Blog Archives: September 2010

Blessed are the risk-takers

Thursday, 30 September 2010

There’s a strong feeling among funeralistas that making money out of death is wrong, naff, reprehensible. This is good news for consumers. I’ve met a good many vocation-driven undertakers who could charge far more than they do but they won’t because they think it’s… wrong. Ironically, even the greediest, porkiest undertaker will lend his or her voice to indignantly and righteously denounce a celebrant who charges much more than a retired priest.

My own credibility (such as it is) is founded in the fact that I can’t make what I do pay. In any other industry this foolhardy indigence would earn me derision. In Funeralworld it is my indispensable calling card, my most disarming attribute.

I don’t buy all this. I think that the labourer is worthy of his or her hire. If you can be of use to someone, send them a bill which reflects your value and their ability to pay. Wish I could.

The newly-launched end-of-life planning service Lovingly Managed has attracted some tsk-tsk-ing. But it serves a need which no one else is serving, a need which is going to grow as the population ages, grows spectre-thin and dements. There are aspects to end-of-life planning which, to many, will be either difficult to get your head around or just plain tedious. Necessary, though. Will writing. Lasting Power of Attorney for the time when you lose your wits. An ADRT for the time when you want them to leave you alone. Information and guidance about body donation, assisted dying, tissue donation, financial planning, funeral planning. Who’s going to look after the dog? There’s a lot to it. Lovingly Managed sit down with you, take you through it and fill out the boring paperwork – just like my accountant and, recently, my brilliant mortgage person. “Sign here.” Done. Worth every penny. You love people like this too.

Lovingly Managed is run by expert, ethical people headed by a solicitor. They present no threat to anyone else in Funeralworld: they are plugging a gap. Have they got the tone right on their website? Not yet, perhaps, in places, I don’t know. No worries. They’re bright so they adapt. I’ve spoken to Denise Jones who heads it up. I like her. A lot. People need what she and her team are doing.

Another busy bee in this emerging niche market of end-of-life planning is Paul Hensby at MyLastSong. This is one of those sites where you record your plans and wishes – you buy yourself a virtual box and fill it up. When I first saw the site and detected its commercialism I tsk-ed a bit. It gets to you, this sniffiness, doesn’t it? Well, he’s working bloody hard to make it work. He’s a nice guy. Is MLS what people want? Don’t know til you try, do you? I really don’t see why not.

To do something new requires vast reserves of self-reliance and stubbornness and reckless optimism. You think you’ve got a winner, that’s what sustains you through the dark days. The best ideas and the worst ideas, we remind ourselves, are greeted equally by cries of “It’ll never work!” You never know til you try. Let’s acknowledge the courage it takes to take risks.

Check out their websites. While you’re at it, vote in the poll on the MLS website – top right on the home page.

Rattle his bones

Wednesday, 29 September 2010

There’s been quite a lot of nattering in the papers lately about the society-shaming rise in the number of what they like to call pauper funerals. Yes, shock horror, more and more people are dying without leaving enough money to pay for their funeral. So, even in this day and age, they suffer the, er, terrible indignity of a pauper’s funeral.

What does this mean exactly? It ought to mean that indigent modern-day skint corpses are wheelbarrowed stark and naked through the streets either to the anatomist or to a communal pit, serenaded along their way by jeering urchins—hoodies in new money—chanting “Rattle his bones over the stones; / He’s only a pauper whom nobody owns” – except in a twenty-first century rap version, of course.

Back in the day a pauper’s funeral was a matter of terrible stigma. But the regrettable truth (from the media point of view) about today’s indigent funerals is that they are pretty much indistinguishable from anybody else’s. Sure, if it’s a burial, you’ll go in a grave beneath or atop strangers. Such a big deal? Terrible stigma?

What’s more, all paupers aren’t the same. There are different sorts of modern-day ‘pauper’ needing to be funeral-ed. There are those who die alone, all family contacts having predeceased them or simply walked off the case. There are homeless anonymous people (John Does, they call them) hauled out of canals. I think we can be pretty proud of the way society looks after blameless folk such as these as, also, those who have to have a public health funeral because their relatives refuse to arrange a funeral for them.

Not all dead paupers are to be pitied, though. Some of them are downright feckless. Could they have saved up enough money for their funeral? Yes, they could. Instead, they die leaving a godawful mess for others to clear up. I remember the partner of a man who steadfastly refused to make provision for his imminent death. When he died his partner shouldered responsibility, applied to the social fund and doubtless, in time, received a contribution towards the cost of the funeral – but it won’t have been enough to spare her months, probably years, of debt. By contrast, I recall the ne’er do well who, glimpsing the Grim Reaper’s shadow, saved up in a year and a bit enough money out of his Disability Living Allowance to pay for a very decent funeral. It was the height of good manners.

The number of people dying alone will, as the population ages, continue to rise. Nothing anyone can do about that. But if the number of feckless paupers rises steeply, the state has a choice: bring back the stigma or bring back the universal death grant.

It’s not pauper funerals but the level of the social fund payment which shames society. It doesn’t lead to proper old-fashioned pauper funerals, it simply beggars those who are left.

That rhyme in full:

There’s a grim one-horse hearse in a jolly round trot;
To the churchyard a pauper is going, I wot:
The road is rough, and the hearse has no springs,
And hark to the dirge that the sad driver sings:–
Rattle his bones over the stones;
He’s only a pauper, whom nobody owns…

Poor pauper defunct! he has made some approach
To gentility, now that he’s stretched in a coach;
He’s taking a drive in his carriage at last,
But it will not be long if he goes on so fast!
Rattle his bones over the stones;
He’s only a pauper, whom nobody owns…

But a truce to this strain! for my soul it is sad
To think that a heart in humanity clad
Should make, like the brutes, such a desolate end,
And depart from the light without leaving a friend.
Bear softly his bones over the stones,
Though a pauper, he’s one whom his Maker yet owns.

Trying it on

Tuesday, 28 September 2010

Here’s a bit of fun. Over in New York there’s an exhibition in the Merchant’s House Museum of post mortem photographs from the Burns Archive. It’s an interesting exhibition space:

According to historic preservation rules the installation had to be creatively planned. No photos could be hung on the walls or placed directly on the furniture of this beautifully preserved 19th century home, nor could there be bright lights or flash photography. Memento Mori curator Eva Ulz did a great job of displaying a rich amount of information to compliment the historical and contemporary images. Early daguerreotypes and ambrotypes are exhibited in closets, waiting to be discovered. Three traditional wood displays encase memorial ephemera including postmortem photographs, coffin plates and cards. There is a sound and scent component to the exhibition as well- the rooms are perfumed and subtle recordings can be heard.

The best part, for my money, is the coffin (above) in which you can have your own post-mortem photo taken. No Goth party should be without one.

Promession and cryomation go head-to-head at the ICCM

Tuesday, 28 September 2010

The prospect of Promession, the brainchild of Susanne Wiighe-Masak, has been around for a few years now. It offers an extremely attractive alternative to cremation. It is clean. It is gentle. Above all, it enables us to return to the earth in an environmentally useful way. If you want to remind yourself how it works, go here.

The method of preparing a body for disposal by freeze drying it was invented in the US by Philip Backman. He patented it in 1978, and that patent has now expired. Backman’s proposed method of reducing the body to particles left a little to be desired (I have emphasised the key passage in bold):

“A further step entails subjecting the intact, frozen body to fractionalizing means reducing same to a particulate state. This step may be termed surface enhancement i.e., an increase in surface area of the remains is provided. Existing mechanical means such as that used in the reduction of organic or inorganic substances may be utilized in this step. By way of example, a hammer mill may be utilized.”

Promessa’s breakthrough was to develop a process whereby the body can be reduced to particles by means not of  hammer mill but vibration.

At the end of last year or the beginning of this (I can’t remember) I cast doubt on whether Promessa had, actually, managed to perfect this most important stage of the process. This earned me a letter from Promessa’s lawyers. I withdrew the blog post and stood back.

Yesterday I was able to go and hear Susanne Wiighe-Masak speak at the Institute of Cemetery and Crematorium Management (ICCM) annual conference. For this I am indebted to the kindness of Julie Dunk, Technical Services and Events Manager at the ICCM. It was my chance to apologise to Susanne in person, and also to listen also to the presentation by Richard Maclean, Business Development Director of Cryomation Ltd, a UK firm which has developed its own, rival freeze-drying technology.

Susanne spoke with a passion born of idealism and showed us the short film above describing the promession process. Richard Maclean spoke with the detachment of a technocrat. He outlined the development history of the Cryomation process and described briefly how it reduces the body to a ‘safe and sterile powder’ using heat and compression. He told us that Cryomation Ltd had tried to reduce a frozen body to particles by means of vibration but had failed.

Both processes have attracted interest in countries around the world. Each developer will bring their Promator and Cryomator, respectively, to market imminently.

Ghost captured in Cumbria pub

Friday, 24 September 2010

From the Cumbria News and Star:

In a bizarre 35-second sequence, recorded by a CCTV camera in the dead of night at The Wolfe pub in Little Dockray, a ball of light is seen descending through the ceiling, its outline pulsating as it moves around.

At one point, part of the shape appears to reach out and move rapidly just above a table as if polishing it.

Suddenly, the light ball swoops upwards, disappearing through the ceiling, its topmost part momentarily assuming the likeness of a face.

The pub’s landlord, Andrew Batemen, 38, was staggered when he saw the images.

He mentioned the footage to staff at the Thomas Cook travel agents next door – and found that they too had captured weird goings on their CCTV cameras.

That footage, shot exactly a week later almost to the hour, shows a computer mouse mysteriously moving across a desk in the darkness.

A soft light then bathes the office as the computer monitor switches on – and within seconds a large sign falls from the shop’s front window.

To add to the intrigue, staff at the travel agent believe the building was once used as a funeral parlour.

Full story here. See the CCTV footage here.

Naughty nineties

Friday, 24 September 2010

If you catch me reflecting too often on the travails of too-long life, this story may act as an antidote.

It reminds me of a crisis faced by Winston Churchill. I can only paraphrase. An aide greeted him with the news, one morning, that a member of the cabinet had been found consorting in St James’s Park with a member of the Household Cavalry. “And how old is So-and-So?” asked Churchill. “Seventy-eight, prime minister.” “And what was the the temperature outside last night?” “Seven degrees below freezing, prime minister.” “My God, it makes you proud to be British!”

At the end

Friday, 24 September 2010

I was struck by the sweetness of this in the Victoria Times Colonist (Deaths and Funerals):

“Life provides a puzzle for us when we outlive our friends, when we forget our memories, and when the new technologies pass us by, but we are ever loved when we remember our manners and treat others with love and respect.”

It is in quotation marks, but I think it is original.

Brand new hearse, only £60!

Thursday, 23 September 2010

Here’s a charming story from Wales:

The family of a frugal farm contractor who died aged 87 paid tribute to him by building his hearse out of scrap.

For just £60 relatives of William Royden John built the funeral cart which transported him to St James’ Church in Rudry from second-hand materials.

His son Ross described the gesture as fitting for a man who grew up during World War II and who was used to recycling old parts.

Daughter-in-law Julie John said: “We started off with two axles and nothing else and the whole thing cost us just £60.

Read the whole story here.

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