such a problem is to be alert to the state of mind of those close to you, and seek help if it alarms you. The Lubitzs of this world must be scrutinised even more closely, since they're so dangerous. Better by far that they should be restrained, physically or chemically, than that they should be free to live out their lethal fantasies.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Green burial in America








































A body in a shroud ready for burial. Image from the American Green Burial Council.

Friday, January 02, 2015

10 eco-friendly funeral ideas

From the Guardian, some ideas to reduce the environmental impact of your death. Some are just common sense. The link to Bios Urn doesn't work, but Google does:
The Bios Urn is a fully biodegradable urn designed to convert you into a tree after life. Mainly composed by two parts, the urn contains a seed which will grow to remember your loved one. Bios Urn turns death into a transformation and a return to life through nature.
Only problem is that seeds don't always germinate and trees sometimes fail - wonder if there's a warning on the packaging?

Leela Alcorn's killer - what about him?

You might imagine that, of course, losing someone to suicide will deeply affect the people closest to the person who died. I've conducted funerals for people who've taken an overdose or slit their wrists, both deeply shocking for the friend or relative who found them. But sometimes the people most deeply affected are those who killed the suicides, through no fault of their own.

Over the last week or so the story of Leelah Alcorn has been told on social media. A transgender teenager, she committed suicide by stepping into traffic and being hit by a tractor and trailer.
On Sunday, just before 2:30 a.m., Alcorn walked 4 miles from her middle-class Kings Mills neighborhood with its views of Kings Island to Interstate 71. There, she was struck and killed by a tractor-trailer. The highway was closed for more than a hour.
While I have every sympathy with Leela's mother, and with all her friends and relatives, and I share the feeling that it was a tragedy that she chose to die because of her circumstances, I also feel that one other person's trauma has been largely ignored; the driver whose vehicle crushed Leela's body. He will never be able to forget what happened.

Leela is described in a statement from her school as "a sweet, talented, tender-hearted 17-year-old." She wrote in her blog, "My death needs to mean something". She was referring to the prejudice and bullying experienced by people like herself. But this sweet, tender-hearted teen didn't take pills or drown herself; she got someone else to kill her. She didn't think about the effect that might have on him.

Letters to The Age in 2012 reflect the trauma suffered by railway workers whose trains have struck suicides. A front-seat passenger described one fatality,
I will never forget the scream of the driver and the feeling of the train running over the woman's body...
Can you imagine that? Can you imagine the nightmares? The anxiety every time you see someone stepping towards the road out of the corner of your eye? In the UK, train drivers who used to be able to claim compensation from the Criminal Injuries Compensation Fund have lost that right, despite being off work for months or leaving the job altogether, and suffering long-term depression. Nik Douglas, whose train hit a man, described how his life changed in 2012:
For the next six months he was off work with post-traumatic stress. “When I was on my own I’d burst into tears for no reason, I found sleep hard and I’d have flashbacks during the night and day,” he says. “I could be in a room full of people with a really good party atmosphere but feel alone, isolated. That’s one of the biggest things I remember, feeling alone.”
The Samaritans and Network Rail have formed a partnership to try and address the problem, for the benefit of all concerned. Here's their video.


So OK, sympathise with Leela, and others like her, but think of the damage that they've done to other people too. It may have been unintentional, but maybe if more people are aware of the problem it might, just might, prevent copy-cat suicides.

As I wrote in a previous post, suicides are notoriously oblivious to the effect that their actions have on other people.
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Update - BBC Look East news report, 28/1/2015:

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.