Blog Archives: January 2011

Resurrecting Six Feet Under

Monday, 31 January 2011

I’m delighted to host a post by Brian Jenner. Brian is a words-for-hire person (I know how that feels) who does everything from gilding the tongues of politicians to writing terrifically good books. This summer he is holding a Six Feet Under convention in Bournemouth. As soon as I heard about this I fired off emails to him. Obligingly he has come up with what he does best — some words for this blog. Not that he isn’t a dab hand at organising events, mind. He’s done quite a bit of that, too.

Those who enjoyed Six Feet Under unanimously agree that it was the best telly ever. It had the breadth of War and Peace and the psychological acuity of a louche Henry James. It is amongst the finest dramatic achievements of all time (eat your heart out, Homer).

Enough of me. Here’s Brian. Oh, before he starts — one moment, Brian — let me endorse what he says about Bournemouth. Once the only UK cemetery with traffic lights, it is now the sort of place that hip Europeans fly to for a weekend of clubbing. It is all sorts of vibrant these days.

IT’s five years since the quirky American TV series Six Feet Under came to an end and I’ve missed it terribly. Tender, intelligent, funny, mystical and beautiful, these are not epithets you often apply to TV drama, but Six Feet Under was all of those things.

I live in Bournemouth, a popular beach resort on the South Coast of England. A few years ago, I was walking through a cemetery and I remembered how the character Nate would go jogging on a path through the gravestones. It gave me two ideas. Here was a place to go jogging and wouldn’t it be fun to have a Six Feet Under convention?

I never did go jogging, but last year, having organised a couple of conferences, I put my morbid imagination to work and devised the ultimate weekend break.

It would be like a Star Trek convention, but a lot more classy. We’d host lectures about embalming, green funerals and obituaries. We’d have a Thomas Newman concert and a talk about the music we’d like to accompany our departure. We’d have an audience with one of the stars from the series, go for a picnic in our equivalent of Forest Lawn and offer the chance to sit in a real hearse.

When posted to my blog, I was sure it was all too weird. Within 24 hours someone had responded: ‘Sounds fascinating, put me down for two tickets.’

Bournemouth has a reputation for gerontocratic torpor, but we’re also keen to promote its more creative and hedonistic side. Six Feet Under embraces both. We’ve picked 12-14 August – the height of summer – with our pine trees, sandy beaches and boulevards we can give the town the best chance of being mistaken for California.

Can you have a weekend devoted to celebrating the grim reaper? Isn’t it going to be crass and insensitive? Well, here’s the paradox. Works like Evelyn Waugh’s The Loved One, Hal Ashby’s Harold & Maude, Jessica Mitford’s The American Way of Death Revisited don’t fill you with gloom, they give you a spring in your step.

Six Feet Under was great because it wrestled with religion, sexuality, family, drugs and work in raw ways. I want to hang out with sensitive and intelligent people who want to be honest about life. We need to club together. Sadness, fear, joy, uproarious laughter – the weekend will elicit all those things. And we’ll go home reminded how great it is to be alive.

The Six Feet Under Convention, Bournemouth, 12-14 August 2011. For more details go to

Crestone End-of-Life Project

Monday, 31 January 2011

Crestone Colorado is a bit like Totnes on steroids. It is home to all manner of nice folk and all sorts of religious communities. Alternative. (To capitalism on steroids).

Crestone is home to one of only two legal open-air cremation sites in the US. That’s two better than the UK, where open-air cremation was declared legal on 10 Feb 2010 – but that doesn’t mean to say it’s going to be easily legalisable. There are very few campaigners for it. Chief of them are Carl Marlow (who actually performed an outdoor cremation in 2007), and Rupert and Claire Callender.

The Crestone site could well be instructive to those who would like to create an open-air cremation site in the UK.

If you’ve ever wondered how you’d feel if someone you were close to was cremated in this way, hear this from Tessa Bielecki:

My father, Dr. Casimir Bielecki, was cremated on July 19, 2008 at the Crestone End-of-Life Project’s open-air site. This was my first open-air cremation, and I was so profoundly moved, I’m already working on the documents that will enable me to choose this kind of cremation for myself.

CEOLP supports simple, natural and humanizing end-of-life choices. We were able to bring Dad’s body directly home for the hospital in our own car only two hours after he died and put him back in his own bed, giving us ample time to complete our farewells.  He wasn’t whisked away from us to some gloomy funeral “parlor” and polluted with smelly embalming chemicals.  He wasn’t confined, as poet Emily Dickinson pur it, “Safe in [his] Alabaster Chamber – Untouched by Morning – And untouched by Noon [under] – Rafter of Satin – And Roof of Stone.”  Instead, he was consumed cleanly  and purley out in the open air by what Carmelite mystic John of the Cross called the “Living Flame of Love.”

Everyone present laid green boughs of pinon pine and bright red and yellow carnations of over Dad’s body on the pyre, and as an afterthought, we added his old straw golf hat.  Thick dark smoke billowed out to the west towards the full moon setting over the San Juan Mountains, then cleared, whitened, and rose heavenward, a symbol of Dad’s rising from the dead, as we Christian’s believe.

The cremation was no abstract theology or philosophy about death, but a profound existential experience of it:  a falling away of the flesh and soaring of the spirit in roaring flames and sparks spinning into the sky.  Gathering the ashes and bits of bone 24 hours later continued our family’s deep meditation on passing from this world to the next.  As St. Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “Behold, I tell you a mystery.  We shall not all fall asleep, but we will all be changed, in an instant, in the blink of an eye.”  The fire took more than the blinking of an eye to burn, and that was part of its beauty and healing.

All the Abrahamic traditions were represented, and Buddhism as well.  My sister Connie sang the splendid Exsultet from the Roman Catholic liturgy for Easter Sunday.  We said traditional Christian prayers for the dead.  Shahna Lax prayed the Jewish Kaddish.  Roshi Steve Allen and his wife Angelique chanted the Buddhis Heart Sutra.  And then William Howell faced east and cried out the Muslim Call to Prayer as the sun rose of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains.  There were long reverent periods of silence and, quiet loving exchanges between family and friends.  The fire tenders went about their tasks unobtrusively.  Fireman Steve Anderson stood by, tall and stalwart, in case the surrounded desert might beckon an unwanted spark.  All our senses engaged.  And all the elements were there:  earth, air, fire and water.

Everything about the cremation was personal, intimate and meaningful.  We took care of Dad’s body ourselves.  We cut the evergreen boughs from our own land.  We created our own altar to express the uniqueness of Dad’s life and included his black medical bag and stethoscope, his wedding portrait, and the last photo taken of him four weeks earlier with the nephews (and lobsters!) he loved.  We chose his shroud, one I’d brought for him a year ago from the ancient city of Jerusalem.  (It’s traditional for Orthodox Christians to bring their own shrouds home after making pilgrimage to the Holy Land.)

This whole experience was a gift for our family and friends, for the earth, which is left undisturbed, and for Dad himself, who knew we were going to do this and liked the idea.  We are blessed to have open-air cremation here in Crestone.  Many thanks to the Crestone End-of-Life Project for helping to make the experience of death so natural, human, reverent and, above all, sacred.

There are some superb photos of open-air cremations at Crestone here.

Washington Post article here.

A time to die

Sunday, 30 January 2011

Every week in the Spectator magazine Peter Jones takes an occurrence or development in contemporary society and politics and considers it in the light of what the ancients did when faced with the same circumstances. This week he considers the art of dying. I’d now bung you a link but I can’t: the Speccie does not unleash its content online til it has gathered some dust. The joy of the Spectator lies in the quality of its writing (sadly not its politics). It’s almost worth the cover price for Mr Jones alone. I hope he won’t mind a quote-strewn precis.

He begins:

“So everyone is going to live much longer and will therefore have to work much longer to pay for their pensions. But what is so wrong with dying, Greeks and Romans would ask?

“Homeric heroes sought to compensate for death with eternal heroic glory … Plato argued that the soul was immortal. The Roman poet Lucretius thought that was the problem. For him, life was an incipient hell because of man’s eternal desire for novelty. So as soon as he had fulfilled one desire, he was immediately gawping after another. What satisfaction could there be in that? The soul was mortal, he argued, and death, therefore, should be welcomed as a blessed release.”

Cicero concurred. We run out of things to interest us and are glad to go. “A character in one of Euripides’ tragedies put it more succinctly: ‘I can’t stand people who try to prolong life with foods and potions and spells to keep death at bay. Once they’ve lost their use on earth they should clear off and die and leave it to the young.’

“For Seneca the question was whether ‘one was lengthening one’s own life — or one’s death.’ “

Jones concludes: “Marcus Aurelius put it beautifully: ‘Spend these fleeting moments as Nature would have you spend them, and then go to your rest with a good grace, as an olive falls in season, with a blessing for the earth that bore it and a thanksgiving to the tree that gave it life.'”

Caw blimey

Sunday, 30 January 2011

Here’s a roundup of my week’s tweets — and not a weak link in any of them.

Before you look through them, make sure you haven’t missed this week’s most important discussion. It was about shrines and it features two of this blog’s brightest and most questing minds, those of Rupert Callender and Kathryn. Find it in the comments here.

Right, here we go:

GoodFunerals Charles Cowling

Someone with a ranterly grudge against Co-op Funeralcare Whois?

GoodFunerals Charles Cowling

Nice home funeral story here:

DyingMatters Dying Matters

by GoodFunerals

Fascinating blog at the Telegraph: are hospice nurses more empathetic than general nurses:

GoodFunerals Charles Cowling

‘When that time comes, when my last breath leaves me, I choose to die in peace to meet Shi’ dy’ in.’ Navajo ADRT. Cool

GoodFunerals Charles Cowling

Very smart move here by Nottingham undertaker Lymn’s:

GoodFunerals Charles Cowling

The Economist Intelligence Unit ranks UK best in world for end-of-life care, India the worst. Does this actually stand up??

GoodFunerals Charles Cowling

Peter Sissons on the bespoke sombre suit all newsreaders had on stand-by in case a Royal death required announcement:

GoodFunerals Charles Cowling

‘How to Die in Oregon’ — film about self-deliverance:

GoodFunerals Charles Cowling

‘It is a Jewish tradition (though not exclusively Jewish) to not delegate the burial of a loved one to strangers’ –

GoodFunerals Charles Cowling

Is physician assisted death a slippery slope to killing the vulnerable? Not in Oregon it seems:

GoodFunerals Charles Cowling

In The Event Of My Death | Colin Brazier |… via @SkyNewsBlogs

suebrayne Sue Brayne

by GoodFunerals

Nelson Madella ‘not in danger’, says BBC Radio 4 news. For heavens sake, he’s 92 and getting ready to die.

GoodFunerals Charles Cowling

Undertaker charged with ‘offering indignity to human remains’. Love the phrasing. He looks such a nice guy, too…

GoodFunerals Charles Cowling

73 year old man who smothered wife cos she begged him released from gaol. 73, FFS!!! The pity, the sorrow.

GoodFunerals Charles Cowling

Giant catfish gorged on human flesh from Indian funeral pyres. Terrifying.

GoodFunerals Charles Cowling

Obit as love letter. Nice idea.

GoodFunerals Charles Cowling

Amazing how often you find, in the midst of a muddle, the chimps at Co-op Funeralcare. Just a coincidence, of course.

GoodFunerals Charles Cowling

“I will never again give somebody I love’s death away.” My kind of story bigtime.

GoodFunerals Charles Cowling

Are funerals passe? I can’t see virtual attendance ever trumping being there:

GoodFunerals Charles Cowling

“Pile it all in one place and keep an eye on it.” Delightful funeral + a delicious Will . You’ll love this:

GoodFunerals Charles Cowling

What’s that I keep saying — if there’s an eff-up there’s a Co-op chimp in the midst? Am I right?

GoodFunerals Charles Cowling

Only 4 per cent of Scots want to be buried in a kilt. Donald, where’s your troosers?

GoodFunerals Charles Cowling

Two in one day. Wherever there’s a funeral scandal there’s probably a Co-op shit in the middle:

GoodFunerals Charles Cowling

Rupert Callender on indoor shrines. Coruscatingly brilliant. It’s a comment here:

GoodFunerals Charles Cowling

Really impressive just-published Code of Ethics from US Home Funeral Alliance. Come on, Britain!

GoodFunerals Charles Cowling

Good learned stuff here from the excellent Digital Dying on death by fasting:

DeathRef Death Reference Desk

Butterfinger Zombie Graveyard!

GoodFunerals Charles Cowling

@DeathRef Dat iz well silly innit. I found 4. Pathetic. There, I said it first. And I was laughed at by Zombies. Scarily good fun!

GoodFunerals Charles Cowling

Ah ha, Co-op Funeralcare now has a Facebook page. I can Like them (have to hold my nose) then hate them up close. But why no Hate button?

GoodFunerals Charles Cowling

Ooh look, Carl Marlow has launched his direct-to-public coffin website. Quel geezer! Love him!

GoodFunerals Charles Cowling

Great pics here, theme of loss, on @thelate blog:

Decompiculture and the Mushroom Project

Friday, 28 January 2011

Jae Rhim Lee, Mushroom Burial Site (Bridgeville, CA), Infinity Burial Project

“Decompiculture is the growing or culturing of decomposer organisms by humans. The term is intended to establish a contrast with the term agriculture. Agriculture encompasses the production systems based on the culture of herbaceous plants and herbivore animals. In effect, agriculture is human symbiosis with select organisms of the herb-herbivore-carnivore food chains comprising the live plant food web. Decompiculture, in contrast, human symbiosis with organisms of the decomposer food chains comprising the dead plant-based, or plant cell wall-based detrital food web. I believe that decompiculture is equivalent in importance to agriculture and perhaps more important in terms of integrating human activities in a sustainable way with the biosphere. I also believe that just as the origin of agriculture initiated the dawn of civilization, decompiculture may now initiate the dawn of a new leap forward in human evolution.”–Timothy Myles

Infinity Burial Project website here.

Infinity Burial Suit, Seamless Fashion Show, Museum of Science, Boston, MA

Exclusive! Dover undertaker achieves UK first.

Thursday, 27 January 2011

I was going to blog today about the public meeting at Redditch town hall to debate the contentious matter of whether or not the crem should be used to heat a nearby swimming pool. I wanted to give you a blow-by-blow account. But in the event it was a non-event. There were perhaps thirty people there. We listened to cogent presentations. We heard how the council has received messages of support from all over the world and even been approved by 90 per cent of Daily Mail readers. A ‘Christian’ stood up to protest, but he wasn’t a representative Christian, he was an oddball. And that was that, really. The peaceable, pragmatic and eminently sensible citizenry of this lovely Worcestershire market town were unanimously in agreement. A most satisfactory anticlimax.

Instead, let me tell you about something else.

Paul Sullivan recently set up on his own in Dover. Always a brave thing to do, open for business with all the established undertakers glaring at you — or worse, chuckling. Business is notoriously slow to begin with (“Forty in the first year would be nice,” they all say) but Paul has bucked that by offering a low cost funeral, keeping his prices transparent and generally being an exceedingly nice fellow.

He has now achieved a UK first. Using his website you can price your funeral before you even go to see him. You can spend time doing it, think about the sums, change your mind and try again. You simply go down the list checking the items you want, and it adds it all up as you go — a bit like being in a taxi only more alarming.

I think it’s brilliant. And I can think of reasons why other funeral directors wouldn’t dream of having one of these on theirs (if they’ve got one)(a website, that is).

Have a play with it. Find it here.

What do you think?

A Good Goodbye

Wednesday, 26 January 2011

“Sometimes the best way to move recalcitrant parents or spouses along on preplanning [for death and its aftermath] is to make your own arrangements first. That’s what my husband and I did, telling his parents we were going cemetery plot shopping and asking if they wanted to come along. They came, they saw, they bought, and it was easy.”

That’s a taster from Gail Rubin’s book A Good Goodbye, which she subtitles Funeral Planning for Those Who Don’t Plan to Die. Gail is an event planner, breast cancer survivor and onetime journalist – three great qualifications for writing a guidebook to end of life issues. Add a fourth. Gail is Jewish. We have a lot to learn from Jewish funeral customs [more here]. Jews espouse simplicity. They take responsibility for preparing the body. They are better at commemoration.

Much of Gail’s book, sad to say, is not relevant to British funeral consumers because our funerary traditions are so dissimilar. Much of what she has to say about aftermath management, working with a funeral home and dealing with a cemetery simply don’t apply to us. It’s a sadness I had to share with my own publisher a while back, anxious as they were to pitch for sales of the GFG in the US. Sorry, we do things differently. In addition to all the obvious differences there’s the matter of time. Gail warns her readers that they will have between 24 and 72 hours to arrange a funeral. Here in the UK we give it much longer – 10 days, a fortnight; at this time of the year even three weeks, so busy are our crems. It makes all the difference.

But I hope nonetheless that people over here will consider buying this book because it contains inspiring and instructive elements – many of them, yes, Jewish. I hope, too, that anyone considering writing a guide book to end of life terrain will use it as a model. My own guide to the terrain was fairly described by the Church Times as “not for the faint-hearted”. It needs to be joined by others whose tone is better suited to those many who don’t like the way I do it. Gail is a very humane and companionable writer, she has a deceptively light touch, a gentle sense of humour, and she shares a lot of her own experience with us. For people who contemplate death from behind the sofa, she’s a great fear disperser.

Let me share just three highlights of Gail’s book.

The first is the ethical will. This is a tradition “fostered in Judaism. When adults reach the age of fifty, they are considered elders of the congregation who have enough life experiences to be able to dispense words of wisdom.” Gail suggests writing down what you think important – everything from a statement of values to family stories and your favourite joke. Its value will be lasting – and it will be useful to quote from at your funeral.

The second and third concern commemoration. This is something we do incredibly badly in Britain. Typically, a family group will go down to the crem on the anniversary of a death and contemplate the little plaque (on a plaque-filled wall) which bears the name of their dead person. Or they might go and gaze at their rosebush. Or sit on their bench. Gail proposes lighting a 24-hour remembrance candle. “I put a picture on my kitchen table, and light a twenty-four-hour candle next to it the evening before. For that day, I imagine that particular grandparent sitting in with my husband and me as we go about our day.”

Gail’s third great commemoration suggestion is a shrine. Something we just don’t do over here. Or do we? We do shrines out of doors, when we come to think of it, at places where young men drive very fast into trees. Yes, we do shrines, we just don’t do them indoors, and the reason why we don’t is because we have a huge cultural hangup about doing grief privately and undemonstratively. It’s all part of the Protestant death ethic, which we are vigorously shaking off. If we now find no difficulty in creating shrines to people who die tragically out of doors, and don’t find them mawkish (maybe you do), I see no reason why a great many people should not find consolation in having one indoors for anyone, no matter how they died. Gail suggests: “Elements of a personal family shrine can include cremated remains, photos of the deceased, and objects associated with those who have died. The placement of the shrine can be on a shelf, a tabletop, a mantle, a niche, or any place that can serve as a visual focus.”

Gail Rubin blogs at The Family Plot. She recently attended and reported on 30 funerals in 30 days. You can buy her book at Amazon.

Gilded poo

Tuesday, 25 January 2011

It’s been a dispiriting couple of days. Once again the damned Co-op Funeralcare has re-announced the obvious in yet another self-serving survey and, incredibly, reaped a rich harvest of column inches in the UK’s newspapers. You’ve almost certainly encountered some of it.

I wasn’t going to rise to it. At this time of the year I’d rather turn my sights to sunnier things. But I suppose I ought to write about it because I know that a number of you come here for second-hand news. Second-hand news is me.

If you want to find out what the Co-op sent out to all those flat-bottomed hacks too idle to go out and find news stories of their own, click here. It may be a good idea to have a sick bag to hand.

The survey is endorsed by venerable academic and ‘funerary historian’, Julian Litten. What on earth he thinks he’s doing lending his name to this garbage I can’t think. This ‘ere celebration of life trend, it’s all down to Princess Diana and Jade Goody, apparently — some sort of copycat effect, I suppose. FFS.

As Paul Hensby accurately points out, the damned Funeralcare has established itself as the thought leader in contemporary funerals. Ha! All the while, SAIF only whispers the findings of its Ipsos MORI price comparison survey. And where are the celebrants’ trade bodies?

Enough. Is Co-operative Funeralcare systemically incapable of delivering what people want? That’s a rhetorical question; they read this, they have lawyers.

Upper class tweets

Saturday, 22 January 2011

GoodFunerals Charles Cowling

Satan’s skull found in New Mexico!

GoodFunerals Charles Cowling

Why do the clergy prefer funerals to weddings? Good account here from a C of E priest:

GoodFunerals Charles Cowling

What is a bhusa yong? Lovely photographic account here of a Thai funeral and open air cremation

GoodFunerals Charles Cowling

Good looking books here for graveyard rabbits and burialists generally:

GoodFunerals Charles Cowling

Beautifully written thoughts about death – and deaths – here. Must-read:

GoodFunerals Charles Cowling

More and more protestors holding funerals for things. Danger that funerals will soon look like protests?

GoodFunerals Charles Cowling

‘No one is to “stay up with me” at the funeral home. I won’t be around to entertain you.’ Great last wishes here:

GoodFunerals Charles Cowling

Texting at funerals is okay.

GoodFunerals Charles Cowling

“The interior of her coffin will be embroidered with a firefighter in full gear, walking hand in hand with an angel.”

GoodFunerals Charles Cowling

Council sells bier to natural burialists

GoodFunerals Charles Cowling

No advance directive? You’ll cost more and die more distressingly. Good piece here:

GoodFunerals Charles Cowling

Why bother with a funeral at all?

GoodFunerals Charles Cowling

Murdered journalist’s ashes scattered in Times Square

GoodFunerals Charles Cowling

Vampire Verse Challenge 2010 – winning poem here: Well, what would you rhyme with ‘spectre’?

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