Blog Archives: September 2011

Where the tree falls, the forest rises

Friday, 30 September 2011


From The Rising, by Wendell Berry


There is a grave, too, in each

survivor. By it, the dead one lives.

He enters us, a broken blade,

sharp, clear as a lens or mirror.


Like a wound, grief receives him.

Like graves, we heal over, and yet keep

as part of ourselves the severe gift.


By grief, more inward than darkness,

the dead become the intelligence of life.


Where the tree falls, the forest rises.

There is nowhere to stand but in absence,

no life but in the fateful light.



Charlene Elderkin, eminent home funeralist and member of the Threshold Care Circle in Wisconsin, is writing a book: a collection of stories offering an intimate glimpse into the personal renewal experienced following the death of a loved one. 

She is looking for contributors with story submissions that offer an intimate glimpse into personal renewal following the death of a loved one or community member. Without denying the experience of grief and loss, these first-hand accounts illustrate how ordinary people find a way to integrate the death of their beloved into a forever-changed life. How this integration unfolds and when is as varied as the people writing their stories.

It’s to be called Where the Tree Falls, the Forest Rises. Find her website here



My way or the highway

Friday, 30 September 2011


Posted by Richard Rawlinson, religious correspondent


The excerpt above is from a funeral sermon by a US Catholic priest in which he berates those members of the congregation who are only in church because it’s a loved one’s funeral, but whose own souls are in mortal danger after skipping Mass on a regular basis.

Some might be appalled by this opportunistic sabotage of a ceremony where the bereaved are bidding farewell to the deceased. A secular equivalent might be a British Humanist Association celebrant choosing a civil funeral to evangelise atheism by refusing to condone religious hymns, declaring that if the bereaved insist on such quasi-theist practices, he/she will declare that, ‘as a humanist I will not be taking part’.

To those celebrants flexible enough to tailor funerals to varying tastes, criticism of lapsed or half-baked faith or pick ‘n’ mix agnosticism might seem inappropriate. What’s more important for them is to do one’s best to show respect and sensitivity, accepting some will want frills of different hues, others will want the least fuss possible, allowing more time to laugh and cry over a booze-up at the main event, the post-committal party.

But where are more individualistic belief systems leading society – whether atheistic or ‘designer faiths’ cut to suit personal preferences? In some ways, both the stern shepherd priest and the bossy BHA militant are clear and decisive, but only if preaching to the converted. In the ‘consumer is king’ world, they’re arrogant prigs.

In his book, Futurecast, US religion statistics expert George Barna says the one-person-one-religion trend is a rejection of the boring services of organised religion. But he notes individualism is causing fracture. If everyone is pretty much on their own, you lose some of the capacity to make connections. It’s also triggering hostility towards institutions; government and industry, as well as organised religion and inflexible BHA God-haters.

All this makes it challenging to devise formulaic, communal rituals that are relevant to the individualism forming today’s civil funerals. Perhaps it simply isn’t possible, and we should be grateful that existing practices do indeed already unite those involved through personalised eulogies, songs and readings in the presence of the deceased. Symbolic acts such as liberating doves, ringing bells or assigning time to silent contemplation are an added ritualistic bonus but are unlikely to achieve the resonance of faith ritual.

It might be useful to study the Church’s way further. Churches are at an advantage as they’re beloved, familiar places of communal bonding that offer pastoral care before and after the funeral, as well in everyday life whether grieving or not. The rituals are not deemed extraordinary because they’re familiar by virtue of their weekly repetition.

To develop this point, allow me to briefly digress: while uncomfortable with the aforesaid priest’s modu operandi, the saying ‘Get yourself to Mass and your brain will follow’ resonates with me. The sacrament works because I’m open to the peace-giving and inspirational qualities of the Catholic faith. We eat when hungry, sleep when tired, work in order to earn money and gain spiritual nourishment from the Holy Eucharist. To those not receptive to the joyful mysteries of the Mass, its communal liturgy might seem far from an integral part of life, more pointless and dull in fact.

Living in London, I’m a member of a vibrant parish community participating in traditional Masses in a beautiful church with warm, erudite priests and an excellent master of music and choir. I’ve often wondered guiltily if I’d be so receptive if my local church was an edge-of-town bungalow with budget ceremony. I’ve been to such Masses and can honestly say – with or without lace, vestments, bells and smells; in spite of banal homilies, guitars in the sanctuary, and screaming kids in the pews – the Holy Eucharist remains a manna that brings miraculously a purer love, awe, gratitude, humility and inner peace than anything else on Earth. It’s familiar but extraordinary because of its meaning, not its ‘physical’ parts.

Crematoria as a backdrop for ritual are not ideal, strange, one-off places visited under duress in order to dispose of loved ones in a furnace. In a previous blog, I mentioned the North Texas Church of Freethought, a kind of community centre for atheists attempting to offer ‘all the educational, inspirational, and social and emotional benefits of traditional faith-based churches’. This extreme and most likely financially unviable option is perhaps more likely to be overrun by the didacts than the anything-goes liberals. Members of both camps might also find the concept too close for comfort to organised religion. So what are the alternatives for those seeking to escape the clock-watching charmlessness of the crematorium, and perhaps develop rituals that resonate?

Is there sufficient demand for two separate venues, church substitute for ceremony, crematorium for committal? And what are the options for church substitutes: hotels, homes, hilltops for alfresco funeral pyres? A ballroom in the former offers seating space and hospitality services but may be expensive and impersonal even if the manager found a way of sneaking in coffins without upsetting the guests. Homes may be too small for big turn-outs and outdoor funeral pyres are, I believe, currently illegal (good luck with your campaign, Rupert).

Wherever civil funerals are held and however much communal ritual is included, there’s conflict between individualism and commune, free-spirited ego and membership of a ‘club’ greater than its individual parts.

An Alaskan funeral

Thursday, 29 September 2011


Writing in the Anchorage Daily News, writer Michael Carey gives this account of an Alaskan funeral. 

The mourners included half a dozen men scattered throughout the church who looked as if they were on work release: leathers, tattoos, unkempt hair and beards, the aura of hard living, men never domesticated by women. They were in their forties, like the man who died.

One of them sat in front of me. Tall, sinewy — in blue jeans, a faded long-sleeve shirt, and boots. I couldn’t see a tattoo but was willing to bet he had one. He wore an Oakland Raiders do-rag over his hair. I wondered if the Raiders’ bandana had simply been at hand or was a statement, given the Raiders reputation as outlaws.

There had been a viewing before the service, and the casket stood open in front of the first row of mourners. A plain box, neither painted nor varnished, beautiful in its fresh simplicity.

The rector of Saint Matthew’s, Scott Fisher, began the service by announcing it was time to close the casket. Two Native men carried in the top and took a few moments to ensure the top and bottom aligned properly. Then one of them used a battery-powered screwdriver to drill screws into the coffin, one on each corner, one on each side. A piercing whine filled the church six times.

After that, the two men placed a tanned moose hide — a large, fringed hide — over the casket.

A couple things about Alaska Native funerals for those who have never attended one. They are bound to be long. The Book of Common Prayer contains optional elements for the standard service for the dead. Alaska Natives don’t do optional. They want the entire service.

Second, the music. We sang a number of traditional Protestant hymns, but they didn’t sound traditional. Interior Natives love country and western music, and “What A Friend I Have in Jesus” can come arranged by George Jones.

If the Holy Ghost was present, so was the ghost of Hank Williams.

Scott Fisher shepherded us through the service with a Native preacher who recited prayers in English and Athabascan.

The preacher played several hymns on a guitar and led the congregation in song before delivering a sermon in which he interpreted Ecclesiastes from a Native villager’s perspective. He closed by asking the Natives in the audience to take care of their young and admonished all of us to stop drinking alcohol.

Five or six people came forward to offer their memories of the dead man, including siblings on the verge of tears who had one message: I loved him.

The last speaker was the man in front of me wearing the Raiders do-rag who hastily walked to the altar, turned toward the mourners, nodded to Scott Fisher, and placed the fingers of his right hand straight up and down on the moose-hide covered casket. He kept his fingers on the casket until he finished — as if attempting to maintain contact with the dead man,Vernon.

He began by looking straight atVernon’s parents as he said, “I know death. My mother died. My father died. My sisters died. I know death.”

He told three stories, all aboutVernon, all three to illustrate the same point: My friend lived up to the construction worker’s honor code. He was hard-working, trustworthy and, when given authority, fair. A man who is hard working trustworthy and fair is a righteous construction worker.

The do-rag man explained how he metVernon. He was new on a job, and at lunch,Vernoncame over and sat down next to him.Vernondidn’t say much but eventually asked, “What’s that tattoo mean?,” pointing to the do-rag man’s bare arm. “It’s the date my son died,” replied the do-rag man. “Oh,” saidVernonretreating into silence. From there, the two men became friends.

The do-rag man was about finished. He closed this way.

“When my son died, I had to go toBaltimorefor the funeral. I had spent most of my life around here and didn’t know anything about Camden Yards or the New Jersey Turnpike. After a while I was driving around looking for my hotel, lost. I kept driving and driving, lost and more lost. Finally, I came to a stoplight and felt like I would fall to pieces. I couldn’t take it any more. And I prayed to my son, ‘Please, please take me to the hotel where I can rest. Please.’ The light turned, and I drove a couple blocks. There was the hotel.

“Please don’t forget the power of prayer.”

With that, the do-rag man returned to his seat and the service reached its final stage.


Full story here.

Eupemisms 2: Pushing up daisies

Thursday, 29 September 2011


Posted by Vale


As an industry, the funeral business is often told it should be careful about the use of euphemisms – (Collins English Dictionary – euphemism
the deliberate or polite use of a pleasant or neutral word or expression to avoid the emotional implications of a plain term, as passed over for died.)
At it’s best a euphemism can help someone talk about what can hardly be faced or imagined. At its worst, of course, it can sound mealy mouthed, dishonest or even – for the funeral trade – like the  professional language of death.  

But we all do it. I found this list on

Assumed room temperature (popular among mortuary technicians);
Bit the big one;
Brown bread (Cockney rhyming slang);
Carked it, (or karked);
Fallen off the perch;
Hopped the twig;
Been taken from us;
Gone somewhere better;
He’s now with (name of closest deceased loved one;
It was his time to go;
Not hanging around any more;
Threw a double-six;
Kicked the bucket;
Put out to pasture;
He/she bought the farm (US military]);
Gone West (RAF, to ‘Go West into the setting sun’);
It was curtains (as in the crematorium curtains, or the curtains coming down when the play ends);
Faced the final curtain;
It was tickets for him;
Walked through the Pearly Gates;
Gone to a better place;
Checked out;
Gone to the great …in the sky;
Turned up his toes;
Snuffed it;
It was a ‘take out’ in a body bag;
Pushing up the daisies;
Feeding the worms;
Feeding the fishes;
Sleeping with the fishes;
Dead as a Dodo;
Dead as a doornail;
Dead as a doormouse;
Passed over;
Passed on;
Having his final sleep;
The Late …;
Lost (as in ‘We ‘lost’ my father);
Not dead but ‘gone before’;
Drawn his last breath;
Departed this life;
Shuffled off this mortal coil;
End one’s days;
Peg out/To peg;
Given up the ghost;
Gone to see his maker;
Met his maker;
Never woke up;
Keeping the angels company;
Singing with the angels;
Popped his clogs;
Been deleted.

My favourite ’he rolled over and stuck his spoon into the wall’ (from a Georgette Heyer novel of all places) isn’t on the list – what’s yours?

I’m not religious but there’s something about funerals…

Wednesday, 28 September 2011



Posted by Belinda Forbes


From the moment I had booked myself onto a course to become a secular funeral celebrant, it started happening.  Like when you get married, get pregnant or get a puppy.  Suddenly everywhere you turn, it’s about weddings, what the expectant mum shouldn’t eat or drink, and how you should never play tug of war with a puppy.  Oops!  Too late.

So, three years ago, having resigned from my job as a teacher, I was looking forward to my course on writing and conducting non-religious funerals when I read an article in the Sunday Times.  To sum it up, the non-religious journalist Minette Marrin extols the virtues of tradition and religion for funeral ceremonies.

I was so annoyed, I wrote to her: 

Your article, “I’m not religious, but there’s something about funerals” makes the point that non-religious funerals do not quite hit the mark and are not a proper end.    Most funerals I have attended were Christian ceremonies, and in almost every case the deceased was not a practising Christian.  The passages from the Bible have been anything but comforting for the majority of non-religious people in the congregation.  At my grandfathers funeral, a dreadful passage from Revelations was read out.  At my grandmothers funeral, the vicar referred to her as Kay throughout her name was Kathleen!  …We cannot all have a handsome Victorian Gothic church and Harold Pinter reading a poem.  But we can choose a fitting farewell whether religious or not.

She replied:

…Each to her own, I guess, as far as funerals go.  I think it’s very hard at the last moment, in the middle of grief, to make decisions, and if no one has taken them before, then convention is good to fall back on. I think the words of the prayer book are very beautiful, and give me a sense of connection with the past and other funerals, but I entirely take your point.

With best wishes

Minette Marrin

Although I was impressed that she had taken the trouble to reply, I was still annoyed.  However, three years later, I look back at my pre-celebrant self and smile.  I am annoyed no longer.  If an atheist wants a traditional Anglican service in his village church, why not?  If a Roman Catholic wants to be cremated and asks me, an atheist celebrant, to conduct the service, why not?

And thank you Minette for replying!  In many years to come, may you have the send-off you have asked for.

My Man’s Gone

Tuesday, 27 September 2011


My man’s gone now
Ain’t no use a listenin’
For his tired footsteps
Climbin’ up the stairs

Old man sorrow’s
Come to keep me company
Whisperin’ beside me
When I say my prayers
When I say my prayers

He come around
He come up, he come around
Ain’t that I mind workin’
Work n’ me is travelers
Journeyin’ together
To the promised land

But old man sorrow
Mountin’ all the way with me
Tell’ me that I’m old now
Since I lose my man
Since I lose my man

Since I lose my man

Death Cafe

Tuesday, 27 September 2011


This post is reproduced with permission from Jayd Kent’s One Queer Femme Anatomy blog. It describes the first-ever pop-up death cafe, the brainchild of Jon Underwood, curator of the Death Cafe blog and one of the nicest and, underneath that, brainiest people you could meet. A death cafe is long-held dream of John. How marvellous to see it take flight.


Jayd Kent


I attended something called a ‘Death Cafe’ today. 

I was terrified at the concept of sitting in a room, with a random group of people I had never met, to talk about the one thing that terrifies me more than anything in the world – DEATH. I had been worrying about it quietly all week. 

A little background before I tell you of my experience – 
I have always had an innate fear (and nobody really knows this) of dying. I have ‘visions’ every day, sometimes multiple ones in any given day, of my own death. They are often violent and abrupt, and I keep this to myself for fear of being judged a madman – so now I am coming out. I have had them for years, the first one I recall when I was only 13 in a Graphics Class at School – of a man breaking in and stabbing me. They are often horrific accidents where I witness my own death, and sometimes take me out of ‘real space’ for a few moments, to which I then return and try and sweep it under the carpet. In times of stress they worsen and become more frequent, and when I’m happy and life is plentiful they become less so. But they are ALWAYS there. Constantly reminding me of my mortality and fucking with my head.

So, I had a wonderful whipping and sensory session with my good friend Faerie one time recently, and we were talking about my persistent coughing, to which he thought it could be a nervous cough due to underlying anxiety issues. When he asked me if I had any I could think of, I took a leap of faith and told him about my ‘visions’, and he told me about the ‘Death Cafe’.

I spoke to a delightful man via email who had organised it, and he reassured me that I had nothing to be scared of, and gave me the details of the venue. It was in somebodys house this time, being the first one of its kind in the UK, with a hope of getting a venue in future. The offer of tea and cake was there too, which made it hard to refuse. I decided I would go, although I was still terrified of what would come out that day.

Upon nearly getting lost on the way there, I came across a beautiful road tucked down the side of Hackney. It was lovely sunny and warm, so I had enjoyed the cycle there from mine – and decided it was a gorgeous day to talk about death in this contrast in the weather.

I was welcomed by the host, and we all introduced ourselves. Everybody seemed very outgoing and friendly, which comforted me, as well as the fact one of my friends was there – the very same close friend who had suggested I go in the first place. God, I needed that hug when I saw him. 

So, we were ushered into a vintage dining room with wooden floorboards, to a wonderfully presented table with plates and such laid out. Then, the conversation began. Before I even had time to let it sink in, I had started to well up. That’s what’s so bizarre about my relationship with death – I’m so scared of it, I can’t even think about it without being reduced to tears, so sitting here with all these people openly chatting about their past experiences with it made me instantly emotional. It’s not something I have ever been open about before either – something came up in discussion about how our British Society has quite a stiff upper lip regarding this subject, and talking about it upsets others so we should just shut up. 

There were times where I felt like I was going to walk out before it was even my turn to speak.

Then it came to my turn – and why I was here. I told the group of 7 or so about my ‘visions’ – the moment I had done, I broke down. It felt awful, and I carried on talking through my tears, telling of not wanting sympathy because it was something I couldnt control, and warned of possible further outbursts later on in the session – my coping mechanism of trying to declare my problems are tiny in comparison. But this was a place where people questioned me instead of making me feel like I couldnt talk about it, they were drawing it out of me instead- bringing more of the food for thought to the table. I learned ALOT about myself, and here are some of the key points, which could be life changing to me.

Q.) How do I deal with scary death-like situations in real life?
A.) I take control, and deal with them head on. Like when Fiona (my mother) got liver cancer, and I held everyone together and became the driving force the day she had her liver transplant, or the time my house caught fire and nearly killed me and my gf when we were 19 and I just woke up and sorted it out and put the fire out, without thinking about it.

Q.) Do I have any phobias?
A.) Yes, I have a phobia of shock tactics on TV and in real life.
(To which somebody pointed out my phobia sounds the same as my visions, and perhaps it’s connected to my phobia of shock rather than my fear of death?)

These two revelations on their own were INCREDIBLY helpful, and I have got more from this one session talking to some amazing people, than I would have ever got out of say, a counselling session.

At the end of the session, we changed the subject to what we said we had achieved in life, what our obstacles were – this was kind of intended to be said on our deathbed so to speak.

It was so freeing to tell a group of strangers my life story, my achievements, hear theirs, and all share praise and thanks. We were then asked to place all the obstacles into an envelope, along with some of the fears of death we had written on pieces of card earlier, and they were ritually burned in a ceremony accompanied by some beautiful chanting melodies. We watched everything burn in that fireplace in silence, until there was nothing left. I cried quietly to myself, hoping nobody had noticed. I felt such a symbolic sense of relief watching those 15 years of fear go up in flames.

And then I ate cake afterwards, with a cup of tea to ground myself.

I can’t tell you how much this has helped me, and I feel compelled to sit here on my computer the moment I have cycled home and write down the whole experience, so I will never forget it, and never forget what those kind people have said, and try to not forget their faces on a day that will sit with me for years to come.

Perhaps the memorable day that I changed, and started on my path to ‘letting go’.


Faerie can be reached at his website

and The Death Cafe can be found at

The things they say

Monday, 26 September 2011


Over at the Connecting Directors site in America a funeral director observes:

Never trust a funeral director who says, “This is the last thing you can do for your loved one.”

What other upselling tricks and wiles do our native undertakers possess? Including facial expressions? 




Undertakers’ nightmares #1 – the Social Fund Funeral Payment

Monday, 26 September 2011


Posted by Nick Gandon


Methinks that the lunatics have taken over the asylum at the Department for Work and Pensions.  Maybe lunatics is an unkind (and no doubt very non-pc) description, which on reflection, I should perhaps replace with the term “jobsworths”. 

Long known throughout the undertaking profession for their crazy deliberations over the claims for the Social Fund funeral payments, these nice people, of which there ARE some genuinely helpful souls, have hit an all-time NUL POINTS over the last 7 days. 

It would be great to know whether other funeral directors have come across these little gems before…

I found a payment into our bank account from the DWP last week.  On the statement, it included a DWP reference number, with the letters “SF” – which I decided must be a payment from the Social Fund.   Most payments are preceded by a letter advising payment and client details… but not this one! 

“Simples” I thought.    I’ll ring them up, quote the reference number, and ask which client the payment concerns.  

After searching their website to find the most appropriate contact number,  and talking with no less than 6 very nice but totally clueless DWP people,   I eventually got the right number – only to talk to the most unhelpful one of the lot. 

“I can’t discuss this with you” came back the aggressive Liverpudlian voice from the Belle Vale Benefit Centre.  “It’s against the Data Protection Act”.   So, I pleaded, with an element of reasonable rationality (or so I thought):  “You’ve paid us the money.   Can’t you at least tell me the name of the client whose account you’ve (part) paid?” 

Forget it!  Common sense way out of the window!     “I’ll have to contact the client (came the reply) and get their permission to be able to tell you that the payment relates to them.     When I’ve got their permission, I’ll call you back and let you know who they are”.   Crazy. 


Case No 2  

I got a call yesterday afternoon from (by coincidence) someone at the DWP office at Belle Vale Benefit Centre requesting information relating to a claim. (No connection with the above).    Unfortunately, we got cut off mid-call, and their phone ID does not register for callback. 

They didn’t call me back, and I couldn’t call them (no number). 

I did my best, and tried a series of numbers and, after over an hour of waiting to be answered,  BINGO! I got the right call centre. 

Yes, you’ve guessed it – my hopes were short-lived.  I explained that I was trying to give them the information they requested from me regarding a Mr X, and could they kindly take the details. 


“Even if you give me the name and address of the claimant, I can’t talk to you about them because of the Data Protection Act” came the reply. 

“To identify the claimant, I need their national insurance number, but I still can’t talk to you about them, even with that.” 

“I only want to give you the information you have called and asked me for,” I protested.    “I’m giving you the info – not the other way round.  The Data Protection Act was never meant to obstruct simple conversation like this,” I protested. 

“Call your client and ask them for their national insurance number” replied the robot woman. 

I was struggling for a professional variation of the word “BOLLOCKS” but decided on the more polite   “we’re wasting each other’s time, aren’t we?  Goodbye”. 

Anyone else had such a ridiculous wasted few hours with the DWP social fund representatives?

The Last Performance

Sunday, 25 September 2011

At a funeral home death is something that may become a daily routine. And it is also where some kind of performance is taking place. ‘The last performance’ is a behind-the-scenes look at the place where funeral rites are prepared.

Directed by Jorge Tur Moltó. On Vimeo here

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