Debate about attitudes to death, funerals and the commemoration of the dead has largely been colonised by a section of the liberally-educated chattering sector of the middle class. They’re the ones most likely to opinionate about this stuff; they’re the ones who like to think think they can get their heads around it. They are intellectual adventurers with a degree of emotional courage and, even when a touch arrogant in their conclusions, are mostly well-meaning.
The opinionators have been moderately effective opinion-formers. Undertakers don’t like em much and would point out that, for all their reforming zeal, the overwhelming majority of funeral shoppers still opt for a black funeral and twenty minutes at the crem.
This is not to say that funerals haven’t changed a great deal in the last twenty years. What goes on after the coffin has been deposited on the catafalque has altered greatly. The early opinionators probably did not envisage the aesthetic which has evolved, neither the exuberance of the words, music and conduct of mourners, nor what the Daily Mail has termed the Poundland look in our cemeteries, especially the children’s sections. But I think most of us applaud a tendency to outpour. There’s a healthy decorum shift under way, expressed in a range of behaviours. No one should presume to legislate in matters of taste.
The coining of the pejorative term ‘death denial’ may well have been a mistake — an expression of benign condescension. All sorts of people don’t like thinking about death. My liberally educated and very nice dentist has just told me he hates passing the undertaker as he drives to work. He became a dentist, not a doctor, because he didn’t want people dying on him. And even though this is his disposition, it doesn’t mean he doesn’t know perfectly well, like all so-called death-deniers, that he will die one day. It is said that an awareness of mortality sharpens our appreciation of life. It can just as convincingly argued that shutting it out does, too. Nothing we think can alter what will be the experience of our dying, which is likely to be disagreeable.
Which is not to say that the availability of good exemplar funeral ceremonies is anything but a good thing, especially for those who prefer only to think about death when they have to. As established religions show, an off-the-peg course of action is best suited to people in grief. The work of thoughtful and humane undertakers and celebrants offers a great deal of solace to those wrestling to get their heads around what has happened. They have made an enormous difference.
The attractions of the death debate to academics, especially sociologists, are obvious enough. And so it is that the irredeemably chattery, middle-class GFG has been invited to sit on a panel at the University of Cardiff”s Before I Die festival on Sunday 20 May. It comprises stuff like Stages of Death: Men, Women, and Suffering in Opera and Ballet and Re-thinking the Organisation of Death and A Matter of Life or Death: Representing Coma. I can’t understand the titles, so I’d never get my pea-brain around the content. It is likely that audience will be made up of… the usual suspects. Is it worth going all that way for? My jury is in the out position.
An esoteric, abstract quality is a characteristic of academic discourse. On the 29-30 June the University of Bath is holding its annual conference, entitled New Economies of Death: The Commodification of Dying, the Dead Body, and Bereavement. It tempts us with stuff like Exemplars of good death: biopolitics and governmentality between commodification and social movement. I notice that Barbara Chalmers of Final Fling is slated to speak. She has a gift for refreshingly earthy utterance. Give em both barrels, B. Then re-load.
To be fair, the titles of talks at these academic gatherings are becoming plainer in their language. I have just had a look at the titles of the talks at the next Death, Dying and Disposal conference and there’s nothing there – yet – that I can use to illustrate my point. And I have to admit that I’ve had a lot of fun at these conferences and met all sorts of nice people. If I a have a beef with academics it is that they don’t make their research papers available, free, to the people who pay their wages.
All this talk of death is spawning death-themed shows and exhibitions. They mostly target middle-class chatterers. The Wellcome show earlier this year was a prime example. It featured a ‘spectacularly diverse’ range of stuff including ‘anatomical drawings, war art and antique metamorphic postcards; human remains; Renaissance vanitas paintings; twentieth century installations celebrating Mexico’s Day of the Dead; a group of ancient Incan skulls; and a spectacular chandelier made of 3000 plaster-cast bones.’ What are we to make of Richard Harris, the man who stockpiled all this melancholy clobber? A lot of people would say that someone who fetishises mortabilia is a bit of a saddist, and who is to say they are wrong? I went, and couldn’t understand what on Earth the hordes drifting round the show were actually making of it. If I detected a mood of self-admiration and camouflaged bafflement amidst all the peering I’d probably be describing my own dimness and insecurity.
Still, it was a relief to get back to Carla Conte’s Graveland exhibition next door, full of stuff that ordinary, plebby people do when someone dies. That was a great show. It was useful, that’s why. Unsnobbish. There wasn’t a Heaven’s Gate floral tribute, but there could have been. I wish there had.
There may be much to be said for studying other cultures for the sake of it. At the same time, let’s not get carried away by cultural voyeurism. What we learn can be useful to us. There are very few practices in other cultures that can be adopted as they are, but there are some that can be usefully adapted. Let’s not to underrate Britain’s continuing cultural deficit in this matter. We’re not at ground zero as we pretty much were twenty years ago, but further enrichment is definitely desirable.
Every year there’s a great outpouring of homage to the Mexican Dia de los Muertos. “Oh, we should do this, too,” people cry. I’m not so sure. 1) it expresses a belief system that cannot possibly transplant, 2) it happens months after marigolds have finished flowering and 3) November is not a notably doing-stuff-outside-friendly month. To turn it into a jolly romp complete with face-painting is to send it the way of Hallowe’en.
The Dia de los Muertos does resonate, though. A great many Britons commune with their dead in all sorts of solitary ways. We don’t call them ancestors – but we could come to think of them that way.
Probably the most concerted time of the year for remembrancing is Christmas, when people leave wreaths on graves, much to the anxiety of the cemetery managers.
Oddly (or not), no envious attention is ever paid to Qingming. It’s a Chinese festival with broadly the same purpose — to commemorate the ancestors in a coming-together way by sweeping their graves and bringing them gifts, food mostly. It’s a sad-and-happy day. There’s a lot of kite-flying, too.
It happens at roughly the same time as the Japanese Cherry Blossom Festival, which is not dedicated to a remembrance of the dead at all. It is devoted to picnicking under the cherry trees and admiring the beauty of the blossom. Spring is a great time of the year to get out and glory in being alive.
If we Brits were to cherry-pick all three festivals and add a dash of our own ingenuity we could probably develop a very useful Day of the Dead of our own. Springtime. Blossom. Picnics. Holiday. Festivity. Community. Kite-flying. A natter with the ancestors. Would that not make a good stock for an emotionally and spirtually nourishing celebration this weekend?
Or is it, like so many chattering class notions, just a bit la-la?