Category Archives: funeral customs

An afternoon of education at CDAS

Friday, 14 October 2016

adam-and-eve

Adam and Eve as portrayed at the Creation Museum Kentucky illustrating John Troyer’s presentation. 

There’s some interesting stuff going on in the world of academia which can go unnoticed in the frenzied world of Facebook updates and Twitterfeed, and yesterday the GFG took a few hours out to go and listen to some learned folk exploring religious responses to contemporary western death practices at the Centre for Society and Death at the University of Bath.

Introduced by good friend of the GFG Professor Tony Walter, the seminar was attended by an eclectic mixture of academics, undergraduates, postgraduates, eminent experts and interested others. Which we think included us. We put our hands up for that anyway.

Tony started things off with a paper on four ways that religions interact with society’s death practices – promotion, opposition,accommodation and compensation. In a compelling canter through illustrations of various ways different religions interact and influence with societies around the world, Tony touched on Mizuko Kuyo, monotheism’s opposition to ancestor worship, Nepalese Christianity, Madagascan death rituals , the popularity of spiritualism post WW1 and the lack of channels for grief provided in Protestant countries that have perhaps led to the development of bereavement memoirs, bereavement counselling and the association of green spaces and nature with soothing of grief.

Next to speak was Dr. Shirley Firth, presenting a paper on outdoor funeral pyres and the legal battle that began ten years ago when devout Hindu Babaji Davender Ghai was refused permission for a traditional open air pyre by Newcastle City Council. Four years later the Court of Appeal ruled that an outdoor pyre would be lawful if it took place in a structure with walls and an opening in the roof – see here. To date, none have. This could be because of the complexity of the various legal processes that would be involved in gaining planning for outdoor cremation given the likely invocation of the Prevention & Control of Pollution Act or the Environmental Protection Act. Undeterred, Mr Ghai continues to hope for his funeral to take place according to his beliefs, see here.

(As a completely irrelevant aside, readers of the blog with fond memories of THAT scene from the BBC’s Pride and Prejudice may be interested to know that Dr. Firth’s son is the one and only Colin Firth. We didn’t realise this yesterday.)

Third up was Dr. Mansur Ali from Cardiff University, presenting  early results from his research into the response from Muslims in Cardiff to the Human Transplantation (Wales) Act 2013 which is now enacted. Dr. Ali has explored the feelings and beliefs about organ donation among the Islamic community through interviews and focus groups with Islamic scholars, medical professionals and an online survey, and the impact of presumed consent that results from the Act. Entitled ‘Our Bodies Belong to God’, Dr. Ali’s fascinating presentation explored the conflict experienced for Muslims when considering transplantation of organs from or to a body that is considered the property of God and not of oneself. He outlined some of the questions that arose such as ‘if my corneas are donated to someone whose sight is restored as a result but who then goes on to watch pornography (a sin according to Islam), does this make me also a sinner?’ Results from his findings are of significant interest, and he hopes to gain funding for much more comprehensive research.

The afternoon was rounded off by Dr. John Troyer, Director of CDAS who explored the fundamental Christian response to end of life planning in the United States. Definition of when death occurs, who has the right to determine life or death and the influence of fundamental Christianity were covered in a broad ranging presentation –  protests by Christian groups outside the hospital where Terri Schiavo’s persistent vegetative state was allowed to end in death (despite attempted intervention by President George Bush and his brother Jeb Bush, then governor of Florida), and the lack of support of hospice care from some sections of the Christian Fundamentalist movement illustrated his points, and he ended with a slide showing a placard from the current presidential election campaign stating ‘1st choice for President – God, 2nd choice – Jesus, 3rd choice Trump.’

And on that rather terrifying note, the seminar was over.

Green Funeral Director of the Year

Wednesday, 28 September 2016

16-jo-lorna-vassie-higher-ground-meadow-green-funeral-director

Lorna and Jo Vassie of Higher Ground Family Funerals

Jo Vassie is one of the leading figures in the world of natural burial; her site near Dorchester currently holds the Natural Death Centre’s People’s Award for the Best Natural Burial Ground in the UK.

With a custom built facility and a determination to be able to provide undertaking services for the many families that asked for her assistance, Jo is a great example of the no-nonsense, sensible and down to earth approach, which does away with any fluff or complications when it comes to caring for the dead.

She has an unfussy, straightforward and completely unassuming nature and brings this approach to her work caring for both the dead and their families, and she and her small family team are successfully growing this complementary business alongside their main love, which is of providing the highest quality natural burial.

In 2013, after years of trying to encourage her husband to consider offering an undertaking service for families choosing to be buried at Higher Ground Meadow, Jo and her son Tom decided that it was time to bite the bullet. They converted some space on their farm to suitable premises for caring for dead people, and bought a 9-seater vehicle that Tom adapted by removing the two back rows of seats and adding a shelf with rollers.

At the time of entering for the awards HGFF have carried out 71 funerals including some cremations, although invariably the majority of funerals involve a natural burial at Higher Ground Meadow. Bodies are cared for naturally, no toxic chemicals are involved and they don’t embalm, nor stitch mouths together or use plastic eye caps. Jo and her daughter in law, Lorna, take care of the bodies in their mortuary, and they take pride in making people look as nice as they can for their families. Some are dressed in their own clothes, others in a cotton gown supplied by HGFF, and all are laid on a thick cream coloured calico sheet before being placed in their coffin. All coffins are biodegradable, and the very reasonable costs are all displayed online.

Families are encouraged to be involved with the funeral, and hired bearers are rarely used – where necessary, four local men will help out but most families are pleased to do this part themselves with Jo’s help and guidance.

One of the many testimonials received reads; ’ How can I ever thank you enough? You have been there for me and my daughter every step of the way during this terrible, bewildering and heart breaking time. Everything you have done for us and for my darling husband has been so perfect. What you do for the grieving and the passed over is so very, very special. You are an angel, I am certain. Thank you, from the bottom of my heart”

 

Runner Up in this category: Only With Love

Look what’s waiting to land in your e-book library…..

Tuesday, 2 August 2016

Adventures in Funeralworld

Fresh out of the box and ready for reading, here’s the e-book that is essential for the library of anyone with an interest in anything funereal.

Or actually anyone with an interest in life.

Enough said.

Published today.

Buy it here.

 

The fashion of death…

Friday, 1 July 2016

Victorian mourning hats

Guest post by Howard Hodgson

 

THE FASHION OF DEATH ALWAYS FOLLOWS THE FASHION OF LIFE.

‘In the midst of life we are but in death, of whom may we seek for succour but thee oh Lord, who for our sins art justly displeased’ are words that most of us would have associated with an Anglican funeral service a decade ago. But this is no longer the case today. Why?

It is because the post war baby boomers are starting to die. Therefore, the children of the social revolution of the early 1960s, who ripped down the lasting vestures of Victorian society and values and replaced such discipline and order with the Beatles and Bob Dylan, are now attacking conventional death ritual as it looms towards them.

This is hardly surprising. Why would a generation who grabbed power and kept it do anything else? Paul McCartney, aged 74, still fills stadia all over the world with people of all ages to listen to his music, most of which was written over 40 years ago.

We are talking of a pampered generation from birth that believes in ‘oh how to die’ as much as it did in ‘oh how to be a teenager’ all those years ago. Therefore, it is not surprising that it questions the need to have a traditional funeral – and all the costs associated with it.

This is because these folk are less religious and more allergic to formality than their parents. Therefore, they don’t like the cost associated with a distressed purchase and, in the case of some, would prefer not to be forced to attend a morbid occasion but a more colourful celebration of life or even have a party instead. After all, we are talking about the original sex, drugs and rock and roll generation.

So, while there is no escaping the pain of bereavement, it is everyone’s right to choose how to deal with it – and this is their way and it follows 100% their way of living.

As a result, today some families are shocked and concerned that a traditional funeral will cost around £4,500 while they are quite content to spend more on a family holiday and four times that sum on a wedding. This is pure baby boomer thinking.

At Memoria, we have developed three options of direct cremation to meet this new demand. Interest has been very considerable, as it has been in the same options available in the form of three pre-arranged direct cremation plans. Such options allow a family to have a one hour service of their choice while reducing the costs by between 55 – 80% dependent upon the option selected.

Last year we conducted just a mere handful of direct cremations. This year the total equals about 7% of our turnover. While I don’t expect direct cremation to grow to become 100% of the market, I do expect it to grow to over 40% in the next decade.

Furthermore, I can report that such growth is being driven by social groups A, B and C, while D and E still prefer to arrange traditional funerals. Therefore, it is safe to say that so-called ‘funeral poverty’ has little or nothing to do with this new trend.

Nevertheless, the introduction of direct cremation services has widened the choice available to all and this is a very good thing too for people of limited financial means, while not having any affect on those who still wish to choose a traditional funeral complete with hearses and limousines etc.

So there is absolutely no reason why ‘Abide with me’ should not be sung in one service and ‘Hey Jude’ played in the next.

 

Howard Hodgson

www.low-cost-funeral.co.uk

More to it than wearing a hat and making a face

Thursday, 10 July 2014

Carson

 

 

Guest post — At the request of the writer, her name has been withheld for the time being

I first became aware of this blog when I was researching the effect of Downton Abbey on British attitudes to what used to be called domestic service. What caught my attention was the theory expressed in this blog that Funeral Directors see Carson, the butler, as the personification of the perfect Funeral Director.

In my line of work — I have a consultancy position in a company that trains butlers, valets, etc — I am able to testify to the accuracy of this observation. Whilst most of our recruits come from the armed forces, we have always had a steady flow from the funeral industry. Many of them are ‘naturals’ and are now employed in great houses all over the world. When you think about it, there is an obvious connection between butling and funeral directing, both appeal to the same personality type.

However it was not until just over a year ago, when I attended the funeral of a family member, that I began to see the ways in which mourners are not receiving best-possible service from their Funeral Directors. Even the ‘naturals’ fail to make the grade only because they have not had the specialist training they need to make the most of their in-born talents. A little research quickly taught me that the sort of training they need is not available to them. I began to consider how my company could fill the gap. In order to do so, I attended many more funerals as an observer, auditing the ceremonial role and appraising the performance of Funeral Directors in many parts of the country.

As I did so, I became aware that there are as many different levels of service demanded by ‘funeral consumers’ as there are in the world of hospitality. The market for DIY or home funerals equates with self-catering. ‘Direct cremation’ is the equivalent of the home delivery pizzeria. A business like Evelyn’s is the equivalent of hiring a top chef to cater for your dinner party. Where the analogy breaks down is that most funeral businesses don’t specialise. They try to be all things to all tastes. But there’s no inherent problem in that.

For those of their clients requiring a full-service, ceremonial funeral, the provision on offer is, I have found, generally wanting. The ‘chain’ funeral directors offer the service levels of Little Chef at Savoy prices. Many independent funeral homes, even the oldest and most prestigious, offer little better than the equivalent of the provision offered by a seaside boarding house. Some of the best hardly rise above Premier Inn. I’m sorry if that sounds harsh. Just one or two London funeral directors are exemplary. Edinburgh also enjoys very high standards. Following the lead of this website, I also witnessed impressive service in Cheshire. I was not impressed by the conducting style of one particular Funeral Director whose flamboyance, in my opinion, brought proceedings down to the level of the fairground. A good Funeral Director, like a good butler, must never be attention-seeking.

Two things especially struck me at the many funerals I observed. The first and most obvious was turnout. Far too often I saw scruffy and inappropriate footwear and cheap, unpressed uniforms. I saw personnel whose appearance, bearing and grooming were wholly unsuited to a ceremonial occasion.

But what struck me most forcibly was the lack of awareness of what a ceremonial occasion demands of the conduct of its participants. More than one Funeral Director told me that what people expect is “a bit of a show” as if going through the motions is enough. It is not enough. It is not about ‘putting on a show’. A ceremonial occasion must be invested with decorum, and this can only be achieved by creating a sense of occasion which is special and which influences the mood and the conduct of everyone present.

Here is an example of what I mean. I asked one Funeral Director why he had conducted a formal funeral without a top hat. He told me that a top hat “is not really me.” When I asked him to consider whether he was there to occupy a ceremonial role or ‘be himself’, there was silence. It is a pity more Funeral Directors do not think harder about such matters because, done properly, a formal funeral is a magnificent occasion which brings out the best in everyone.

The butlers I train are taught how to manage, say, a dinner party so as to bring out the best in everyone present by creating an atmosphere in which everyone rises to the gravitas of the occasion. This is achieved not by going through the motions of etiquette, it is achieved by expert and wholehearted role-playing by those who serve. The last thing any of the guests want is to be served by a butler ‘being himself’, and the same applies to their Funeral Director and his or her Pallbearers. There is no place for ‘self’ at either a big banquet or a formal funeral.

What is required of both a butler and Funeral Director is, above all, a spirit of devoted, selfless service to others. Both exhibit deference, but what they also understand very clearly is that the part they play is not, paradoxically, a subservient role. The writer David Katz expressed it very well when he said: “A happy butler is a Buddhist monk in tails, taking pleasure in the duty itself. Serving, but never servile.” A good butler has a healthy ego. The same is also true of a good funeral director. Both serve the occasion.

Butlers and Funeral Directors have other skills in common. They must remain unflappable in the face of both disaster and unreasonable demands. Gone are the days when butlers worked for old-money families who knew how to behave, they are now exposed to the arbitrary and sometimes outrageous whims of newly-minted billionaires. Grieving people, too, can behave unpredictably. Funeral Directors and butlers must be able to fix mishaps quickly and without fuss. They must have excellent concierge skills. The must be omnipresent but invisible. They must understand the meaning of courtesy in its fullest sense, and that it is not a matter of play-acting. On the contrary, in the words of the great Mahatma Gandhi,  “When restraint and courtesy are added to strength, the latter becomes irresistible.” Good butlers and good Funeral Directors derive their self-esteem from understanding how powerful they are.

Given the hours they must work, together with the range of skills they must possess, many of the best butlers, I have found, are divorced or gay. I wonder if the same may be said of the best Funeral Directors?

I am in the process of developing training manuals which I believe will be of great service to Funeral Directors wishing to advance their ceremonial skills. I shall be making an announcement in due course. I am grateful to this blog and its readers for the many insights it has given me into the world of funerals. I welcome your responses to what I have written here.

Stonehenge and sky burial

Friday, 21 February 2014

 stonehenge-8

 

 Posted by Ken West

The archaeology at Stonehenge is all about digging up funerary artefacts so is it possible to consider how those funerals occurred? Stonehenge is unique, the only certain stone circle in Britain aligned to the solstices. Forget the Druids, as they did not exist in the Neolithic period and never had any involvement with Stonehenge.

The people, a loose federation of tribes called the Durotriges when the Romans arrived, were initially hunter gatherers. The first date we have is 8,000BC when three posts, totem poles, perhaps, were erected at Stonehenge. We have no burials from that period so we might assume, as with most early mobile societies, that bodies were exposed to birds and/or animals. The people could retain the large bones and then carry them back to a homeland location, perhaps the sacred River Avon. Burial had little to commend it, the graves being scattered over a wide area and requiring the digging of a shallow grave with antler picks, which would then be dug up by foraging wolves and bears. We then jump 4,000 years to when these people built communal stone chambered tombs. Early assumptions were that bodies were placed in the chamber and allowed to decompose. This was never feasible as decomposition would be slow, neither are full skeletons found, nor are there sufficient chambers. The chambers were probably used for the storage of the bones of the elite. Around 3,700BC, they built causewayed enclosures, which are banked and ditched circles broken by paths, or causeways, leading inside. Sometime between 4,000 – 3,000BC, the use of the chambered tombs ceased, or at least was infrequent, and cremation/burial began, which neatly brings us to Stonehenge.

Archaeologist Mike Parker Pearson’s book “Stonehenge,” summarises the Stonehenge Riverside Project 2003 – 2009, in which he theorised that Stonehenge was part of a much wider ritual area, with Durrington Walls, a nearby henge, suggested as the Stonehenge builder’s camp, and the River Avon linking this henge downriver to the avenue from Stonehenge. The project proved that this was the case, but these ritual components were put in place over 500 years, so let’s consider the sequence of construction.

Both Durrington Walls and the sarsen Stonehenge we see today, date to 2,500BC, and are about two miles apart. The project proved Durrington Walls to be the largest Neolithic encampment in Europe and that it was the builder’s camp, over a 40 year period. No human remains were found but their cattle bones suggested that some of the builders travelled from Devon, West Wales and Scotland. It appears that between 2,000 – 4,000 people met each autumn, and, say, hauled two sarsens from near Avebury, to Stonehenge, dressed them on site, and erected them together with a couple of bluestones. In just 40 years they erected the 82 sarsens with the pre-existing 80 bluestones in four concentric rings, with no human burials involved. The project suggested that 56 of these bluestones had previously formed a larger, outer circle built 500 years earlier, around 3,000BC, these stones hauled from Preseli, in Pembrokeshire. The circle was entered at the Heel Stone, a natural sarsen erected to mark the sunrise. Each of the bluestones sat on human cremated remains, which the project referred to as the Chieftains Cemetery, with 63 bodies, mostly identified through small ear bones. Some were women and children, and if these were double or triple funerals, as it were, it may be that precisely 56 inhumations took place under the 56 bluestones. The remains were placed beneath each stone, and crushed into the chalk that formed the socket. The burials took place over 200 years, from 3,000 BC to 2,800 BC. 

The only grave goods found were one mace head, which implied a warrior, and an incense burner, which implied a religious leader or shaman. But the presence of women and children’s bones denied the circle as a warrior or religious burial area, as women did not participate in either, as far as we know. Mike Parker Pearson’s conclusion was that they were an elite, perhaps an aristocracy.

The project also confirmed the existence of a second bluestone circle at the end of the avenue from Stonehenge, where it meets the River Avon. This was constructed at the same time as the Stonehenge bluestone circle, using 25 stones, none with cremated remains. The ritual importance of this second circle is its riverside location. Upon disembarking from a boat, one was immediately into the bluestone circle, which was banked and ditched in glaring white chalk. The mile long avenue headed north, then west on the 450 metre straight stretch to Stonehenge, entering at the Heel Stone. The avenue is 22 metres wide, and had a glistening white chalk bank and external ditch on either side, but little can now be seen. The straight section of the avenue follows three parallel natural chalk ridges, which always marked the sunrise from Stonehenge. Some consider that this is the reason why Stonehenge is where it is; that the Gods put in place this natural feature marking the sunrise. The bluestones in the riverside circle were removed around 2,400BC, the same date as the present sarsen circle and Durrington Walls were constructed. The henge was retained so the ritual possibilities remained in place. Was the funeral ritual to carry the ashes for the 63 bodies by boat to the riverside circle, then create a cortege up the avenue to the Stonehenge bluestone circle, and then inter the remains under a bluestone?

Why did they choose cremation? Was it because the solstice orientation was a form of Sun God worship, which supports the use of fire? Or was it a means of purifying the dead? If so, it is unlikely that burying the ashes, and effectively de-purifying them has any merit. Was the cremation a sacrifice, perhaps related to fertility rites, with the ashes scattered on fields, yet no bone fragments are found in soil? Perhaps the most obvious reason, not suggested by the project, is that cremation reduces a body to a small, peripatetic, pile of bones, which are readily placed under a stone.

The chalk downs were never heavily wooded so creating a pyre would be onerous. None have been found at Stonehenge or anywhere nearby. Currently, a modern cremator would produce about two kilos of bone ash. Although Neolithic people might be smaller than ourselves, they would possess higher bone density due to heavy labour, walking, even running, and the opposite of modern people experiencing an epidemic of osteoporosis. Yet the archaeologists find only one kilo of cremated bone so were the smaller bones left in the pyre ash? Even now, many cultures are quite content to collect only the larger bones after cremation and ignore the smaller.

The project concluded that Durrington Walls was the place of the living, and Stonehenge the place of the dead, but is 63 burials sufficient to reach this conclusion? Clearly, these burials took place at Stonehenge but I would suggest that watching one would be like watching a burial at Westminster Abbey or Princess Diana’s funeral: yes, it’s happening but how representative is it? Isn’t Stonehenge identical to the earlier chambered tombs, all about Stone Age grandiosity; a place for the elite. If we reckon that archaeology has located less than one percent of deaths in the area and no cemeteries have been found, we might ask where the anticipated 12,000 other bodies are? The project used the term cremation/burial to suggest that the cremation and burial were integrated; that the word cremation on its own is not sufficient. Was cremation/burial, like chamber burial, only permitted to chieftains or others of rank because of the massive labour it requires to create the pyres? That sounds remarkably similar to Tibet and Mongolia, where cremation is reserved for high lamas and dignitaries because the ground is rocky or frozen, or there is little wood. 

So what happened to the common people? The conclusion is simple, the one in which nature does all the hard work instead of the exhausted humans; sky burial. The excess of Stonehenge blinds us to reality. Life was hard, many children died, people lived short lives, proven by the arthritis found in the bones of the spine, even of some of the elite interred at Stonehenge. Seasonal work meant that the period March to September was a struggle to find food, care for the young animals born each spring, store food, cut wood for fuel, and have enough excess to survive the winter. The work parties building Stonehenge clearly did so in the quiet autumn period, when the people were at their healthiest and strongest. In the summer, there was no possibility of building funeral pyres, week in, week out? 

What evidence is there for sky burial? On the banks of the River Avon near Durrington Walls, project excavations found three sets of postholes, each of four posts forming a square, the whole surrounded by a palisade. The biggest posts were 50 centimetres across, and estimated at over 5 metres high. The conclusion is that they were towers, looking out over the river, and presumed to be holding platforms. This is not such a surprise because there have been suggestions that the earlier causewayed enclosures could have been designed to expose bodies to birds or animals. Perhaps they progressed to towers as they created more efficient flint axes to cut timber, or did not want animals feeding on the body.

If you think sky towers a flight of fancy, consider that in Tibet, where it may have persisted from the Stone Age, they revere the vulture as a form of angel. This fact reminds me that few, if any, bird bones are found in UK excavations. Is that because the Neolithic people and birds had a spiritual relationship? Imagine, eagles, buzzards, kites, ravens and carrion crows could have fed on the bodies, and probably European vultures, at least in summer. Even in 2013 over one hundred vulture sitings were made over the south of Britain. It is evident that the larger eagles and vultures swallow small fleshed bones so feet, hands and ribs would disappear as well as all the soft tissue. That fits with the overall finding that full skeletons are rare and disarticulated skull fragments and large bones are found scattered about sites. Once the bones were cleaned off, they could be deposited in the sacred Avon. Sky burial is also faster than modern cremation based on an incident in 2013 when a female walker in the Pyrenees fell to her death. Two friends, walking with her, called the police and they took 50 minutes to locate her body. Initially the rescuers could not see the body from their helicopter until they realised that it was covered by gorging Griffon vultures. By the time they got to her the birds had stripped her body of all flesh and only a few bones remained; and she had been clothed.

The birds strip the flesh, free the spirit, remove the potential for infection and reduce the weight to a handful of bones; a peripatetic body, just like cremation. Perhaps it was these bones, of the elect, that were cremated, and not full bodies, which would reduce the need for huge pyres. Perhaps a bone or two from every body, whether sky burial or cremated, was carried to Stonehenge, at some point, for a ceremony, and then deposited in the sacred Avon. 

It might be concluded that Stonehenge is neither a cemetery nor the abode of the dead; that the burials were more a form of dedication for each bluestone placement. Stonehenge is more a theatre of dreams, a ritual space; a stage, cathedral and town hall, in which they could ritualise everything in society. Even the solstice celebrations, just two each year, sounds reasonable in that one imagines that they could create the necessary resources whilst also providing for their own needs. The enigma continues.

See the full article as a download on my website www.naturalburialcreator.co.uk

 

Sky Burial from Matthew Hirt on Vimeo.

Funerals, who needs em?

Sunday, 19 January 2014

Screenshot 2014-01-18 at 16

 

When England first played Scotland, on 30 November 1872, both teams employed formations that would raise eyebrows today. Scotland went for a cautious 2-2-6 while England employed a more swashbuckling 1-1-8. The game was all kick-and-rush in those days.

Kick-and-rush. It’s how businesses, anxious to futureproof themselves, respond to prophecy. Some bright spark peers into a crystal ball, dreams a dream and holds up a trembling finger. No matter that their vision is little more than a projection of their wishes and values, everyone rushes towards it.

Remember the Baby Boomer Hypothesis which held that, just as baby boomers reinvented youth culture, so they would reinvent death culture? Pretty much everybody bought that, including the entire advisory council of the GFG. The theory was that these free radicals would reject bleakness and embrace creative, themed, personalised, sometimes iconoclastic celebrations of life. The good news for the industry was that there would still be good money to be made from funerals so long as undertakers made the switch from cookie-cutter to bespoke; from being po-faced solemn-event planners to bright-eyed party-planners adding value through accessorisation and offering concierge-level service and red-carpet delivery. Pretty much the package Alex Polizzi tried to sell to David Holmes in The Fixer.

It’s not happening, is it? And as we take that in, we reflect that baby boomers have, yes, always been insouciant about what went before and unsentimental in their rejection of it. They’re re-inventors, not renovators. And they’re not all going the same way.

The evidence seems to be that baby boomers are increasingly asking themselves what good a funeral would do, really. More and more of them see little or no emotional or spiritual value in the experience. They’re not all rejecting them out of hand all at once. Some are dressing trad funerals up in a gently creative way with wacky hearses, jolly coffins and startling music choices. But on the whole they’re whittling them down. The reasons are complex and we’ve rehearsed some of them here before.

Dissatisfaction with the value offered by a funeral is probably most widely evidenced in the near-universal belief that funerals are too expensive — ie, they’re not worth what they cost. The strength of this rejection of funerals is evidenced in people’s unrealistic incredulity that a basic funeral should cost much more than having an old washing machine taken away.

Read the comments under any broadsheet article about funerals. The evidence of rejection is everywhere. If the effect of a funeral is to leave you feeling, next day, beached and empty, that’s not surprising. A funeral is supposed to fill a hole, not leave a void. Here are some recent comments in a discussion forum on Mumsnet, of all places:

My MIL has said … she wants the absolute bare minimum in terms of coffin and cremation. No service, no ‘do’ afterwards. Then she wants close family to either go somewhere nice for the weekend together. 

I had it put in my will that i don’t want any sort of funeral when i die. I think the money funeral directors charge for the most simple of services is utterly abhorrent

[My mother-in-law] died recently, she didn’t care what we did by way of funeral (I think her only words on the subject were that we could drop her off the pier for all she cared…)

My uncle didn’t want a service – he just went straight to the crematorium.

I wouldn’t want to burden love ones with the cost, I have life insurance but would want the cheapest option

It is criminal how the respectful disposal of our loved ones has turned into a million pound industry!

I have left strict instructions that I am to have no funeral service and I have made sure everyone knows about it. It is written in my will and my family would never go against my wishes. They know how strongly I feel about it.

Immediate cremation, ashes in a simple box and then take me down our local and stick me on the bar whilst everyone has a quick drink. Next day, throw my ashes in the sea at the place I grew up in as a child. That will do. No order of service with dodgy photos and poems, no wittering on about my life and no-one failing miserably to pick out my favourite songs. Boo hiss boo.

I am a crematorium manager, and can confirm that plenty of people choose to have no funeral service.

I just don’t get the whole thing. I’ve only ever been to one funeral that was really a lovely rememberence and not out of duty of what they thought they had to do. I would much rather my family used money to go on holiday to our favourite place and remembered me there.

My FIL keeps saying he doesn’t want a funeral and wants to be cremated asap with no ceremony or fuss.

We chose not to have a funeral for my dad when he died. Cardboard coffin, cremation with no service. I think he would have been pleased but I tend not to tell anyone as I have some judgey reactions as if we were being cheap (was not relevant) or he was not loved (he was very much).

The Mumsnet discussion includes a few objections on the lines of: ‘To be fair, it’s not really about you. It’s about the loved ones you left behind, it’s an essential grieving process.’ But the overwhelming majority can see no good in a funeral.

This would seem to overturn the supposition that excellent secular funeral celebrants and empathetic undertakers would save the public ceremonial funeral by making it meaningful once more. But there’s a growing realisation that you don’t need to put a corpse in a box and tote it to the crem in blackmobiles, you can create a perfectly satisfying, private, informal farewell event with ashes. Direct cremation, already growing rapidly, looks set to skyrocket.

I know that there are lots of people who believe that reports of the demise of the funeral are exaggerated. They tell me to stop being so pessimistic, things are getting better. But I had lunch with Fran Hall, chair of the Natural Death Centre on Friday, and was struck to discover she thinks as I do. She said, “One day soon the industry is going to wake up and find itself dead”.

It’s possible that there’s no saving the funeral — it’s had its time. After all, it’s not just Britain that’s saying nah. But funeral people, overly focussed on commercial concerns, are putting up absolutely no concerted philosophical defence.

If the public, ceremonial funeral is worth saving, now is the time for the best in the business, from all walks of belief, to come together and be an influential voice in public discourse about funerals, much of which remains incoherent. If the emotional and/or spiritual health of the nation is at stake, who better to do it? Ans: among others, the people whose livelihoods depend on it. Come on, don’t go down without a fight. Do we really need funerals? If so, why?

Don’t all rush, I could be wrong, this may not be a Dunkirk moment. But crisis or no there still exists a pressing need to make a considered, rational and persuasive case for funerals — if, that is, you truly believe they do any real, deep and lasting good. Do you?

There are an awful lot of people out there who don’t. If you can’t demonstrate the purpose and value of your product, who’d want to buy it?

Fusion funerals: Cockneys, immigrants and Hackney hipsters

Thursday, 16 January 2014

t cribb

 

Posted by Richard Rawlinson

The story of T. Cribb & Sons is one of business resilience in the cultural quicksand of London’s East End. A family-run firm of undertakers since 1881, its heritage is Cockney: close-knit, white, working class communities celebratory of both their roots and the material trappings of wealth: pie and mash and the dogs coupled with a taste for pin-sharp schmutter. Their funerals have been summarised as Victorian music hall meets Catholic High Mass: undertakers with toppers and canes, horse-drawn carriages and extravagant floral wreaths.

With its vicinity to London’s docks, the East End has for centuries attracted immigrants, from the French Huguenots to Polish Jews, the Irish to the Chinese. More recently came the Bangladeshis, Africans and eastern Europeans.

Meanwhile, true Cockneys have upped sticks to Essex. Many a London cabbie will tell you how they cashed in the terraced house in Bow for an all-mod-cons Barratt home in Brentwood while opining ‘the East End ain’t what it was’. And you only have to watch TOWIE to see former Cockneys splurging their cash on smart clobber and wheels, along with Sex on the Beach cocktails and cosmetic dentistry.

T. Cribb & Sons, which started with a single parlour in Canning Town, has also branched out into Essex, buying up undertakers in Loughton, Debden, Benfleet and Pitsea. However, of its 1,800 funerals a year, half are now for non-whites, especially Africans and Asians in east London.

It’s introduced a repatriation service for west African immigrants who prefer to be buried back home in Nigeria or Uganda. It’s also attracted the British Ghanaian community, increasingly content to be buried in England and who, like Cockneys, have a taste for flamboyant funerals, sometimes beyond their means.

Attention to the needs of a broad demographic can also be seen in details such as a Hindu/Sikh washroom at Cribb’s Beckton branch, and the way it’s mindful to bring Chinese mourners home from a funeral by a different route, in order to ward off evil spirits. It even provides limos with the lucky eight in the number plate. Again for the Chinese, it offers a wall of small vaults for votive offerings such as sticks of incense. At £750 for a five-year lease on a vault, this service is being adopted by white Brits, too, showing how cultural influences go both ways.

T. Cribb & Sons is now courting the Muslim market, currently served by a few Bangladeshi undertakers attached to mosques. The showy traits of the Cockney funeral are theologically out of step with Islam in which dead people are swiftly washed, prayed over and buried. But as with most cultural melting pots, people draw on outside influences, whether integration is approved of or not.

For more on this subject, see The Economist here.  It’s a good read, rich in colour gleened from firsthand research. What it doesn’t address is the colonisation of former Cockney turf by middle class West Enders who have headed east for more affordable housing in areas from Stratford to now-trendy Hackney and Shoreditch. As these right-on Guardianistas grow older, might we see less emphasis on Cribb’s website on black-plumed Friesans, bling limos and lavish floral tributes, and more on wicker coffins, woodland burial grounds, ethnic-chic joss sticks and vegetarian catering services at the wake?

As The Economist writer says, ‘Undertakers thrive on the loss of their clients—not on the loss of their client base’. Meeting evolving demand is key. But you can see why some undertakers favour the big spenders. Flowers spelling GRANDAD: A PROPER DIAMOND GEEZER destroy the ozone layer? Gimme a break. Next you’ll be saying wreaths depicting the St George flag might upset the neighbours.

Each to their own

Tuesday, 10 December 2013

tablesetting

 

Darius, a king of ancient Persia, was intrigued by the variety of cultures he met in his travels.

He had found, for example, that the Callatians, who lived in India, ate the bodies of their dead fathers.

The Greeks, of course, did not do that – the Greeks practised cremation and regarded the funeral pyre as the natural and fitting way to dispose of the dead.

Darius thought that a sophisticated outlook should appreciate the differences between cultures. One day, to teach this lesson, he summoned some Greeks who happened to be at his court and asked what it would take for them to eat the bodies of their dead fathers. They were shocked, as Darius knew they would be, and replied that no amount of money could persuade them to do such a thing.

Then Darius called in some Callatians and, while the Greeks listened, asked them what it would take for them to burn their dead fathers’ bodies. The Callatians were horrified and told Darius not to speak of such things.

The Elements of Moral Philosophy, 6th Edition (Rachels & Rachels, 2010)

Corpse roads – then and now

Sunday, 20 October 2013

P1010072

 

Back in the middle ages, established churches hung on to their right to bury the dead when new churches were built nearby to serve a growing population. Burial rights brought in revenue.

This meant that parishioners of churches without a right to bury their dead were compelled to take them to a church which did using designated corpse roads. Some were just a few miles in length, others much longer. 

These medieval corpse roads, so called, were pre-dated by long, straight tracks found all over the world along which the dead were carried and which were reckoned to channel the spirits of the dead.

All manner of superstitions attach to corpse roads, and if you want to find out lots more, quickly, you can’t do better than turn to Wikipedia, which has an excellent entry on the phenomenon. The tradition of toting a corpse feet first derives from these superstitions. It was supposed the prevent the spirit of the dead person from legging it back home. It would be interesting to conduct a poll of undertakers to discover how many actually know this. 

A quick google reveals just some of the corpse roads — also called coffin roads, lych ways, etc — which remain walkable: 

The Lych Way in Devon

Hindon to Enford (Wilts)

Teffont to Dinton (Wilts)

Bohenie to Achluachrach

Pass of Glencoe to Dalness

Ulverston to Coniston

Wasdale Head to Eskdale via Burnmoor

Mardale (Haweswater) to Shap via the Goggleby Stone

Rydal to Grasmere via Rydal Water and Dove Cottage

Arnside to Beetham via the Fairy Steps

Johnby to Greystoke

Garrigill to Kirkland

Borrowdale to Brigham

Bellever to Lydford (Devon)

Zennor St Ives (Cornwall)

Aston to Blockley and Stretton to Blockley (Warks, Gloucs)

We still have working corpse roads, of course; we just don’t call them that. We call them the ring road or the bypass. 

One of you dyed-in-the-wool deathies out there ought to compile a gazetteer of corpse roads so that fellow-deathies everywhere can catch some fresh air and keep the memory alive. 

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