Charles Cowling

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.

Charles Cowling

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.

Charles Cowling

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

Read it here.
Charles Cowling

Ask a hardline atheist if they want to be buried or cremated. Their response ought to be a predictable “I don’t care, my dead body won’t be me any more, I’ll have gone from being a me to an it.” But I’ve never met an atheist who didn’t express a preference, an insistence, even, and talk about their dead body as a me, as in “I don’t want to lie in a hole rotting away full of maggots,” etc.

It’s illogical but it’s the sort of thing you tend to notice only once it’s pointed out. Illogic pervades everything to do with death and funerals, we accept this easily, unthinkingly, particularly in the matter of letting go of the body. Religious people are no less illogical.

Once you’ve let go of the body, what’s left? Plenty. Feelings. Memories. Admiration. Gratitude. Example. Values. You don’t have to let go of any of them. You can still see the dead person in your mind’s eye; you can still hear them in your mind’s ear. You could argue that most of the most important things are left, together either with the joyful reassurance of the dead person’s present non-existence or their blissful afterlife on the Other Side.

It’s not the dead person’s body we miss but everything their body embodied. It’s the black hole of absence we grieve for, the loss of continuing presence of all those things we don’t have to let go of, that we haven’t lost. Nothing can compensate for that.

So we cling to their bodies in ways which are, to paraphrase Tom Lynch, sacred and silly. Claire Seeber, writing in the Guardian, keeps her grandmother’s ashes in the glove compartment of her car; Keith Richard famously snorted his dad’s; Patsy Kensit slept beside her mother’s for years. One man, Stanley, brought his wife’s ashes home. “There was no plan,” he says, “so I put her in the wardrobe … Now I find it comforting to know she is there safe and, most important to me, warm. It might sound irrational — as a scientist I know there’s no logic in it, and I’m not religious or superstitious — but … I’m just reassured to know that she’s not out there in the cold … she’s still with me when I’m sleeping.” Read the whole article here.

Ashes in the wardrobe, a little shrine on the mantelpiece — sacred and silly; silly but sacred.

Where do you draw the line?

The recent picture at the top shows Lenin having a restorative bath. Sacred? Silly?

Your call.

Charles Cowling

You couldn’t make it up. The Express could, perhaps, given its record for libelling people. Here is the essence of their story in today’s paper.

 

First, the headline: Three Orphans Sell Pets To Pay For Mum’s Funeral.

 

Got yer pulse racing? It’s right up there on a par with Headless Waiter Found In Topless Bar (New York Post).

 

Troy, 17, Rory, 15, and Alice, 14, are flogging all they’ve got to raise £2,500 for the funeral of their mum. “The youngsters have so far raised £525 by selling their beloved spaniels Peggy, Minnie and Sammy – for which they got a total of £250 – and some furniture from their council house in Whittlesey, Cambs.” Next to go is the Xbox. Troy says “We can’t face mum having a pauper’s funeral. We’re not asking for a lavish affair but she deserves a few flowers and a nice send-off.”

 

The funeral directors insist on having the money upfront. They offered to knock 200 quid off by squeezing the body into a smaller coffin, but the kids refused.

 

Enough!

 

What a shame it is that the people who feel duty-bound to spend more than they can afford on a funeral are so often those who can least afford it. No one calls those middle-class, cardboard coffin funerals paupers’ funerals.

 

Read the whole sorry story here — if you can bear.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Charles Cowling

Saturday was National Bereavement Awareness Day. Miss it? Whoops. Let me fill you in.

A brainchild of the independent funeral directors’ trade body, SAIF, the day was a marketing tool designed to raise the profile of independents. My local funeral directors, James Giles and Sons of Bromsgrove, held an open day. They’ve recently refurbished, so they had a service of dedication, too, and roped in the local MP. They asked me to come along and talk about what I do. I work with families who don’t want a full-on religious funeral ceremony.

My work ethic doesn’t normally extend to Saturdays and, as I knotted a reluctant tie, I wondered in how many households anyone darkly muttering, “Hey, we can go to the open day at undertakers” was being met by an enthusiastic answering chorus of “Yes, lets!”

I got there deliberately too late for the holy part of the proceedings. Rain was falling unkindly on the horse-drawn hearse in the yard. But inside, the scene was unexpectedly one of warmth and cheeriness. People had come. Lots of them. My spirits woke up. The refurb is great — light and bright and airy. There were even people who wanted to talk to me, so we talked and we considered what the purpose of a funeral is and looked at the options and I wished the Good Funeral Guide was already out there to guide them. They’d been up to the mortuary, seen the fridges, found out what really goes on. It was a true open day — an eye-opener.

There was wine and fruit juice, tea and coffee, sandwiches and sausage rolls. But there was no hush or awkwardness. There was more of a party atmosphere and lots of laughter. It set me thinking.

These guys at Giles and Sons don’t big themselves up in shuddermaking clothes and set themselves self-importantly apart. They’re not trend-setters, either, but they’ll ungrudgingly do anything they’re asked (“so long as it’s legal”). They are friends, neighbours, members of the local community — everyone knows them — and they do what they do with a kindness and a naturalness which makes the business of arranging a funeral normal, natural, so much easier than people dread. This makes an enormous difference to their relationship with, and experience of, death. That’s why people came to their open day: because the Gileses are people like us, and people like us are the people we like. Almost every one who works there is a member of the family. They are the very best sort of family funeral directors.

When people talk about how funerals can be improved, undertakers can come in for plenty of criticism for their resistance to change.  Many of them deserve some. But if funerals are too often bleak and meaningless affairs it is a mistake to point the finger exclusively at the undertakers. There are other more influential factors at work. It takes too long to arrange a cremation. Twenty minutes is not enough for a proper send-off. A religious ceremony is an absurd choice for unbelievers. Above all, the bereaved are too content to play a passive role in the process.

Funerals will only improve when informed consumers start calling the shots. When they do, we can be sure about this: James Giles and Sons, and countless other family funeral directors throughout the land, will be only too happy to do as they are asked — so long as it’s legal.

Charles Cowling
One mistake this blog will never make: it will never engage in debates about taste. Each to their own, I say, all the while keeping my personal views encased in concrete behind a suave and serene demeanour. “We’re one but we’re not the same”, as my good friend Bono so sagely sings. So right, Bono.

Over in India there’s a growing fad for inviting a celeb to the funeral to offer condolences to the mourners. It costs, of course, but it doesn’t half add prestige both to the event and to the dead person’s family.

Could it catch on in the UK? What do you think? If you’re going to drape the coffin in a Liverpool flag and tell everyone to dress in Liverpool shirts (or at least something red), why not pay Steven Gerrard a few bob to come along and wring a few hands?

I don’t think I’ll be looking for a themed funeral, so I won’t be looking for a themed celeb. But I’m definitely into the overall notion. And yes, now that I think of it, I want that lovely Ric Griffin from Holby at mine. His empathic presence will surely blunt death’s sting.

You?

Charles Cowling

My good friend the embalmer is not noted for halfway utterance, nor for half-tones in her vocabulary. She calls a spade a spade and hits you with it if she thinks you’re wrong, thwang thwang. She’s never less than invigorating.

One of the themes she warms to hotliest is that of the present reinventing the past. “What do they think is so new about that?!” she’ll expostulate in response to some new funerary trend. “It’s all been done before!!”

Quite right. So it has. Personalisation, for example. Everyone’s talking about that — unique funerals for unique people. Turns out the Vikings were doing it more than a thousand years ago.

They were more like us than you might think, the Vikings — and I’m not inviting comparison here with Friday night revellers in our city centres.

For starters, they had no defined religion. Instead, according to Professor Neil Price, Chair of Archaeology at the University of Aberdeen, they “made up a set of spiritual beliefs, which were then acted out at the graveside … They were aggressively pagan and strongly anti-Christian.”

Just like so many of us.

Possibly more emotionally sophisticated. Professor Price observes “how slim they perceived the boundaries to be between life and death”. We haven’t got there, yet.

He talks about burial rituals which became a form of theatre lasting up to ten days, during which order cialis online australia mourners told stories about men and gods — stories “intended to provide the deceased with a poetic passage into the next life,” stories which predate the sagas and may even be the progenitors of Norse mythology.

We haven’t got there, yet, either, but the trend towards more participative funerals is, er, a move in the right direction.

As for personalisation, they benchmark it. “No two graves were the same,” says Professor Price, who has studied thousands. “Some bore evidence of a military career, with whole ships containing the corpse left open. Other graves were found to have had animal remains – one had no fewer than 20 decapitated horses – and occasionally there were human remains as well. Some Vikings were buried with their wives and families; others were laid to rest in more simple single graves.”

Way to go.

It turns out that the Vikings’ reputation for raping and pillaging is unmerited. They were actually far more interested in poetry and spirituality. A medieval English chronicler, John of Wallingford, observed that they combed their hair every day, washed every Saturday and changed their clothes regularly. He meant it disparagingly.

We’ve a long way to go to catch up with our forefathers. Indeed, you could say that Viking funerals illustrate how the forward march of our civilisation has in fact been a retreat into fear and impotence.

Charles Cowling

This blog is going to the seaside for a week in the firm conviction that there is more to life than death. It will spend some time hanging out with its embalmer friend, but its small talk is unlikely to be corpsecentric. No, it will be walking the windswept clifftops, eating crab sandwiches at Portland Bill and enjoying bitter beer at The George, a pub which is still a pub. It is unlikely to give expression to thanatological utterance.

Before I go, three things:

First: Note to all florists: ‘Granddad’ has three ‘d’s, a double followed by a single. You’re all missing out a ‘d’ at the moment and losing good revenue as a result.

Second: I apologise for getting under the skin of so many people with my last post about Funeralcare. Everyone professionally involved with funerals lives in beyond-mortal terror of screwing up. We know that if it can happen it will and, therefore, at some time, we will. This is a matter of deep neurosis. I touched a raw nerve. Only this morning it only took me just half a mile to convince myself that I was driving to the wrong crematorium. I wasn’t — but you know how it goes.

What am I doing, tweaking Funeralcare’s tail like this? It all started with my first post about them, and their subsequent non-response. Read what the latest TUC Congress said about them here. I have to confess that I hate a good fight, it’s not what I do. But you may forgive me for feeling narked. The GMB union has promised me a response, and I’ll post that when it comes in.

Third: The rejection of a mainstream religious funeral by those who are not religious, or have their own, personal spiritual beliefs, has made it necessary for them to re-invent the funeral. And the central problem facing those who want to re-invent funerals is this: if the funeral cannot look forwards and contemplate the person who has died enjoying a blissfest in eternity, then what on earth can it do? People who have not adopted or evolved a belief system which explains death have to make sense of it their own way, sometimes from scratch.

I’ve just read a very well-written and thoughtful blog post on the state of the modern funeral. It will strike a chord with many of you. Here’s an extract:

We stopped talking about death, judgment, heaven, and hell. We have become Egyptian in our attitude towards death and the afterlife, thinking our deceased’s coffin needs to be filled with the things they enjoyed in this life: their favorite cigarettes, romance novels, transistor radio, etc. We allow the white funeral pall, which recalls baptismal dignity, to be replaced by things like a sport jersey or some other keepsake.

He is a priest. He has no doubt what a funeral is for. He believes that the doctrine and decorum of a religious funeral breathe a still, small voice of calm and certainty upon disorderly feelings of grief and loss. Here’s how he defines some modern attitudes:

[Mourners] don’t see any need (much less the necessity) to pray for the soul of a deceased person. Nor do they see their need (or the deceased’s need) for the Church’s funeral rites. This gets replaced by their own personal version of the same. In short, the funeral is about THEM, and their grief at the loss of the deceased.

Read the entire post here. It will nourish your thinking. I’m not telling you what I think.

For now, “all I ask is a windy day with the white clouds flying / And the flung spray and the blown spume and the sea gulls crying.”

Back with you all soon.

Charles Cowling

The effects of the crash have yet fully to register. Brits have always had a puritanical, penitential streak, a disposition to pare cheese, save string, make do and mend. Those who will be wiped out are to be pitied. The rest of us, I think, are strangely relieved that it’s all over, happy to get back to self-reliance and common sense. We remind ourselves that the best things in life are recession-proof. The beauties of nature outshine the thrill of the mall.

 

Bad news is good news for the press; our papers are making merry feeding our schadenfreude and our fear. They’ve picked up on it in the US and it’s generated this headline in Time: Corpses Pile Up Amid Britain’s Financial Crisis.

 

You hadn’t noticed? It goes like this. Families on benefits are encountering delays in getting Social Fund payments for their funerals. Some funeral directors, unwilling to carry debt, are refusing to go ahead with funeral arrangements until they have been paid. It has taken nine weeks to hold a funeral for a Shrewsbury man. Questions have been asked in the House. The spectre of the Winter of Discontent stalks our streets.

 

In point of boring fact, this situation predates the crash. It affects only 27,000 funerals a year. So the chances of a corpse pile-up in your neighbourhood are bathetically less than nil.

 

The hullabaloo raises interesting questions about funeral costs, though, at a time when everyone will be interested in cheaper funerals. The Social Fund will cough up around £700 towards the funeral director’s bill and around £1,000 for disbursements. In all, that’s a few hundred pounds short of the cost of a typical funeral. Need a funeral cost this much? Two factors, in particular, make funerals arguably more expensive then they ought to be.

 

The first is the d-word, that peculiar word we apply only to the very old and the dead: dignity. If a funeral does not feature a hearse, bearers, shop flowers atop the coffin and a be-toppered undertaker walking in front of the cortege, most people would reckon that to be shabby rather than simple. Funeral directors could offer a service that costs less than £700, but there’d be little uptake. What’s more, their pricing structures are such that they’d struggle to make a decent profit if they did.

 

It is interesting to see how, in the US, the huge cost of a ‘traditional’ funeral — cosmetised, casketed body, visitation, service, whole body burial in a vault — has spawned its polar opposite, direct cremation, whereby the body is cremated as soon after death as statutorily possible (usually 24 hours) and the ashes returned to the family. Thus Florida Direct Cremation can offer to transport the body, coffin it, do all the paperwork and cremate it for an all-in price of $395. In sinking, shrinking British pounds that works out at just £225.76. Most charge around $900 — £500.

 

Direct cremation does not preclude a funeral, but it is likely to be a funeral not for a body but for its ashes. The family chooses its venue. In the UK we are culturally conditioned to believe that a funeral for a body is indispensable. Could that change?

 

How much does cremating a body actually cost in terms of fuel and capital costs?  I ought to find out; perhaps a helpful person will tell me. It’s bound to be more in the UK than it is in the US because we cremate so inefficiently. And this brings me to my second factor: because a UK crematorium is both a ceremonial space in which to hold funerary rites and also a place where the dead are burned, it gets all that heat up to burn far fewer bodies than it could — a very un-green way of doing things. A US crematory will burn bodies round the clock if necessary.

 

The UK model doesn’t work. More time is given to dead bodies than they need, too little to mourners. The outcome looks and feels like a production line. Not for the business of cremation it isn’t.  

 

It would make more sense for bodies to be burned in a dedicated plant serving several ceremonial spaces. Given the lack of interest most people show in what happens after the curtains close, it would seem to be immaterial if a body is burned a few feet away from the ceremonial space or a few miles. Those few who do wish to see everything through and done properly could still go and do so — as they do in the US. Sure, they would find themselves in an industrial environment, but scarcely more so than behind the scenes at a crem.

 

Should local authorities feel obliged to provide a ceremonial spaces? Or crematories? I can’t see why. But they’d hate to give up their crematoria because they yield good profits, which subsidise the costs of cemetery maintenance — and, therefore, of burial. In this way, local authorities are able to compete unfairly with natural burial grounds run by the private sector. They further penalise cremation clients in order to fund unrelated projects. It’s a pity many of them don’t spend a little of that money on refurbishing their crem toilets.

 

Vested interests oppose change. Funerals cost more than they ought.

 

And the funeral directors? Are they making more than they ought? No. They must comply, both, with things as they are and with the wishes of their clients. If funerals cost more than they need, that’s not their fault. Having in mind what they do, they are entitled to a decent living.

 

As I go to press I can’t help thinking my argument is flawed. It is reassuring to know that my loyal readers will not hesitate to pounce.