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, 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?