The Good Funeral Guide Blog

Louder than words

Friday, 9 January 2009

I’ve been mentoring a fledgling funeral celebrant. The occasion of her first funeral was quite an event. She had formed a relationship of warmth and trust with the wife of the man who had died and she had written a good tribute, full of personal touches. She is nothing if not a hard worker, and hard work is our only sure insurance policy against failure. I don’t know which of us was more nervous, but the outcome was never in doubt.

Afterwards, she reflected ruefully that the deliciously funny story she told had elicited no laughter. I reminded her that a funeral audience is like no other. Rarely at a funeral does anyone hang on your every word, sit on the edge of their seat and begin to chuckle well before you get to the punchline. People at a funeral tend to gaze at you in a way people only gaze when they’re at funerals. You can’t read their minds any better than they can read their own minds. The funeral gaze is a gaze suffused with multiple thoughts, crowded emotions.

We meet that gaze with words — fine words, meticulously crafted sentences, high thoughts offered up in exactly the right verbal wrapping. But sometimes it feels like pouring words into a void, only their sonorities serving, in some way, to create a sense of occasion.

Words target the brain, an organ in which, at many funerals, bitrate is low. Words have their purpose and, for certain tasks, no substitute. But they have their perils, too. Words are what we use to exert reasonableness and they tend to be reductive. A funeral is no time to be wholly reasonable. The heart, the senses, must also have their day.

Words can tell life stories and so, too, can a montage of photos set to music. Put them alongside each other and you’ve got a marriage made in heaven. Over in the US the DVD tribute is well established. In the UK its use is hampered by lack of multimedia equipment in crematorium chapels and by the time and expense involved in preparing one.

Which is why I have been delighted, this week, to stumble upon Animoto. What they offer is a stylish, cheap and rapid. You simply feed your pics and music into its software and, minutes later, the result is back with you. Click on the YouTube clip at the top to see how it works.

The Animoto website is incredibly helpful and easy to use. And you won’t just want to use it for creating funeral tributes, either. It’s fun! You can make videos of anything you want — a holiday, a day out, a birthday party — and post them on YouTube or Facebook. It’s addictive! I made one about the Isle of Portland. See how the photos move to the beat of the music. Watch it here.

Is it as good as a video crafted by a human? I discussed that with craftsperson Louise Harris over at Sentiment. She reckons the process does a good, basic job but, because it does not know what are the most important parts of the photos, fails to focus and linger on them and, thus, loses emotional impact. She reckons to spend a good few hours perfecting the way a photo moves.

I don’t know if Animoto is the future of the multimedia funeral tribute. It’s unquestionably not as good as a human. But I’m glad I found it and I urgently want to share it with you.

A Happy New Year to the FSJ

Monday, 5 January 2009

It’s a busy business, an undertaker’s, at this time of the year. Jan and Feb are the popular months to die, and why wouldn’t they be? Nature imparts no vitality. The spirit ebbs with the seeping daylight.

In between the bagged bodies coming in and the boxed bodies going out there are families to see, funerals to coordinate (a flurry of phone calls), doctors dropping in to certify lifelessness and visitors in the chapel of rest contemplating it.

If that schedule leaves scraps of time for undertakers to sip a cup of coffee and dunk a grateful Rich Tea, it also gives them time to savour their latest FSJ — their Funeral Service Journal.

It can’t be easy, writing for undertakers, because there’s never much news to tell them. The FSJ’s editor, Brian Parsons, does a valiant job and tries to get his readers thinking and talking. In December’s edition he presents us with some mildly contentious issues and delights us all with a new sans serif typeface.

He shows us, as ever, photos of undertakers opening new or refurbished funeral homes, undertakers standing beside new hearses, undertakers winning training awards. A director of a coffin manufacturer celebrates 40 years’ service with a new numberplate for his car: COF 1N. A man in Australia has invented an embalming machine powered by compressed air. There are ads for coffins, cremfilm, mortuary cabinets, remembrance items and frockcoats, single and double breasted. There’s a scholarly article about biers and another describing the work of Dr W Edwards Deming, “credited with one of the most significant paradigm shirts in history.” Ah, the FSJ wouldn’t be the FSJ without its typos.

There’s a good account of a meeting of Anglican clergy and undertakers guaranteed to make any insider smile. The clergy are cross. They object to undertakers trespassing on the liturgy by passing on requests for secular readings. They object to undertakers asking families what hymns they want to sing. They object to undertakers booking a slot at the crem without consulting them, planning the printed order of service and using retired clergy in favour of the incumbent.

Of course, the clergy are quite right. The funeral itself is none of a funeral director’s business. They are also quite wrong because a funeral can only happen if hearse, crematorium, organist, service sheets and officiant synchronise. Even the dead must meet deadlines. The person responsible for achieving that complex coincidence is the funeral director. If the officiant isn’t answering his or her phone, a funeral director is quite rightly (and urgently) going to find someone who will. Where requested hymns and readings are concerned, the funeral director is only acting as the agent of the family.

As a celebrant, I am always pleased to know what a family wants. It’s good to know that they have started thinking about the funeral, because time is short. If they subsequently change their mind, that’s not a problem. Funeral directors are always open to the charge of being control freaks, but almost always in a good cause. Compared with what I do, I’d describe much of their work as drudgery and I am extremely grateful to them for doing it. Only once has a funeral director tried to influence one of my ceremonies, and even then only for good, if misguided, motives.

The editor of the FSJ invites his readers to write in and say if there ought to be a code of practice between clergy and funeral directors. I’d like to think he includes secular celebrants, too. My suspicion is that not many will, but I hope I shall be proved wrong.

We all have to be ready to jump when the funeral director rings; it’s the nature of the business. The clergy will not reclaim funerals with displays of pettish self importance.

I am looking forward to another year of FSJs. I wish Brian Parsons and his journal the compliments of the season — and all readers of this blog, too.

Where beauty softens grief

Friday, 12 December 2008

I’m indebted to Pam Vetter for pointing me to an article about post-mortem cosmetic procedures. This is not a big issue in the UK as it is in the US (Pam lives in LA), but it goes on here all the same. Funeral directors earn gratitude for presenting bodies looking as if they quite like being dead; embalmers take enormous pride in their work, both cosmetic and restorative (say, for example, reconstructing someone’s skull after a traffic accident).

Before I tell you where to find the article, let me exhort you to watch the video on the page showing the work of the Owens Funeral Home. It’s brilliant. “I’m the guy that puts a smile on your face. Other places, you just look dead.”

Have a great weekend.

Right, go for it.

The truth, the half truth and nothing of the truth

Thursday, 11 December 2008

The dead man’s father, a Jehovah’s Witness, had been estranged from his funny, funloving, humanist son for years. Now that his boy was dead, he wanted to reclaim him and give him a proper Jehovah’s Witness funeral.

We talked about this, the dead man’s widow and I; we explored compromises. We wanted to include the parents but they fortified their position. We were compelled either be true to the truth and celebrate the life, or let the Witnesses repossess the body and recycle it through an alien theology.

When, outside, after the godless ceremony, the father emerged from a huddle of Witnesses and came for me, I knew it was going to be angry and ugly.

“I didn’t recognise any single thing of my son in that twaddle you spoke, you had no idea what or who you were talking about … disgraceful …shameful …how dare you…” and so on. It wasn’t a dialogue, it was a performance.

The abuse having expended itself, I walked back to the car reflecting wryly that, of course, he was right. The life story I had told was but a version. I’d never met the dead man; I had no idea who I was talking about. His friends happily told me I had hit the spot, got him bang right. But, as with the father, I only had their word for it.

This is the essentially absurd thing about being a secular funeral celebrant, and it’s exactly the same for religious celebrants when the dead person was not a member of their congregation. The celebrant, the only stranger at the funeral, is often the one who speaks with absolute authority about the dead person. Celebrants tell stories but can visualise none of the events we describe; we talk of what dead people mean to others, but they mean nothing to us. At the funeral of a scientist his friends appraised me with the cool objectivity of high intelligence; their eyes conveyed the message, “Who the heck are you?” I had to concur. I felt like an interloper. I was.

Of course, if we listen to what others say we can do a good job, write a good tribute, paint a pretty good word portrait. People like what we do. They’d do it themselves if grief and a horror of public speaking didn’t stop them. They are very grateful. We have our uses, our value. We help.

But I wonder how many artists would be able to make a visual likeness from a verbal description.

Warring families are difficult. So are private families and genteel families. They’re cagey. You’re an intrusive stranger and you’re not minding your own business. And celebrants are not fearless investigative reporters; we must work with what we are given. Sometimes that means telling a highly edited version of the truth and sometimes it means making bricks with straw.

Here’s a warm and delightfully written blog post which illustrates what I mean. All celebrants know what this feels like:

… the Senior Pastor had to be away and assigned me the task of conducting the funeral. Her family lived elsewhere and I had never met them. I spent a few minutes with them at their hotel room planning the service. They did not want it to be too long, but also they did not want it to be too short. They wanted it to be personal, but not too personal. They wanted some Scripture, but not too much Scripture. They wanted this, but not that. It was clear they did not really trust me, but they had no other option. I wasn’t even sure what was considered too short or too long. As I began to speak on the day of the funeral, I realized I had covered everything I had to say in the first three minutes, and was acutely aware this was definitely too short. I filled a couple more minutes talking about the fact that she raised rabbits, but I knew nothing about rabbits, so that ended rather quickly and awkwardly. It was at that moment I realized I really knew nothing about this family or the deceased. It was a disaster and the Honorarium I was secretly excited about receiving never materialized.

Read the whole post here.


Tuesday, 9 December 2008

I’ve blogged about Direct Funeral Services in the past, and it’s worth doing again.

He’s still at it, that nice Mr Sage. He’s a blagger, the sort who ought to be horsewhipped.

See the recent BBC Watchdog report here.
I’ve had a number of emails from his victims.
Be warned.

Helluva guy

Tuesday, 9 December 2008

“My words fly up, my thoughts remain below…”

Thus wicked King Claudius in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. He was speaking of his own spiritual quandary, but in many burial grounds the memorials possibly feel he speaks for them, too.

I’m not thinking of those blameless, plain stones whose simple inscriptions testify to sincere, humble faith and assert the equality of all in the sight of God.

No, I’m thinking of the whoppers, those mega-memorials whose bigged-up magnificence purportedly serves solely to swell the glory of the Supreme Being. Neither curlicue nor finial, swag, foliation nor cherubic cluster can blind us to their real purpose.

Come off it, chaps, you’re there to glorify your tenant. What you’re actually saying is, “Beneath me lies a helluva guy, the biggest cheese in this graveyard. Think about that, you mighty, and despair!”

Every such memorial eventually goes the way of Ozymandias, himself reduced by time, sandstorms and other indignities to “two vast and trunkless legs of stone … in the desert.”

Time has a sardonic sense of humour.

So does the Lithuanian mafia.

The headstone at the top commemorates a dead mobster in the most unashamed and unambiguous terms, shorn of any supernatural pretension. Click on him. Marvel at the car and the bling.

A helluva guy.

But my, how he’ll date.

In defence of Thomas Lynch

Thursday, 27 November 2008

If you follow trends in US funerary practice you’ll know about the work of the Funeral Consumers Alliance. Its aims are laudable: to inform and empower consumers, a cause dear to the heart of the Good Funeral Guide. Its means, sad to say, often demean and discredit it, especially the ill-judged rhetoric of its executive director, Josh Slocum.

Judge for yourself. A while back Mr Slocum engaged in a spat with Tim Totten’s engaging blog, Finalembrace. Take a ringside seat and follow it, round by round, here. Be sure to read the Newsweek article.

Slocum’s mistake is to suppose that fervid indignation is persuasive. It is not. It is repulsive and it distracts from the admirable cause he represents (so badly).

Noble causes define their rationale by exposing wicked enemies. When they identify enemies who are clearly not wicked, they become ignoble causes.

Tim Totten is one of the industry’s nice guys. It matters not whether you like his cot covers. What’s clear to see is that he is honest, well-meaning and kind. To see him attacked is to leap reflexively to his defence no matter who the attacker, no matter what their cause. This is Mr Slocum’s strategic mistake and it is a grave one.

To take on Tim is one thing, to take on Tom is another. The FCA has published attacks on Tom Lynch which have finally goaded him to bring an action for defamation against the FCA and others. Download full details here and judge for yourself.

Read Tom’s refutation here

It matters not whether Tom will prevail in a court of law. What matters is that he is one of the great thinkers and writers about death and funerals. He is a man of integrity and intellectual rigour with a reverence for goodness and truth. He is wholly undeserving of this treatment. You do not have to agree with what he says to honour him.

I revere him.

If you do, too, here’s what you can do to support him.

Read the FCA press release and leave a comment here.

Email Mr Slocum here.

Send your message of support to Tom Lynch here.

If your mind and spirit have been enriched by Tom’s writings you will not fail to act.

Victory V

Friday, 21 November 2008

A little while ago I posted a blog about online memorial websites. I didn’t post all I wrote. I decided that the second half was grossly offensive and I deleted it.

Here’s what I wrote:

Do the online memorial sites that are up there presently give visitors enough to do? Possibly not.

So, to all entrepreneurial web developers out there looking to make a few bob out of those who sob, I offer this wheeze.

Go the whole bagel: design and create a many-acred virtual burial ground. Sell a grave to each new client. Enable them to buy a headstone and dictate an inscription. Let them buy flower urns and flowers, plants for the grave, wind chimes, teddy bears, solar-powered angels. Pocket the money. Give a token percentage to good causes.

As time goes by, flowers die, the grave becomes unkempt and the headstone gets dirty. Give clients routine chores to do when they visit.

And give them every retail opportunity to mark anniversaries.

From time to time, bad things happen. Vandals spray graffiti or leave behind the detritus of drug use. Topple-testers condemn the headstone and require it to be re-fixed. Get your client to rectify these bad things.

Keep ‘em busy!

Enable different visitors to the burial ground, if they are there at the same time, to talk to each other if they agree to; thereby you will enable the formation of mutually supportive bereavement groups.

Enough. That ought to fire your imagination. Take it from there.

Just don’t, whatever you do, even under torture, credit me with this tasteless, mawkish, vile idea. I shall go to my grave denying it.

So far as I know no one has hacked into my computer and seen this. I can therefore disclaim all responsibility for the work in progress you can see at EternalSpace.

Actually, they’ve done much, much better than me. Well, they’ve gone much further. In their virtual resting place you can choose your scenic setting. You can choose your own markers and mausoleums, growing trees, flowing fountains, fluttering butterflies, waving flags from around the world and beautifully carved religious symbols. You can send a virtual gift from a wide selection. You can do this till you die, and so then can your heirs from everlasting to everlasting. Undertakers who sell EternalSpace to their clients will get a slice of the profits.

I have a feeling that the excellent Jonathan Davies at MuchLoved will not be quaking in his boots.

Here’s a qualification: I have not seen the realisation of the EternalSpace project. It may well prove me to be a grumpy old fuddy-duddy out of touch with the zeitgeist. I am prepared to eat my words.

One thing I will accord it without reservation: it is going to be much greener than any so-called green burial ground. It will never run out of space.

To prove that I am not antipathetic to v-stuff let me tell you how entranced I am by the v-funeral at the top of this piece. It was created by a Second Lifer for his real-life father, real-death photos of whom you can see in the clip.

All hail to the Green Street Mortuary band!

Thursday, 20 November 2008

The best things in life have a signature tune, a tune forever associated with, and evocative of, a time, a place, a person — a soap.

Funerals have signature tunes, too. As a celebrant, every time I hear Oasis’s Stop Crying Your Heart Out I think of the lad who died at Glastonbury: Hold up / Hold on / Don’t be scared, / You’ll never change what’s been and gone … Stop crying your heart out. Every time I hear Kelis’s Lil Star I think of the lovely man whose children kept hearing it on their way to see him in hospital. There is nothing special about me was how their dad self-deprecatingly thought of himself, but not them, not them. He never actually heard the song himself, but that makes it no less perfect for him. Yesterday we had the Moody Blues’ I Know You’re Out There Somewhere, so that’s a new one for me.

Not all funeral signature tunes are memorable to me — Katherine Jenkins has sung Time to Say Goodbye at so many funerals she’s lost all specificity. Not the case for the people who were there.

Likely enough, you have a favourite song — the one you call ‘my song’. That’s probably more than just a signature tune, it’s more likely your soundtrack. This notion came to me when I was looking at one of Louise’s little life films.

I’m trying to work out what mine is, now. I know that it can’t and couldn’t be a piece of classical music: a classical piece wouldn’t work for anybody. “Strange how potent cheap music is,” said Noel Coward. He ought to know; he wrote enough. He’s right, too, dammit: it’s got to be something pop, something that can play over a photmontage of your life. 

You may have a very clear idea what yours is. Perhaps this is something that others must decide for us.

I know I favour something joyously anarchic. I’ve toyed with the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain and am presently inclining towards the Green Street Mortuary Band. Here’s a band that plays for Chinese funerals in San Francisco. It’s a longstanding tradition here. The band’s repertoire comprises all manner of Christian hymns, a custom inspired by military bands in British-occupied Hong Kong. The Chinese don’t mind about this at all; all they care about is that it sounds good.

It does, too, in a most agreeably chaotic way. The bass drummer habitually sets off car alarms, adding to the melodic cacophony. Find out more about this fascinating, wonderful band here. Enjoy the YouTube vid.

A celebration of life ceremony

Wednesday, 19 November 2008

I’ve just enjoyed this blog post. It speaks for itself and it doesn’t want me climbing all over it.

Read it here.
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