Blog Archives: November 2009

Last Will and Testament

Thursday, 26 November 2009

Lovely man, Jake. Don’t know him? More info here

Buy a box and make it better

Thursday, 26 November 2009

I love this mission statement from Batesville, the big boy of US box manufacturers—the corp which coffined Michael Jackson:

At Batesville Casket Company, our mission is to assist funeral homes in creating meaningful funerals that help families honor the lives of those they love. We do this by providing superior funeral products and services that help funeral professionals serve grieving families during a most difficult time.” In particular, they’ll sell a funeral director a box on which he or she can slap a wee markup, which “reflects the personality and taste of your loved one,” and which “can be your final tribute to their life.” A Batesville box even comes with a little drawer in which you can “secure private mementos and farewell messages”.

Nice one, Batesville. If only it were that simple.

As simple, for example, as sneering. It’s all too lazy to come over all Jessica Mitfordish about these bling monsters and other funereal stuff. But it doesn’t pay to be baleful. Sure, if people think they can banish grief by lobbing merchandise at it, they’re going to miss the point. But, given the way we are, it’s always going help.

Nice story

Wednesday, 25 November 2009

Very nice story of the heartwarmingest sort here.

Terms for conditions

Tuesday, 24 November 2009

The natural death movement in the UK was pioneered by the good old Natural Death Centre. Its philosophy grew out of the natural childbirth movement and its principles are broadly the same. It believes that by taking control and keeping interventions by strangers to a minimum, we improve 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 all makes perfectly good sense. And there’s the nice symmetry of birth and death.

There’s also some symmetry in the vocabulary used. We have home births and we have home funerals, both unobjectionable terms. We have midwives and we have death midwives – or midwives to the dying. And that’s where I falter. A death midwife? There’s a contradiction there, isn’t there? Birth and death are only analogous up to a point, surely? And there’s an uncomfortable resonance with Sam Beckett’s words in Waiting for Godot: “They give birth astride a grave, the light gleams an instant, then it’s night once more … down in the grave, lingeringly, the gravedigger puts on the forceps.”

Over in the US (where the home funeral movement is just that, a movement, unlike over here, where it’s more or less dead stopped), that wise old bird Lisa Carlson has just spoken about this. Lisa is the grand pioneer of home funerals over there; it was her book Caring for the Dead: Your Final Act of Love, currently being re-written, that broke the ground.

Here’s what she says:

The term “death midwife” has been a struggle for me. At one point, it seemed like an ideal term for conveying quickly what most of you do or want to do. I’ve come to feel that “home funeral guide,” however, is a far more prudent choice, as it preserves the “education” image when compared to the hands-on “midwife” image … So many of us in the helping careers want to *do* things for people, to feel needed, including funeral directors, too. But I can assure you from personal experience that empowering others is a much headier “high” than being thanked for something fairly temporary that I did to or for them. (Teach a man to fish . . .)

Home funeral guide. Yup. Like it. Let’s have more of you!

Immediate grief

Monday, 23 November 2009

This is a guest post from Jonathan Taylor, an independent funeral celebrant in Totnes and occasional funeral arranger and conductor for green fuse. He is a regular commenter on this blog.

I’m in turmoil.

My son’s girlfriend’s sister died this afternoon at 4.30. She was hit by a bus
about ten days ago, and we were all just starting to feel optimistic about her
survival, if still very uncertain about her quality of life, until today.

And now there is no life whose quality we have to consider.

I want to tell you how it is affecting me, in case it helps you to hear it as
much as it helps me to get it out into the light. Lovely, delightful, young,
sassy, pretty, infuriating, loveable as she was, she was not my relative, and I
didn’t even know her all that well. I’m only on the peripherals of the family
web, which is shaken to its core. I don’t seem to be grieving for any one
person I can identify, least of all myself, not yet anyway; but this is as
profound a grief as I have ever felt. The first wave is over, and I’m writing
this while waiting for the next one. Wave of what, though?

While watching myself crying, shaking and screaming into a cushion, I felt like
a wolf, hearing the call from my pack members howling from the mountains, ‘all
is not well, leave what you’re doing and attend, every one of you.’ It’s a
primal thing. Animal.

And right now, I’m feeling a deep envy for the animals. Instinct tells them
what to do, without question. They are unencumbered by intellect, with its
attendant beliefs and values and morals and judgements and literature. They
don’t have to wonder about what’s going on, they just know. And perhaps best of
all, they can howl out loud their unrestrained regret, without having to think
about the neighbours.

So if I’ve ever expressed an opinion on this blog, dear readers, I take it back
forthwith. I just don’t know. This is awful, but even now I can see it’s a
good thing that’s happening to us all, given that she’s already dead.

All for now, with love,


So much prettier than headstones?

Friday, 20 November 2009

My thanks to Melissa Stewart of Native Woodland Natural Burial for this delicious pic (click it to make it bigger) of reindeer at the natural burial ground at Usk Castle Chase.

“So much prettier than headstones!” she says. And I have to confess to a weakness to that line of argument. I’m won over!

Putting death where it belongs

Thursday, 19 November 2009

Time was, when life was hard, death wasn’t so bad, especially if you believed, as so many did, that your recompense for a life of unrelieved misery and privation here below was the reward of unlimited bliss up there. The prospect of paradise makes a lot of sense when you inhabit a vale of tears. And it makes it easier to die, too, both for the dying person and for those around the deathbed. “He’s gone to a better place,” people used to say to each other knowingly, comfortingly. And they felt the justice of it, truly believed it, even looking forward, somewhat, as they said it. But what was once an attractive offer has lost its allure. We lead lovely, comfy lives, now. We’d rather stay where we are, thank you.

It’s the lack of any inclination to contemplate anything better that accounts for attitudes to death today. Call it denial if you want, but I think you’d be missing the point. It’s more the case that we’re having such a lovely time playing out with our friends that we simply don’t hear Mum calling us in for our tea.

You feel the aftermath of this as a celebrant, sometimes, when you go to visit the freshly bereaved. You walk into shock. Paralysed disbelief. It makes no sense to be planning a funeral. Why, he could just be upstairs. The absolute absence of the dead person has yet to begin to make itself felt. And what I often think, as I sit on the sofa while everybody tries to get their head around the presence of this extraordinary stranger, is ‘I wish he was upstairs’. Nothing would better translate unreality into altered reality and enable everyone to get their heads around it.

Dying is bad and it’s getting worse. Now that the priests can tempt no more than a few of us with a next instalment that’s going to be even better, the government dangles before us, instead, the allure of the good death and the new Personal Care at Home Bill. I have my reservations about this good death myth and about the desirability of dying at home. It’ll suit a few of us, for sure. But drawn out decrepitude and protracted expiration call for very expert attention. Nursing homes and hospitals are exactly the right places to be.

In summary, therefore, dying at home can be overrated; being dead at home cannot.


Thursday, 19 November 2009

Interesting series of photos from the Guardian taking you inside the Dignitas operation. See them here.

Real time and ritual time

Wednesday, 18 November 2009

I was interviewed the other day by Margaret Holloway of Hull University. She and her team are researching spirituality in modern funerals. Updates on their research were posted on their website, but they’ve mysteriously vanished.

She raised what seems to her to be the curious practice of conducting the committal or farewell in the present tense; what did I think? Well, I hadn’t really thought about it. Do I do it, too? Er, now I think of it, yes, I do. We talk to the dead person and say things – thank you, often enough; and goodbye, of course. And people call out, “See yer, mate!” “Go safe, my old son!” All sorts of things, they say.

I can see where she was coming from. Logically, it is bonkers to talk to a dead body as if it were in some way sentient. But logic has rarely troubled me. Intuitively, I have no problem at all. And no one has ever come up afterwards and disputed my tenses with me. Only Margaret.

Let’s not go into the problem of the symbolic role of the body at a funeral. Not today, anyway. Let’s just talk tenses. Time.

And I recalled what I’d read in Thomas Long’s excellent book, Accompany Them With Singing. It’s a marvellous thing. It’s a Christian text, but you don’t have to believe in God to embrace the truth of most of what he says. And he says this about time:

In rites of passage, even nonreligious ones, “real” time and ritual time are two different realities. Take, for example, the graduation ceremonies that are held every year on the campus where I teach. The soon-to-be-graduates put on funny-looking academic regalia, march to the ceremony, and when officials pronounce the magic words, everybody flips a tassel from one side of the cap to the other, and… Voila! People who were students one minute have become degree-holding graduates the next.

Now, all of us on the faculty know that this is not really the magic moment. These students actually become graduates, in a legal sense anyway, several days before when the faculty voted to grant them their degrees. The ritual simply acts out in ceremonial fashion what is already true about them, that they have made the transition from being not-graduates to being graduates. But even though the ceremony does not actually cause them to change status and become graduates, this does not mean that it amounts to nothing.

Real time and ritual time. I wish I’d had that concept objectified in my mind when Margaret called.

Home funeral stories

Tuesday, 17 November 2009

Some good and inspiring home funeral stories here.

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