Blog Archives: July 2010

A real funeral

Friday, 23 July 2010

Requiem Video for David J Catts, Dead Mate from Kim Reddin on Vimeo.

David Catts, a man much given to tomfoolery, embodied all manner of beautiful imperfections. Aged 41, married for just eight months, he fell in July 2009 from a 17th storey balcony in what his father described as “skylarking gone tragically wrong.” He’d had a few drinks. His funeral addressed his beautiful imperfections with rare honesty and love. People said what needed to be said.

This blog is on holiday for the next week, after which it will be moving house. Posts will be sporadic. Happy days, all of you. And thank you for following. I really appreciate it.

Two new websites I like a lot

Thursday, 22 July 2010

Two interesting new websites for you today. Both are labours of love, and both are run by nice, intelligent people.

The first is homegrown It’s a resource for people who, once they’ve got the ashes back from the funeral director in one of those plastic cartons, wonder what on earth to do with them. It can take them a long time to get their heads around it. It can take a long time, as a family, to agree. And, of course, they wonder what their options are. So Richard Martin, impelled by his own experience of bereavement, has created for them a sort of Ashes Central where they can survey their options and pick up some good tips about what sort of ceremony might best suit them. In his own words: “The site was born out of experience and a desire to tell people that they can celebrate a life in their own way. Often people can hold onto ashes for a couple of years or more before they decide what to finally do. By which time the funeral director is not at hand to guide you. Hopefully we can.” It’s well informed, comprehensive and a work in progress. Do write to Richard, if you feel the urge. He’s a ready learner who wants to do the best he can. His is a good idea and I think it deserves to do well. He runs a nice little blog, too. Well worth subscribing to.

The second site is US-based. It is the creation of Felix Jung, like Richard an industry outsider, who is much influenced by the work and thinking of Thomas Lynch. It’s called and is reminiscent of the site established by Bill Drummond,, where people can plan their own funerals. Whereas MyDeath is now a mature site, and has been infiltrated to an extent by jokers and drunks, DeadAdvice is very young and as yet has few postings. It is a place where people can write letters which address the Big Questions. In Felix’s words:

Am I a good person? Have I been living a meaningful life? Am I spending the time I’ve been given wisely and well? In trying to answer those questions, I began thinking of the advice people have given me… and of the advice I might give others.

“Every letter on Dead Advice begins with the same first sentence: “Now that I’m dead, I want to tell you a few things.”

“Imagine, for a moment, that you have just died. If you had to look back over the arc of your life as it stands today, what stories would you tell? What lessons would you share, what things might you regret or confess?”

I’m really going to enjoy watching these two unfold.


Wednesday, 21 July 2010

In his excellent book Curtains, Tom Jokinen quotes US undertaker BT Hathaway on the subject of home funerals. Hathaway reckons a home funeral suits “the 5 per cent who have money, time, resources, education and political and emotional will.” With preconditions like these, how come it ever got as high as 5 per cent? Hathaway concludes: “It’s poetic, but the truth is, I don’t know that many poetic families.”

Poetic? I’m not sure about this elegant disparagement. Jokinen draws his own wrong conclusion: “This is of course the same argument for why people eat at Pizza Hut instead of milling their own wheat and breeding their own pepperoni cattle.” Here we have an overstatement. You don’t have to grow a tree to make the coffin, neither do you have to plant your own jute to make the lining.

But convenience is a seductive thing. And time is of the essence. A dead body is potentially a chaotic, eruptively ugly thing; it makes a lot of sense to call the experts in and keep a safe distance. And we reflect here that, when people die, those who loved them urgently want the body back from wherever in the world it conked out. They want this with a fervour which arguably defies reason. This may be not so pronounced in the UK, where dead soldiers were buried where they fell as late as the Falklands war. But in the US the historic clamour to have the body returned led to a stream of dug-up coffins coming back, once hostilities were over, from the battlefields of the first and second world wars.

So: distance matters. The body must come home. Propinquity is good. But closing the distance and engaging with that body? NO!  At the last, we need our cordon sanitaire, cowards that we are. Here we record the loss of the lesson of the teachings of all the great religions that the dead body should be treated as an object of veneration.

At the end of his book Jokinen begins to reap the harvest of his experiences as an undertaker’s understrapper. Here’s what he says:

“Instead of deflecting a confrontation with death through commerce, you face it, fill the hole by hand, and then get on with the hard work of mourning, knowing that instead of passively choosing an object from a catalogue and subcontracting the ritual to someone else, you’ve acted, taken a stand, not against dirt, in fact, but in favour of it. An act with a meaning.”

Later the same day he meets his wife for supper. “I have seen the future,” I tell her. “And it’s Jewish.”

In other words, he finds the middle ground between doing it all (the home funeral) and doing nothing: giving in to “the impulse to fix grief through shopping.”

A lot of religious law has to do with physical and emotional health. Much law relating to diet has been rendered obsolete by simple advances in hygiene. Leviticus is for that reason looking decidedly old hat these days, and pigs unfairly deprecated. But a number of Jewish practices, however ritualised, retain their (thank you, Mr Hathaway) poetic value because they promote healthy grieving.

Sitting shiva, for example. Taking yourself out of the loop, telling your employer to get stuffed and staying at home for either seven or three days after the burial. Time exclusively spent getting your head around it but, importantly, time which is bounded. Got to be good.

And then there’s the work of the chevra kadisha, the little community team that performs the tahara – the ritual preparation of Jews for burial. This involves the right prayers, of course, and also the washing and dressing of the body with immense respect, concluding with an apology to it should anything done have offended it.

I’m not making a pitch here for the return of the splendid and formidable laying-out woman. All I would observe is that, if a dead body is held precious, then it makes good emotional sense to play a part, under the eye of experts, in getting it ready for burial.

There’s a very good little video film which talks about the work of the chevra kadisha and shows the tahara performed in a funeral director’s mortuary. I’d embed it if I had the skills. If you want to skip straight to the tahara, start 6 ½ minutes in.

Click here.

How to plan a good memorial service

Tuesday, 20 July 2010

It’s time to introduce you to my friend CrabbyOldFart. He’s a silver blogger in the US whose beef is with young people (he loathes them). He posts weekly, on Mondays, and brings much merriment to a day which can so often have the feel of an ordeal about it.

This week, he brings his no-nonsense mind to bear on how to plan your own memorial service.  Here are some extracts:

Last week I attended a service comprised of 3 old people, a rented minister and 600 egg salad sandwiches. It was a damned sad turnout and a waste of good egg salad too. If you do nothing else you need to ensure that you attract a crowd – it’s the last party you’ll attend and you don’t want it to be an unmitigated flop.

I recommend providing incentives…

I don’t know how many times I’ve gone to a service and been subjected to some barefoot, hippie minister with a pony tail rattling on about a senior he’s never even met … I’ve pre-selected my minister and you can rest assured that he’ll be an aged, wrinkly white man with a scowl on his lips and an Old Testament in his hand. And if he doesn’t know me personally – that’s fine, I’ve already written the sermon for him.

There won’t be any music at my service. This is a memorial not a rock concert for Christ’s sake. I don’t need people waving lighters in the air or doing super-tokes to the strains of “Knocking on Heaven’s Door” or “Only the Good Die Young.”

If there must be background noise, I want a Halloween sound effects tape full of chain rattling, howling wind and unsettled moaning – it’s dramatic and much more in keeping with the occasion.

I’ve selected who will speak, instructed them on what I expect them to say and have provided them with amusing but largely fictional stories from my past.  As a condition of speaking, I’ve made it clear that they need to submit their eulogies to me now for review, editing and final script approval.

Read the entire post here at The Problem With Young People Today Is…

Eulogy magazine

Monday, 19 July 2010

Have you read Eulogy magazine? A number of you have asked me, and you have probably been expecting me to cough up a pov. But at more than £3 a throw it is way beyond my stayin’alive budget.

Yet we ought to know about it, need to know about it. Would you like to review it for readers of this blog? Please, please do!

Write something and send it to me:

St Raoul

Monday, 19 July 2010

You’ve been following the Raoul Moat aftermath? The parody-of-Diana shrine, the mawkish and the up-yours tributes, the incredulous condemnations by a clearly baffled political class?

Revulsion? Dark merriment? Take your pick. This is a very British, brutish affair. If you’ve a moment, the St Raoul site on Facebook is worth a gander and a ponder.

When an Old Cricketer Leaves the Crease

Monday, 19 July 2010

Here’s a seasonal number (with apologies to US  and Scotch readers, to whom cricket probably makes no sort of sense at all). This is the song that DJ John Peel agreed with his producer, John Walters, would be played on the radio when he died. It didn’t happen. Walters died three years before (Peel played the song for him), but no one living was immediately aware of the request when Peel died. Andy Kershaw made up for the oversight in his Radio 3 tribute to Peel; he played it at the end. Lovely melancholy, elegiac brass band sounds to relish here.

Its mood resonates with these well-known lines of the enthusiastic opium eater Francis Thompson:

For the field is full of shades as I near a shadowy coast,

And a ghostly batsman plays to the bowling of a ghost,

And I look through my tears on a soundless-clapping host

As the run stealers flicker to and fro,

To and fro:

O my Hornby and my Barlow long ago !

When an Old Cricketer Leaves the Crease

When the day is done, and the ball has spun, in the umpire’s pocket away
And all remains, in the groundsman’s pains for the rest of time and a day
There’ll be one mad dog and his master, pushing for four with the spin
On a dusty pitch, with two pounds six of willow wood in the sun

When an old cricketer leaves the crease, you never know whether he’s gone
If sometimes you’re catching a fleeting glimpse of a twelfth man at silly mid-on
And it could be Geoff, and it could be John, with a new ball sting in his tail
And it could be me, and it could be thee, and it could be the sting in the ale
Sting in the ale.

When an old cricketer leaves the crease, well you never know whether he’s gone
If sometimes you’re catching a fleeting glimpse of a twelfth man at silly mid-on
And it could be Geoff and it could be John, with a new ball sting in his tail
And it could be me and it could be thee, and it could be the sting in the ale
The sting in the ale.

When the moment comes and the gathering stands and the clock turns back to reflect
On the years of grace as those footsteps trace for the last time out of the act
Well this way of life’s recollection, the hallowed strip in the haze
The fabled men and the noonday sun are much more than just yarns of their days.

When an old cricketer leaves the crease, well you never know whether he’s gone
If sometimes you’re catching a fleeting glimpse of a twelfth man at silly mid-on
And it could be Geoff and it could be John with a new ball sting in his tail
And it could be me and it could be thee and it could be the sting in the ale
The sting in the ale.

When an old cricketer leaves the crease, well you never know whether he’s gone
If sometimes you’re catching a fleeting glimpse of a twelfth man at silly mid-on
And it could be me and it could be thee.

Geoff is Boycott (you guessed?). John is John Snow, the fast bowler.

The Lazarus touch

Sunday, 18 July 2010

Thank you, all those of you who expressed solicitude during my little illness. I am very touched. I can see now why it is that women outlive men. It is because they sensibly enlist medical science to deal with symptoms as they occur, they don’t impatiently wait for them to go away. And when they do see the doctor they don’t downplay those symptoms because they don’t want to make a fuss or give trouble, thereby rendering diagnosis more or less impossible. I have learnt my lesson.

I hope the little song in praise of organ donation (above) will make you smile.


John Prine

Woke up this morning

Put on my slippers

Walked in the kitchen and died

And oh what a feeling!

When my soul Went thru the ceiling

And on up into heaven I did ride

When I got there they did say

John, it happened this way

You slipped upon the floor

And hit your head

And all the angels say

Just before you passed away

These were the very last words That you said:

Please don’t bury me

Down in that cold cold ground

No, I’d druther have “em” cut me up

And pass me all around

Throw my brain in a hurricane

And the blind can have my eyes

And the deaf can take both of my ears

If they don’t mind the size

Give my stomach to Milwaukee

If they run out of beer

Put my socks in a cedar box

Just get “em” out of here

Venus de Milo can have my arms

Look out! I’ve got your nose

Sell my heart to the junkman

And give my love to Rose

Give my feet to the footloose

Careless, fancy free

Give my knees to the needy

Don’t pull that stuff on me

Hand me down my walking cane

It’s a sin to tell a lie

Send my mouth way down south

And kiss my ass goodbye

Down with the dead men

Monday, 12 July 2010

The perpetrator of this blog is unwell. The vast outpouring will recommence on his recovery (DV).

What’s in a coffin?

Friday, 9 July 2010

At Musgrove Willow you can go and watch the coffin being made — and even lend a hand.

There’s a big coffin show on at Chiltern Woodland Burial Park this weekend. I can’t make it, sad to say. If you can, it looks good. And Chiltern is a lovely place.

Coffins are what visitors to the GFG website most want to know about. Brits are really into coffins. Does any country offer a bigger range? I don’t think so.

It bugs consumers that they cannot buy direct from most coffin manufacturers because the funeral directors ‘persuade’ manufacturers not to sell to them. It bugs consumers that funeral directors slap the biggest margin on coffins they can get away with. It probably bugs the manufacturers, too. It bugs consumers when they learn that funeral directors bury some of their professional fee in their coffin prices. This all adds up to a feeling that they are being cynically diddled when their defences are down.

But, here’s the point, even a normal retail markup would likely be reckoned unfair. It is observable that the same people who are wholly happy to pay for a meal out when they could buy the food on their plate for 5x less at Tesco cannot see why the same rule should apply to coffins.

It is related to a general feeling that funerals are too expensive. This is a problem for funeral directors, because they are not. Funeral directors need, therefore, to work extra hard to demonstrate that they give value for money. One of those ways is to be hyper-transparent about costs.

But I think there’s more to it than that. Why do consumers feel that the normal rules of retail do not apply to coffins? The answer may be that funeral consumers have a particular feeling about the coffin: it is the last beautiful, personal gift they can buy for the person who has died. They would like to feel that they chose it and bought it and gave it to the funeral director to put their dead person in. Or that they chose it and asked the funeral director to get it for them. They see the funeral director as agent, not retailer. Above all, they want to own that coffin.

If there’s anything in this – and I’ll be interested to find out if you think there is – then funeral directors will do well to sell their coffins at more or less cost and justify their professional fee in terms of: specialist expertise + hours + overheads expressed as an hourly rate, like any other professional. This need not make them feel insecure. They do things other people can’t or won’t, after all.

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