Blog Archives: May 2009

Smiling damned villains

Friday, 22 May 2009

Did you read about that undertaker in Middlesbrough? The one who stole the keys from a rival undertaker’s hearse as it sat obedient and empty outside the Salvation Army citadel? It had to be hotwired to get it to the cemetery. It had to be seen to be believed.

The story has been reported around the world. Read it here.

Disgraceful, you mutter. But since when did you believe what you read in newspapers? They exist to sensationalise or sentimentalise. They are never less than superficial. Come on!

In rural areas most funeral directors coexist in peace and harmony. They help each other out, lend each other a hearse or a bearer, greet each other as friends. They’re not in competition, that’s why.

But in urban areas it’s different. There are too many undertakers. Kindly, ethical undertakers have to compete with smarmy predators. In almost every town in Britain there’s a very nasty turf war going on. It’s not a war that manifests itself in drive-by shootings, broken legs, blazing mortuaries. Oh no, it’s much more a thing of insidiousness, backhanders and backstabbery. The public face is smarm, oodles of smarm. It rarely breaks the surface as it did in Middlesbrough.

Can you always tell the difference between the nice guy and the smarmy bastard? Have you never been had? As Shakespeare’s King Duncan so aptly had it, and I’m sure you agree, “There’s no art to find the mind’s construction in the face.” Or as his Hamlet had it, “one may smile and smile and be a villain.”

This is just one reason why I want to list best funeral directors in the Good Funeral Guide. To save people from sharks. To save the kindly, ethical undertakers from the smarmy bastards.

I bet there’s a lot more to this story in Middlesbrough than meets the eye. And I’m prepared to take a punt on this. Instinct sides me with the undertaker who pinched the keys (though not with what he did, obviously). What goaded him?

If I can get to the bottom of it I’ll let you know. Of course, I could be wrong. But, dammit, I doubt it.

The fluffy myth of the good death

Monday, 18 May 2009

Farrah Fawcett, Charlie’s Angel star in the 70s, she of the much copied hairstyle, wants to die on camera.

She was diagnosed with anal cancer in 2006. The camera has been rolling since then. It has captured highs, like when the tumour is briefly found to have disappeared, and lows, such as when doctors push long needles through her rib cartilage and inject chemicals directly into her liver tumours. When they do that she winces and cringes in pain. One sequence follows her in a wheelchair, wrapped in a blanket, injecting herself with painkillers with a bowl on her lap to vomit into.

Why is she doing it? To highlight the need for early detection and more research. Shades of Jade.

Last Wednesday I went to the inaugural get together of a coalition of interested parties to promote public awareness of death, dying and bereavement. The idea is to get people talking about the D-Word. Only a third of us do. People die and no one has any idea even if they wanted to be buried or cremated. It’s quite common. If we are more open about death, so the theory goes, the less frightened we shall be, the more accepting of its naturalness. The purpose of the coalition is “to make a good death the norm”.

Talking about things always beats not talking about them. We are presently lost for words when talking to dying people, their partners and families, and we are almost as clueless when talking to the bereaved. We are all helpless bystanders of one another’s catastrophes. Pathetic, really. Yes, something ought to be done. We all nodded. We’ve thought this many times.

And yet, and yet… There was something about the bright-eyedness of this assembly of some pretty high-powered people that made me begin to reconsider. That process was accelerated when the marketing man got up to speak. Someone spoke of circles of life and I could only think of downhill trajectory, crash and burn.

Who’d want to talk about death any more than they have to? Making a good death the norm can’t be made to happen by happy straplines, only by superior analgesia. The good death is an invention of the generation that used to wear flowers in it its hair.

We have a duty to talk about death. But it’s a puritanical and an invidious duty. Because the chances are that our own death will be, in Betjeman’s words, “A losing fight with frightful pain / Or a gasping fight for breath.” We know that. Ask Farrah.

Yes, it is grown up to talk about our own death. It is also grown up to know what we’re talking about. But there’s really not a lot to say.

Spit it out, close your mind and crack on. We have much to be frightened of. Que sera…

However you spin it, death is pants.

Exit strategy

Wednesday, 13 May 2009


This is not unusual these days: you see someone entranced by a song and when it’s done they say fervently, “I want that played at my funeral.” You’ve done it, too?

When you’ve done it once it becomes a habit. Sometimes a new song displaces an old one. Sometimes you want it played as well.

The list can easily get too long. At too many funerals these days we all have to sit through too many. There’s no point in doing at a funeral what you can just as easily do at home.

Three’s probably enough.

For the last year or so I’ve been rooting for Arlo Guthrie’s Motorcycle Song. Don’t know why. Don’t ask. Funeral planning is never enriched by the application of reason.

Arlo’s out of the window, now. I’ve found Four Strong Winds. This is definitely the one. This version. It’s the loveliest thing I have ever heard or ever will. You too, perhaps.

(Write down all your favourite songs. They can be printed on your service sheet. Your friends can go home, create a playlist in Spotify, fill a big glass and think about you.)

Check out the Undertaken With Love flickr site

Tuesday, 12 May 2009

It was the Natural Death Centre (NDC) which first advocated a return to the ancient, not long lost practice of caring for our own dead, and it was John Bradfield who did the bulk of the research into what you can legally do and what you can’t*. This re-birth of ancient practice was branded the do-it-yourself or DIY funeral.

Many people found the term repugnant, with its associations of botch, bungle and smashed thumbs. In truth, installing a new kitchen and caring for one’s dead share little common ground. Over in the US they coined the term home funeral. Much, much better.

Did home funerals take off here? No. And yet, while this is acknowledged, I am amazed how many funeral directors tell me that they have worked with families who have cared for their dead at home. It may be unusual, but it’s happening all the time.

Why would anyone do it?

Because if you have cared for someone in life, and through their dying, why would you not want to keep them with you and see it through? Why hive it off to strangers? As Lisa Carlson has it, this is a “final act of love”.

Before we can muster the courage to undertake any task in which we are unversed, we need the reassurance of three things. Here are my Three Things:
• a workshop manual
• an understanding of the worst that can go wrong
• the phone number of an expert who can help—or rescue us in case of calamity

People patiently tell me that home funerals will never catch on. After all, even communities which remember the old days prefer undertakers. I accept this, but I still feel that more people would care for their dead if they were empowered by the Three Things.

The home funeral movement is thriving in the US, where there’s a growing number of support networks to empower those who would care for their own dead. I very much hope that the revived Natural Death Centre will revive the movement in the UK and produce its own workshop manual.

In the meantime, home funeralists in the UK should know that the Three Things are in place for them now.

There are two very good US workshop manuals out there, and they are free. Download the Crossings Resource Guide. Download the Undertaken With Love guide. Be sure to make a donation if you can well afford to. The Crossings guide will tell you the worst that can happen.

Phone your local funeral directors and tell them what you’d like them to do. You’d be amazed how helpful most of them will be.

And now there’s a brand new resource out there. It comes from Undertaken with Love and it’s a flickr site from which the photo at the head of this post is taken.

*John Bradfield’s book, Green Burial, the d-i-y guide to law and practice, is out of print and sadly almost unobtainable. Check out Abe and Amazon.

Desert flowers

Monday, 11 May 2009

Why do people go to funerals? After all, the dead person won’t be there—not in spirit.

I always think, when I survey a crowd at a funeral, that these people are being as unselfish as people can possibly be—and what a very rare thing that is.

What’s the motivation? To be there for the dead person. To be there for their family. Ask them what they feel about the dead person. They say “She’ll be much missed.” Note the use of the passive tense. They don’t say “I’ll miss her very much.” Self-interest doesn’t come into it. Do they come looking for comfort? They will certainly be comforted if the funeral is any good: if it does justice to the dead person But no, they do not come looking for comfort. Comfort is an unlooked for by-product. They are not there for I.

I’ve read two accounts of funerals this week, both on this theme. Both of them were for people who were unsuccessful in a worldly sense, but just happened to be incredibly nice human beings. Both accounts give us grounds for believing that, however horrible the human race can be, people are essentially good.

The first is told by a funeral director. He concludes: The feeling of love that poured out of these people for him was immense. The recurring theme was that he truly loved everyone he came in contact with, and that the feeling was reciprocated by all he met … You see, you don’t have to be a well-known politician to have a positive affect on the lives of others. You don’t have to be magnate of industry or a famous actor to make the world a better place.

The second is told by journalist Matthew Parris. His conclusion: People do detect goodness in others. They do respond. Nobility of soul does find its echo from other souls. Was Thomas Gray, in his ‘Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard’, right to say that ‘Full many a gem of purest ray serene/ The dark, unfathom’d caves of ocean bear/ Full many a flower is born to blush unseen/ And waste its sweetness on the desert air?’ No. We speak carelessly of the ingratitude of others, and the loneliness of virtue; but I think that when in some way a person rings true, many can hear it and they respond.

It’s only a rehearsal

Monday, 11 May 2009

Here’s an interesting practice. In South Korea, where rapid industrialisation has generated societal angst and personal dysfunction—things capitalism taught us here in the UK ages ago—a Mr Ko Min-su has devised a training course in which participants rehearse their own death. The purpose is to teach them to re-evaluate their priorities and value their lives. The goal is to cut the soaring suicide rate.

Participants are led to a dark room where they are told to sit at candlelit desks and write their wills and leave last messages to their families and loved ones.

Next they collect their funeral portraits, then make their way to the “death experience room”, a room full of open coffins, decorated with pictures of celeb dead people.

Mr Ko instructs his trainees to choose a coffin, put on a traditional hemp death robe and read out their wills one by one.

Next, they are buried. Trainees lie down in their coffins, while a man wearing the outfit of a traditional Korean death messenger places a flower on each person’s chest. Funeral attendants place lids on the coffins, banging each corner several times with a mallet. Dirt is thrown, rat-a-tat-tat, on the lid. The attendants then leave the hall for five minutes – but it seems like 30 minutes to those in the coffins.

Once the lids are lifted, Mr Ko asks the trainees how they felt. “When they were nailing the coffin and sprinkling the dirt, it felt like I was really dead,” says one. “I thought death was far away but now that I have experienced it, I feel like I have to live a better life.”

Mr Ko’s course is very popular, and he’s got patents to run the course in 17 other countries. How would it go down in our own dear UK?

Responses would point up the differences between the two cultures. Brits would not be so acquiescent, would they? They’d rage against the dying of the light with everything from uproariousness to bitter rage. They wouldn’t go gentle, no way, most of them.

What does this tell us, I wonder?

Read the whole story here. See a slideshow here.

No match for m’lud

Monday, 11 May 2009

M’learned friends have spoken. Davender Ghai’s appeal to the high court to overturn Newcastle City Council’s ban on open-air cremation has been turned down like a bedspread. The 1902 Cremation Act was used in evidence against him. Funny, that. I thought the Act applied only to cremations in a crematorium. Well, that was the thinking when the Act was drawn up. They weren’t thinking of funeral pyres at all when they wrote it.

Public reaction has been a) predictable and b) manipulated. If you want to get people to get behind this sort of thing, play the race card. Associate it in some way with outlandish practices like wife beating and honour killing and the cutting off of hands. Touch a xenophobic chord. Elicit the customary spittle-flecked rant: “Send ‘em back, for god’s sake. They can’t do that sort of thing over here, ‘course they can’t. This is a civilised society. Fair play and decency, that’s what we stand for. Bloody hell, they’ll be wanting towers of silence, next. And sati, for christssake. The floodgates’ll open …”

Our Justice Secretary, Jack Straw, understands this very well. He did it deftly and cunningly in 2006 when he asked his constituents to remove their niqab before talking to him. On funeral pyres, his message is that non-Hindus would be “upset and offended” by them. They’d “find it abhorrent that human remains were being burned in this way”.

There’s one in the eye for a practice which has endured for thousands of years. The inference is that it’s barbaric, as are the 800 million Hindus who practise it. And, yes, come to think of it, isn’t it just the antithesis of our own enlightened and aesthetically advanced methods of disposing of dead bodies? We either place our corpses so deep in the ground that they rot horribly and resolve themselves into methane and sludge, or we place them in a retort and burn them aggressively with gas jets, just as farmers do with dead livestock.

The debate about open-air cremation has centred on the cultural practices of certain Hindus. This has been and continues to be a distraction.

The truth of the matter is that a certain number of people of all faiths and none at all would like to be burned on a pyre. It is a very small number. It will not become a mass movement. They won’t want to do it in city-centre parks or beauty spots but on private land, in privacy.

And, do you know, there’s actually very little to stop you—if you are prepared to practise a little light deception. Simply send the paperwork, signed by two doctors, to the crematorium, where it will be scrutinised by the medical referee, who will approve cremation. That’s your green flag.

Cancel the crem at the last minute. Do not offer an explanation. Mumble, if necessary, about alternative arrangements.

You are now free to take your dead person to a remote location and have yourself a merry pyre, holding in mind all the while the inspiring consideration that our word ‘bonfire’ derives from the Old English ‘banefire’—literally, a bone fire.

Tell the registrar you buried the body on private land.

Note: you did not read this here first. If they come to get you, you’ve never heard of me. My purpose is only to helpfully point out a loophole to our lawmakers.

Green shoots

Friday, 8 May 2009

Is the Natural Death Centre a national treasure? Undoubtedly.

What is it? It’s a charity which advocates a hands-on approach to preparing for death and arranging a funeral. It publishes The Natural Death Handbook, which is full of practical advice and personal stories. The philosophy of the NDC grew out of that of the natural childbirth movement. The NDC believes that taking control and keeping interventions by strangers to a minimum improves the quality of dying for the dying person and its impact on his or her carers. In the matter of caring for the dead, it believes that taking control is therapeutic.

It has inspired the home funeral and natural burial movement worldwide. That’s something to be proud of.

But because it always had an undertaker-basherly tendency, it was never on the Christmas card list of yer man in the faultless frock coat and glossy topper.

Last summer the NDC suffered an NDE—a near death experience. It ran out of money. Tireless CPR has brought it round.

It’s evolved, and its rationale is detailed by Rupert Callender on behalf of the new board of trustees in the latest Funeral Service Journal. Since this is not a must-read, mass-market, celeb-sprinkled publication, I hope Rupert will not mind me reproducing some of his brilliant and, in places, barnstorming, text here. It is addressed to funeral directors.

The new board consists of a teacher, a psychotherapist, a palliative care nurse, four natural burial ground operators, three of whom are also funeral directors, which moves the NDC from largely theoretical to unashamedly practical.

This does not mean that we will be losing our radical edge or that out ideology has changed; we still believe that the modern funeral had lost its way and needed reinventing, but we are mindful that … the fault for the irrelevance of funerals for many lies with society at large, not just the industry.

When it was formed in 1991 it was seen by many in the industry as an irritant. The green aspects seemed faddish and the social side meddlesome and patronising. Many thought, and hoped, it was just a flash in the cremator. But the changes it has both initiated and reflected have been profoundly good for the industry not only in how it does things but also in how it is perceived.

It might be fair to say that before 1991 … the industry and the public spoke different languages … the public liked to view funeral directors as exploitative and ghoulish … To many funeral directors, the public were hostile and thankless … By occupying this no man’s land and by acting as a translator in some respects as well as helping to air and change some of the more genuine grievances, we at the NDC think we have moved things forward and brought some mutual understanding and respect to both sides.

The NDC, says Rupert, is not a green pressure group but a movement for social progress. He examines the impact of the decline of religion on funeral directing, acutely observing: No longer does responsibility change hands at the door of the church or crematorium.

He looks ahead to the future and declares that the NDC will drive innovation and act as the industry’s imagination and conscience.

And he finishes on a conciliatory note: For some of you we will always be the troublemaking lunatic fringe … We hope you will view us as colleagues, not the enemy within … together we can create something that works for everybody.

That the NDC can identify so much common ground with funeral directors shows just how much it has achieved. Does all this smack of cosiness? Nah. The radical, visionary edge is back alright.

The surprising satisfactions of a home funeral

Thursday, 7 May 2009

For all that the funeral industry is aware of pressure to change, and has readied itself for that, and for all that newspapers like to run features about nice, funny coffins, nothing has essentially changed.

Death occurs. A stranger – a funeral director – accompanied by another stranger, his or her assistant, come to take away the body. You don’t know where they keep the body, nor who sees it, nor what they do to it. You shut your mind to all that, and undertakers are very much of the mind that there are things it is best for you not to know about. Instead, you get busy sifting paperwork, ordering flowers, ringing people up and telling them what’s happened. That, you reckon, gives you more than enough to do.

In doing so, you may be missing the point.

If you have cared for someone in life, and as they lay dying, why would you want to stop when they are dead? Why wouldn’t you want to complete the journey with them?

What’s really important here?

Is it really such a kindness of the funeral director that he or she relieves you of so much to do, freeing you up to do lesser things, many of which could, frankly, wait?

Does all this make the death easier to bear?

I doubt it. I suspect that the grief counselling industry has got so big because people pass up the opportunity to, in Tom Lynch’s words, deal with death by dealing with their dead.

And that’s the point of a home funeral. That’s the point of working with a funeral director to wash and dress your dead person, and sit with them, and observe the changes, and become aware, after a few days, that it’s time to go.

It’s not all about cost and simplicity and fusslessness, it’s about joining up dying to farewelling. Nothing makes better sense of death than the present absence of the one who has died.

Read this.

Then listen to Lisa Carlson and others here.

Dates for your diary (2)

Wednesday, 6 May 2009





Date: 12-14 June (choose your day or come to all three).

Venue: Stoneleigh Park, Warwickshire.


Event: National Funeral Exhibition.

This trade show is a biennial shindig. Funeral directors fly in from all corners of the country to feast their eyes everything new in the world of funerals. Not that there is anything new, of course. Variations on the same old same old might be a better description. Coffins made from corn cobs. Hearses so big they could double as squash courts. I’m joking. Only just.

Where coffins and transport and headstones are concerned, it’s all about guessing what look clients are going to want next. There will be all sorts of brave start-ups offering new-look merchandise which may or may not catch on. Much of it will be green-themed, doubtless. Wholemeal funerals have been reckoned to be the future for a few years now. Uptake hasn’t yet matched the razzmatazz and press coverage.

Funeral directors are finding they’re needing to be futurologists. There may be undertakers out there now who are getting away with doing things exactly the same way they were doing them 60 years ago, but they won’t 60 years hence.

You need to be a bona fide member of the funeral industry to attend. I rang to ask why. It seems they reckon some of the stuff – mortuary equipment in particular – is the sort of stuff bona fide members of the public don’t need to see. Fair point.

If you want to go, but you have no links to the industry, ring, make your case and negotiate. I’d have thought they’d be happy to admit you so long as you make it clear you know what you’re in for. They just don’t want people dropping in curiously, then running out screaming.

Huge fun, lots of people to talk to – and, brooding over us, the spirit of Joe Orton.

What’s a good collective noun for a convocation of undertakers? Give yourself a bit of gentle brain gym. Come up with something spot on. Leave a comment.

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