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.

Sunday, September 05, 2010

If you haven't already done so, make a will

I met someone at a party last night who was recently bereaved. Her distress was compounded by the fact that her partner hadn't made a will and as they weren't married, she has a complicated mess to sort out. Presumably they shared a home. I didn't ask the details, but it's not certain that she'll be able to continue living in it. During this conversation, it emerged that our host hadn't made a will either. He's not alone; I've read varying estimates of the proportion of British people who haven't make wills; it's a staggering number, between half and two thirds of the adult population. I've written about this sort of thing before.

One case that I remember involved a wealthy Suffolk woman who'd told her friends that she wanted her estate to go to an animal welfare charity; she was a childless cat-lover with no immediate family. Later, it emerged that because she hadn't actually got around to making a will, her entire estate went to the state and the pussy-cats got nothing.

Whenever I've interviewed parents about baby-naming ceremonies, I've always advised them to make wills - one each. Most young people probably imagine that they don't need to think about it, but if you have children, even if you have hardly any money, you can name the people who'll be your children's guardians in the event of your deaths. Suppose you were both wiped out in the same car accident? Who would be the best people to be responsible for your children until they come of age? Your closest relatives may not be the best choice. If you have a baby-naming ceremony, the mentors (the non-religious equivalent of god-parents) can be the same people you've named as the child's guardians.

I first made a will when my son was a baby and it's been updated two or three times since, most recently to bequeath my body to the anatomists at Cambridge university, so that the medical students can make use of it. My solicitor has a copy, and there's one in a fire-proof box at home. No one will have any trouble sorting out who gets what when I'm dead.

You can make a will just by buying a legal-looking form and filling it in yourself, with a couple of people acting as witnesses, but this is risky - too often, mistakes are made that renders the will invalid. There are will-writing firms who advertise online and in the press, but treat them with caution. A friend tried one once, to update her will, and after they'd hung on to her most important documents for months without producing a will, she had to threaten legal action to retrieve them. The best approach is to use a solicitor. If your will isn't complicated, the fee won't be high. If you don't know where to find a solicitor who deals with probate and wills, ask the CAB.

Read about making a will on the Law Society's website
Read what happens if you don't make a will

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Leave my funeral until I'm dead, thanks

Leaving parties, when everyone's signed a card and you all stand around clutching drinks while people say things that may or may not be true about you, can be horribly embarrassing. The thought of attending one that's meant to be a funeral, only before you're dead, doesn't appeal to me at all. OK, have a party - I know a couple of people who've done that because they didn't want to miss the one that would otherwise be held after the funeral - but not a funeral, please. I really don't want to be there. I don't want to hear what people might say about me, and not just because some of it may not be complimentary. I'm really not so keen on funerals that I want to attend my own.

However, it seems that some people think it's a good idea, the people at Saltcote Place in Rye among them, but they would, wouldn't they? They're offering their venue, for a fee, for such events. Among other things, they say,
Such a funeral can be arranged to fit the needs of all the family members and friends as well as the deceased-apparent. For example, his or her family members and friends will be able to attend this pre-arranged funeral if it is scheduled so no one will be caught while on an out-of-town business trip or vacation.
Oh well, we wouldn't want to inconvenience anyone by dying while they're in the middle of a holiday, would we? Sorry, but if I'm dying, it's likely that the last thing on my mind will be your holiday plans, and if people say I was a selfish old bag at my funeral (that's if they give me one), I won't be there to hear it.

Saturday, July 31, 2010

The Orwell Bridge

I've conducted several funerals with connections to this bridge, which was opened in 1982 to carry the A45 (now the A14) over the River Orwell at Ipswich. I've driven over it hundreds of times.

One funeral was for someone I knew; a very interesting man who'd been a member of the council responsible for commissioning its construction. He was proud of the curved arch in the middle, which was his suggestion. He thought it added something, aesthetically. Another funeral was for an engineer who was involved in its construction. He was equally proud of the bridge.

Sadly, many people around here associate the bridge with suicides. It's been a magnet for depressed people since it opened, the latest only a few weeks ago. I remember conducting the funeral for a young man who'd been plagued by mental illness for years. His family had been happy that he seemed to have responded to treatment, and was planning to spend some time with friends in Spain. They waved goodbye at the door of their home, after he'd refused the offer of a lift to the airport, oblivious to the fact that it was all an act. He went to the bridge and jumped over the low wall at the top, just as a school bus full of children was going past. They all needed counselling afterwards, including the driver.

I was reminded of this the other day, when I noticed that there was a TV programme about suicides on London Underground, and their consequences. I couldn't bring myself to watch it. When I was a relative funerals novice, I shared a car with a young man who'd gone to work for a funeral director after he left school. He was glad to have the job, he said, because several of his friends were unemployed. I asked if he enjoyed it. He replied that he did, most of the time. One thing he didn't enjoy was walking along a railway line, gathering the body parts of a suicide. Suicides are notoriously oblivious to the effect that their actions have on other people.

Postscript - 22/2/2011: The Orwell jumpers don't always succeed.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

More on the theme of "What creative uses can you think of for your cremains?"

Apparently, an artist has used a 3D printer to turn human ashes into objects. Fascinating. Only, what's a 3D printer? Mine is 3-dimensional. If I had a 2-dimensional one, it'd take up far less space in my already cluttered office. Or is it just that it makes things 3D? How? Magic? Must be.

Anyhow. If I was to be turned into a 3D object for my loved ones to keep on the mantelpiece, instead of a boring old urn, what should it be? Tray with a mug of tea and a slice of toast, plus crumbs? Jar of marmalade, plus spoon? Are you sensing a theme here?

Monday, May 31, 2010

Don't bother painting my coffin, thanks

You might expect someone like me (a trained artist, and all that) to get excited about beautifully decorated coffins, but I don't. I suppose that having one standing in the corner of your living room as a memento mori and conversation piece might be interesting, if you have room, but why commission someone to spend hours creating a work of art that will be either buried or cremated with you? Seems such a waste, not to mention a sort of post-mortem showing off.

No thanks. I'd rather that my dearly beloved commissioned something that they like to hang on the wall or stand in the garden, and buy the cheapest environmentally-friendly coffin for my remains. It's only going to keep me tidy in transit.

Paying for an elegant headstone's another matter, if you really want one. At least they'll last.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010


One of the people I follow on Twitter is Lindsey Mason, who writes a column for the STV website. Lindsey (tigerbaps on Twitter) is usually very funny, but her latest column has a more sombre tone. It's about what she told her daughters about their dad, who died when the eldest was six.

Lindsey wrote,
Hannah is the image of her dad, right enough. She even has mannerisms of his that she couldn’t possibly have known about. Sometimes I look at her and she’s chewing the side of her mouth the way he used to do when he was concentrating on something and it makes my heart leap. I said earlier that I don’t believe in life after death, but in a way I do, because I just need to look at Rachael and Hannah and there he is, looking right back at me. I’ve always felt that Hannah was searching for her dad. Searching for some forgotten memory or some vital piece of information that I’ve missed out about him that would make her unlock a memory. But the truth is, she IS the something she’s searching for. She IS her dad. She can’t escape that. It makes me feel good.
You can read the whole thing on the STV website, where you'll learn what "begrutten" means. I recommend reading Lindsey's other columns too.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Getting it right

Just been reading Gloriamundi's latest blog post, about whether to choose burial or cremation. I've left instructions with the anatomists that they should bury what's left of me when they've no further use for it, assuming they accept my body bequest in the first place.

Gloriamundi asks, "What price on getting such things right?" Trouble is, things don't always go right. Sometimes it's someone's fault, sometimes it's not. As long as things haven't gone horribly wrong, whatever happened might become part of a family's story, told and retold, about the day you buried Dad, or Gran, or whoever, while you wonder what he or she would have said about it.

There's a green burial site near here where I've conducted a few funerals. One was for a man whose family had prepared a celebration around his grave, with anecdotes, tearful goodbyes, lovely poems, and gentle jokes about his idiosyncrasies. It was to end with an Irish piper, a friend of the family, playing a lament as the coffin was lowered. I said the words of committal, the piper started to play, and the bearers started to lower the coffin. It was a rectangular cardboard coffin, not tapered as most coffins are, and it soon became evident that the grave wasn't big enough. There was a lot of fiddling about and suppressed huffing and puffing, but it was no use; the coffin was stuck. As the piper continued to play, the bearers had to give up and leave it wedged in place at a wonky angle. I don't remember what I said, but everyone laughed and exclaimed that he'd have enjoyed the joke, before they drifted away. An embarrassed funeral director, who had a reputation for making mistakes, stood looking at the coffin. He'd supervised the grave-digging and supplied the coffin, so he couldn't blame anyone else. Maybe he ought to buy a new tape measure, I suggested. He didn't answer.

That was a case of human error. On other occasions, things have gone wrong for reasons beyond anyone's control. Snow, rain and wind can all play a part in funeral ceremonies. There's not much you can do about any of them. Just wear sensible shoes, and hope for the best.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Portraits of the dead

I go to the BP Portrait Award Exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery every year. My son agrees with me that the standard keeps getting higher. It will be interesting to see Daphne Todd's portrait of her mother this year. It was painted after death. Annie Mary Todd was a hundred years old and her dead body is as you'd expect - emaciated and worn out, an empty shell.

There will be people who'd prefer not to see it; the fear of death is common and they'd rather not be reminded of it. Some will be repelled, others fascinated. Mrs Todd agreed to be painted after she'd died, so this isn't posthumous exploitation.

Posthumous portraits were once quite common, though they were usually painted to show an idealised version of a deathbed scene. When Sir Kenelm Digby's wife Venetia died in 1633, he sent for his friend the artist Sir Anthony Van Dyck to draw her. Seven week's later, he finished this portrait, which "played an important role in Kenhelm's mourning" (from Death in England, ed. Peter C Jupp & Clare Gittings).

I've drawn a relative on her deathbed at the hospice. I've also drawn dead babies for bereaved parents. They were invited by hospital staff to hold their baby and have his or her photograph taken, but the photos of a tiny premature scrap weren't suitable to show in a frame on their mantelpiece. Pencil drawings, without the livid colour of the tiny bodies, was a gentler way to remember them. I don't charge for them.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Memento mori

Gloriously dead, originally uploaded by Nad.

From a Flickr set by Nad (see previous post). Recommend viewing by slide show.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010


From a report of a trial in the Willesden & Brent Times, October 8th, 2009:
Leon Labastide, 21, known as 'Playboy' ... was shot in the back and found dying by his mother on May 23rd, 2004.
I've done funerals for murder victims but, so far, gang warfare hasn't spread to rural Suffolk.

Photographs by Nad.

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Nike headstone

Found on the Interweb today - a photo of a funeral director's window in Birkenhead.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

White chrysanthemums

White chrysanthemums are popular with funeral florists, who use them to spell out tributes for "MUM", "DAD", and various other names or relationships.

Some funeral flower facts for you:

White chrysanthemums are associated with funerals in Eastern Europe and in China, Japan and Korea.

Floral tributes became popular here from the 19th century, partly for their symbolism, but also because they were used, with aromatic herbs like rosemary, to try to hide the smell of putrescent bodies.

After the Hillsborough disaster in 1989, it became increasingly popular to lay floral tributes for strangers at the site of car accidents, murders and disasters. The florists did very well out of Diana Princess of Wales' funeral, when thousands of flowers were heaped in the streets of London.

Some of the nicest floral tributes I've seen were informal ones that had been picked from mourners' own gardens. White chrysanthemums don't lend themselves to informality.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

It's time to re-educate the funeral directors, again

Funeral arrangers are the people in a funeral director's office who interview clients and make the arrangements. They're the ones who contact us to ask if we'll do a funeral for a client who doesn't want a religious ceremony. At least, that's how it's supposed to work.

We send all the funeral directors in our area a newsletter every year or so, to inform them about our service and remind them what we will or won't do. With staff changes, some need re-educating periodically.

One of our biggest problems is the arrangers who book a venue (such-and-such a crematorium at 11am on Tuesday, say) before they contact us. When it's a fait accompli, there's not much we can do if all of us are already committed elsewhere. There've been times when I've had to tell an arranger, sorry - we can't help you.

Then there are the ones who don't really understand what a humanist funeral is. Their client might have said that they don't want a religious funeral, but they still choose to sing hymns, for example. I've known clients say, "But it's not really religious, is it?" about Abide with Me, Jerusalem, or Morning has Broken. Don't they ever listen to the words? If the arranger is doing his or her job properly, he or she should know better than to steer people like that in our direction. They need a civil celebrant, who's not much fussed about what we call "pick 'n mix" funerals, or one of the many freelance celebrants who'll do the same.

This morning I had an email from an arranger who'd asked me to do a funeral a few days ago. I'd queried whether the client had chosen any music. The email listed four hymns! I spoke to the client on Tuesday. I asked, "You do understand that I provide a funeral that's totally free from religion, don't you? No hymns, prayers, religious readings, or references to an afterlife?" "Yes," he said, "that's what we want. Mum wasn't religious." I haven't been able to get hold of him again today, so far, but what seems to have happened is that the arranger has handed him a list of recorded music and said, "You can choose from this." Not appreciating that they can have anything they want (and I mean anything - the new Wesley system means access to an almost unlimited number of recordings), the client opted for the hymns because he thought that was usual, or didn't have a clue what he wanted.

Meanwhile, I've been backed into a corner by another client, who insists that we sing Jerusalem because her husband loved the song. I can see that this is going to be one of those weeks.