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 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.