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.

Saturday, December 31, 2005

Cadavers wanted

One of the people who responded to Claire Rayner's dilemma (see last post) suggested that since Claire had been a nurse she was surprised she hadn't considered donating her body to science, avoiding the need for a conventional funeral.

Now, why didn't I think of that? I've got the forms to donate my body to a teaching hospital near here - must get around to filling them in.

There's a shortage of cadavers, so medical students are not being given the opportunity to dissect real bodies, which isn't good.

After dissection, the bodies aren't simply discarded - they're cremated, with a committal ceremony attended by medical staff. A friend who died last year donated her body to science. Her family received a lovely thank you letter from the medical school, and a copy of the committal service address.

To donate your body, see the link on the right.

Sunday, December 11, 2005

Claire Rayner's dilemma

Past-President of the BHA Claire Rayner wrote an article for today's Observer about her funeral plans. She'd left instructions 'that my family cremate me to the sound of New Orleans funeral jazz and follow that with a party with lots of champagne, much laughter and cheerful reminiscence, climaxing with the most splendid of firework displays and my ashes whooshing up in the last big rocket.'

Mmm. I remember hearing about an ex-RAF type who left instructions that his ashes should be scattered from a plane. They were, and then they all blew back into the plane, which had to be thoroughly gone over with a dust pan and brush when it landed.

I've written to the Observer as follows:

Claire Rayner's rocket may not get very far ('Should I go out with a bang or be a bit greener?') as many party venues won't allow fireworks unless you pay a stonking insurance premium. It sounds like a good idea, to leave instructions about parties and laughter after you're dead, but it can all fall horribly flat. I've done lots of funerals as a humanist celebrant and I'm sometimes asked for advice about funeral and post-funeral arrangements by the terminally ill or the tidy, like Claire. I tell people to resist the temptation to leave instructions about parties and the like - if they want a party, they'll have one, but some families find that striving to follow their dear departed's instructions makes a stressful situation even more stressful, especially if the practicalities haven't been thought through. When a relative died earlier this year she left a list that included a party with fireworks (we ended up with sparklers because of the insurance problem) and karaoke. Quite a few guests left early, feeling uncomfortable about the enforced jollity.

As for environmental considerations - Cardboard coffins are OK for burials, but some crematoria don't like them because they burn too fast, igniting before the cremator doors are closed, which upsets the staff. It's true there aren't many green burial sites yet, but there'll be more if there's a demand; some plans have been abandoned because of nimby planning objections. Maybe the Swedes have the right idea; the town of Jonkoping will offer freeze-dried burials by 2007. Bodies will be frozen in liquid nitrogen then broken into dust (like coffee granules) that can be dug into your garden or given a shallow burial, pushing up daisies within weeks. If Claire can hang on for a few more years, maybe there'll be something similar in the London area?

Saturday, December 03, 2005

Only the Best

George Best’s funeral was yet another OTT display of sentimentalised mass ‘mourning’. I switched on the TV while it was on, and could have sworn I heard the commentator say that the crowds lining the funeral route were applauding ‘at the family’s request’. Applause is supposed to be spontaneous, isn’t it? What next? ‘The family wishes you to weep and wail'? Give me strength!

I emailed the BBC to complain about the frequency of reports on George’s dying, along the lines of ‘He’s not quite dead yet,’ ‘He’s still dying,’ ‘His family has gathered by his bedside, but he’s still not dead.’ It was as bad as the last Pope’s demise. I asked if this would be the pattern whenever a celebrity was dying in future. Please, I wrote, tell us he’s ill, then tell us he’s dead – leave the rest out.

At the funeral in Stormont Castle, Northern Irish TV presenter and football fan Eamonn Holmes said, ‘No mere mortal could do what he did on the pitch…’ OK, so if he wasn’t a ‘mere mortal’, how’d he manage to wreck two livers?

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Funerals for bad people

The Underworld

Nobody has to have a funeral. It’s up to your next of kin, or whoever’s responsible for tidying up after you’ve left, whether or not there is any sort of ceremony, and if there is, what form it takes.

Criminals, those blown to bits by guns on the battlefield, or the anonymous victims of massacres hidden in shallow graves, have all been denied any sort of dignified send-off, but otherwise most people are given a funeral of some sort, if only because it’s expected.

In an article due to be published in this month’s Tablet, writer and broadcaster Libby Purves describes the experience of attending a Humanist funeral conducted by one of my colleagues. Admitting she felt apprehensive at the prospect of a non-religious send-off, she’s complimentary about the funeral. She wrote, “… a good humanist can, I thought, do a rite of passage and celebrate a good life better than quite a few clergy I have heard, bumbling on coldly and impersonally at far less kindly funerals.” But then she goes on to ask, “… what it would have been like if we had been seeing off someone far less amiable, and not at all virtuous.” She asks,
“What then for the humanist funeral address? There are not, of course, many such people - most of us have redeeming features somewhere - but there are a few about whom it would be difficult to work up much of an encomium without stretching truth to the point of ludicrous embarrassment. So perhaps that’s when you really need a Christian funeral, with its assertion of the ultimate irreducible value of every immortal soul, the possibility of redemption, the mystery of forgiveness and the human spirit whose depths can be seen and judged only by God.

“Perhaps it is the worst of us who most need religion to give dignity to our passing. The humanist perspective is fine and admirable, as long as your life is visibly decent. It is when we become atrocious, temporarily or permanently, that the Christian message becomes indispensable. You have to be quite exceptionally nice if you’re going to try and do without it. I do not think I had ever quite realized this before.”
Of course, it all depends what you think a funeral is for. Presumably, Libby, like many religious people, sees it as fulfilling several functions, including sending the deceased off to meet God and explain him or herself, before spending eternity somewhere they call an afterlife, whatever or wherever that is. The ferryman Charon used to row the dead across the river Styx to the Underworld; nowadays most people’s idea of the afterlife is altogether more comforting, with only nice people to keep them company. Gives me the heebie-jeebies, just thinking about it. If there was an afterlife, which I’m sure there isn’t, I’d rather not go there, thank you – but that’s another story.

A few years ago, I visited a man whose father had recently died. After I’d established who was who in the family, I said, “Tell me about your dad.” This big tough-looking middle-aged man’s face crumpled. For a moment I thought he was distressed by grief, but I soon realised it was more complicated than that. They were tears of anger, frustration and great sadness for his mother and the rest of the family, who’d had to suffer living with a man who was a bully. His mother had died several years before. This was so unfair, he said; she’d never had an opportunity to escape the brute of a man she’d married; never known any happiness since the day she’d married him. It would be a travesty if I were to describe this man in favourable terms. There was nothing good to say about him, and the son didn’t want me to. It would have been an insult to his mother, and to everyone else who’d been made miserable by his father. So I didn’t say anything good about him. I did, however, give a brief account of his life, and I did talk about the effect he’d had on other people’s lives, without embellishment. In situations like this, I try to reassure the family that their feelings are quite understandable. Despite being the victims of other people’s cruelty, many of those who’ve been abused feel guilty, mistakenly thinking that if they’d done things differently, their abuser might have been kinder to them; that it was partly their fault. Then they feel that it must be wrong to feel glad that someone’s dead. Why ever should they? I find ways of congratulating the victims of bullies and abusers for the fact that they’d come through it all with their humanity intact, and offer them hope that their future might be happier than their past. We can’t stay in the past, nor spend all our time blaming what’s happened to us for preventing us from finding fulfilment in the future. Was this man’s father happy in his brutality? No, judging from his foul temper and general negativity. Bad people are generally unhappy people. Even those who take pleasure in cruelty are not happy. Afterwards, my client thanked me for what I’d said. He said he felt better for having had the funeral, and for the way it was done. Some people who’d known his father might not have appreciated how he behaved towards his family, and might have been surprised to learn that he was not kind and considerate towards them, when he was so good at turning on the charm for other people – as is often the case with bullies. Redemption? Well, if anyone’s God were to forgive him, I’d question his, her or its judgement.

I’ve done quite a few funerals for people whose behaviour was far from perfect. There are a few lovable rogues whose families still love them despite their carryings-on, rolling their eyes as they tell yet another story about what he or she got up to. There are people who were clearly bonkers, who couldn’t control themselves, and who wore everyone out. There are liars and cheats and drug-addicts and drunks and thieves. One young man got himself killed late one night a few miles from his home by staggering into the middle of a dual carriageway off a slip road after he’d crashed a stolen car into a tree. He was hit by two lorries, one after the other, so his partner was advised not to view the body – he’d been flattened. He’d fathered several children who lived with their mother in a hovel of a cottage on benefits. He’d never had a job but stole for a living, then spent the money on drink and drugs. His family had disowned him. What happened to him wasn’t really a surprise to anyone, except perhaps his girlfriend, who naively thought he’d keep his promises to sort himself out. I got the impression that most of the people who came to his funeral were just reassuring themselves that he was really dead, and that they wouldn’t have to worry about a knock on the door from the police again. There have been a few funerals like that, often as the result of sheer stupidity on the part of the deceased. The families were given permission, in coded form, to feel relieved and to get on with the rest of their lives. What else did I say? A brief history, perhaps. References to some of their earlier escapades. An acknowledgement of the difficulties he or she had caused other people, and the efforts that had been made to help him or her. Stories that reflect the way that those affected had given support to one another. A suggestion, maybe, that this person was deficient in some way; lacking an instinct for self-preservation; lacking an appreciation of the effect of his or her behaviour. Then, at the end, a suggestion that no one need worry about him or her any more. Not so much goodbye and good riddance, as simply goodbye.

Now what would a priest have said about any of them? Pious sentiment about forgiveness would not have gone down well, and might only have added to the feeling of confused guilt that people need to leave behind. Goodbye, and get on with it.

Libby Purves wrote, “Perhaps it is the worst of us who most need religion to give dignity to our passing.” The behaviour of the living is what gives the occasion “dignity”, not the reputation of the deceased.

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Freeze-drying bodies

British local authorities are struggling to keep pace with demand for burial space and to conform to new rules about emissions from crematoria. 'Green' burial sites, where trees are planted on graves instead of headstones, are few and far between.

The Swedes have found a new way to solve the problem - freeze-drying. Bodies are frozen in liquid nitrogen, and then, in their brittle state, broken into dust that can be buried in a shallow grave. I've heard old gardeners say that when they die they'd like to be buried in their compost heap. Well, now maybe they can.

One of my colleagues emailed recently:

'With British Crematoria ... facing millions of pounds of upgrading to come into line on new emissions limits it might be a good time for them to do a bit of lateral thinking. X at Y Crem told me recently that things are so bad in Z Borough Council they seldom plan anything more than a month ahead and most business is conducted on a "firefighting" basis. I don't think Z Crem will be a pioneer. Might leave the door open for the private sector to have a go.'

Thursday, October 13, 2005

Up in smoke

Up in smoke
Originally uploaded by Sparrows' Friend.
British crematoria are required by law to keep emissions to a minimum. Before we were so fussy about pollution (because the dangers weren’t recognised), bodies were cremated in all sorts of unsuitable outfits, and with all sorts of strange items in the coffins. It’s been known for relatives or friends to try to smuggle alcohol into a coffin - "he liked a little drink" – or to put coins in to pay debts. Nowadays, the coffin, lining and robes must all be made of approved materials, and checks are made that no one’s tried to place anything unsafe or unusual inside.

Cardboard coffins are becoming popular, but staff say they sometimes burn too fast. If the coffin catches fire before the door is closed, the body is exposed.

One of the latest concerns is about pollution from mercury in tooth fillings. They won’t take out your teeth, so they have to try to find other ways to stop it from escaping into the atmosphere.

Friday, September 02, 2005

Mourning sickness

Rosie Boycott, former editor of The Independent, made a TV programme about false grief for Channel Five, shown last week. I was practically cheering when I saw it. In 2002 a Welsh academic, Dr James Thomas, claimed that 'the majority did not mourn for Diana', as the conclusion to his research. Think-tank Civitas published a report in February 2004, claiming that a vocal minority indulge in 'recreational mourning'. It's all very unhealthy. It's also very annoying, because the media, including the BBC, will insist on referring to 'a nation in mourning', or 'a city in mourning', such as when Iraq hostage Ken Bigley was murdered, whenever there's been a tragedy like this. Excuse me - but who asked the 'nation' or the 'city' whether we really were in mourning for someone we never knew? One particularly shocking result of the hysteria over Diana's death was the huge amount of money spent on flowers by members of the public, left to rot in the streets, together with soggy teddy bears and pathetic love notes. More than a million bouquets were left at Kensington Palace, her home. Multiply that by the cost of an average bouquet, and you can see that London florists made a lot of money around the time of the funeral. Imagine how that money could have been used by some cash-strapped charitable organisations, including the ones that Diana supported, such for landmine victims, or AIDS patients.

On the day of Princess Diana's funeral I conducted a wedding ceremony in a small hotel in Suffolk. The couple had been expected to cancel their wedding by some of their silliest friends, although the arrangements had been made for months. They asked me if I thought they should, as they didn't want to appear heartless and uncaring, which they emphatically were not. I said no, they should go ahead. It was strange, driving to the venue, because the roads were so quiet. Hotel guests were glued to the telly in the lounge next door to the wedding room, watching the funeral. They cast disapproving glances in our direction as we trooped through to the reception in the garden. Bloomin' cheek! Only weeks before, the tabloid press had been depicting Diana as a floozy, out gallivanting with her 'boyfriend', the Fayed playboy. Now they were making out she was some sort of saint.

A year after the death, I did a Thought for the Day on local radio, as follows:
I didn't mourn the death of Diana, nor did many other people. How could we? It was all such a waste, and very sad for her family, but we didn't know her. Grief is personal.

Throughout history, humankind has mourned its dead in a variety of ways in accord with the customs of the community. It's different now. Things are less clear. The media, especially television, is a huge influence. There is a lot of confusion. People seem to want to be told what to do, as though there's an etiquette of mourning. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why so many people behaved the way they did a year ago, when crowds lined the streets of London around the palaces and along the route of the funeral procession. Maybe for a few hours those people felt a sense of community, otherwise missing from their lives.

A year ago I was on Radio Suffolk talking about the news of Diana's death with Rachel (the presenter). I said that many people seemed to have lost a sense of proportion. I saw Rachel wince, anticipating a backlash from enraged listeners, but the only calls we had were from people who said they agreed with me but hadn't liked to say so. I resented the way that those of us who didn't identify with the 'we' the commentators kept talking about were discouraged from saying anything at all, even from saying that we felt it was all a bit excessive. Too many people made a virtue out of weeping for Diana. Weeping for her was something you did or didn't do, but no one should have been made to feel that if they had no tears they should apologise for it.

Grief, the genuine article, affects everyone differently. Some go quiet. Some weep. Some get angry. Some want to be alone. Some want to be with others. Some do all these things. The situation changes daily. Grief affects us emotionally and physically. Some people, bereaved for the first time, are shocked by how little control they have over it. If you loved someone, even if you didn't always like him or her, grief is the very natural consequence of losing them. And it's personal - —very, very personal.

So if you feel there must be something wrong with you because you haven’t been swept away on a tide of popular emotion, I can assure you there isn't. Many other people feel like you, but just don't like to say so. As Shakespeare wrote:

... to thine own self be true,
And it must follow as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.
25 October - update

A Story from the Telegraph:
A passer-by saw what he or she thought was a dead human foetus in a Liverpool alleyway, and after a few days the area was cluttered with the usual soggy teddy bears, dead flowers and mawkish messages. It turned out to be a dead chicken, the police said yesterday, not a human being.

Sunday, July 31, 2005

Be honest

The staff at a crematorium see and hear hundreds of funerals. "How's the new music system working?" I asked an attendant the other week. Instead of supplying CDs to play at funerals, we have to tell them what the family wants and they get it downloaded and play it through their system, which means that my friend must sit through more funerals than he used to. He responded gloomily, “Oh, they’re all wonderful!” He didn’t mean that the funerals were wonderful. He meant that the deceased were all supposed to be wonderful, according to their eulogies, which cannot possibly be true. Everyone lived an exemplary life, they were all loved, no one had anything negative to say about any of them, and – he went on – they keep singing the same hymns, over and over again! No wonder he’s bored!

I’d gone to conduct a funeral for a very old woman who wasn’t wonderful. Her daughter read a tribute that was painfully honest about the hurt she’d caused by being emotionally cold and detached. She had never, ever told her children she loved them, or shown any physical affection – no hugs or kisses, praise or encouragement. I wondered why she’d been like that. Maybe she’d been deprived of affection during her own childhood. Maybe she had a personality disorder. It’s good that her daughter hadn’t followed the same pattern. Some people never escape their early conditioning, others transcend it. In old age, the mother had had dementia. She forgot everyone and everything. She was oblivious to the hurt she’d caused. Perhaps she always had been.

I didn’t see the attendant after the funeral, so I didn’t get his reaction. We hadn’t sung any boring hymns. The deceased was described honestly, though it was clear that her family still loved her, and grieved for her. They also grieved for what they’d never had - love and affection.

Funerals don’t have to be all the same. People are different, but mostly flawed to some extent – some more than others. If we’re described solely in glowing terms after we’re dead, however imperfect we might have been, we won’t be remembered as we really were. Voltaire wrote, “We owe respect to the living: to the dead we owe only truth.”

Thursday, May 05, 2005

Horses, not a hearse

Two Suffolk Punches, an ancient rare breed of heavy horses, pull a wagon carrying a coffin to the crematorium. This was at the request of the deceased, a relative of mine, who loved horses, especially this sort of horse (for more pictures, click on this picture).

Many people don't know that they can do more or less what they like at a British funeral. You don't have to use a funeral director; you needn't have a conventional hearse; you needn't have a conventional religious funeral; you can be buried in your own garden (subject to a few sensible rules); you needn't have a headstone; you can have a tree planted on your grave. There are many possibilities.

Would suggest, however, that if you make very elaborate plans for your own funeral, you may make if more difficult for your family and friends to grieve as they suffer the additional stress of trying to realise your wishes. If you think you're going to make things easier for them by arranging everything, think again.

Choose some music, maybe. Choose where you want it to happen. Write a few lines of farewell (resisting the urge to settle any scores posthumously), or choose a poem or two. Suggest a charity that might benefit from your death. Funerals are like weddings, in some respects. Spending a lot of money on them doesn't guarantee a satisfactory result. It's the content that matters, not the show.

Saturday, April 30, 2005

On the fear of death

"Men fear Death as children fear to go in the dark; and as that natural fear in children is increased with tales, so is the other."
Francis Bacon (1561-1626), Of Death

"All say, 'How hard it is that we have to die'- a strange complaint to come from the mouths of people who have had to live."
Mark Twain (1835-1910), Pudd'nhead Wilson

"I'm not afraid to die. I just don't want to be there when it happens."
Woody Allen (1935-), Getting Even

Quotes from The Oxford Book of Death, Ed. D J Enright.