“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.”