Blog Archives: February 2010

Death and dumb

Friday, 26 February 2010

Over in Austria an undertaker, urged by his PR people, parks his hearse at a blackspot in order to deter sloppy driving. The hearse bears the gloating message: ‘We’re always ready for you.’ The object? Driver sees it, thinks ‘That’s jolly clever,’ slows down and uses that undertaker next time she needs one. Win-win. Read the story in our own dear Daily Mail here.

Over in the US, advertising man Dan Katz damns the initiative: ‘Whenever humor is chosen as an attention-getter, the question always has to be: is it directly relevant to the selling message, or just a gimmick … I’d argue that it falls short of the real goal, which is to strongly, indelibly link a meaningful benefit (not just death) to the advertiser’s brand … Creepy for its own sale doesn’t sell, even if it does get top-of-mind awareness. The basics of marketing still apply, including the requirement of having a compelling reason why someone should consider you over your competition.

To position death as macabre and avoidable is dumb. To use a hearse to strike terror is dumb. That’s so obvious it needs no elaboration. We’re too frightened of death as it is.

So if you were an undertaker in the UK (perhaps you are?), would you accede to the wishes of a dead person aged just 85 and display this message on your hearse: “Smoking killed me – please give up!“?

Personal afterthought: I never see a dead person without feeling slightly envious. I often think of that line from Shakespeare: “After life’s fitful fever, he sleeps well.”

Ambivalence 2

Thursday, 25 February 2010

If contrary ideas can sit happily alongside each other, contrary emotions can go one better: they can merge and become a potent blend. Love and hate, for example. Courage is nothing without fear. As a rule of thumb, would you say that it’s only possible to experience mixed emotions for people we like? Take exasperation. It can go either way. Directed at someone we don’t like it’s a singleminded expression of terminal fed-upness. But when directed at someone we love, it becomes a complex mix of fed-upness and strong affection, because it’s often their most infuriating qualities and actions which we celebrate with much love and most laughter — especially after they have died.

Let me come to the point. Sorrow and happiness go famously well together. We all know the meaning of bittersweet and we have all laughed through tears. Be prepared to do that now as you read the following obituary from the Boston Globe. It is entitled Graham H Gardner, 22; ‘angel in the service of God’ and it starts:

By common measures, Graham Hale Gardner could not communicate. Traveling in a wheelchair or a jogging stroller that accommodated his 110 pounds, he uttered not a word, and cerebral palsy rendered his hands unfit to navigate a keyboard.

Instead, blue-green eyes that seemed flecked with gold sent silent messages to the complete strangers drawn to his side. He had the kind of silky brown hair that people want to run their hands through, and many did.

“His face had a radiance, and he had a beautiful benevolence about him, so that when he looked at you and connected with you, you felt like the sun shone on your whole being,’’ said his mother, Cynthia. “He just made you a better person with his incredible grace and enthusiasm and kindness, and it was all done without conventional words.’’

Read the rest here.

Ambivalence 1

Thursday, 25 February 2010

Interesting, isn’t it, how two contrary opinions need not be mutually exclusive? When one opinion does not displace the other you’re left either tonguetied with indecision or, if they merge, ambivalent. Ambivalence may be seen as fence-sitting, but I think that’s simplistic. To honour two opposed points of view equally seems to me to be a perfectly grown-up way of resolving a problem.

That’s the way my mind was working as I drove home yesterday after seeing Andrew Smith, a funeral director in Macclesfield with a two year-old but already booming business. Andrew does old-school bigtime. It’s what his clients want. And, here’s the point, he does it not for cosmetic reasons, nor to make himself feel important, but in order to create and serve (these are my words, not his) the particular sort and sense of occasion that his clients want. A funeral is something we rise to. And, yes, it is a performance, it is theatre, and any funeral director worth their salt needs to have thought about this, about how the parts are to be played. Any performer who betrays the least self-consciousness or disengagement is fatally flawed. If you can’t lose yourself in the part, all anyone else can see is someone failing to be something they’re not. That’s why costume or uniform is so important. Anything less than perfection begets inauthenticity; it corrupts performance, relegates it to tawdry playacting and renders it meaningless. What goes for the funeral director goes, too, for the spear-carriers – in the case of funerals, the bearers. They need to rehearse. They need to be filled with a sense of occasion – to get into role. And they need to be dressed right. In the bearers’ changing room at Andrew’s funeral home you’ll see a row of immaculately polished oxfords. Not Clarks oxfords, Loake oxfords. The best it gets. Fantastic.

Andrew supposed me to be anti top hat, but I’m not. I’m anti prat in a hat. He also supposed me to be anti-embalming. I am. I am also for it. I can see both sides and I take neither: I am serenely ambivalent. It all depends on how it’s done, why it’s done and the code of conduct in the mortuary. Andrew has a strong feeling about how the dead should be looked after, and he reminded me of something Sean Lynch says in the PBS documentary about Tom Lynch’s funeral home in Michigan: “I have memories as a very young boy of being brought over here with my father as he was working, and watching him and his colleagues dressing and casketing bodies, you know, very quietly, very reverently, doing something for someone that can no longer do anything for themselves, and even at a young age, before I could articulate the importance of that kind of work, I recognised it as something very significant and essential.” If you watch Parts 3 and 4 of the documentary you can see what he means. It’s why Andrew is pro-embalming. He wants people to have the best possible memory of their dead person. Echoes here of Tom: “Watching my parents, I watched the meaning change of what it is that undertakers do, from something done to the dead to something done for the living, to something done by the living, every one of us. Thus, undertakings are the things we do to vest the lives we lead against the cold, the meaningless, the void, the noisy blather and the blinding dark.”

I admire Andrew enormously. I liked the look of Macclesfield, too. Nice place to live, I should think. Certainly a good place to die.


Tuesday, 23 February 2010

Blogworld is enriched by (almost) every new e-scribbler with opinions to air, especially those with the skill and the intellect to put words to things we’ve often thought about. There aren’t that many bloggers in the death zone. I wish there were more funeral directors (like Pat McNally) with something to say and the urge to say it. Celebrants are slightly more numerous. We recently welcomed the luxuriantly monikered GloriaMundi, and I hope you check in there regularly. Really good stuff.

There’s a new kid on the block. Welcome, Green Energy Globe. Here are some extracts. First, a description of cremation:

Cremation occurs inside of a crematorium finish with an industrial sort furnace. Typically, by fixation a physique in the repartee or cover of the furnace, it is incinerated and roughly utterly used up by fire. The blazing of propane or healthy gas provides temperatures of 1,598-1,796 ° F and the feverishness turn ensures the physique is marked down to bone fragments with all alternative soft hankie vaporized or oxidized as vented gas.

He or she has this take on resomation:

…there is a brand new child on the retard which offers a opposite arrange of immature “cremation” and nonetheless an additional pick resolution to normal funeral practices. You might instruct to cruise a routine called “Alkaline Hydrolysis” or “Bio-chemical Cremation”. Already used in physique ordering of investigate animals, roadkill, or culled, infirm herds of cattle and deer, it is a quick, safe, and spotless routine of violation down proteins, pathogens, and viruses. During this routine of containing alkali hydrolysis, a tellurian physique is placed in to a steel blood vessel or drum-like container, lonesome with H2O which is exhilarated to 350 degrees, along with the further of a clever containing alkali piece called potassium hydroxide (lye). Potassium hydroxide, ordinarily used to have soap and glass, breaks down the body’s tissues and not as big bones.

GEG’s mind wanders over all green issues. Here, for the living, is a description of how you can use recycled materials to create stunning collages:

Onion or Potato BagOnion or potato bags which have been done up of a cosmetic filigree have been a lot of fun for adding hardness to collage crafts. You can have have have have have have have have make make make use of of of of of of of of of of of them similar to a consume and dab them in paint to emanate a singular hardness and pattern when pulpy simply on paper. You can additionally have have have have have have have have make make make use of of of of of of of of of of of this recycled element over or underneath alternative collage equipment for hardness and interest.

There’s a satisfying touch of Sam Beckett, there. And a great new phrase: to cruise a routine.

Read more, if you haven’t gone cross-eyed, here.

Boxing clever

Monday, 22 February 2010

Mercedes coffin carved by Ata Owoo, now in the National Museum of Scotland

Interesting, isn’t it – or is it – that coffins, after all this time, still look like nothing else, unless it’s other coffins? New materials – willow, seagrass, you name it – are easier on the eye, they don’t reflect the repellent glint of a winter sky, but there’s no mistaking what they’re for. We’ve even stayed loyal to the traditional toe-pincher style and resisted the oblong (but still unmistakeable) casket, now popular in much of Europe and, of course, the USA.

Over in Ghana they make coffins that look nothing like coffins. In their home country these tend to be rejected by Christian churches because they are reckoned to denote fetishism. When they make the voyage abroad they don’t go underground, they get put in museums – like the go-faster coffin above, now in the National Museum of Scotland.

In the UK we have our very own Crazy Coffins, and I guess some who commission one actually go and meet their maker in it. But they are still more popular in the art world than in the death zone.

Brides can never be persuaded to go easy on the expense of their wedding dress on the perfectly sensible grounds that they’ll only wear it once. We are proud to spend as much as we can borrow on weddings and as little as we can get away with on funerals. There are obvious reasons for this.

But the cardboard coffin people could knock up some interesting shapes that wouldn’t cost the earth?

Take it to them!

Monday, 15 February 2010

It’s widely known in the funeral business that the prices charged by Co-operative Funeralcare and Dignity are on the whole higher than those charged by their independent competitors – the family businesses and new start-ups – so many of them passionate ex-Funeralcare employees who tell me they learned everything about what not to do at Funeralcare.

Funeral consumers don’t know about this. They don’t do price comparison shopping. And considering most of them buy just two funerals in their lifetime, and most of them don’t have any recently comparable experience, they just assume hopefully that the prices charged by everyone are about the same. They assume that Funeralcare, with its ethical trumpeting and working class roots in will be on their side.

Caveat emptor! And here let’s exonerate Dignity. Dignity’s in it for the money. It’s making lots. Well done, chaps! Don’t necessarily like you for it, but realise that the rules of the game are capitalism, and that you play hard and, er, fair.

Why do so many independents moan about the higher prices charged by the big boys yet do nothing to get the message out? Because it would look undignified? I don’t know that it would look less dignified than boasting about how cheap your low-cost funeral is as you do at the moment in your coded way.

In Nottingham, the eminently respectable and excellent AW Lymn make no secret of their competitive pricing structure. They break it down and spell it out graphically. Way to go, I’d reckon.

I’m grateful to blog follower Andrew Plume for this intelligence. Thank you, Andrew.

Go to the AW Lymn website. Click on the package prices pdf at the foot of the page, right-hand side.

Holiday reading

Monday, 15 February 2010

John Michell

This blog is going on holiday for a week to enjoy fresh sea breezes, long walks and real beers in real pubs. Pubs! The highest proof of the existence of God!

I shall of course be packing some holiday reading, none of it death related though, as we know, Reaper G does have an importunate way of pooping most everything.

I shall also be asking Amazon to send me two books and, were I you (I know, I know, the record shows clearly that I am not), I’d be seriously considering doing the same.

What are they?

First up, Thomas Lynch’s latest. Apparitions and Late Fiction. Read a review here and another here. Now buy it.

Second up: How the World is Made by John Michell. This is the work he was desperate to finish before the cancer did for him last year. Beautiful man, beautiful mind. Buy, buy, buy!

Bye. See you all next Monday.

Window dressing

Saturday, 13 February 2010

Photo by Dennypoos

Funeral directors are often criticised for their inertia and, to be sure, many of them, not all, move forward with foot-dragging reluctance. The most evident manifestation of this is their cod-Victorian attire. They are, they seem to be saying, neither of us, nor of our century.

If they seem to inhabit a parallel and altogether uninviting universe, or to exist in a time warp, this is an impression reinforced by the changeless aspect of their premises. But if you were a funeral director, how would you demonstrate vitality, catch the eye, stump up trade?

Difficult, isn’t it? You can’t by any means create demand for your service, nor can you trigger impulse buyers. BUY NOW WHILE OFFER LASTS or INVEST IN THE CHATSWORTH AND GET HANDLES FREE! You can’t move with the seasons: SPRING COFFIN RANGE NOW IN! However good you are at what you do, you can’t stimulate repeat business: BUY NOW GET ONE FREE! You can’t hold sales: 1/3 OFF EVERYTHING. EVERYONE MUST GO!!

If you were a funeral director, how would you dress your front window? Coffins? Urns? Tombstones? Trocars through the ages? Difficult not to look self-parodying, isn’t it? The blessed Paul Sinclair is having a lot of success with his miniature motorcycle hearse. That works well. But you need to be able to ring the changes, go with the seasons, tap into the festivals. And most of those are out. You can’t risk looking festive, can you? Halloween is the biggest no-no (I’m having to hold myself back, here) but rack your brain. Which would you choose?

You probably have to go with themes. Memory is a good one. This is why so many undertakers have a Remembrance Day display with many poppies and, at Christmas, a tree hung with many lights and stars. The trick here is not to serve as a grim reminder.

Love is another, and the same caveat applies. Do you like the window at the top? It shows enterprise, doesn’t it? The photographer hated it. Check out his pics on Flickr.

Anyone seen any excellent funeral directors’ windows? Photos welcome. Send me a JPEG:

Happy Valentine’s Day, everyone!

Not just for the skint

Friday, 12 February 2010

Nice home funeral story here:

When Cathleen, a registered nurse, passed away at Hinds Hospice in Fresno, no mortuary was called due to previous planning. The Fresno County Coroner’s Office transported her to their facility and kept her until her funeral Jan. 26.

The morning of her funeral, she was placed in a silk-lined pine casket built by her husband and family friend Roric Russell.

She was wrapped in a quilt, and her husband of 38 years placed her favorite pillow, a Teddy bear and her guitar in the casket. Bob Carlin and Russell then transported her to the North Fork Cementer.

“I just wanted to help Bob out,” Russell said. “I went with him (Bob) to the funeral home and the least expensive casket was $800. I asked if we could build a casket and the mortician told me that no one does that but there is no law against it. I asked Bob if he wanted to build one and he said yes. We bought the wood that day.”

Plans for building the casket were found from an old Mother Earth Magazine article.

The Carlins had been together since they attended high school in New Jersey prior to moving to North Fork.

Bob Carlin said he felt good about building his wife’s casket as it made the process much more personal.

North Fork musician John Kilburn gave Cathleen guitar lessons for 12 years and helped organize a life celebration, held Dec. 13 at North Fork Studio.

“We were able to honor Cathleen while she was still strong. She sang with us and people got to tell her what she meant to them. It was very powerful,” Kilburn said.

I’ve only chosen extracts from the full news story, which you can read here. It stresses how much money all this saved. Sure, it does save money if you do it all yourself, but alongside the emotional value of the experience, that’s a detail.

Two big misconceptions going around at the moment: home funerals are for the skint; funeral pyres are for Hindus. Wrong on both counts. They are for everybody. It’s a choice.

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