Blog Archives: June 2009

Transitus, gloria mundi

Monday, 29 June 2009





The Transitus festival held just over a week ago was a success. Lots of people came to find out about death on a sunny day when they could have been off picnicking. Considering the financial risk the organisers seem to have exposed themselves to, success must feel especially sweet.

Because Transitus explores ideas and experiences around the continuation of consciousness after death, it also exposes itself to being wryly written off as a congregation of new-age tree-hugging moon-bayers. This is the reductionist tendency of educated people schooled in the exercise of the critical faculty. The clever person is the person who can point out why something’s no good. We have education system which teaches children to backseat drive Shakespeare, that’s why.

There were workshops exploring ideas of the afterlife; analogies between birth and death; psychic painting; soul midwifery; woodland burial; funeral rituals; sacred music. There was a performance of Laura Wade’s play Colder Than Here. There were displays of coffins and sounding bowls. There was more going on than you could possibly get to, which is why we are all going to come back next year.

There was a brilliant talk by Peter Fenwick on end of life experiences. It was a coup to get him to deliver the keynote speech because he is a man of science who has made a scientific study of what dying feels like emotionally and spiritually. The only way to poo-poo him is to adduce data. If you haven’t read The Art of Dying yet, buy a copy now.

Transitus is a big tent. It was Peter Fenwick who, in the minds of the sceptical, was possibly most influential in tethering it to reality and relevance.

You don’t have to feel comfortable with everything Transitus explores to feel at home in its big tent. Here’s its manifesto:

The Transitus Network comprises a growing group of people working in a way that honours all aspects of life – mind, body, spirit and emotions – that are involved with the sacred process of dying. Our aims are: to release fears and taboos; support those dying and bereaved; raise awareness of ‘green’ and family-based approaches to death; and to encourage the acceptance of the concept of continuity of consciousness. The Network also supports its members so that none of us feels alone. Members include those working with: midwifing the soul; music thanatology; alternative funerals and celebrations; natural burials; grief counselling; life after death; related workshops; and more.

There are lots of what you could broadly call funeral reformers out there, most of whose aims overlap. There are organisations like the Natural Death Centre and green fuse. There are individuals like Tony Piper. There is the celebrancy movement. There are ecologists. Why on earth don’t they all get together on the same platform?

It all depends on what you reckon to be the value of a consensus, and the price of compromise necessary to achieve that. I like the ferment that’s presently going on because it is so squabble-free. Collaboration is all, governed by mutual respect.

Cacophony, that’s what Cynthia Beal calls it. Collegial cacophony. There’s a creative dynamic in that.

To join Transitus write to Judith Pidgeon, Ivy Cottage, Bath Road, Sturminster Newton, Dorset DT10 1DU. Her email address is transitus@btinternet.com. They’ll be very pleased to have you on board.

Here’s some feedback on the festival, transcribed by the indefatigable Susan Morris of the Natural Death Centre:

“Absolutely marvellous workshops – they really connected with what I am doing and trying to achieve. I have met a lot of people.”

“Fascinating. People talked about something not normally talked about. I feel less afraid to discuss death now.”

“It covered so much. I shall now join Transitus. It’s all complex and all encompassing. “

“ I have met people today that I didn’t think it would be possible to so . I have made connections today that will last. I feel inspired. Thank you for a great day.“

Old sage pensioners

Friday, 26 June 2009

Depictions of old age are rarely un-depressing in our late capitalist society. Once you’ve reached your economic menopause you pass into the hinterland of the pre-dead.

Or do you?

These guys stand that neat little theory triumphantly on its head. Here we have Fauja Singh, 98, Armuc SIngh, 79, Karnail Singh, 80 and Ajit Singh, 79, just about to compete in this year’s Edinburgh marathon. Says Fajua: “Elderly people are a little like children. They like attention.”

This delicious pic is from a series in the Guardian celebrating old age.

Best in show 3

Thursday, 25 June 2009

I wonder what people who visit graves think their loved one looks like now—or whether they think about it at all. I was talking last week to Ken West, the man who gave us natural burial, and he opined that they think of them as uncorrupted.

People shut their eyes to decomposition, whether violent and accelerated in a cremator or slow and buggy underground. My big bone of contention with many green burialists is that they babble happily about bluebells and bluebirds but bury at six feet. They know perfectly well that people who opt for natural burial fondly suppose they will nourish the earth and push up daisies (or bluebells). They also know perfectly well that at six feet they will turn into methane and sludge. So they keep schtumm about it.

Thus is death prettified and an elemental event made into a sentimental event.

Perhaps the ultimate reality of death is not the extinction of life but the return of the
body to the earth. And perhaps the death cannot fully be comprehended until folk get their heads around the body’s dissolution, both the stink of it and the buggy merriment.

It makes best sense to return a body to the earth naked. Yet we like to dress up beautifully for big occasions. Well, so long as a corpse is clad in beautiful biodegradables, can we not both nod at the vanity and justifiably refuse to apologise for it?

Which brings me to my third and last greatest hit of the National Funeral Exhibition, a product which is both beautiful and elemental: the leaf shroud created by Yuli Somme and Anne Belgrave at Bellacouche.

It’s not a winding sheet, it’s an alternative to a coffin. While a conventional shroud can seem stark because its wrappings reveal (starkly) the outline of the body, the leaf shroud, with its five layers of felted wool, softens and rounds it. The top layer, decorated with felted leaves, can be detached at the point of burial and kept.

It’s a marvellous piece of making. The body, wrapped in a wool cocoon, is fastened to a frame with gorsewood toggles.

The leaf shroud is archetypal in a Jungian sense. There’s a connection with pre-history and a timeless way of burying our dead. It strikes the same chord and exerts the same hold on the imagination as open-air cremation or a Viking funeral. Isn’t this what Beowulf might have been buried in?

Even if, to you, the leaf shroud is none of these things, I’m sure you’ll agree that it’s undeniably lovely.

It happens

Tuesday, 23 June 2009

Beautifully written account of the death of an unloved one.

Read it here.

Best in show 2

Tuesday, 23 June 2009

No Corps of any Person or Persons shall be buried in any Shirt, Shift; Sheet or Shroud, or any thing whatsoever made or mingled with Flax, Hemp, Silk, Hair, Gold or Silver, or in any Stuff or Thing, other than what is made of Sheeps Wool only.

Thus spoke the Burial in Woollen Act of 1667, a protectionist measure “intended for the lessening the Importation of Linen from beyond the Seas, and the Encouragement of the Woollen and Paper Manufactures of this Kingdom.”

And it brings me to my second nomination for Best in Show at the National Funeral Exhibition. Like all the best developments in funerals it is a triumphant reinvention of the past. Step forward, Hainsworth’s woollen coffin.

Like it?

I love it. Tactile. Snug. Eye-friendly.The blanket stitch is an inspired touch. For me, it was the sensation of the show.

When funeral directors eye up a new coffin they ask Does it leak? Does it creak? Does it sag? They’re a baleful lot, hard to please. They’ll ask the same questions of this coffin and add an extra one: Will it mark? Answer: not if you’re careful.

Most of our eco-coffins travel here from the other side of the world. And, for all that their carbon footprint is actually tiny (Ecoffins calculate that shipping theirs from China costs but 4.63 car miles per coffin), it is good to have something indigenous and local.

These coffins are made from the wool of Dorset Horn sheep. They are biodegradable, organic and 100% natural. They are made in Leeds, a city built on wool, in one of the last woollen mills in the country.

There’s an undeniable romance about that.

An angel whispers “Come in, mate.”

Friday, 19 June 2009


For me, the music died the day Led Zeppelin released their first album. Pop got intellectual, up itself, the mope and dope bunch sagely mulling finer points of riffs and runs. It set friends against each other. Simon bought a bass guitar, I bought a ukulele and got heavily into music hall. It was love, not protest. Humour. Pathos and wistfulness. Making the best. I love that blend.

I am writing with fellow-blogger Patrick McNally especially in mind because I think he will especially enjoy the following monologue by Stanley Holloway. I’m sure you will, too. If you read Patrick’s blog you will see that I mistakenly call him Tom. My embarrassment is fresh and howling somewhat. But I had this lined up for him before I put my foot in it. Life must go on.

Our Aunt Hanna’s passed away,
We ‘ad her funeral today,
And it was a posh affair,
Had to have two p’licemen there!

The ‘earse was luv’ly, all plate glass,
And wot a corfin!… oak and brass!
We’d fah-sands weepin’, flahers galore,
But Jim, our cousin… what d’yer fink ‘e wore?

Why, brahn boots!
I ask yer… brahn boots!
Fancy coming to a funeral
In brahn boots!

I will admit ‘e ‘ad a nice black tie,
Black fingernails and a nice black eye;
But yer can’t see people orf when they die,
In brahn boots!

And Aunt ‘ad been so very good to ‘im,
Done all that any muvver could for ‘im,
And Jim, her son, to show his clars…
Rolls up to make it all a farce,

In brahn boots…
I ask yer… brahn boots!
While all the rest,
Wore decent black and mourning suits.

I’ll own he didn’t seem so gay,
In fact he cried most part the way,
But straight, he reg’lar spoilt our day,
Wiv ‘is brahn boots.

In the graveyard we left Jim,
None of us said much to him,
Yus, we all gave ‘im the bird,
Then by accident we ‘eard …

‘E’d given ‘is black boots to Jim Small,
A bloke wot ‘ad no boots at all,
So p’raps Aunt Hanna doesn’t mind,
She did like people who was good and kind.

But brahn boots!
I ask yer… brahn boots!
Fancy coming to a funeral,
In brahn boots!

And we could ‘ear the neighbours all remark
“What, ‘im chief mourner? Wot a blooming lark!
“Why ‘e looks more like a Bookmaker’s clerk…
In brahn boots!”

That’s why we ‘ad to be so rude to ‘im,
That’s why we never said “Ow do!” to ‘im,
We didn’t know… he didn’t say,
He’d give ‘is other boots away.

But brahn boots!
I ask yer… brahn boots!
While all the rest,
Wore decent black and mourning suits!

But some day up at Heavens gate,
Poor Jim, all nerves, will stand and wait,
’til an angel whispers… “Come in, Mate,
“Where’s yer brahn boots?”

Ethical? Ha-ha!

Wednesday, 17 June 2009


The story so far…

Raggedexile

15 Jun 09, 7:05pm

Here’s one about Funeralcare.

Funeralcare has derecognised the GMB union, in the process securing its expulsion from the Tolpuddle Martyrs Festival and, I think, the Glastonbury Festival. It has been condemned by the TUC. This is a betrayal of the foundational principles and values of the Rochdale Pioneers and would seem to render the Co-op ethically redundant.

Funeralcare may be seen by many to be the People’s Undertaker. How do you justify the high price of your funerals given the economies of scale you enjoy? You are in a position to undercut every other undertaker in the land.

In terms of competence, Funeralcare is scandal-ridden. In the funeral industry, Co-op is synonymous with Cock-op.

I have cancelled my smile account in protest at this. No one at smile felt inclined to debate this with me.

paulmonaghan

16 Jun 09, 11:14am

OK, quite a backlog to get through: here goes… btw, I’m Co-operative’s Head of Social Goals

To Raggedexile… re funeralcare and GMB, we recognise a number of trades unions for the purposes of collective bargaining, however, we need to do this on a national basis as we are a national provider, and GMB were looking to represent a relatively small number of workers

Raggedexile

16 Jun 09, 12:26pm

Paul, with ref to Funeralcare, you recognise UCATT, which has a tiny number of members. I really can’t follow your logic.

And you overlook the big point: How can the Co-op, of all organisations, derecognise a trade union and stay true to its founding principles and values?

And how do you answer this: the TUC has condemned Funeralcare for its victimisation and harassment of shop stewards.

And what of the cost of your funerals? You can answer this by telling us how profitable Funeralcare is.

What would the Rochdale Pioneers make of all this?

paulmonaghan

17 Jun 09, 11:46am

Whoah, no-one is ducking anything.

Think can see from responses to date we have addressed virtually everything raised.

Just didn’t expect so many detailed questions (and am fitting in answering between meetings and such).

Raggedexile

17 Jun 09, 2:04pm

Paul, you run the risk of being discourteous at the very least. You have given an undertaking to address questions posed by readers and now you dash in and out breathlessly pleading meetings and such. Is that how important this exercise is to you?

Are you fobbing me (and everybody else) off when you say ‘Think can see from responses to date we have addressed virtually everything raised’? I think it is for us to declare our satisfaction with your responses, not you.

You have not answered my central question: does Funeralcare’s derecognition of the GMB union not amount to a betrayal of the Co-op’s founding principles and disqualify it as an ethical enterprise?

Please would give this greater than cursory attention?

Raggedexile

17 Jun 09, 5:11pm

Hello? Hel-lo? Anyone there?

Ethical? Ha!

Tuesday, 16 June 2009

Over at the Guardian’s ethical living blog they’ve put the Co-op under the spotlight.You ask, they answer from now til Friday.

Well, of course, oh yes, I have been asking (under my moniker of raggedexile, adopted when I was living in joyous penury on the guano-spattered Isle of Portland).

Have at them! Good sport! Make em wriggle!

Deserts of eternity

Tuesday, 16 June 2009

It’s all up with EternalSpace. Even as we slept it went gentle into that good night, taking with it millions of $ of venture capital. After life’s fitful fever it sleeps well.

Investors, it seems, screamed STOP when, just 30 days after its launch, they already saw it going nowhere. They blame feet-dragging undertakers and the glacial pace of change in the death trade.

I am sad about this in a by no means worthy way. I got off on its towering awfulness. Million-dollar awfulness is the best it gets. If you missed it, I’m sorry. I did try to tell you.

And yet online memorial sites have a future. They are places to go and talk and share. The sad news for grieving people is that it is difficult at this stage in their evolution to determine which sites will thrive and which will founder with the loss of all memories on board — as so many already have.

Where’s your quality assurance?

Three factors will ensure the survival of the fittest: ethics, functionality and a stable financial foundation.

Over at MuchLoved, Jonathan Davies is doing his best. He has developed an ethical code of conduct which has respect for privacy at its heart. But one of its signatories, The Last Respect, seems already to have bellied. He has set up a not-for-profit, the Data Trust, to ensure the maintenance of digitally stored information. Not many takers so far, and GaGaGa.com, a site for baby snaps, has failed to launch.

Assessing functionality is partly a subjective thing—do you like the look of the site? But there are objective criteria. How does it drive? How fast does it go? Is it well-equipped? On all these counts, MuchLoved objectively excels.

Financial foundations clearly matter most. And the message to anyone out there hoping to make money from an online memorial site is: forget it—unless you’ve a different and a better vision from that of market leader MuchLoved, which is free. How does MuchLoved do that? Here I declare an interest: partly from people like me who admire it and donate. Partly, too, I guess, from charities which stand to benefit from donations made in memory. And partly ( a big partly) from Jonathan himself, who has poured heaps of his own time and money into the site in memory of his brother Philip. It’s a labour, you see, of love.

What, then, do we make of GoneTooSoon, MuchLoved’s biggest competitor? It lacks the functionality of MuchLoved. It’s free, but only because it has already been scandal-hit. It now makes money from Interflora and virtual gifts (ugh!).

Ethically, it has question marks buzzing round it like bluebottles. It says it’s a not-for-profit but it’s not a registered charity so far as I can see. When it comes to respecting the privacy of the family of the dead person what do you make of this:

Don’t think it’s not your place to set up a site. You would not be encroaching on other family members territory.

Or this?

Maybe you lost your loved one in a sudden or violent way? … Or perhaps your story is one of true love against the odds? Whatever your story, we’d love to hear from you. Womens magazines are looking for stories of your love and, sadly, loss. If your story is printed, you could receive a payment of around £500 from the magazine.

A glance at the tributes at GoneTooSoon reveals a voyeuristic audience. The same sad people visit every tribute and mark the territory with a mawkish poem or message.

I’d like to contact GoneTooSoon and tell them I’ve posted this blog. I can’t do that by email, only by ringing an 0845 number. No probs with MuchLoved.

And, as ever, I hope someone out there will subvert my analysis.

In the meantime, anyone fancy setting up a memorial site for memorial sites which have gone too soon?

Best in show 1

Monday, 15 June 2009

I spent a joyous day on Friday at the National Funeral Exhibition, an expo dedicated wholly to the merchandise and service providers of death. How much fun can that be? A lot, let me tell you. A great occasion for dismal traders (any colour so long as it’s black or green). Surreal—and sublime.

But you don’t want to know about new generation hearses or the man holding masterclasses in reconstructing smashed up heads. Me neither. We are much more interested in lovely people doing life-enhancing things, aren’t we?

People like Paul Sinclair, the motorcycle funeral man. He’s a national treasure. At the end of the day he gave me a ride in his sidecar and then, knowing I’d once had one, let me drive it. Woo-hoo stuff. I’m still thrilling.

For me, two stand outs. The first was Sarah Walton’s memorial ware.

The urge to commemorate our dead with a vertical physical marker (flat won’t do) is as old as humankind. It’s an urge that’s not going to be educated out of us, for all that we can see that conventional cemeteries decay, their older graves testaments to amnesia. The natural burial movement has yet to address this to the emotional and spiritual satisfaction of their clients, most of whom find it hard to curb the urge to mark the spot.

As Thomas Friese has it, “As presently conceived, green burial forbids or strictly limits enduring grave markers to favor ecological factors. This is a short-sighted aspect of its conception, which forgets that a cemetery is not merely a place to dispose of dead bodies but to memorialize and honor human lives. A majority of society will not accept no memorialization; widespread acceptance will thus be impaired.”

I don’t have the answer. But I have a belief that a physical marker does not, for many, need to be over the spot where the body lies—or the ashes. And that’s why I am a believer in the garden memorial. It’s close. It beautifies where you live. You can take it with you when you move.

Sarah’s bird baths and doves are sculptural rather than utilitarian. They are as beautiful as anything I have ever seen. Technically, they are astonishing. They are hollow, you can keep ashes in them, but you don’t have to. No photo does justice to them.

I’m going to talk her up wherever and whenever I can. Get used to it. Check out her website. Not only is she an artist, she is also, you will want to know, one of the very warmest, nicest people in the world.

Cremation urn for a cat by Sarah Walton
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