Charles Cowling

“Sometimes the best way to move recalcitrant parents or spouses along on preplanning [for death and its aftermath] is to make your own arrangements first. That’s what my husband and I did, telling his parents we were going cemetery plot shopping and asking if they wanted to come along. They came, they saw, they bought, and it was easy.”

That’s a taster from Gail Rubin’s book A Good Goodbye, which she subtitles Funeral Planning for Those Who Don’t Plan to Die. Gail is an event planner, breast cancer survivor and onetime journalist – three great qualifications for writing a guidebook to end of life issues. Add a fourth. Gail is Jewish. We have a lot to learn from Jewish funeral customs [more here]. Jews espouse simplicity. They take responsibility for preparing the body. They are better at commemoration.

Much of Gail’s book, sad to say, is not relevant to British funeral consumers because our funerary traditions are so dissimilar. Much of what she has to say about aftermath management, working with a funeral home and dealing with a cemetery simply don’t apply to us. It’s a sadness I had to share with my own publisher a while back, anxious as they were to pitch for sales of the GFG in the US. Sorry, we do things differently. In addition to all the obvious differences there’s the matter of time. Gail warns her readers that they will have between 24 and 72 hours to arrange a funeral. Here in the UK we give it much longer – 10 days, a fortnight; at this time of the year even three weeks, so busy are our crems. It makes all the difference.

But I hope nonetheless that people over here will consider buying this book because it contains inspiring and instructive elements – many of them, yes, Jewish. I hope, too, that anyone considering writing a guide book to end of life terrain will use it as a model. My own guide to the terrain was fairly described by the Church Times as “not for the faint-hearted”. It needs to be joined by others whose tone is better suited to those many who don’t like the way I do it. Gail is a very humane and companionable writer, she has a deceptively light touch, a gentle sense of humour, and she shares a lot of her own experience with us. For people who contemplate death from behind the sofa, she’s a great fear disperser.

Let me share just three highlights of Gail’s book.

The first is the ethical will. This is a tradition “fostered in Judaism. When adults reach the age of fifty, they are considered elders of the congregation who have enough life experiences to be able to dispense words of wisdom.” Gail suggests writing down what you think important – everything from a statement of values to family stories and your favourite joke. Its value will be lasting – and it will be useful to quote from at your funeral.

The second and third concern commemoration. This is something we do incredibly badly in Britain. Typically, a family group will go down to the crem on the anniversary of a death and contemplate the little plaque (on a plaque-filled wall) which bears the name of their dead person. Or they might go and gaze at their rosebush. Or sit on their bench. Gail proposes lighting a 24-hour remembrance candle. “I put a picture on my kitchen table, and light a twenty-four-hour candle next to it the evening before. For that day, I imagine that particular grandparent sitting in with my husband and me as we go about our day.”

Gail’s third great commemoration suggestion is a shrine. Something we just don’t do over here. Or do we? We do shrines out of doors, when we come to think of it, at places where young men drive very fast into trees. Yes, we do shrines, we just don’t do them indoors, and the reason why we don’t is because we have a huge cultural hangup about doing grief privately and undemonstratively. It’s all part of the Protestant death ethic, which we are vigorously shaking off. If we now find no difficulty in creating shrines to people who die tragically out of doors, and don’t find them mawkish (maybe you do), I see no reason why a great many people should not find consolation in having one indoors for anyone, no matter how they died. Gail suggests: “Elements of a personal family shrine can include cremated remains, photos of the deceased, and objects associated with those who have died. The placement of the shrine can be on a shelf, a tabletop, a mantle, a niche, or any place that can serve as a visual focus.”

Gail Rubin blogs at The Family Plot. She recently attended and reported on 30 funerals in 30 days. You can buy her book at Amazon.

15 thoughts on “A Good Goodbye

  1. Shrine on you crazy diamond | The Good Funeral Guide

    […] of these is the household shrine. We’ve touched on this before here and […]

  2. The Good Funeral Guide – Remembering – The Good Funeral Guide

    […] By the way we’ve blogged about Gail’s book before – you can find our original review – and a link to Amazon if you’s like to buy a copy – here […]

  3. Charles Cowling
    gloria mundi

    Fascinating, valuable stuff from Rupert and Kathryn. I have family photos of the previous two generations on a wall, as many people do, and now I fully understand the potential function of the display.

    And why at some funerals a photo of the dead person is propped up in front of the coffin, hard to see from anywhere but the front two (most important) rows, and only there for 20 minutes, but still able to provide that psychic focus and en’courage’ment (thanks for so smarly reminding us the root of the word.) Elsewhere at Mundi Mansions, I have a photo of Miles Davies. H’mm. It’s still able to effect a kind of transference and encouragement, I guess, though at a lower wattage, naturally, than the one of the Old Man in his pomp.

    There are some Big Brains (and Hearts)wandering round GFG land.I humbly salute them. I’m just off to finds some shrine objects – I certainly get the idea, Rupert, and if I say I’m looking for an old cork from a bottle of Shiraz, I’m not being flippant. Those evenings of laughter nonsense and deep feeling….

    Charles Cowling
  4. The Good Funeral Guide – Caw blimey

    […] Before you look through them, make sure you haven’t missed this week’s most important discussion. It was about shrines and it features two of this blog’s brightest and most questing minds, those of Rupert Callender and Kathryn. Find it in the comments here. […]

  5. Charles Cowling
    Kathryn Edwards

    A point of view I acquired from my African teacher, Malidoma Some, is that a shrine is a gateway to another world.

    In our own culture, a photograph is a sort of shrine; when we frame and place a photo, this formalising enhances its scope to act as a shrine, enabling us to re/connect with the person, the scene, the era, the event . . .

    While photos may be commonly acknowledged to have this role, anything that anyone determines is ‘special’ can act in the same way. The material thing acts a focus for a psychic event, enabling commemoration, en’courage’ment, celebration, commitment and many other fine things. [Or wicked things, if that’s your bent.]

    What’s great about Gail’s suggestion is that it reclaims a rather marvellous word – shrine – from the limitations of religion, and reminds us all of its touching functionality.

    Charles Cowling
  6. Charles Cowling
    Rupert Callender

    We have what amounts to an indoor shrine in our living room. It’s in a recess and consists of a plexiglass rectangle with alcoves that Claire found at a dump. In the various shelves are: skulls, obviously, representative and real including found bird skulls and a deer skull brought down many moons ago by our deerhound, statuettes of Shiva, Buddha, Ganeesh, Todd and Rod Flanders from The Simpsons, photos of my dead parents and friends, several Madonnas, a dead bat, a miniture bottle of rum, A Mexican Corpse bride, couple of grim reapers, several photos of Malcom X, my fathers signet ring, the husband and bride from our wedding cake, a coptic cross, photo of my parents wedding, holy water from the river Jordan, a Japanese Tengu, an 18th C clay pipe sten from our garden, jewelery, a few skeletons, a few hearts, some voodoo ritual tat, you get the idea.

    Charles Cowling
  7. Charles Cowling
    Rupert Callender

    The Ghost Bike phenomenon in an interesting variation on the idea of a commemorative shrine. Part memorials, part art work, part guerilla protest they appear in places where cyclists have died in road traffic accident.

    Charles Cowling
  8. Charles Cowling
    Comfort Blanket

    Ooh, yes. Gorgeous. I’d love to have a go at stone carving. I keep looking up courses but haven’t taken the plunge yet…
    I just think, when it comes to funerals and memorials, we should be making the most of all these wonderful crafts people around this glorious island of ours. Again, it’s focusing on local, natural, beautiful, community, original, etc. Yes?

    Charles Cowling
  9. Charles Cowling

    Ah, handmade letters. Agreed. I love em. I engaged Ieuan Rees to do my ‘Recommended by’ calligraphy. I love his work: And Ieuan is one of the loveliest men I have ever met.

    Charles Cowling
  10. Charles Cowling
    Comfort Blanket

    I’d like to see more of this please:

    Charles Cowling
  11. The Good Funeral Guide Reviews A Good Goodbye « The Family Plot Blog: Funeral Planning for Those Who Don't Plan to Die

    […] Cowling, author of The Good Funeral Guide, based in the U.K., just gave A Good Goodbye: Funeral Planning for Those Who Don’t Plan to Die a nice review on his […]

  12. Charles Cowling
    Charles Cowling

    I had a coffee and a chat with Richard Martin of yesterday and we talked about this lightheartedly but seriously as a business proposition. What would be a nice design for a British indoor shrine? Would it sell?

    There, another great business opportunity for someone.

    Charles Cowling
  13. Charles Cowling
    gloria mundi

    And don’t we do those outdoor shrines badly? Sorry if that sounds harsh, because of course the impulse is genuine and the emotions powerful – but (as has often been pointed out) we don’t even take the cellophane wrappers off the flowers. Maybe, as crusaders like Charles and this woman educate us better, we will be able to make something more satisfying and meaningful out of our commemorations. And to be blunt, I’d rather have nothing than one of hundreds of little plaques on a crem wall – but that is just me, and I hope the little plaques help those who need them. Can’t see how they do, though.

    Charles Cowling

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