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, November 28, 2009

An ironical choice of music

A funeral client, arranging her Welsh aunt's funeral, chose 'Land of my Fathers' to play us out at the end. I don't think she saw the irony; her aunt was illegitimate.

After reading the above, a celebrant friend wrote that she'd conducted a funeral for a young man "of heroic proportions" -
He weighed well over twenty stone. He was carried in by his mates to the old '70s Hollies' hit, "He ain't heavy he's my brother". Six of them carried him in, staggering, sweating and wobbling all over the place.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Manners maketh man (or woman)

Supposing you were bereaved in tragic circumstances. Supposing you received condolence cards and letters (as most people do), and one was from a local person you didn't know very well. He might have felt compelled to write because he'd been bereaved himself, and wanted to express his sympathy, as people do.

The letter contained spelling mistakes, it was untidy, it misspelled your surname. Would you post in on the parish noticeboard with the errors marked in red? Would you tell everyone you knew about it, and humiliate its author?

Of course not. Only a bad-mannered, socially inept person would do something like that. No one who knew what you'd done would ever want to write to you again.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

You've got to laugh

I heard a good story yesterday, told by a woman who used to work for a London funeral director. She lived above the shop.

A neighbour was bereaved. Instead of going to the funeral director where my friend worked, she walked past and went to another firm, a few streets away. The funeral arranger there was curious, and asked her why she hadn't gone to the nearest business.

"Well," she said, "I've walked past there many times and heard them laughing around the back. I don't think that's very respectful."

"Mrs Brown," said the funeral arranger, "if you walk around the back of our premises and listen at the door you'll often hear the staff laughing and joking. They deal with sadness and tragedy every day. If they were constantly gloomy and miserable and didn't laugh together, it wouldn't be good for them."

Mrs Brown admitted she hadn't thought of that.

In my experience, the popular perception of people in the funeral business being straight-faced and gloomy is false. Funeral firms' staff, crematorium and cemetery staff, all have to be serious when they're on duty. When they're not on duty, they're often very funny. I just wish that some of them wouldn't make me laugh before I do a funeral, so I have to go into the vestry and compose myself, but I'll enjoy a laugh with them afterwards.

The photograph, taken in 1901 by Sir Benjamin Stone, is of two funeral mutes. Mutes were hired to lead funeral processions, looking suitably gloomy. I suppose that if you had a naturally lugubrious expression, you might have been in demand. I bet they enjoyed a laugh when the funeral was over.

Sample joke from one of my friends from the Co-op:

A man walked through a cemetery late one night and heard tapping. He went to see where the noise was coming from and found a man on his knees in front of a headstone with a hammer and chisel, chipping away at the stone. "It's a bit late to be working mate, isn't it?" he asked. The man with the chisel carried on carving for a bit, then said, "They got my name wrong."

It's the way you tell them.

Monday, October 19, 2009

They're not doing it his way

When Father Ed Tomlinson of St Barnabas's, Tunbridge Wells, complained in his blog that he has
"... stood at the Crem like a lemon, wondering why on earth I am present at the funeral of somebody led in by the tunes of Tina Turner, summed up in pithy platitudes of sentimental and secular poets and sent into the furnace with ‘I did it my way’ blaring out across the speakers!"
he probably didn't expect the negative publicity. His comments were reported in the local and national press, leading to criticisms that he was "insensitive" and "heartless".

Ed doesn't get it. Why would anyone want to have a personalised funeral ceremony, when he can offer "the gorgeous liturgy of the requiem mass"? That's just it, Father Ed. Ask most people who're rejecting the "gorgeous liturgy" option and they'll say that they've been to a funeral where the priest talked about God and Jesus but said hardly anything about their dear departed; certainly nothing that they recognised. "It could have been for anyone," they'll say, or, "I wondered if I'd come to the right funeral; I didn't know who he was talking about."

Father Ed despairs of hearing "My Way" blasting out of the crematorium speakers; I sympathise. It is very popular. Having heard it many, many times, I groan inwardly when anyone asks for it. However, as long as no one asks for "Jesus wants me for a sunbeam", I'll cope.

Father Ed thinks that his parishioners don't know what's good for them and he does. He says,
I know that ‘dwindling funeral syndrome’ is the shared experience of most every priest I speak to, save those served by undertakers of genuine faith or respect.
Does he mean that "undertakers of genuine faith or respect" should ignore their clients' wishes and point them in his direction anyway? I know some do, and if their client is determined to have a non-religious funeral they might give in very grudgingly.

Father Ed seems to think that Humanist funerals are inferior to his liturgical ones, but he probably hasn't been to many, if any (I've known priests turn up at Humanist funerals, exuding disapproval). There are rubbish Humanist funerals, and some great religious ones. No one has a monopoly of quality, but many families will say that the Humanist funeral they'd arranged was satisfying, honest, and moving; that it reflected the life and personality of the person who died without cloying sentiment; that it made them laugh and cry. And, Father Ed, contrary to what you might believe, we don't all do it for the money.

But he won't care. Father Ed is from the patriarchal, "we know best" Church tendency that can't understand why its authority is dwindling, fast. He'll sulk and sulk.

He wrote that when he dies, "I will still have the gorgeous liturgy of the requiem mass to look forward to." Pity he won't be there to enjoy it.

Friday, October 02, 2009


One of the things that Richard Wilson discussed on last night's 'Two Feet in the Grave' TV programme was post-mortem photography. The Victorians took photographs of dead people, posed to look natural, such as a dead child propped up in a chair, surrounded by her dolls.

I bought this small photograph last week from a dealer. It shows a dead man in a coffin, which is supported by two chairs. The coffin sides don't seem very high, but maybe it was the fashion, wherever he came from, to have a deep lid. On the back is inscribed his name - Josef. I can't read his surname. The inscription's in German. It looks early 20th century. I wonder who he was, and what his story was?

Thursday, October 01, 2009

Two Feet in the Grave

You have 5 days left to watch this programme on i-Player - recommended.

Click here for the OU/BBC Death & Dying page

What to do with big people?

In case you were wondering, "big" is a euphemism for "fat" - very fat. There are more very fat people than ever these days, and when they die, that can cause problems.

Years ago, I knew someone who'd worked as a post-war hospital porter. He worked nights, when there weren't enough staff, and was asked to move a corpse from one of the floors above ground level when the lift wasn't working. There was no one to help him, it was a large body, so he stood at the top of a flight of stairs (concrete, with dark tiles on the walls on one side) and pondered. Reasoning that the guy was dead, so he wouldn't know anything about it, he rolled the body to the ground floor. I don't remember how he got him off the floor at the bottom. If it had been a lightweight corpse, he'd have been able to sling it over his shoulder in a fireman's lift, but it weighed at least 20 stone.

Nowadays, mortuaries, funeral directors, crematorium staff and others have to deal with corpses weighing much more than that - in some cases, over twice as heavy. In our area, none of the cremators are big enough to take very big bodies, so they have to be taken to a crematorium miles away. There are plans to build a new, privately-owned crematorium in our area, that will have an extra-large cremator. I don't suppose many people have thought about the extra cost involved with having to do this.

You read about the fire brigade being called to move hugely obese patients to hospital, but you don't hear much about what happens when they're dead.

You can't have a lovely environmentally-friendly cardboard or wicker coffin if you're hugely fat; you'd just spill out of it, like a badly wrapped parcel.

You can't be carried by pall-bearers if you're more than 20 stone; you have to be pushed on a trolley.

It's difficult to bury a fat person; you need a very big hole, and a way to lower the coffin so it doesn't just thump to the bottom.

They've had this problem in the US for longer than us, so they've been manufacturing 44" wide cremators for a while, and now we're having to import them.

Fat people cost everyone money - not just because of their healthcare problems, the difficulty of moving them from A to B when they're ill and can't walk, but because it's very expensive to dispose of their corpses when they die.

The moral? Do everyone a favour, and don't die fat.

Illustration: 18th watercolour of a fat man by G H Beaumont

Wrapped in banana leaves

Keith Floyd had a Humanist funeral in Bristol. I'm told that it was reported in a local paper that there were "insufficient funds" to pay for his funeral, so I hope the celebrant got paid.

Floyd's partner Celia Martin chose a banana leaf coffin, because he sometimes cooked things wrapped in leaves - cabbage or vine, I assume. Sounds like a nice, environmentally-friendly thing to do, but I'm not sure that the crematorium staff will have appreciated it.

There's an increasing choice of materials for coffins, including cardboard, willow (which tends to creak when it's being lowered into a grave), and bamboo, which is less likely to sag in the middle than willow. None of them are suitable for large people, and there are more of them too.

The trouble with cremating coffins made from these materials is that they catch fire very quickly, I've been told. If you've got a nice hot furnace and you slide in a cardboard coffin, it tends to go whoosh, so the crematorium staff have to work fast before the body is completely exposed. They'd rather not have to poke about and push it in.

So, be considerate, please. Choose cardboard, creaky willow, bamboo or banana leaves if you're planning an interment, but if you're going to have someone cremated, choose a rigid coffin that will take a bit longer to warm up.
My source in the West Country informs me:
It was reported there were insufficient funds for his funeral. Apparently he still owed £50,000 to one of his four wives. So if he died penniless, how come he spent £145 on his last meal in Lyme Regis?
Maybe he ran up a tab?

Monday, August 10, 2009


My Twitter friend DD has posted something on her blog about the Arundel tomb, which made me wonder how many modern memorials will evoke the same sort of emotion in seven hundred years time? Maybe some of the ones commissioned through Memorials by Artists?

Harriet Frazer started Memorials by Artists in the late 1990s after she and her family had had great difficulty finding a headstone they liked for the grave of her step-daughter Sophie Behrens, who died in 1985. They wanted something beautiful and unique, like Sophie. It wasn't just a matter of finding craftspeople who could produce what they wanted, rather than something out of a catalogue. They also learned by trial and error about all the rules and regulations that cemeteries impose. Harriet and her family thought that other families might benefit from their experience, and that led to Memorials by Artists. They don't just put families in touch with sculptors and letter cutters; they can help with stained glass artists and other craftspeople too.

The photo from the Memorials by Artists booklet shows a headstone made from Kilkenny limestone by Jamie Sargeant. A theatre set design by Anton Furst is incised on the back.

Saturday, August 01, 2009

A Flower Falls

One of my Twitter contacts, Meg, has just written an account of the death of her mother in an earthquake in her native Philippines, nineteen years ago. It ends -
After the funeral was over, the heavens opened and torrential rain came down thick as stair rods. My grandmother finally collapsed, wailing that her daughter would be soaked. The fact that my mother was dead and buried in a coffin six feet in the ground meant nothing to Lola. She could not be consoled. I held my grandmother's prostrate body in my arms, neither of us able to fully comprehend the loss of the woman who bound us together with a chain of kinship, history and love.

Only then did I remember it was my birthday. The day the earth claimed my mother a second time, I turned thirty.
The photo is of Meg (standing) and her mother Daisy, taken in 1983.

Friday, July 31, 2009

Posthumous conversions

Henry Allingham, the WW1 veteran who died on July 18th, aged 113, wasn't a religious man. He told the Guardian:
I can see why people fall out with religion. I last took communion in 1918. The Salvation Army were waiting for the boys to come out of the trenches. 'Cup of tea, soldier?' Yes please. 'There you go, son.' The Church Army had set up a quarter of a mile away: 'Cup of tea, soldier?' Yes please. 'Penny!' I didn't like that. They had all the money.
Many of the men who fought in WW1 left their faith on the battlefield. Whose side was God on? many of them asked. So why did the church get to muscle in on Henry's funeral? They didn't have him in life, so they took over when he died? Makes me cross when this sort of thing happens. A funeral should reflect a person's philosophy of life. If religion played no part in it, then it should play no part in his or her funeral. Damn cheek.

A few years ago, I was asked to conduct a private family funeral for the gardening correspondent of the East Anglian Daily Times and BBC Radio Suffolk, Roy Lacey. Roy had told his family that he wanted me to conduct his funeral, as he'd listened to my broadcasts and agreed with what I'd said. Subsequently, the editors of the EADT and BBC Suffolk agreed with the family that they'd like to broadcast a memorial event for Roy, and Mrs Lacey said she wanted me to lead it, as that's what Roy would have wanted. It was recorded at a school in Felixstowe, where Roy lived.

Various people were to provide tributes to Roy, there was a recording he'd made of his personal reminiscences, and we were to play Vaughan Williams' Lark Ascending, which he liked. Then I was told that the event would include The Lords' Prayer. 'Why?' I asked. I can't remember the EADT editor's exact words, but it was something along the lines of, people would expect it, or it would include religious people. But Roy had specifically said that he didn't want any religion at his funeral, I said, and he wouldn't have wanted it now. I seem to remember that Mrs Lacey agreed with me, and the subject was dropped. I still have the recording somewhere. It was a moving occasion, and I don't think that anyone mentioned that anything was missing.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Not just boxes

Fish coffin from Ghana
I think it's a waste of money, spending a lot on a coffin. It'll soon be buried or burnt, though some people order theirs in advance, or make one in advance, and use it as a blanket box or cupboard - memento mori furniture.

I'd heard about the elaborate coffins made in Ghana, where coffin-makers aim to make coffins that look like anything their clients choose - cars, guns, fish (see above), animals, vegetables, mobile phones . . . Some of them are so elaborate, they must have to dig very large holes to bury them in. I think the African coffins were originally DIY projects, but have become so popular that they're exporting them.

I was watching the BBC's 'Flog It' TV programme this afternoon, when presenter Paul Martin visited a coffin maker, Vic Fearn & Company, who've responded to requests for more elaborate coffins by taking on a designer who'll create anything you want. This part of the business is called Crazy Coffins. Some of them cost £thousands. If you have one of those, people will remember your funeral, even if they forget who it was for.

Colourful Coffins have a 'pre-design' service; you can design your own coffin, maybe with "Goodbyee!" in big letters along the sides? It might be tempting to send some sort of farewell message to everyone.

There's evidently a market for this sort of thing, which can be very lucrative. The death business always was a money-spinner. When local builders first started making coffins, they were just plain boxes. Then some enterprising characters realised that their more affluent clients would be pleased to pay for better coffins, mourning accessories, professional mourners, fancy hearses, etc., to demonstrate their social superiority. Richard Chandler's trade card, c. 1750, lists what he could provide for a "decent" funeral ("at reasonable rates"), as opposed to a common or garden funeral. If Mr Chandler was alive today, he'd be making crazy coffins.

Richard Chandler's trade card, c.1750,
from 'The English Way of Death' by Julian Litton.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Kisses at the crematorium

After a funeral today, I had an interesting conversation with one of the staff - one of my fans, especially since I did a funeral for a family member.

He'd been listening, as he was chapel attendant today. He said he always enjoyed my funerals, and the ones that are conducted by my colleague, D. They're how funerals should be, said he. He was never keen on religion, but working at the crematorium and having to listen to so many religious funerals, he's even more atheist than before. I've heard the same complaint from other crematorium staff and funeral conductors (the people from the funeral directors who manage the event) ; religious funerals are all the same; they're irrelevant; they're more about God than about the person who's died; they're boring. Yes, I know they're not all bad, but I hear a lot of negative comments.

My friend said that, soon after he started working at the crematorium, there was a funeral that was to be led by a family member, an American preacher. He used the opportunity to preach hellfire and damnation, shouting at the mourners (several times) that they were all sinners. After about five minutes, the family had had enough. They told him to shut up and sit down. My friend said that made him wonder if his new job was going to be more interesting than he anticipated.

On the whole, however, it hasn't been that interesting. Day after day, week after week, he hears the same hymns, the same prayers, the same stuff about so-and-so going to be with Jesus. No wonder the staff tend to get quite excited when my colleague or I turn up. We aim to provide a ceremony that's relevant and unique, and we often include humorous anecdotes - so there are laughs too. Oh, and the music is better, I'm told. He was delighted when D turned up the other week and announced that the music included Ian Dury and the Blockheads - "There aren't half some clever bastards!"

My colleague, being male, probably doesn't get kissed very often away from home. I get kisses from clients and funeral directors, like the one I got today from the conductor waiting to do the funeral after mine. Few people can claim to enjoy job satisfaction and kisses.

I've been kissed by clergy too. A couple of retired clergy are old friends, including the one who did my parents' funerals. He once kissed me in the vestry, in front of a member of staff, who said in mock horror, "You kissed an atheist!" "That's all right," was the response, "it's not catching." I beg to differ.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Ashes, rockets and paperweights

When you pop your clogs, you can have your ashes sent heavenwards in a fireworks display. The company says it will be "Celebrating life through the spectacular and tasteful dispersal of cremation ashes by firework." They wisely don't guarantee where the ashes will land, so they possibly take the precaution of not firing any rockets near a motorway or sewage farm, particularly if there's a strong wind. They say "Each firework is labeled [sic] with your loved-ones [sic] name and a named Certificate of Authenticity is provided." Judging from the website, they might not spell the name right, but what does it matter if it's labelled anyway? It'll burn. You can have a "Manned Professionally Fired Tribute Firework Show" from £1,750.00 inc. VAT.

If you don't fancy a firework display, what about being turned into a paperweight? Might as well make yourself useful when you're dead.

Tom Sutcliffe wrote about this sort of thing in The Independent, and how his dog almost peed on a pile of ashes - not quite the dignified ending the family might have wanted. At least a paperweight might not get peed on, unless you carelessly leave it in the loo.

A few years ago, a retired RAF officer told me how a former colleague had requested that his ashes should be scattered from a light aircraft. It proved to be difficult to fulfil his request, as the ashes blew back into the cockpit as fast as they were thrown out. Some were swept up with a dustpan and brush after landing; he didn't say what they did with them.

A lot of people choose to have their ashes scattered in places that had special significance for them - on the top of hills, on football pitches, and so on. So many people are doing it these days that it's become a pollution problem and the government had to bring in new anti-pollution rules. Surely the ashes firework displays might be in breach of these rules, as they can't control where the ashes will land?

Carelessly throwing ashes around is as anti-social as littering, it seems to me, and not nearly as "tasteful" and romantic as many people might imagine.

Update, September 2018

I've been given a small container with some relative's cremains. The rest have been distributed among other family members and in places my relative enjoyed visiting. I didn't ask for them and didn't want them. I think the idea was that they should go in my garden somewhere. When I'm dead no one in the family will have access, since I'm a tenant, so that'll be that. Meanwhile, they sit on a bookshelf. To prove how illogical I am, a box of my last dog's cremains are nearby, to be inherited by my next of kin. Can you imagine them being passed along after my demise? Well, they won't be my problem, will they?

Oh, and I've just learned that it's now possible to have ashes sent into space.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Mass mourning

Would you want to share the funeral of someone you loved with lots of other families, while a bunch of priests went on about God and said nothing about the person you'd lost? Rows of coffins, plenty of priestly platitudes, a papal message about feeling "spiritually present", but no memories, no affectionate tributes. No. Me neither.

Thursday, April 02, 2009

No memorabilia

No memorabilia, originally uploaded by Sparrows' Friend.

I was talking about soggy teddy bears, wind chimes, plastic flowers, windmills, toys, and football shirts with one of the Ipswich cemetery staff, and he said he thought it began after the Hillsborough disaster, when fans left scarves and flowers at the football club gates.

I've previously written about the waste of money when Diana died, and London's streets were full of dead flowers and stuffed toys.

This photo's on Flickr, where a contact wrote, "Having seen the hideous stuff in Bury St Edmunds Crematorium I'm not surprised. I used to think vicars were being snobbish in their limitations over graves; Bury's gardens of remembrance have put me clear on that."

It's all so tacky. Leaving flowers on a grave has been enough, until recently, to signify that someone is missed, and that his or her nearest and dearest are keeping his or her memory alive. What does a pile of tat say about someone? Nothing, but it does say a lot about how people who struggle to express their loss will imitate one another without really thinking about it. It's what Richard Dawkins calls a "meme", like the fashion for wearing baseball caps back to front. I don't know how long this fashion will last, but I hope it's not long.

Saturday, March 07, 2009

Be prepared

I shouldn't really criticise, as I'm not the most organised person you could meet, but it's so inconsiderate to pop your clogs and leave your nearest and dearest to hunt the will, bank statements, insurance policies, etc. The period immediately after a death is difficult enough, without all the hassle of trying to find things that have been carefully hidden away and no one has a clue where to look for them.

Even if you do nothing else in anticipation of your demise (and most people would rather not think about it, I know), let whoever will have to deal with the practicalities know where you keep your important papers.

The most recent funeral I conducted was for a bachelor who died suddenly, alone at home. His family had no idea where he kept everything. I expect they're still sorting through his stuff. When there are drawers full of old letters, you can't just chuck them out, in case there's something important in there.

When my mother died, it took me days to find her jewellery. She'd wrapped individual pieces in tissue paper and put it all in a supermarket carrier bag hanging from a hook on the back of her bedroom door. I suppose her reasoning was that it would be the last place a burglar would look. I almost threw it out, thinking it was rubbish, after days of sorting through over seventy years' worth of stuff.

Make a will. Don't wait until you're past retirement age. It's especially important when you're married or just living together, and essential when you have children. You may not have any money, but there may be insurance money as a result of your death as a result of accident or illness. You can appoint a guardian or guardians for your children, so that people you trust will be responsible for caring for them if you die. Will you want a brother with a rather casual approach to health and safety to look after them, or a close female friend who won't let them run amok? It's up to you.

However, there's not much point making a will if no one knows about it, or where it is. So tell someone! Then you can get on with the business of living, and need say no more about it.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009


An interweb friend has been ranting on Facebook about Jade Goody's public death bed scene, or scenes:
X is wondering if he is alone in really not giving a monkey's chuff about Jade Goody and is sick of every bit of exposure it's getting?
I'm not sick of it because I haven't seen any of it. I don't watch Big Brother; life's short enough as it is without wasting any on freak shows. I don't usually read newspapers and never read the tabloids, apart from when I'm reviewing them on local radio. I never watch Sky TV. I get my news from the BBC, CNN, and the Guardian and Independent websites. I did get sick of the coverage of Diana's death, when the BBC went on and on about it, and the Queen Mum's death attracted far too much publicity - boring, boring boring! But if you watch rolling news, you'll soon reach saturation point when there's a big story at the top of the list. Switch off. It's easy.

So I can't really comment about the Jade Goody and her cancer stories, as I haven't seen any of them, but as she's hired Max Clifford, the media pimp, to manage her deathbed publicity, it's not surprising that she's in the news. The idea, apparently, is to raise as much money as possible from fees to benefit her children, who'll soon be motherless. What they'll make of it, heaven knows, but since Jade's from a dysfunctional family, and these things tend to repeat themselves, I hope they have some sensible people around as they grow up.

My ranty friend opined,
Take Kylie. Quiet dignity, utter poise, grace and complete humility. Compare that to the Jade Goody Media Express. Kylie inspired more women than Jade EVER could.
Maybe, but Kylie's been in show business since childhood. She's used to publicity. She's a wealthy woman without kids who isn't desperate to leave money to her family. Jade may not have inspired anyone, but the fact that she's got terminal cancer in her twenties has already prompted more young women to get checked for cervical cancer, probably saving lives. Many more young women are at risk nowadays, due to their sexual activitity from an early age. Dignity, poise and grace? Drunkeness, lust and risk-taking; the sort of thing that poor silly Jade's well-known for.

If she'd lived into old age, what would have happened to Jade Goody? She'd probably have been driven out of the limelight by the next gaggle of notorious female celebrities and retired into obscurity. As it is, she'll be remembered as a train wreck of a woman with a reputation for saying the first thing that came into her head and upsetting Shilpa Shetty. There are thousands like her, but she just happened to go on Big Brother and gain a publicist. It's all very sad. She needed a minder, but not Max Clifford. She needed someone to look after her from an early age. Now all she's got is the mawkish attention of the worst sort of media and the people who bother to read or watch what they produce. You get the feeling that they've already been totting up the profits from the sale of her toenail clippings. Whoever's at her bedside when she dies, I hope they're people who genuinely care about her.

Thursday, January 22, 2009


In 1874, Sir Henry Thompson, Bart., FRCS, Surgeon to Queen Victoria, founded the Cremation Society of Great Britain, having written, "it was becoming a necessary sanitary precaution against the propagation of disease among a population daily growing larger in relation to the area it occupied". Municipal cemeteries were filling fast, and cremation was introduced to deal with the problem of disposal. It wasn't popular with the church to begin with, maybe because it associated the fire of the furnace with the fires of hell, but as the practice gained popularity with the general public, the clergy changed its tune.

I believe that we British cremated more of our dead than any other nation apart from the Japanese, who don't have a lot of space for internments. This is probably still true. I think most people prefer cremation to burial because it's all done behind closed doors and they don't have to deal with the messy aspects of disposal, like mud and earth. But as the population's increased, funerals have become more elaborate, and a majority of families choose to remove cremains (which are bone fragments, ground up) from crematoria, instead of leaving them to be buried or scattered in the "gardens of rest", the country's being liberally dusted with bone meal. It might do some plants good (though blood and bone meal used to attract our dogs' attention), but it's not the sort of stuff you want to scatter everywhere, willy-nilly.

When a close relative died the other year, her ashes were divided up between several people and places. I'm not sure how many portions there were, but one lot was scattered in Cornwall, another in Norfolk, and there's a little pot sitting on a shelf at home because I haven't done anything with it. It was suggested that because she enjoyed sitting in my garden, I could scatter my portion there. I don't know how the ashes were divided; whether they were weighed in equal portions or if it was a guestimate. It's irrational, I know, but I don't like the idea of dividing people up like this. It doesn't matter to her, of course, but why spread her about like that? I didn't ask for a share but hadn't the heart to refuse. Once upon a time, people dreaded being cut up or otherwise divided, for fear of being denied access to heaven without all their parts. That's not how I feel, but it still seems unnecessarily fussy to mess about with people's ashes.

Like most people, I never used to give the matter much thought. It's become popular to scatter ashes, whether all at once or in portions, in places associated with the dead person. I suppose it's quite romantic, to imagine that he or she will become a part of a place that he or she liked, or where something special happened. But it's irrational, as most of our reactions to death are, and so many people are doing it that it's causing a pollution problem, and is being restricted. I can imagine some bereaved people, determined to ignore restrictions, shuffling around beauty spots with ashes dribbling from the bottom of their trousers, like the men in The Great Escape who had to get rid of the earth from their tunnels without the guards seeing them.

A retired RAF officer I know told me about an airman who requested that his ashes be scattered from the cockpit of a plane. Apparently they blew straight in again and had to swept up with a dustpan and brush when the plane landed.

The lover of a woman who died years ago had to keep his loss a secret, as he was a married Catholic and his family knew nothing about the affair. For almost a year after the woman died, he used to write to me about her, as he had no one else he could talk to. He showed me photos of a secluded place in the Suffolk countryside where they used to meet, and where he scattered her ashes, so he could "feel close to her". After a year, he wrote that he thought he could manage, and I never heard from him again. I wonder how often he visited the spot where he'd left her, and whether it stayed as he remembered it, or if it had been sold to a developer and was covered with semi-detached houses - or, worse still, industrial units.

As an increasing proportion of the population becomes obese, cremators that can cope with big bodies are in demand. Fat people from our area have had to be taken miles away for cremation because none of the local cremators are big enough. Then there's the problem of mercury pollution, from tooth fillings. A new building to house equipment that will deal with such pollutants is being planned for our local crematorium where it will take up a hefty proportion of the car park, which is already too small.

One way or another, the disposal of cremated remains is becoming a problem as serious as the one that cremation was designed to solve. It'll be a long time before it's sorted, mainly because there's a general aversion to discussing anything to do with death. Try applying for planning permission for a green burial site, and you'll see what I mean.

If they'll have it, my body's going to the anatomists, who'll bury what's left when they've finished with me. As for my relative's ashes; I'm going to fork her into the flower border in the spring, safe in the knowledge that, since the dog died last summer, she's less likely to be dug up again. As for the dog; her ashes are in a little box, next to her photo and her collar. You see, I said we're irrational about death.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Foggy funeral

Foggy funeral, originally uploaded by Sparrows' Friend.
The thing about burials is, you never know what to expect weatherwise. Sturdy footwear, thermal underwear and waterproofs are essential in winter.