It’s been a slow news day here at the GFG luxury penthouse suite in Thanatology Towers. So here’s a very good poem by Owen Sheers. If you like it, buy the collection. It’s called Skirrid Hill and it’s published by seren.
Here’s what seems to me to be an extraordinary story from the US. It’s a blog post by a mum of four (8, 7, 4, 7 months) about her family field trip to a funeral director. Here’s an extract:
When I set up the appointment, the funeral director said, “How much do you want to see?” and I said, “Whatever you’ll be willing to show us!”
It’s against the law for them to show any dead bodies… but they were there, alright. We weren’t allowed to see what was inside the big refrigerator (which can comfortably fit up to 6 bodies) or open the lid of a casket sitting in the back room. The kids weren’t the LEAST bit freaked out by anything.
I don’t think you could get away with that in the UK, could you? What does that say about us?
There was a nice piece in yesterday’s Mirror about Richard Coles. In the eighties he was one half of the Communards; now he’s a Church of England priest.
In an age in which churchpeople are customarily pelted with derision, it’s worth calling to mind some of the virtuous deeds that Coles and his kind perform daily. Whatever you think of the theology, there has to be admiration for the heroic humility. And recognition.
“For example, this morning a naked man turned up at my door. He’s a regular caller and sometimes forgets to put his clothes on. I barely blink when I see him in the buff now. Welcoming him into the church is part of my job.
“As a priest I offer something to anyone who knocks at my door. A listening ear, some food, a sleeping bag or, in this man’s case, trousers.
“And that, in a nutshell, is why clergymen and women matter. We offer people something everyone needs and no one else gives.
“Ok, many get by without ever beating a path to our door. But we’re still here, trying our best to look after the weak and vulnerable.”
Coles has, of course, performed many funerals, not all of them noneventful:
“At another funeral, minutes before the service, the widow of the deceased handed me a note she had found among her dead husband’s belongings. She said he had wanted it to be read out.
“I had a brief glance at it beforehand, but when I started reading it I realised his note was apportioning blame for the things that had gone wrong in his life to people who were in the congregation. I had to hastily edit as I went along. It was ghastly.
“But nothing is as bad as my colleague’s disastrous first burial. The gravediggers forgot to dig the grave and he didn’t know what to do – so ended up covering the coffin with a sheet of artificial grass.
“Then there are the nearly-but-not quite funerals. I was called out to visit an old lady in a nursing home because she was dying. I was shown to her room and she was sleeping.
“As I anointed her, she opened one eye and said: “You’re a bit early, me duck.” She made a full recovery.”
Our prison system is a seldom explored area of death and dying. In fact, little is known about what goes on in our prisons, mostly because people don’t care enough about those inside to be remotely interested in what happens to them. This doesn’t surprise me. Crime angers people. But I’ve spent time in prisons and I met lots of people almost all of whom would benefit from a programme which made a real and earnest effort to rehabilitate them.
If you’re interested to find out what prison is like, have a look at Ben’s Prison Blog. Ben was imprisoned at the age of 14 for killing a friend in a fight. He’s still there 30 years later. He is the UK’s first and only prison blogger.
If you want to know what extreme old age in prison looks like, here’s a film from the US. It is only partially descriptive of what happens in UK prisons because Americans lock up more people for longer than we do. But it shows you the consequences of the throw-away-the-key approach.
My thanks to John Hirst for pointing this film out to me.
We must hope that spending cuts will result in the excision of not just waste but also the sort of local authority insensitivity which manifests as brainless heartlessness.
Here’s an example from Somerset as told by the Daily Mail:
Liz Maggs placed a 26-inch high wooden cross bearing a personal inscription on Rosemary Maggs’ burial plot at the Ebdon Road cemetery in Weston-super-Mare, while the family waited for a headstone to be made. But when Mrs Maggs, 43, returned to visit the grave … just a few days later she found the cross had disappeared … The authority said that because the cross stood about 2ft up from the ground it was a health and safety risk.
But it turns out that, though this was the pretext the council used, this wasn’t what they actually meant. It didn’t mean they they thought the cross presented a hazard to life, limb and the pursuit of happiness. No, what they were trying to get across was that this is a lawn cemetery; everything must be laid flat.
Ms Maggs was poorly advised by those with a duty to advise her. And by the example of many other wooden crosses in the same cemetery. Perhaps an example of belated, retrospective enforcement of regulations?
Whatever, a sorry mess. If you haven’t heard enough, find the whole sorry story here.
Here’s a very interesting looking new film. Synopsis follows. Hat-tip to Liam Roberts for this.
For years, townsfolk have been terrified of the backwoods recluse known as Felix Bush. People say he’s done all manner of unspeakable things — that he’s killed in cold blood; that he’s in league with the Devil; that he has strange powers — and they avoid him like the plague. Then, one day, Felix rides to town with a shotgun and a wad of cash, saying he wants to buy a funeral. It’s not your usual funeral for the dead Felix wants. On the contrary, he wants a ‘living funeral,’ in which anyone who ever had heard a story about him will come to tell it, while he takes it all in. Sensing a big payday in the offing, fast-talking funeral home owner Frank Quinn enlists his gentlemanly young apprentice, Buddy Robinson to win over Felix’s business. Buddy is no stranger to Felix’s dark reputation, but what he discovers is that behind Felix’s surreal plan lies a very real and long-held secret that must get out. As the funeral approaches, the mystery – which involves the widow Maddie Darrow, the only person in town who ever got close to Felix, and the Illinois preacher Charlie Jackson who refuses to speak at his former friend’s funeral – only deepens. But on the big day, Felix is in no mood to listen to other people spinning made-up anecdotes about him. This time, he’s the one who is going to do the telling about why he has been hiding out in the woods.
Here’s an incredibly powerful and superbly written account from the New York Times about the consequences of life-extending interventions by medics.
One October afternoon three years ago while I was visiting my parents, my mother made a request I dreaded and longed to fulfill. She had just poured me a cup of Earl Grey from her Japanese iron teapot, shaped like a little pumpkin; outside, two cardinals splashed in the birdbath in the weak Connecticut sunlight. Her white hair was gathered at the nape of her neck, and her voice was low. “Please help me get Jeff’s pacemaker turned off,” she said, using my father’s first name. I nodded, and my heart knocked.
It’s a gruelling read, and worth every word. You can find it here.
I had an email today from someone in Atlanta, Georgia USA. Is there any funeral home in this area, she wondered, that practises nokanshi. I explained that I couldn’t help: the GFG is UK-based. Then I googled nokanshi. And discovered that it is the ritual preparation, in Japan, of the body for cremation.
And you can see how it’s done in the opening scene of the film Departures. (I put some trailers for Departures up on this blog a while back.) Now, I see, someone has posted the entire film on YouTube in 10-min chunks. It’s incredibly beautiful. Okay, the nokanshi discovers halfway through the ritual washing that the beautiful dead girl is actually a boy. No matter. You get the point.
There are no subtitles on the (presumably pirated) YouTube version. But it’s easy enough to follow. And it really is a lovely piece of work.
What happens to the minds of those who deal with death every day? How do they cope with the endless procession of grieving people and dead bodies? Is it emotionally healthy to specialise in death? Isn’t undertaking something best combined with a therapeutic something else – a little landscape gardening or, in the case of Jeremy Clutterbuck, undertaker to the good folk of Cam in Gloucestershire, ironmongery? It is difficult to see, on his website, any affiliation to any of the funeral industry trade bodies, but he is proud to proclaim his membership of the British Hardware Federation.
In his excellent book Curtains, Tom Jokinen quotes Alan Wolfelt on ‘funeral director fatigue syndrome’. He lists the following symptoms:
Exhaustion and loss of energy
Irritability and impatience
Cynicism and detachment
Feelings of omnipotence and indispensability
I wonder if any funeral director out there has any comment on this? How do you look after your emotional health?
Funeral directors apart, what happens to those at a less exalted level – the trade embalmers, those who work in mortuaries, especially hospital mortuaries? What coping skills are they taught? Anecdotally, we are aware that mortuary practice in some of Britain’s funeral homes is not always what it should be and can be deplorable.
Here are two recent stories which illustrate what I’m getting at. See what happened to these people:
Staff at a historic cemetery in Genoa are being investigated for allegedly stripping gold fillings, jewels and artificial limbs from corpses for resale.
Seven employees at the wooded Staglieno cemetery, built in 1851, are suspected of having secretly amassed their booty in a workroom where buyers purchased materials by the pound.
Zinc stripped from coffins, as well as wooden coffins themselves, stolen seconds before cremations, were also up for sale, reported Genoa daily Il Secolo XIX. Artificial limbs were prized for their titanium content.
Questions about staff turnover, working relationships with funeral homes and the treatment of bodies at the Snohomish County Medical Examiner’s Office merit a review by an independent, third party, County Council Chairman Dave Gossett said … The scrutiny comes after an anonymous, online complaint the county received in August 2009.
The writer claimed to help run one of the county’s largest funeral homes and said bodies the funeral home received from the medical examiner’s office were “in vile condition.”