Category Archives: Attitudes to death

The Protestant death ethic

Thursday, 26 September 2013



From the Westminster Confession of Faith, 1646, the foundational doctrine of the Scottish reformation church. 

WHEN any person departeth this life, let the dead body, upon the day of burial, be decently attended from the house to the place appointed for publick burial, and there immediately interred, without any ceremony.

And because the custom of kneeling down, and praying by or towards the dead corpse, and other such usages, in the place where it lies before it be carried to burial, are superstitious; and for that praying, reading, and singing, both in going to and at the grave, have been grossly abused, are no way beneficial to the dead, and have proved many ways hurtful to the living; therefore let all such things be laid aside.

Howbeit, we judge it very convenient, that the Christian friends, which accompany the dead body to the place appointed for publick burial, do apply themselves to meditations and conferences suitable to the occasion; and that the minister, as upon other occasions, so at this time, if he be present, may put them in remembrance of their duty.

Monday, 23 September 2013


Posted by Richard Rawlinson

If you watch this 1912 film of the funeral of the Salvation Army founder William Booth, you’ll notice that many of the mourners in the streets of London are wearing white armbands. Salvationists see the death of the faithful as a ‘Promotion to Glory’, hence the white armbands on uniformed ‘soldiers’ of the church, along with the uplifting sound of a brass band. 


ED’S NOTE: The hymn you hear is Shall We Gather at the River, an old spiritual. Below is a version by Willie Nelson. 


Death Over Dinner

Wednesday, 11 September 2013


It seems that Death Cafe has spawned a little brother, birthplace Portland Oregon, dob sometime earlier this summer. It’s name is Death Over Dinner. 

The aims of Death Over Dinner are pretty much the same as those of Death Cafe, namely, to get folk together to talk about you-know-what. It’s the initiative of Michael Hebb, who works at the University of Washington. The rationale for dinnertime deathchat? In Hebb’s words: “The dinner table is the most forgiving place for difficult conversation. The ritual of breaking bread creates warmth and connection, and puts us in touch with our humanity. It offers an environment that is more suitable than the usual places we discuss end of life.”

It’s a good formula. Death Cafe has already taught us that the model works. I must own up here to my own blindness to Death Cafe — I didn’t think it would. How wrong, sometimes, can we be.

The Death Over Dinner website is excellent. It is simple, instantly understandable and, above all, empowering. You can rapidly plan your own dinner party online. It is suggested that you give your guests, and yourself, a bit of homework in advance. You choose that from a bunch of truly excellent resources. The system generates an invitation to your guests together with tips about how you might facilitate the discussion. When it’s over, you can share your experience with the website which, usefully, pools them with others. 

The website is highly functional. It’s a lovely piece of work. Top marks go to the collection of resources, written, audio and visual. 

There are downsides. It is very US-centric. I very much didn’t like: “We have gathered dozens of esteemed medical and wellness leaders to create an uplifting interactive adventure” because like most Brits I don’t like being told what’s good for me by leaders of any sort. These initiatives work best if they’re bottom- up — like Death Cafe.  

Given Death Cafe’s viral spread around the world, there’s probably a lot to be said for the two initiatives working together. 

You can have a dummy run on the website — fill out the form and see what you think of the contents of the email you get back moments later. 

There is much to commend this enterprise. Find the website here





Tea with Daisy

Thursday, 4 July 2013



In which our guest blogger Richard Rawlinson is compelled to account for a socially questionable hobby

I googled your name recently and found you on some funeral blog site. What’s that all about?

Ha ha, oh yeah, I know the guy who runs it. Just help him out every once in a while.

I think you’re blushing, Dickie!

Am I? Well, I don’t want you thinking I’ve developed some morbid fascination with death.

No, no. It’s okay. In fact, I think it’s good to confront our mortality. And I was quite interested in a piece there about natural burial. Cremations seems quite unnatural. Positively Indian.

Do you mean natural burial grounds or just burial in a cemetery or churchyard?

The ones in a field of wild flowers. Way out in the sticks. No gravestones. Shrouds instead of coffins and all that. Are they kosher?

Depends what you mean by kosher.

Well… Christian. Mummy would turn in her consecrated grave if she thought I’d gone pagan. Except she was cremated like an Indian.

More like 70 per cent of the British population nowadays, Dais. I think the growth of these natural burial grounds is reviving traditional burial. It’s good that landowners are giving over fields as established cemeteries are running out of space. Not sure if they’re Christian per se, though. I’m sure some nature-loving religious folk choose ‘em as well as some new age types.

I should check them out. I’m not exactly religious myself these days, and yet they seem more spiritual than the few crematoriums I’ve been to. Mummy must have just been going with the flow. Are crematoriums largely for atheists?

Crematoria, not crematoriums. They’re for anyone, secular venues for a ceremony and a factory for the incineration. Your ashes can then be buried in a cemetery or natural burial ground, kept on the mantelpiece or thrown to the wind. Sometimes people have a church funeral before the crem and sometimes they don’t. If you wanted, you could have a church funeral before a committal in a field of wild flowers.

Blimey. How much time do you spend on that site? I thought you were always working, travelling or partying.

I have plenty of down time staying in of an evening. Death is just one of my hobbies!

Now you do sound macabre! I might join you on the site though.

Ok, but don’t say things like Hindu pyres are unnatural. It might make some people cross.


Does death really matter so little?

Thursday, 13 June 2013



Citizens of the UK have no statutory right to bereavement leave. Momentous as the event of a death may be, it is not reckoned to be of sufficient magnitude to enjoy equal rights with birth. Says a lot about our cultural attitudes to mortality, doesn’t it? 

There’s currently an e-petition calling for a legal right to take time off work in the aftermath of a death. It’s passed the 10,000 mark, triggering a response from the government. This is what they say: 

The death of a family member is deeply upsetting for those involved and the Government would expect any employer to respond to such situations with sensitivity and flexibility. However, the Government believes that all requests for leave related to bereavement are best left for employers and their employees to decide between themselves. The Government has not legislated for bereavement leave in any situation and there are no plans to introduce a specific right to support bereaved parents/relatives. In doing so we would be obliged to put in place limits, standards and definitions. The amount of leave needed can vary from one individual to another, and defining what family relationship would qualify for such leave, would be difficult, as it would be impossible to legislate for every circumstance. Whilst there is no specific right to “bereavement leave”, all employees do have a day-one right to “time off for dependants” which allows them to take a reasonable amount of time off work to deal with unexpected or sudden emergencies, including when a close family member dies. Time off will cover arranging and attending the funeral. Employees who exercise this right are protected against dismissal or victimisation. The right does not include an entitlement to pay. The decision as to whether the employee will be paid is left to the employer’s discretion or to the contract of employment between them. The Government hopes that employers are as sympathetic and flexible as possible in responding to employee requests for time off, particularly when bereavement is involved. This e-petition remains open to signatures and will be considered for debate by the Backbench Business Committee should it pass the 100 000 signature threshold.

There may be flaws in the government’s argument. The statement “defining what family relationship would qualify for such leave, would be difficult” applies equally to birth, doesn’t it? It isn’t difficult at all. 

You can sign the petition here. I hope you will. It won’t make the slightest bit of difference in the short term. We have to play the long game with this one. 

Here’s a reminder of the present status quo: 

Maternity leave

As an employee you have the right to 26 weeks of Ordinary Maternity Leave and 26 weeks of Additional Maternity Leave making one year in total. The combined 52 weeks is known as Statutory Maternity Leave. 

Paternity leave

As long as you meet certain conditions you can take either one or two weeks’ Ordinary Paternity Leave. You can’t take odd days off and if you take two weeks they must be taken together. 

Compassionate leave

If you are an ‘employee’, you have the right to unpaid time off work to deal with emergencies involving a ‘dependant’ – this could be your husband, wife, partner, child, parent, or anyone living in your household as a member of the family.  

When a dependant dies, you can take time off to make funeral arrangements, as well as to attend a funeral.  

Beyond wordless

Monday, 3 June 2013



David Aaronovitch tells a tale in today’s Times which seems to speak volumes about, uh, attitudes to death, or families, or Britishness or… something, such that I thought I must share it with you. The background is that the Aaronovich family dog, a Kerry Blue, has been diagnosed with cancer and will die soon. 

When the vet told us, my wife Sarah and I were upset enough on our own account. But Sarah was particularly worried about how the children would take it. Exams were coming; there were other problems to be dealt with. Perhaps we should put off telling them until the moment was more propitious.

Then, as we dithered, a friend who lives in Lincolnshire phoned and told us about her experience. She has four young children, and they had grown together, played together, yapped together with their dog, a schnauzer called Dennis. Dennis was afflicted by illness rather more suddenly than Ruby and a schoolday visit to the vet established that it was probably best for the poor animal to be ushered in the next world within the week.

Our friend could not bring herself to tell the children who she knew would be badly affected by the news. So she didn’t let on, which meant that on the day of execution she had done nothing to prepare her little ones. They came home from school to the dogless house and, amazingly, didn’t seem to notice. So our friend put off the dreaded moment again.

Tuesday came and went, then Wednesday and she began to wonder. After a week in which not one of the children had so much as mentioned the dog once, it occurred to their mother that she might have overestimated the trauma of Dennis’s demise. To this day she hasn’t said anything and neither have her children.


When death is no longer the worst thing that can happen to you

Monday, 27 May 2013



Phonobarbital — what they do you in with


It’s not the worthy efforts of the members of the Dying Matters coalition that have raised awareness of the need to talk about death and dying. What’s actually got more and more of us talking is our personal experiences of the difficult and protracted end-of-life suffering of members of our families. Alongside twenty-first century death agony, extinction is the least we have to fear. Bring it on, goes up the cry, as, just this week, the Falconer Assisted Dying Bill passed its first reading in the House of Lords, Vermont became the fourth state in the USA to legislate for assisted suicide (let’s call it what it is, shall we, Charlie?) and in liberal (if that’s the right word) Switzerland an 80 year old woman in perfectly good health appealed to the European Court of Human Rights to be allowed to go now rather than get any older. She’s had enough, thanks. 

Live issues in this debate are: 1) what constitutes suffering; 2) the right of the state to limit personal autonomy and an individual’s right to self-determination; 3) the duty of doctors to write a prescription for those who ask for a chemical exit; and 4) the protection of those going through a depressive patch or who are susceptible to duress from predatory relatives, etc.

Over time, of course, this is going to reconfigure attitudes to funerals. 

In the context of all this, I was struck by the following letter in last Sunday’s Sunday Times:  

It isn’t just dementia that thwarts our plans. I also dread the disease that robbed me of my mother, and the thought of my daughter changing my nappies and enduring tyrannical rages  and repeated conversations fills me with dismay.

So strong are my feelings that five years ago I wrote a detailed advance directive,  had it witnessed, shared it with my family and lodged a copy with my GP. I take little comfort from this as it  appears that some people — who do not know me but  have some religious or ethical opinion — are insisting they have more rights over my  body than me.

Why should the limited resources of this tiny planet be used on my dribbling, deranged shell when I’ve requested otherwise?

Sue Parkes, Halesowen, West Midlands

What taught Chuck about death?

Thursday, 23 May 2013



We like Chuck Lakin at the GFG. We’ve blogged about him here and here. Here’s his reply to the question ‘When did you begin learning about death?’

The precipitating incident was the death of my own father. This was in 1979 and he was home for the last six week of his life, and I’m glad to say I was there for the last month of that. And he was in his own bed with his wife and four kids touching him. It has been a very personal experience up until that point. And I didn’t know it before that, but I knew I wanted to be a part of whatever happened next. But I didn’t know what I could do. So, we called a funeral director. And he did what I’m sure he thought we wanted him to do, which was arrive promptly and zip dad in a body bag and take him away and mail us a box of ashes four days later. And that disconnect was very important to me. And it was almost 20 years later that I found the information that I needed that told me what I could have done at the point. I started giving people the information that they needed to have if they wanted the experience that I wanted to have when my father died. It has evolved past that. I started out just talking about home funerals. Now, I’m big on planning and making choices. It’s about thinking about it and making sure it is written down and you’ve had a conversation with the family. If you haven’t transmitted the information about what you’d like to have happen to your body to anybody, those people are going to have to make a lot of potentially expensive or contentious decisions. It’s a tragedy and it’s very stressful for everybody. If you’ve made the plans ahead of time, it can be a spiritual time. It can give them a chance to grieve.

Full interview here

Chowing down with the antecedents

Saturday, 4 May 2013

Cherry Blossoms


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?

That bloody box

Wednesday, 17 April 2013



“This was a funeral that celebrated unity. Like all other funerals. That bloody box: the awful finality: the dreadful unduckable certainty that life has to come to an end.

So of course it was the same today. We knew she was dead, and all of us, no matter how little interest we take in politics, have been talking about her life — and how some people thought she was great and some people thought she wasn’t and how some people thought a state funeral was great and how others thought it brought back the divisions of the 1980s. 

But in the end it was the usual infinitely solemn, infinitely banal parading of a box with the usual unspeakable contents. The flag and gun-carriage and the marching bands and the statuesque airmen with reversed arms outside the church of St Clement Danes in the Strand didn’t try to conceal the fact it contained death. 

Miners and policemen, tycoons and street-sleepers, liberals and authoritarians, winners and losers, wets and drys, warmongers and pacifists, the cruel and the compassionate, the bullies and the gentle: every funeral you ever go to reminds you that in the end there are no divisions between us. Death is the ultimate unity. 

Why should the funeral of Baroness Thatcher be any different?”

Simon Barnes in The Times

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