Blog Archives: July 2013

Validating the unverifiable

Wednesday, 31 July 2013

Watch Jewish Burial Practices on PBS. See more from Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly.

Last year’s TV documentaries revealed shocking scenes in funeral home mortuaries which horrified undertakers as much as they did the public. But just as the documentaries did not rouse the public to descend in angry mobs on their nearest funeral home, so they failed, also, to rouse good undertakers to fight back by demonstrating convincingly to their clients that Mum will be safe with us, we’ll treat her as if she were one of ours.

On the contrary, there was even a fair amount of defence of Co-op hub practice on the grounds that it was very similar to the way hospitals store their dead patients. All well and good – but sorry, if the punters don’t like it, don’t do it, end of.

People who make telly-shockers haven’t time to explore the nuanced complexities of truth; what they want is dirt and viewing figures. There is value in this work. It does no harm to unmask villains. 

Would that the programme makers had instead smuggled a hidden camera into the mortuary of C Waterhouse & Sons, in Sussex. There, everything is spotless and the dead are cared for with immense care and respect by incredibly nice people. They needn’t have stopped there. They could have gone on and fearlessly exposed and held up to public scrutiny wonderfully good practice in a great many funeral homes throughout the country. Great stories, never told. Their clients, with their eyes tight shut to the care of their dead, never get to know how wonderfully well served they are.  

Why on earth did the good undertakers not fight back by showing the word how different they are from the sleazebags?

I suppose they would shrug and say yes, nice idea, but how are you to do that if your clients refuse all invitations to visit your mortuary or play any part in caring for their dead? It’s a good point. People today are as conflicted about their dead as they have been throughout human history. On the one hand, they recoil from them; on the other, they require them to be cared for with reverence — by other people.

If blind trust is to be the basis for a family’s faith in the good offices of a funeral home, it is hardly surprising if mortuary practice sometimes falls short of the highest standards. The professionalization of ‘death care’ can have a distancing and even a de-sensitising effect on an undertaker, however dedicated. Is it okay to play Radio 2 while laying someone out? Never really thought about it, mate. Was it appropriate that you took that call on your phone, swapped that joke with the delivery person? Given the unexamined nature of mortuary routines, it is staggering how much excellent practice goes on.

How, then, is an undertaker to show the world what the world averts its gaze from?

One way might be to establish the care of the body as a ritual – as the Jews do with their tahara, the ritual cleansing and dressing of the dead. You can see how they do it in the video clip above. Respect for the dead is demonstrated by a chevra kadisha in a number of ways, for example, by never passing anything over a dead person but always walking round them. There’s some very fussy water-pouring and knot-tying. At the end of the process, all present ask forgiveness for any offence they might have caused.

A ritual institutionalises respect and is a constant reminder of the importance of the task. A ritual does not, of course, need a spiritual or religious rationale as its basis; it is simply a customary, heightened, elaborate and excellent way of doing something; it’s a five-star, gold-plated routine — it’s a good habit. 

Up in Macclesfield, undertaker Andrew Smith believes that the ethos of a funeral home is established in the mortuary and pervades everything everyone does. A lot of undertakers would agree with this, and there is much power in the idea.

But to get back to the big question: how can good undertakers demonstrate the high standards of their mortuary practice?

One way might be to describe and embed it in their contract. Think how reassuring that would be to clients. You could start with something like this:

During the laying out and dressing of (name of the person who has died) the mood in the mortuary will be one of serenity, reverence and deep concentration. You have asked for silence/you have asked for the following music to be played: _________________ and/or the following text to be read: __________________________

No one present will engage in any activity (such as eating, drinking or answering the telephone) which would constitute a distraction from the task.

There will be no talk except that which is necessary for the accomplishment of the task. No voice will be raised, there will be no levity, nor the expression of any strong emotion.

No interruption of the laying out and dressing of the body will be permitted unless personal safety is at risk.

When ______________________ lays out and dresses the body of (name of the person who has died) he/she may talk to him/her. You, the client, assent to this on the understanding that their tone will always be respectful.

Now, there’s every possibility that if people could see that this is the way things are going to be done for their Mum… they’ll want to be there, too. Not everyone, of course. But a lot more than now. How very empowering that would be.

And, as we never tire of saying, no undertaker ever went wrong who sought to empower the bereaved. 

Good Funeral Award nominations close in TWO days!

Monday, 29 July 2013



As seen on TV!!

NOT under new management!!

Nominations for this year’s Good Funeral Awards close at midnight on Wednesday, 31 July. It’s not too late to nominate the person you’ve been meaning to get around to nominating — even if that person is yourself. Come one, come all!!

We already have a massive postbag. Brian Jenner told me this morning that we have had more than 500 nominations. 

We should not regard 1000 as a forbiddingly large total. 

The place to do it is here




Time creates constant anniversaries: 99 years, why not?

Sunday, 28 July 2013



 Lieut William Rawlinson

Posted by Richard Rawlinson

We like round-figure anniversaries. They give us something to look back on to look forward to. Next July, the 100th anniversary of the start of World War I (28 July 1914 to 11 November 1918), expect the media to be awash with coverage, and our streets, churches and other buildings to be filled with people commemorating in various ways from memorial services to peace marches (perhaps the latter will wait for the centenary of the Armistice in 2018).

Influences may also be seen in the arts and design, and general attitudes to death in that the anniversary will stimulate contemplation about ancestors who died—heroically, horrifically—and what their sacrifice means to us a century later. It could perhaps boost genealogy as a pastime, as people gen up on family trees, and perhaps pay respects at previously forgotten graves of relatives killed in battle.

If I make any pilgrimage it will be to Cumbria, from where my family hails. A relative, William Rawlinson, was lost in action. My father has found his name among the thousands commemorated on the Menin Gate during a visit to Ypres, but there’s also a commemorative window at his local church in Cumbria.

The reason I’m jumping a year ahead of the centenary is because I’m pre-occupied with the pre-war years, and specifically how the war’s aftermath affected religious faith. There was a seismic shift in attitudes to class, religion and much more. Although before great advances such as women’s suffrage and the welfare state, there was a degree of social innocence before the two World Wars, and the unsurpassed evils of Communism and Nazism.

There had been awful conflicts before, of course. William’s grandfather and uncle had served in the Crimean and Boer wars respectively, but these didn’t change everything in the way that was to follow.

After school and military training at Sandhurst, young William joined his infantry regiment in South Africa in 1910. It sounds like he had a cushy time: he was a keen motorist, a relative novelty at the time, and spent his leave hunting big game, fortunately a relative novelty today.

This world was rocked by the call to arms. His Cumbria parish magazine published this letter in 1915 from a Sergeant Parsons: ‘Lieutenant William Rawlinson was killed about 5pm on 14th March, at St. Eloi, and I was with him at the time. Our trenches had been blown up and the survivors retired into a support trench, all the time being subject to heavy fire.

‘Lieut. Rawlinson obtained some hand grenades in this trench, and stood up on the parapet throwing these with one hand and firing his revolver with the other. It was then that he was shot in the head. I examined him to make sure he was dead and then we had to continue our retirement. We would have brought his body in had it been possible, but we were under heavy fire and we had to cross a trench six feet wide which was full of water. So far as I know the body has not been brought in since…’

Just as time is measured by the hours of a clock face or the months of the calendar, so anniversaries bring order to the passing years, both our own lives and those who went before. But time creates constant anniversaries: this sunny July day may be just 99 years before the outbreak of war, but it’s 100 years since our forebears were living in blissful ignorance of the devastation looming ahead.

Let’s hope future generations don’t have to say the same about us as we take for granted our comfortable existence today.


A Co-op good news story

Saturday, 27 July 2013



You may remember the case of Lisa Mullan, whose father chose to be buried at Crossways woodland burial site but, because of an administrative muddle, ended up being buried somewhere else. 

We’ve just heard some good news from Lisa.

Co-operative Funeralcare sector manager Jack Walsh subsequently invited Lisa’s mother to a meeting. There, he gave her £200 (the 20% admin charge retained by Martin Chatfield of Crossways); a written apology; and a bunch of flowers. Lisa’s mother has donated the £200 to the North Wales Mountain Rescue in honour of her husband. 

Well done, Co-op! We hope that Lisa’s family will now be able to grieve her father freed from the distress brought on by the way his funeral arrangements had been handled. 

ED’S NOTE: We understand from Martin Chatfield, at Crossways, that he has not yet had any contact from the Co-op. To his costs were added, you may remember, the cost of cutting his holiday short, including unused accommodation and a special flight home. We very much hope that the Co-op will attend to him next. 

Farewell, T-Model Ford

Tuesday, 23 July 2013


From the obituary in The Times (£)

Blues musician whose whiskey-fuelled guitar playing, raw lyrics and risqué repartee made him the toast of the Mississippi Delta

It was difficult to distinguish between reality and legend in the life of T-Model Ford. Like many of the great bluesmen, his ability to self-mythologise and his delight in weaving picaresque tales about himself were considerable, so that he appeared to have been dreamt up by central casting. What is certain is that he played and sang with a passion that was as raw and stark as it was eccentric and captivating, and which made him one of the last links with the great blues tradition of the Mississippi Delta.

He never learnt to read or write and although he claimed to be 93, nobody knew his true age for sure. But if the details of his life are unverifiable and may have been embroidered over the years, the narrative he told was credible and consistent with the harshness of black life in the segregated Deep South of pre-civil rights times.

He came from a sharecropping family descended from slaves and he was ploughing fields behind a mule by the time he was 11. There were several spells in prison and two years served on a chain gang, after he was sentenced to hard labour for killing a man in a knife fight in a juke-joint. He bore scars on his ankles from the shackles, which he would show off when telling the story. He said that the killing had been in self-defence.

He was married half a dozen times and fathered an estimated 26 children. His first wife allegedly ran off with his father. Another drank poison to terminate a pregnancy and died. He came to music late and started playing the blues in his late fifties when a later wife — he thought she was probably number five — gave him his first guitar.

“She was all the time running off, leaving and coming back,” he said. She agreed to stay if he learnt to play, and, according to the Ford version, he stayed up all night drinking moonshine whiskey while he taught himself the rudiments. “She left the next Friday night,” he added ruefully. It was a great punchline — and the start of a new career.

Ford played guitar in a highly unconventional manner. As he did not know how to tune the instrument, he invented his own unique method. The results were ramshackle but added a haunting tonality to his music. Other musicians joked of his idiosyncratic style that he played “in the key of T”.

After moving in 1973 to Greenville he began to play in local bars and clubs located on the town’s famously wild Nelson Street, attracting attention with his rough, old-school style and strange, rhythmic guitar playing. “He’d play late, then he’d spray himself with a bunch of mosquito spray and sleep in his van,” according to Roger Stolle, owner of the specialist blues record Cat Head store in Clarksdale, Mississippi, and one of Ford’s early champions.

A bottle of whiskey was kept close by on stage and on his tour of England in 2007, notices were posted asking the audience not to buy him a drink. His fund of tall tales spilt out at random between songs and his rapport with his audience was colourful. One of his favourite gags was to pick out an attractive woman in the crowd and tell her partner: “You’d better put your stamp on her because if she flags my train, I’m going to let her ride.”

Other musicians found him difficult to work with, in part because of his feral, untutored style but also due to an unpredictability that on at least one occasion saw him attempt to stab a fellow band member. Fat Possum’s founder, Matthew Johnson, described him as “the friendliest fun-loving psychopath you’ll ever meet”.


Can we agree to differentiate?

Monday, 22 July 2013



Ed’s note: Here’s your chance to interrogate the BHA on humanist funerals. If you’ve something to say, say it. Hannah or another BHA representative will respond. 

Guest post by Hannah Hart from the British Humanist Association explains the basics about humanist funerals, what happens at them and how they are organised.

The 2011 census showed that at least a quarter of us are not religious, and certainly many of us know we wouldn’t want a religious funeral for ourselves. 

So it’s no surprise that has been an enormous increase in number of non-religious funerals over recent years. Mostly this is to be welcomed; it signifies there is a real alternative for those for whom a religious service would feel inappropriate or hypocritical. 

But it also means that choosing the right person to lead a funeral can seem overwhelming, especially at an already difficult time. So how do you work out who would be the best choice in your situation?

 First things first: what is Humanism?

Humanism is a positive approach to life based on reason and a concern for humanity and the natural world. It is neither religious nor superstitious. 

We think that people are able to make ethical decisions based on experience and compassion rather than, for example, religious teachings. 

And what does Humanism have to do with funerals?

Humanists think that we each have one life, and one life only. We think funeral services should reflect this. And since there’s no issue of what happens after death to address, our funerals can concentrate on the life lived. 

So humanist funerals are about the profound sadness of saying goodbye whilst also celebrating the life and legacy of a loved one. They provide a very dignified and very personal farewell. 

And what is a ‘humanist celebrant’?

Celebrants are people who create, write and conduct ceremonies. 

Humanist celebrants are those who conduct and create non-religious ceremonies. They are sometimes called officiants or even humanist ‘ministers’. 

And Humanist Ceremonies™ celebrants have been trained and accredited by the British Humanist Association (BHA), a registered national charity representing the needs of non-religious people. Providing high-quality ceremonies is big part of the BHA’s work. 

Why do people choose humanist funerals?

Often because they feel it will most accurately reflect the personality or outlook of the person who has died. And many people come to us having been to another humanist funeral and actually enjoyed it; they’ve perhaps found it more honest and moving than other services they’ve attended. 

I’m not sure if the person who has died could be called a ‘humanist’. Does this matter?

Not at all. Our funerals are available to anyone who wants to mark their loved one’s life in a non-religious, personal, meaningful way. 

But I don’t want to offend anyone. Will it be ‘preachy’?!

Absolutely not! Our celebrants are there to provide an appropriate, personal, non-religious funeral – not to promote a cause. And every funeral is carefully designed to be inclusive of all present. 

What actually happens at a humanist funeral?

Each ceremony is unique, written specifically for the person who has died. In terms of structure, it may contain music, a welcome and then a tribute section of up to fifteen minutes. Time for reflection often follows, then the committal, and then closing comments.

Sounds great… but a lot of work.

This is where the celebrant comes in. Their job is to makes things as easy as possible. They meet key members of the family or close friends and talk about what is wanted from the funeral and about the person who has died. They then co-ordinate contributions and write a bespoke ceremony, making sure everyone is happy with this before the day itself. 

Where are humanist funerals held?

Most are held in crematoria and some at burial grounds, but since funeral services have no legal status they can be held wherever a family wishes.

 We also conduct a growing number of memorial services (when there is no body to inter). These are held at all sorts of venues.

Do you allow any religious content in your ceremonies?

Our ceremonies are non-religious but we recognise that there are aspects of religious reference embedded in our culture and day-to-day experiences. For example, certain hymns can remind people of their youth or even of their favourite rugby team. We are happy to include this sort of content where it helps to reflect the person, but not as an act of worship. 

How are your celebrants different from other non-religious celebrants?

There is a wide array of people working as celebrants and so it’s impossible to generalise about what they do and how well they do it. 

What we can do is assure you of the British Humanist Association’s approach and our commitment to quality. And we’ve certainly got experience on our side; our members were conducting humanist funerals as far back as the 1890s! 

Our celebrants are carefully recruited and trained to the highest standards. They are quality assured and regularly observed, follow a strict code of conduct and undergo continued professional development. 

How do I find a humanist celebrant?

Many funeral directors can recommend a Humanist Ceremonies celebrant or you can look for someone yourself on our website

Our network is as diverse as the clients we serve, enabling you to find a celebrant that is just right for your particular situation. 

And our celebrants are always happy to be contacted with any questions or simply for a quick chat so that you can decide with confidence if they are the right person to conduct your loved one’s funeral.

Work is love made visible

Friday, 19 July 2013

The Coffinmaker from Dan McComb on Vimeo.

“I think one of the most important aspects of the coffin is that it can be carried. And I think we’re meant to carry each other, and I think carrying someone you love, committing them, is very important for us that we deal with death; we want to know that we have played our part and that we have shouldered our burden. So, if we make it too convenient, then we’re depriving ourselves of a chance to get stronger so that we can carry on.”

Marcus Daly

Thanks to Chuck Lakin for alerting us to this.


Good Funeral Awards, Sky 1 tonight at 10.00pm

Thursday, 18 July 2013



The Good Funeral Awards is an hour-long documentary, one of a series covering a variety of heartwarming events designed to lull viewers into a good feeling that all’s well in a world that has such people in it. 

Well, that’s what we were led to suppose, and a number of bereaved people let us into their funerals on that understanding. 

If true to its declared intention, the programme will illuminate not only the work but also the hearts of those who work with bereaved people — there should be plenty of backstory on some of Funeralworld’s nicest inhabitants. I told the director firmly and sternly that if anyone is to come out of this looking a chump (someone has to; it’s part of the formula), it’s me. Fair game, fair do’s, I can take it. (The director looked relieved.) 

Of course, we haven’t a clue what to expect. We haven’t seen it, we weren’t paid anything — all we can do is cross our fingers and hope we haven’t been stitched up like trusting little kippers. Our objective was to sing the praises of the unsung heroes of the funeral industry. Selective editing could transform us into a terrorist cell. 

True to the GFG’s open-abuse policy, we offer you, as ever, the opportunity to let off steam in an unbridled, uncensored and unmoderated way below. We only ever bar comments which are potentially libellous. 

Details of viewing times on other Sky channels here


Bespoke poems as funeral eulogies

Tuesday, 16 July 2013


Posted by Richard Rawlinson

Poems are often read at funerals.

Here are just a few, including WH Auden’s Funeral Blues, which moved many cinema-goers to tears when featured in Four Weddings… ‘He was my North, my South, my East and West/My working week and my Sunday rest…’

But are many celebrants confident enough in their word skills to craft a bespoke poem based on their understanding of a person’s character traits and unique story?

Helen Bennett advertises this service on her website. ‘There are many wonderful eulogy poems out there that are for general use, but for many people they can seem overused, impersonal and inappropriate,’ she says. ‘If you want something that really is very personal… then I can help you’.

It’s a shame she doesn’t post a few examples of her work to give us a flavour.

Above is The Dead by former US poet laureate Billy Collins. It doesn’t take the form of a eulogy about a specific person, but it evokes a soothing image of the after-life and comes with an animation for the YouTube generation.

And here’s my attempt at a sonnet of iambic pentameter, again unspecific, and more concerned about rhyming than moving.


We do not know

We do not know when or how we shall die.
Will we even have time to say goodbye?
A deadly disease or quick accident,
In peaceful sleep or by something violent?

We do not know where we go at the end.
Heaven, Hell, Nowhere, or does it depend?
How do we prepare for this great mystery,
What acts and beliefs define our history?

We do not know why we love or hate so
Until we acknowledge it all has to go.
Life matters more because Death’s at the door,
Merging as one with eternity’s law.

We do not know when or how we shall die,
May God give us grace for our final sigh.

Page 1 of 212