Blog Archives: February 2014

The cairn at the end of the journey

Friday, 28 February 2014



The cairns along  a wilderness trail are built of rocks of various shapes and sizes. The memorial cairn at the end of a life is also a composite, but an experiential one. It is made up of the memories, the thoughts and the feelings of all who are gathered in the one place together. It is a recollection (a re-collection) of what was for a time together and now is scattered and scattering. Here is the one we knew. Here is how our lives were touched by that life. Here is what we think and how we feel. 

The words spoken in the literal funeral or memorial service are not themselves the marker. The words spoken are evokers of experiences — thoughts, feelings, memories — within the people of the gathered group. These experiences are the memorial cairn. 

At the end of a life we compose a symphony, an ordered creation, whose notes and themes are the experiences of the people gathered. Themes dark and bright are sounded to recollect and to order the impact of the the life of the one who has died — honestly, fully, tenderly — and in the spirit of thanksgiving for the quality of that life. 

Rev Roy Phillips quoted in Dealing Creatively With Death.

Time to make way

Thursday, 27 February 2014



A letter in last Thursday’s Times tells us something, perhaps, about the evolution of society’s thinking about dying, death, the competition for NHS resources, futile care and the declining value life holds for the ageing and the elderly both in the eyes of society and in their own eyes:

Sir, It makes sense to limit some expensive drug treatments to the people who can best benefit society as well as improving the quality of life for the patient. I am an old person (73) and an ex-nurse and I do not understand why so many oldies are obsessed with getting every treatment available, to prolong their lives.

My mental and physical health are deteriorating. This is a fact of life, not a complaint. If I should become ill I will gladly forgo any expensive cure to allow someone younger than me to improve their opportunity of a better quality of life, and the chance of being more use to society. I ask only for palliative care and the chance of a quick release from life when I feel ready to go. I am not alone in this attitude.

The fact is that many old people are a burden on society. Like all nurses I have cared for the elderly as well as I could, but there were many occasions when I wondered why we were doing it. People who cannot accept this argument should work for a few months in a care home where many patients are demented, incontinent, unable to care for themselves, and have no visitors.

Like many of my friends I have made a living will to express my wishes in the event of acute illness. I would like to be able to apply for a prescription which could be used if I ever feel like a quiet and peaceful exit before things get too bad.

Gill Pharaoh — Pinner, Middx

Matthew Parris made this contribution to the debate:

I’m 65 this year and I wouldn’t dream of expecting the taxpayer to divert scarce funds my way for expensive drugs that would do more good for a teenager. My conscience even troubled me over the cost to the NHS of an operation last December to stop my right hand clawing up, as I can manage perfectly well without a couple of fingers.

My late father (a retired electrical power engineer) told me after the Chernobyl disaster that they should use oldies like him to go in and secure the generators. He was serious. I never admired him more.

Killer anecdotes

Wednesday, 26 February 2014



A great funeral eulogy showcases a killer anecdote. Here’s one to die for from the Times obituary for diplomat Andrew Stuart above):

Stuart won the Colonial Police Medal in 1961 when he overcame an escaped prisoner and self-styled prophet, Kigaanira, who was drawing a crowd by dancing with a spear on top of a 100ft rock. Stuart “chimneyed” up a 3ft wide cleft, and having prevented Kigaanira dropping a rock on him by addressing him with complex greetings in the Luganda language, leapt across the vertiginous gap at the top, tied Kigaanira up with his climbing-rope and lowered him to the ground to be arrested.

How full-service and niche undertaker websites use words

Wednesday, 26 February 2014



Posted by Richard Rawlinson

While many undertakers’ websites offer useful information for those planning funerals, they’re understandably not impartial, being the marketing platforms of commercial companies. Compare and contrast, for example, these words from both mainstream undertakers and specialists in their given niche (simple funerals, woodland burials etc).

A full-service, family-run chain says this of direct cremation:

Direct cremation may be the least expensive but we’d advise that it’s not for everyone. There is no ceremony at the crematorium. The funeral takes place at a time and date to suit us. This pared-down service is designed for people who want minimum fuss and who may wish to have a larger ceremony at a later date.  As funeral directors, we are conscious that the evolution of traditional funeral rites reflects our need as human beings to bid farewell to a life with a degree of ceremony and communality which helps us to bear our loss.    

A direct cremation specialist says:

Using my service removes so much of the stress from an extremely difficult time, and provides the family with their loved one’s ashes, complete in solid wood casket, for whatever style of farewell they may then wish, and at a time and location of their choice.

A traditional undertaker says this about embalming:

Embalming is a temporary preservation process which is required where the deceased is to be buried overseas. It is also advisable in the following circumstances: where there is to be viewing; when there is going to be a delay between the date of death and the funeral; in times of exceptionally hot weather. Whether or not embalming is appropriate in any particular case is a matter upon which we would be pleased to offer you advice.     

Green undertaker scarcely mention embalming at all, except perhaps as an aside:

[Woodland burials] offer an ecological alternative to traditional burials and are sometimes but by no means always less expensive. The land is managed with the environment in mind and the land is reverted back to woodland or meadows. Instead of a traditional headstone, sometimes a tree is planted with a plaque and environmentally friendly coffins made from materials such as bamboo, wicker or cardboard are usedThe body is not embalmed with harmful chemicals.

A large funeral director says this of humanist funerals (a slight bias towards the less exclusively-atheist civil celebrants perhaps?).

The term ‘humanist funeral’ is often used to describe a non-religious funeral, or one which may have religious elements, but is not led by a religious leader. In fact, a Humanist funeral is essentially atheist rather than agnostic or multi-faith. When the congregated mourners are of many faiths or the deceased was an agnostic, the most fitting approach may be to use a civil, non-religious or secular celebrant. These celebrants are open to the inclusion of readings, prayers, hymns and music which derive from any spiritual or religious traditions relevant to the deceased and the congregation. 

Meanwhile, an undertaker somewhat renowned for its religious funerals seems keen to make clear its diversity:

As a company, we represent no single culture, race, religion or nationality and will assist you in whatever requirements you have. Should you need help in finding a religious or non-religious celebrant to conduct the funeral or advise you regarding a religion that may not be your own, we will gladly help. We warmly welcome people from all cultures and all religions or none. 

Holding the line

Monday, 24 February 2014

There’s nothing new in a minister-naffs-off-mourners story, nor yet a Catholic-priest-bans-eulogy story. Some minsters are insensitive to the needs of their congregations, some insist on theological orthodoxy, some use a funeral as a conversion opportunity, some like to remind non-churchgoers that they will burn for all eternity in the fires of hell. Some clergy do exactly what their congregations want them to do, let’s not forget, but today’s story is not about them.

Today’s story is about Father Mike, a catholic priest in America who, at the funeral of a 29 year-old, was reckoned to have conducted himself in an insensitive, impersonal way which denied the congregation the comfort and assurance they sought. Below is an email one of the mourners sent to him:


Below is the reply from the priest:



Father Mike, like a lot of Catholic priests, believes that a funeral is no place for a eulogy. The do afterwards is the appropriate occasion for personal tributes, reminiscences and other life-celebratory stuff. A Catholic funeral has an altogether different job to do.

Father Mike’s heartless-seeming treatment of those grieving people is theologically defensible. Who are we to take issue with him for defending the integrity of the Catholic funeral mass and objecting to it being muddled by the intrusion of an anomalous element like a eulogy? Any faith group which is settled, fixed and confident in its beliefs prohibits the intrusion of anomaly. Atheists (Humanists) ban religious elements from their funerals, a practice reckoned heartless by some. In the words of one humanist celebrant, “Reverting to old comforting superstitions at a time of bereavement is understandable and will no doubt persist for a generation or two … I feel that celebrants, whether Humanist or religious should personally subscribe to the ethos and philosophy that underlies the nature of the ceremony.”

Whether or not Father Mike would subscribe to what this same celebrant goes on to say, we can only wonder: “I’ve met independent celebrants who’ve told me they can be whatever the client wants them to be but that strikes me as being the job description of an ancient but entirely different profession altogether.” (Source)

The question never debated by secular, semi-religious, call-them-what-you-will celebrants is whether a eulogy does actually belong in a funeral. If a wedding is analogous, we note that the speeches are made at the wedding breakfast, not the marriage ceremony — the happy chatter is kept separate from the solemnisation.

Stonehenge and sky burial

Friday, 21 February 2014



 Posted by Ken West

The archaeology at Stonehenge is all about digging up funerary artefacts so is it possible to consider how those funerals occurred? Stonehenge is unique, the only certain stone circle in Britain aligned to the solstices. Forget the Druids, as they did not exist in the Neolithic period and never had any involvement with Stonehenge.

The people, a loose federation of tribes called the Durotriges when the Romans arrived, were initially hunter gatherers. The first date we have is 8,000BC when three posts, totem poles, perhaps, were erected at Stonehenge. We have no burials from that period so we might assume, as with most early mobile societies, that bodies were exposed to birds and/or animals. The people could retain the large bones and then carry them back to a homeland location, perhaps the sacred River Avon. Burial had little to commend it, the graves being scattered over a wide area and requiring the digging of a shallow grave with antler picks, which would then be dug up by foraging wolves and bears. We then jump 4,000 years to when these people built communal stone chambered tombs. Early assumptions were that bodies were placed in the chamber and allowed to decompose. This was never feasible as decomposition would be slow, neither are full skeletons found, nor are there sufficient chambers. The chambers were probably used for the storage of the bones of the elite. Around 3,700BC, they built causewayed enclosures, which are banked and ditched circles broken by paths, or causeways, leading inside. Sometime between 4,000 – 3,000BC, the use of the chambered tombs ceased, or at least was infrequent, and cremation/burial began, which neatly brings us to Stonehenge.

Archaeologist Mike Parker Pearson’s book “Stonehenge,” summarises the Stonehenge Riverside Project 2003 – 2009, in which he theorised that Stonehenge was part of a much wider ritual area, with Durrington Walls, a nearby henge, suggested as the Stonehenge builder’s camp, and the River Avon linking this henge downriver to the avenue from Stonehenge. The project proved that this was the case, but these ritual components were put in place over 500 years, so let’s consider the sequence of construction.

Both Durrington Walls and the sarsen Stonehenge we see today, date to 2,500BC, and are about two miles apart. The project proved Durrington Walls to be the largest Neolithic encampment in Europe and that it was the builder’s camp, over a 40 year period. No human remains were found but their cattle bones suggested that some of the builders travelled from Devon, West Wales and Scotland. It appears that between 2,000 – 4,000 people met each autumn, and, say, hauled two sarsens from near Avebury, to Stonehenge, dressed them on site, and erected them together with a couple of bluestones. In just 40 years they erected the 82 sarsens with the pre-existing 80 bluestones in four concentric rings, with no human burials involved. The project suggested that 56 of these bluestones had previously formed a larger, outer circle built 500 years earlier, around 3,000BC, these stones hauled from Preseli, in Pembrokeshire. The circle was entered at the Heel Stone, a natural sarsen erected to mark the sunrise. Each of the bluestones sat on human cremated remains, which the project referred to as the Chieftains Cemetery, with 63 bodies, mostly identified through small ear bones. Some were women and children, and if these were double or triple funerals, as it were, it may be that precisely 56 inhumations took place under the 56 bluestones. The remains were placed beneath each stone, and crushed into the chalk that formed the socket. The burials took place over 200 years, from 3,000 BC to 2,800 BC. 

The only grave goods found were one mace head, which implied a warrior, and an incense burner, which implied a religious leader or shaman. But the presence of women and children’s bones denied the circle as a warrior or religious burial area, as women did not participate in either, as far as we know. Mike Parker Pearson’s conclusion was that they were an elite, perhaps an aristocracy.

The project also confirmed the existence of a second bluestone circle at the end of the avenue from Stonehenge, where it meets the River Avon. This was constructed at the same time as the Stonehenge bluestone circle, using 25 stones, none with cremated remains. The ritual importance of this second circle is its riverside location. Upon disembarking from a boat, one was immediately into the bluestone circle, which was banked and ditched in glaring white chalk. The mile long avenue headed north, then west on the 450 metre straight stretch to Stonehenge, entering at the Heel Stone. The avenue is 22 metres wide, and had a glistening white chalk bank and external ditch on either side, but little can now be seen. The straight section of the avenue follows three parallel natural chalk ridges, which always marked the sunrise from Stonehenge. Some consider that this is the reason why Stonehenge is where it is; that the Gods put in place this natural feature marking the sunrise. The bluestones in the riverside circle were removed around 2,400BC, the same date as the present sarsen circle and Durrington Walls were constructed. The henge was retained so the ritual possibilities remained in place. Was the funeral ritual to carry the ashes for the 63 bodies by boat to the riverside circle, then create a cortege up the avenue to the Stonehenge bluestone circle, and then inter the remains under a bluestone?

Why did they choose cremation? Was it because the solstice orientation was a form of Sun God worship, which supports the use of fire? Or was it a means of purifying the dead? If so, it is unlikely that burying the ashes, and effectively de-purifying them has any merit. Was the cremation a sacrifice, perhaps related to fertility rites, with the ashes scattered on fields, yet no bone fragments are found in soil? Perhaps the most obvious reason, not suggested by the project, is that cremation reduces a body to a small, peripatetic, pile of bones, which are readily placed under a stone.

The chalk downs were never heavily wooded so creating a pyre would be onerous. None have been found at Stonehenge or anywhere nearby. Currently, a modern cremator would produce about two kilos of bone ash. Although Neolithic people might be smaller than ourselves, they would possess higher bone density due to heavy labour, walking, even running, and the opposite of modern people experiencing an epidemic of osteoporosis. Yet the archaeologists find only one kilo of cremated bone so were the smaller bones left in the pyre ash? Even now, many cultures are quite content to collect only the larger bones after cremation and ignore the smaller.

The project concluded that Durrington Walls was the place of the living, and Stonehenge the place of the dead, but is 63 burials sufficient to reach this conclusion? Clearly, these burials took place at Stonehenge but I would suggest that watching one would be like watching a burial at Westminster Abbey or Princess Diana’s funeral: yes, it’s happening but how representative is it? Isn’t Stonehenge identical to the earlier chambered tombs, all about Stone Age grandiosity; a place for the elite. If we reckon that archaeology has located less than one percent of deaths in the area and no cemeteries have been found, we might ask where the anticipated 12,000 other bodies are? The project used the term cremation/burial to suggest that the cremation and burial were integrated; that the word cremation on its own is not sufficient. Was cremation/burial, like chamber burial, only permitted to chieftains or others of rank because of the massive labour it requires to create the pyres? That sounds remarkably similar to Tibet and Mongolia, where cremation is reserved for high lamas and dignitaries because the ground is rocky or frozen, or there is little wood. 

So what happened to the common people? The conclusion is simple, the one in which nature does all the hard work instead of the exhausted humans; sky burial. The excess of Stonehenge blinds us to reality. Life was hard, many children died, people lived short lives, proven by the arthritis found in the bones of the spine, even of some of the elite interred at Stonehenge. Seasonal work meant that the period March to September was a struggle to find food, care for the young animals born each spring, store food, cut wood for fuel, and have enough excess to survive the winter. The work parties building Stonehenge clearly did so in the quiet autumn period, when the people were at their healthiest and strongest. In the summer, there was no possibility of building funeral pyres, week in, week out? 

What evidence is there for sky burial? On the banks of the River Avon near Durrington Walls, project excavations found three sets of postholes, each of four posts forming a square, the whole surrounded by a palisade. The biggest posts were 50 centimetres across, and estimated at over 5 metres high. The conclusion is that they were towers, looking out over the river, and presumed to be holding platforms. This is not such a surprise because there have been suggestions that the earlier causewayed enclosures could have been designed to expose bodies to birds or animals. Perhaps they progressed to towers as they created more efficient flint axes to cut timber, or did not want animals feeding on the body.

If you think sky towers a flight of fancy, consider that in Tibet, where it may have persisted from the Stone Age, they revere the vulture as a form of angel. This fact reminds me that few, if any, bird bones are found in UK excavations. Is that because the Neolithic people and birds had a spiritual relationship? Imagine, eagles, buzzards, kites, ravens and carrion crows could have fed on the bodies, and probably European vultures, at least in summer. Even in 2013 over one hundred vulture sitings were made over the south of Britain. It is evident that the larger eagles and vultures swallow small fleshed bones so feet, hands and ribs would disappear as well as all the soft tissue. That fits with the overall finding that full skeletons are rare and disarticulated skull fragments and large bones are found scattered about sites. Once the bones were cleaned off, they could be deposited in the sacred Avon. Sky burial is also faster than modern cremation based on an incident in 2013 when a female walker in the Pyrenees fell to her death. Two friends, walking with her, called the police and they took 50 minutes to locate her body. Initially the rescuers could not see the body from their helicopter until they realised that it was covered by gorging Griffon vultures. By the time they got to her the birds had stripped her body of all flesh and only a few bones remained; and she had been clothed.

The birds strip the flesh, free the spirit, remove the potential for infection and reduce the weight to a handful of bones; a peripatetic body, just like cremation. Perhaps it was these bones, of the elect, that were cremated, and not full bodies, which would reduce the need for huge pyres. Perhaps a bone or two from every body, whether sky burial or cremated, was carried to Stonehenge, at some point, for a ceremony, and then deposited in the sacred Avon. 

It might be concluded that Stonehenge is neither a cemetery nor the abode of the dead; that the burials were more a form of dedication for each bluestone placement. Stonehenge is more a theatre of dreams, a ritual space; a stage, cathedral and town hall, in which they could ritualise everything in society. Even the solstice celebrations, just two each year, sounds reasonable in that one imagines that they could create the necessary resources whilst also providing for their own needs. The enigma continues.

See the full article as a download on my website


Sky Burial from Matthew Hirt on Vimeo.

We screwed up, confesses the Co-op

Thursday, 20 February 2014

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To Nick Goodway in the London Evening Standard it looks more like a ‘massive public relations exercise than a genuine “want to know what you think”.’  He’s talking about the Co-op’s Have Your Say survey, now under way, which gives you the chance to tell ‘the Group’ what you think of it. Yes, the top chaps at the Co-op acknowledge that

… it’s time to change. But not until we’ve heard what you have to say. That’s because making decisions with you, not for you, remains at the very heart of everything we do. It’s the co-operative way. We want your views on a range of topics, from how we source our products to our work in the community. 

Group chief executive Euan Sutherand, confesses that the Co-op has “lost touch with its customers and members and the communities in which it operates . . . We haven’t been listening.” It’s the sort of statement of total failure you might expect to hear from a business going into liquidation. 

But Sutherland denies that asking the public for guidance is an indicator of cluelessness. In the FT he is quote as saying: “It doesn’t mean we are not leading. I came in and fired the entire executive team across the group and the bank in three weeks, recapitalised the bank and identified that we needed to bring the cost base down by £500m … We need to stop copying the purely commercial model – the plc model – and start to do things that are right for us as a co-op. We’ve been through huge trauma . . . but have an opportunity to be different.”

Absent from the discussion, so far as we can see, is any mention of member control.

Here at the GFG we’re not going to fill in the survey, even though that means passing up a chance of winning a Panasonic HD LED TV. Mr Tinning and his people know exactly what we think of them and this has earned us their detestation. Ach, you can only do your best.

We have only one piece of further advice to offer  The Co-op. Intervene in the market in the best interests of your members. Simples. Get the prices and service right, cut out the upselling, excise all incompetence and only then agonise over what you’re going to do with your profits.

Hat-tip to SL

Win a natural burial plot!

Thursday, 20 February 2014

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Posted by Daniel Lane of Leedam Natural Heritage

Free to enter and open to all

We would like all you seasoned and budding photographers alike to grab your cameras and make your way to our natural burial ground near you. Get creative and send us your best. Whether that’s a floral close up, a panoramic view or of the people you’re with, send up to five pictures for your chance to win a natural burial plot at your choice of one of our burial grounds.There will be one winner per burial ground (so seven in total).Please also send a short written piece about yourselves (200 words max.) as we would love to know more about you … Where does your love of photography come from? Did you already know about natural burial or is this the first you’ve heard? What’s your favourite thing about spring? And to help give your pictures some background, please give your photographs titles to really capture the moment.

Send your picture/s to in their original format by 1st May 2014. Winners will be announced on 8th May 2014 on our website’s blog and our facebook and twitter pages.

What do you want at your funeral?

Tuesday, 18 February 2014



Guest blogger RR writes today for ‘the silent majority of consumers’.

With the plethora of funeral options, some people choose to give their own send-off advance thought and leave instructions to their next of kin. This brief survey aims to focus the mind on some of the boxes that might need to be ticked. If answering this questionnaire, feel free to give additional comments. For example, if you want music at your funeral, and already have specific favourites, do share…

1 Have you been involved in planning a funeral before?

2 Did the dead person leave instructions for the funeral?


3 Do you intend to leave instructions for your own funeral?


4 What are your preferences for the ‘disposal’ of the body?
Donated to medical science

5 Where do you want your funeral to take place?
Church and crematorium
Woodland burial ground
Alternative venue
At home
Direct cremation with no funeral service

6 Who do you want to officiate at your funeral?
Religious celebrant
Humanist celebrant
Civil/secular celebrant
Family member

7 Which of the following do you want included in the funeral service?
Full religious liturgy
Exclusively secular format
Mix of religious and secular
Bible readings
Secular readings
Classical music
Contemporary music
Moment of silence
Collective call-out of memories

8 How do you want funeral guests to dress?
Specific theme
Anything goes

9 What are your coffin or urn design preferences?
Other (eg cloth shroud)

10 What transport do you want to your funeral?
Traditional hearse
Horse-drawn carriage
Alternative hearse (eg motorbike and sidecar)
Own transport

11 Who do you want to carry the coffin at the service?
Undertakers’ pallbearers
Family and friends

12 Do you plan a committal ceremony after the funeral?
Graveside (burial of coffin or urn)
Scattering of ashes
No committal

13 Do you plan a memorial service or gathering some time after the death/funeral/committal?

14 If your body/ashes are to be buried, how do you want the resting place commemorated?
Planted tree

No marker of the spot
Not applicable

15 Do you plan to budget in advance for your funeral?
Specific funeral plan financial product
Regular financial product (eg ISA)
Instructions in a will for the next of kin
Agreement with next of kin to cover costs
No plan

16 How much do you envisage spending on your funeral?
Up to £1,000
Over £10,000

17 Which of the following do you want at your funeral?
Big turnout of family, friends and aquaintances
An intimate gathering
Funeral venue hire
Social venue hire
Service sheet
Burial site
Memorial stone or plaque
Musicians and choir/singers
Food and drink
Catering staff and waiters
Memorial slide/video screen

18 Before the funeral, where do you want your body to rest?
Cold storage in hospital/undertaker’s morgue
At home
No preference

19 What are your preferences for viewings of the body at a vigil or wake?

Closed coffin
Open coffin

20 If viewings are welcomed, which options do you prefer?

Visit to undertakers’ chapel of rest
Viewable any time at home
Embalmed body
Temperature-controlled, un-embalmed body

21 Do you believe in some form of life of the soul after death?


Calling all family FDs who’d like to be on telly

Tuesday, 18 February 2014

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Posted by Sarah Rubin of Dragonfly TV

Dragonfly Film and TV are currently developing a brand new observational documentary series about a family-run funeral business. We want this to be a warm, sensitive and very moving series, capturing the different ways in which people say goodbye to their loved ones and recognising and celebrating the crucial role the funeral parlour plays in the lives of families and the wider community.

We would like to get in contact with family-run funeral parlours and, if possible, businesses where several members of the same family work alongside each other.

Dragonfly Film and Television is a BAFTA award-winning, independent television production company, specialising in factual programmes.  We work across all the major UK and international broadcasters, such as the BBC, Channel 4, Discovery and National Geographic. Dragonfly’s programmes have a reputation for dealing with important and often sensitive subject matters, with warmth and integrity. From giving birth in One Born Every Minute to crashing a plane in Plane Crash, we always tell stories in an honest, thought-provoking and sensitively handled way. 

Dragonfly have worked with many people, places and institutions – including maternity wards, hotels, schools and families in their homes, to create celebrated access-based series like The Hotel, The Family and Extreme A&E for Channel 4.

If you are interested in putting your business forward and want to find out more information please email

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