Blog Archives: July 2008

The only good un’s a cheap un

Thursday, 10 July 2008

An entertaining way of assessing trends in the UK funeral industry is to have a look at what’s going on in the US. The best way I’ve found of doing that is by following Tim Totten’s blog, Final Embrace. It lends perspective to the view. And Tim is sharp, with an engaging quality of bright-eyed energy and optimism.

DIY and green funerals are becoming the rage over there, but rarely, intriguingly, do we see any reference or homage to the ground-breaking work done in the UK. I find it hard to believe that there are not some very well-thumbed and indispensable samizdat copies of the Natural Death Handbook in circulation. A pioneer DIY group is Final Passages. I think you’ll agree that Jasmine looks terrific. And while we Brits may, in our smug, post-Mitford way, suppose that American death rites are suffused with euphemism, you may find yourself reflecting that we don’t often see prurience-free pics of corpses on our own websites.

Tim’s blog is currently enjoying a tiff with the Funeral Consumer’s Alliance, a nonprofit watchdog org whose boss, Joshua Slocum (yes, really) was recently quoted savaging undertakers in an article in Newsweek. It’s pretty bog standard fare — undertakers rip you off; the only way is the DIY way — but the comments are worth reading. There are lots of them, not a few from funeral directors. You wouldn’t get that in the UK; funeral directors here don’t do online. Pity.

Undertaker-bashing is a sport for dullards. What interests me is the pervasive belief that the only good funeral is a cheap one. A similar attitude to husbandry does not apply to birthdays, weddings, baby-namings or coming-of-age celebrations.

Actually, birthdays provide an apt analogy.

Ahead of the event, you protest that you don’t want anyone putting themselves out on your account — you don’t want any fuss. After your arm has been twisted, you helpfully hint at what presents you’d like and what sort of celebration. Then you sit back, wait for the day and, hopefully, enjoy the ride.

There are two sides to your birthday celebration:
o the joy of receiving (yours)
o the joy of giving (theirs)

The part you play is mostly passive. You smilingly, gratefully, undergo what has been planned for you.

The part played by others is active. The more they do, the more fun it all is. Your birthday may cost them a great deal of money or very little. This is of little or no account compared with the amount of thought and hard work they put into it.

If they’d listened to you, it would have been crap.

Moral? Disregard the self-deprecatory utterances of dead people (when alive, of course) and give them the funeral you think they deserve.

We don’t, most of us, work hard at arranging funerals; we just trail along, endure, undergo. The undertaker and his or her staff do all the work, and not very much of that — oh, and the celebrant, of course.

I have a theory that, channelled properly, grief can be much more empowering. If we work harder and leave less to others, a funeral can be a great occasion enhanced by the one element missing from all of life’s other great ceremonies: finality.

How much it all costs is a matter of little or no account.

No hiding place

Monday, 7 July 2008

It’s a ticklish business, if you’ve never done it before, launching a website.

Launch? That’s a big verb. It’s not what it felt like: no tarantara, no wild whooping, no champagne-dripping prow.

Nothing like that at all. Simply, Harry, my webmeister, emailed late one uneventful evening. “You’re live,” he said. I inhaled a deep breath of expectation and held it (as you do).

Nothing happened.

That suited me very well because I was then struck down by the sort of virus that has all the malignant force of an inept practical joke. It makes the world whirl nauseously, then moderates and settles down to conducting a guerrilla campaign against your sense of balance. You feel drunk all the time, but shabbily so. It’s called labyrinthitis. I hope you never get it.

While my world spun and I lurched, the bathos continued. I had supposed that people would eventually spot me, stroll up and have a chat. I felt vulnerable, of course, though this is the point of the exercise: to encourage collaboration. But I know (you too) that there are jealous, angry egos in the world of death and funerals; and we know, too, that there are also bedlamites in cyberspace ready to squeak and gibber at us in foam-flecked lower case in which even the plurals are unapostrophised. In these last days of passing unnoticed among strangers I have relished my anonymity, my peace and the decorum of my inbox.

I have broken cover. I have been talking to the well-connected blogger Zinnia Cyclamen, whose prose has that limpid quality which is the product of intellect, fastidiousness and rigour, and in whose presence one’s own punctuation and grammar reflexively adopt their best behaviour. Zinnia is a writer and a humanist funeral celebrant whose adventures are a must-read.

Zinnia has read a tranche of my text and critiqued it with an acuteness which has both enriched my thinking and exposed my prejuduces. Dammit, I’d meant to keep them tethered; I don’t want the Good Funeral Guide to be a manifesto. I must go straight to work and dig the me-ness out of it, especially in the section Creating the Ceremony. The process of evolution has begun.

Zinnia has also written about me on her blog and invited her e-chums to have a gander. You are very welcome.

I hope that, together, we can make something we are all proud of.

Oh heck, I’ve just checked my inbox. While I’ve been writing this, the first-ever comment has come in.

It’s nice. Thank you, Jan!