Blog Archives: 2008
The dead man’s father, a Jehovah’s Witness, had been estranged from his funny, funloving, humanist son for years. Now that his boy was dead, he wanted to reclaim him and give him a proper Jehovah’s Witness funeral.
We talked about this, the dead man’s widow and I; we explored compromises. We wanted to include the parents but they fortified their position. We were compelled either be true to the truth and celebrate the life, or let the Witnesses repossess the body and recycle it through an alien theology.
When, outside, after the godless ceremony, the father emerged from a huddle of Witnesses and came for me, I knew it was going to be angry and ugly.
“I didn’t recognise any single thing of my son in that twaddle you spoke, you had no idea what or who you were talking about … disgraceful …shameful …how dare you…” and so on. It wasn’t a dialogue, it was a performance.
The abuse having expended itself, I walked back to the car reflecting wryly that, of course, he was right. The life story I had told was but a version. I’d never met the dead man; I had no idea who I was talking about. His friends happily told me I had hit the spot, got him bang right. But, as with the father, I only had their word for it.
This is the essentially absurd thing about being a secular funeral celebrant, and it’s exactly the same for religious celebrants when the dead person was not a member of their congregation. The celebrant, the only stranger at the funeral, is often the one who speaks with absolute authority about the dead person. Celebrants tell stories but can visualise none of the events we describe; we talk of what dead people mean to others, but they mean nothing to us. At the funeral of a scientist his friends appraised me with the cool objectivity of high intelligence; their eyes conveyed the message, “Who the heck are you?” I had to concur. I felt like an interloper. I was.
But I wonder how many artists would be able to make a visual likeness from a verbal description.
Warring families are difficult. So are private families and genteel families. They’re cagey. You’re an intrusive stranger and you’re not minding your own business. And celebrants are not fearless investigative reporters; we must work with what we are given. Sometimes that means telling a highly edited version of the truth and sometimes it means making bricks with straw.
Here’s a warm and delightfully written blog post which illustrates what I mean. All celebrants know what this feels like:
… the Senior Pastor had to be away and assigned me the task of conducting the funeral. Her family lived elsewhere and I had never met them. I spent a few minutes with them at their hotel room planning the service. They did not want it to be too long, but also they did not want it to be too short. They wanted it to be personal, but not too personal. They wanted some Scripture, but not too much Scripture. They wanted this, but not that. It was clear they did not really trust me, but they had no other option. I wasn’t even sure what was considered too short or too long. As I began to speak on the day of the funeral, I realized I had covered everything I had to say in the first three minutes, and was acutely aware this was definitely too short. I filled a couple more minutes talking about the fact that she raised rabbits, but I knew nothing about rabbits, so that ended rather quickly and awkwardly. It was at that moment I realized I really knew nothing about this family or the deceased. It was a disaster and the Honorarium I was secretly excited about receiving never materialized.
Read the whole post here.
Thus wicked King Claudius in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. He was speaking of his own spiritual quandary, but in many burial grounds the memorials possibly feel he speaks for them, too.
I’m not thinking of those blameless, plain stones whose simple inscriptions testify to sincere, humble faith and assert the equality of all in the sight of God.
No, I’m thinking of the whoppers, those mega-memorials whose bigged-up magnificence purportedly serves solely to swell the glory of the Supreme Being. Neither curlicue nor finial, swag, foliation nor cherubic cluster can blind us to their real purpose.
Come off it, chaps, you’re there to glorify your tenant. What you’re actually saying is, “Beneath me lies a helluva guy, the biggest cheese in this graveyard. Think about that, you mighty, and despair!”
Every such memorial eventually goes the way of Ozymandias, himself reduced by time, sandstorms and other indignities to “two vast and trunkless legs of stone … in the desert.”
Time has a sardonic sense of humour.
So does the Lithuanian mafia.
The headstone at the top commemorates a dead mobster in the most unashamed and unambiguous terms, shorn of any supernatural pretension. Click on him. Marvel at the car and the bling.
A helluva guy.
But my, how he’ll date.
Judge for yourself. A while back Mr Slocum engaged in a spat with Tim Totten’s engaging blog, Finalembrace. Take a ringside seat and follow it, round by round, here. Be sure to read the Newsweek article.
Slocum’s mistake is to suppose that fervid indignation is persuasive. It is not. It is repulsive and it distracts from the admirable cause he represents (so badly).
Tim Totten is one of the industry’s nice guys. It matters not whether you like his cot covers. What’s clear to see is that he is honest, well-meaning and kind. To see him attacked is to leap reflexively to his defence no matter who the attacker, no matter what their cause. This is Mr Slocum’s strategic mistake and it is a grave one.
It matters not whether Tom will prevail in a court of law. What matters is that he is one of the great thinkers and writers about death and funerals. He is a man of integrity and intellectual rigour with a reverence for goodness and truth. He is wholly undeserving of this treatment. You do not have to agree with what he says to honour him.
Here’s what I wrote:
Do the online memorial sites that are up there presently give visitors enough to do? Possibly not.
So, to all entrepreneurial web developers out there looking to make a few bob out of those who sob, I offer this wheeze.
Go the whole bagel: design and create a many-acred virtual burial ground. Sell a grave to each new client. Enable them to buy a headstone and dictate an inscription. Let them buy flower urns and flowers, plants for the grave, wind chimes, teddy bears, solar-powered angels. Pocket the money. Give a token percentage to good causes.
As time goes by, flowers die, the grave becomes unkempt and the headstone gets dirty. Give clients routine chores to do when they visit.
And give them every retail opportunity to mark anniversaries.
From time to time, bad things happen. Vandals spray graffiti or leave behind the detritus of drug use. Topple-testers condemn the headstone and require it to be re-fixed. Get your client to rectify these bad things.
Keep ‘em busy!
Enable different visitors to the burial ground, if they are there at the same time, to talk to each other if they agree to; thereby you will enable the formation of mutually supportive bereavement groups.
Enough. That ought to fire your imagination. Take it from there.
Just don’t, whatever you do, even under torture, credit me with this tasteless, mawkish, vile idea. I shall go to my grave denying it.
So far as I know no one has hacked into my computer and seen this. I can therefore disclaim all responsibility for the work in progress you can see at EternalSpace.
Actually, they’ve done much, much better than me. Well, they’ve gone much further. In their virtual resting place you can choose your scenic setting. You can choose your own markers and mausoleums, growing trees, flowing fountains, fluttering butterflies, waving flags from around the world and beautifully carved religious symbols. You can send a virtual gift from a wide selection. You can do this till you die, and so then can your heirs from everlasting to everlasting. Undertakers who sell EternalSpace to their clients will get a slice of the profits.
I have a feeling that the excellent Jonathan Davies at MuchLoved will not be quaking in his boots.
Here’s a qualification: I have not seen the realisation of the EternalSpace project. It may well prove me to be a grumpy old fuddy-duddy out of touch with the zeitgeist. I am prepared to eat my words.
One thing I will accord it without reservation: it is going to be much greener than any so-called green burial ground. It will never run out of space.
To prove that I am not antipathetic to v-stuff let me tell you how entranced I am by the v-funeral at the top of this piece. It was created by a Second Lifer for his real-life father, real-death photos of whom you can see in the clip.
The best things in life have a signature tune, a tune forever associated with, and evocative of, a time, a place, a person — a soap.
Funerals have signature tunes, too. As a celebrant, every time I hear Oasis’s Stop Crying Your Heart Out I think of the lad who died at Glastonbury: Hold up / Hold on / Don’t be scared, / You’ll never change what’s been and gone … Stop crying your heart out. Every time I hear Kelis’s Lil Star I think of the lovely man whose children kept hearing it on their way to see him in hospital. There is nothing special about me was how their dad self-deprecatingly thought of himself, but not them, not them. He never actually heard the song himself, but that makes it no less perfect for him. Yesterday we had the Moody Blues’ I Know You’re Out There Somewhere, so that’s a new one for me.
Not all funeral signature tunes are memorable to me — Katherine Jenkins has sung Time to Say Goodbye at so many funerals she’s lost all specificity. Not the case for the people who were there.
Likely enough, you have a favourite song — the one you call ‘my song’. That’s probably more than just a signature tune, it’s more likely your soundtrack. This notion came to me when I was looking at one of Louise’s little life films.
I’m trying to work out what mine is, now. I know that it can’t and couldn’t be a piece of classical music: a classical piece wouldn’t work for anybody. “Strange how potent cheap music is,” said Noel Coward. He ought to know; he wrote enough. He’s right, too, dammit: it’s got to be something pop, something that can play over a photmontage of your life.
You may have a very clear idea what yours is. Perhaps this is something that others must decide for us.
I know I favour something joyously anarchic. I’ve toyed with the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain and am presently inclining towards the Green Street Mortuary Band. Here’s a band that plays for Chinese funerals in
It does, too, in a most agreeably chaotic way. The bass drummer habitually sets off car alarms, adding to the melodic cacophony. Find out more about this fascinating, wonderful band here. Enjoy the YouTube vid.
I’ve just enjoyed this blog post. It speaks for itself and it doesn’t want me climbing all over it.
It’s illogical but it’s the sort of thing you tend to notice only once it’s pointed out. Illogic pervades everything to do with death and funerals, we accept this easily, unthinkingly, particularly in the matter of letting go of the body. Religious people are no less illogical.
Once you’ve let go of the body, what’s left? Plenty. Feelings. Memories. Admiration. Gratitude. Example. Values. You don’t have to let go of any of them. You can still see the dead person in your mind’s eye; you can still hear them in your mind’s ear. You could argue that most of the most important things are left, together either with the joyful reassurance of the dead person’s present non-existence or their blissful afterlife on the Other Side.
It’s not the dead person’s body we miss but everything their body embodied. It’s the black hole of absence we grieve for, the loss of continuing presence of all those things we don’t have to let go of, that we haven’t lost. Nothing can compensate for that.
So we cling to their bodies in ways which are, to paraphrase Tom Lynch, sacred and silly. Claire Seeber, writing in the Guardian, keeps her grandmother’s ashes in the glove compartment of her car; Keith Richard famously snorted his dad’s; Patsy Kensit slept beside her mother’s for years. One man, Stanley, brought his wife’s ashes home. “There was no plan,” he says, “so I put her in the wardrobe … Now I find it comforting to know she is there safe and, most important to me, warm. It might sound irrational — as a scientist I know there’s no logic in it, and I’m not religious or superstitious — but … I’m just reassured to know that she’s not out there in the cold … she’s still with me when I’m sleeping.” Read the whole article here.
Ashes in the wardrobe, a little shrine on the mantelpiece — sacred and silly; silly but sacred.
Where do you draw the line?
The recent picture at the top shows Lenin having a restorative bath. Sacred? Silly?
You couldn’t make it up. The Express could, perhaps, given its record for libelling people. Here is the essence of their story in today’s paper.
First, the headline: Three Orphans Sell Pets To Pay For Mum’s Funeral.
Got yer pulse racing? It’s right up there on a par with Headless Waiter Found In Topless Bar (New York Post).
The funeral directors insist on having the money upfront. They offered to knock 200 quid off by squeezing the body into a smaller coffin, but the kids refused.
What a shame it is that the people who feel duty-bound to spend more than they can afford on a funeral are so often those who can least afford it. No one calls those middle-class, cardboard coffin funerals paupers’ funerals.
Read the whole sorry story here — if you can bear.