No one writes about death and funerals with greater wisdom, wit or feel for words than the poet-undertaker Thomas Lynch.
For a while, now, I have been looking for someone to tell me what dying feels like. Tricky topic, I know, all the best witnesses being dead. Silly thing to do, friends have told me, don’t waste your time.
Dr Geoffrey Garret, onetime senior Home Office pathologist, tells us what dying looks like:
Life has a genuine presence that you can only really feel as it moves from a body. That is the sole time it shows itself, through its sudden absence. Though you cannot touch it, see it or hear it … life is nonetheless something one can feel, like electricity.
It is also true to say that one does not have to be physically close to sense the microsecond when it moves on.
You’d think that hospice nurses and care home staff would have some idea what dying feels like, having watched over so many departures. You’d think that one or two might have done it themselves, vicariously.
I was about to start researching this when along comes a pretty good answer in the shape of a new book by Peter and Elizabeth Fenwick, The Art of Dying. Dr Fenwick is a neurophysiologist, not a new age nutter. Difficult to roll the eyes and dismiss him out of hand.
The Fenwicks talk about ELEs – end of life experiences – when dying people become aware of the presence of friendly dead people who have come to receive them and guide them on their way. At the moment of death, a dying person will often gaze fixedly and with great joy.
They conclude that “a mechanistic view of brain function is inadequate to explain these transcendent experiences.” They refute any claim that these are drug induced experiences in dying people on the grounds that drugs give rise to altogether more psychedelic hallucinations.
The Fenwicks talk about the experiences of people miles away from a dying person who become aware of their death at the precise time it happens.
They talk about how some of the living have a continuing sense of the presence of a dead person.
They’re especially interesting about NDEs – near death experiences – especially those they term TDEs – temporary death experiences. Some survivors of cardiac arrest, brought back by CPR, experience the classic near death experience even though they are technically dead. The Fenwicks conclude: “From the point of view of science, TDEs cannot occur during unconsciousness, and yet there is some tantalising evidence that this is just when they do seem to occur.”
They conclude that consciousness may not be limited to the brain, and that, given the lovely time people have dying, “a greater understanding of what happens when we die would lead to a removal of our fear of death and open up the possibility of a new beginning, the start of a new journey.”
It’s all very intriguing and, as the Fenwicks say, worth researching further. They don’t claim to have the answer, but they are sceptical of the capability of reductionist medical science to crack the mystery.
It’s a book well worth reading. Rush out and buy it. And I’m looking forward to another, when it comes off the presses in a few days’ time. It is Gentle Dying by Felicity Warner, who heads up the UK’s only online hospice. It’s all about engaging with dying and making it a positive process, not “A losing fight with frightful pain / Or a gasping fight for breath” (Betjeman).
My neighbour’s house was repossessed yesterday. All her things are still in it. We don’t know where she is now. I rang the estate agent who, it turns out, traffics in this sort of misery daily, and, no, she doesn’t think about the feelings of the people this has happened to. If continuation of consciousness means more of the same shittiness of human nature, I’m very happy to buy into the idea of dying contentably. After that, though, please: lights out.
He got away with it. Just. It’s against the law.
That’s the way Carl is.
The first time I saw him, at his office in Wallsend, he showed me bits of bone he’d just that morning retrieved from the pyre’s ashes. He then went on to give me all the time I wanted. He drove me round and we talked and talked. He carries a wicker coffin in the back of his car. Whenever he sees a nice field he poses it in it and photographs it.
He does things differently, does Carl. He does things so differently that other funeral directors in his area regard him as a cowboy and a joke. They say joke, but they’re not laughing. Carl is no respecter of ‘tradition’. He says, “I’m not here to be liked by the funeral industry, I’m here to change it. It’s just a weird industry. I think there’s a lot of arrogance within funeral directors. I don’t even know why they wear a uniform. I don’t know why they walk in front of the car with a big hat and a cane – what’s that all about?”
He says, “I’ve never been in a more bitchy industry in my life.” Well, even his most appalled critics will agree with him there.
Carl doesn’t do things differently for the sake of it. He’s a huge character but he’s not a huge ego. He really does put other people first. He wants to do what’s right for them, what’s best for them. He says, “We all live our lives as individuals, but when it comes to funerals we all go the same way, and that’s what I do not like about the industry; they do not offer choice.” He wants people to do what they believe and what they dare. He doesn’t want poor people to have to spend a penny more than they have to. “Did you ever buy him flowers when he was alive?” Carl will ask a widow. “Do you really feel you have to buy him flowers now he’s dead?”
He’s incredibly good value for money.
Carl empowers people. That’s how he got to take one dead man to the crem wrapped in his duvet with his feet sticking out, just as he wanted. More than once he’s filled a 54-seater coach with mourners and sent it off to the crem with the coffin in the luggage compartment and everyone singing. Cheap. Cheerful. He taps into that peculiarly British vein of anarcho-hilarity.
He looks after people. He buries ashes in cemetery plots for nothing. He digs the hole himself, saving the family around £300. The council doesn’t necessarily know about this.
You could say that Carl plays fast and loose, but always and only in a good cause, where his big heart leads him. Sure, he may flatten a fence or two on the way. Ah, well.
If Carl is a daring, dashing dreamer, his mercurial spirit is counterbalanced by the tranquil demeanour of his right-hand man, Billy Spencer. Billy is classically trained, a safe pair of hands, a lovely guy. Together, they make a brilliant team.
The case for open-air cremation goes to the High Court on 10 November 2008, brought by the Anglo-Asian Friendship Society. Carl wants pyres for all who want them, not just Hindus; he reckons there’s a lot of demand for them. Yes, and sky burial, too, if that’s what people want.
Whether you reckon his vision and demeanour to be revolutionary or reprehensible, there’s no denying that Carl is a serious man.
See him at work here.
See the open-air cremation here. As Carl and Billy put the body in the coffin, watch Carl. You can see that the body was, well, not in the best condition.
What effect does the sight of a hearse have on you? Does it make your spirit soar? Does it put a spring in your step and a song on your lips?
Or does it throw a Hammer Horror chill around your heart?
What would be the effect on you of the spectacle of a procession of 100 hearses? Would you think that the Black Death had broken out?
The British Institute of Funeral Directors (BIFD), at its annual conference, is hoping to break the world record for the number of hearses in a parade by doing just that: sending 100 of them through the streets of Croydon. Is there, you splutter, a world record for this sort of thing? Yes, there is a world record for everything – and that includes, of course, anything.
But there is more to this enterprise than boldly going and conquering pastures new on virgin summits. The BIFD’s president, Adrian Pink, says: “The BIFD wants to open up the profession and its suppliers to their market, to make the whole process less intimidating.”
He goes on to say, “My motto is MAD – make a difference – and I’m sure with this record attempt we will be able to do so.”
No, Adrian, mad means mad.
All this puts me in mind of my friend Geoff.
“I’m seventy-five,” he said to me a while ago. “It’s time I made arrangements. I’m looking for a good undertaker in my local area.”
Geoff knew as little as most people about how funerals work and, when he tried to find a simpatico undertaker by scanning the display ads in his local paper, he found himself no nearer his goal.
“Why on earth do they advertise,” he exclaimed testily, “if they’re all going to say nothing about themselves?”
Geoff made a good point here. Conventionally, businesses spend good money on marketing in order to differentiate themselves from their competitors and declare a USP. The new breed of green and alternative funeral directors does this. But most of the trad majority stand in line and share the same descriptive vocabulary. They offer a service which is ‘personal’, ‘professional’, ‘caring’, ‘respectful’. Excellent. Just what we all want. But then they throw in ‘dignity’, and that’s where Geoff and many like him take a step back. What is this dignity? It sounds formal and distant. Pompous. It sets up a barrier.
Geoff is an adept silver surfer and he persisted in his researches, this time on the internet. What did he reckon? “They can’t use the English language!” he expostulated. “Full of grammatical errors, spelling mistakes, misplaced apostrophes.”
He’s right. There’s a lot of semi-literate text up there and it disparages the professional competence of those it represents. Geoff might have added that the design of many funeral directors’ websites is crude, cluttered and clunky. Horrible.
Geoff’s researches eventually dumped him back on square one. Dismayed, he gave up. “I’ll ask around, see if anyone knows a good one.”
They don’t want spiky gothic typography in your ads. It is ecclesiastical and anachronistic. It carries associations of gloom, wretchedness and Dickensian melodrama. Your other favoured graphic design elements similarly mystify or repel – religious symbols, horsedrawn hearses, stained glass windows surrounded by clustering roses. Your trade association logos look impressive – but does anyone actually know what they mean?
Most people glance at your ads, shiver, and hope they’ll never have to go anywhere near you.
You talk about the public service element of your work. The quality of that service would be greatly enhanced were you to offer accessibility and empowerment, warmth and trust.
What has choking the streets of Croydon with hearses got to do with that?
When I blogged about FuneralCare derecognising the GMB union I invited the press officer at FCare to respond in the interests of fairness and right to reply.
Phil Edwards of FCare duly responded by email: “This deserves a reply. How much time do we have?”
I told him to take his time. But this was on 21 August, almost a fortnight ago.
I subsequently asked the GMB for any response they would like to make.
Now, the Good Funeral Guide is not a campaigning or a mischief-making publication. But this blog needn’t be quite so buttoned up and well-behaved. Where there is a case to be answered it will fearlessly seek answers, not be brushed aside as if it were a busy flea.
So, Phil, let’s be having you.
While we wait, did you read about Scott Ralston, FCare funeral director in Glasgow with 16 years’ unblemished service, sacked for driving a van with four dead bodies in it, without regard for dignity or respect, at speeds up to 7mph? He’s just won £30,000 at an industrial tribunal, which commented that it could not accept that a reasonable employer would consider this one isolated incident would justify dismissal.
Here’s an interesting and not unconfusing series of pics from today’s Guardian. Entitled ‘Behind the Last Closed Door’, the photos are by Laura Peters and are on show at the Lighthouse Gallery, Wolverhampton, from 3-18 September.
‘What,’ asks the Guardian, ‘happens behind the scenes at crematorium [sic]? A new exhibition of photographs solves the mystery.’
Mystery? What mystery? What could possibly be mysterious about a place where anyone can go? There’s no need to peek at someone else’s photos of it, as if through your fingers from behind the sofa. If you want to know what goes on up at t’crem, stride boldly in and ask if you can have a look. They’ll be pleased to show you.
That the business end of a crem should be capable of being reckoned a mystery serves to illustrate the euphemistic way we burn the bodies of our dead. At the moment of committal the curtains slowly close in front of the coffin. It’s a high-drama ritual which normally elicits sharp sobs, cries, even, from the congregation. If you’re the celebrant, trust me, you feel a bit like an executioner as you push the button on the lectern. People’s uninformed imaginations then conjure up all sorts of outlandish pictures of what happens next.
If only they knew the bathetic truth: that the coffin sits there patiently until everyone’s gone, and may not be cremated for several hours.
There’s no mystery for Sikhs about what happens behind the scenes: they customarily go and witness the coffin going into the cremator (or furnace, as the Guardian has it; a term somewhat discredited by the Nazi death camps). There is no mystery, either, for those too-few others who wish to see the process through; who need to see that everything is done properly. The last time I, as a celebrant, arranged this, for three brothers (who had previously stood behind the lectern and, together, pushed the button) the crematorium technician had kindly and thoughtfully allowed the cremator to cool sufficiently so that the coffin containing their mother did not spontaneously combust as it went in.
Ms Peters’ photos are not especially revealing, truth to tell. But pic number 3 is very alarming: it shows lots of empty coffins standing on their feet. So it’s true, is it? They do pull the dead people out of them before they burn them, and re-use them? That’s terrible!
Further research reveals that Ms Peters has actually also photo-ed another mystery no-go area: behind the scenes in a funeral home — the coffin store and the mortuary. Hmmn, it’s really a very clean mortuary. And look, the funeral director is wearing rubber gloves. Full marks, chaps. Things are not ever thus, not in every mortuary by any means.
The real mystery, it seems to me, is that the place where a dear, dead person is cared for and kept should be reckoned a mystery. It’s only a mystery because people dare not ask to see.
Is that really so surprising?
Yes, when they gaze instead on Ms Peters’ photos.
If you want a much more graphic and informative picture of what goes on behind the scenes at a crematorium, have a look at this clip from the Australian Museum Online. It could be anywhere in Britain.
Do not stand at my grave and weep;
I am not there…
Here’s an instruction more honoured in the breach than the observance. These, the opening lines of one of Britain’s favourite funeral poems, highlight the contradiction inherent in our complex psychological need to mark the spot where the body or ash of a loved one is laid or strewn.
Most people, whether religious or atheist, agree that, wherever their dead person is now, he or she is not there, not at the spot that they memorialise. Yet still they feel, nevertheless, strongly impelled to mark that spot.
Can you explain this?
Dr Johnson asserted that “grief is a species of idleness”. If he was right – he was a lifelong depressive so he may have a point – then one remedy for grief is activity.
A memorial certainly offers opportunities for therapeutic activity. It gives mourners
· somewhere to go
· something to do
If there’s anything in this theory, then it’s the physical rituals and observances associated with journeying to and tending a memorial or a grave which are emotionally nourishing. They enable you to do something about how you feel, and something for the dead person.
You can mark the spot in all sorts of physical ways, as you know, whether with a headstone, a folly or a tree.
But have you come across the virtual way: the online memorial site? Yes, now you can memorialise a dead person in cyberspace.
I think there’s a great deal to be said for the idea behind the online memorial site. It is zeitgeisty, closely related to social networking sites like Facebook. It can bring together a community of grieving people who may be widely scattered geographically. It gives you somewhere to go and something to do.
Are these sites tasteful or tacky?
Here’s a question which applies to everything funerary. Views polarise. One person’s meaningful is another person’s maudlin. A willow coffin is either a thing of rustic loveliness or it is a giant picnic hamper. A horse-drawn hearse: is that heritage or gangster?
There’s no distinguishing between what is seemly and what is sentimental.
Online memorial sites are evolving fast. Some have already fallen foul of natural selection. Some have fallen foul of entrepreneurs: Legacy.com looks set to make millions from digitised tears worldwide: it hosts online obituaries for more than 650 newspapers, including The Times, and its database contains every dead American since 1937.
It took just a couple of playful chomps for the bull terrier to sever the puppy’s retractable lead, rendering it a total loss. Fruitless to pelt him with acrimony: when a bull terrier does a bad thing the accompanying expression of comical delinquency disarms all rage.
Expensive things, these retractable leads. Sharon found a replacement on ebay. Buy it now, just £1 plus £2.95 p & p. “Bargain!” she cried.
It arrived a few days later. She pulled it from its padded envelope and we cursorily inspected it. I stepped on the pedal of the bin and she dropped it in, no word spoken. By way of consolation I revealed the German model I had bought from Pets R 4 Xmas just in case. £8.95. Best buy.
There will always be those who seek a cheap funeral.
There are the puritans, hair-shirted, often green, left-leaning types for whom even sackcloth and ashes are luxury lifestyle accessories. They resist the solicitous intervention of undertakers. The cardboard coffin is emblematic of their often joyless rejection of the follies of frippery.
You could generalise and say that it’s the educated middle class which inclines towards palaver-free, cheap funerals, and it’s the working class which likes to put on a bit of a show. This would be a mistake. It’s social confidence that empowers people to ignore what the neighbours think and say no, if that’s how they feel, to posh coffins and long black limousines.
To the puritans and the socially confident you can add the skint. All these will be attracted to a cheaper funeral. They may or may not suppose that funeral directors make more money than they ought.
None of us wants to pay more than we need. When a dead cheap funeral suddenly pops up, we all sit up and take notice.
Direct Funeral Services will do you a funeral for just £960 plus disbursements. Bargain!
How do they do it? I rang to find out. The helpful but clueless receptionist couldn’t tell me, so she put me through to the office. After a period of silence, the phone went dead.
If Sherlock Holmes were alive today he’d never get out of Google.
Go to Nominet. Type the domain name into WHOIS. Done.
Registrant: Richard Sage.
Pause for audible gasp.
Can this be the same Richard Sage who has been pursued for almost 15 years by BBC Radio 4’s John Waite for “ripping off staff, customers and National Health hospitals to the tune of hundreds of thousands of pounds”? The same Richard Sage who has been sentenced to a total 12 years in prison for fraud? The same Richard Sage of whom one of his previous employees said this: “It got to the point of going down to the crematorium or the local graveyard and collecting other people’s flowers – wreaths and bouquets – off another funeral, which wasn’t even to do with our company. Taking them back to the office, re-spraying them with water to make them look fresh. And placing them on the coffins – was our jobs”?
Even if this is a different Richard Sage, beware.
It’s a fact: margins in the funeral business are already very tight. Funerals are pretty good value. And, if money is tight, or you want a stripped down affair, almost every funeral director will offer you a basic funeral package as prescribed by the National Association of Funeral Directors, the price of which varies nationally.
You can negotiate a cheaper funeral than this by unpacking the package and buying fewer services. Do you, for example, need the funeral director’s staff to carry the coffin? Are you happy for the body to be left in the hospital mortuary until the day of the funeral and brought to the crematorium or cemetery in an estate car rather than a hearse? Many funeral directors will resist this sort of whittling; the best will happily collude.
Ethical is the new virtuous. Saints don’t wear haloes any more, they wear little whirling propellers on their roofs to, I don’t know, charge their iPhones, is it?
Ethical living used to be about more than remembering to bring your bag for life to the supermarket or taking as much pride in your compost bin as your new 4×4. Ethical people were less self-righteous, more altruistic.
I’m a sucker for heritage ethics – ethics born of ragged-trousered courage and struggle. The Tolpuddle Martyrs. The Rochdale Pioneers. These are just some of the heroes who float my ethical boat. I suppose it’s this sort of ethical nostalgia which impelled me all those years ago to open an account with smile, the Co-operative Group’s online bank.
I talked last week to John Mallatrat. Do you know John? He and his wife, Mary, founded Peace Funerals in 1996. Mike Jarvis of the Natural Death Centre (sic transit…) once described them to me as latter-day saints, an epithet they would modestly but firmly rebuff. Others must be the judge. I reckon them and their team to possess irrefutable heritage ethical qualities. I first encountered John when I was arranging a funeral for the brother of a friend. He’d died in Hendon and there was very little money available. John, operating out of Sheffield, was able not only to do the funeral for considerably less than the Co-op just outside the gates of the crematorium, he also brought an empathic, personal touch, which established exactly the right tone. It was a wonderful funeral.
Reason for my call: I’d been researching these pay-now-die-later funeral plans which all funeral directors are presently obsessing about as if their future depends on it – which, truth to tell, it urgently does. It seemed to me that there are three significant players: the conglomerates (Dignity and the Co-op); the independents under the banner of Golden Charter; and, way out in left field, Peace, whose Funeral Plans Online are marketed as ethical. What, I wanted to know from John, does he mean by ethical?
It’s not as if anyone supposes that the Co-op’s plan funds porn, nor that the Dignity plan arms the Janjaweed in Darfur. But it’s true to say that they don’t say precisely how they grow their clients’ money that fast, either, and Peace, it turns out, are the only funeral planners who categorically assure their clients that their money will not be invested in armaments, tobacco, alcohol, gambling, human rights abuses or pornography. For people to whom this matters, it’s important to know.
I fell to brooding about ethics in the funeral industry, and what may be seen as a grave betrayal of its founding principles by the Co-operative Group.
This year, at the annual Tolpuddle Martyrs Festival – a gathering of all that’s best about Heritage Labour – the Co-op, direct heirs of the Rochdale Pioneers, were thrown out. Why? Because of the de-recognition by Funeralcare of the GMB union and its alleged victimisation and harassment of its shop stewards.
The Co-op de-recognising a trade union? It’s a bit like discovering that the Church of England has airbrushed the teachings of Jesus from its theology. To carry on trading under the banner of Co-operative looks like, doesn’t it, a species of deception?
It is well known in the funeral industry that the Co-op has bequeathed to this country some of its finest funeral directors. They are those plucky independents who began their careers in the Co-op, where their values and principles were forged in their deep antipathy to the way the Co-op does things. Their zeal is the fruit of their indignation.
It is also well known that there are, within the Co-op, some outstanding and very caring, if grievously underpaid, funeral directors.
You wonder if an organisation so ethically incoherent, which treats its employees so badly, can possibly be an effective force. It would be good to hear a defence.
In the meantime, can anyone out there tell me where I can find an ethical bank?
Life teems with ticklish antitheses. In the midst of life we are in death: in the midst of death we are in life.
It’s a summer’s day which feels like late November. Rain is spitting; the leaves on the chestnut trees are browning. The funeral is over (I was the celebrant) and I pause to survey the scene before driving away – the huge, shagged-out cemetery, the sparse, tussocky vegetation, the numberless never-visited graves, the rows of mute headstones tied to stakes by the topple-testers, secured with bright yellow strapping. A mature burial ground like this makes visible the slow-mo obliteration of the unforgettable. Memory succumbs to amnesia.
In its forlorn heart, at the crematorium, the cherishing and commemoration of the dead goes on in the customary series of corteges and dispersals, the glossy black limousines, the laid out, cellophaned flowers, the little knots of mourners straggling back to their cars. There’s a certain sad majesty in this, a certain brave beauty. It’s a matter of taste.
The crematorium manager touches my elbow. “Your CD, mate.” It’s the CD of music we played at the funeral, which I had forgotten to pick up on my way out.
I put it on the passenger seat where it jostles another, the object of my next destination, another place suffering from municipal world-weariness, the register office, for I am to be married tomorrow. This other CD contains our wedding music. Important not to confuse them. As a springboard to connubial bliss, Michael Buble’s Lost arguably lacks upthrust.
Pop goes the corn. We’ve chosen Elgar’s Salut d’Amour. He’s a local boy, Elgar, a Wolves fan, and we like his little tune unapologetically. Oh, yes, of course, the registrar’s heard it before. We’ve chosen readings. I announce to the registrar: “This one’s an Apache blessing,” and she says “Oh yes Apache blessing” in a voice which disconcertingly reveals that we have selected the Henry Scott Holland of wedding readings.
On the day of days, James (a funeral director, as it happens, and a most remarkable one) reads the Apache blessing in his warm, shamanic voice. But, here’s the thing, unknown to us he has rehearsed everyone there in the last line and, when he reaches it, they all break into And may your days be good and long upon the earth. It’s a magical, wonderful moment. It breaks the mould of the one-size-fits-all ceremony and reclaims it for us – for everyone there.
We didn’t do the Rolls Royce and the fancy dress and the country house. We didn’t release doves or balloons or fireworks. We might have, but we didn’t. This was a simple wedding, a basic wedding, not an arm and a leg wedding.
But the ceremony had, we think, looking back, the two essential ingredients which doves and balloons fireworks and a country house and an Abba tribute band might have complemented and even vastly enhanced, but could never have substituted.
First, thanks to James’s masterstroke, it was shared. It belonged to us. All of us.
Second, just this: people came. They came from miles and miles away, some of them. They gave up their time, their Saturday, for us. None came without considerable inconvenience to themselves. Their showing up, their being there for us, their physical presence – that meant more to us than anything. It always will.
Never again will I not quite be able to make it to anybody’s funeral.