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.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Graham Chapman's eulogy

John Cleese remembers a fellow Python. I remembered this today when we were discussing funerals at a meeting, and I said that laughter isn't that unusual at a funeral (though maybe not this much).

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.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Death by lava lamp

Surely a nominee for a Darwin Award?

24-year-old Philip Quinn was tinkering with a lava lamp at his home in Kent [US]. His girlfriend and his parents became worried when they couldn't find him and couldn't get him to answer his phone.
Claudia and Bill Quinn drove from their home in Auburn to check on their youngest son. They thought maybe he'd just overslept. They were devastated by what they found.
"I looked around the corner and saw his body slumped there in the corner and just couldn't believe what I saw," said Quinn's father.
"There was glass from the kitchen clear to the living room," his mom told us. "They said it appeared that a piece of glass punctured his heart."
Philip, in a fatal act of experimentation, had placed a lava lamp on the kitchen stove. When used properly and heated only by a small lightbulb, 40 watts in most cases, a lava lamp is essentially harmless: a mix of wax or oil and water sealed in a glass bottle with a small air space at the top of the bottle to allow for the liquid to expand under heat.

Friday, September 28, 2007

Cringing at the "Christian" eulogies

A letter in this week's NSS Newsline from Sue Cauty:

Re the question "are [Richard] Dawkins and [Christopher] Hitchens 'good' for the secular cause?" I last saw Hitchens interviewed on CNN. And there was this virulently anti-religious chap, quietly and graciously saying that, when invited, he attends the religious rites of others.

Shortly after I "came out" as a secularist I found myself attending a funeral service. I felt embarrassed, out of place, bored stiff, offended by the prayers and sermonising, cringed at the "Christian" eulogies of those I knew to be unbelievers, my ears offended by dirges wretchedly sung to live guitars; and above all I felt untrue to everybody there, especially myself, and the deceased, whom I knew to be an atheist. I vowed never again to be a part of such rites: so I applaud and am humbled by, Hitchens' understanding and tolerance.

Why should Hitchens and Dawkins be expected to toe a "party line" before they can be judged beneficial to the cause? What about free speech? The question is potentially divisive; especially at a time when we urgently need to pull together. These men make us all think, question, and analyse; no way can that be bad.

Sunday, September 02, 2007

The literature of death and bereavement

A talk I gave at Ipswich Crematorium's Open Day in 2003 - I came across it on the Suffolk Humanists' site while I was looking for something else.

My mother died suddenly at a party at my sister’s on Christmas Eve, just after she’d demonstrated how to do the can-can to some children. I don’t what they thought about a woman in her mid-70s doing high kicks, but she was very proud of being able to kick her own height. I told her it was time to go because I still had things to do for dinner the next day. She fell with an almighty crash as she lifted her arm to take her coat off the hook by the door. She was dead within the next ten minutes or so, having had a massive cerebral haemorrhage. It was a great way to go, especially after we’d nursed my dad through cancer that same year – he’d died six months earlier – and she’d said she didn’t want to die like that, but wanted to go like her mum, quickly, without fuss.

A little while later I found a poem in an anthology called ‘The Long Pale Corridor’, published by Bloodaxe Books, and although the circumstances were different, the dramatic exit it described reminded me of mum. I told a client about it a while ago – her mum had made a similarly dramatic exit in a dentist’s waiting room, and since she’d been an attention-seeker all her life, my client thought she could almost have planned it. Anyway, this is ‘The Going’ by Bruce Dawe, which he wrote for his mother-in-law, Gladys.

Mum, you would have loved the way you went!
One moment, at a barbecue in the garden
― the next, falling out of your chair,
hamburger in one hand,
and a grandson yelling.

Zipp! The heart’s roller blind
rattling up, and you, in an old dress,
quite still, flown already from your dearly-loved
Lyndon, leaving only a bruise like a blue kiss
on the side of your face, the seed-beds incredibly tidy,
grass daunted by drought.

You’d have loved it, Mum, you big spender! The relatives,
eyes narrowed with grief, swelling the rooms
with their clumsiness, the reverberations of tears, the endless
cuppas and groups revolving blinded as moths.

The joy of your going! The laughing reminiscences
snagged on the pruned roses
in the bright blowing day!

I like the bit about ‘laughing reminiscences’. We often have laughter at Humanist funerals, as people are told stories about the person who’s died. That’s as it should be; laughter and tears are close at times like these.

We use poetry in our funerals because it often expresses human experiences so well, in ways that people will recognise and identify with. Sometimes people might say they’re not ‘poetry people’, until we point out a poem that they like, to their surprise. Poetry isn’t boring, not if it’s good. For non-religious funerals, it’s far better than bible readings that have little relevance to the situation. However the Bible isn’t all religion. There are some parts, like the wonderfully erotic Song of Solomon, which don’t seem to belong. Though some Christians might disagree, the Bible isn’t a book, it’s an anthology, and the parts don’t all seem to fit the whole. Ecclesiastes is another book in the Bible which has relevance to the religious and non-religious. These lines may be familiar; they’ve been adapted from Ecclesiastes III, 1-8. They express a fatalistic, realistic view of life and death, which has been adopted by many writers and poets throughout history.

For everything there is a season,
And for every activity under heaven its time:
a time to be born and a time to die;
a time to plant and a time to uproot;
a time to pull down and a time to build;
a time to weep and a time to laugh;
a time for mourning and a time for dancing;
a time to seek and a time to lose;
a time to keep and a time to throw away;
a time to tear and a time to mend;
a time for silence and a time for speech;
a time to embrace and a time to refrain;
a time to hurt and a time to heal;
a time to love and
a time for peace.

Personally, I like those poets who adopt a matter of fact approach to death. We all die, and accepting this fact might help us to make the most of life while we can. The great Latin poet Horace was born in the year 65 BC and died 57 years later. His maxim – Carpe Diem, or ‘seize the day’ – was brought to the attention of many through Robin Williams’ film, ‘Dead Poets Society’. This a translation of what Horace wrote:

… Life’s short. Even while
We talk Time, hateful, runs a mile.
Don’t trust tomorrow’s bough
For fruit. Pluck this, here, now.

The 16th century French philosopher and essayist Michel de Montaigne, who loved his cats and lived well, had a similar attitude. He wrote,

Wherever your life ends, there it is complete. The value of life lies not in its length, but in the use we make of it. This or that man may have lived many years, yet lived little. Pay good heed to that in your own life. Whether you have lived long enough depends upon yourself, not on the number of your years…

The English poet and composer Ivor Gurney died in 1937 in a mental hospital. I don’t know when he wrote this, but he must have been reasonably sane at the time.

The songs I had are withered
Or vanished clean,
Yet there are bright tracks
Where I have been,

And there grow flowers
For others’ delight.
Think well, O singer,
Soon comes night.

So there’s a warning – soon comes night – that we’re all mortal. I know that some people don’t like this. They imagine that there’s some other life, an ‘afterlife’, so that we’re not really mortal at all. Of course, this idea may comfort some, but it doesn’t comfort me. I once had a discussion on Radio Suffolk about this with an evangelical Christian who told me that he believed God had responsibilities for him after he died. I think I said that we’d have had enough of responsibility when we’re dead. There are many people who’ve had far too many responsibilities in life, so how unfair it would be to find there were more waiting for them. If anyone asks me if I think there’s a life after death, I say ‘I hope not’. I can’t imagine anything worse than being condemned to spend eternity in some place where I probably won’t be able to choose my companions. My mother believed she’d be reunited with her mother when she died, but I never asked her who else she thought might be there? She wasn’t especially keen on her father, for example.

The Hispanic-American philosopher George Santayana speculated about such things in ‘The Life of Reason’, where he wrote:

It would be truly agreeable for any man to sit in well-watered gardens with Mohammed, clad in green silks, drinking delicious sherbets, and transfixed by the gazelle-like glance of some young girl, all innocence and fire. Amid such scenes a man might remain himself and might fulfil hopes that he had actually cherished on earth. He might also find his friends again, which in somewhat generous minds is perhaps the thought that chiefly sustains interest in a posthumous existence. But to recognise his friends a man must find them in their bodies, with their familiar habits, voices, and interests; for it is surely an insult to affection to say that he could find them in an eternal formula expressing their idiosyncrasy. When, however, it is clearly seen that another life, to supplement this one, must closely resemble it, does not the magic of immortality altogether vanish? Is such a reduplication of earthly society at all credible? And the prospect of awakening again among houses and trees, among children and dotards, among wars and rumours of wars, still fettered to one personality and one accidental past, still uncertain of the future, is not this prospect wearisome and deeply repulsive? Having passed through these things once and bequeathed them to posterity, is it not time for each soul to rest?

Even if you don’t agree with me about such things, you might agree with me that, whatever we believe happens when we die, we should make the most of life. This is a fundamental principle of Humanism, as we don’t think we can assume that we’ll get another chance to finish any unfinished business if we don’t do it now. Not that I imagine I’ll ever be any better organised than I am now. As John Lennon said, ‘Life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans.’ Still, I’d like to be remembered as someone who did her best at whatever she'd been doing. Some people have done more than that. They’ve given much more than anyone had a right to expect of them, and sometimes I have to conduct funerals for people who’ve witnessed the most unimaginable horrors in wartime. Mostly they haven’t talked about it – men who were born at the beginning of the last century were taught that boys don’t cry, nor wear their emotions on their sleeves. There are poems I’ve read at such funerals that might help younger members of their family to understand what happened to them. This is from an anthology of 2nd World War poetry called ‘The Voice of War’. Many of the poets were killed in action, such as Sgt. Pilot E. Linmar, who wrote this poem on the 12th August 1940, the day before he was posted missing in action.

If I never live again,
This day will always be,
A rapture of my soul,
A treasured memory.
If I go down ere night,
At least this day I knew,
With all its combat wild,
In skies of azure hue.
Old Time, with cruel scythe,
Sends all memories to decay:
Yet, neither Death, nor Time,
Can ever steal this day.
If I never live again…

When you hear stories like that, it humbles you. I try to be kind and patient with people who complain a lot about very little. I tried never to ask someone I used to know how he was, because if I did, he’d tell me a tale of woe about all his ailments for at least half an hour. Secretly, I called him Marvin, which wasn’t his real name, because he reminded me of the paranoid android in Douglas Adams’ brilliant radio series, ‘The Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy’. It’s OK to moan and groan a little, but not to make it habit. The danger there is, of course, that if you get really ill, no one will believe you. Not long ago, I conducted a funeral for a woman who’d been such a hypochondriac that when she was dying, no one noticed until it was too late.

In Letters from a Father to his Son, John Aiken wrote about differing attitudes to life:

It may, I think, in general be observed, that the greatest lovers of life are persons of sanguine temperament, engaged in active pursuits, full of projects for futurity, readily attaching themselves to new objects and new acquaintances, and able to convert every occurrence of life into a matter of importance. On the other hand the phlegmatic, inactive, dubious, desponding, and indifferent, as soon as the warmth and curiosity of youth are over, frequently become careless about the remainder of life, and rather consent to live on through habit, than feel themselves much interested in the continuance of their existence.

I had to go into hospital the other day and when they were filling in the forms I was asked what I did. I said I was a Humanist Celebrant, and they said, ‘What’s that?’ It’s a common reaction. Religious ministers do funerals, but they’re expected to – it’s part of their job. When we do it, sometimes people think it’s a little odd to choose to do something like this. One of my friends used to peer intently at me as she asked, ‘But are you all right?’ She was convinced that I could crack up any minute, because of the nature of my work. Well, of course I’m all right, or I wouldn’t do what I do. It’s fascinating, and I feel privileged to meet so many people from all walks of life and hear so many life stories.

When the writer Somerset Maugham was dying, he told his nephew, ‘Dying is a very dull, dreary affair,’ then he smiled and said, ‘and my advice to you is to have nothing whatever to do with it.’ It’s interesting how attitudes to death have changed. An increasing number of people are choosing to die in their own homes and avoid going into hospital, but not long ago many people would have as little to do with the whole business as possible. In the 18th and 19th centuries things were very different. The mortality rates were higher. Most women had large families and many babies died. People were laid out at home. The headstones in parish churchyards were often inscribed with descriptive or witty epitaphs, very different from the ones we see today, which are often heartfelt but unimaginative. For example, the grave of Lydia Eason at St Michael’s in Stoke bears the inscription:

All those who come my grave to see,
avoid damp beds and think of me.

Another, in Staffordshire, has a sad but confusing rhyme:

Here lies father and mother and sister and I,
We all died within the space of one short year;
They all be buried at Whimble, except I,
And I be buried here.

I like the epitaph for a working man in St Britius’ churchyard at Brize Norton:

My sledge and hammer lies
My bellows too have lost
their wind:
My fire’s extinct my coals
And in the dust my vice
is laid;
My days are spent my glass
is run,
My nails are drove my work
is done

There are lots of sad stories, and sad poems to suit the occasion, but funerals needn’t be all gloom and doom. They were during Victoria’s reign, but she made a career out of mourning and everyone joined in. She wore black, but few people wear black for funerals these days. Only a few weeks ago I did a funeral where many of the mourners wore brightly coloured Hawaiian shirts in honour of the deceased, who’d been a keen camper. So I shall end on a lighter note, with a popular poem by Joyce Grenfell:

If I should go before the rest of you
Break not a flower nor inscribe a stone,
Nor when I’m gone speak in a Sunday voice
But be the usual selves that I have known.
Weep if you must,
Parting is hell,
But life goes on,
So sing as well.

Saturday, September 01, 2007

People hear what they want to

I was glued to the TV on Friday night, watching NCIS (one of my favourite programmes), when the phone rang.

"Yes?" (I was in the middle of an interesting autopsy with forensic pathologist Ducky Mallard, and didn't care to be interrupted).

"Is it too late to ring you?"

It was a woman's voice I didn't recognise. The good thing about the new Freeview boxes is that you can pause a programme, so I did.

"It depends," I said, "why do you ask?"

She went on to explain that she'd been to one of my funerals earlier in the day. She was the one who told me she'd like me to do her funeral. I'd said she might outlive me.

"What was that reading you did at the end?" she asked, "Was it 'Do not stand at my grave and weep'?"

I said no, it wasn't. I didn't say that I avoid using that reading because I don't like it. It's horribly sentimental and ends with a death denying "I did not die" (see below).

Several people had told her it was "Do not stand at my grave and weep". I wondered if they'd been to the same funeral.

I told her the lines I used at the end were by William Wordsworth. "Are you sure?" she asked. "Yes, I'm sure."

I said I'd send her a copy of the poem. Maybe then she'll believe me.


I Am Not There
Author unknown - ought to be ashamed of him or herself.

Do not stand at my grave and weep.
I am not there. I do not sleep.
I am a thousand winds that blow.
I am the diamond glints on snow.
I am the sunlight on ripened grain.
I am the gentle autumnal rain.

When you awaken in the morning’s hush
I am the swift uplifting rush
of quiet birds in circled flight.
I am the soft stars that shine at night.

Do not stand at my grave and cry.
I am not there; I did not die.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Skip the dying part

My friend D, who had his eighty-second birthday recently, is apprehensive about a visit to see a hospital consultant next month. He thinks he has cancer. A suspicious spot was found on his tongue during a routine dental checkup, and he says it's where he used to have a pipe clenched between his teeth for years and years.

D isn't afraid of death, he says. He's not bothered about oblivion. It's the transition that worries him. He's afraid of suffering and indignity. If it turns out that he does have cancer, he's already imagining the worst case scenario - a horrible, drawn-out, painful illness. He'd like to die in his sleep, he says.

Woody Allen said that he wasn't afraid of death; he just didn't want to be there when it happens. I suppose most people think like that, if they think about it at all.

Another friend, Mary, who died a few years ago, had oral cancer. She contacted me when she'd had the diagnosis to arrange her own funeral and I befriended her. For the next five or six years, I visited her for lunch every couple of months. She was a retired teacher in her eighties, a passionate socialist, very interested in the world inhabited by her grandsons, who'd been travelling and gone to university. She bought herself a computer and taught herself to use it so she could keep in touch with them by email.

After her diagnosis, Mary remained fairly well for about five years. When things started to deteriorate, she travelled to hospital for palliative radiotherapy every weekday for several weeks. This involved a long bus journey, so it was very tiring. They didn't have a bed for her at the time. When she was admitted, Mary remained polite and cheerful, making friends with the staff and the other patients, as though she was a morale-boosting visitor, rather than another very sick patient.

It wasn't the cancer that killed Mary. She had to have a tube inserted in her stomach, to be fed, and the wound became infected. It was the infection that killed her. Never, throughout the whole ordeal, did she complain or express fear. She was dignified and determined to the last. When I conducted her funeral, it was the only time I wept as a celebrant.

D has lived a conventional, unadventurous life. For the last twenty-odd years, since I've known him, he has mostly kept himself to himself. He has no other friends. His family rarely visit him, and he hasn't see his grandchildren since they were babies. He worries so much about things going wrong that he avoids doing anything in the first place.

Mary lived life to the full. She went swimming regularly until a year or two before she died. She played bridge. She went to the local community centre. She had a live-in gentleman-friend (which shocked the Frinton blue-rinse brigade) for several years - she was widowed a long time. She was intensely curious about other people and their lives without being judgemental or intrusive.

As I have said many times, those who are afraid of life are generally more likely to be afraid to die. I hope that D hasn't got cancer, but if he has, that it won't be nearly as bad as he imagines it will be. He is terrified, which is very sad.

Friday, August 10, 2007

Death is nothing at all?

Religionists can sneak up on unwary humanist celebrants like me. The client/s might say that he or she or they don't want any religion at the funeral, but there could be some relative or friend who's determined that Uncle Bob or Aunt Brenda shouldn't be given a send-off that's totally free of superstition. "Stella wants to do a reading," I'll be told. "I'm sure it'll be OK. She knows we're not having a religious funeral." That's precisely why Stella waits until the last minute to tell you what she wants to read, and it'll probably be something about a happy ever after, when we all meet again, in the by and by, or something along those lines.

Canon Henry Scott Holland's a popular one. It's supposed to be "comforting". This is a version I've been sent:

Death is nothing at all
I have only slipped away into the next room
I am I and you are you
Whatever we were to each other
That we are still
Call me by my old familiar name
Speak to me in the easy way you always used
Put no difference into your tone
Wear no forced air of solemnity or sorrow
Laugh as we always laughed
At the little jokes we always enjoyed together
Play, smile, think of me, pray for me
Let my name be ever the household word that it always was
Let it be spoken without effort
Without the ghost of a shadow in it
Life means all that it ever meant
It is the same as it ever was
There is absolute unbroken continuity
What is death but a negligible accident?
Why should I be out of mind
Because I am out of sight?
I am waiting for you for an interval
Somewhere very near
Just around the corner
All is well.
Nothing is past; nothing is lost
One brief moment and all will be as it was before
How we shall laugh at the trouble of parting
when we meet again!

Canon Henry Scott-Holland, 1847-1918, Canon of St Paul’s Cathedral

How we shall laugh? Where did Henry get this idea? Did he have any evidence that one's dear departed would be lurking "just around the corner" (spooky) until you catch up with him or her? And would he or she be as we remembered him or her when fit and healthy, or when he or she was old and sick, for example? What about all the other dead people? Which ones would be waiting, and who would diplomatically stay out of your way because you didn't get on in life, so the thought of spending eternity in their company gives you the heeby-jeebies?

Few people have really thought about an afterlife, except in the vaguest terms. If they did, they might find, as I do, that it's a very unattractive prospect. For a start, eternity's a very long time. After the first few hundred years I think you'd be anxious to leave. What will you do? Eating chocolate, reading good books, gardening, all the things you enjoyed in life, are OK for short periods, but could grow tiresome. And then there's the business of who else is there. It's either very crowded, or you have a system that permits you to choose your companions, assuming they want to share with you. How old will you be? Twenty-one forever? You see, it's not straightforward, is it?

Give me oblivion, forever.

Sunday, July 01, 2007

Three cheers for Hilary Potts

Ms Potts won a DAB radio for her letter in this week's Radio Times, as follows:
"So 'the nation went into shock', did it (Editor's letter, 23 June)? Give us a break. Actually, the media went into overdrive after the death of Diana and some people, in lan Hislop's priceless phrase, were 'grief-surfing on a wave of emotion' (RT, 23 June).

My mother (and probably quite a few other people's mothers) died a few days later, and one was vividly aware of how the frothy unreality of the public reaction to Diana contrasted with the ugly reality of dying at the hands of a drunk driver while snogging with one's boyfriend on the back seat. If Saint Diana had been a typist from Twickenham, we'd have found her post-divorce behaviour ever so slightly tacky.

I may be a republican, but I'm with the Queen (at least Helen Mirren's film version) on this one. I got fed up with being told at the time what 'everybody' was feeling, and surely it's time a lot more people came out of the closet and admitted they were so baffled by the whole business that they were tempted to turn their radios and TVs of for the next fortnight - I suspect they are the majority. My theory is that few really surprising common experiences happen in most people's lives; the 'grief-surfers' would be the descendants of those people for whom the Second World War had provided the only real excitement in their lives - except in that instance the grief was only too likely to be real rather than 90 per cent vicarious."
The sub-editor used the same heading for this letter as I used for the blog entry I wrote in September 2005.

We were subjected to the same sort of mass hysteria, orchestrated by the media, when the Queen Mother died and we were told 'the nation is in mourning'. No it wasn't. The Queen was in mourning, and so were the rest of her family and her mother's friends. What can we expect when the Queen dies? They'll have to crank up the emotion to outdo the Diana effect, or maybe they'll be more restrained? I heard that when the Queen Mother died the BBC got lots of complaints about the blanket coverage on BBC1 and BBC2, so they were forced to go back to scheduled programmes on BBC2, to appease irate listeners.

Postscript, 16 July

Now the BHA's joined in. On its website, someone's written, "BHA mourns George Melly". No it doesn't. The BHA is an association. An association doesn't mourn. I'm a member of the BHA and I'm not mourning George, however much I liked him. I met him once. Most BHA members have never met him. The people who mourn George are the ones who knew him best.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Green burial

I did a funeral at the Greenwood Burial Ground at Farnham, near Saxmundham in Suffolk, today. It's unlike the other green burial grounds near here.

Most of the trees are already established and the graves are dug between them. In other green burial sites, the trees are planted on the graves in the autumn, so a new-ish site can look rather bare for a few years.

I used to think that doing it this way, with the graves so close to the trees, might damage them, but the gravedigger said it doesn't harm them. It's like pruning the trees, only underground, and they grow new roots. I'm not convinced but haven't noticed any dying off.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

An inventory of body parts

Before the Anatomy Act of 1832, superstitious people who lived anywhere near a medical school dreaded the Resurrection Men, who stole corpses for the anatomists. The supply of corpses from executions was insufficient for the surgeons to learn their trade, so they asked few questions of the men who supplied them with cadavers that were often dug up from fresh graves.

What people feared the most was that the dismembered bodies, after the anatomists had finished with them, would be unfit for entry into Heaven - to be resurrected into that happy (if tediously boring) state, you had to have all the parts. It didn't help that paintings and cartoons of the time showed a casual disregard for the integrity of the cadavers, with dogs eating discarded pieces of the bodies.

I was reminded of this a few years ago, when the Alder Hey Children's Hospital story broke. Some bereaved parents demanded the "body parts" (often no more than slivers of tissue) of the children and had second funerals for them.

Now it's all being resurrected again. It wasn't usual for relatives to be asked or informed when pathologists retained tissue for research purposes from dead Sellafield workers in the 1970s, and later. This may have been due to medical arrogance, but it never occurred to them that there'd be a problem. Now it appears they kept "body parts" too. I can't help feeling that this is a lot of fuss about nothing, but it will give a bunch of lawyers plenty to do. The compensation culture hadn't developed in the '70s.

What next? What about all those toenail clippings, casually abandoned on a bathroom floor? Or the various bits that have been trimmed away on the operating table? We shed body parts throughout our lives. I suppose that those who're upset about "the unauthorised use of body tissue from Sellafield nuclear workers" are most hung up about the lack of permission. Do they believe all that old tosh about being refused entry to Heaven without all their bits? If not, let it go. If they do, I feel sorry for them.

The anatomists are welcome to my body parts. All of them will be donated to Cambridge University's Anatomy Department. I'm not expecting a resurrection.

Monday, February 26, 2007

Carpe Diem

Some people spend a lot of time trying to make sense of life and death. I say, don’t bother. None of it can be tidied up with neat explanations. Life is untidy. It should be untidy. If we’re living it to the full, we’re bound to get hurt. If we’re living it to the full, we’re bound to feel joy. It’s no good trying to avoid pain and grief because they’re part of the deal. If we never loved, we’d never grieve. As for all the rest; this world is full of beauty and wonderful experiences, if you dare to look for them, and as the poet Horace wrote, Carpe Diem – seize the day!

At the beginning of the Staying Alive anthology is a poem called Wild Geese by Mary Oliver. It ends:
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting -
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

It's later than you think

Sunday, February 25, 2007


When funerals were all (or almost all) conducted by clergy, at least you knew what you'd be getting: a load of old cobblers about being with Jesus and anyone who'd predeceased the deceased; the Lord's Prayer; two or three dreary hymns; and so on. Many clergy did the same funeral for everyone. Some even forgot whose funeral they were doing and got the name wrong. It was all very predictable and irrelevant. An Anglican vicar, quoted in Prof. Tony Walters' book 'Funerals and how to improve them', said, "It's striking how little you have to do for people to thank you profusely - standards are so low they expect the funeral to be done badly."

Then some of us started providing a service for atheists and agnostics who didn't want God at the funeral. There weren't many of us to begin with but the numbers have grown. However, more doesn't necessarily mean better.

There are some 'humanist' officiants (mentioning no names) who seem to have an inflated opinion of their abilities and some peculiar ideas about their role. More or less anyone can set him or herself up as an officiant or celebrant, whether he or she is 'accredited' or not. It's not surprising that the prospect of filling this very important role in other people's lives, however briefly, should attract people who quite like the idea of being very important. Such people, however well-intentioned, ought to have a Government Health Warning stamped across their foreheads. One give-away is their use of a "Sunday voice" and an accompanying "caring" expression.

The client, why may never have had to arrange a funeral before, assumes that the officiant knows what he or she is doing. Some do, some don't, and some have a very clear idea of what he or she wants to do, which may not be what he or she ought to do. Dig a little deeper, and you'll probably find that he or she gets a perverse pleasure out of being with bereaved people. They enjoy being close to "real" emotions. Consequently, when the clients stubbornly refuse to share such emotions, they're rather disappointed. They're grief junkies. I knew someone who took this to such extremes that she only did a funeral every few weeks because it took her that long to "recover" from the last one. What's even more ridiculous is that she was appointed to train other officiants!

What an officiant ought not to do is to try and "help people to grieve". I've heard more than one officiant say that this is what they're aiming for, and groaned inwardly. Think about it; a crematorium funeral lasts about 20 to 25 minutes. Are you seriously expected to believe that the officiant should or could fulfil some wonderfully therapeutic healing role, so that everyone goes home having passed a significant stage in "the grieving process"? Give me strength! My advice to would-be officiants? Don't even try.

Walters quotes Roger Grainger, "The main purpose of a funeral is to signify the event of a death," and goes on to write, "It marks that something valuable, a human life, has passed. Whatever else a funeral does or does not so, it must do this."

To mark the end of someone's life, anyone's life, the occasion should be relevant and dignified. To have integrity, it should reflect the life and personality of the deceased, though there's no need to go into details about his or her less attractive qualities. It's important to get things right because there won't be another opportunity. This is why I always offer to check the details with the next of kin or someone he or she has delegated to check them with me. I've heard officiants say they never offer to do this. This is a form of arrogance. It's not their funeral; it's the family's funeral.

So what's the officiant's role? It's not "to help the grieving process". It's to get things right. The grieving will take care of itself.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Funeral etiquette

This is an article I posted on the Suffolk Humanists' site 2 years and 42 weeks ago. If you Google 'funeral etiquette' it comes top of the list. It continually comes top of the list of most popular content on our site. It's been visited over 3000 times. I wonder if those who find it consider it useful? It won't tell them what to wear or do. It won't tell them who enters the chapel, church or cemetery first. There are no rules about such things. Still, it might make a few people consider that 'etiquette' at funerals is a bit of a waste of time.
------ o ------
Occasionally I’m asked about appropriate dress for funerals. People who’ve never been to a funeral before, let alone had to arrange one, might worry about ‘doing the right thing’ – the etiquette of mourning. They may be reassured to know that few wear black to funerals any more. Formal clothing, usually in subdued colours, is the usual choice, but you can wear more or less anything, apart from obviously inappropriate beachwear. The point is to show respect by not drawing attention to yourself – this especially applies to the celebrant.

Why black?
Black mourning dress became popular during Queen Victoria’s reign. After Prince Albert died she never wore anything else, and the fashion persisted until the late 20th century. Most people don’t know why they wear black, if they do, or why they should. It began in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, when death rituals demonstrated worth and social status. The poor could not afford to spend a lot of money on funerals, but the middle and upper classes could and did, by spending money on clothing, coaches, coffins and all the accessories that an increasing number of commercial funeral directors were only too keen to sell them. This display was designed to show they were respectable people. The poor did their best to imitate them, and show that they too were respectable, even if the best they could do was borrow or improvise mourning dress. When I was a child, many people still covered mirrors, closed curtains and observed other strange customs on the death of a relative. It all contributed to a gloomy, morbid feeling, which was frightening for children – who were, in any case, not generally encouraged to attend a funeral.

Modern funerals
A retired funeral director I know feels that things have gone downhill since those days. He says that no one shows respect any more. If a hearse passed you in the street, men used to take off their hats and bow their heads, he says, and male mourners wore black armbands. He doesn’t think the more relaxed approach is an improvement.
Things are changing, but some still use a funeral as an opportunity to display their affluence and respectability. I’ve conducted funerals where the widow and her daughters wore the largest, most ostentatious hats, more suitable for a day at Ascot races. Another not only wore a large black hat, but seemed to be wearing most of her jewellery too. The people in the row behind her were hidden from me.
I don’t know what it is about Essex, but I’ve done funerals there for people who originated in London and had settled in areas like Clacton, where almost everyone wore black, many of the men wore shades, and most of the women wore flashy gold jewellery, with Dallas-style hairdos. When they shook hands, the men had horny manual labourer’s hands and the women had long painted nails. It was like meeting the Mafia.
One of the most striking funeral outfits I’ve seen was at the funeral for a man in his thirties who died of a drugs overdose. Many of the mourners were crusty new age hippies. One was a woman who was about six foot six tall, with a veiled bowler hat over thick dark hair cut pudding basin style in a short bob. She wore an old hacking jacket that had been patched and embroidered over several brightly coloured layers, and a long full purple tulle skirt over black leggings, striped socks, and black DMs. Her make-up was like something out of a circus. As she left she extended a hand, which was clad in fingerless lace gloves, and smiled graciously. I resisted the temptation to curtsey.
When a young Goth woman died, almost everyone at the funeral, including me, wore black and purple – her favourite colours. When a keen camper died, his friends all wore bright Hawaiian short-sleeved shirts in his honour. Sometimes terminally ill people have instructed their family and friends not to wear black but bright colours, and they have.

The rules
I don’t think it matters what you wear for a funeral, as long as you behave in a dignified and respectful manner. Strangely, the most rude and disrespectful people I’ve come across have been elderly women who’ve clearly disapproved of the secular ceremony, and talked in carrying whispers throughout, even during the pause for reflection, or very deaf people who’ve ignored the available loop system and sat at the back, then demanded to know what I’ve said from their neighbour every few minutes. I have, so far, resisted the urge to tell them to shut up.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Hitching a ride in a hearse

As the old pins don't work so well these days, I asked for a ride in the front of the hearse during a funeral yesterday. The grave was several hundred yards from the chapel; further than I could stagger without appearing inebriated. No problem, said the funeral director.

After the interment, he asked if I'd like another ride in the hearse, back to my car. Yes please, I said. Horizontally or vertically? he asked.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

It's nice to feel appreciated

Sampler, originally uploaded by Sparrows' Friend.

If a client takes the trouble to write and thank me after I've done a funeral, that's nice. I'm happy with just a letter or a card, or even an email. But some clients have sent gifts too. This is the latest, from the widow and daughter of a man who did a lot of embroidery. They found the little sampler and made it into a card for me.

Among other gifts, I've been given: a needlepoint picture of a dead woman's dogs (based on a photo), a crate of wine, one of Richard Dawkins' books (signed by the whole family), and flowers (lots of times).

The sampler will be framed.