Blog Archives: July 2009

Bodies to bling

Thursday, 30 July 2009

A diamond made from cremated remains
I’m on holiday. I don’t want to court controversy for a couple of weeks (the weather will stop me getting hot under the collar.) But it never did any harm to be a little provocative in the interest of animated debate.

So, I say, good taste will always hide behind convention because it is too timorous to do its own thing. Good taste, for all that it parades itself as self-restraint and decorum, is nothing but creative paralysis.

Where funerals are concerned, one person’s emotional truth is another person’s sentimental incontinence. If there’s a taste war going on out there (and, by jingo, there is) it’s very one-sided. The good-tasters rage against frightfulness; the bad tasters happily and obliviously get on with it.

Blessed are those who do their own thing.

If you didn’t see it, Channel 4’s half-hour film last Friday, Ashes to Diamonds, is well worth a look. It points up the problem with ashes: what to do with them? And it follows people who followed their hearts and had them mixed with oil paint, made into diamonds and blasted from shotgun cartridges.

I spoke to the film’s maker, David Brindley, when he was researching the project, and I emailed my congratulations to him after I’d watched it. Here’s part of his reply:

I’m mainly pleased that it genuinely seems to have stirred up thoughts in the minds of those watching as to exactly what to do with either existing ashes or their own once they’re gone. I’ve had lots of emails from people saying that they had no clue half of these options were even available to them.

If you missed it, you can see it here.


Thursday, 23 July 2009

The trees are coming into leaf

Like something almost being said

I read those lines of Philip Larkin at the funeral of a 16 year old boy who’d died of cancer. They were just right for all sorts of reasons. It was May. Sam, a good artist, had a thing for painting trees. All through his dying in that delayed spring we had looked forward to the trees coming into leaf. What does Larkin mean when he says “Like something almost being said?” I don’t know that poetic meaning translates into words. Poetry uses words to transcend words and touch the mystery of things, that’s its sorcery. Let’s not be reductive.

It was as sad as sadness gets, of course it was, Sam’s funeral. And it was brave and beautiful. Over in Ireland his grandmother threw an armful of dogs into the car and came over to do the flowers. Together they were in the church for the better part of a week, raising up and blending huge, lovely, idiosyncratic vase-fuls. When the undertakers drove Sam’s body over on a morning heavy with mist and rain and sunshine, his friends stood in line to see him brought in, hushed and thoughtful as it came home to them, the death of one of them. Simon, the school rebel, whom Sam, very staid, had always wanted a part of, was in charge of seeing people to their seats. His best behaviour was engagingly loopy. We professed our sadness, spoke the truth about Sam, laughed some. The choir sang ‘God Be In My Head’ soaringly with outbreaks of huskiness, Sam being up there in the midst of them. He was buried in the steep village churchyard. When almost everyone had gone the gravediggers, unseen till then, rose up suddenly and came down the slope in that timeless way of theirs to heap the earth. His mother, a sculptor, later installed the memorial at the top. That’s Sam’s parrot you see and, at the foot, his dog.

Out of sadness can come the strangest and most wonderful beauty. Sam was too young, his death as bleak as it gets. His people might have succumbed to the nihilism of it all. They might have capitulated numbly to emotional and organisational best practice, worn drawn faces, griefwalked through some seamless, soulless ceremonial and back out into the world, unhealed. But Sam’s funeral broke the bonds of all that. There was a defiant vitality, a creative anarchy at work which made sense of it all precisely because it did not.

And that’s exacty what Larkin does, I think. Here’s the complete poem:

The trees are coming into leaf

Like something almost being said;

The recent buds relax and spread,

Their greenness is a kind of grief.

Is it that they are born again

And we grow old? No, they die too.

Their yearly trick of looking new

Is written down in rings of grain.

Yet still the unresting castles thresh

In fullgrown thickness every May.

Last year is dead, they seem to say,

Begin afresh, afresh, afresh.

The mind is its own place

Monday, 20 July 2009

The Guardian ran a short piece on Saturday about those who work in the death industry. One of the themes was humour as a coping mechanism.

One of the interviewees was Andrew Leverton of Leverton’s, by appointment undertaker to HRH the Queen. Asked if he found aspects of his work darkly funny he replied, “I don’t find it particularly humorous.” He went on to say, “I keep away from the emotional aspect of it … I try to keep things at arm’s length.” Professional detachment for him means that mishaps are things like flowers being put on the wrong coffin or corteges running late. Nothing about people.

Now, that’s quite a trick, to steer clear of emotion in the funeral business. Amidst the wailing and the trauma, Andrew’s problems are all logistical. “If you can keep you head while all about you / Are losing theirs…” You’ve cracked it, Andrew.

Part of me admires that. Grief is the responsibility of those who grieve. We hire an undertaker to take care of the practicalities, not to take away the pain. Andrew quietly sets about his business.

But most of us in Andrew’s place would find it hard not to make a human connection of some sort and, once you’ve established some sort of rapport with your clients, you’re bound to have a feeling for what’s happened to them. There’s the matter of client expectations, too. There’s got to be more to the contract than corpses and coffins and cars. Consumers expect more than courteous indifference. They need their undertaker to enter into the spirit of the arrangements to some degree.

People who get that close to death need to be able to cope. I doubt whether emotional disengagement is the way. People who reckon catastrophe to be inexplicable will never be able to process human misery and let it pass through them; they melt down. People who feed on grief (there are quite a few grief vultures out there) glut on it and go mad. Those who are more emotionally mature can take it on, then let it go. This, they would say, is the way the world is, and I accept that.

So, Andrew, I’m sure you’re doing a fine job. But, old chap, I think there’s more to it than getting to the crem on time. This is a job for emotional grown-ups. As John Milton had it:

The mind is its own place, and in itself
Can make a Heav’n of Hell, a Hell of Heav’n

Gift or garbage?

Thursday, 16 July 2009

What a piece of work is a man! how noble in reason!
how infinite in faculty! in form and moving how
express and admirable! in action how like an angel!
in apprehension how like a god! the beauty of the
world! the paragon of animals! And yet, to me,
what is this quintessence of dust?

You have an intense relationship with your body. Clad and looking its best it is the embodiment of all that you are, an essential element of your public personality and your personal identity. By it others know you. It is you made manifest. You can drive around in a different car and you wouldn’t kid anyone that that’s not you inside. Drive around in a different body, even your best friend wouldn’t know you. For all that you deplore the less comely or successful bits, it is precious to you.

The same goes for the bodies of those you love. They are more than vehicles. And they are precious.

These feelings alter as bodies age and become deplorable.

But it’s death that makes all the difference.

How precious is a body then, when it’s dead? What honour is due to it? What celebration? “It’s only a shell,” people say, for all that they don’t really believe that, for all that a shell is hard and a body is not, it’s nothing like a shell.

Old habits die hard. Most of us reckon it a duty to cherish dead bodies, though we know well enough that dissolution awaits. We blather about shells and empty vessels even as we sentimentally hand over the carrier bag of clothes to the undertaker. We still want our dead to look their best.

A person’s personality is very evidently absent from their corpse. So their corpse is clearly not them any more. Which causes us to wonder, some of us, about the soul, the spirit, where that’s gone, if anywhere, and what is the relationship between body and spirit, are they one or are they separate? Do we get to be resurrected in our earthly body? Does our spirit live on in some undefined way? Or is that all wishful tosh?

Does a corpse merit a funeral? Does a funeral need a corpse? If you want to commemorate the life and celebrate the spirit and all the stuff that lives on, what the heck’s that dead body doing there? When Arthur Miller was asked if he was going to the funeral of his ex-wife, Marilyn Monroe, he answered, “Why should I go? She won’t be there.” When John Lennon died, Yoko Ono made sure there’d be no focus on his bullet-ridden dead body by having it cremated unceremoniously, unwitnessed. She held a memorial ceremony instead, to take place everywhere and anywhere. “Pray for his soul from wherever you are,” she said. And we did.

It takes some intellectual rigour to see the corpse in this way, see it for what it is if that’s how you see things, and then get rid of it of as you would a dead car. What’ll the neighbours say?

And it is for this reason, and out of cultural habit, that we have never, in the UK, gone in for having the bodies of our dead towed away and scrapped. They do in the US. It’s quite big over there (and it gives the undertakers sleepless nights). Direct cremation*, they call it. Cheap as chips. Bake and shake. Ruthless, in its way.

I never thought it would jump the Atlantic, but it has. We now have our first direct cremation service over here and it’s busy. Simplicity Cremations, it’s called. Done and dusty for just over a grand. Its creator, Nick Gandon, is a fan of this blog, so he’s clearly a good thing.

I think this marks a significant cultural shift.

There are three sides to direct cremation, just as there are to everything.

It fosters denial in those who will not face and engage with the terrifying reality.

It’s the quickest, cheapest way to get a body scrapped.

It’s a great way to prepare a body for disposal. It makes it portable, durable, divisible. For people who think this way, expense may not be an issue. They can spend their money after disposal, not before, on a memorial event of their own devising.

It’s not for me. But I bet Nick has some interesting clients.

* The body is taken directly from the place of death and cremated in a simple container. There is no funeral service.

How to watch your brother die

Monday, 13 July 2009

How To Watch Your Brother Die

For Carl Morse

When the call comes, be calm.

Say to your wife, “My brother is dying. I have to fly

to California.”

try not to be shocked that he already looks like

a cadaver.

Say to the young man sitting by your brother’s side,

“I’m his brother.”

Try not to be shocked when the young man says,

“I’m his lover. Thanks for coming.”

Listen to the doctor with a steel face on.

Sign the necessary forms.

Tell the doctor you will take care of everything.

Wonder why doctors are so remote.

Watch the lover’s eyes as they stare into

your brother’s eyes as they stare into


Wonder what they see there.

Remember the time he was jealous and

opened your eyebrow with a sharp stick.

Forgive him out loud

even if he can’t

understand you.

Realize the scar will be

all that’s left of him.

Over coffee in the hospital cafeteria

say to the lover, “You’re an extremely good-looking

young man.”

Hear him say,

“I never thought I was good enough looking to

deserve your brother.”

Watch the tears well up in his eyes. Say,

“I’m sorry. I don’t know what it means to be

the lover of another man.”

Hear him say,

“Its just like a wife, only the commitment is

deeper because the odds against you are so much


Say nothing, but

take his hand like a brother’s.

Drive to Mexico for unproven drugs that might

help him live longer.

Explain what they are to the border guard.

Fill with rage when he informs you,

“You can’t bring those across.”

Begin to grow loud.

Feel the lover’s hand on your arm

restraining you. See in the guard’s eye

how much a man can hate another man.

Say to the lover, “How can you stand it?”

Hear him say, “You get used to it.”

Think of one of your children getting used to

another man’s hatred.

Call your wife on the telephone. Tell her,

“He hasn’t much time.

I’ll be home soon.” Before you hang up say,

“How could anyone’s commitment be deeper than

a husband and a wife?” Hear her say,

“Please. I don’t want to know all the details.”

When he slips into an irrevocable coma,

hold his lover in your arms while he sobs,

no longer strong. Wonder how much longer

you will be able to be strong.

Feel how it feels to hold a man in your arms

whose arms are used to holding men.

Offer God anything to bring your brother back.

Know you have nothing God could possibly want.

Curse God, but do not

abandon Him.

Stare at the face of the funeral director

when he tells you he will not

embalm the body for fear of

contamination. Let him see in your eyes

how much a man can hate another man.

Stand beside a casket covered in flowers,

white flowers. Say,

“thank you for coming,” to each of seven hundred men

who file past in tears, some of them

holding hands. Know that your brother’s life

was not what you imagined. Overhear two

mourners say, “I wonder who’ll be next?” and

“I don’t care anymore,

as long as it isn’t you.”

Arrange to take an early flight home.

His lover will drive you to the airport.

When your flight is announced say,

awkwardly, “If I can do anything, please

let me know.” Do not flinch when he says,

“Forgive yourself for not wanting to know him

after he told you. He did.”

Stop and let it soak in. Say,

“He forgave me, or he knew himself?”

“Both,” the lover will say, not knowing what else

to do. Hold him like a brother while he

kisses you on the cheek. Think that

you haven’t been kissed by a man since

your father died. Think,

“This is no moment to be strong.”

Fly first class and drink Scotch. Stroke

your split eyebrow with a finger and

think of your brother alive. Smile

at the memory and think

how your children will feel in your arms

warm and friendly and without challenge.

By Michael Lassell

Light, like the sun

Saturday, 11 July 2009

Here’s an interesting photograph taken by Maeve Berry of a body burning in a cremator (for US readers, a retort).

It is one of a series which tracks the process from start to finish.

What do you think? Hellish? Or clean, purifying and beautiful?

See the rest of the series here.

Rhyme and reason

Wednesday, 8 July 2009

There’s a new collection of poems out from Roger McGough.

I like him. I’ve always thought him admirable for his craftsmanship (there’s a lot that doesn’t meet the eye) and his humanity. And his accessibility, of course. He’s a great poet.

Many of the new poems are imbued with his characteristic whimsy, but they’re also darker. Roger stands quite close to death these days (on account of his age). ‘Let me die a youngman’s death’ has yielded to stuff like this:

I don’t want any of that
‘We’re gathered here today
to celebrate his life, not mourn his passing.’
Oh yes you are. Get one thing straight,
you’re not here to celebrate but to mourn until it hurts.

… … … …

Don’t dwell on my past but your future.
For what you see is what you’ll be
and sooner than you think.
So get weeping. Fill yourselves with dread.
For I am not sleeping. I am dead.

‘That Awkward Age’. Out now. Recommended.

Dead right

Monday, 6 July 2009

Jeremy Bentham

“I regard this body of mine as being mine in life and it is for me to say in what way it should be disposed of after my death. I regard that as an absolute … For example, I would have the gravest reservations about any organs from my body after my death being used to save the lives of Mr Adams or Mr McGuinness, or any of the gangsters with whom they have long been associated.”

Also sprach Lord Tebbit in the House of Lords in a debate on preferential organ donation in March this year. We know why he would say that, we sympathise, even, but he’s wrong. No one owns their body in life or in death. That’s why we’re not allowed to pay for that new garden room we crave by selling a kidney. It’s a mighty thorny area, this, fraught with muddy water. Let’s focus on dead bodies, the proper study of this blog.

Who does a dead body belong to? No one. In law, “the only lawful possessor of the dead body is the earth”. The executor or administrator of the dead person’s estate is entitled to custody of the body, but only but only on condition that he or she does not display it in a way which would outrage public decency, and disposes of it before it becomes a public health hazard..

It’s not as straightforward as that, though. If a dead body has been the recipient of ‘work and skill’ it becomes property. That’s why museums legally own their mummies, London University owns Jeremy Bentham and anyone can own a skeleton. It is why the estate of the painter Robert Lenkiewicz was allowed in 2004 to retain possession of the body of the tramp Diogenes, which Lenkiewicz embalmed and then refused to hand over to officials of Plymouth City Council when they came to take it away and dispose of it.

What status does a dead body have when it has been subjected to conventional embalming?

What duty of care does the possessor or custodian owe to a dead body?

What level of care is a bereaved family entitled to require of an undertaker?

I’ve been trying to find out and, let me tell you, there have been some who have found my enquiry offensive, but it is only by positing hypothetical circumstances that you can get to the bottom of the matter and find out how unprotected a dead body is in this country. You see, although the Sexual Offences Act (2003) outlaws the sexual penetration of a dead body, what is not outlawed? Cannibalism? Dismemberment? I cannot say with certainty, I don’t know that a lawyer can, either, nor yet can Stephen White of the Centre for Death and Society at the University of Bath, who recommends I read his “The Law relating to Dealing with Dead Bodies” in (2000) 4 Medical Law International 145, particularly pages 153-155. I’ll need to get to a university library to read this, so please feel free to beat me to it and tell me what he says. The outcome of my researches so far seems to be that there is very little you can’t do to a dead body.

In the US they have their Abuse of a Corpse law, which says: “A person is guilty of abuse of a corpse when except as authorized by law he intentionally treats a corpse in a way that would outrage ordinary family sensibilities.” That’s a pretty good umbrella. We need something like that here.

In the meantime, what level of care can we expect from a UK undertaker? The answer is: highly variable. Why do they not present us with a detailed document, when we make arrangements, declaring their commitment to safeguard the dead person’s privacy, to conduct themselves respectfully and tell us precisely how they will do that? Because we don’t ask. Because we turn a blind eye. Because we just trust them to behave with decency. Even the Dead Citizen’s Charter did not see fit to address this, goodness knows why not.

Is this an area of concern? Oh, yes. In Tom Lynch’s words (nobody does it better) “The dead don’t mind, but the dead do matter.” Undertakers do not customarily perpetrate grossest outrages, but many are guilty of a host of grievous ones. How, for example, would you feel if your dead person had been used as the model for a training session in laying-out for visiting staff from a care home? How would you feel if you knew that your dead person had been laid out and dressed by some bloke while he laughed and joked with a colleague sitting in a corner of the mortuary eating his lunchtime sandwiches? How would you feel if he had been helped by a lad on work experience who went home and told his hushed mates all about it? The scope for disrespect, even abuse, does not end here, not by any means, let me tell you.

Attitude translates into conduct, but where conduct cannot be examined attitude can easily be falsified. So long as a bad undertaker can keep up a convincing smarm offensive in the front office, he or she can get away with all kinds of negligence and disrespect back in the mortuary. Commitment to best practice must be readily verifiable or it is worthless.

And so it is that the full extent of the reverence which my brilliant local undertaker Judi brings to her work will never be known, for all that she wins over families with her warmth and humanity. I feel for those families who go to some other local undertakers. If only they knew what they are letting their dead person in for.

Thus does best practice go unchecked and worst practice unpunished.

Is it time we had our own abuse of a corpse legislation in the UK which not only forbids conduct towards a dead body which would outrage ordinary family sensibilities, but which also lays down detailed minimum standards? I think it is. For all the difficulty the law might have in getting its head around the concept, the dead have rights, too.

I’d be glad to know what you think.

Bloggus interruptus

Friday, 3 July 2009

Everyone’s got a book in them. Best place for it. Throw away the key, I say, you’ll embalm the illusion that way.

Illusion? Almost certainly. You think you’ve got something precious and important to impart? You think there’s a lot of tosh coming off the presses, surely someone’ll print mine?

Try getting it published.

First you’ve got to let it out by writing it down. My favourite poet, archy, describes writing as ‘frightfully difficult literary labour’ and his diction sums it up perfectly if understatedly.

Then you’ve got to find an agent. Agents live on authors, but the way they tell it you’d think they’re trying to wean themselves off them. You send them your stuff. You wait. And wait. Then: “We like it – but not quite enough.”

Sisyphus knew something of what this feels like. But he had the better deal, rolling that boulder.

I’ve got to hand it here to Graham Maw Christie. They took me in and they’ve looked after me wonderfully.

There’s a rule of thumb which has it that finding an agent is harder than getting published. Don’t put faith in that, especially in the middle of a recession. Especially if you’re writing about death. At no stage should you ever get your hopes up.

In the case of the Good Funeral Guide it took a while to find a berth. Eventually Continuum recognised a gift horse when they saw it. I whoooped, then reflexively unwhooped. I won’t whoop, I said, till I’ve signed the contract.

Last weekend I did that (see pic above). Still I didn’t whoop. I’ve got to send them the completed text by 1 September. It’s got to be the best I can make it. Bye-bye summer.

And, of course, if that best isn’t good enough, they’ll send it back turned down.

When do I get my whoop-opp? I can’t see it.

Will this make me rich?

I can give you the figures if you ask. The long answer is no, very not rich. The short answer is skint.

The loneliness. The self-doubt. The terror of falling short. I don’t want congratulations, I need pity and I know I’m not going to get it.

Got a book in you?

How stubborn are you?

Friends, this blog will, for the next two months, go on the blink somewhat. In the meantime, if you’re the sort who takes lessons from those who don’t do as they say, learn to love the day job.