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.

Tuesday, July 06, 2021

Pronouns

There's currently a craze for preferred pronouns, which means that people who've adopted a gender identity expect others to refer to them by pronouns other than the usual ones. I wasn't called upon to conduct a funeral for anybody like that, fortunately, but what they and other people may not have considered is that you've no control about what other people say about you in your absence, alive or dead.

Sunday, May 16, 2021

Names

What's your name,' Coraline asked the cat. 'Look, I'm Coraline. Okay?'
'Cats don't have names,' it said.
'No?' said Coraline.
'No,' said the cat. 'Now you people have names. That's because you don't know who you are. We know who we are, so we don't need names.
        Neil Gaiman, Coraline

A couple of posts ago I mentioned that I was going to write about dead-naming. So I am, but first, a bit about names in general.

I was named after my maternal grandmother, who died when I was still very young, so I don't remember much about her. I do remember that my mother loved her very much and that she'd be hurt if she thought that I didn't like my name or I'd changed it. But I'm happy with it and have kept it. It would be difficult to get used to a different one. If I'd been given a name like one of the weird ones given by some American parents, I might have thought differently.

Like many other people, I've changed my surname, and like many other people, I changed it back again. My sister changed her surname twice, the first time when she married and the second time when she divorced. She also changed her forename because after her divorce she wanted a whole new life. That's not entirely possible, unless you move away and abandon your old life and all the people in it. You might do it if you were in witness protection, of course.

According to gender identity lore, there are two cardinal sins. The first is misgendering someone, or referring to them using the pronouns appropriate for their sex, which is different from their gender, which is an assumed characteristic or affectation. The second is dead-naming someone, which means using the name they had before they decided to transition from one gender to another. It's considered worse then a faux pas to accidentally use the former name of someone who's done this, apparently. 

We write our own life stories. My memory is rather moth-eaten, but others may remind me of things I've forgotten or something will pop up. Some memories may be shared when family and friends gather to mark my death, assuming they do. When your flesh and blood is gone, memories persist. If you've had children, others may recognise familiar characteristics in them.

We've no control over what other people remember about us. When we die they'll think of the parts of our lives that we shared with them, good or bad. So whatever you call yourself, the person behind the name will still be there. You can no more erase the part of your life you shared with other people than you can erase your essential existence as a woman or a man. Your name won't be dead, just unused, except by other people who might forget, or not know.

So, the moral of this post, and I'm sorry but there is one, is that trying to control other people's thoughts or memories is the stuff of Orwellian nightmares, and no one is likely to remember you kindly. Your epitaph may reflect this.

Saturday, May 15, 2021

Morbid? Me?

A friend who lives miles away emails often, expecting replies promptly, the way people used to write letters every day when the post was a primary means of communication. I understand that she's lonely, but hope that one a week might suffice. I've tried phoning, but she never answers. Anyway, in a recent email she wrote, "Yes, I do think it's a morbid interest of yours, your interest in death. Rather depressing too, to say the least!". I could imagine her holding her nose. She'd asked what I'd been reading, and I'd answered that I don't often read fiction and had bought Caitlin Doughty's book, 'Smoke Gets In Your Eyes, and other lessons from the crematorium', which I looked forward to reading. I replied to her comment:

My interest in death and dying relates to the work I did for over twenty years conducting funerals and meeting hundreds of interesting people that I interviewed about their relatives. I heard some very interesting life stories and a lot of social history. The youngest person I did a funeral for was a stillborn baby - that was sad - and the oldest was over a hundred. I met some lovely people in the funeral trade who are kind, caring and sometimes very funny. When you're doing a job like that you need to be able to laugh sometimes. So no, it's not morbid and it's not depressing, though sometimes sad. I wouldn't have done it if it depressed me. I'm also interested in the social history of death, and in poetry and other writing about bereavement.

I think my interest in death was first piqued by a book that's now out of print about the Hunter Brothers, who were pioneering surgeons in 18th century London. One of them did some extraordinary dissections, which I saw on a visit to the Royal College of Surgeons Museum when I was an art student. We were taken there by our anatomy teacher, a retired surgeon. I believe the collection is now in The Wellcome Collection.
Don't suppose that'll change her mind about my morbid interest.

Wednesday, March 27, 2019

My 15 minutes of fame, and what it was about

If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.
George Orwell 
A post I wrote over a year ago, Death doesn't misgender. You die as you were born, attracted the ire of transgender activists who'd presumably found it through my Twitter profile while they were taking exception to what I'd written there. On February 4th I had a phone call from a woman police officer who told me there'd been complaints about the blog post and some tweets, including one that read "Gender is BS". During a brief conversation we established that I'd done nothing illegal and had no intention of self-censoring to avoid upsetting whoever had complained, and we left it at that. Then I tweeted about it, and things went mad. Fellow gender critics shared my tweet, which attracted a lot more followers (from a couple of hundred to over four thousand), and I had another phone call, this time from James Kirkup, who writes for The Spectator, among other publications. He wrote about it. Subsequently the story was shared in various other newspapers, in the UK and abroad, and in podcasts and on ITV regional news. And it was all because of a very brief, non-threatening phone call. The publicity resulted in a call from a Detective Chief Superintendent, who rang to apologise and tell me that they'd "got it wrong". I've seen no reason to tweet any differently since then, and several people, including a professional pathologist, agreed that my blog post was entirely accurate; you do die as the same sex as you were born.

I got off lightly. Some police forces appear to have had "training", which is more like indoctrination, from organisations who give the impression that they're experts, but aren't. They're pressure groups staffed by people without any appropriate professional qualifications. West Yorkshire, Humberside, Liverpool and Sussex police have all had visits from these people. Some have apparently been motivated by a small minority of transgender officers, maybe even only one or two. Consequently they've acted as conduits for complaints from trans activists who spend a lot of time trawling through the Internet on the lookout for anything to complain about. As the law on so-called hate crime is rather woolly it's relatively easy to make an allegation of "causing distress" - one of the indications of a "hate incident" - and they do. So while I was let off with the suggestion that I might be more careful, in other words not upset anyone, others haven't been so fortunate. Death threats have been made, as well as complaints.

One benefit of the hoo-ha, as far as I'm concerned, is that I've met some lovely people online, feminists and allies, who mostly have a healthy sense of humour and of the ridiculous as well as being angry about the absurdity. It's struck me that transgender activists seem to lack a sense of humour and are generally unhappy people, which is sad.

I was going to write about transgenderism and what's wrong with it on my other blog, but no point in that when others have done so much better than I. A comprehensive account by Helen Joyce is one of the best. It's a long read, but worth it.

My next post here will be about dead-naming, as I thought it appropriate in a blog about death. Watch this space.

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Jemima

There are broken bits of commemorative stonework lying around the village church walls. It's sad to see memorials for those who died young but even sadder to see that whatever was left of someone has ended up as a weed suppressant. Who was she?

Monday, June 18, 2018

Body snatchers, and how they were thwarted

Mortsafe in Towie churchyard, Aberdeenshire
Before the Anatomy Act of 1832, trainee doctors and surgeons relied on body-snatchers to supply them with corpses for dissection. This was at a time when many people believed that you wouldn't be allowed into heaven if your body wasn't intact, so the thought of their loved ones' remains being desecrated horrified them. This photo is from an interesting article about the lengths that some people went to, to prevent the bodies of their newly dead loved ones from being stolen. When a body had rotted, it was of little interest to the anatomists, so was left in peace.

My body may be of use to the trainee doctors at Cambridge University, so I've bequeathed it to them. You can do the same - see the link on the right.

Monday, April 09, 2018

Wise words about the process of dying

Dr Mannix explains what happens.
When the video appeared on Facebook someone commented "Hardly comforting to hear this. Death is traumatic at every level - and always will be." Sad to hear someone feels this way but I suppose it's quite common. When someone's killed in traumatic circumstances, such as being horribly injured in a war, obviously that's different, but "always will be" just isn't true.

Sure Dr Mannix would approve of this quote:
Perhaps the best cure for the fear of death is to reflect that life has a beginning as well as an end. There was a time when we were not: this gives us no concern—why then should it trouble us that a time will come when we shall cease to be? . . . To die is only to be as we were before we were born; yet no one feels any remorse, or regret, or repugnance, in contemplating this last idea. It is rather a relief and disburthening of the mind: it seems to have been holiday-time with us then: we were not called upon to appear upon the stage of life, to wear robes or tatters, to laugh or cry, be hooted or applauded; we had lain perdus all this while, snug, out of harm’s way; and had slept out our thousands of centuries without wanting to be waked up; at peace and free from care, in a long nonage, in a sleep deeper and calmer than that of infancy, wrapped in the finest and softest dust.  And the worst that we dread is, after a short, fretful, feverish being, after vain hopes, and idle fears, to sink to final repose again, and forget the troubled dream of life!
On the Fear of Death, William Hazlitt, 1778-1830.