Blog Archives: July 2014

Eulogies are never the last word

Tuesday, 29 July 2014



“There is the official notice and ceremony, and then the long and agonizing process that follows … Eulogies are never the last word.”

That’s a quote from an article sent to me by a friend (thanks, Kathryn). In full, it’s even better:

“I had nearly forgotten how death plays out over time — not the biological episode that collapses it all into a nanosecond of being and nonbeing, but the slower arc of our leaving, the long goodbye — sorting through the mail, paying the bills, stumbling upon notes. It is like the decommissioning of a great battleship. There is the official notice and ceremony, and then the long and agonizing process that follows — the disposition of so much tonnage. Eulogies are never the last word.”

Never the last word, maybe, but eulogies are important to those who hear them because they serve a particular purpose within a particular context. The context, a funeral, is an event which attempts to restore order after the disruption of a death: to settle people’s minds and assure them that “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well”.

Hence the orderly format of a funeral eulogy. It’s customarily a story. The story form works best because, with its beginning, middle and end, it is complete in itself, as is, now, the life of the one who died. Much more comforting to think of a life being tidily complete rather than raggedly cut short leaving lots of loose ends.

But, however psychologically therapeutic, a eulogy is not, actually, the last word because, yes, “death plays out over time”.

And there’s more to it than that. Eulogies are written from the memories of others, and memories are not good places for archiving stuff.  In his autobiography, Matthew Parris quotes from the memoir of politician John Payton:

“Memory loses much that was important, and yet clings on to, and preserves, quite small things which, like stray, unconnected footprints, have escaped erosion by the winds and tides of time. [Much is] lost beyond recovery: of the remainder, some glimpsed like a fish in clear, still water, vanish as you move towards them; the outstretched hand comes back empty but for some bits of unmemorable debris from the bed of the stream.”

All funeral celebrants have suffered some of that when gathering material for their life stories.

Parris concludes:

“A life is not a story, any more than a yew tree is a bird. Topiary can make a yew tree into a bird, and a determined editor’s shears can clip a shapeless history into apparent significance; but the meaning is as illusory as a yew peacock.”

Or, in the words of the poet John Fuller in his poem My Future:

I am your memories. They are not me.
So it feels strange to be remembered by
These relics of my personality.

Although you mourn me, is it really me
You mourn, or thoughts of me that make you cry?
I am your memories. They are not me.


Gone splashing

Friday, 18 July 2014



The GFG is on holiday. Posts will be intermittent for the next fortnight.

So it goes

Thursday, 17 July 2014



Posted by Vale

Have you ever thought what it is to be a King or a Queen?

You are, usually, born to it: it is your life and your duty. Our own Queen clearly feels this keenly. As far as a commoner can tell, for her, the coronation oath confirmed what birth had bestowed: she became Queen for life, a vow as absolute as a nun’s.

Others, apparently, see it differently: Queen Beatrice and King Carlos have just unthroned themselves and nobody seemed to mind.

Who’s has the right of it? Our queen or the continentals?  Who cares? It’s strange now to remember that, once upon a time people fought and died over just this question. Did kings rule by divine right? Could you dispose of a bad one without sin or was it really the worst of crimes – worse than murder or treason, an affront to the very order of the universe?

Suicide used to carry a similar stigma. It was both self-murder – a broken commandment – and a direct affront to god. Our lives aren’t our own. Choosing to end them is to fling the gift of life back in god’s face.

In this week of debate about assisted dying, I do wonder how much its opponents arguments are rooted in these old beliefs. The feeling in our bones that suicide, however rational the argument, is still taboo.

Of course assisted dying is more complicated. It raises different, difficult questions. At its simplest, it’s about the way that others become implicated in a personal choice, blurring the line between suicide and murder.

But we need to work these issues through because attitudes are already changing – starting with suicide itself.

I need to be careful here. I am not praising or promoting suicide. If you are a celebrant or funeral director you know only too well what suicide means – the agony of families ruptured by the loss; the disbelief; the unanswerable questions; the terrible feelings of failure regret; the anger.

But there are occasions when it is not like that.

I took a service recently for someone who had lived a very full life. She was clever, accomplished and active.

She had known hardships and grief – her husband was dead and, many years before, her daughter had died. She had faced both losses with courage and great resource.

Without family now, she was connected to a wide network of good, loving, friends. She was involved, loved to to learn new things, enjoyed writing and painting.

Then Parkinsons was diagnosed and, as it progressed, she realised that her life was dwindling. It was becoming more about staying alive than about living so, well before she needed to, she made her arrangements and killed herself.

The service we planned was full of the thoughts and poems she had left us. The crematorium was filled to overflowing with all her friends. There was sadness and a deep sense of loss but there was respect too for her decision and her determination. We sympathised with her. I suspect that many of us were thinking about our own old age, wondering if we would be as brave as she had been.

Is helplessness and incapacity a universal fear these days? Is it feared now more than death itself?

There was no horror, though, or despair; just reflection and a determination to honour and celebrate our friend’s life. We wanted to do justice to her courage.

Too many things have changed now for lawmakers to avoid the hard questions. As we age we know what awaits us. We know that medicine now has powers to both save and destroy us.

People are already making their own choices, beginning to join that old stoic Seneca saying:

The ship that I sail in, I choose; the house that I live in, I choose; so will I choose the death by which I leave life.

We need to support people in their choice. We will need support ourselves when the choice comes to us.

Fire & Water

Wednesday, 16 July 2014



Posted by John Porter

I am an archer. I am a funeral celebrant. The last funeral I facilitated was of Thelma, my archery coach. She used to coach the British archery team many years ago. The chairman of Tonbridge Archers led the tribute and, much to everyone’s surprise (he was renowned for “going on at length” at meetings) stuck to his five minutes – pretty important to avoid crematorium fines! When he had finished I said: “… even when Thelma was sick she used to come and watch us practice and she could spot a poor release of an arrow at a long distance – ‘what kind of release do you call that – pathetic’.”  she would often say about my performance. Some reacted negatively to her criticisms but I accepted them. She was right. My release was very poor.

Watching a scene from Game of Thrones provoked this blog contribution. Someone has died. He is laid in a boat garnished with sword, shield and kindred flag. Kindling straw and pots of some kind of accelerant are added to ensure it’s a good show.


Pic 1.jpg


A young archer steps forward, nocks a large black arrow bound with twine at the top of the shaft and dips it in the fire before drawing. It is a very dramatic and emotional moment. The arrow flies towards the dead person’s boat, now steadily drifting away along the water.


Pic 2


He misses. He shoots another lighted arrow with a deeper draw as the boat is further away. He misses again. My heart goes out to him as I too have missed the target many times. I know that look. The squint is to hide embarassment and ponder how to get it right next time – mind you he does have a king standing behind him. I had Thelma sat on a chair 20 yards away. It’s still scrutiny!

Pic 3


An older archer steps forward, snatches the bow from the young archer, lights the arrow and draws deeply and aims high towards the distant boat. He looks to the flag to see what the wind is doing before releasing the flaming messenger. The younger archer watches, still smarting from his two failed attempts to seal the ceremony.

Pic 4


The archer does not bother to see if it reached its target. He knew his arrow had found its mark.

Pic 5


It had.

Pic 6


I love the drama of this scene. I feel for the younger archer. I remember Thelma. I did my best to make Thelma’s event meaningful and positively memorable but, oh, how I would have loved to have stood on the dock and released a perfect arrow towards her dead body on a dressed raft of some kind. Fire and water. Life and death. Health and safety. The modern crematorium offers little opportunity for high drama. Sanitised and hidden. Pity. Flaming arrows aside, I know we can create better ceremonies. Let’s share ideas here.

One better than Webster

Tuesday, 15 July 2014




Posted by Vale

‘Webster was much possessed by death
And saw the skull beneath the skin’

Today 21st century body art offers the opportunity to go one step further and actually put the skull there. It’s called a sub dermal implant and it’s what you can do when a tattoo just doesn’t go far enough. Skulls are only the start. Lots of examples here if you’re interested. 

How To Die In Britain

Monday, 14 July 2014

In just over a week Lord Falconer’s bill on assisted dying will have its second reading in the House of Lords. Opinion seems to be moving in its favour. The British Medical Journal has published an editorial in favour, recognising that increasing numbers of medical people support it.

A powerful voice was added at the end of June when the Supreme Court turned down the appeals of three people demanding the right to die but, in a judgement that revealed increasing exasperation with timorous politicians, 5 of the 9 judges concluded that they had the right to declare that the present law breaches the right to a private life. Were they to do so, Parliament would be forced to act.

It looks as if the tide is unstoppable. Sooner rather than later we’ll have an assisted dying law in England and Wales. The Scots seem to be headed the same way.

If this is how the majority sees it, it’s not surprising that they’re not in campaigning mode. Most of the noise is being made by those campaigning against, who have no such complacency to comfort them.

Under the alarming headline Oregon – steady annual increase in assisted suicide cases sounds warning to UK, Dr Peter Saunders, writing for the Christian Medical Comment blog, predicts that we can expect just that in the UK. The inference is that things have got out of hand in Oregon – a predictable unintended consequence.

Why does he quote Oregon? Because our law will be based on theirs, passed in 1998.

And he’s right. The numbers are climbing steadily as you can see from the chart below [Source].

Oregon stats

Why are the numbers climbing? And does it matter? In other words, are things getting out of control in Oregon? Are disabled and vulnerable people being despatched as people said they would be?

The answer would seem to be no. If you draft a law carefully, you get what you legislate for. It cannot be denied that Dr Saunders and his ilk serve a useful purpose at the drafting stage.

What we are seeing, though, is the substitution of the Hippocratic Oath (‘First, do no harm’) with the overriding concept of respect for patient autonomy. It’s a big shift.

Back to the rising numbers in Oregon, the explanation would seem to be that it’s all down, not to unintended consequences, but to rising awareness of the availability of physician-assisted suicide brought about by those in favour of it. A powerfully persuasive factor has been the award-winning film, How To Die In Oregon (trailer at the top of the page). All in all, probably nothing to get too worried about. Dr Saunders, basing his figures on Oregon’s, reckons around 1232 Brits will kill themselves annually.

The social profile of those who choose to do themselves in is interesting. More men than women do it, more whites than other ethnic groups, and most because they have lost autonomy and all joy in life. The education profile is interesting, too – below.

Ed profile


In Britain the debate is possibly best exemplified by the opposing views of Archbishop Welby and his predecessor, Lord Carey. Welby argues from principle: “Compassion literally means ‘to suffer with'”. The greater the suffering, the greater the compassion required. Carey, on the other hand, argues from experience. It was the Nicklinson business that changed his mind: “The old philosophical certainties have collapsed in the face of the reality of needless suffering.”

British funeral celebrants are beginning to report funerals they have conducted for people who deliberately ended their suffering. They were beautiful and respectful of the choice. It would be good to hear from you if you have had any experience of this.

Locked in memory

Friday, 11 July 2014

John Porter


Guest post by John Porter

I was wandering around the Albert Dock in Liverpool and came across these padlocks locked to the immensely thick chain that guarded the quayside. In fact there were thousands of them! Many had etched inscriptions saying things like “Will love you for ever Simon”, “Never forgotten”, “Made my mark”, “Cheaper than a headstone!”, “Never again!”.

I spent quite a bit of time reading and touching them. It felt as though this is what I was being invited to do. To me this is a wonderful way to make a point, to say anything you fancy – could be about dead or living people. No obvious rules about permitted size of locks or number you can attach. Brilliant. Don’t know who started it. Don’t know if it was an organised thing or someone put one on and it grew from there. Many had padlocks linked to one padlock expressing some connection – or maybe none! 

What a fantastic way to lock something into memory! Many padlocks are rusting – few looked maintained in any way. Dates, names, relationships, places and events – a snapshot of so much adorning so little space. It enhanced the look though I’m sure some will say they make it look unsightly. Perhaps they should pause and have a look!

ED’S AFTERWORD: We love to publish guest posts. If you’ve got owt to say and want to say it to a lot of people, send an email with your words+pic+headline to the Global Outreach Team here at the GFG-Batesville Shard. Click here


More to it than wearing a hat and making a face

Thursday, 10 July 2014




Guest post — At the request of the writer, her name has been withheld for the time being

I first became aware of this blog when I was researching the effect of Downton Abbey on British attitudes to what used to be called domestic service. What caught my attention was the theory expressed in this blog that Funeral Directors see Carson, the butler, as the personification of the perfect Funeral Director.

In my line of work — I have a consultancy position in a company that trains butlers, valets, etc — I am able to testify to the accuracy of this observation. Whilst most of our recruits come from the armed forces, we have always had a steady flow from the funeral industry. Many of them are ‘naturals’ and are now employed in great houses all over the world. When you think about it, there is an obvious connection between butling and funeral directing, both appeal to the same personality type.

However it was not until just over a year ago, when I attended the funeral of a family member, that I began to see the ways in which mourners are not receiving best-possible service from their Funeral Directors. Even the ‘naturals’ fail to make the grade only because they have not had the specialist training they need to make the most of their in-born talents. A little research quickly taught me that the sort of training they need is not available to them. I began to consider how my company could fill the gap. In order to do so, I attended many more funerals as an observer, auditing the ceremonial role and appraising the performance of Funeral Directors in many parts of the country.

As I did so, I became aware that there are as many different levels of service demanded by ‘funeral consumers’ as there are in the world of hospitality. The market for DIY or home funerals equates with self-catering. ‘Direct cremation’ is the equivalent of the home delivery pizzeria. A business like Evelyn’s is the equivalent of hiring a top chef to cater for your dinner party. Where the analogy breaks down is that most funeral businesses don’t specialise. They try to be all things to all tastes. But there’s no inherent problem in that.

For those of their clients requiring a full-service, ceremonial funeral, the provision on offer is, I have found, generally wanting. The ‘chain’ funeral directors offer the service levels of Little Chef at Savoy prices. Many independent funeral homes, even the oldest and most prestigious, offer little better than the equivalent of the provision offered by a seaside boarding house. Some of the best hardly rise above Premier Inn. I’m sorry if that sounds harsh. Just one or two London funeral directors are exemplary. Edinburgh also enjoys very high standards. Following the lead of this website, I also witnessed impressive service in Cheshire. I was not impressed by the conducting style of one particular Funeral Director whose flamboyance, in my opinion, brought proceedings down to the level of the fairground. A good Funeral Director, like a good butler, must never be attention-seeking.

Two things especially struck me at the many funerals I observed. The first and most obvious was turnout. Far too often I saw scruffy and inappropriate footwear and cheap, unpressed uniforms. I saw personnel whose appearance, bearing and grooming were wholly unsuited to a ceremonial occasion.

But what struck me most forcibly was the lack of awareness of what a ceremonial occasion demands of the conduct of its participants. More than one Funeral Director told me that what people expect is “a bit of a show” as if going through the motions is enough. It is not enough. It is not about ‘putting on a show’. A ceremonial occasion must be invested with decorum, and this can only be achieved by creating a sense of occasion which is special and which influences the mood and the conduct of everyone present.

Here is an example of what I mean. I asked one Funeral Director why he had conducted a formal funeral without a top hat. He told me that a top hat “is not really me.” When I asked him to consider whether he was there to occupy a ceremonial role or ‘be himself’, there was silence. It is a pity more Funeral Directors do not think harder about such matters because, done properly, a formal funeral is a magnificent occasion which brings out the best in everyone.

The butlers I train are taught how to manage, say, a dinner party so as to bring out the best in everyone present by creating an atmosphere in which everyone rises to the gravitas of the occasion. This is achieved not by going through the motions of etiquette, it is achieved by expert and wholehearted role-playing by those who serve. The last thing any of the guests want is to be served by a butler ‘being himself’, and the same applies to their Funeral Director and his or her Pallbearers. There is no place for ‘self’ at either a big banquet or a formal funeral.

What is required of both a butler and Funeral Director is, above all, a spirit of devoted, selfless service to others. Both exhibit deference, but what they also understand very clearly is that the part they play is not, paradoxically, a subservient role. The writer David Katz expressed it very well when he said: “A happy butler is a Buddhist monk in tails, taking pleasure in the duty itself. Serving, but never servile.” A good butler has a healthy ego. The same is also true of a good funeral director. Both serve the occasion.

Butlers and Funeral Directors have other skills in common. They must remain unflappable in the face of both disaster and unreasonable demands. Gone are the days when butlers worked for old-money families who knew how to behave, they are now exposed to the arbitrary and sometimes outrageous whims of newly-minted billionaires. Grieving people, too, can behave unpredictably. Funeral Directors and butlers must be able to fix mishaps quickly and without fuss. They must have excellent concierge skills. The must be omnipresent but invisible. They must understand the meaning of courtesy in its fullest sense, and that it is not a matter of play-acting. On the contrary, in the words of the great Mahatma Gandhi,  “When restraint and courtesy are added to strength, the latter becomes irresistible.” Good butlers and good Funeral Directors derive their self-esteem from understanding how powerful they are.

Given the hours they must work, together with the range of skills they must possess, many of the best butlers, I have found, are divorced or gay. I wonder if the same may be said of the best Funeral Directors?

I am in the process of developing training manuals which I believe will be of great service to Funeral Directors wishing to advance their ceremonial skills. I shall be making an announcement in due course. I am grateful to this blog and its readers for the many insights it has given me into the world of funerals. I welcome your responses to what I have written here.

A greener way to embalm?

Wednesday, 9 July 2014



Guest post by Hatty Stafford Charles of Naturensbalm


Embalming is used in a number of circumstances and for a variety of reasons.  If the body is to be viewed before or during the funeral, embalming will sometimes be necessary.  If the person has died after an accident or debilitating illness, the embalmer can do much to restore the appearance friends and family are used to.  It is also a requirement when moving the body across international borders and across state lines in some countries.

When a person dies, decomposition starts at once, although the speed of this process will depend very much on the environment with factors such as temperature having a significant effect.  Without  bloodflow and muscle use, skin will sink and dry out and the body will gradually start to lose definition.  Embalming has also been promoted as a way to combat the health implications of bacteria and viruses present in and on the body, although it is now generally accepted that this is almost never a problem.

The process of embalming removes all fluid from the body and replaces it with a chemical alternative.  This process plumps, firms and fixes the flesh, giving a more ‘life like’ appearance which friends and family often find more comforting.  Embalming also sanitises the body which may be necessary in some situations.

Traditionally formaldehyde has been the standard chemical used for embalming.  Formaldehyde is a highly toxic preservative which is used in all kinds of every-day products both directly and in derivative form.  Anyone using formaldehyde needs to wear protective clothing and its smell is an irritant causing headaches, throat irritation and loss of sense of smell, so efficient air extraction is also required.  In the United States it is classed as a carcinogen and, everywhere in the world, formaldehyde is regarded as damaging to the environment.   However, the sterilising effects of formaldehyde are well documented and its ability to preserve tissue is second-to-none.  For long term preservation, formaldehyde is the best compound available.

For the purposes of burial, however, this long-term fixing effect is not generally required as most bodies will be buried within ten days of embalming.  Even formaldehyde cannot preserve tissue indefinitely and, over time, formaldehyde will eventually leech out into the grave, so the act of preserving a body becomes, long term, an environmental problem.  Alternatives such as Naturensbalm are available which allow embalming to take place (including for the purposes of international transport).  Naturensbalm is a more natural PVP Iodine product which sanitises and fixes the tissue for a week  to ten days before harmlessly dispersing and allowing the natural process of decomposition to take place.  It is safer for embalmers to use and creates a natural effect which loved ones find pleasing.  Some green burial sites will allow natural embalming fluids to be used – though not all – and they are far preferable in cremation as they do not make toxic fumes.


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