Category Archives: Attitudes to death

Celebrant turned zoo keeper

Friday, 23 January 2015

elephants

 

Posted by Wendy Coulton

I think my neighbours must have been impressed when they saw me clear out space in my garage this month. But the truth is I had no choice. You see, next week it will be the new home for the eye-catching and thought provoking centre piece for a free public event I have organised about end of life matters in my home city Plymouth.

My garage will be the temporary enclosure for an extra large paper mache elephant (as if sourcing one in the first place wasn’t difficult enough!) until it hopefully will stop people in their tracks at Plymouth Central Library at The Elephant in the Room event on Friday 27th and Saturday 28th March 2015.

The saying ‘elephant in the room’ refers to an obvious problem or difficult situation that people do not want to acknowledge or talk about. And that is exactly what I have witnessed too often with bereaved families in distress, conflict and hardship because no preparation was discussed or made for death.

My response to this was to get 15 respected speakers all under one roof across this two day event to cover a wide range of end of life topics including:

*  money and legal matters before and following death

*  health and social care issues like choosing where to die and the identity loss carers may experience when the person they have looked after dies

*  last wishes

*  organ donation

*  what to do when you suspect someone may be suicidal

*  what happens at the crematorium

*  business succession planning for the self-employed and small firms

*  the work of the coroner; and

*  bereavement care for children and young people

There will also be a Death Cafe discussion forum and information stands in the advice hub.

The aim of this free event is to encourage people to come in and find out more about their choices and key issues they may need to consider and plan for in the future.

Wouldn’t it fantastic if just as university open days, wedding fayres and recruitment events are commonplace, we could establish at least annually a similar approach to a focus on end of life issues and services?

 More event detail will be posted in February on www.dragonflyfunerals.co.uk

Elephant

 

What the hell?

Monday, 19 January 2015

-Oil-painting-The-Hell-Detail

 

“Belief in life after death is as common in Britain as it was 30 years ago in spite of a sharp decline in church attendance” according to researchers at the University of Leicester. The story is in today’s Times. The stats in the Leicester report don’t tell us anything we didn’t already know, probably; not if you work in the funerals business, anyway. But it’s fascinating to read the numbers all the same. 

44% believe in an afterlife. Belief in Hell has risen from 26.2% in 1981 to 28.6% today. Almost a third of the population of Britain believe in all 5 Christian tenets: 1) God 2) life after death 3) Heaven 4) Hell and 5) sin. Almost a third! 

Older people are less  likely to believe in an afterlife than the young. 

All the while the C of E carries on shedding churchgoers at a steady 1% a year. Spare a wince, too, for the atheists who supposed that people would cast aside superstition and come over to them. As for the institutional religions, the growth of spirituality shows they are clearly missing out on a growing market and have only themselves to blame. 

In its leader, The Times quotes the philosopher AJ Ayer, who died in 1989, and who “recorded towards the end of his life an experience in hospital when his heart appeared to stop beating. What he “saw”, in that state, he later wrote, had “slightly weakened my conviction that my genuine death, which is due fairly soon, will be the end of me, though I continue to hope that it will be”.”

The Times also paraphrases the political philosopher Edmund Burke, who described society as a partnership of the dead and the unborn as well as of the living

 

Bring on the empty corpses

Monday, 17 November 2014

Smoke-Gets-in-Your-Eyes

 

Book review: Smoke Gets In Your Eyes by Caitlin Doughty

Caitlin Doughty, graduate in medieval history and author of a sunny thesis entitled The Suppression of Demonic Births in Late Medieval Witchcraft Theory, rejects a promising career in academia in favour of one as a corpse handler and incinerator of the dead.

Anticipating bewilderment she asks, rhetorically, “So, really, what was a nice girl like me working at a ghastly ol’ crematory like Westwind?” And she goes on to tell us what drew her to it. She describes a traumatic childhood trigger event. I won’t reveal what it was, of course; you need to read Smoke Gets In Your Eyes for yourself. Her theory is that she dispelled the consequent denial that insulated her from the traumatic event by confronting her fears and getting on down with corpses. As a result of this self-prescribed and gruelling CBT she is now at peace with the “stillness and perfection of death”.

More than that, Doughty is now the world’s leading cheerleader for death: “Death might appear to destroy the meaning in our lives,” she says, “but in fact it is the very source of our creativity.” This is just one of many debatable assertions she makes in this book. Death may inspire urgency and thereby rouse latent creativity, but it is doubtful whether it can put in what God left out.

Doughty is the leader of a clever, charismatic and acclaimed corpse cult, the Order of the Good Death, “a group of funeral industry professionals, academics, and artists exploring ways to prepare a death phobic culture for their inevitable mortality.” You’ve seen the Ask A Mortician video series — you have, haven’t you? She’s sassy, funny, outrageous and very likeable. She’s a brilliant performer. She spills and splashes behind-the-scenes secrets with a mischievous glee that appals and infuriates industry insiders, who firmly believe that there are Things It’s Best We Don’t Know. To this day, despite a great and growing following, she remains shunned by the National Funeral Directors Association. Her preparedness to bring down, in Biblical abundance, the murderous fear and loathing of old school funeral people takes guts. She’s outrageous because she’s also passionately seriousness.

Like so many progressives, Doughty is essentially retrogressive — in a positive way. Her prescription for the way things are is to get back to doing them the way we did. Nowadays, when someone dies, we call the undertaker and have them disappeared. This, reckons Doughty, is a symptom of a “vast mortality cover-up … society’s structural denial of death … There has never been a time in the history of the world when a culture has broken so completely with traditional methods of body disposition and beliefs surrounding mortality.”

The way to restore society to emotional and psychological health, Doughty believes, is to engage with the event and get hands-on with the corpse. She believes that “more families would choose to take responsibility for their own dead if they knew that it was a possibility.”

This is what working in a crematory teaches her: “Westwind Cremation & Burial changed my understanding of death. Less than a year after donning my corpse-colored glasses, I went from thinking it was strange that we don’t see dead bodies any more to believing their absence was a root cause of problems in the modern world. Corpses keep the living tethered to reality.”

I’m not so sure. I have in mind David Clark’s 1982 paper, Death in Staithes. The older inhabitants of Staithes, a fishing village on the east coast of Yorkshire, could easily recall the way things used to be: “When a person passed away the first thing they did was go for the board – the lying-out board,” which was kept by the village joiner. The lying-out itself was supervised by women qualified by skill and experience. These same villagers had lived through the commodification of death and the arrival of the Co-operative. To them the hands-on past is no paradise lost and they display no desire to return to it.

I question Doughty’s assertion that we suffer from “structural denial of death.” If we were to think about death some more, would it really do us any good? Yes, she says: “I don’t just pretend to love death. I really do love death. I bet you would too if you got to know him.” Elsewhere, she writes: “Accepting death doesn’t mean that you won’t be devastated when someone you love dies. It means you will be able to focus on your grief, unburdened by the bigger existential questions like ‘Why do people die?'”

Philip Larkin felt sort of the same until he hit 50. In Julian Barnes’ words, “our national connoisseur of mortal terror … died in a hospital in Hull. A friend, visiting him the day before, said, ‘If Philip hadn’t been drugged, he would have been raving. He was that frightened.’” Pretty much the same can be said about the death of another connoisseur, Sherwin Nuland, the man who wrote with spooky prescience “I have not seen much dignity in the process by which we die.” He was that frightened, too.

“Let us … reclaim our mortality,” exhorts Doughty headily. But does the dearth of corpses in our lives really distance us from death? Death was big in the lives of everyone in the past because people died at any age. They don’t do that so much now, they mostly die old, and that’s less tragic, less sensational. But death is arguably bigger in our lives than ever before because the dying spend so bloody long about it. There can be very few children who are not acquainted with a tottering, muttering relative, and very few adults who do not spend years despairingly caring for dementing, degenerating parents. They are in no doubt about what their parents are doing: they are dying a modern death, a slow and beastly death. That’s why there’s such an intense national conversation in so many countries about assisted suicide — come on, how mortality aware is that? Far from being a time of death denial, the present age has focussed our attention on mortality at least as urgently as any other because the distressing dilapidation of legions of almost-corpses starkly and terrifyingly prefigures our own end times, leaving us in no doubt that the home straight is going to be unutterably horrible. If we don’t feel we have much to learn from corpses, we learn as much as we feel we need from the living dead (ever seen a stroke ward?) and from self-deliverers like Brittany Maynard. They teach us the allure of Nembutal. We talk about this. A lot.

What people believe also plays its part in modern attitudes. Religious and spiritual-but-not-religious people are, pretty much all of them, dualists. There’s a soul and there’s a body. It’s a belief reinforced by the appearance of any corpse they have ever seen. Gape-jawed and evacuated of all vitality, a corpse speaks of the absence of self. Whoever it once embodied has gone. The corpse is not the person, so what value is there to be gained from cosseting it? This isn’t a new thing. Radical Protestantism has always taught it. Calvinist settlers in America became very careless of the ‘dignity’ of their soul-less dead and drifted into just hauling them into the forest or pushing them into rivers. In some places it got so bad that neighbours were appointed to oversee next door’s disposal arrangements and held responsible for making sure things were done properly. For these settlers, direct cremation would have been a godsend.

If I take issue with Doughty’s thesis, it is because someone’s got to. For Doughty, the contemplation of the corpse is “the beginning of wisdom.” If you are inclined to believe that, she says, “Don’t let anyone ever tell you you are ‘sick’ or ‘morbid’ or ‘deviant.’”

What does morbid mean, exactly? It is Doughty herself who has pointed out that it has no antonym. Yes, what is the word for a healthy interest in death and dying? How does it express itself? Doughty and her fellow members of the Order of the Good Death express their wisdom exotically, sharing delight in much that others would regard as macabre — transi tombs, taxidermy, mortabilia and of all sorts. All a bit goth for my taste; I think there’s more than a dash of innate morbidity here. It would be idiotic to question the charisma of the cause, because it has attracted a huge worldwide following. How does it play to Mr and Mrs Everyday-Person? It remains to be seen. All I can say is that, speaking as a detached and jaded dullwit, after 6 years of hanging out with funeral people and their charges I remain unconvinced of the value of the corpse in death rituals, and while I acknowledge matter-of-factly the inevitability of death, I hate it as much as I ever did.

If by now you need some remission from my grinding and joyless pessimism, you need to buy this book. It it touches all the right bases — funny, shocking, sad, wise. Above all, it is full of hope and purpose. It is also highly readable. It was only when I re-read it that I became aware just how beautifully constructed it is. This is the work of a highly intelligent person who has got the inspiration-perspiration balance right (1:99). What she has to say is the product of experience, a lot of it penitential. She has captured the zeitgeist. This is a manifesto for today.

ECSTASY OF DECAY №1: Your Mortician from Angeline Gragasin on Vimeo.

Always alive

Monday, 6 October 2014

ronaldblytheweb_2610225b

 

“I met the poet James Turner in my twenties: no one reads him now, yet to me he is always alive … You too must have people like that in your lives, people who are not alive in the physical sense, but remain alive in some spiritual way, which you retain in your head, in your whole personality.”

Et in Arcadia ego

Wednesday, 24 September 2014

Nicolas Poussin - Les Bergers d_Arcadie _Et in Arcadia ego_

Posted by Richard Rawlinson

I first came across this Latin phrase as a teenager reading Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited. Narrator Charles Ryder finds the words inscribed on a skull displayed in his bedroom. ‘Even in Arcadia, there I am,’ is the translation. Death, the great equaliser, prevails even in the most utopian lands, as certain in the stately homes of England as the slums of Calcutta, the parched plains of Africa or the war-torn streets of Iraq. Continue reading

“It’ll save you the bother when I’m dead.”

Sunday, 15 June 2014

Jeremy_clarkson_april_2013_five

 

Jeremy Clarkson, writing in the Sunday Times about the death of his Mum:

Right in the middle of all that brouhaha about sloping bridges and Eeny, Meeny, Miny, Moe, my mum died.

So there I was, in Russia, in the middle of a Top Gear tour, trying to organise her funeral and tell the children and sort out all the legal stuff … and I knew that if I wept, which is what I wanted to do, because I was very close to my mother, the Daily Mirror would run pictures and claim they were tears of shame. It was a gruesome time.

And I knew that when I came home the BBC would still be bleating and the reporters would still be calling, and I’d have to go to her house and start sorting through her things. And where do you start with a job like that? Where did she keep her pension details, the deeds to her house, her insurance certificates? How do you cancel a Sky subscription? Did she have any shares? Premium bonds? And how do you find out if you haven’t got a sister who’s a lawyer?

Luckily, I do have a sister who’s a lawyer, but even though she could handle the paperwork, I’d still have to go through my mum’s things, and that would be a nightmare because I’m such a sentimental old sausage I even find it difficult to throw away an empty packet of fags. I think of the fun I’ve had smoking them and the people I’ve shared them with and I want to hold on to the wrapping as a keepsake, a reminder of happy times.

So what in God’s name would it be like in my mum’s house, surrounded by everything that made it hers, except her? And there’d be all those childhood memories. At some point it would be inevitable I’d find the egg cup I’d used every morning as a child and the cereal bowl with rabbits on it. That would tear my heart out.

At one stage I received a call from a middle-ranking BBC wallah saying they’d had a letter from some MPs, asking if I was going to be sacked, and I really wasn’t paying much attention because I was wondering what on earth I’d do with the mildly fire-damaged Dralon chair that my dad had bought for £4 in 1972.

Even by the standards of the time it was a truly hideous piece of furniture, and the years had not been kind to it. Any normal person would give it to charity or use it as firewood. But it was the chair my dad used to sit in. It had a cigarette burn in the arm from the time when he’d nodded off while smoking. I couldn’t possibly give it away, or burn it. And I sure as hell didn’t want it in my house. So what would I do?

There is no single thing in the house of anyone’s mother that isn’t infused with a gut-wrenching air of sentimentality. It’s not just her jewellery or her clothes. It’s the little things as well. Her kitchen scissors, her bathroom scales, her flannel. Every single thing in each and every drawer is as impossible to discard as a first teddy bear.

I would need a very big lorry to handle all the stuff I’d need to bring home. I’d also need at least two months to go through it all. And I’d need about 4,000 boxes of Kleenex.

However, here’s the thing. My mum did not die unexpectedly. She’d known for some time that the cancer was winning and had therefore had time to put her affairs in order. A job she had undertaken with some gusto.

I’d always assumed that “putting your affairs in order” meant writing a will and remembering to reclaim your lawnmower from the chap at No 42. But in the weeks since my mum’s death I’ve learnt that actually there’s a lot more to it than that.

First of all, she had left many helpful instructions about what sort of funeral she wanted. No friends. No flowers. And no mention of God or the baby Jesus. My sister and I didn’t even have to guess what music she would have liked because she’d told us: Thank You for the Music, by Abba.

All the financial stuff was in a neat box with everything clearly labelled. And she hadn’t stopped there. Before she became too weak, she’d had a massive clear-out. Pretty much everything she owned had been thrown into a skip. “It’ll save you the bother when I’m dead,” she had said.

But by far and away the best thing she did in those last few months was to sort out a lifetime of photographs, putting the ones that mattered into albums and, crucially, writing captions. So now I know that the time-faded sepia image of a stern-looking woman in a nasty hat is my great-aunt and that the blurred picture of what might be a corgi was my grandad’s dog.

Ordinarily, I’d have thrown away the endless pictures of what appear to be a building site, but thanks to my mum’s diligence, I now know it was the house in which I was born. And how it had looked when she and my dad bought it in 1957.

I don’t know how long she had worked on her downsizing and the clear-out and the organisation of her things, but it’s something we should all try to do when we know the Grim Reaper is heading our way. Because not only does it spare our loved ones from the hassle of going through every single thing we’ve ever owned but also it spares them from the grief of deciding that the horse brasses and the Lladro figurines really do have to go to the tip.

The only trouble is that there’s one thing my mum did not sort out. Back in 1971 she made my sister and me two Paddington Bears. They were the start of what became a very successful business and they were very precious, but over the years one was lost.

I maintain the sole survivor is mine. My sister insists it’s hers. And she’s the lawyer . . . so I have the cereal bowl with the rabbits on it, and the Dralon chair.

 

Imagine this: when someone dies we don’t hand them over to strangers

Wednesday, 11 June 2014

 

 

When the GFG, in conjunction with the Plunkett Foundation, announced a community funerals initiative back in 2012, we supposed that someone might pick it up and run with it. The Plunkett Foundation, far cleverer than us, was pretty confident they would.  They contacted all their community shops and community pubs and we waited with bated breath to see what happened next.

Absolutely nothing. Zilch. Squat.

So we are really pleased to learn of the emergence of a community funerals initiative on the other side of the world – in SE Australia in the steel town of Port Kembla, a place where, according to its community enterprise website, “no one wanted to live” until recently, but “now there is a change in the atmosphere”. It does look a bit like one of those unprepossessing places that brings out the best in people.

The purpose of the Port Kembla community funerals enterprise is to “empower people around death and dying, and offer a not for profit funeral service that is affordable and highly personalised to support healthy bereavement.” It is called Tender Funerals.

Tender Funerals will “offer affordable and flexible services and a transparent fee structure, to minimise the financial impact of funeral care. It will counter the idea that the amount of money spent on a funeral is a reflection of the amount a person was loved.”

“Tender Funerals will offer personalised services that demystify death and dying, and involve a model of community support, to assist healthy bereavement. This will include unique offerings of information and support, funeral services that celebrate and acknowledge both a person’s death and their life, and support and facilitation of active participation and community support in funeral care.”

They will also create an education programme to teach people about issues around death and dying: “We will develop and implement a community development model to provide ongoing support and community awareness … By providing a more open approach to death and the process around caring for the dead it is envisaged that people will become for familiar with death as an inevitable part of life.”

“Tender Funerals is re–imagining the way in which we as a community deal with death and provide a context within which the community is informed and empowered to ensure that the end of life process is one which is meaningful, authentic and good value.

“It will be a community resource and a funeral care provider that responds to shifts in community needs, attitudes, ideas and experiences in relation to death and dying.

“It will also develop a model for not-for profit funeral care that supports healthy bereavement, and empowered decision making at end of life, which can be replicated in other communities.”

The Port Kembla Community Project already has a scheme which offers no-interest loans up to $1,000.

Tender Funerals is presently crowdfunding to raise the money it needs to get off the ground. Check out the vision statement.

Its originators have had a film made about them – you can see the trailer at the top of the page.

Here at the GFG we’ve sent them a few bob to help them on their way. And we wish them every possible success.

Why go there?

Monday, 12 May 2014

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“If we want the deaths our lives deserve, we need to start talking about it,” advises a Times leader today.

Yes, it’s Dying Matters Awareness week and all Funeralworld is a-flutter with wheezes to “start the conversation” and encourage people to make a will, jot down their end-of-life wishes and their funeral wishes, even sort out their digital legacy.

As ever, the narrative from Dying Matters is that “discussing dying and making end of life plans remain a taboo for many people.” A possible problem here is that the stats supporting this statement offer comfort to the ‘deniers’ by showing them they are with the majority. Most people, after all, want to be where everybody else is.

And, by gum, the deniers constitute a big majority: 83% of people say they are uncomfortable discussing dying and death. 51% say they are unaware of their partner’s end of life wishes. 63% haven’t written a will. 64% haven’t registered as an organ donor or got a donor card. 71% of people haven’t let someone know their funeral wishes. 94% haven’t written down their wishes or preferences about their future care, should they be unable to make decisions for themselves.

If you reckon it important for people to get their death admin sorted, the present state of affairs is dire. But Dying Matters reckons that 400,000 more people aged 5-75 are talking about this unappetising stuff now than 5 years ago. This, surely, ought to be the headline figure. No one wants to feel left behind.

The difficulty in chivvying people to ‘get their shit together’ is, of course, that it brings them face to face with the terrifying fact of their own extinction:

A week? or twenty years remain
And then–what kind of death?
A losing fight with frightful pain
Or a gasping fight for breath?

There’s this comfy consensus among people in the death business that if you can bring yourself to confront your fear of dying your fears will magically melt away and your life will be gloriously enriched. It ain’t necessarily so. On the contrary, thinking about death can magnify the terror – why wouldn’t it?

For the end is likely to be disagreeable. Sherwin Nuland, in his book How We Die, wrote: “I have not seen much dignity in the process by which we die. The quest to achieve true dignity fails when our bodies fail.”

Nuland wrote his book 20 years before his death in March this year. Did the contemplation of his own mortality induce equable acceptance? Here’s an extract from his obit in The Times:

It is not given to many of us to set the stage for our own demise. For the surgeon and medical ethicist Sherwin Nuland, author of the bestselling How We Die: Reflections on Life’s Final Chapter, the climax of his personal drama, with the audience watching intently and the curtain poised to fall, had been scripted years before and never needed revision. Yet when the time came, Nuland was reluctant to play the part, remaining in the wings, unsure of his lines, not ready to make his last entrance.

According to his daughter Amelia, he talked incessantly about what was happening to him. “I’m not scared of dying,” he told her, “but I’ve built such a beautiful life and I’m not ready to leave it.” Finally, as the end drew near, he seemed “scared and sad”, as if the morbidity of his lifelong preoccupation had, somewhat ironically, rendered him unable to confront the reality.

If only talking about it really did earn us “the deaths our lives deserve” and, in the words of Mayur Lakhani, chair of the Dying Matters Coalition,  “enable people to become more comfortable in discussing dying, death and bereavement.”

But if not talk, what else is there?

 

Die-alogue Cafe

Friday, 11 April 2014

Diealogue

 

First there was Death Café. Then Let’s Have Dinner and Talk About Death. Then Death Salon.

Now there’s Die-alogue Cafe

Die-alogue Café has been developed by an Australian academic, Stuart Carter. We’ve been talking to Stuart for some time. We like and respect him very much. His purpose is not to upstage other formats, but to offer an alternative.

His starting point is pretty much the same as the others:

Living in a death denying time in human history is not delivering the good deaths we say we would like to have … in the company of like-minded people: we don’t feel so alone, we can create a good death road-map.

Self-empowerment is the thing:

We choose to not sit around and wait for someone else to do what we can do, ourselves — when we have the know-how (knowledge), the where-with-all (tools) and the friends who are willing to lend a hand (help).

So the format is purposeful, the discussion focussed so as:

* to be of practical assistance to each other;
* to build a body of knowledge and expertise that will, by extension, strengthen our families and communities;
* to build bridges across cultural divides;
* to empower people to act wisely and face the future with a positive outlook;
* to raise awareness about injustices and
* to provide a gentle nudge of encouragement as we face our fears.

Die-alogue Café is not for children, people seeking grief therapy; or people who are not prepared to use the plain English words that describe our end-of-life realities. It is not everyone’s idea of a good way to spend a couple of hours.

Meetings are themed. They comprise ‘ordinary’ people and professionals – care home staff, nurses, doctors, undertakers, estate planners, etc. Outcomes may be various: Do research, take on projects, write letters, practice meditation, play games, create art, visit, invent; in other words practice the principles and report back.

The overriding purpose is to enable people to have better ends and better funerals:

While the location, the time, the group may be different the underlying sentiments remain… open, honest dialogue as a backdrop to creating a dance with death that when played out in daily life, will reveal treasures untold and enrich all who stumble across its stage.

You can find out more about Die-alogue Café here. You can find Stuart’s dedicated website and blog here.

Classic

Tuesday, 8 April 2014

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Cicero

 

When Pomponius Atticus [a friend of Cicero] fell ill, and medical attempts to prolong his existence merely prolonged his pain, he decided that the best solution was to starve himself to death. No need to petition a court in those days, citing the terminal deterioration in your ‘quality of life’: Atticus, being a Free Ancient. merely informed his friends and family of his intention, then refused food and waited for the end. In this, he was much confounded. Miraculously, abstinence turned out to be the best cure for his (unnamed) condition; and soon the sick man was undeniably on the mend.

There was much rejoicing and feasting; perhaps the doctors even withdrew their bills. But Atticus interrupted the merriment. Since we must all die one day, he announced, and since I have already made such fine strides in that direction, I have no desire to turn around now, only to start again another time. And so, to the admiring dismay of those around him, Atticus continued to refuse food and went to his exemplary death.

Julian Barnes – Nothing To Be Frightened Of

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