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, December 21, 2012

Sexy coffins

The calendar I was given by one of our local funeral firms is lovely, with beautiful animal photos, but not as novel as this.

Polish coffin firm Lindner has a calendar for 2013 that's upset the Catholic church, among others. It'll probably upset some feminists too. Click here to see more.

Friday, December 07, 2012

Imagine there's no heaven

A significant proportion of the contributors to my funerals made some reference to an afterlife, though they didn't claim to be religious, so a report from the National Secular Society (More people may believe in an afterlife than believe in God) doesn't surprise me:
Almost half – 49 per cent – of those surveyed earlier this year by the Institute of Education, University of London believe that there is 'definitely' or 'probably' life after death. Only 31 per cent have said that they believe in God, either without doubts (13 per cent) or with some doubts (18 per cent).
I think it's mostly due to wishful thinking and a reluctance to accept that death really is the end of us or that there's no chance of being reunited with those we've lost. For most people, belief in an afterlife is reassuring. You might say that it's natural to deny death. We are mostly emotional beings, rather than coolly intellectual ones, when it comes to facing it. The prospect of an afterlife doesn't appeal to me, but nor does it bother me that so many people expect one; after all, there's no way of proving them wrong. Why should I care, as long as they don't try to foist their opinions on me, or as long as someone I care about isn't unhealthily preoccupied with the hereafter? There's nothing new in this. People have believed in various forms of afterlife throughout history. Some were based on a sort of template offered by a religion - a Christian afterlife will be different from a Muslim one, for example - while others were based on folk traditions within a tribe, which were religious in a different sense. Ancestor worship, for example, is based on the notion that our ancestors are aware of what's happening in the present, and that they have some influence over our lives.

In 21st century Britain, however, a belief in an afterlife seems to be generally vaguer and more personal; everyone has his or her own version of what to expect, with little detail. Many nominally religious people I've met have similarly vague beliefs. They're not interested in orthodoxy; they'll talk about some sort of "higher power" that's essentially good, and the importance of caring and compassion. No harm in that, is there? The new agey, 21st century sort of afterlife is a nice place. Hardly anyone imagines that he or she will go to hell. Before you go to hell you must be judged, and few expect that to happen.

Wikipedia on an afterlife

Photo: 'Guide to the Afterlife for the Custodian of the Property of the Amon Temple Amonemwidja with Symbolic Illustrations Concerning the Dangers in the Netherworld' - an ancient Egyptian papyrus depicting the journey into the afterlife, from Wikimedia. Click on the image to enlarge it.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Stories from the day hospice

The Wellcome Collection currently has a post on its website about a creative writing group at the Princess Alice Hospice, Esher, where the patients don't seem to have lost their sense of humour.
An ambulance siren went off in the distance. Margaret said, “Oh, I don’t like that sound, go away.” She tells us how she was waiting outside the hospital for her taxi the other day. Being a self-confessed chatterbox, she got talking to the man next to her. Just then, a hearse pulled up in front of them. “Is that mine or yours?” she asked.
This reminded me of one of my funeral director friends and his dry sense of humour. For the past few years I've struggled to manage graveside ceremonies due to poor mobility. The funeral directors knew this, and did what they could to help. When a grave was a long way from the  car park, a funeral director offered me a lift in the hearse. Afterwards, he asked if I'd like a lift back to my car. I said yes please. "Horizontally or vertically?" he enquired.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Customer feedback

On a grey day, after several cold callers got fleas in their ears, the phone rang again. I was all set to slam the phone down when the caller asked if I was the person who'd conducted several funerals for her family. The names she mentioned were familiar but as I've done so many since 1991, I can't remember the details. A close relative was in a hospice, she said, and the family wanted to know if I'd be available when the time came. I wish I could, I said, but my bad back won't let me; a colleague will help instead. It seems that the funerals I did for her family are still talked about, they all thought they were lovely, and that they helped them through some sad times. It's strange to be cheered up by funeral talk, but I was. Nice to know you're appreciated.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Hazlitt and Watts on death

William Hazlitt, born in 1778, wrote On the Fear of Death,
Perhaps the best cure for the fear of death is to reflect that life has a beginning as well as an end. There was a time when we were not: this gives us no concern—why then should it trouble us that a time will come when we shall cease to be? . . . To die is only to be as we were before we were born; yet no one feels any remorse, or regret, or repugnance, in contemplating this last idea. It is rather a relief and disburthening of the mind: it seems to have been holiday-time with us then: we were not called upon to appear upon the stage of life, to wear robes or tatters, to laugh or cry, be hooted or applauded; we had lain perdus all this while, snug, out of harm’s way; and had slept out our thousands of centuries without wanting to be waked up; at peace and free from care, in a long nonage, in a sleep deeper and calmer than that of infancy, wrapped in the finest and softest dust. And the worst that we dread is, after a short, fretful, feverish being, after vain hopes, and idle fears, to sink to final repose again, and forget the troubled dream of life!
I thought of this quote when I came across a video, an animation produced by Luke Jurevicius and directed by Ari Gibson and Jason Pamment, based on a lecture by philosopher and writer Alan Watts (1915-1973), author of the cult-classic The Way of Zen.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Thanks for your interest, if you had any

As I've retired as a celebrant and am planning to spend my time doing other things (like painting, drawing, taking photos and keeping the weeds at bay), I'm unlikely to be blogging here very often, if at all. If you haven't visited before, there's stuff to read anyway. If you have, thanks for showing an interest.

Here's one of my favourite poems about death:
Dennis O'Driscoll

someone is dressing up for death today, a change of skirt or tie
eating a final feast of buttered sliced pan, tea
scarcely having noticed the erection that was his last
shaving his face to marble for the icy laying out
spraying with deodorant her coarse armpit grass
someone today is leaving home on business
saluting, terminally, the neighbours who will join in the cortege
someone is trimming his nails for the last time, a precious moment
someone’s thighs will not be streaked with elastic in the future
someone is putting out milkbottles for a day that will not come
someone’s fresh breath is about to be taken clean away
someone is writing a cheque that will be marked ‘drawer deceased’
someone is circling posthumous dates on a calendar
someone is listening to an irrelevant weather forecast
someone is making rash promises to friends
someone’s coffin is being sanded, laminated, shined
who feels this morning quite as well as ever
someone if asked would find nothing remarkable in today’s date
perfume and goodbyes her final will and testament
someone today is seeing the world for the last time
as innocently as he had seen it first

From The Long Pale Corridor, Contemporary Poems of Bereavement, edited by Judi Benson & Agneta Falk, published by Bloodaxe Books (now out of print, but try www.abebooks.co.uk).

It could be you, so carpe diem!

Dennis O'Driscoll died suddenly on Christmas Eve, 2012, aged 58.

Saturday, July 07, 2012

Poor Miss Baker

Miss Baker was a squirrel monkey who was sent into space in 1959 as part of the US space programme when she was two years old. She was the first animal to be sent into space that returned alive, though the poor little thing must have been terrified.

Miss Baker died in 1984 and is buried in Huntsville, Alabama, where this headstone marks her grave. Note the bananas left on top.

Click on the images to see them enlarged.
Photo of Miss Baker from Wikipedia Commons.
Photo of her grave from 'Cemetery Conservation Issues'.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

There's cremation, and there's bio-cremation

I haven't been to the crematorium in town recently but not many people have, apparently. They've been busy installing some new cremators and redesigning the place, to meet current regulations about emissions, among other things. I heard that when they re-open there'll only be one chapel, instead of two. The additional equipment needed more room. Meanwhile, the new crematorium outside town is being kept busy. They've already got a big new cremator.

I'm wondering how long it will be before these new cremators are out of date. The Scandinavians have introduced freeze-drying, so that bodies can be reduced to granules like instant coffee, then safely buried in shallow graves or even dug into your garden. And I've just found an American website promoting "biocremation" that involves what sounds like pressure-cooking bodies in water with an alkali, so that all the liquid can be drained away and all you're left with is bones. Calling it "bio" anything makes it sounds like an environmentally-friendly process, but what about energy used to heat the water, and where does the liquid end up? In comparison, green burials are low-tech, or no tech. All you do is dig a hole and plant a tree.

There will probably be even more innovative ways to dispose of bodies. There's no shortage of them, but there is a shortage of space for burial in many places and there's money to be made.

Postscript (14/1/12): A celebrant friend tells me that there's a biocremation company in Scotland. He wrote, "The second system you refer to (alkali water) is a Scottish system and very good and, in my view, much better than the Swedish promession. This is the web site  - www.resomation.com - and they have been working for years to get the UK government to agree to its use. I think it's a winner."