Blog Archives: May 2010

That’s the spirit!

Sunday, 30 May 2010


Interesting stuff here from the American Museum of Photography:

Moses A. Dow (1810-1886) founded Waverley Magazine in Boston in 1850. The magazine catered to amateur authors and reached a circulation of 50,000 copies before the Civil War. It continued to appear until 1908. Dow published the works of schoolgirls and other young writers; by one account he would print nearly anything that was offered to him free. The tactic made him wealthy, because the friends and relatives of contributors would all purchase copies.

Mabel Warren was a young protégé of Dow. She submitted her writing to him in 1862, when she was apparently fresh out of high school. He published her work and hired her as his assistant, a post she held until her death following a brief illness in July of 1870.

Dow was led into spiritualism by his housekeeper, who invited a medium to tea. Barely a week after Mabel’s death, Dow felt his deceased assistant was communicating with him. In séance after séance, Dow received messages written mysteriously on slates or in ink on paper. Ultimately, Mabel’s spirit directed Dow to Mumler’s studio where she promised to appear with a wreath of lilies on her head. Dow explains, “The picture was small, but with the aid of a microscope it was magnified to the natural size of the human face, and in that face I saw the perfect picture of my friend. I was both surprised and delighted and wrote to Mr. Mumler and told him I was perfectly satisfied, and gave him my true name.”

And in case you missed it when it was at its most viral, here’s the shade of Michael Jackson:

This blog has gone down to the sea again, to the lonely sea and the sky, and will be away for a week. During this time it will post fitfully if at all. And may the sun smile on you all, too!!

Who are they, what do they want?

Friday, 28 May 2010

My website has been, I don’t know, hosted, is it? by WordPress for the last month. Instead of Google Analytics to tell me who comes and what they come for, I now have WordPress stats. In some ways they aren’t so good. I can no longer see where in the world my visitors come from. My wife enjoyed that. “Ooh, look, you’ve got two people in Patagonia!”

But in all sorts of other ways my new stats are a huge improvement. They tell me so much more. Including stuff I want to hear. Visitor numbers are rising all the time. That a niche publication which bangs on and on remorselessly and humourlessly about death should attract just shy of 9,000 visitors a month looks good to me. Now that the Guide is out, that ought to climb away nicely.

My new stats also tell me what people look for. Coffins top the list by a long way. What do you make of that? They are followed by best funeral directors, then What To Do With Ashes, then Create The Ceremony, then hearses, then Funeralcare bloopers. Green funerals, intriguingly, come way down. Perhaps people who want a green funeral are more inclined to go straight to the excellent Natural Death Centre website?

A good many folk trawl through the blog archive. Some posts are unaccountably and enduringly popular. Every day several people find Who cares? and Desert flowers.

I can also see who clicks through to other websites from mine. Coffins again take the lead. Top of the list there is Greenfield Creations, the coffin makers who supply to the public at remarkably fair prices. Next, to my delight, comes Bellacouche, the shroud maker. I do hope Yuli’s sold one or two on the strength. Phoenix Diamonds, the people who make ashes into diamonds, get a lot of interest. So does William Warren, the man who designed a coffin that can be used as bookshelves until you need it (pictured above). Send him your measurements and he’ll send you the spec. Free. Lovely man.

(Actually, it now occurs to me, I have amassed market information that would be of enormous value to lots of people in the Dismal Trade, whom I now expect to beat a path to my door waggling their wads. Go away! )

I also get a useful list of search terms people have used. I can test them and see what page of Google the GFG comes up on. And here I can report that, if you’re skint like what I am and doing it all on a frayed shoestring, you can, by dint of sheer hard blogging, get yourself right up there. It’s the most gratifying thing my stats have told me. Floreat meritocracy and stubborn self-belief!

Who’s working for who?

Friday, 28 May 2010

Secular funeral celebrants cling to the fiction that they work for their clients. They don’t. Their clients get to choose the coffin they want (they might go for something really expensive) but they don’t get to choose their celebrant, they get lumped with their celebrant. Celebrants work for funeral directors, who hold them in dependency.

That’s how the funeral directors see it. According to a report in the Funeral Service Journal (June 2010), Stephen Benson, civil celebrant, recently attended a meeting of the British Institute of Funeral Directors (BIFD). “A straw poll revealed that he had actually conducted a ceremony for over half the members present in the room.” This sentence tickles me. It makes it sound as if half of the undertakers present were dead. Perhaps they were.

Occasionally a celebrant will be contacted directly by a client, usually one who has seen the celebrant in action or received a recommendation from a friend. When this happened to me recently I was surprised when the funeral director came up to me after the funeral and said, “Thank you so much for doing this for us.” I won’t tell you what words I leashed in tightly behind my indulgent smile.

Unlike coffins, celebrants are available on the open market and can be inspected, rejected and selected at funeralcelebrants.org.uk. Recommended.

Music for a goth funeral

Friday, 28 May 2010

The other day, Jamie, or was it Paul Hensby? at My Last Song challenged me to come up with a good song to play at a goth funeral. The fact that I couldn’t think of one was not significant: I listen to very little music. I can’t even think of anything I want played at mine. It really isn’t important. Just hum a bit if you want.

But the GFG is here to help the bereaved of all musical tastes. So, to all you goths out there, and for anyone planning a Viking funeral, may I suggest the splendid Black Metal Austrian ensemble, Summoning. These two songs are, I think, ghastly beyond words and entirely hideous but, possibly, exactly what you are looking for.

We are here to serve.

Would you credit it?

Friday, 28 May 2010

Here’s an interesting insight from the US into the robustness of the business model of Services Corporation International, the clumping, predatory and often bungling funeral chain which begat our very own Dignity Caring Funeral Services.  Dignity is not a notably bungling organisation, but the challenges they both face are related:

Because of the lack of industry growth, Service Corporation and its peers have increasingly focused on preneed sales to drive revenue. While paying for a funeral at the time of death is unavoidable, paying in advance is highly discretionary. As a result, the company’s revenue has declined through the recession. More important, proceeds from preneed sales are placed in trusts until the actual funeral services are delivered. Service Corporation carried an investment portfolio of about $3 billion at the end of 2009, with about 40% of that portfolio invested in equities. If this portfolio suffers serious impairments or generates insufficient income, the company could be materially affected.

Dignity is profitable, but it is also leveraged. And, as Andrew Plume pointed out a while back, its figures in many branches are very low. The business pages of UK newspapers customarily talk up Dignity and advise investors that it’s a safe haven for their money. I don’t know that that is how it is seen by any who know the industry. Have any of you funeral directors out there got any money in Dignity?

The single most influential factor is this: the public does not like using a chain funeral director.

Read the whole story here.

DIY embalming

Thursday, 27 May 2010

A touching and moving little film here which will appeal to home funeralists and those who want to reduce funeral costs. NOTE: It carries a four-star Squeam Warning. Don’t watch if you think it may upset you.

Blessed are the bad?

Thursday, 27 May 2010

There’s an interesting piece (if you find this sort of thing interesting) in the Australian magazine Eureka Street, a very interesting looking publication promoted by the Australian Jesuits, but remarkably non-doctrinaire and broadminded in its treatment of things.

The piece, by Andrew Hamilton, a theologian from Melbourne, debates the sort of funeral appropriate for child abusers and for criminals like Carl Williams. He begins:

In the last month Catholic funerals have led to controversy. Many Catholics complained that Carl Williams was allowed burial in a Catholic Church. And some victims of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church expressed anger that bishops and priests in robes glorified the funeral of a priest who had been charged with sexual abuse of minors, but who died before the case could be brought.

We are all sinners, but where, if anywhere, should a line be drawn, especially now that most religious funerals will contain an element of life celebration?

The focus on the life of the dead person makes funerals of notorious malefactors problematic. When all involved in the funeral see themselves as sinners, brought together to pray for God’s mercy upon another sinner, it will seem natural that public sinners should have a church funeral which is widely attended.

But if funerals are seen only to commemorate the life of the dead, to praise their virtues, and to commend them to shared memory, those who attend may be seen to endorse the quality of the dead person’s life. They come, not just to bury the dead, but to praise them. If the funeral evokes the virtues of a scoundrel whose life was publicly scandalous, those who take part may seem to be complicit in a lie. Church officers who celebrate the funeral or make the church building available may also be seen as reprehensible.

Hamilton concludes:

Within the Christian community splendid ceremonies with processions of robed bishops and priests may heighten the sense that the dead person is precious in God’s eyes and may evoke God’s mercy. But those whom a dead priest has abused and the wider society are as likely to see in the celebration an enactment of power and defiance.

In such funerals it may be better to draw on the resources of Catholic liturgy that allow people to gather to seek forgiveness, express grief and pray for conversion. Plain dress, an unornamented church, honest prayers and periods of silence can express respect for the dead person and our shared need of God’s mercy. A one-style liturgy does not fit all circumstances.

Read it all here.

What is a funeral for?

Thursday, 27 May 2010

A survey of this blog’s favourite obits’ page in the Times Colonist in Victoria, on the west coast of Canada, yields features of interest.

12 deaths are recorded this week. So far as I can see, there’s not a single funeral among them. The breakdown reveals: 3 celebrations of life; 2 memorial services; 3 no service of any kind; 3 private gatherings; 1 not specified.

I wonder if the spirit in which these obits are written is informed by the fact that there will be no funeral?

I am struck by one, in particular, which addresses not the readers but the dead person. It concludes: “At your request, we will have a family gathering in your honour late summer in Cumberland.”

Read them all here.

Much to celebrate?

Wednesday, 26 May 2010

When wireless listeners switched on for the BBC Home Service (now R4) news on Good Friday, 1930, the announcer began in familiar terms in his familiar dark brown voice: “This is the BBC Home Service. Here is the news. There is no news today.” The resulting startled gap was filled with 15 mins of pianoforte music.

I apologise for getting nothing posted yesterday, not even 15 mins of improving pianoforte music. I thought I had a nice, juicy little story in the bag but, on following it up, discovered that it was a silly and not unsqualid story best left unprobed, unseen. It all took time.

In the absence of any exciting breaking news this morning, I found myself, while walking the dogs, brooding on a telephone conversation I had yesterday.

Secular celebrants reckon themselves to be a force for change and may even congratulate themselves on what they have accomplished. Many of the qualities they bring are, I would mischievously and provocatively point out, best expressed in the negative: they don’t mumble so much, they don’t get the dead person’s name wrong, they’re not so disengaged, they’re not so ‘samey’ and they don’t talk so much nonsense. In brief, they’re not as awful as some, a dwindling number, of ordained ministers, none of whom talk nonsense anyway, they talk theology.

Celebrants pride themselves on the time they spend, the care they take, the degree of personalisation they achieve. Unique funerals for unique people, they say. It’s a fine vision. I think many underestimate the amount of time and care many ministers also expend.

And let’s acknowledge, too, that many secular celebrants are spreading themselves very thin and doing too many funerals. Is every one of their ceremonies a stand-alone one-off? No way. They are, actually, very samey. I have every sympathy with them; ringing the changes is exceedingly hard to do. The one-size-fits-all religious rite, we discover, is not a lazy expedient but, done well, a superb piece of ceremonial couture which flatters the figure of each dead person who wears it.

Why are some secular celebrants spreading themselves too thin? Because they need to make a living from a vocation which pays very badly. This leaves them time-poor. So they cut corners. They get the facts but they don’t get the feel. And it serves. Because it is not, actually, all that difficult to meet the expectations of funeral consumers, for their expectations remain extremely low.

Celebrancy is, arguably, a job for portfolio workers and the retired. Otherwise, it’s a weirdly onesided way of making a living. A lot of potentially excellent celebrants look at the rates of pay and decide they simply can’t afford to work for that. Neither are they attracted by the pride-swallowing involved in sucking up to undertakers and supplicating for referrals.

So: what is the maximum number of funerals per week that a secular celebrant can perform well? Three? Four? I’d be interested to know what you think.

Some secular celebrants are superb. They have played an heroic part in making farewell ceremonies for the dead more focussed on the individual, more palatable, more meaningful, more relevant, more emotionally congruent. Some of these ceremonies are really nice and some are really good.

And yet, most secular ceremonies still happen at the crem. Most resemble religious ceremonies, use the same basic template. In the words of Thomas Long, they ‘evoke a vague impression of the sacred’.

So, what can we say about the ceremonial status and ritual authority of the secular celebrant? You need a minister at a funeral to broker the deal with God but you don’t need a celebrant for anything except to say the stuff that others don’t feel up to.

Where are things moving towards? What is their destination? Is the role of the secular celebrant set to accrue ceremonial significance or is it due to dwindle?

Any thoughts?

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