Blog Archives: October 2009
An interesting thing about undertaking is that you don’t have to come at it from a position of actually being an undertaker. Does that make no sense? Let me explain.
I know how undertakers feel. I am a writer. It is very difficult to come at writing from the position of being a writer. My good friend Christopher is a writer. He wrote a very successful book. Nigel Slater, Monty Don and Anna Pavord raved about it. Result? Penury. Very few writers strike lucky enough to make a living from writing (though their agents and publishers do well enough out of them). They need to do other things. If Christopher wants to finish his next book (it’s about forests and promises to be just as brilliant as Forgotten Fruits) he needs to broaden his earning base, bustle a bit, do some journalism or copywriting, a few shifts pushing trolleys at B&Q, a newspaper round, whatever. A bit on the side. I once did time in prison. As a teacher. It was quite a good little earner—until I was sacked. I am now an occasional funeral celebrant. It keeps my financial scoreboard ticking over. But it keeps me from my writing. There’s no winning combination.
Just about everyone else can make a living by pursuing single-issue careers, lucky people. Surgeons. Electricians. Brazilian waxers. Dog groomers. They don’t need their bit on the side.
Undertakers began as portfolio workers. They were builders or joiners. Undertaking was a sideline. Nowadays, though they are undertakers first and foremost, they still can’t make a living out of it, dammit. No, they need their bit on the side, too. So they have to work hard to make themselves indispensable in all areas of funeral planning—to be a one-stop shop for everything you need. Which is why they collect fees on behalf of crematoriums, priests, celebrants and burial grounds, making themselves responsible for the debts of their clients. Desperate lunacy! It is why they have to hold all service and merchandise providers, people who do things they can’t, in hired dependency. Thrall is all.
It’s a terribly delicate business model and it can so easily fall apart. Why? Because undertaking is so easily relegated to an ancillary service. Because there’s so little to it. Result? Hirer hired. Anyone can set themselves up as a funeral arranger and turn the tables—a monumental mason, a celebrant, an event organiser.
Is it all unravelling for the funeral directors? Not necessarily. But they need to smarten up, definitely. Old school funeral directors have failed to address the disconnect between the care of the body and the creation of the funeral ceremony. For most, these remain separate specialisms—and where clients want a religious ceremony they’ll always be so. But the rise of the secular ceremony gives a funeral director the opportunity to offer exactly what their clients want: a joined up service. Most are intellectually incapable of this.
Down in Devon, green fuse hire mortuary facilities from local funeral directors, where they care for the bodies entrusted to them. Family Tree and the Green Funeral Company, both of whom have their own mortuaries, are also rare, triumphant exceptions, the best it gets—but, like my friend Christopher, I don’t suppose they’ll ever be troubling the financial services industry. They are content in their honourable estate of relative poverty, happy in their own skins, terrifically nice people.
Funeral directors live in ever-present danger of someone better coming along and enslaving them. And the news is that their newest threat has arrived. Ladies and gentlemen, give it up for: the funeral consultant!
I have been contacted by two such in the last month, both of them ex-funeral directors who can use their insider knowledge to muscle down prices for their clients. One is Andrew Hickson at Your Choice Funerals. I won’t tell you who the other one is until he has got his website sorted.
Will the news of their advent cause the marmalade to drop from the nerveless fingers of breakfasting funeral directors the length and breadth of the land?
There’s always going to be a market for a cheaper funeral . But my feeling is that people are going to be reluctant to accede to the care of their dead person being subordinated in any way. What do you think?
While you consider, go straight to Amazon and order your copy of Forgotten Fruits.
The video above (I’m sorry, I can’t embed it) shows, or purports to show, an open-air cremation in Colorado. I am indebted to m’learned friend, the humane, wise and scholarly Pat McNally, for putting me onto it. It is the subject of his latest blog post. If you are not a regular reader of Pat’s blog you can look forward to many happy hours in his archive. It’s a treasure trove.
Here in the UK the Anglo-Asian Friendship Society is preparing to go to Court of Appeal to contest the ban on open-air cremation upheld in the High Court in May 2009, a case notorious for the intervention of that conspicuous enemy of liberty, the Justice Secretary Jack Straw. He placed open-air cremation in a context of cultural barbarity, opining that evolved, indigenous Britishers would be “upset and offended” by funeral pyres and “find it abhorrent that human remains were being burnt in this way”. He thus set open-air cremation firmly in its place alongside honour killing, the stoning of homosexuals, the mutilation of minor criminals and all manner of exotic, benighted, imported cruelty. The message to our brown-skinned brothers and sisters was clear: you can’t come over here and do that sort of thing in a civilised country like this.
There was very little backlash against Mr Straw’s disdainful dismissal of the funerary rites of a mere 800 million Hindus worldwide. Indeed, many British Hindus lent strength to his argument by declaring that they were perfectly happy to go down to t’crem and be clinically incinerated like anyone else.
Straw created a potent sideshow. Open-air cremation is, he said, culturally alien and aesthetically unacceptable. Neither point of view stands a second’s scrutiny, yet he carried the day. His reasoning was puerile and you need to challenge it.
First, let’s lift open-air cremation out of the cultural cesspit into which Straw contemptuously dumped it. It is not the preserve of a minority of Hindus. It is a disposal option favoured by people of all sorts and all races, of all religions and of none.
And we’re not talking about opening floodgates here. If open-air cremation were to be re-legalised (its present ban is of dubious legality), would the sun all at once be darkened by the smoke of burning carcasses? Would it happen in beauty spots, waste ground, people’s back gardens? Of course not. Firstly, only a very few people would opt for it. Secondly, they would do it lovingly, privately. No one would notice—unless they’d been invited.
There’s a very simple issue of personal liberty at stake here. Nothing should be allowed to stand in the way of people whose actions adversely affect no one else.
There’s also an irony at work. Step forward, please, Dr Price!
William Price first attracted attention as a schoolboy by reading poetry as he walked through the countryside naked. After qualifying as a doctor he became involved in revolutionary politics. He was a druid, given to wearing a red waistcoat, green trousers and a fox pelt on his head.
In 1883, when he was 80, he took as his lover a woman sixty years younger. With her he had a son whom he named Jesus Christ. Jesus died when he was five months old. In accordance with ancient druidical practice, Dr Price proceeded to burn his body. A horrified crowd gathered and snatched the body from the flames. Price was prosecuted. He was acquitted, and the judgement delivered that cremation is legal so long as no nuisance is caused to others.
It was a landmark ruling. When it was made, the furnace of Cremation Society’s first crematorium at Woking had lain unfired since its installation five years previously, timorously awaiting a legal green flag. Dr Price secured the breakthrough the Cremation Society had been hoping for and, without further ado, the pioneering (if prostrate) Mrs Pickersgill became Woking’s first client.
The cogency of the judgement remains incontestable. So long as no nuisance is caused to others, cremation is legal. The irony of the judgement remains poignant: it was brought about by an indigenous open-air cremationist.
If you want to lend your voice to the Anglo-Asian Friendship Society’s appeal, please write now to Andrew Singh Bogan: firstname.lastname@example.org.
‘Loveable’ and ‘funeral director’ aren’t words that sidle up to each other and make friends. I can think of a little handful of hugely loveable funeral directors, but that’s only because I hang out with a heck of a lot.
Up in Newcastle, Carl Marlow is one such. And what makes him loveable is not so much his warmth and zest, though he’s brimming with these. No, what makes your affections for Carl go the extra mile is his sheer naughtiness. It’s a very humane and serious species of naughtiness and it impels him to do things others would never think of.
Is he a genius? Yes, he is. Half saint, half scamp. The very best sort of saint.
He’s made it to today’s Sun with the story of a funeral only he could have suggested. All the mourners set off for the crem in a 49-seater coach with their dead person in the boot. Cheerful. And (don’t overlook this) cheap. Everyone together, not dispersed in ones and twos in cars and buses.
By gum, you’ve got to feel a little sorry for Father Ed, haven’t you? Yes? Have you been following the hullabaloo? There he is one minute, letting off a bit of personal steam in his blog, as one does—and hark what discord follows. Sow a wind, reap a whirlwind. Press, radio and television, they’ve all gone berserk, done him to death. Result: cacophony. There’s no making any sense of the kneejerk hollering and hooting because most of it has been generated by ignorance of what he actually said. The truth will almost always get in the way of a good story. Do you remember when a howling mob of paedophile hunters surrounded the house of a paediatrician? It’s all got a bit like that.
Down at the British Humanist Association, Tana Wollen, Head of Ceremonies, seems not to have allowed truth to stand in the way of a good soundbite. “What a shame,” she says, “that this particular priest seems more concerned with his own feelings than allowing bereaved people a ceremony that reflects their beliefs and wishes and those of the loved ones they have lost.” No, Tana, no. Father Ed is pro-choice. What he actually says is: “Naturally there will be those who disagree with my beliefs; I think they should have the right to exercise this choice even though I believe them to be misguided.”
We can sympathise with Tana if she was nettled by Father Ed’s assertion that “I am not, like the humanist, running a business and seeking financial gain from funerals.” You’re way off the mark there, Father Ed. The exchange of monies for post-mortem goods and services is a well established and perfectly respectable practice. For you, it comes in your stipend.
You don’t have to be a religionist to sympathise with any priest who, charged with conducting a funeral according to the rites of his or her sect, watches their words fall on empty or hostile eyes. To feel like a lemon under those circs is only human. Why do so many unbelievers ask for religious funerals? Yes, that is the question. And as Father Ed justifiably asks, “if this is your position, why invite me to the party? … If there is no desire for this Christian dimension then why have the priest?”
For all that, it is easy to be enraged by the Church’s record in performing funerals. Father Ed and many of his ilk take pains, I’m sure, to do it properly. But too many funerals have been, and still are, perfunctory and impersonal, conducted by ministers who couldn’t give a damn. The C of E in particular has a case to answer.
Do we do funerals well in this country? It’s a good and important question, one at the heart of Father Ed’s ‘rant’. He says: “I was actually seeking to raise a question which is important for all society – what are funerals for?”
It’s a question we need to ask ourselves all the time. It’s Father Ed’s beef that “Christian prayers of ‘commendation and committal’ are not mere aesthetic choices in a market place of funeral options.” In other words, he doesn’t like being used merely as a nice funeral venue that knows how to put on a nice show. And yet his Church (if not his church) is happy enough to indulge those who wish to use its photogenic buildings and genial rites for nice weddings.
Thomas Friese’s response to Father Ed is, I think, spot on: “We may deeply lament the fact that such superficial attention is given in our society to such an important transition and sincerely believe we know better. But if that is so, then it is up to us to convince others of its importance.”
Yes. What are funerals for? Let’s keep asking ourselves that, urgently. Thank you for getting them talking, Father Ed. You’re a prop forward, so you must have broad shoulders. You’ll be needing them in the peace-shattered aftermath of your unsuspecting little blog post.
Interesting programme on Radio 4, Beyond This Life, in which Tim Gardam, Principal of St Anne’s College, Oxford, confronts our response to death in 21st-century Britain. He deals with what he describes as ‘modern confusion about death’, especially among secular people, summed up by one interviewee like this: “I don’t believe in God, but I do believe in heaven.” Gardam talks about secular beliefs as a mish-mash of pantheism, folk religion and superstition, contrasts them unfavourably with the ‘clarity and directness’ of the Moslem way of death, and pitches literal Moslem interpretations of the Koran against evolving and increasingly fuzzy Christian interpretations of the Bible, especially in matters of final judgement, heaven and hell. He concludes by looking forward to next week, when he will visit the National Funeral Exhibition and discuss our present day terror of oblivion.
Not how I see it, but you may find food for thought. Listen within the next 6 days here.
Our old friend Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells has been having some idle fun with the local vicar, Father Ed Tomlinson. The local paper has branded him a ranter and attacked him for attacking the modern funeral in his blog. Among his ‘rants’, this:
Daigo Kobayashi is a devoted cellist in an orchestra that has just been dissolved and now finds himself without a job. Daigo decides to move back to his old hometown with his wife to look for work and start over. He answers a classified ad entitled “Departures” thinking it is an advertisement for a travel agency only to discover that the job is actually for a “Nokanshi” or “encoffineer,” a funeral professional who prepares deceased bodies for burial and entry into the next life. While his wife and others despise the job, Daigo takes a certain pride in his work and begins to perfect the art of “Nokanshi,” acting as a gentle gatekeeper between life and death, between the departed and the family of the departed. The film follows his profound and sometimes comical journey with death as he uncovers the wonder, joy and meaning of life and living.
Looks rather good — unobtainable on DVD here, yet. Here’s the trailer:
Interesting story on US National Public Radio (NPR) here.
Do listen to Bernd Heinrich, gentle and wise, talking about what he perceives to be our duty to return to nature in the most appetising way we can.
No coffin for him. Some of the things he says: “You know, being sealed up, totally removed from natural processes that normally occur with every animal on earth is somehow very frightening, it seems unnatural.” He’s not afraid of being eaten: “I find that comforting, to be part of the eco-system … it’s part of the cost, of giving back. I have killed untold hundreds of thousands to live–we all have; to remove ourselves so no one can feed off us seems somehow sacrilegious.”
I agree. With the honourable exception of those cultures which cleave to ancient customs (some Jews, Muslims, Tibetan sky burialists), our corpse disposal practices define humankind’s disconnection from the Earth; they seem to assert that we are not of it. Call it fastidiousness, call it aloofness, call it squalid squeamishness, we do not behave in a way which acknowledges that we are in debt to it and have a duty to return to it in the most useful way we can. We’ll never save this beleaguered planet of ours until we get real and embrace our oneness.
Natural burial is fraught with the dainty denial of destiny, wrapped in euphemisms to shield us from beastliness, preferring prettified aesthetics to earthy, elemental ethics. Yes, it’s pretty much useless if you do it that deep! You’ll only get to push up daisies and buttercups if you enjoy a vibrant, rapid aerobic rot in topsoil or, better still, on the surface. In Hamlet’s words, “We fat all creatures else to fat us,” and therein lies our duty to “fat ourselves for maggots.” Yes, it’s about bugs as much as buttercups. Come on, people, let’s get clear-eyed about this! We need body farms, not burial grounds.
If you like the sound of William Hamilton, here’s that quote in full:
I will leave a sum in my last will for my body to be carried to Brazil and to these forests. It will be laid out in a manner secure against the possums and the vultures just as we make our chickens secure; and this great Coprophanaeus beetle will bury me. They will enter, will bury, will live on my flesh; and in the shape of their children and mine, I will escape death. No worm for me nor sordid fly, I will buzz in the dusk like a huge bumble bee. I will be many, buzz even as a swarm of motorbikes, be borne, body by flying body out into the Brazilian wilderness beneath the stars, lofted under those beautiful and un-fused elytra which we will all hold over our backs. So finally I too will shine like a violet ground beetle under a stone.
Thank you, Cynthia, for the link.
There’s some interesting research work going on at the University of Hull. This is what they’re up to:
This project reflects the growing interest in spirituality which we are seeing in society generally and the changing shape of modern funerals. We are interested, for example, to see what the ‘spiritual’ content of a so-called ‘alternative’ funeral on the one hand and a traditional Christian or Buddhist ceremony might be; how people, as individuals and communities, express their spiritual feelings and beliefs and the meanings they attach to particular practices and symbols.
Why do they think it’s important?
It will contribute to knowledge and theory in a changing field which is also of increasing public concern. It will also assist in refining the practical responses of professionals involved with mourners, and with dying and bereaved people in their creation of ceremonies and rituals which help people in their bereavement.
Here’s how they are doing it:
Subject to gaining the informed consent of all participants, we will first attend the meeting of the funeral director with the family when arrangements for the funeral are discussed. Then we will observe about fifty funerals of different types. At a suitable time after the funeral (perhaps one week) we will interview one or more family members about why they chose the funeral they did, the meaning it had for them and how it helped them with their loss. Finally, having analysed the funerals and family interviews, we propose to interview a sample of funeral directors and celebrants to obtain their views on emerging themes.
You can see how they’re getting on by reading the progress reports at the foot of the web page.
Interesting to note that, having attended 39 out of the fifty funerals they have set themselves, they are no longer finding anything new. For all the talk of grieving people reclaiming funerals from funeral directors and priests and creating life-centred ceremonies as unique as the life lived — ceremonies which articulate and express the personal and possibly idiosyncratic values and spirituality of the person who has died — the new paradigm has in most cases evolved into a new bog standard—a palatable, emotionally manageable ceremony served up by a second-rate celebrant comprising a handful of banalities tossed in a Henry Scott Hollandaise sauce, a eulogy spiced with a few nice jokes, the whole washed down with some saccharine Andrea Bocelli. Ritual comfort food.
Starkness and drama. Love and lamentation. The strong sense of a silver cord loosed, a golden bowl broken, a life ended. The emotional reality of a date with eternity. All missing.