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, May 28, 2015

If you don't think about it, maybe it'll never happen?

So death, the most terrifying of ills, is nothing to us, since so long as we exist, death is not with us; but when death comes, then we do not exist. It does not then concern either the living or the dead, since for the former it is not, and the latter are no more.              ― Epicurus

The Guardian reports on a poll by the Dying Matters Collective,
In a life of inevitabilities it is the most obviously inescapable fate of all, yet remarkably few Britons have discussed their death and its aftermath, according to a survey, with little more than a third having made a will.

While more than 30% of people think about their death at least once a week, nearly three-quarters believe their fellow Britons are uncomfortable discussing dying and bereavement...
You can contribute your thoughts on the matter, if you've had any, by answering some questions via Guardian Witness. Yes, I have made a will, and yes, I have made plans for my death, though not for my funeral, as that'll be up to those who survive me. I've always thought it odd to plan your own funeral. After all, I won't be there.

I've blogged about making a will. Everyone should, especially if you have a family.

Update, 30/5/2015

Just learned a new expression - TMT, or Terror Management Theory.
In social psychology, terror management theory (TMT) proposes a basic psychological conflict that results from having a desire to live but realizing that death is inevitable. This conflict produces terror, and is believed to be unique to human beings.
It's mentioned in an article by Oliver Burkeman in The Guardian and it reminded me of a quote from The Oxford Book of Death:
The human race is the only one that knows it must die, and it knows this only through its experience. A child brought up alone and transported to a desert island would have no more idea of death than a cat or a plant.                                      ― Voltaire

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Beware rubbish celebrants

I did a crematorium funeral today and got into conversation with one of the staff, someone I've known for years. Heard some horror stories about incompetent celebrants, some trained by organisations, some not trained at all. Any old Tom, Dick or Harriet can set him or herself up as a celebrant; there are no rules. Typical case is someone who's recently retired and thinks it'll be a good way to earn some extra money. One women, who hasn't had any training and doesn't seem to know what she's doing, is "a nightmare," said my friend. She hasn't a clue about time limits or sorting out the music. She'll tell them she's going to do one thing, then do something completely different during the ceremony. Why any funeral director would book her is a mystery. Another, who had been trained but clearly hadn't been advised about presentation, has turned up at funerals looking like she's been dragged through a hedge backwards, stinking like an ash tray. I've also heard recently about a celebrant in the next county who failed to turn up for funerals not once, but twice.

I was told, as I suspected, that the training organisations aren't too bothered about how many people they train to work in an area, and ours is over-supplied with Civil Celebrants. They're probably unwilling to turn people away and lose the income from their fees, currently £2,220, including VAT, with Civil Ceremonies, or £1,920 with the BHA. When someone's forked out about £2,000 there's possibly a reluctance to fail them - does anyone get a refund if they don't pass? - and some might feel that, having paid all that money, they're entitled to a reasonable amount of work to recoup their expenses. According to one or two people who've paid a lot of money for training, the quality's been disappointing. One applied to train with our team, having felt ill-prepared by what she'd been given elsewhere.

When I started work as a celebrant, there were no fees (and hardly any celebrants). We've never charged anyone for training within our group, though we're very fussy about accepting trainees. Over the years, an increasing proportion of our work has been repeat business (families we've worked for before), people who've attended one of our ceremonies, or word of mouth recommendations. Years ago, I met someone at a meeting in London, a highly-regarded man who'd been involved with the British Humanist Association since its inception, and told him about how we did things in Suffolk. No fees, but we expect potential trainees to get to know us, and vice versa, and to have all the necessary skills and qualities. It's like an apprenticeship, there's no time limit, and they learn by shadowing experienced celebrants and taking advice from all of us. After they go solo, they can rely on the rest of us for support. "That's the humanist way," said the venerable gentleman, and he was right.

Hearing my crematorium friend's stories made me realise why the staff always seem pleased to see me; at least they know what to expect. I thanked my driver for coming to collect me and he said, "Any time." Being car-free isn't necessarily a disadvantage if you're any good, it seems.

Sadly, no one of any real promise has come forward for training with us for some time. Two of us are over seventy, with health problems, and the other has family and work commitments that prevent her from doing many ceremonies, so how much longer we'll be able to carry on, I can't say. There'll be no shortage of celebrants to take funerals in Suffolk when we stop. Some are very good, some are OK, and some are horrid. You only have one opportunity to get a funeral right, so choose carefully. If you were buying a car, you'd shop around, wouldn't you? A funeral is much more important.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

CSIs and their bags

I've been fascinated by TV shows about forensic scientists for ages, though the original CSI series on CBS hasn't been nearly so good since the departure of Gil Grissom, played by William Petersen. He specialised in forensic entomology, the use of insect evidence. Insect larvae, for example, may be found on bodies that have been exposed to the open air, and the time of death inferred from their stage of development and the environment they were found in, including the effect of the weather. Some of the offshoot series, including CSI Miami and New York, have verged on the ridiculous. In Miami, a lead character called Horatio seems to spend all his time striking poses with sunglasses on, to lend gravitas, while the New York's laboratory has more CGI than CSI - highly unrealistic. One of the things than all these shows have in common is the murder bag, a CSI's portable laboratory, full of swabs, evidence bags, test tubes, Luminol sprays (to detect blood), and sundry other pieces of equipment.

Most crime shows now seems to feature the hunt for DNA evidence, but it's only fairly recently that this has become common practice. It was a British scientist, Alec Jeffreys, who developed the technique of DNA profiling. It was first used in 1986 to solve two rapes and murders in Leicestershire. I thought it was interesting that a Google search for DNA profiling led to an American site about the technique that refers to America cases, but makes no mention of the British invention. Most people probably imagine that it was an American invention. The story of the Leicestershire cases was recently dramatised by ITV, called 'Code of a Killer'.

As a fan of forensics, I'd be very interested to see an exhibition at the Wellcome Collection - Forensics; The Anatomy of Crime. One of the exhibits is a murder bag from the 1970s. Since then, murder bags have been commercially produced and contain an increasingly sophisticated collection of tools. It's not as easy to get away with murder as it used to be.