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.

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.

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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.