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.

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.