Blog Archives: March 2010

Sense and sustainability

Wednesday, 31 March 2010

Reindeer grazing at Usk Castle Chase natural burial ground,
which is managed by Native Woodland Natural Burial Sites

Cynthia Beal heads up the Natural Burial Company in the United States. She’s a friend of many in this country. This blog is her most ardent admirer. Before becoming a green burialist Cynthia spent a good many years in organic foods. That experience has proved invaluable to her and to many others looking for greener, more sustainable ways of disposing of their dead. Cynthia is not only an idealist with a long and admirable commitment to environmental responsibility, she is also a seasoned realist with the nous and experience to show dreamers how to make their dreams doable. Big heart, big brain, that’s our Cynthia.

She does something that we in the UK are in danger of losing sight of, I sometimes feel. She honours all that Britain has contributed to the natural burial movement and she honours those whose vision it originally was. Above all, she uses the K-word a lot. I like that. Because it was Bereavement Services Manager Ken West who, in 1993, translated an upsurge of best intentions into practical action by seeing through the opening of the first natural burial ground in 1993. What it took to get that past the good burghers of Carlisle I can’t begin to imagine. It must be a heck of a story, a little piece of history which we should cherish in the recounting. Ken is writing a book at the moment. I hope he will reveal all.

Cynthia has written an article about sustainable cemetery management which can’t be beat. It’s intelligent and it’s wise and it’s a very good read, especially the section on sustainability.

“Sustainability” has three primary components: social, ecological, and fiscal. Each of these affects the other two when a “full-cost lifetime accounting” is done, and the overall sustainability of an endeavor – i.e., its likelihood of success – is best served when all three aspects are in balance …

[D]eveloping a well-conceived sustainability plan may be your next order of business. Future capitalization may depend on demonstrating you understand all the bills coming due – the social ones and the ecological ones, as well as the fiscal ones. Chances are a superficial greening won’t pass muster – you’ll need to demonstrate you understand (and believe in) what you’re doing, and you’ll have to shop carefully, as there are plenty of companies that will sell “green” hype to you, too.

You don’t need hype – you need tools that work. Quarter-to-quarter expense management may require immediate resource-use analysis and reduction, transitioning the landscape to new conditions and developing new techniques and networks of experience. Master planning that proves your future income stream is in touch with environmental and consumer trends while addressing liability in a balanced manner may be what keeps your investors on board. After all, a cemetery is still forever – and sustainability is a big part of forever.

Read the whole piece here.

Another piece about natural burial caught my eye a few days ago. The writer, an American, raises two matters of interest to Brits. The first is aesthetic:

If I am not allowed the option of a casket, or a burial vault, what happens to my loved ones body when the burial is complete and a couple of tons of dirt are dumped on their body? This is a viable question, considering I buried my Dad, Grandmother, and Grandfather some years back and would not care for the visual this gives me. Personally, I like the idea that my loved ones weren’t crushed by the weight of the dirt during backfill.

Well, what do we think? Do people know that a cardboard coffin will be crushed as a grave is filled in, an MDF one within a few weeks? While they’re tending the grave in the time thereafter, what picture do they have of what’s going on below? My supposition is that they have none: their dead person is already idealised. What’s your view?

The writer’s second point is a strong one and it’s all about sustainability:

Green burials are great if you are into getting back to the old ways of performing burials. No casket expense, no vault expense, no memorial expense because in a true green burial space no memorial is allowed. This for a burial business means little or no streams of revenue to keep the cemetery profitable and in business. In 20 years, when the business is no longer solvent what happens to those burials? Who looks after the properties and maintains any record of those burials? I offer this as a brain teaser to this question: Many pioneer cemeteries and other old non marked cemeteries are disturbed annually with new road construction, new housing developments, etc. etc. I see this as a repeat of those same issues, 50 or 100 years from now. So for those who preach green, I want to know how they intend to protect the sanctity of these “new” green burial places for generations to come? Or, does that matter?

This is a matter which was raised by
James Leedam a few weeks ago in this blog. At the time I thought it had the quality of dynamite. I still do:

Sadly, the majority of the general public are not savvy when it comes to the environmental credentials of individual natural burial grounds, which vary enormously. In the absence of a “Go Compare” comparison website for natural burial grounds, consumers should interrogate the burial ground operators about their long-term future plans for the land – what happens in 30, 50 or 100 years time, when the income from burials ceases? How sustainable is their long term future? Many trading under the “green burial” banner, have apparently little concern for long-term sustainability (but are profiting nicely in the meantime). Others can offer you well considered plans and more confidence, their natural burial grounds will be future assets, not long-term liabilities.

Do not accept fuzzy visions – some operators suggest that a wildlife trust will take over when the ground reaches capacity – but be sure to ask the wildlife trust before accepting this; they might well have a different view. Ask yourselves how can these places sustain themselves once the income from burials dries up?

I’m not sure that many of us would feel competent to conduct this sort of due diligence. We’re in small-print territory here, where everyone speaks legalese. Have the seeds of our first natural burial scandal already been sown?

Strange and bitter crop, if so.

It could never happen over here?

Tuesday, 30 March 2010

Terrific tale here from Poland of warring undertakers bribing doctors and paramedics to kill patients and deliver them to the funeral home of the highest bidder. It’s reckoned that the number of murdered patients may be 20,000.

It lasts over an hour, it’s gripping stuff and it’s beautifully filmed.

Are there funeral directors in the UK who have connections with local hospitals? Local nursing homes? Is there the potential here for backhanders and skulduggery? Where did that lovely new telly in the day centre come from?

Do we have a problem? Anonymous comments welcome (but not lurid and lunatic allegations).

Paul’s Epistle to the Bypassers

Monday, 29 March 2010

Paul Sinclair is best known in the world of funerals as the man who heads up Motorcycle Funerals and offers what, with characteristic self-deprecation, he describes as “the most professional, thrilling and coveted motorcycle hearse in the world.” A coldly objective appraisal shows this claim shows to be an understatement. Paul is the best by three laps of the Isle of Man TT course.

He’s not only the world’s best motorcycle-and-sidehearse provider, he’s also one of the warmest, nicest people you’ll ever meet. And he doesn’t just rev up his bikes, he revs up the faithful, too, for he is a fully qualified Rev in the Elim Pentecostal Church, a denomination which likes its preaching hot. The Faster Pastor, they call Paul. A non-conformist in all senses who has dedicated his life to “an adventurous walk with God.” Before he started conveying the dead on their final journeys, he spent nine years as a minister in wildest Willesden, the most violent place in the UK. Now he’s written a book about it, Now Open Sundays!

It’s a great picaresque account of insuperable hardships faced and, by reckless faith, overcome. In one of his first sermons he illustrates his point with a Sex Pistols track. Surveying his congregation afterwards he concludes “It was time to pack my bags before I was thrown out.” But they like him. He lives to tell of adventures which bring him into contact with the Queen, Ken Livingstone and Clint Eastwood.

Paul’s story is woven round the signs he displayed outside his church. We’ve all seen these wayside pulpits and, most often, groaned. But Paul’s messages had a topicality and humour which make them all-time classics of the genre.

Paul is one of the funniest people in the known universe. He has a particular gift for celebrating the absurd. Here’s an example. I was keen to promote a healing service at the first opportunity I could once I had become a minister, but on the day of the first service the healing evangelist called in sick! I tried again with another one and he couldn’t make it because his wife was ill!

In twelve years I can only remember one critic of our Wayside Pulpit in the whole of Brent – an atheist! When we posted our ‘International Atheist Day – April 1st’ sign he was so unhappy he even reported me to Willesden Green Police station. God bless him, I was so delighted with his reaction I kept it up another month!

This book is a great read. Buy it.

Last-chance snap

Monday, 29 March 2010

Sweet story here from Georgia, USA recounted in the Monticello News:

A cousin of mine, Larry Lynch, was in college with a young man from deep south Georgia in the “piney woods” section of our state. The young man told of the death of his grandfather several years back. When grandfather died the neighbors came over and prepared the body for burying.

This took quite a bit of time as he was dressed in a fresh pair of overalls. The family suddenly realized that they didn’t even have one picture of grandpa for future viewing so the boys took grandpa off the cooling board and sat him in his favorite rocking chair for a picture with all the grandchildren around him and in his lap. More pictures were later taken with the other grown children.

This all took longer than expected so when they lifted grandpa to place him in his wooden coffin they had difficulty laying him down flat since too much time had elapsed.

They had one son “Tiny,” who weighed nearly 300 pounds, to sit on the coffin top as the others nailed it in place. This completely solved the problem. All went well at the funeral and all the pictures came out real good.

Now don’t you forget to get all your family pictures made early.

Read the whole article here.

What are we missing?!

Monday, 29 March 2010

The availability of personalization features that reflect and honor individual lifestyles … life symbols designs add a distinct touch to the casket … embroidered tribute panels … the Memory®Safe Drawer encourages family to participate … important for expressing your loved one’s individuality … many times a particular species of wood may evoke an important memory or remind one of a particular personal possession … bronze and copper are considered semi-precious metals … designed to resist the entrance of air, water and other gravesite substances…

Simon Smith’s way-out playlist

Friday, 26 March 2010

It’s got to be a baby boomer thing, has it, this new wave of funeral directors whose most distinguishing characteristic is that they are nothing like (old school) funeral directors? Not necessarily. I can think of some who have not come fresh to funeral directing in middle age. This is not exclusively a counter-culture thing. These new funeral directors are radical, for sure, but not in an angry or iconoclastic way. They have not spurned funerary traditions, they have simply left them standing. They are thoughtful and intelligent. And for those people who do not want a full-on religious funeral, they join up the care of the body of the person who’s died to the creation of their farewell ceremony; they can do both. There is immense value in that – especially to baby boomers, who have reinvented more or less everything they have encountered throughout their lives, and now, with their parents and not a few of them standing on the brink of eternity, are beginning to give to death culture the sort of makeover they once gave to youth culture.

Two such new-wave funeral directors are Simon Smith and Jane Morrell of green fuse contemporary funerals. They have a funeral shop in Totnes where people drop in and chat about funerals. I’m always interested to know what these two are thinking. So when I heard that Simon had been given an hour slot on the Carl Muson Show on Exeter’s Phonic FM I just had to find out what he’d said. By dint of employing those devious and menacing investigative ploys which have made the Good Funeral Guide the impressively terrifying consumer resource it has become, I managed to obtain a CD of the show by the underhand expedient of asking Simon nicely to send me a copy, which, because he’s the most agreeable of fellows, he was kind enough to do.

The show centres on Simon’s playlist of what he reckons to be really good songs to play at a funeral – “the ones I want to introduce others to, not the most popular.” The songs are interspersed by chat.

The chat covers all manner of thought-provoking areas. The absence of rules around funerals – the fact that there are hardly any (so long as you do not outrage public decency). The importance of families participating “to the extent that they can … we see ourselves as permission givers.” The suggestibility of the newly bereaved, and the importance of “offering them choices, not channelling them.” The way that a death alters status within a family, a community, a workplace. The way it alters titles, too – a daughter becomes an orphan, a husband a widower.

Reflecting on his work as a celebrant, Simon says, “We don’t quite meet a lot of very interesting and fascinating people.” It reminded me of something Garrison Keillor once said: “They say such nice things about people at their funerals that it makes me sad to realize that I’m going to miss mine by just a few days.”

Considering the number of people who are not signed up to a faith group, whether religious or atheistic, Simon reckons that two-thirds of the population is currently not being catered for.

He talks about the denialist effect of two world wars on attitudes to death (everyone had had enough of it) and attitudes to dead bodies (ditto). He talks about the importance of death being “part of life, not tidied away,” and the value of spending time with someone who’s died: “The funeral doesn’t pass in such a blur if people have spent time with the body.”

He concludes with a wonderful quote: “We’re always standing on the edge of loss trying to retrieve human meaning from something that’s precious that has gone.”

Here is Simon’s playlist. Open Spotify now and type in the following:

You’ve Got A Friend – James Taylor

Spirit In The Sky – Norman Greenbaum

Amazing Grace – Elvis Presley (“People start swaying to that.”)

You’re The First, The Last, My Everything – Barry White

My Sweet Lord – George Harrison

Samba Pa Ti – Santana

Celebrancy opportunity

Friday, 26 March 2010

Here is a possibly inspiring tale from a celebrant in the south-east. She has asked me to withhold her name and email address because she simply won’t have time to correspond if lots of people want to contact her.

Hi Charles

You have quite often written about celebrants and recently people who do not want a funeral and I thought you might like to know my news. I have been trying to widen my celebrancy base for some time, offering ceremonies for all the life events I can think of even a Coming out of Prison ceremony! Uptake has been abit slow though and as I was wondering how I could make a living as a fulltime celebrant it suddenly came to me when I was doing a funeral ceremony in the crem a about 8 months ago, a sudden out of the box leap of the imagination. This is how it happened, I was in the middle of a poem I have read so many times I can do it from memory, I was looking at the mourners doing my best to make eye contact and put across the meaning of the poem and as so often happens I was getting nothing back except for rather empty stares from rather hollow eyes, you know what I mean I’m sure!! At first I felt a bit miffed to put it frankly. I thought, “come on people I’m doing all the work here!!!” and then it struck me, THESE PEOPLE DON’T WANT TO BE HERE!! I went on thinking and pondering about this in the days afterwards. I pondered that as a celebrant what we try to do is to take all of the burden off of our families that we possibly can, what with all their grief that they have to struggle to contend with, this is where we as celebrants and funeral directors come in, make it as easy for them as we possibly can, lift the burden. “All you have to do is be there!” is something I often say to familys beforehand about the funeral because their so not looking forward to it. Infact so many don’t want to be there actually even though they want their loved one to have a good send off so, and this is my BIG NEWS, now I explore this with familys gently and tell them “you don’t have to be there if you don’t want you know, I’ll do it all” and if they want arrange for photo’s to be taken, audio recording, even a video, I can fix that for them. Of course most people feel after quite a big struggle they ought to go along and they do come but some decide not, its a weight off their mind and they are very grateful knowing that everything is going to be done with dignity and they will have a momento of the event of their choice. This does not I emphasise go down at all well with some of my Funeral Directors!! But I remind them that choice is everything these days isn’t it?!!

Again thinking outside the envelope (my big strength!) from this I thought about all those people that don’t just find funerals difficult they find looking after their elderly rellies difficult especially if their in a care home and perhaps a bit lacking in faculties. They dread that weekly visit!! So now I offer a service to these families, it goes like this. We have a weekly phone chat and they tell me all the news, they also give me a shopping list of everything I need to take up. I go up to the care home and I sit with the old person and tell them all the news slowly in their own time often using photo’s to link the news item to the person it applies to. The old folk really appreciate I think having someone talk to them who has time and is a bridge to their family, someone who doesn’t feel awkward and itchy to go, my professional detachment kicks in, we develop a real bond. Well two weeks ago one of my oldies died, a lady and here’s my big news, on Tuesday we had her funeral and the family entrusted everything to me, it was a huge privilege and gesture of trust, I was up there at the crem on my own representing them, just me and old Mum and it made such a difference actually knowing the deceased for once, it felt really lovely and I spoke some of the words to her and some to a video camera which the family now has as a momento. The family were so grateful and we all though we had done Mum proud.

So there we are, here’s a thought for all you celebrants out there, if you want to offer a joined up service to people consider offering this service, I can’t tell you want a difference it makes doing a funeral for someone you actually know!!

NOTE: This is satirical fiction. It was composed by the author in an uncharacteristically sardonic mood. He deeply regrets, if you have given the above any credence whatever, that we should have come to this.

No Service By Request

Wednesday, 24 March 2010

I am extremely grateful to Gordon Thurston for this thorough and thoughtful analysis of the growing rejection in parts of both the US and Canada of the traditional practice of holding a funeral with the body of the person who has died present, and the preference, instead, either for a memorial service or for no farewell ceremony of any kind. It’s a phenomenon I have previously examined here, here, here and here.

This phenomenon is something that has been a part of the funeral scene here for all of my twenty-two years of service to the funeral industry. As a former United Church clergyman in private practice (because I withdrew my name from the role of Presbytery long ago) I have attempted to meet people “where they come from,” in the North American vernacular. These are people who have no religious affiliation (or want none) and yet feel the need for some official presence to oversee the funeral of a loved one. In fact we call these events memorial services because most often the body is not present. Indeed cremation is most often the chosen method of disposition and frequently has taken place even before the service itself. So it seems we have found a way of distancing ourselves from the immediate reality of death. Actually years ago when the Memorial Society was just making inroads into the funeral industry their main focus was to reduce the often excessive costs of a funeral. However an interesting note in some of the earliest Memorial Society advocates was that a service of any kind was deemed barbaric or too primitive for an enlightened people anyway. It seemed to me that what they were trying to infer is that life is everything and death is and should be nothing. That attitude by the way did not catch on, at least in all its bluntness – but it did have some modified versions, beginning with a memorial service where the body is missing and culminating in the phenomenon known as “No Service By Request.” And yet through this continuum, while cost has been an aspect – and barbarism notwithstanding – they are not the underlying factors. However there is no other simple or straightforward reason for the phenomena either.

In my experience a memorial service does not seem to imply an obvious avoidance of cost – nor does No Service By Request either for that matter. In fact I believe the problem (if one can call it a problem) is much more of an enigma than that we are somehow more enlightened and therefore do not need to honour our dead. No Service By Request is in no way an intellectual decision but rather a much deeper and little understood phenomenon. While people may talk about the practicality of a funeral, citing the exorbitant expense, that really is a bit of a cover up, I believe, from something much more emotional. Phrases like, “I want to save my family the stress,” or “I’m not religious anyway,” I feel are used to rationalize one’s decision not to have a service. But even behind this is something I believe to be even more cryptic. It keeps coming down to the belief that he or she does not matter that much anyway and so why put family and friends through the ordeal. So while it is never actually said, the implication is that one’s sense of worth as a human being is somehow being called into question. Who am I to request a service with all the fuss and the emotional upheaval it promotes!?

And “I’m not worth it” is not just a statement about lack of self-esteem either. It seems to go much deeper and is more all-pervading. Robert Wright in his book, Nonzero – The Logic of Human Destiny, purports that as the world has become smaller because of travel and communication and yet our worldview has expanded, and quite exponentially so with the internet and the overwhelming nature of the information age, what has followed is that while individuals are made to feel empowered by it all there is a loss of personal significance as well. The result has been for people to abandon communal settings like churches and other social centres for their homes where a computer can open up the world to them on the one hand and yet insulate and isolate them on the other. E-mail and Face Book, as do chat rooms and game playing and the like, provide the illusion of keeping in touch and being a part of a community (a global one at that), but the process is often done in relative solitude. We are more voyeuristic than involved in things. What is more, the steady diet of news coming into our living rooms and bombarding us with negativity exacerbates the problem. So ironically, as the world opens up, a more pervading sense of personal insignificance is the result.

Perhaps that helps to explain some of the context for a phenomenon like No Service By Request – at least in North America. However there is another aspect, which is perhaps more the case here on the West Coast than elsewhere. For instance in Canada when folks retire those that can afford it and/or who are simply tired of winter simply relocate to British Columbia and to Greater Victoria in particular. In so doing they not only leave behind the extreme weather but also their roots. In so doing many take that opportunity to abandon some of the traditions that were a part of their lives “back home” – some of which were almost taken for granted in their former contexts anyway. In the case of my own parents, as it was with one of my best but much older friends, Eric (a Brit by the way) they had been people very much involved in their local churches before moving. Once here however they not only did not find a church to join but never even attended another one again. In neither situation was there any indication that they had lost their faith. What they believed and the context for those beliefs had simply changed focus. Granted retirees tend to reduce their commitments and along with doing so their sense of obligation once felt being a part of organizations BUT I believe abandoning one’s church is quite another issue. Like the people of Israel in captivity in Babylon who discovered that they did not really need either their country or their temple in order to worship their God, with their move to the West Coast my parents and friend found their spiritual needs being met elsewhere – and in more intimate ways. Family and those friends that had endured the tests of time tended to matter more and the traditions and trappings of organized religion less.

Now that did not mean that my parents and friend chose not to have a service when they died – because they all have passed away. My mom and dad wanted a service and pre-paid for that and all their funeral arrangements well before their demise. My three sisters and I conducted both services by the way. My friend, Eric, on the other hand was very specific and told his two sons that whatever they did for him was to be informal, as had been done for his late wife. A barbershop singer of great passion (that is how I came to be a part of Eric’s life – I was the tenor in several quartets with him) we had an event at the home of one of his sons. I spoke (an emotional experience I must say) and of course there was barbershop singing.

I tell you of these instances because they underscore a trend – away from traditions and toward some other way of celebrating life posthumously. It is not at all a regretful thing – as you I am sure can well appreciate given your Good Funeral Guide. However there are a significant percentage of people who have no alternatives for celebrating life, other than what is provided by churches and/or funeral homes and so have nothing. Indeed they may well have been turned off by right wing American Christian fundamentalism on the one hand or the impersonal rituals of much more ecclesiastical denominations, Roman Catholic and the Anglican churches in particular on the other but even that is a bit of a smoke screen. The underlying reasons for no service is neither that straightforward nor that simple in my estimation. In fact like another friend of mine who is in the process of making funeral plans (his demise is in no way imminent by the way) and who asked me for some advice, his first inclination was to request that no service be held. The man is even a member of the church my wife and I attend! Obviously then the phenomenon in some instances is not even conditional on church experience good or bad. When I asked him about his thinking around that choice he could not give me a reason other than to say that it was no big deal anyway because who would attend!? The guy is a wonderful wit and in no way a fading violet (indeed often a moderator leading a service). There is no doubt that there will be great numbers attending his service when the time comes. However a sense of insignificance is all I could conclude was his rationale.

That is why the short answer to why No Service By Request is for me a variation on the theme of “I’m not worth it.” A sense of personal significance (or insignificance if you will) is as close as I can come to making sense out of the phenomenon. And while people rationalize and justify their decisions by citing cost and emotional burdens placed on loved ones left behind underneath it all is somehow this pervading feeling of unworthiness – once again a variation on the theme, the world is so big and I am so small. Even “I’m spiritual and not religious,” is but a diversionary tactic for diminishing oneself I believe. This kind of spirituality is seldom defined and thus never quite understood. And it’s a bluff.

So Charles all I can say is that if No Service By Request is “pretty much unheard of” over there it might be for several reasons. Tradition and traditions are deeper and have a thousand years of history to sustain them, not less than a hundred like here; and people cannot pick up and move away from such depth and dimension as readily there, unlike North America and the flaky West Coast people here! So you may not have to contend with this problem there.

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