Chowing down with the antecedents

Charles 19 Comments

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?


  1. Charles

    I am a bit la-la myself but I’m not sure about this. The only way it’ll get off the ground (and I’m not just talking about the kites) is if there’s a retail opportunity somewhere. People love buying stuff and we’ll soon be talking about the commercialisation of Springtime Ancestor Day. Or the SAD Bank Holiday as it surely has to be called.

  2. Charles

    These conferences, where abstracts are solemnly invited and they talk with abandon across disciplinary boundaries that the common person doesn’t encounter in everyday life, never mind stray over, go over my head, I’m afraid. I prefer to talk in the street about how death actually affects us when it happens. But then I never became an intellectual or and academic, preferring to lay bricks for an honest living. As for paying to see art express mortality, I’m sure it works for many but I prefer to save a whole day’s housekeeping and do something else.

    What makes me sad is that death affects us all, and it is essential to get it out in the open if we’re to have at least a chance of handling it well when it happens, but it is indeed expressed in such esoteric language that people like me, who have just as much to add to the discussion, feel intimidated about joining in.

  3. Charles

    Very much agree with you, Jonathan. I often feel that the academics look down on the likes of us. They may not. I once berated Prof Tony Walter at the end of a talk he gave for using vocabulary comprehensible to ordinary dimwits like me. He smiled and said he prided himself on shunning the jargon of sociology.

    The debate must never overlook those who don’t want to join in — but are interested nonetheless, in what is said.

  4. Charles

    Well, we’re going, and we will be telling it as it is, in words of many sylables.
    As my daughter says Charles, tighten up. The last thing the debate needs is you excluding yourself due to your perceived stupidity.

  5. Charles

    Hi, Charles.
    First of all, in defence of academics, its not them who fail to make their papers freely available, its the system (often the publisher…no surprise there!) There is an initiative beginning at the moment which seeks to insure open access to academic writings, if you contact Betina Schmidt at BASR she will no doubt be able to tell you more.
    Academic writing can be a pain, but academics writing for academics have to adapt the ‘house style’ or no-one takes them seriously. Irritating but true. However, if you get them talking, or indeed writing for a non-academic publication, its often a very different story!

    I very much take your point about the ‘chattering classes’ , I have often said something very similar myself. Its worth bearing in mind, though, that a lot of social innovations that are now universally accepted (cremation, springs to mind) were initially very much driven by the chattering classes. Change, particulary in funerals (which most families do rarely) happens very slowly indeed…I am willing to bet that there has been more change in the last 15 years than at any time in the last century. I think the important thing is not to judge. Whatever route someone chooses to go down, it is clearly right for them and we should not imply that anyone is ‘doing it wrong’….as long as they are aware of the changes. That, to me, is the challenge…making people aware of what they can do…after that whatever they do do is fine.
    Academic conferrences have their place in that process, although they won’t drive the change in awareness on their own.
    I say go 🙂

  6. Charles

    A chap can get sick of the sound of his own voice, Ru. I’ll see you there.

    Jenny, you are right in everything you say. Above all, yes, it is important not to judge.

  7. Charles

    Good points.

    Aside from being overrun by marxists, academia focusses too much on theory rather than fact nowadays posing the danger of losing the trees for the forest.

    Many an orginal research idea would be of interest to non-academics had it not been contorted when subjugated to an ill-fitting theoretical framework.

    Theories can, of course, help us organise our thoughts, and improve our predictions, but they’re rarely ends in themselves, and can compromise understanding.

    Too much theory can prevent the reporting of rich detail about interesting phenomena for which no theory yet exists but which, once reported, might stimulate the search for an explanation.

  8. Charles

    May I also add that traditional religion also makes a valid contribution to the debate about attitudes to death, funerals and the commemoration of the dead in ways that often balance the reforming zeal of the liberal chattering classes.

    A few weeks ago I had a brief debate beneath a blog I wrote about ‘progressive’ approaches to funerals. A commentator pointed out that ‘progressive’ doesn’t necessarily mean ‘alternative’ but simply ‘unencumbered by stuffy nonsense’.
    I replied along the lines that modernity doesn’t need to be a revolt against the prevailing style, a rage against the official order.

    In truth, we both probably agreed on what makes a good funeral: respect for the dead and bereaved, and the healing power of caring service and meaningful ritual.

    However, the latter is clearly personal choice with beauty being in the eye of the beholder. Progress and tradition are not mutually exclusive. Some traditions die while others evolve and flourish. Some innovations are passing fads, others take root and become established in the mainstream.

    Charles Baudelaire said, ‘Modernity is the transitory, the fugitive, the contingent, which make up one half of art, the other being the eternal and the immutable’.

    Winston Churchill said, ‘Without tradition, art is a flock of sheep without a shepherd. Without innovation, it is a corpse’.

  9. Charles

    An interesting and ironical aspect of tradition is how rapidly it gains barnacles and is reckoned to have been around forever. Absence of evident rationale is a leading ingredient together with a dash of loopiness, eg, drawing top dead people through the streets atop a gun carriage. Mixed to the correct recipe a little acorn can attain great oakdom in an amazingly short period of time. Apols for the mixed metaphor.

  10. Charles

    Charles’ point about the difficulty of grafting alien celebrations onto British culture is well made. Sometimes, though,what seems foreign may simply be lost or forgotten. I’ve just come across this:
    ‘In the Middle Ages, the cherry fair was a great festival in England. People wandered about the orchards when the fruit was ripe; they would dance and sing and drink and make love; the cherries were picked and sold. The poignancy of colour and glory in lives that were normally brutish had by the thirteenth century turned the fair into a symbol of the passing moment…:
    This lyfe, I see, is but a cheyre feyre.
    All things pass and so must I algate.
    (From English Food by Jane Grigson)

  11. Charles

    Washing is overrated. I’ve always taken warning from the cat who ‘lusted after water and bathed daily; he was an unnatural brute and died ultimately of the head staggers’. You can’t be too careful.
    On the other hand, how lovely that Cherry Fairs persist! Thank you for the link Richard.

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