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 12, 2013

To rot, or not?

The worms crawl in
And the worms crawl out
They crawl in thin
And they crawl out stout

Your eyes fall in
And your teeth fall out
Your brains come trickling
Down your snout ...
The Worm Song has been attributed to British soldiers serving in the Crimea in the 19th century. I learned it as a Girl Guide; it was one of the scary songs we sang around the campfire in the dark. Essentially, it's about what happens to buried bodies; a gradual process of decomposition. Horrible as it may sound, if this didn't happen, we'd have a problem; bodies piling up, refusing to rot. This is what's happening in Norway, according to Ashley Feinberg:
Norway's got a major corpse problem that isn't going away anytime soon. Literally—they won't rot. What's the culprit behind this profusion of bodies that refuse to take their place in the circle of life? The same thing that's also working to keep your sandwich fresh: plastic wrap.
The Norwegians answer to the problem is to poke a long tube into the grave, puncturing the plastic, and injecting lime into the space, to hasten decomposition. If you imagine that rotting bodies are horrible, how horrible are corpses that won't rot?

I sometimes wonder about American corpses. The Americans embalm a lot more bodies than we do and like to display them looking as fresh as the day they died in open coffins. Many of their coffins are great heavy things, made from metal, so they seal a corpse in and prevent it from decaying naturally. Instead, the action of anaerobic bacteria will cause the corpse to putrefy, turning it into a disgusting semi-liquid soup. If you've ever watched an episode of CSI where they tip a corpse out of a sealed plastic or metal container, you'll know that the smell it produces is indescribable - far worse than the smell of a naturally decomposed corpse. The dear departed's relatives might go to the grave to pay their respects, imagining him or her as he or she was when last seen. What's happening in the grave or crypt is nothing like that; it's the real stuff of horror stories.

Face it; death means decomposition. Trying to prevent it may only make matters worse, and as we're running out of burial space, the sooner we rot, the better - but not until after we're dead, of course.

Photo © M Nelson - a newly dug grave immediately after a burial, Greenwood Burial Ground, Farnham, Suffolk.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Making room for the dead

The news that most British cemeteries are either full, or nearly full, shouldn't be a surprise. The population continues to grow, and so does the demand for burial space. Cemeteries can be fascinating places, with historically interesting headstones and thriving wildlife, but it makes no sense to expect to stake your claim to a burial plot and expect it to remain yours in perpetuity. Many graves are neglected, forgotten or ignored by the descendents of those who occupy them, while the newly dead must be buried wherever there's room.

Maybe it's time to coax the squeamish into considering burying people long enough for full decomposition, before exhuming the bones and storing them in an ossuary? Neatly stacked bones take up far less space than bodies.

Of course there's cremation, which is popular here and in Japan, but even with efficient new cremators, it's not an environmentally-friendly option. Other new methods of disposal include bio-cremation and freeze-drying, but they still use energy, which is also is increasingly short supply.

Dealing with the problem of burial space shortages means dealing with death and with the population problem; two subjects that most people would rather not know about. It's not going to be easy.
Here lies father and mother and sister and I,
We all died within the space of one short year;
They all be buried at Wimble, except I,
And I be buried here.
Headstone in a Staffordshire churchyard.

Photo of headstone fragments by the wall of St. Peter's Church, Elmsett, Suffolk © M Nelson.
Photo of bones in an ossuary in Sedlec near Kutná Hora in the Czech Republic from the Czech Tourism website.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Dressing for dusty death

Silk, hemp and cotton fabrics used by Pia Interlandi
I've heard that, before the law was changed to prevent pollution, the dead could be cremated in all sorts of unsuitable outfits. One example was a farmer who was cremated wearing his wellies; the burning rubber smell must have drifted around the area and probably didn't do the cremator much good. Similarly unsuitable outfits were worn by those being buried; man-made fibres don't biodegrade. Now there are rules about the materials that can be used to line a coffin and dress a corpse, but some clothes may still make it tricky. Fiddling about with buttons on a body isn't easy. If you're not expecting to view the body, what does it matter what it's wearing? The funeral director will take their usual shroud off a shelf, and you'll never see it. But if you do want to be seen by your dearly beloved, you might want to look as good as possible, bearing in mind you won't be at your best. I wouldn't want to be embalmed, which is far more popular in the US than here; that's about creating an illusion. So Pia Interlandi's clothes for the dead are a good idea. They're made from fabrics that will rot as the body rots after burial; they've all been tested on pig corpses.
“The body is a gift,” Interlandi says. “It’s a big bag of nutrients and water and protein. When you place it back into the earth, I think the garment is almost like wrapping paper.”
This story reminded me of Mr Bun. I was visiting a funeral director after interviewing Mrs Bun about her husband's funeral. My undertaker friend was keen to show me around the premises. Standing over an open coffin in the morgue, she patted the skinny corpse's knee and said, "This is Mr Bun." His face was veiled by white lace, as though partially gift wrapped. Knowing what I did about Mr Bun, having just heard his life story, it seemed bizarre to cover him in the sort of lace you'd see in a bridal veil. He wouldn't have been seen dead in it.

HT to @megatonlove for the link.

Friday, July 12, 2013

On a good man's death, and a difference of opinion

I've just been talking to a young woman about her grandfather, who died recently. He was a friend and I know his views about religion, which were that it's all nonsense and he couldn't understand what anyone sees in it. He recently wrote,
On the rare occasions that I’ve discussed religion with a person of faith, I’ve asked if God made everything. The answer was always "Yes". I then asked why he made, for example, cancer. End of conversation. It all remains a mystery.
I don't know what it says on his death certificate about the cause of death, but cancer was part of his problem. Seems that he never discussed any of this with his granddaughter, who told me that the family are all Christian and it will seem strange having a humanist funeral. She expressed regret that he died without religion. I find it sad that she feels that way. I said that her grandparents had a very happy marriage, despite their differing views on religion, because they adopted the philosophy of "Live, and let live." She said we'd have to agree to differ. Made me wonder if she expected him to adopt his wife's faith, to make the family happy? They were happy, as far as I can tell. Incidentally, his wife is a non-conformist from an organisation that doesn't proselytise.

My friend was one of the kindest, gentlest people I've known; a man of few words, but when he did say anything, it was often after careful thought and worth listening to. He had a very dry sense of humour and very green fingers; his friends will remember his gifts of runner beans. Why does his granddaughter feel that it's regrettable that he rejected religion? Surely not because she fears for his salvation? If there was a god, and if he, she or it judged my friend wanting, I'd question its judgement.

I look forward to conducting my friend's funeral, and to making it clear that there is no reason to feel that there was anything missing from his life.

Tuesday, April 09, 2013

In case you hadn't noticed, someone important has died

"I have never killed a man, but I have read many obituaries with a lot of pleasure." -- Clarence Darrow (1857 - 1938)
I may be wrong, but I think I read somewhere that Mrs Thatcher liked Anthony Trollope's novels. In Dr Thorne, Trollope wrote, "In these days a man is nobody unless his biography is kept so far posted up that it is ready for the national breakfast-table on the morning after his demise." The obituary writers will have been updating their Thatcher files for some years, in anticipation of her demise, just as they do with other public figures. The difference between those written in Trollope's time and those published and broadcast this week is that it was far easier to avoid them 130 years ago. You just didn't bother to read them in a newspaper, or you never read a paper anyway. Now, it's almost impossible to avoid the interminable eulogising on the TV news, especially the BBC, when anyone of any importance snuffs it. The day someone invents a news channel filter, I'll scrape together my pennies to buy one ASAP.

The current hoo-ha will go on until after the funeral on April 17th, over a week away. Meanwhile, I'll be recording the news bulletins and fast forwarding through anything Thatcher related.

Wednesday, April 03, 2013

Today on Twitter

Just a few of the death related tweets today. Just do a search and you'll find more.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Deadly litter to mark a death

Young people releasing lanterns for Jade -
Photo from the Daily Mail
The death of Jade Anderson, the Manchester girl attacked by dogs, was tragic and horrific. Her teenage friends are, apparently, marking her death with the release of fashionable sky lanterns. They've become increasingly popular for all sorts of occasions, including memorial events and weddings. So have helium balloon releases. It seems like a meaningful, harmless gesture. Whether they're meaningful is debatable, but they're not harmless.

This trend for grand gestures to mark a death or deaths is something I've written about before. One of my friends in the funeral trade said that he thought it all started with the Hillsborough disaster, when people left flowers and scarves outside the gates of the stadium. Florists and soft toy retailers did very good business when Diana died, leaving London's street cleaners with a mammoth clean-up task. Since then, municipal cemeteries have had a constant battle with the proliferation of tat around graves, including plastic flowers, wind chimes and soft toys, with bereaved relatives accusing the staff of insensitivity when it's all cleared away so that the grass can be cut.

There's a difference, of course, between the mass hysteria over Diana, who was "mourned" by people who didn't know her, but thought they did, and the fashionable gestures of family and friends. I saw one ash-scattering reported online, where they'd left the cremated remains in a beauty spot (without permission) and released balloons at the same time - double-littering.

Sky lanterns and helium balloons may seem harmless, compared with unsightly soggy bears and rotten flowers, because they float off into the sky. Trouble is, they don't stay up there. They may end up miles away, in the sea or on agricultural land, where they can maim or kill valuable livestock or wildlife, after considerable suffering. For this reason, the RSPCA, the RSPB, the Marine Conservation Society and the NFU are all campaigning to have sky lanterns and balloon releases banned. In addition to the lethal littering, the helium used in balloons is a colossal waste of a gas that's needed for science; the Independent reported,
The shortage has mainly affected research centres studying the brain using magnetoencephalography (MEG) scanners, which are similar to the MRI machines used in hospitals but need to be topped up regularly with liquid helium (helium super-cooled to minus 269C, just four degrees above the lowest possible temperature, absolute zero).
When I tweeted about this, most reactions were sympathetic, such as, "Too much harm can be done without meaning to," but one follower wasn't. He wrote, "Considering what there're going thorough right now they can send up as many sky lanterns as they like," and, "The damage is utterly insignificant in comparison the death of a child." But does a death justify destructive gestures, of any sort? And are they a healthy development?

In response to my comment about the shortage of helium, another tweeter commented, "But no shortage of opportunity for mawkish celebration of tragedy it seems. What happened to quiet personal grief?" He has a point. Why do so many people feel it necessary to make such grand gestures, often involving some expense, rather than quieter, less ostentatious demonstrations of loss? Do they make them feel better? The Daily Mail, in typically crass mode, wasted no time in trawling through the Manchester area where Jade died, even photographing over the house's back yard fence, to write a report that was grossly insensitive and sensational. It featured some of Jade's friends, oblivious to the way that they were being cast as a maudlin chorus, repeating phrases that we've heard so many times before, from the vox pop phrasebook.

If I lost someone like this, I wouldn't want a media circus or a public carnival of lanterns and balloons. I'd want peace and quiet and calm, to reflect on the enormity of what had happened. If I died like this, I certainly wouldn't want part of my legacy to be the litter left by lanterns and balloons, or dead animals, or the loss of valuable assets by farmers left to clear them away.

Would you?

Read about the Marine Conservation Society's Don't Let Go campaign.

The RSPCA's Chinese lanterns petition.

A report on sky lanterns by the Women's Farming Union (pdf).

And some opinion from NFU members.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

A wound that never heals

As I've said at funerals, we might accept the death of an old person who's lived a long and full life, though we still grieve for him or her, but it's different when we lose a young person. I've said it while remaining necessarily detached from the waves of emotion coming from the mourners, the parents and siblings, the families and friends, of the baby or child who's died. One distraught mother asked me, during my interview, "When will I stop feeling like this?" I couldn't answer that.

On Red Nose Day I saw the faces of the celebrities visiting hospitals in Africa where babies were dying from preventable diseases, like malaria, and from complications due to malnutrition, and from pneumonia, and they were all visibly moved. How could they not be? Could you imagine losing not one, but more than one of your children like that? So much grief, then having to carry those poor little bodies home, wrapped in a cloth, on public transport. Can you imagine having to do that?

Today one of my Twitter contacts posted a link to an article in the Guardian, a terrible story about how the 2004 tsunami hit a family on holiday in Sri Lanka. Sonali Deraniyagala has found the words to describe losing her two young sons. She found the words; many others share the pain. It's not the sort of thing that you can just drop into a conversation with strangers. That's the thing about grief; other people are oblivious to yours, and you are to theirs.
I think I also don't confess because I am still so unbelieving of what happened. I am still aghast. I stun myself each time I retell the truth to myself, let alone to someone else. So I am evasive in order to spare myself. I imagine saying those words – "My family, they are all dead, in an instant they vanished" – and I reel.
Take care of the people you love and never take them for granted; you don't know what might happen, and how much you'd regret it if you hadn't.

A simple Child,
That lightly draws its breath,
And feels its life in every limb,
What should it know of death?

from ‘We Are Seven’ by William Wordsworth
Photograph: a memorial headstone for children in The Old Cemetery, Ipswich 

Friday, March 08, 2013

On preserving the wrong sort of memories

Important people who died in foreign parts used to be taken home for burial stuffed into a barrel of something alcoholic. In 1805, Admiral Nelson's body was brought home in a barrel of brandy. In hot climates, bodies are either buried as soon as possible, before they start to stink (the origin of the contemporary funeral practices for Jews and Muslims), or they might be embalmed, if the body is to be viewed. Embalming is less common in the UK than the US, where open coffins are favoured. These are short term solutions to the problem of putrefaction, when scented handkerchiefs don't do the trick. The long term preservation of a body is another matter.

Channel 4's newsman Jon Snow has written a cautionary post in his blog about the plan to preserve the body of President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, referring to the embalming of Kenya's President Kenyatta and the USSR's Lenin, who's been gradually crumbling over the years:
Lenin has suffered considerably down the years. An ear fell off some time ago and had to be re-attached. Nasty black splodges appear on his skin from time to time and have to be removed with hydrogen peroxide.
Poor Fido! Must have
been much better
looking before he died.
Not how Lenin probably expected to be remembered - a mouldering heap - and an example of how not to preserve the dead. If you're really keen to be kept around in some semblance of your living appearance, you could elect to be stuffed or plasticised. As I don't expect to look very attractive when I kick the bucket, I wouldn't want to inflict the sight of my corpse on anyone for longer than necessary, and in any case, some medical students will have a better use for it.

Stuffed dog from a collection of examples of what happens when taxidermy goes wrong.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

How about a musical coffin?

"Expect nothing less than godlike comfort and heavenly sound" from the CataCoffin with a CataCombo Sound System for only €23,500. No peace after you're dead in one of these.