Blog Archives: April 2010

Fatboy grim

Friday, 30 April 2010

Another gangster funeral story. Why another? Because gangster funerals are the other side of the coin of state or royal funerals. They offer spectacle.

Freshly interred in Australia is Carl ‘Fat Boy’ Williams. The convicted drug smuggler and murderer was just six years into a minimum 35-year sentence when he was beaten to death with parts of an exercise bike by fellow inmates in high security Barwon prison.

Fat Boy was the man behind gang wars in Melbourne which claimed thirty lives. Go to Wikipedia and find out all about him.

Peter Nordern, formerly chaplain of Pentridge prison, Melbourne, offered this advice to the officiating priest:

I got some early guidance [in conducting the funerals of criminals] from an old mentor, Father John Brosnan, my predecessor as chaplain at Pentridge Prison. I remember attending the funeral of Brian Kane, who was shot dead while enjoying a quiet ale in the Quarry Hotel in Brunswick in 1982.

As a trainee Jesuit at the time, I sat in the back pew at St John’s Church in East Melbourne, as “The Bros” began.

“There are three things that we do as we come together today for Brian’s funeral: we pray for the deceased, we extend our support and comfort to those who grieve and we look for a lesson for our own lives.”

On another occasion, as I attended Sunday morning church service at Pentridge during those years, “The Bros” told the assembled inmates that he had buried another well-known crim that week.

As he spoke, an old lag from the back called out: “But Fr Bros, Billy didn’t even believe in God.” Fr Brosnan paused a while, then a big smile stretched across his face from ear and ear, and he replied: “He does now!”

Watch Williams’s casket and family arrive at the church in which two of his victims’ funerals were held here.

Glarin’ or hollerin’?

Friday, 30 April 2010

Funeral mutes

Since most progressive developments in funerals are reinventions of or reversions to past practice, it’s always a good idea, now and then, to peer into the mists of history and see if there’s anything that can be plucked out, dusted down and dressed up for the 21st century.

The funeral mute, for example. Men dressed from head to foot in black, carrying staves and wearing expressions of fathomless gloom. They supplied mood. Or supplemented it. They were common in Europe, according to Wikipedia, from 1600 to 1914. Worth reinventing? Or dangerously giggle-inducing?

What about wailing women? I don’t know that we’ve ever had them in the reticent UK. We prefer mutes. I think they probably thrive only in warmer climates. Any market for them?

Over at How to Change the World, blogger Guy Kawasaki wondered out loud “Have you heard of the practice of hiring people to cry at funerals? Could you fill me on how this works? The more details the details the better: which country? Are there levels of crying? How much does it cost? Etc.” He got some interesting responses.

Funeral wailers seem to be alive and in good voice in Tamil Nadu, other parts of India  and Pakistan. In Chile they were called lloronas and may be extinct. They are going strong in the Slovak Republic, Vietnam and the Philippines, less so in Mexico, Russia and Spain. In Malaysia and Singapore between 1959 and 1968 “there would be so many paid mourners that you didn’t even know if the family was actually walking with the casket.” There are professional mourners in Egypt, but the writer doesn’t say if they ululate. They certainly still do in Romania. And possibly parts of rural Greece (they’ve got lots to wail about, just now).

It’s an intriguing custom, isn’t it? Why would you want to hire people to pretend to be grief stricken? Its universality shows that it fulfils a need. Presumabaly it is cathartic. And possibly beyond the grasp of an Anglo-Saxon mindset. This is a practice for poetical people.

Like the Irish. From Vol IV of the Transactions of the Royal Irish Academy we learn that, in the twelfth century, the Irish then musically expressed their griefs; that is, they applied the musical art, in which they excelled all others, to the orderly celebration of funeral obsequies, by dividing the mourners into two bodies, each alternately singing their part, and the whole at times, joining in full chorus, “The body of the deceased, dressed in grave clothes, and ornamented with flowers, was placed on a bier, or some elevated spot. The relations and keeners (singing mourners) then ranged themselves in two divisions, one at the head, the other at the foot of the corpse.

“The bards and croteries had before prepared the funeral caoinan. The chief bard of the head chorus began by singing the first stanza in a low doleful tone, which was softly accompanied by the harp: at the conclusion, the foot semichorus began the lamentation, or ullaloo, from the final note of the preceding stanza, in which they were answered by the head semichorus; then both united in one general chorus. The chorus of the first stanza being ended, the chief bard of the foot semichorus began the second gol, or lamentation, in which they were answered by that of the head, and as before, both united in the general full chorus. Thus alternately, were the song and the choruses performed during the night. The genealogy, rank, possessions, the virtues and vices of the dead were rehearsed, and a number of interrogations were addressed to the deceased: as, why did he die? If married, whether his wife was faithful to him, his sons dutiful, or good hunters or warriors? if a woman, whether her daughters were fair or chaste? If a young man, whether he had been crossed in love? or if the blue-eyed maids of Erin had treated him with scorn?

From the mid-eighteenth century we have this lament of Morian Shehone for Miss Mary Bourke:

Silence prevails; it is an awful silence. The voice of Mary is heard no longer in the valley.

Yes, thou art gone, O Mary! but Morian Shehone will raise the song of woe, and bewail thy fate.

“Snow white was thy virtue; the youths gazed on thee with rapture; and old age listened with pleasure to the soft music of thy tongue.

Thy beauty was brighter than the sun which shone around thee, O Mary! but thy sun is set, and has left the soul of thy friend in darkness.

Sorrow for thee is dumb, save the wailings of Morian Shehone; and grief has not yet tears to shed for Mary.

I have cried over the rich man; but when the stone was laid upon his grave, my grief was at an end. Not so with my heart’s darling; the grave cannot hide Mary from the view of Morian Shehone.

I see her in the four corners of her habitation, which was once gilded by her presence.
Thou didst not fall off like a withered leaf, which hangs trembling and insecure: no, it was a rude blast which brought thee to the dust, O Mary!

Hadst thou not friends? Hadst thou not bread to eat, and raiment to put on? Hadst thou not youth and beauty, Mary? Then mightest thou not have been happy?

But the spoiler came, and disordered my peace: the grim tyrant has taken away my only support in Mary!

In thy state of probation, thou wert kind hearted to all, and none envied thee thy good fortune. Oh! that the lamentations of thy friends–Oh! that the burning tears of Morian Shehone could bring back from the grave the peerless Mary!

But alas! this cannot be: then twice in every year, while the virgins of the valley celebrate the birth and death of Mary, under the wide spreading elm, let her spirit hover round them, and teach them to emulate her virtues.

So falls into the depth of silence the lament of Morian Shehone.

What a marvellous thing that is. And, we reflect, while we may be willing to forgo professional wailers, is not singing grievously neglected in today’s funerals? And music, generally? Music and singing that are integral?

Fast track to eternity

Friday, 30 April 2010

Clever guy, that Shakespeare. He foresaw the viral capability of the internet long before the invention of the penny post. Here’s Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream: “I’ll put a girdle around the Earth in 40 minutes!”

Which is as long as it took young gunshot victim David Morales Colón to travel around the world yesterday, cleverly posed by morticians astride a motorbike. A great many visitors to this blog will already have seen him.

What looks clever to the uninformed appears pretty perilous to a funeral insider. The embalmer must have done a thorough job of aspirating the stomach because, posed like this, Sr Colon could easily begin to misbehave from the inside out. It’d be good to have a fellow embalmer’s view of this.

The pose is a masterpiece because there is tension in the body (though lacking in the hands). How would you do that? How would you stop the body from slumping and sliding off? How would you achieve that attitude of the head?

Does it open your mind to possibilities closer to home ? The classic British nan-in-a-box style of body presentation is, arguably, not only unimaginative but also unrealistic. Who ever saw nan in a box before? She doesn’t look herself, does she? Couldn’t they have sat her in an armchair holding her knitting? Or eating chocolates, watching East Enders?

Is this an idea worth pursuing or a road not on any account to be travelled down? As with so many matters funereal, there’s such a very fine line between a helpful initiative and a hideously naff one.

Blessed are the wicked

Thursday, 29 April 2010

We all acknowledge the link between sex and death – but what is it that links crime with death? A really good gangster funeral is a sight to see. These guys do not go incognito into that good night. Having shunned any sort of limelight all their lives, this is when they step out from the shadows.

Power talks. As does popularity. Most societies cherish their Krays and Capones.

Here’s a corker from Taiwan:

Gangster Lee Chao-hsiung died last month of liver cancer at the age of 73. He was accorded a 108-car procession and 2,000 chanting Buddhist monks and nuns. Twenty thousand spectators lined the route for a mile. A leading light of the Bamboo Union, Taiwan’s largest gang, brought 500 mobsters with him. The leader of the Heavenly Way mob brought another 500. The head of the Four Seas brought 300, and there were delegations from Japan’s yakuza and the Hong Kong and Macau triads.

The funeral was organised by the Speaker of Taiwan’s legislature.

Full account here.

Any thoughts?

Tidying up our dead

Thursday, 29 April 2010

Very nice piece in the Washington Post by Tracy Grant:

Closets are odd creatures … In starter homes, newlywed husbands tease their brides that all their clothes will never fit in that closet. When the homebuyers are upscale, the closets can boast more square footage than some Manhattan apartments.

But talk to any adult child who has packed up a parent’s closet after a move to an assisted living facility or a death, and you know why these small, painfully intimate spaces are the stuff of metaphor. Closets, like our lives, can be messy.

For almost exactly three years after my husband died, I left our closet untouched. There were a host of easy rationalizations. I didn’t need the space. His clothes weren’t bothering me; why should they bother anyone else? There were also loftier justifications. The week after he died, a dear friend offered to come over and help me go through the closet. It seemed as ludicrous to me as when the funeral director suggested that he take Bill’s glasses and donate them to the Lion’s Club. “But he needs his things,” I wanted to scream.

I would come to refer to this as my Joan Didion moment. As she recounts in her memoir “The Year of Magical Thinking,” she refused to give husband John Gregory Dunne’s loafers away because if he came back, he would need his shoes.

Read the rest of it here.

PS Does anyone know how to change font and font colour in WordPress? Do tell me, please!


Wednesday, 28 April 2010

Thanks to the supernatural genius of Ian ‘Harry’ Harris (no, he’s not a gangster, he’s a web wizard) at Carron Media, this blog has, by dint of main force, gentle coaxing and the application of recondite algorithms, been migrated from Blogger, which is pulling the plug on it, to WordPress, which has pronounced itself humbled, deeply sensible of the honour, the usual sycophantic, highly merited claptrap.

Bulletins on all matters funereal will begin to pour forth from tomorrow.

In the meantime, need a web-whisperer? Harry’s yer man. Lovely guy. One in a million.

Minute of mayhem for Malcolm McLaren

Friday, 23 April 2010

Did the idea catch fire? Dunno. The Guardian wants to know what was your minute of mayhem. Track the responses here.

Burying Jed Kesey

Friday, 23 April 2010

Here’s an extract from an account of the funeral of Ken Kesey:

It was the least maudlin memorial service and funeral I’ve ever been to—his family and community loved him and shared his disinterest in sentimentality. At the burial at his farm his corpse was right there in front of us. People filed by and studied it, and put things in the coffin with him, slipped joints into his pockets.

The grave was next to his son Jed’s. It was not six feet deep. They’d been working on it for three days. It was like looking into a mine shaft. Well, his friends nailed the coffin lid shut, and then they lowered it down. The youngest kids were asked to shovel in the first of the dirt. I happened to be close by, so my turn to help came pretty quickly. I got a shovel full of that good central Oregon agricultural soil and heaved it way down there onto the coffin. It made the deepest boom! I thought about what it must have sounded like from inside.

And here are extracts of an account by Ken Kesey of the funeral of his son Jed, killed in a road accident:

I sincerely hope that I do not—as Richard II worries—`play the wanton with my woes,’ by this display of my family’s private grief and publication of my personal correspondence. I mean only to suggest a path for others wandering in similar pain. We’ve all got a lot of dying ahead of us. We might as well learn how to go about it.

It was the toughest thing any of us has ever had to go through, harder than jail, or my dad’s death, or an OD on STP, yet it also had and always will have a decided glory. Partly, I think, because Jed was such a good kid, very loving and very loved, and the power of his being carried us through a lot of the ache. But there was also the support we got, from friends and family, from teachers and coaches and schoolmates. Without this support I don’t think we would have attempted the kind of funeral we had, or plunged into the activism prompted by the circumstances of the accident.

It’s the funeral that I mainly want to share, because I think you guys and your constituency of readers should know that this homemade ceremony is legally possible. All you need is the land, the determination, and the family.

We built the box ourselves … and Zane and Jed’s friends and frat brothers dug the hole in a nice spot between the chicken house and the pond …You would have been proud, Wendell, especially of the box—clear pine pegged together and trimmed with redwood. The handles of thick hemp rope. And you, Ed, would have appreciated the lining. It was a piece of Tibetan brocade given Mountain Gift by Owsley fifteen years ago, gilt and silver and russet phoenixbird patterns, unfurling in flames. And last month, Bob, Zane was goose hunting in the field across the road and killed a snow goose. I told him be sure to save the down. Susan Butkovitch covered this in white silk for the pillow while Faye and MG and Gretch and Candace stitched and stapled the brocade into the box.

It was a double-pretty day, like winter holding its breath, giving us a break. About 300 people stood around and sung from the little hymnbooks that Diane Kesey had Xeroxed–“Everlasting Arms,” “Sweet Hour of Prayer,” “In the Garden” and so forth. With all my cousins leading the singing and Dale on his fiddle. While we were singing “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain,” Zane and Kit and the neighbor boys that have grown up with all of us carried the box to the hole.

People filed by and dropped stuff in on Jed. I put in that silver whistle I used to wear with the Hopi cross soldered on it. One of our frat brothers put in a quartz watch guaranteed to keep beeping every fifteen minutes for five years. Faye put in a snapshot of her and I standing with a pitchfork all Grantwoodesque in front of the old bus.

Paul Sawyer read from Leaves of Grass while the boys each hammered in the one nail they had remembered to put in their pockets. The Betas formed a circle and passed the loving cup around (a ritual our fraternity generally uses when a member is leaving the circle to become engaged). (Jed and Zane and I are all members, y’unnerstand, not to mention Hagen) and the boys lowered the box with these ropes George had cut and braided. Zane and I tossed in the first shovelfuls. It sounded like the first thunderclaps of Revelations …

Read a fuller account here.

Life Ain’t Always Beautiful

Thursday, 22 April 2010

Here’s an unusually well-written blog: THE MY WIFE HAS CANCER BLOG. Had. She died on 29 March, and its author will shortly be wrapping it up.

It’s a very good, if sometimes difficult, read. And there’s an interesting post on funeral costs. We’d find it hard to do anything like that so cheaply in this country, where direct cremation has yet to catch on – and a memorial service instead of a funeral.

There’s a touching little slide show put together by a friend of the author, whom he describes as a ‘computer genius’. It doesn’t take a genius, of course. He could have used Animoto. And if he’d really wanted one created by a genius he’d have gone to Louise at Sentiment.

WARNING! This blog may disappear without warning at any time. Don’t worry! It’s because Blogger is discontinuing its server (or somesuch). It will transmigrate to WordPress and be resurrected as something altogether user-friendlier. Service will be suspended for no more than a few days.

Quickie Wednesday

Wednesday, 21 April 2010

Interesting piece from Canada on home funerals in which a ‘death midwife’ (gotta find a better term than that!) acknowledges that funeral directors can, in the right circumstances, do the job as well as her. She’s right, of course. Good funeral directors are not the enemy. Read it

From Pam Vetter’s newsletter, this tragic account of a car crash which killed three generations of a Mennonite family. They were musicians. Hear them sing here.

And now I’m off to spend the day with my friend Teresa Evans.


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