Blog Archives: August 2011

Planning for a happy death

Wednesday, 31 August 2011


posted by our religious correspondent Richard Rawlinson

A recently widowed middle-aged woman came in tears to Benedictine monk Fr Christopher Jamison, and thanked him for explaining in a talk based on his book, Finding Happiness: Monastic Steps for a Fulfilling Life, what she had felt since her husband died.

Fr Christopher had shared his thoughts on achieving a happy death, a phrase that is for most people today a contradiction in terms. The woman’s pain at the loss seemed overwhelming but through loving interaction with so many concerned people she had experienced deep consolation too. In the midst of pain, she could still contemplate the good and do good. She had never understood before how she could be experiencing both such grief and such consolation.

Here’s an abridged version of Fr Jamison’s words:

Each of us will have a particular desire for the time of our death: that an estranged relative might be reconciled, for example. The trouble is we cannot control our death.

People can, however, take steps to make death happy by ‘back-planning’. Starting at the end point people need to ask: in order to be in that state, what needs to be done the day before, the week before, the month before and so on.

This vision is at odds with many contemporary understandings of happiness. The most common assumption about happiness is that it is the same as pleasure; so being happy means feeling good.

The ancient Greeks had a better answer. Plato concluded that the contemplation of truth, goodness and beauty was the height of happiness. Our dislike of dishonest politicians, our admiration for the generosity of those serving the sick, and the popularity of art galleries, all show that our appreciation of truth, goodness and beauty is as high as ever.

Aristotle took Plato’s ideas a step further. He said that happiness consists not simply in contemplating the good but in doing good. He wanted people to be taught to act virtuously because virtuous living made both individuals and societies happy.

This approach to happiness is not dependent on religious faith yet all the major faith communities support it. Christianity offers practical steps to live out this view of happiness. The Church’s contemplative tradition shows us how to pray so that we can contemplate the truth, the goodness and the beauty of the Blessed Trinity. The Catholic moral tradition teaches us how to live virtuously and how to find forgiveness when we fail.

People should enjoy feeling good as a bonus that can accompany contemplation and good living.

Death in the community

Tuesday, 30 August 2011

Beyond the unappetising business of flogging pre-need plans to the tottering classes, undertakers do next to nothing to educate the public about funerals. They seek to be seen as public-spirited. They do good stunts, raise money for the hospice here, the air ambulance there. But how many stage events to raise awareness of the immense emotional and spiritual power of a funeral to transform grief?

Expectations of funerals are so low that most people are just relieved to get the whole horrible business behind them. They are so low that they bitterly resent the cost. So there have to be very sound commercial reasons for all undertakers to get out there and talk up their product.

Two recent events have brought death into the community in original and effective ways. Both were, for the apprehensive, welcoming in their informality; both set out to inform rather than sell.

The first was the Six Feet Under Convention held in Bournemouth on 12-14 August. It was a brave venture, which attracted 20 or so delegates to a series of talks by eminent funeralists and others. Alongside it was an open-air coffin display organised by the Natural Death Centre, complete with a coffin to paint and another to pose dead in. There were sporadic outbreaks of musical performance. It was reckoned to be the first-ever public display of coffins. So wary was Bournemouth Borough Council that it insisted on warning signs. It was notable that some foreign visitors were discombobulated. Brits loved it.

The second was ARKA’s Bringing Death to Life show in Lewes. An atmosphere of cheerful informality was inviting to the casual visitor, and a good number of people in the locality had made a very deliberate bee-line. They weren’t disappointed. There was an afternoon of excellent talks from Cara herself; from Julie Gill, who’ll be running the new ARKA branch in Lewes; from Hermione Elliott, a doula from Living Well Dying Well; and from Peter Murphy of Light on Life Ceremonies. Peter and his wife Belinda have a ceremony shop in Brighton, and work very closely with ARKA. How good to see a funeral director with an understanding of the vital importance of collaborating with ritualists. Cara certainly knows how to surround herself with brilliant people. A highlight of the day was hanging out with Jean Francis, author of the excellent Time to Go.

I didn’t get any good photos of the ARKA show because I was too busy talking to all manner of brilliant people. But here are some of the SFU convention.









Ask not for whom the bill tolls

Monday, 29 August 2011

With thanks to Canadian Veggie

Posted by our irreligious correspondent Jonathan Taylor


Who is a funeral for? For the living, in the belief that the dead person won’t be there? For the dead, to help them into the afterlife? Or is it for both, so the living and the dead can do something for each other? At the very least, the living can prolong the dead’s pre-posthumous dignity by disposing of her unwanted body since she can’t do it for herself, but it’s less clear what she’s doing for them once she’s dead.

Even some atheists talk about what they want for their funeral. Perhaps we go along with such wishes so the still-living may end their days with a secure feeling about their own eventual event, which they’re going to miss but can at least anticipate meanwhile with some confidence.

You seldom hear it said: “It’s what she wants”, even from those who think she’s still around. Almost everyone feels a seemingly instinctive need to do ‘what she would have wanted’. It’s what funeral plans are sold on. But it is one thing to honour a person’s wishes; it’s quite another to honour a person. One involves ties of loyalty, perhaps even obligation; the other we do entirely of our own volition. When we honour her at her funeral in our own way, they are our needs, not hers, that we are seeing to, and she cannot dictate those needs to us. The question is; what is in whose gift, and to whom?

She can leave some dosh lying around on the off-chance we’ll want a funeral for her; fine, she’s probably right, and it will come in handy thank you. She can let us know her preferences, so we can choose whether to go along with them or not. But if she leaves us a ‘gift’ of a prearranged as well as prepaid funeral plan for her, is she not depriving us of our right to honour the ‘her’ who carries on within us, leaving us as passive mourners intimidated by the sanctity of her ‘arrangements’ (a favourite word of funeral plan sellers)? Grieving is active, not something that happens to us. We need something to do that says this is our party for her, at least as much as hers for us. Doesn’t she disempower us? Doesn’t she actually make it harder to grieve her?

Still, that’s not what she intended when she purchased her own funeral! She thought she was doing what it says in the brochures: ‘…saving us the anguish and grief of doing anything other than remembering her’ (Golden Leaves). She innocently bought the line that says we can sit back and enjoy her choice of hymns and coffin and budget without having to ‘worry’. She also bought into the idea that our having (choosing) to put together a funeral ceremony for her would actually impede our grieving rather than facilitate it.

It plays on and perpetuates the notion that arranging a funeral can only be a burden, best given to others to carry for us while we act like helpless children impatient for it to be all over and done with. It disables us from improving the healing quality of her funeral by our own involvement, and prevents funerals in general from evolving. The fact that it’s sold partly on its being cheaper at today’s prices only cheapens it further.

She is, as I say, entitled to invite us to carry out her ‘wishes’ on her behalf if we like. It’s a different thing to pay someone to arrange things so that we must, because then it would seem an act of defiance on our part, an insult to her love and concern for us, to override her plan. Doesn’t she, then, take for herself what is rightfully ours? Shouldn’t we reclaim it from her, even if that leaves her investment wasted and us out of pocket and feeling guilty?

The wish to be at her funeral is ours; our gift to her, not hers to us. We can hold it, rather than just attend it, to help us understand how we will bring ourselves to face her death. She cannot tell us what she symbolizes for us now; that is our task, to discover once she’s dead. We do it to establish what her life and her death imply to our past and our future; to thank her for her part in our lives, not to be indebted to her for it.

So do funeral plan providers play on the bad reputation of funerals by selling a palliative for what could otherwise be a healing event? Do they perpetuate the image of the funeral as a tired old painful procedure instead of a brand new constructive ritual? And do we play into their hands with our concern for our offspring when we buy them, and undermine our own goodwill by leaving our family with the lasting problem of not having had “…to worry about arranging the funeral and finding the money, at a time when they are coming to terms with their loss” (Cruse Bereavement Care funeral planning leaflet)?

Blackberry Stone

Friday, 26 August 2011

Posted by Sweetpea

I am fascinated by those lesser explored emotions at funerals.  When I visit a family, I carry poetry and music with me for those who are struggling to find expression.  Of course, it’s comparatively easy to find things which talk about love in its more conventional forms – we are almost swamped with choice, and it’s more a matter of which individual poem or song speaks best to them.  Much harder to find things which express those often felt, but more rarely explored, ambivalent feelings.   Perhaps we could share some here?  I’ll start you off with this one by Laura Marling. She’s a wonderful singer/songwriter.  Her lyrics are complicated and haunting. This is from her album ‘I Speak Because I Can’.


Blackberry Stone

Well I own this field,
And I wrote this sky,
And I have no reason, to reason with you.

I’d be sad that I never held your hand as you were lowered,
but I’d understand that I’d never let it go.
I’d be sad that I never held your hand as you were lowered,
but I’d understand that the world does what it does.

And you never did learn to let the little things go,
And you never did learn to let me be,
And you never did learn to let little people grow
And you never did learn how to see.

But I’ll whisper that I love this man,
Now, and for forever, to your soul as it floats out of the window.
To the world that you turned your back on,
To the world that never really let you be,

And I am lower now and lower still,
And you did always say that one day I would suffer.
You did always say that people get their pay.
You did always say that I was going places,
And that you wouldn’t have it any other way.

But I couldn’t turn my back on a world for what I lack wouldn’t let me
But I couldn’t turn my back on a world for what I like I need it
But I couldn’t turn my back on a world for what I lack wouldn’t let me
But I couldn’t turn my back on a world for what I like I need it
And I shouldn’t turn my back on sweet smelling blackberry stone.

And here’s the song itself:

We’ve been having fun all summer long…

Friday, 26 August 2011


Posted by Vale


As the clouds lour and rain bounces off my sun baked lawn it seems timely to remind people of Bethany Beaches’ unique annual celebration to mark the end of summer. Every year this ‘quiet resort’ community hold a Jazz Funeral  to mark the end of summer and ‘help the local residents ease back to the slower pace of off-season living’.

Details of the event can be seen here.

In the meantime and, in the hope of a late flowering summer bank holiday weekend, here is Bethany’s New Orleans Jazz band playing summer out.


Let’s hope Hurricane Irene doesn’t blow them away.


Sob stories

Thursday, 25 August 2011


Posted by Charles


The misery memoir – awful childhood, frightful beatings, Oliver Twist never had it so good, that sort of stuff, ooh – has, it seems run its course. The torment vultures have flown the well-picked corpse and are now feasting on bereavement. 

I’ve been aware of growth of this new genre and largely ignored it, mostly, I expect, because I am not presently freshly bereaved.  I think I feel very much as Bill Morris does in this very good article: “Is it mere voyeurism, or schadenfreude?  Or is something closer to empathy – a way of preparing ourselves for the unthinkable by witnessing the suffering of another?” I think he might have added that it can be very useful to hang out with others who are going through the same as you.  I’ve nothing against the genre in principle.  The biggest sob-buster out there now, in case you’re interested, is Joan Didion’s Year of Magical Thinking.  Everybody wants to be the next Joan Didion. 

Then I read an article about the grief memoir in the Guardian. It’s written by Frances Stonor Saunders. Ever come across her? Let me tell you, she’s seriously brilliant. Here are some of the things she says: 

We know that extreme physical pain drives out language,” Julian Barnes writes in Nothing to be Frightened Of, but “it’s dispiriting to learn that mental pain does the same.”  … If grief drives out language, how can language be pressed into its service? How can the writer orient disorientation?  

Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, founder of the modern grief movement (she gave us the “Five Stages of Grief” theory), insisted that “Telling your story often and in detail is primal to the grieving process. You must get it out. Grief must be witnessed to be healed.” This instruction comes straight out of the principle of catharsis, but there is little evidence to support its efficacy over other, possibly more reticent, ways of grieving. Barnes calls it the “therapeuto-autobiographical fallacy” – writing doesn’t help, he testifies gloomily, your suffering is not alleviated. 

Saunders surveys the field with a scholarly, wry eye. You have read it all. 

She also bequeaths us an excellent anecdote. Kerry Packer, recovering from a near-fatal heart attack, whispered to his sons: “I’ve been to the other side, and there’s fuck all there.” 

Read the entire Saunders article here

ARKA funeral day this Saturday in Lewes

Thursday, 25 August 2011

Bringing Death to Life – 27th August 2011

All Saints Arts and Youth Centre, Friars Walk, Lewes.

Free Entry


ARKA Original Funerals of Brighton opened its new office in Lansdown Place Lewes, in July this year, with the ceremonies and celebrant company, Light on Life. 

ARKA Original Funerals and Light on Life are recognised leading experts in natural death and green funerals and between them have many years of experience and insight. 

Bringing Death to Life is being held at All Saints Arts and Youth Centre, Friars Walk on the 27th August. 

Their joint event – is a stimulating and vibrant look at death and dying, how it is an integral part of our community and how we all can manage the process with dignity for the families and friends involved and respect to our environment at the same time. 

ARKA Original Funeralsand Light on Life want to open up the mysterious world of funerals and give people the opportunity to get information, advice and, from this day in particular, take a look at how we can celebrate someone’s life through the empowerment of the friends and family who may be left behind. 

On the day we will be running workshops on: 

Enhancing your experience of living and dying – Hermoine Elliott – Living Well Dying Well

2.30pm (1.5 hours approximately)

How can we maintain our wellbeing and quality of life, up until the end of life? What’s important to us? So few of us take the time to be clear, make choices or be pro-active about our wishes. We will create a safe and supportive environment, working alongside you to show how to create the conditions that would best support you and your loved ones through the journey of life and death. 

Celebrating the person who has died – Peter Murphy – Light on Life

4pm (1 hour approximately)

The conversation will cover Preparation for a Ceremony; Decorating a beautiful ceremony space ; Words, choosing poetry and prose and ways of writing the Eulogy;  Music, for reflection, the songs we sing. Ritual.

Peter will encourage you to follow your heart to create a ceremony full of meaning for you and your loved one. With the right help and support it can be a wonderful thing to do. 

‘A ritual is a journey of the heart, which should lead us into the inner realm of the psyche and ultimately, into that of the soul, the ground of our being. Rituals, if performed with respect passion and devotion, will enhance our desire and strengthen our capacity to live. New rituals will evolve but the ancient rituals and liturgies are also capable of rediscovery as we learn to make them our own…… James- Roose Evans. 

Planning a funeral – taking control – Julie Gill – ARKA Original Funerals

1.30pm (1 hour approximately)

Your Perfect Funeral 

What would you want?

To be buried under an oak tree?

Have your ashes scattered in your garden?

A string quartet?

Six white horses pulling your coffin in a glass coach? 

Take some time to imagine your perfect funeral. There are so many ways to create the funeral that suits you, and more options than you probably ever knew. You can have fun thinking about transport, coffins, your favouite music and your final resting place, and hear about some of the amazing choices other people have made too. 

Julie from Arka Original Funerals will be encouraging you to let your imagination flow and to follow your heart in this honest, adventurous and playful session. 

What is a ‘green funeral’? – Cara Mair – Director of ARKA Original Funerals

12.30pm (1 hour approximately)

Cara will be leading a discussion about her work in the alternative / green funeral world. She will be discussing how ARKA developed, the work that it does and most importantly answering any questions about the funeral ‘industry’ that you may have. 

Please email to book and guarantee your place on any the above workshops. For further details please visit the ARKA Original Funerals website, 

Alternatively turn up as early as you can on the day to book your place and meet experts from the green funeral world who will be on hand to give information and advice. 

We will have demonstrations from a leading willow coffin manufacturer and we will also have lovely food and refreshments to buy. 

Free Entry and Doors are open from 12 noon until 6pm

We need to talk about funerals

Wednesday, 24 August 2011




Posted by Vale


But, I hear you say, we do already. All the time. Interminably.

And, of course, we do.

This website springs from the Good Funeral Guide and the blog is full of discussions about new ways to dispose of bodies, about wild and wonderful flights of imagination in the services that are being created and lots of talk about the funeral industry itself. There is even room for philosophising in the many posts that consider what funerals are for (click on the category Ceremonies at the bottom of this post for a full listing).

But it struck me recently that, interesting and important as this talk is, most of our posts are about what happens in and after the service. We talk much more rarely about what happens before, even though this is where, for the people involved, all the important decisions are taken. It is also where funeral directors have an  opportunity to make a real difference to the quality of the service provided. To understand how, you first have to recognise what is happening.

Think about the traditional way that funerals were commissioned (and allow me to exaggerate and oversimplify for a moment). In a religious context it is the priest/ rabbi/ immam or whoever that acts as the guardian of the process. They may well be involved before death. After they act both as guardian and guide to what is to be done, in what timescale and with what rites. Funeral director, the family themselves, every player in the funeral process submits to this approach.

For the people involved in – and who are happy to identify themselves with – the process there is a great deal of comfort in this. It is often rooted in community. It will express contains both tradition and continuity, and it satisfies the requirements of faith. There is the added satisfaction of  knowing that all that is right and proper has been done.

Of course the direct link between family and faith – even as a cultural association) has been weakening for a long time now. In this census year a UK survey by the British Humanist Association suggested that two thirds of us do not regard ourselves as religious. While, internationally, another study claimed that data collected over a number of censuses (censi?) showed that in nine countries there was a trend that would lead in the end to the extinction of religion.

In these circumstances what should families do? The GFG is unequivocal. People should be given the information, advice, time and support they need to work out what sort of funeral service they want.

But, without access to another wise guide, funeral directors have, by default, acquired a huge new responsibility. More often than not they are the ones that families turn to as they begin to face up to the question of what sort of service it is that they need to commission. It has to be a real concern that – with some notable, brilliant and inspiring exceptions – too many still feel that the old process is the best – even where it lacks all legitimacy or meaning in the lives of the people affected.

This is why we need to talk about funerals. Meaning, spirituality, grieving, the comfort of community are all possible outside of religion, but only if the right questions are asked at the start. What needs to happen to make sure that more funeral directors are willing to ask them?

Don’t miss the bus

Monday, 22 August 2011

This from Charles Moore in the Spectator, 11 August 2011:

Have you noticed how people’s funerals now take place longer and longer after their death? Such delay is not permitted in Judaism or Islam, religions which developed under hot suns, but it is now quite common for Christian or godless crem funerals to be held even a month or more after decease. I suppose this is the result of efficient refrigeration. It does, it is true, make it easier for friends and family to get to the funeral if there is more notice. Even so, it seems a bad trend. Death is absolute, and breaks in upon life without consideration of timing (unless you are poor King George V with your life ‘drawing peacefully to its close’ in order to coincide with the first edition of the Times). The reality of its awful fact should not be postponed. 


Rites and riots: the search for meaning

Monday, 22 August 2011


Posted by our religious correspondent, Richard Rawlinson


“Show me the manner in which a nation cares for its dead and I will measure with mathematical exactness the tender mercies of its people, their respect for the laws of the land, and their loyalty to high ideals.”

Sir William Gladstone 


Following the recent spate of arson attacks and looting sprees, it’s easy to conclude some of England’s more feckless vandals have been dragged up expecting rights without responsibilities, and that we’re doomed unless we rein in aspects of the liberal social experiment of recent decades.

One of the challenges of society today is the nature and speed of cultural change, in particular how people seek meaning and hope. Ritual has always played a part in helping us process life transitions, whether from bachelor to husband or wife to widow.

In today’s pluralistic, late-modern world, fewer people are using religious rites of passage to help understand meaning in life and death. Secular state-endorsed civil marriages and funerals are providing an alternative. But even when humanistic services include religious elements, do they not tend to be consumer-driven – ‘what the client wants, the client gets’?

If the Church is trying to revive her relevance, I don’t think the answer is accepting requests for ‘Fly Him To The Moon’. So what does she offer that’s different, what’s her ‘unique selling point?

Regular church-goers receive community support and consideration of bereavement beyond the funeral. But so, too, do those surrounded by friends and family in a secular community, so pastoral care alone is not a justification.

The true answer also won’t wash among non-believers: faith in God and the hope of His love for eternity. It’s a chicken and egg dilemma for the Church. No faith, no gain. No gain, no faith.

So the question is how to inspire faith, and increasingly the answer is a return to traditional liturgy and rites, not yet more guitars, tambourines and pagan-style dancing in the sanctuary. This traditional revival, driven by His Holiness Pope Benedict, is not about empty aesthetics, but about liturgy and ritual showing how beauty and truth connect with one another. Interestingly, it’s the young who get it and are cheerleaders for the cause. They’re fed up with Vatican II aging hippies making them cringe as they try desperately to be ‘in touch’.  


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