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.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Those with the most problems were those who had not sorted out their ideas...

This is from an obituary for Dame Cicely Saunders, founder of the hospice movement, who died in 2005.
Though the philosophy underlying St Christopher's was Christian, it welcomed patients of any persuasion or none. Cicely Saunders noticed that those who coped best always had a shining faith, but that atheists often died as peacefully as Christians. The people with the most problems were those who had not sorted out their ideas. Clergymen, oddly, and the affluent, often turned out to have the most difficulty.

Monday, November 21, 2011

The mushroom death suit

Artist Jae Rhim Lee has been thinking about how to lessen our pollution of the planet after we're dead, as the body contains many toxins, and has come up with a suit impregnated with fungi spores that (theoretically) "eat" the body and speed decomposition. She says that there are already volunteers who are willing to test the suit - when they're dead, of course.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Some people would rather not remember

Yesterday, the eleventh day of the eleventh month, was Armistice Day, otherwise known as Remembrance Day. I don't remember how many funerals I've done for former servicemen or women, but I do remember that they were all different. Some who served in WW2 didn't appear to have been badly traumatised by what they'd experienced, though they remembered fallen comrades with sadness, but often, when I heard a family talk about a father, uncle or grandfather who'd served during the war, they'd say that he wouldn't talk about it. To convey to younger members of the family why he might have kept things to himself, I've used statistics taken from historical records or poetry written by combatants; 'The Voice of War', published by Penguin, is a good source. Many people know poetry from WW1 by Rupert Brooke, Wilfred Owen and Seigfreid Sassoon, but are less familiar with WW2 poetry; Spike Milligan served in North Africa and Italy, and one of his poems is in the book; a very different sort of poem from his silly ones.

One man who'd served in WW2 wouldn't talk about the war at all to his family, but they knew enough to say that he'd been severely traumatised by what he'd witnessed and suffered mental illness for the rest of his life. Nothing that his wife or anyone else could do or say would help. He was scared of his own shadow and deeply depressed. There was very little help available to men of his generation.

There still isn't enough. A charity that specialises in the care of ex-service men and women’s mental health says that, since 2005, the number seeking help has risen by 72%. I imagine that there are likely to be at least as many again who need help, but haven’t had any, or nearly enough.

'John', who never got the right sort of help when he needed it, was a radio operator in Northern Ireland. His brother told his story at the funeral:
He was what the unit called “The Bleep” – the radio whiz kid in the communications Land Rover – when bombs were being defused. He told me it was a different type of soldiering. His job was to save life and protect property, not destroy it. His job was to maintain an electronic bubble around the operator actually defusing the bomb, so that the IRA couldn’t detonate it. The technology that the unit developed is still used today to maintain a security zone around the Prime Minister when he’s out in public.

One Christmas, when home on leave, we sat watching the news. An IRA bomber had blown himself up while planting a device. I remember the look of shock on Mother’s face when John raised both his hands and shouted, “Yes! Own goal!” How could her cuddly little boy take such a delight in the demise of another human being?

What she didn’t know was that some months before, while on active service in what the Army called “bandit country” in Crossmaglen, things had gone badly wrong and John got spattered when a colleague was caught in an explosion. It was the horror of this, I believe, that led to a serious drinking habit. 
Some time later, John (not his real name) was on duty in Brighton the night the IRA bombed the hotel where Mrs Thatcher and her Cabinet were staying. He blamed himself for failing to find the device, but it turned out that it couldn't have been detected by the equipment they had at the time.

It was years later that John died, after his marriage had broken down and his health had been destroyed by alcohol. Those who cared about him did their best, but all he wanted to do was drink his demons away. At his funeral, I said,
After years of conflict in Northern Ireland, Iraq and Afghanistan, it’s not surprising that some psychological injuries may be even more difficult to cope with than physical injuries, and more stubborn. A soldier has to maintain a level of detachment, however frightened he or she might be. Coming home to find that the battles have come home with them, many have tried to deal with their problems on their own, without the comradeship they knew back in the barracks. It’s not surprising that so many should find, as John did, that they weren’t equipped to do so. Some might blame themselves, but post-traumatic stress isn’t due to failure or lack of courage; it’s a natural human reaction to being placed in situations that most of us never have to contemplate, and wishing that they’d stop. Wilfred Owen, who fought in the 1914-18 War, wrote a poem called “Insensibility”, in which he suggests that those who could fight without feeling were best equipped to survive. He wrote, “Happy are these who lose imagination: They have enough to carry with ammunition.”

Friday, October 28, 2011

A Spanish story

You learn a lot as a funeral celebrant - or you should. You hear so many stories. I've conducted funerals for people of all ages, from stillborn babies to a centenarian, and from all backgrounds. Today I did a funeral for a man who'd been born on the North West coast of Spain in the 1930s. His wife and daughters told me what they remembered and what they'd been told about his childhood. I did a little research, and this is how I began . . .
Joel was born in La Coruña in Galicia, on the coast of North West Spain, seventy-seven years ago; not a good time to be Spanish. He was only a toddler when the Spanish Civil War broke out. It’s been estimated that half a million Spaniards died during the war, which left Spain impoverished and unable to support Hitler during the Second World War, in return for Hitler’s support of Franco. When Franco came to power in 1939, thousands of the country’s professional people, who’d supported the Republic, had fled into exile, leaving a severe shortage of doctors and nurses, among others. This, and the fact that an effective antibiotic treatment for TB, streptomycin, was only administered for the first time in 1944, meant that when Joel’s parents contracted the disease, the odds were against their survival. They died when he was only eleven or twelve.
Until today, I've never given much thought to the Spanish Civil War. I knew about the International Brigade who'd gone to help the Republicans fight the Nationalists, and I knew that Laurie Lee, author of one of my favourite books, Cider with Rosie, went out to join them and was almost killed for his idealism. I wonder how much Joel's grandchildren (I've changed his name, by the way) knew about his early life? Will they be sufficiently curious to find out more? Their lives, in comfortable homes in a quiet English country town, are very different to his. I wonder how many stories are lost because no one is sufficiently interested to record them?

Photo: A book-burning in La Coruña in 1936 (Quema de libros en A Coruña 1936. Los que gritaban! Muera la inteligencia!)

Thursday, October 06, 2011

"Death is very likely the single best invention of Life"

Until a few weeks ago, I had no idea who Steve Jobs was. I've never owned any of his products. I heard stuff about him on TV programmes like the BBC's Click, and read about him on Twitter and Facebook. Then last night people started tweeting about "Steve" dying, and I asked "Steve who?" What was all the fuss about?

I'm only just realising what a clever, charismatic man he was. I like the sound of him, especially the fact that he did things his way, not the conventional way. This morning, I read a speech he made in 2005, and liked the sound of him even more. He mentions The Whole Earth Catalogue. I have a battered copy. Somewhere in there an anonymous person is quoted saying something like, "The trouble with being ahead of your time is that when people catch up with you, they'll say it was obvious all along." My path's ended up in a bit of a cul-de-sac, for reasons beyond my control, by my son has followed an unconventional path too, and I think it's the right one.

This is from Steve's speech:
No one wants to die. Even people who want to go to heaven don't want to die to get there. And yet death is the destination we all share. No one has ever escaped it. And that is as it should be, because Death is very likely the single best invention of Life. It is Life's change agent. It clears out the old to make way for the new. Right now the new is you, but someday not too long from now, you will gradually become the old and be cleared away. Sorry to be so dramatic, but it is quite true.

Your time is limited, so don't waste it living someone else's life. Don't be trapped by dogma — which is living with the results of other people's thinking. Don't let the noise of others' opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.
All true.

After reading Christina Patterson's column today (17 December), I've noted that Jobs had feet of clay, like many clever and successful people. His words may have been inspiring but his actions were sometimes less so.

Make a will with Will Aid

If you haven't made a will, November's a good time to do it. Local solicitors are writing wills for charity. Click here to find out what to do.

Wednesday, October 05, 2011

Portrait of a dead child

I came across this in the Radio Times, in an article about ceramics for the Handmade in Britain series that starts next week (9pm on 10 October, BBC Four). It's a portrait of Lydia Dwight by her father John, made in 1674 in his Fulham pottery. It's in the V & A. I must look for it the next time I'm there. It's beautiful and sad.

Tuesday, October 04, 2011

Religion lite funerals, or pick 'n' mixes

The subject's been aired here before, and it's been aired again on Gloriamundi's blog; is it OK for humanist celebrants to conduct funerals that include a bit of religion?

When I wrote previously that I won't include any religion in my funerals, though I take pains to avoid clients who expect me to, one of the comments I attracted was,
"With respect, I have to say I disagree with the rigidity of the approach. Human being are not totally rational or consistent. Hymns, music, poetry - isn't there an element of artistic license here? We might enjoy a particular hymn without for a minute believing literally what the words say. Also, isn't a funeral officiant by definition dealing with people who have been bereaved? Surely there's a case for some compassion, so that if a client says: We want a humanist funeral in general, yes, but this particular hymn would help some members of the family come to terms with their grief - this could be accommodated. I'm sorry if this puts me beyond the pale as far as the BHA is concerned (I am a member). I would want some George Herbert at my own funeral (in the unlikely event of there being anyone around with an interest in arranging a funeral for me) although I am a committed atheist and humanist."
"I've come to think that the beliefs of the celebrant should be of no great importance in deciding the best kind of funeral for a family.

"We have what seems to me a historically unique opportunity to develop and deliver new kinds of funeral ceremonies for people of any or no faith, who don’t want a “church/mosque/temple” funeral but who still may have elements of religious belief, spiritual need, superstitions if you like. Many or most of the families I’ve worked with are not humanists, atheists or agnostics in any collected sort of way. Shades of belief, requests for hymns and the occasional prayer seem to me all part of the job. I feel we should be expert ritualists, not belief-advancers. And of course I’m more than happy to take a ceremony which is entirely atheistical."
Isn't it interesting that when this subject is raised, by "religion", most people mean Christianity? The British are remarkably casual about Christianity. Last September, Julian Glover wrote in the Guardian that the typical Briton is a "fuzzy believer", which has always been my impression. Their fuzzy belief is fuzzy Christianity, since we live in a culturally Christian country. People pick and choose the bits of Christianity they like and ignore the rest. So they go for the Christmas and Easter myths (both hijacked from earlier Pagan ones), they like to think that being Christian means you're essentially a good person, and even if they say they're not very religious, they still imagine that there's some sort of life after death (an idea that I find deeply unattractive) where they'll be reunited with their loved ones. Most nominal Christians would have a hard time explaining what the church teaches about virgin birth, resurrection, original sin, and so on. They never go to church, except for the occasional wedding or funeral, and most never say their prayers.

You don't hear about requests for a bit of Sikhism, Islam, Zoroastrianism or Jainism to be included in a "humanist" funeral. That's because the followers of these faiths mostly take their religion seriously and expect the people who lead their rite of passage rituals to do so as well. Nor should you expect a Jain to conduct a funeral with a bit of Islam thrown in, or a Sikh to stand in for a Zoroastrian. I'm not willing to utter religious words or phrases, or to sing Christian hymns, because I think that you should only do so if you actually believe in these things.

This isn't just about being a humanist, which isn't a belief system equivalent to a religion.  It's about integrity. If I say things I don't believe, it's an insult to the people who do. I have no problem with a religious minister, or anyone else, conducting a non-religious funeral. All he or she would be doing is what I do - leaving religion out of it. I don't think that I, or any other celebrant, has any claim on the non-religious market (for want of a better word), though the BHA seems to think it has. A few years ago I was approached by an Anglican hospice chaplain who wanted to know if he should train as a humanist celebrant because sometimes atheist patients' families asked him to officiate at their funerals. I told him no, because he wasn't a humanist  and because he was already an experienced officiant. I didn't regard him as a threat and understood why some families would want someone they regarded as a friend to help them.

When I first started conducting funerals, over twenty years ago, I was the only non-religious celebrant in Suffolk and N E Essex. Now there's a much wider choice; not just other humanists (some genuine, some not), but Civil celebrants, who are willing to sing hymns, etc., and others whose personal beliefs we never know, who are willing to do what one funeral director I know calls "hybrid" funerals. An increasing number of people are choosing vaguely Christian funerals without any liturgy, with hymns and references to an afterlife. That's fine. Just don't expect me to do them. If you call yourself a humanist and you're willing to compromise your lack of faith to meet demand for this sort of work (I know of one who's told funeral directors that he'll do "anything the client wants"), I'm sorry, but that's not humanism.

Humanism isn't a belief system, like religion. It's a way of thinking based on our uniquely human experience, without superstition or supernaturalism. It's for independent thinkers, or freethinkers, who look for comfort to other human beings, not silly stories that don't bear close examination. As human beings, we are all capable of love, of empathy, of understanding (though that often takes effort). I pride myself on being able to demonstrate that you don't need religion for a funeral that will leave mourners feeling that they've done right by their loved ones, and that they'll leave feeling better, not worse, for the experience.

Photo: Crematorium between funerals, after the crucifix had been removed for a humanist ceremony.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

The dead outnumber the living, and they take up a lot of space

Despite rumours to the contrary, the dead outnumber the living. Until the Cremation Act of 1902, most people in the UK were buried. Since then, the number of cremations has crept up. In 1968, the number of cremations exceeded burials for the first time. Now, 70% of funerals are held at crematoriums.

Cremation was first introduced, against considerable opposition, as a hygienic method of disposal and a solution to the problem of over-crowded municipal cemeteries in conurbations. Some people keep ashes on their mantelpiece, but most either bury or scatter them. Scattering has led to problems, so that the government had to bring in new anti-pollution rules. Meanwhile, space for burials is still running out. However you look at it, and many would prefer not to, the problem can only get bigger. Trouble is that whenever the prospect of reusing graves is mentioned, bereaved relatives get very het up about it. Lucy Townsend has written a piece for the BBC News Magazine about the subject:
This situation is not universal. In some countries a more pragmatic approach to human remains means they have largely avoided the overcrowding issue.

In Germany, graves are reused after only 30 years, the existing remains usually being exhumed and cremated. In Australia and New Zealand, "dig and deepen" is carried out in urban areas as a matter of routine.

Tim Morris, chief executive of the Institute of Cemetery and Crematorium Management, says it is time to change tack.

"It's a no-brainer," he says. "Re-use is common in lots of other countries, and was common practice in the UK until the 1850s."
Resistance to change is usual - people will refer to "traditions" that are only decades old - but when it comes to death, resistance can be expressed very emotionally and politicians will hesitate to confront it. However unpopular it is, they're going to have to.

You can't take it with you - or can you?

It's been a tradition in many cultures for gifts to be given to the dead, to be buried with them. Egyptian tombs were filled with everything a god king could want, to ensure a comfortable afterlife. The Anglo-Saxon king buried at Sutton Hoo in Suffolk had some lovely treasure buried with him. Nowadays, it's less likely that items of great value will be buried or cremated with people's remains, but I have heard of funeral directors searching coffins after someone had been to view a corpse, when they suspected that something might have been secreted under the covers. A bottle of scotch, for example, isn't something you want to end up in a cremator. In some cultures, it's expected that someone's creditors will settle their debts in coin, to be placed in the coffin. I was told that one family didn't appreciate it when a creditor tried to put a cheque in the coffin.

Due to a misunderstanding, I was once asked to officiate at a Chinese funeral. They really didn't need me at all, I realised. Communication was very difficult, as most of them spoke no English. After a brief ceremony in the crematorium chapel, the main ceremony was at the graveside, where a generous amount of paper money was burnt. I don't remember much about it, but do remember that the money wasn't real. You can buy all sorts of paper imitations of money and other goods for Chinese funerals. It seems that the New York police aren't very culturally aware, since one of them arrested a Chinese shopkeeper for selling an obviously fake $20 cardboard handbag that wouldn't fool anyone who was looking for a genuine Burberry bag. Poor Mr Wing Sun Mak was charged with two counts of copyright infringement in the third degree. Stupid policemen.
The store, Fook On Sing Funeral Supplies, on Mulberry Street along what is known in Chinatown as Funeral Row, sells traditional objects of mourning, mostly copies of luxury objects. The items are made of cardboard, paper and plastic, to be used at funerals as symbolic gifts for the deceased. The cardboard models are burned as part of traditional Chinese funeral practices.

The store sells a cardboard mansion for $400 and a cardboard flat-screen television for $40. There are stacks of money ($10,000 bills) for sale, as well as miniature sports cars, cellphones, double-breasted suits and even smiling dolls to act as servants in the hereafter.

“When people die, they feel they are going to need things in the next world,” explained one of the store’s owners, Amy Mak-Chan, who is the arrested man’s aunt. “They might want a car and a house and other nice things. People buy these things here, to give them as gifts at the funeral.”
In Northern Thailand, Chinese funeral offerings don't seem to include Gucci handbags.
The paper offerings represent objects, animals or people that the deceased liked, and burning them ensures they will reach the deceased in the after-world.­

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

The new crematorium

The new crematorium - exteriorThe new crematorium - interiorHorse-drawn hearseThe new crematorThe crematorA woollen coffin
The new crematorium, a set on Flickr.

The new crematorium just outside Ipswich has been open for nearly a year and is increasingly popular. Some might say that "popular" isn't a good word for a crematorium, but since you've got to have funerals, they may as well be in a pleasant venue.

One feature is the extra-large cremator, which means that very big bodies no longer have to be driven miles from here for disposal.

They had an open day recently, to "dispel myths", where they sold cream teas to raise money for the children's hospice.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Funeral Song

From Richard Laviolette & The Oil Spills, via The Daily Undertaker, who says "Richard Laviolette is obviously one of many who feel that traditional funeral services are no longer relevant to their lives and values."

Thursday, March 17, 2011

I'm raising money for Shelterbox

Can you help? Shelterbox sends essential life-saving equipment to disaster areas, like Haiti, Pakistan and Japan. I'm aiming to raise four boxes at £590 each, that's £2360, with a sponsored slim. Click on the badge to find out how to donate. Thank you.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

How to die

There are some cuttings tucked into my battered copy of The Oxford Book of Death (recommended, by the way). This fell out when I was looking for something today. I especially liked the bit about leaving something that doesn't exist to a greedy relative, so s/he spends the rest of his/her life looking for it. Yes, that's a bit mean, I know. Click on the image to make it bigger.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Co-op Funeralcare report on major changes in funeral customs

The Co-op's new report makes interesting reading. It says that, among other things, "over half of today's funerals are a celebration of a life." I don't think it would be unreasonable to say that this trend was begun by Humanist celebrants, myself included, who were the only people providing alternatives to traditional Christian funerals before other people cottoned on to the demand, about twenty years ago.

Tuesday, January 04, 2011

Ghost urns

No reason why you can't raise a smile after you're dead. These prototype ghost urns by Anna Marinenko might do just that. I'd have one. Would you?

Click here for more information.

They reminded me of a poem by Lorna Wood:
To a descendant

I shall not be an importunate, nagging ghost,
Sighing for unsaid prayers: or a family spectre
Advertising that someone is due to join me…
Nor one who has to be exorcised by the Rector.

I shall not be the commercial type of ghost,
Pointing to boxes of gold under the floor
And I certainly don’t intend to jangle chains
Or carry my head… (such a gruesome type of chore!)

I shall not cause draughts, be noisy, spoil your ‘let’, ―
In fact, to be brief, I shan’t materialise.
But I shall be pleased if anyone ever sees me
In your face or your walk or the glance of your laughing eyes.

Sunday, January 02, 2011

Death at Christmas

I'm told that the suicide rate goes up over Christmas, as people who are already depressed imagine that everyone else is having a wonderful time. Then there are car accidents and drink-related deaths. There will have been more of the former this holiday, because of the bad weather. But most deaths over the holiday period will probably have been older people who died in their beds, either at home or in hospital. As Shakespeare wrote, in Hamlet,
If it be now, ‘tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be now; if it be not now, yet it will come: the readiness is all.
But how many are ready? Especially at Christmas? Sometimes, people seem to feel cheated because a close relative or friend has died at, or just before, Christmas, so that he or she wasn't able to share the festivities. It's not supposed to happen, they seem to think.

My mum died on Christmas Eve, twenty years ago, a few minutes after she'd demonstrated how to do the can-can to some children at my sister's party. She was very proud of the fact that she could still kick her own height in her seventies, something that I couldn't do in my forties. I apologise if you've heard this story before, but it's a good story. It was a cerebral haemorrhage, they said, all over in minutes. I remember the egg-shaped bruise on her forehead, from where she fell, and thinking that I was glad she couldn't feel it, or it would be sore. We sat on either side of her, in A & E, my son and I, waiting for the police to turn up, as they do when there's a sudden death, and it seemed very quiet. It probably got rowdier later, when the pubs shut. One of the policemen was a special constable who fought back tears when he heard our story because, he said, his mum had died in similar circumstances just a few years earlier. I felt like comforting him.

We came home via Mum's house, to collect her dog, and went to bed. Christmas was a bit of a quiet anti-climax after that, spent with some friends. I thought about it last week after I'd spent three hours with a newly bereaved woman in her eighties, whose husband had died suddenly. She didn't know what to do with herself, and insisted on making me a cheese sandwich, in case I was hungry. Later, on the phone, she apologised for not cooking me a meal. She had to be doing something. It was too quiet. There have been several like her that I've befriended and then did their funerals, within a year. Those sort of friendships don't last long.

Hope I haven't put a dampener on your New Year. The moral of these stories is that death can come at any time, whether it's Christmas or not, so make the most of life.
Sapias, vina liques, et spatio brevi spem longam reseces. Dum loquimur, fugerit invida aetas: carpe diem, quam minimum credula postero.

Be wise, strain the wine; and since life is brief, prune back far-reaching hopes! Even while we speak, envious time has passed: pluck the day, putting as little trust as possible in tomorrow!