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, November 30, 2007

The end is nigh

Why write about the death of a pet? Because some of us mourn for them just as we mourn for people.

Poppy is eighteen years old. She was given to me as a pathetic little scrap that had been born in a coal bunker. The mother's owner wouldn't have her cats neutered and when they had kittens she just took them to the vets and asked them to kill them. My cleaner, who was a neighbour of this stupid person, phoned me and said would I take a couple of kittens she'd rescued, until she could rehome them? Someone took the other kitten before she got to me, or I could have ended up with both of them.

Poppy was filthy. She survived having a tape worm, fleas, lice and ear mites. By the time we'd nursed her back to health, Nathan said he didn't want to part with her. She's been run over (her tail was paralysed for about six weeks), had skin cancer (part of an ear had to be amputated), came home one day with a puncture wound in her face, and went missing for a couple of months about two years ago. The photo above, taken not long ago, has been viewed 248 times (to date) and favourited 44 times by cat-lovers on Flickr.com.

Poppy has a sunny disposition, she loves company, and liked to sit beside any visitors and pat them on the arm until they stroked her. Now she's dying. Within the next few weeks, I'll have to make the decision to take her to the vet one last time. Her kidneys are failing and her breath has that tell-tale smell of urine. She sleeps a lot.

Trouble is, there are two other geriatrics in this house - Wizzy (our Jack Russell), who was sixteen in May, and Barney, who's almost twenty. Before long, I'll lose them all.

Pets are sometimes referred to as "companion animals", which is an accurate description. For many people, particularly disabled and elderly people, they provide companionship that makes all the difference between crippling loneliness and tolerable solitude. Losing a pet can be as devastating for them as losing a close relative - in some cases, more so. I've provided a befriending service for bereaved pet owners through our local vet. They've said they found it hard to talk about their feelings to their friends, whose attitude might be, "It was only a dog!" Their uncomprehending "friends" muddle sentimentalism with grieving. Because pet owners can form bonds with their animals that can be as close as they might form with people, they grieve at the end of an animal's short life; those who don't recognise this betray their own deficiencies. When I was in my teens, my best friend's mum, Stella, gave me some good advice about relationships: "If he doesn't like animals or children, he's a waste of time." I've always regarded people who don't understand animals, or our relationship with them, as being seriously lacking in the empathy department.

For several years now, social workers have recognised that there's often a connection between animal abuse and child abuse; if someone tortures or neglects an animal, he or she is likely to treat his or her children (and partner) badly. Animal cruelty cases can alert social workers to children at risk. It's because of an inability to empathise.

I've always stayed with my pets when they've been "put to sleep", the euphemism for euthanasia, so they'd be reassured by my presence. After the injection, which literally does send them to sleep, they just stop breathing and that's it, over in seconds. It's always been very peaceful. If only we could do the same for people, like my dad, who had to suffer weeks of morphine-induced anxiety at the end of his life as his body rotted away. I've taken other people's pets to the vet because they couldn't face it. Within the next few weeks, I'll have to take Poppy. I'm not looking forward to it.

I like this poem by Gavin Ewart, called "A 14-year-old convalescent cat in the winter" -

I want him to have another living summer,
to lie in the sun and enjoy the douceur de vivre -
because the sun, like the golden rum in a rummer,
is what makes an idle cat un tout petit peu ivre -

I want him to lie stretched out, contented,
revelling in the heat, his fur all dry and warm,
an Old Age Pensioner, retired, resented
by no one, and happinesses in a bee-like swarm

to settle on him - postponed for another season
that last fated hateful journey to the vet
from which there is no return (and age the reason),
which must come soon - as I cannot forget.


Nathan's reminded me about how different attitudes towards dogs and cats are in countries like Cambodia. He mentioned that someone in Siem Reap had a row with his neighbour, who'd killed and eaten his dog "because he was hungry", while other people in the neighbourhood had pulled out or cut out their dogs' teeth to stop them biting each other during frequent fights - the screams could be heard some distance away. The WSPA reports that there are roughly 480 million stray dogs around the world, many suffering from horrible diseases and painful deaths. My pets live in comparative luxury, costing £1000s for food and vet's bills. Is it ethical to spend so much money on our animals, when so many people go hungry? Perhaps it's not so much the cost, as the fact that too many animals are allowed to breed. Mine weren't.

Monday, November 05, 2007

21st century funerals

It seems that those most "traditional" tradesmen (and a few women), the funeral directors, and the people who work in cemeteries and crematoria, are gradually catching up with modern business practices.

When I began conducting funerals sixteen years ago, emails were unheard of. To confirm a booking, the funeral directors sent you a pre-printed form addressed to "Reverend Sir", and since I was neither, this had to be crossed out and my name substituted. The forms are all different now, but an increasing number of funeral directors confirm the details by email.

It was usual to be paid in cash, with the money (sometimes in a little brown envelope) discreetly pushed into my hand or pocket after the ceremony. One funeral director, a short man who always wore a top hat and tails at funerals, used to put the little envelope into his upturned hat and point it in my direction as he went "Pssst!" and swivelled his eyes from me to the hat, while the mourners were saying their goodbyes at the graveside. Nowadays, a few funeral directors are catching on to the convenience of paying by BACS (bankers' automated clearing services), so the money goes straight from their account to mine. One even wrote to say they won't pay by cash any more and would I prefer cheque or BACS? I wonder how many clergy used to declare all their cash payments?

Then there's the music. The organists have less organ-playing to do these days. An increasing number of people ask for recorded music. Frank Sinatra's "My Way" and Robbie Williams' "Angel" are two of the most popular choices. My heart sinks whenever I hear Celine Dion mentioned, or Bette Midler's "Wind beneath my wings" - neither can hit a note without warbling up to it in an unsteady manner that makes me want to yell "Please! Stop!" Recorded music was all on tapes at one time, and they could be unreliable. One machine in a local crematorium regularly chewed them up. CDs aren't much better, particularly the ones that people have copied on a PC; some crematoria have banned them. Sometimes people will turn up at the funeral with an empty case; they'd been checking the music, and left it in the machine. One local crematorium now uses the Wesley Music System. Music is ordered online and downloaded onto the crematorium's computer, so all I have to do is make sure it's available and it's been ordered. If anything goes wrong with the equipment, it's not my problem.

In the old days, coffins were made by local builders, hence the connection between building firms and funeral services; there are still a few like that around here. Nowadays, they're mass produced. All the funeral directors have to do is assemble them. I believe there's a funeral supermarket in London where you can go and buy your own flat pack coffin. The first time one of my clients asked for a cardboard coffin, and I relayed the request to the funeral director, I heard guffaws of laughter at the other end of the phone. When they realised I wasn't joking, it went quiet. An increasing number of people are choosing cardboard, wicker or bamboo coffins now, especially for green burials. Bamboo is quieter than wicker - it doesn't creak as much.

Maybe one day they'll catch on to the system of freeze-drying bodies, which can then be used as compost. At least one council's already considering it.

There's still one area where the funeral trade isn't up to date; many funeral directors tend to assume that most people will want a Christian funeral, or a pick 'n mix ceremony with a bit of religion thrown in, and they don't fully explain the religion-free, Humanist option. Considering that there are so few of us to provide such ceremonies, maybe that's just as well.

Even fewer people realise that they don't have to have a priest, clergyperson, rabbi, or any sort of professional celebrant to conduct a funeral ceremony. They could do it themselves.