Blog Archives: July 2011

Hamine Eggs – ‘life ends, and life begins’

Monday, 25 July 2011

Posted by Sweetpea



I love reading Nigella Lawson’s cookery books just as much as I love cooking and eating the food she understands and describes so well.  There is a particularly wonderful section called ‘Funeral Feast’ in her 2004 book ‘Feast’, published by Chatto & Windus.  Please find a copy and read it in full.  Here is a little section to whet your appetite:

It may seem odd to talk about what you eat at a funeral as a way of celebrating life, but at every level, that is exactly what it is.  Nor do I mean a celebration in that cheery, if faintly maudlin sense of giving someone a good send-off, though that is a part of it.  Any food is a vital reminder that life goes on, that living is important.  That isn’t brutal: it’s the greatest respect you can pay to the dead.

I am not someone who believes that life is sacred, but I know that it is very precious.  To turn away from that, to act as if living is immaterial, that what you need to sustain life doesn’t count, is to repudiate and diminish the tragedy of the loss of a life…..

…. the abundance of the feast showed the value of the deceased; it was a mark of respect, a way of honouring the life of that person.  Particular foods, too, can be a living testament to the person it was who died.  Recipes live on, and to eat foods that person either used to prepare or liked to eat can feel monumentally significant.  In Thailand, I read in an article by Bee Wilson in the Sunday Telegraph, “mourners are often presented with a little cookbook … compromising the favourite recipes of the dead person.  In this way the whole gastronomic person of the deceased is remembered.”  And I would say that the gastronomic personality is the persona.  How you eat and what you eat it who you are.

It happens in England, too.  I know of some sisters who put together a book of their father’s famous (and previously secret) preserving recipes, to be sold in aid of a local hospice, both to remember him but also to give back to an organisation which had cared for him and for them so tenderly.

Nigella lists recipes for ‘Nursery Fish Pie’, ‘Sweet Lamb Tagine’, ‘Lentil Soup’, ‘Meatloaf’, ‘Heavenly Potatoes’, ‘Marble Cake’ and ‘Fruit Tea Loaf’, each with its reasons for inclusion, but it is ‘Hamine Eggs’ which really catches my imagination:

Hamine Eggs (serves 6)

The traditional Jewish food of mourning is a hard-boiled egg, not as a symbol of regeneration, as the egg might suggest for Christians, but more as a symbol of perpetuation.  Life ends, and life begins: life goes on, in fact.  All foods that are round, too, have that significance – that the cycle of life and time continues – and as Martine Chiche-Yana explains in ‘La Table Juivre’, they are described as being “sans bouche”, without mouths to express sorrow and anguish.  I find that appropriate: there is nothing to be said, or nothing that helps.

Hamine eggs are the Sephardic version, traditionally cooked in the dying embers of a fire.  Here, they are cooked slowly on the hob, with onion skins to tint the shells a rich woody brown; and although coffee grounds are often added, I emptied out the leaves of a used teabag instead.  After all, during World War II, women would use cold tea to dye their legs when stockings were not to be found.

Onion skins from about 4 large onions
Tea leaves from 1 used teabag
6 eggs
1 tablespoon vegetable oil

Line a saucepan with onion skins, using about half your supply, and then add the tea leaves.  Put in the eggs and cover with the rest of the onion skins (red onion skins will give a deeper, burgundy tinge).  You don’t want any onion, just the papery skin.  Cover well with water, and pour over the oil to help prevent the water evaporating during the long cooking time.

Bring the pan of water to a boil and immediately transfer to a new, smaller burner with a heat diffuser on it and turn the flame to the lowest flame possible.  Leave to cook very slowly for 7 or so hours, then turn off the heat and leave to cool before taking the eggs out of the murky water.  I tend to cook the eggs in the daytime and leave them till the next morning before taking them out of the pan.

Hamine eggs are not exclusively eaten at funerals, though they are a feature of them, and these are beautiful on the outside, meltingly tender within and worth cooking not just in times of grief.

I left my shoes and socks there….

Friday, 22 July 2011


Posted By Charles


The Good Funeral Guide Blog is off on its travels again and, although I can now connect to the Internet while I journey, expect only  intermittent and – even by this blog ‘s standards – erratic postings.

But you are all on holiday too! In fact there are, apparently, 14 million of us on the roads today. Let’s hope the sun shines on us all.


Back in August – see you then!

Live burial – can you help?

Thursday, 21 July 2011


Posted by Charles


Once in a while we get a really interesting email here at the sweatshop we call GFG Central. The toiling minions are, as I write, clustering round the screen of the recipient. I’ll have to whip them back to their desks in a moment.

The point is, it’s not for them. It’s for you. Can you help?

I have been asked to coordinate a live burial ritual on Sat 24th September, and the venue we were going to use has fallen through. So I’m looking for a London location where we can carry this out.

Ideally we’d like to stage this in a house with a garden. It needs to be somewhere where it’s OK for about 30 people to be in the house all night, partying some. (I don’t think it’ll be wild, but 30 people do make some noise.) We have a small budget to pay for the right venue.

The ritual itself involves digging a shallow grave, putting the person in it, burying her (only shallow though, for safety reasons) and then tending her while her friends mourn her for the night. The wake will have the flavour of a party.

In the morning she will be ‘resurrected’ and carried through to a bath, where she will be lovingly washed and cleansed.

I’m wondering if you might know someone who would be able / willing to host this at their place? 

If you can, send us an email and we’ll pass it on to the event organiser:

For those of you with long memories, this is not the first time that the minions have been excited by this sort of proposal. remember this?

It was a full week before I had any decent work from them.

Endangered species

Tuesday, 19 July 2011

Posted by Charles Cowling


There are many unsung heroes of the funeral industry – people who work very hard for the bereaved but whose efforts go mostly unrecognised and unthanked unless they screw up bigtime. So let’s hear it today for crematorium chapel attendants. 

All chapel attendants are not heroes. Some are surly, some indolent, some disillusioned by years of working for cost-cutting, ungrateful employers. It is doubtful whether the grieving public are ever aware of such, given what they have on their minds. The people most aware of chapel attendants are funeral directors and celebrants. Good chapel attendants make their lives smooth and cheerful; a bad one can really louse up your day. 

It takes egregious malpractice for a chapel attendant to get noticed in a bad way. In 2002 the Guardian reported this: 

Just as the first bars of Elgar’s Nimrod filled Yeovil crematorium at Gwyneth Samson’s funeral in August, the side door burst open and a member of staff walked in. “You’re out of time,” he said. “Everybody will have to leave the room.” The minister and the funeral director pleaded with the man, but he was adamant. “No, you’ve had your 20 minutes,” he shouted, pointing at the clock.

The man then marched across the room, threw open the exit doors and demanded once more that everyone should leave immediately. “The music was almost completely drowned out in the commotion,” says Colin Samson, the dead woman’s son. “Most people remained seated, too shocked to do anything. My father left, visibly upset, because he didn’t want anything more to do with the man. A few seconds later, we were again asked to leave the room. This time everybody did, except my wife and I who said we were going to wait till the music had finished. The man waited impatiently by my mother’s coffin as we stood to say our final goodbye.” 

It was 11.29am when Samson left the room, and the next service was not due to start until noon. “Nothing had been achieved other than to desecrate my mother’s funeral,” he says. “I went to complain to the crematorium’s administration manager. We were told once more that only 20 minutes is allowed for a service and that nothing like this had ever happened before.” 

Full story here

In January this year the Altrincham Messenger reported this: 

AN ALTRINCHAM crematorium technician has been jailed after admitting stealing grieving mourners’ donations. 

Robert Booth, 53, from Oxmead Close in Padgate, Warrington, was sentenced to 12 weeks in jail after admitting five counts of theft at Trafford Magistrates’ Court on January 20.

Booth, who had worked as a technician at Dunham Massey crematorium for nine years, had been filmed stealing cash from the donation basket on October 27, November 5, 19 and 29, and December 2. 

Full story here

These are rare examples of chapel attendants at their worst. What of the best? What of the attendant who picks up every last petal from the funeral just finished, then hovers at the back ready with a glass of water for the person with a cough and a teddy for the child who runs out of patience as the committal gets under way? Well, the sad truth is that those chapel attendants who bring grace and humanity and a sense of occasion to their work, often against the odds, mostly go unnoticed. That’s the nature of unsung heroism, but it in no way devalues the role. 

The good chapel attendant is a selfless, dedicated specialist, so we are dismayed to receive reports that there may be a move afoot in Dignity crems to de-specialise their chapel attendants and recycle them as jacks of all trades doing all manner of jobs around the crem including selling headstones. There’s a clear ethical conflict here: a chapel attendant should not be sizing up the buying power of the folk on the front row, serving them one minute, upselling them the next. 

How very regrettable it would be to see a job which calls for a very special, decent and humane sort of person demeaned in this way. 

Last year I asked for nominations for the Best Chapel Attendant in Britain Award and got nothing back from any of you. Here. I do hope you’ll do better this time around. Blessings are there to be counted.

We gonna celebrate your party with you… (Kool and the Gang)

Monday, 18 July 2011


Posted by Sweetpea


Am I alone in sensing a nasty niff?  The vague whiff, perhaps, of a fashionable diktat in the air?  I know it’s not really the done thing, but I have to confess to feeling a little oppressed by the phrase ‘celebration of life’.  

Don’t get me wrong.  I’m a celebratory kinda gal.  Some of the ‘best’ funerals in which I’ve happily taken part have been wonderful, sometimes exuberant, expressions of love and gratitude to the deceased.  Great, and if there’s much to celebrate it gladdens my heart to be involved.

But I’m increasingly uncomfortable with the idea of a ‘celebration of life’ becoming a lazy by-line for secular or civil funerals.  I see the phrase bandied about – sometimes in print and sometimes without much thought or insight – by funeral directors, celebrants and elsewhere.  But we don’t do lazy by-lines, do we?  We have a much more interesting role.  We meet people where they are, and much more importantly we make no assumptions about where that may lead us.

Have you examined some of the publicity material/information leaflets to which the bereaved are exposed?  Confident statements such as ‘I will help you create a ceremony which will celebrate your loved one’s life…..’   Isn’t that rather prescriptive?  And aren’t prescriptive notions what civil funerals, in particular, were conceived to counteract?  If we are going to put people in a box (literally and metaphorically) then let’s at least allow them to choose their own box and help to fashion it into something which actually suits them.

I’ve worked with nearly 700 families, and occasionally someone might say ‘we want a real celebration of mum’s life’.  They’ve heard the phrase, thought about it and mean what they say – and usually with good, sound reasons.  Sometimes, however, I get the sneaking feeling that they’ve heard that phrase and almost feel they should be saying it to me.  That’s the modern way, after all – we’ve chucked the vicar overboard, and this is what this civil malarkey is all about.  Celebration.

Well, no.  Not necessarily.  What about the many bereaved who have ambivalent or hateful feelings towards the deceased?  I went to visit a family a while ago, and the son’s opening words to me were ‘well, you might as well know the only reason we’re going to the funeral is to make sure that the old bastard’s dead.’  As I worked with the family over the next week or so, I could see he might have a point.  Their stated aim when I first met them was to pour their father’s ashes down the nearest drain.  I’m no magician.  We talked.  They were given a safe space to express themselves.  We fashioned a ceremony which even managed to acknowledge the one or two kinder moments that any of them could remember.  I hope that in 10, 20 years time, when they re-read the ceremony, they at least won’t be ashamed of what was enacted.  And possibly could even be proud of what they did.  

To have gone into that family’s front room with any preconceptions would have done them a grave disservice.  And how must such a family feel when they pick up an information leaflet, only to be told that a eulogy is central to a funeral, and that eulogy is a ‘celebration’?  Neither of which has to be true.

The reason I love my job so much is precisely this kind of variation in experience.  We help people find their way to saying whatever it is that needs expressing at THAT funeral.  It may be celebratory to the point that ideas for poetry, words of gratitude, story-telling, prayer and praise, dancing, singing, eating and drinking come pouring out.   It may be that only the hard-won clipped phrases, which feel like they’ve been chipped out of granite, can be elicited.  And anything in between, of course.  But, find the words we do, and it’s precisely that challenge which makes our job so interesting.  

So, a plea to fellow celebrants in particular.  Free yourself to the real purpose of what you do, and please shed the prescriptive wording and thinking.  You might surprise yourself.  

PS they didn’t pour him down the drain.

RT @GoodFunerals

Sunday, 17 July 2011


This is the time of year when the Reaper takes a break and catches some rays, giving undertakers a chance to do housekeeping chores, and celebrants a chance to starve. There’s not a lot going on out there. I can’t begin to tell you what a quiet week it’s been. These are the best I could find. 


The thankless business of teaching funeral directors to be businesslike –


Man heart-attacks while building funeral pyre for dead relative. Pragmatic solution: both burned together –


“Old-school undertakers dictated funerals, the bereaved could only take it or leave it” Taiwan then and now. Lessons.


Pastor caught in bed with his brother’s wife claims “I went to fetch her so we could go to a funeral.” Fined 8 cattle.


A proper gypsy funeral. Undertakers dream of getting one of these. Who got this one?


‘FIELD TRIP: Day of Brains in Jars.’ Doncha just love the Morbid Anatomy blog?


“Independent funeral homes thrilled cos big corp prices are driving consumers to independent FDs.” Ditto in the UK.


Proposed crem: “Imagine, at a cafe, you see a bunch of coffins burnt into the air.” Viva death in the community!


Rottweiler’s funeral pyre burns master’s house down –


Viking funeral replete with flaming arrows to honour those lost at sea –


They’ve been visiting the grave for 20 years, and now they’re told their mum isn’t actually there –


I’d love a copy of this – 600+ FDs financially analysed – market share, trends, industry averages. Tad pricey though –


Make up for what you lack with a PR stunt. Nice one, Co-op.


Who says you can’t buy journalists? Dignity can –


Dead guy alphabetised at his funeral –



Top Ten Tips for arranging a funeral

Friday, 15 July 2011


Posted by Moss


At the risk of seeming rather tabloid, especially during a difficult period for the press, we recently produced a list of tips for people who are arranging or planning a funeral. I presented this to a group of hospice workers and bereavement professionals who had a number of good suggestions to make, so I am hoping that others will be able to add to the list so that we can make it a TOP TWENTY or more… 

1. Don’t panic – there’s no need to be rushed into any decisions. S l o w  things down and allow yourself to take stock of what has happened.

2. Carry on caring for the person who has died and take time to say goodbye.

3. Don’t waste money on things that don’t matter; concentrate on what really counts.

4. Sing songs at the funeral to help people to join in with the ceremony; ask someone to lead the singing.

5. Keep things simple and natural – this can bring beautiful results and can highlight the importance of small individual things.

6. Ask for and accept help – many people would love to help, so give them permission to do so.

7. Consider poems – they can often put into words what we find hard to say.

8. Don’t be a spectator – bear the coffin, decide on music, poems, and memories for the service.

9. Make it personal – include a favourite perfume or flower, photographs or paintings, vehicle, sport, club or hobby – take the children and the dog too.

10. Start now – Don’t wait until it’s hard to talk about it; write down your latest thoughts.

Please help us add to and improve this list…

Timing your exit

Friday, 15 July 2011


Posted by Charles Cowling


Extracted from an article in yesterday’s New York Times: 

I hope you had the chance to read and reread Dudley Clendinen’s splendid essay, “The Good Short Life”. Clendinen is dying of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or A.L.S. If he uses all the available medical technology, it will leave him, in a few years’ time, “a conscious but motionless, mute, withered, incontinent mummy of my former self.” 

Clendinen’s article is worth reading for the way he defines what life is. Life is not just breathing and existing as a self-enclosed skin bag. It’s doing the activities with others you were put on earth to do. 

But it’s also valuable as a backdrop to the current budget mess. This fiscal crisis is about many things, but one of them is our inability to face death — our willingness to spend our nation into bankruptcy to extend life for a few more sickly months. 

Years ago, people hoped that science could delay the onset of morbidity. We would live longer, healthier lives and then die quickly. This is not happening. Most of us will still suffer from chronic diseases for years near the end of life, and then die slowly. 

Obviously, we are never going to cut off Alzheimer’s patients and leave them out on a hillside. We are never coercively going to give up on the old and ailing. But it is hard to see us reducing health care inflation seriously unless people and their families are willing to do what Clendinen is doing — confront death and their obligations to the living. 

My only point today is that we think the budget mess is a squabble between partisans in Washington. But in large measure it’s about our inability to face death and our willingness as a nation to spend whatever it takes to push it just slightly over the horizon. 

Lessons applicable to the UK, obviously. Read the whole article in the NYT here. If you missed Dudley Cleninden’s piece, read it; it’s brilliant and important. Here


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