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.

Monday, November 28, 2016

The death penalty's a strange way to punish people

I've never understood some people's enthusiasm for the death penalty. When you're dead, you're dead, saving the cost of incarceration no doubt, but there the punishment ends. Isn't that revenge, rather than punishment? Life imprisonment for serious crimes lasts long years, rather than minutes. The fear of death may affect the condemned man or woman but, again, it's soon over. If you're of a religious persuasion, I suppose you might imagine the torments of hell or some other afterlife punishment, but an eternity is an eternity, whether it begins now or in fifty years time.


Monday, August 29, 2016

High rise cemetery

This is the Memorial Necrópole Ecumênica in Santos, Brazil, a mausoleum housing thousands of bodies. I suppose that buildings like "the world's tallest cemetery" might appeal to planners in places where burial space is limited or unavailable, but I can't see British local authorities approving them, even if they were only a few storeys high. Can you imagine the fuss from the nimbys?

Bodies placed into crypts above ground decompose in a small space, releasing fluids and gases. If they're not properly sealed they can explode, as has happened. It's been described as a "clean and dry" way to dispose of the dead, but it's anything but. It's certainly not environmentally-friendly and won't appeal to those who want to be returned to Nature, as a corpse buried in the ground is. It's ironic that the crypts in this building facing a pleasant view of the surrounding hills attract a higher price, while no one is encouraged to think about the reality of the process. Yuk. No thanks.

Click here to see a short film about the building.

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Death from a scientific point of view

A friend died not long ago. He wasn't a close friend, and I only met him face to face two or three times, but he was the sort of person you don't forget in a hurry, mainly because of his paradoxical character; outwardly a misanthrope but a generous, loving person in disguise. Over the last few years, Simon collected many friends via social media, mainly through Twitter and Facebook, and many of them socialised with him in real life, not just online. His Facebook page is still there and his closest friends are still sharing memories through it. Today I found that one had written a blog post mentioning him and quoting something that made sense to a heathen like me. Simon would have liked it too, as the confirmed atheist that he was. It's by Aaron Freeman, who broadcasts with America's NPR radio station.
You want a physicist to speak at your funeral. You want the physicist to talk to your grieving family about the conservation of energy, so they will understand that your energy has not died. You want the physicist to remind your sobbing mother about the first law of thermodynamics; that no energy gets created in the universe, and none is destroyed. You want your mother to know that all your energy, every vibration, every Btu of heat, every wave of every particle that was her beloved child remains with her in this world. You want the physicist to tell your weeping father that amid energies of the cosmos, you gave as good as you got.

And at one point you’d hope that the physicist would step down from the pulpit and walk to your brokenhearted spouse there in the pew and tell him/her that all the photons that ever bounced off your face, all the particles whose paths were interrupted by your smile, by the touch of your hair, hundreds of trillions of particles, have raced off like children, their ways forever changed by you. And as your widow rocks in the arms of a loving family, may the physicist let him/her know that all the photons that bounced from you were gathered in the particle detectors that are her/his eyes, that those photons created within her/him constellations of electromagnetically charged neurons whose energy will go on forever.

And the physicist will remind the congregation of how much of all our energy is given off as heat. There may be a few fanning themselves with their programs as he says it. And he will tell them that the warmth that flowed through you in life is still here, still part of all that we are, even as we who mourn continue the heat of our own lives.

And you’ll want the physicist to explain to those who loved you that they need not have faith; indeed, they should not have faith. Let them know that they can measure, that scientists have measured precisely the conservation of energy and found it accurate, verifiable and consistent across space and time. You can hope your family will examine the evidence and satisfy themselves that the science is sound and that they’ll be comforted to know your energy’s still around. According to the law of the conservation of energy, not a bit of you is gone; you’re just less orderly.

© 2005, NPR.org
You can hear Freeman read this if you click here.

There have been others who've pointed out that nothing ever disappears completely, and that the stuff we are made of is recycled, including the 17th century French orator, Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet:
All things summon us to death: nature, almost envious of the good she has given us, tells us often and gives us notice that she cannot for long allow us that scrap of matter she has lent. . . she has need of it for other forms, she claims it back for other works.
Bossuet was a bishop and a theologian, so Simon might not have approved of me quoting him, but even bishops have been known to talk sense.

Friday, July 01, 2016

The ways of God are strange!

57,000 casualties were sustained on the first day of the battle
It's the 100th anniversary of The Battle of the Somme today. The event at The Thiepval Memorial in France shown on TV was moving but although it included a reading from Sassoon and stressed the loss of so many ordinary working men, it didn't make any reference to the cynicism of some soldiers, the desertions, the suicides and the minds wrecked by what we now call "post-traumatic stress disorder", which was then called "shell shock". Yes, there are many tales of heroism under fire, but what about all the other stories?

The Bishop tells us: 'When the boys come back
They will not be the same; for they'll have fought
In a just cause: they lead the last attack
On Anti-Christ; their comrades' blood has bought
New right to breed an honourable race,
They have challenged Death and dared him face to face.'

'We're none of us the same!' the boys reply.
'For George lost both his legs; and Bill's stone blind;
Poor Jim's shot through the lungs and like to die;
And Bert's gone syphilitic: you'll not find
A chap who's served that hasn't found some change.'
And the Bishop said: 'The ways of God are strange!'

Siegfried Sassoon, 1916

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Just passing by

In all the years that I've written funeral scripts, I've never used the euphemism "passed away" rather than "died". Apart from a feeling that it's religious, suggesting that you're going to end up somewhere else, like heaven, rather than simply being dead, I've never been convinced that it makes things any easier for the bereaved to accept their loss. I've read that it's supposed to be a "gentler" term than saying that someone's died. No one's complained about it, or suggested that I should say something different. Rather, I've sensed a sense of relief that I haven't used that sort of language.

The term is being used by journalists in news reports. I find it as irritating as the common reference to anyone dying of cancer as having "lost the battle" or "fighting" their illness. As has been said by various people with cancer, including me, you don't die of it because you didn't try hard enough.

I read that funeral directors have noticed the term being used more often since about the 1970s. If that's true I suspect that it's due to a general reluctance to accept the reality of death and the consequent pain of loss. Some people seem to regard grief as a form of mental illness that should be treated with pharmaceuticals, rather than a natural reaction to losing someone you've loved. Pain, of any sort, shouldn't happen, they seem to think, and using "gentle" euphemisms might help to avoid too much of it. Except that it doesn't work. You've no control over grief. Suppressing it will make you ill.

One of my favourite journalists is Michael Goldfarb, who apparently wrote on Facebook,
When did the verb “to die” and the nouns derived from it—dead, death, etcetera — get excised from American usage to be replaced by “to pass.”

Wind gets passed. I hereby authorize all 500 plus of my Facebook friends to say of me, when the moment comes, that “Michael died, is dead, his death was a tragedy,” etcetera.  Please don’t say, “I’ve passed.” If you need a euphemism, say “I’ve shuffled,” as in shuffled off this mortal coil.
"Wind gets passed" - I like that. One day I'll die. I won't be passing anywhere except, probably, the dissection room at Cambridge medical school before they dispose of what's left of me in a suitably hygienic manner. 

Image: 'The Last Dream', a monument by J. Edwards to the Late Miss Hutton of Sowber Hill near Northallerton. Nice to see that she changed into her nightie before passing away.

Thursday, May 12, 2016


Found on the web - source unknown

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Flowers and candles - what good do they do?

Floral tributes near the Bataclan concert hall in Paris 
The latest terrorist attack in Belgium has had various reactions, from predictable shock and horror, especially from those directly affected, to crowds gathered to assert their defiance against Daesh's threats. In Belgium and in Paris, and earlier in London, some have left flowers, hand-written messages and lit candles to express their sympathy with the families and friends of the dead and injured. As a friend in the funeral trade once observed, these public expressions of sympathy seemed to begin with the Hillsborough disaster in 1989, when fans left their club scarves and other tributes on the gates of the stadium. Now almost every tragic death, from single road accident victims to multiple murder victims, seems to be marked with an assortment of objects; flowers, soft toys, candles, and more. It's become conventional to do this, so that if a tragedy doesn't attract a roadside pile of stuff, you might be forgiven for thinking that no one cared about it. Since 2006, Twitter has enabled messages of sympathy to be posted online; the Internet equivalent of flowers and candles.

Who benefits from all this? Isn't it enough to feel sorry for those affected, without feeling obliged to demonstrate it in some way? Does it make any difference to those who are bereaved? Maybe. Maybe not. I can't help feeling that it's like a kind of emotional blackmail. If you don't join the throng, you don't care? That's plainly not true. Is it something that will gradually fade away, just as the rotting flowers do? Will all the little metal cups that held the candles float away in the rain, and the sentiment they expressed go back to where it began, in the minds of those who cared?

In today's Guardian, Anne Perkins suggests that when terror strikes, you might consider doing something useful.
The urge to solidarity is a very powerful one. It’s why humans are such a successful species. But at some point the genuine if emotional gesture can teeter over into something else altogether. It becomes another version of exhibitionism. It stops being motivated by an outward-looking desire to demonstrate collective resistance and slides into the self-absorbed projection of the individual into whatever event of the day is shocking or enthralling.
Express your sympathy by giving blood, or donate money to the Red Cross or the air ambulance that ferries the injured to hospital. If all the money that was spent on flowers, candles and cuddly toys was donated to organisations that help people affected by disaster, they'd be a lot better off.

Picture: Steve Parsons/PA Wire/Press Association Images

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

On ending up as litter when you're dead

I've previously written about how scattering ashes (otherwise known as "cremains") qualifies as litter. It's tricky, because bereaved people get understandably upset if thwarted when trying to mark a loss with soggy teddy bears, plastic flowers, wind-chimes and so on. They're likely to get even more upset if you try to tell them that scattering Mum's ashes on a favourite walk isn't such a good idea. To some people, bereavement seems to mean a licence to do as you please, no matter what the consequences.

Another form of litter spread by bereaved people is the floating kind - balloons and sky lanterns. Both of these are a menace. Balloons can end up anywhere and many fall into rivers or the sea, where they're ingested by birds and mammals, killing them. Sky lanterns can cause fires (and have done) and the frameworks can kill livestock if accidentally eaten. Some farmers report the loss of very valuable animals.

I was reminded of all of this today while watching Griff Rhys Jones on TV, talking about a volunteer who spends a lot of his time on the top of Snowden, clearing up litter. People leave plastic bottles, fag ends, chewing gum, and all sorts of rubbish up there. They also leave human ashes, oblivious to the damage they cause. Ashes affect the ecology of the mountain. As Jones pointed out, they're not the same as the rocks; they're more fertile. Meanwhile, the mountain rangers report that, some days, they go up there and it looks like a dusting of frost, there are so many ashes lying about. The plastic flowers that are sometimes left with them are totally inappropriate. As Griff says, "Snowdon is not a public memorial in the sky."

If you were thinking of suggesting to your nearest and dearest that you'd like your ashes scattered where you used to enjoy all those lovely family picnics, think again. They can bury them under a tree (one that they've bought to plant for the purpose, and with permission) or keep them in a jar. Anything, in fact, except litter with them.

Friday, January 01, 2016