Blog Archives: August 2009

Dead letters

Wednesday, 26 August 2009

I’m not an expert in grief therapy—or therapy of any kind. I was sent to boarding school when I was six. Sounds privileged, I know, but think upmarket orphanage. Boarding schools pride themselves on teaching children to be independent. Don’t children become independent anyway? Whatever, a good British boarding school teaches you the art and craft of emotional self-defence—and not necessarily in a good way. You can become emotionally fortressed, profoundly private, a no-entry zone. You learn to protect your privacy by playing parts. Okay, so everyone learns to do that a bit. But British boarding schools bred some of the most brilliant and deadly people ever to spy for Russia. I’ve been trying to unpick the habits I learned ever since. I undoubtely need therapy.

Back to grief therapy. There’s a school of thought, isn’t there, that the goal of it is a wound closed over, a working through, a putting behind, the shutting of a door and a moving on? Something like that? Call it the Let My People Go school of grief therapy.

And then there’s probably a Stayin’ Alive school of therapy. If so, that’s the school for me. I talk to my Mum all the time, and she’s still a strong influence on my opinions and behaviour. Her absence is not negative space, it’s a species of presence. No closure for me, thanks.

Back in June Norm (I love Norm) posted a blog which moved me. It’s a letter. In his own words, I wrote this letter for my grief support group several years ago trying to help them realize the one who is gone is their greatest cheerleader. That person still loves them deeply and wants them to succeed in their grief journey. As Jack Lemon said, ‘A person died, not a relationship.’”

Here it is:


It’s wonderful to be able to write you and let you know how I feel. To begin with, I’m fine. The pain is gone, the suffering is over and so many things that seemed important are no longer so.

I must tell you immediately, once again, how much I love you. That was true then, now and forever.

It’s good to see you making steps toward discovering who you are and how you feel about the life you now have. You always had inside you what you are discovering now. How happy I am that you are seeing the “you” that I have known for a long time. You are also finding many strengths I did not see in you, but were there nonetheless.

I know things changed dramatically when I died. But you have been remarkable in making progress in your grief. I am so proud of you. No one could be prouder or love you more.

I’ll never forget our lives together, just as you won’t. Know that I am pulling for you and loving you all the more from this side. I love you.

Your Love, forever

In the Guardian last Saturday there was this letter from a daughter to her dead mother:

It has been a long time since I wrote that first letter to you the summer after you died. I wrote several letters, and of course you never replied, so I carried on writing to myself, for myself. Without you there to guide me, I studied every memory of you and analysed every facet of my own grief. I’ve dissected my own character, identifying which components were you, which were Dad, and which combinations were the best way to decipher the puzzle of grieving. I’ve read my notes all over again, to try to unravel the mystery of you not being here any more.

I keep your spirit alive: retelling your stories, proudly wearing your jewellery and perfume. I have your sense of humour, your style and your creative flair and I sprinkle them around so that everyone I know will unwittingly know you too. And much as I cannot replace the wholeness of you, I have found “other mothers” of all ages who have bolstered me, soared with me and stood beside me at various points in my life, each having some quality I missed in you.

Always, I wish for you to be here. The success and happiness I have achieved in life are for ever tinged with sadness, because I want so desperately for you to share it. The good times we have are shadowed by your absence, because you would have been here, the first to take to the dance floor, cajoling all my friends, twirling in a red dress.

As I grow closer to you in age, and even surpass some of your experiences, I feel closer to you than I have done in years. It seems crazy, but our relationship is full of an energy that I haven’t felt since you were alive. And although it is a bittersweet realisation, I’m sure that somewhere beneath the ether you are smiling too that I have finally come back to you.

But now I must explain the reason for my writing to you. Often I have wished to have one more day with you: one golden day to ask the questions, hear your stories, hold your hand. Last night a question entered my head like a bubble bursting. We were watching a beautiful film, having spent a wonderful night together. I started to cry and I said to him: “I never thought I could be as happy as this.” Instantly, the bargain entered my head: “Would you swap this for a day with your mum?” I knew the answer at once, and it sunk to my stomach like a lead weight, because without hesitation I chose my future over my past. I’m sorry, Mum. I haven’t deserted you, but I have found a love, an affection that is real and palpable. And in spirit, I have found you again, so this is as perfect as it can ever mortally be.

All your love, for ever in my heart, your daughter, Anna xxx

Getting over it

Tuesday, 25 August 2009

For the Victorians, sex was the great taboo. Nowadays, it’s death.

Every time I hear someone begin to say that I jam my fingers in my ears. I may even moan softly. Gibber a bit, even. I’m, I can’t tell you, I’m just so sick of it. Talk about cliché, god, it makes even the most clichéd cliché look fresh.

For the truth is that we love talking about dying and death. We’re spellbound by it. The media are always talking death, doing death. We love a good funeral. Does Wootton Bassett look taboo-struck?

And every time someone writes about it they say, “For Victorians…” Aaaaargh!!

Matthew Parris doesn’t say it because he’s fastidious and he picks his idioms judiciously. Perhaps it’s his age, but he’s writing about death more than he used—and very well, too. He’s getting older, of course. He’s reached that age when we realise that we are not going to be the first one ever to slip beneath Reaper G’s radar (the bastard).

Here’s how he begins a recent piece in the Spectator:

It is five years since my father died. I thought I would get over it, but I haven’t. This is not a plea for sympathy — I’m fine, all’s well — but simply an observation, a report. Unusually for a man of 54 I had never, before Dad’s death, lost anyone close; and I had no idea what to expect.

I guessed, though, that the experience would not differ from other violent emotional traumas: first the shock, then a blank aftershock; then busy-ness — displacement activity; then perhaps a relapsing into grief. And after that and over many years a slow but steady process of what sensitive people might call ‘healing’ and the rest of us would call getting over it.

The shock, it turned out, though expected, was the phone-call. At the bedside of a dying man I expected no theatre, and found none. Just as I’d supposed the immediate feeling was only bleak, banal — no trumpets or violins, no wailing or floods of tears, but a kind of bleakness, a grey hour in a grey dawn. And so it proved: the rain coming down softly (I remember) outside in Catalonia. Blank.

Then (I thought) might follow a few weeks’ false-normality: still numb, but with arrangements of a practical nature to busy myself with. One would have too much to do to mope.

And so this proved, too: there’s plenty to fill close relatives’ days when somebody dies, and hardly time to miss the deceased. And it rained at the funeral too, and there were hundreds of Catalan and Spanish mourners to air-kiss at the door of the little church before Dad’s coffin was borne away in the hearse: red tail-lights in the rain. And I still wasn’t feeling much.

But waiting, I suppose, for the lapse into grief: a month or two of wallowing.

This never came. I went back to England and back to work. Ordinary service was resumed. There was no time of quiet, after-the-event confrontation with what I had lost, no delayed grief once I had, as they say, ‘time to grieve’. There we are, then, I thought. One down — and how many more to go? The waters had closed over my father’s head and the ripples subsided. I missed him, of course, but from now on, with each month that passed, I would surely miss him a little less. Time heals all wounds, etc. So now, I thought, begins that famous healing process.

I thought wrong.

If that whets your appetite for the rest of this splendid piece, find it here.

Funeralcare screwupdate

Friday, 21 August 2009

Margaret Miller, of Dundas Road, North Berwick, passed away last Monday, aged 88, having paid her local Co-operative Funeralcare branch two-and-half years ago to be buried in the same grave plot as her parents, Andrew and Margaret Miller, in council-owned North Berwick Cemetery.

However, following her death, her relatives were told by Co-op staff that East Lothian Council had ruled there was no space in the lair for a third burial and Margaret was allocated a new plot in the recently opened extension of the cemetery.

But her family were determined that the pensioner’s final resting place would not be in the new section of the cemetery, branded “inappropriate” by Margaret’s nephew Kenneth Miller, and took the last-minute decision last Thursday not to go ahead with her burial – scheduled to take place the next day.

Find out what happened next here.

The truth, the half-truth and nothing of the truth

Wednesday, 19 August 2009

Der Letzte Weg 2001 from chris caliman on Vimeo.

Good word, embalm. Its vowels and its consonants are gentle, emollient, reposeful. Balm. Calm. Serene. Peace, perfect peace.

It definitely sounds like a nice thing to do to a dead body, yes?

Undertakers hold the view that there are things we don’t need to know and they may even have a point, if what they do is really necessary.

The jaw suture, for example, to close the mouth.

So if you go to Videojug, you will hear an undertaker, Mr Maguire of the NAFD, no less, tell you that embalming is but a simple injection which leaves a dead person looking lifelike.


It takes two sides to have an argument, and I can take both at once. One of my best friends is an embalmer. Others of my best friends would say that embalming is a violation and a desecration.

If you don’t know what it looks like, watch the 11-minute video above. But before you click play, let me warn you: you need a very strong stomach.

If you can’t face it, have some fun at the freshly made-over Videojug site. It’ll tell you how to striptease, make your breasts look bigger, avoid a trapped arm when cuddling in bed—oh, all kinds of indispensable things.

Do tell Videojug what you think of Mr Maguire. Leave a comment. This is a public information site. In a free(ish) country like ours, people have a right to know.

My thanks to Bob Butz for putting me on to Thanatopraxie. More about his excellent new book, Going Out Green, another time.

That Tom Lynch libel case

Monday, 17 August 2009

There are times when we feel acutely that the UK and the US are ‘two countries separated by a common language’. When our common language is voiced by the monstrous Republican right, the gulf looks unbridgeable.

But where funerals are concerned we have much talk about and much to learn from each other. And there’s a healthy symbiosis going on: they like our natural burial; we like their home funerals. In almost every area of debate Americans are more passionate and dynamic than the Brits. The US has a far more powerful, predatory, scandal-ridden, eco-hostile funeral industry than ours, so they have more to react against, more to talk about, and more urgently. For all that, the issues are shared: the role and value of the funeral director; the rights and responsibilities of the bereaved; the purpose of a funeral; and environmentally responsible funerals. Elemental stuff.

In the matter of consumer protection, the US has its excellent Funeral Consumers Alliance (FCA), run by the acute and indefatigble Josh Slocum. Its website is a treasury of information. It also has the Funeral Ethics Organisation (FEO), run by the redoubtable and completely splendid Lisa Carlson. We have nothing like campaigners of this calibre here in the UK.

The US has the best writers, too. We have our Tony Walter, but no one has written more thoughtfully or brilliantly than Thomas Lynch, an undertaker and poet whose prose, arguably, is even better than his verse. His two books of essays, The Undertaking and Bodies in Rest and in Motion, condense thought, experience and wisdom, and express them through a high intelligence and a god-given, delicious prose style. His concerns are elemental ones: “funerals are the way we close the gap between the death that happens and the death that matters. It’s how we assign meaning to our little remarkable histories.”

He is critical of the way things are. He observes how the parlour, that room in old houses where babies were born and the dead laid out, has been converted to accommodate Mr Thomas Crapper’s invaluable invention, the toilet: “Since Crapper’s marvellous invention, we need only pull the lever behind us and the evidence disappears, a kind of rapture that removes the nuisance … having lost the regular necessity of dealing with unpleasantries, we have lost the ability to do so when need arises. And we have lost the community well versed in these calamities. In short, when shit happens, we feel alone. It is the same with our dead. We are embarrassed by them in the way that we are embarrassed by a toilet that overflows the night that company comes. It is an emergency. We call the plumber … And just as bringing the crapper indoors has made faeces an embarrassment, pushing the dead and dying out has made death one.”

This looks like a manifesto for home funerals. It is. One of Tom’s most-repeated dictums is this: “Ours is a species which deals with death by dealing with our dead.” He acknowledges that most people don’t want to be that involved, and that’s where the funeral director comes in. He says, “some want to be empowered, others to be served, others not to be bothered at all. Our job is to meet them where they are on this continuum and help where we can when we’re asked.”

For all that, Tom fell out with Lisa and the FCA over his defence of the right of the State of Michigan to appoint funeral directors to superintend the filing of paperwork pertaining to a funeral, even that of home funeralists. Interestingly, anomalously, the state does not pay these funeral directors for their supervision, the family does. And, as Lisa has it, “When a state requires a family to hire a funeral director, that body becomes a hostage of the funeral industry. The funeral director is suddenly in a position of authority with his meter running.”

The falling out was so acrimonious that Tom sued Lisa and the FCA for libel.

The news is that Tom’s suit has just been thrown out of court.

And the saddening pity is that all parties are high-minded, admirable people.

I don’t feel culturally qualified to have a view on all this, so I’m nailing my trousers to the fence. Sure, we share a common language…

Read the FCA response and the court ruling here.

Business opp, anyone?

Tuesday, 4 August 2009

I love it. Just in time to give those old baby boomers a final ride. It’s a 1989 Daimler DS420 with a Jag XK engine. It’s got all it needs inside except for a bloody good sound system.

And it’s for sale. I’ve thought about it, I can tell you. It could be a steady earner. But engines don’t purr when I lay on hands. This one’s going to need an oily lover.
Yours for five grand. See some more views, and contact its owner, Matt, here.