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The Good Funeral Guide Blog

Charles Cowling

Wherever dead people go they are freed from time. It’s our apprehension of this that adds to our sense of their elsewhereness and convinces us that they will not be coming back. It adds to the mystery, too. It is difficult to conceive of timeless existence, much easier to explain death in terms of annihilation.

For afterlifer John Donne “there shall be no darkness nor dazzling, but one equal light; no noise nor silence, but one equal music; no fears nor hopes, but one equal possession; no ends or beginnings, but one equal eternity.” I find that poetically meaningful, but I’ve no exact idea what it means.

Close friends and family of just-dead people can similarly find themselves existing in a different time zone, detached, surveying the rushing world around them with anything from bemusement to anger. It’s an idea that I try to incorporate into my funeral ceremonies on the grounds that it’s useful to hold up a mirror to mourners’ feelings. It used to take me far too many words to get my meaning across, and far too many blank-eyed responses impelled me to cut down. Now I say something like, “For the time that we are here this morning, time stands still for you, for a while, and this place belongs entirely to you and to [name of dead person].”

On Friday I went to the funeral of a former work colleague. I was there for her and her only, but it was, of course, impossible also not to backseat drive the ceremony.

The celebrant, a humanist, opened proceedings with a reading about time. I didn’t recognise it, and now I shall have to write and beg him to share it. It said what I have always sought to say.

He went on to conduct the ceremony in what I thought was an exemplary way. I would say enviable as well but I am too aware of my shortcomings to suppose that I could ever be as good as him.

His words were apt. He dressed the dead person in her best light, and why not, on this day of days? It was a happy likeness.

Outstanding, though, was his manner. It was utterly unhurried. In the context of a crematorium this was all the more remarkable because crems are tyrannised by clocks. He detached us from all sense of time even though he was on a tight deadline. What’s more, he detached himself from himself and came across as a person of no interest to us. To perform that well, ego free, unself-conscious, and thereby give the stage wholly to our dead friend, was an extraordinary accomplishment.

I am tempted to draw the conclusion that the hallmark of a memorable funeral is a forgettable celebrant, and the hallmark of a meaningful funeral is a serenity which derives from a sense of time suspended. It’s a bit pat, you’ll have your own view, and it may not do for every funeral, but I think there’s something in it.

The name of the celebrant I heard is Leslie Scrase. If you live close to Bridport, in Dorset, I commend him to you.

Charles Cowling

If there was a conference organiser of the year award, it would go to Julie Dunk – technical officer and conference manager of the Institute of Cemetery and Crematorium Management – and her partner, Blue. The reason, probably, why there is no such award is that Julie and Blue would win it every year.

 

Two days ago I dropped in on the ICCM conference. What a bundle of fun, you may ironically think – and to your surprise you’d be right. Any gathering of any branch of the death industry is as cheery as it has every right to be, and the cem-crem gang are no exception. Thank you for inviting me, Julie!

 

I went principally to listen to Sandy Sullivan talking about Resomation, the new alternative to cremation. Here’s a process which has been already been smothered in horror by the gutter press. They want to boil dead bodies, they say, then flush them down the drain. It’s not actually like that at all. And it rather overlooks the fact that cremation entails setting fire to dead bodies and flushing them up chimneys.

 

I missed Sandy. I nattered too long to the excellent Sandra Thomson, and couldn’t get into the lecture hall without creating a disturbance. Later, talking to crem managers, I discovered a lot of interest, and a desire to find out what precisely is in the liquid that is disposed of.

 

I wanted to meet memorialisers because that’s what I’m researching at the moment. I talked to the lovely people at the FG Marshall stand, and I had an engrossing chat with Jenny Gregson of BRAMM. I hadn’t known till she told me that the reasons people prefer shiny granite headstones are because the surface is easy-clean and they look forever new. Age shall not weary them nor the topple testers condemn.

 

So many of the good guys and gals of the funeral industry were there, including Wesley Music, who have done so much to improve the quality of funeral ceremonies, and are looking to instal multimedia display equipment in crems, a move which will be transformative. Paul Sinclair, the motorcycle funeral man, was there. He is a rare bundle of utter professionalism and great good humour. Time spent with Paul flies by.

 

Krysia from the indefatigable Institute of Civil Funerals was there, and it was she who taught me most. She objected in the most passionate terms to my unkindness in this blog to Adrian Pink of the British Institute of Funeral Directors. And while I am happy to contest Adrian’s professional judgement in supposing that a vast parade of hearses makes the funeral industry more approachable (Krysia disagrees with me implacably), I am not happy to think that I may have given him offence because I gather he is an extremely nice man who really is working as hard as he can, from the very best of motives, to make a difference.

 

Krysia’s word is good enough for me. Adrian, I apologise unreservedly. And I ask you again to talk to this blog and tell us exactly what you are striving to achieve. Here’s a very good opportunity for you to reach an audience of ordinary members of the public who would, I believe, be very interested to hear what you have to say.

 

 

 

 

Charles Cowling


It was very good to hear yesterday from Donna Belk, a home funeral pioneer and enabler in Texas. How I like that term ‘home funeral’ — preferable by far to the UK term ‘DIY funeral’ with all its associations of bodge, muddle, panic and a late night visit from the emergency electrician.

Not that many people in the UK sideline the deathcare professionals and arrange their own funerals. A lot of the early natural death zeal seems to have subsided. In the US the movement is healthy and, it seems, in good hands. “The home funeral movement.” says Donna, “is definitely gaining more attention.” See here.

She goes on to say: “Some people view it as an extension to hospice. We’ve had quite a bit of success in introducing it to hospice organizations in our area.”

I’d love to know more about how UK hospices are joining up end of life care to funeral planning, and empowering carers. I am hoping that someone at St Christopher’s, who have questioned whether funerals are ‘the missing link in palliative care’, is going to ring me up and tell me.

Watch this space, enjoy the videos — and thank you for writing in, Donna.




Charles Cowling

In general it’s irresponsible, contemptible, to adopt the role of helpless bystander. We don’t like helpless bystanders. Their body language is all wrong, so are their faces.

Sometimes, though, you’ve just got to be one. When the plumber calls I serenade him with cups of coffee and ingratiating solicitude, then vamoose, trusting and helpless. What more can I do?

Expertise tends to be exclusive. Helping hands are clumsy hands. Leaving it all to the expert is not always the same thing as abdication.

There’s a rule of thumb here. Where inanimate objects are concerned, helpless bystanding is cool. Let the experts get on with it. You don’t need to be there for your toilet when it discovers it’s got to have a new flush mechanism. You don’t need to explore with it how it feels about that.

Animate or recently-animate creatures are different. We wouldn’t drop Nan off at A & E and say, “Call us when she’s fixed.” She needs us. We need, too: we need to do what we can for her. We can’t do anything medical, but we can do lots emotionally and spiritually.

The well and the sick and the dying and the dead need us. When they fall into the hands of experts, the body mechanics, we can find ourselves relegated to the role of helpless bystanders, powerless petitioners for information. Expertise bigs itself up by doing this to us.

There’s a lot of it about. We need to reclaim our complementary role; re-empower ourselves.

Just published is Gentle Dying by Felicity Warner, a book which tells us exactly how we can do that with the dying.

She talks about the loneliness of dying people, disconnected from their family and friends by their lack of engagement, which manifests as denial. She talks about “switching the focus from trying to make them [the dying] better to making them feel comfortable and safe”, and the undesirability of “the heavy-handed use of drugs” which “may mask the dying experience”.

Once, communities knew how to help people die. As dying became medicalised, communities lost that knowledge. Ms Warner wants, in this book, to return this knowledge to the community and create a modern paradigm.

There is a new-ageiness about this book which is likely to deter a good many potential readers. There’s a lot about essential oils and crystals. As we lie dying, Ms Warner tells us, we are likely to feel “a chill spreading up through the chakras”. No. Only those who are in touch with their chakras. What % of the population are they?

My recommendation: suspend your scepticism, if any. In so many ways this is an excellent book. Ms Warner has worked with the dying. She offers much very sound practical advice about preparing ourselves for our own deaths, and for helping others to die a death which is “Beautiful, dignified and inspiring.” Her “Ten very simple tips if you are sitting with anyone who is dying”, for example, are utterly down to earth.

Ms Warner heads up the Hospice of the Heart, where she teaches healthcare professionals and carers her gentle dying method. She also trains “midwives to the dying” – people who work alongside the body mechanics on the unquestionably far more important areas of the patient’s emotional and spiritual needs. It’s good to see. This blog extends its best wishes and its admiration.

It’s an interesting irony that, as our own Natural Death Centre lies dying, the natural death movement in the US, inspired by the NDC, has already taken Ms Warner’s pioneering work further and joined up death midwifery to home funerals. If you’re interested, check out the work of Jerri Lyons and Beth Knox, and Jennifer Bingham and Donna Larsen. There are others.

It’s women who are leading the way – of course. And, yes, there’s a danger it’s all getting too feminised and exclusive of blokey men. If this work is to prevail, each needs to move closer to the other.

Charles Cowling

Co-op Funeralcare are always on the lookout for little PR stunts to get a pic + 75 words into the local paper — heart of the community stuff: a little sponsored run here, a coffee morning and open day there, and sixty quid raised for charity. Nothing wrong in that. No one ever got successful by hiding their light under a bushel.

But this blog has its doubts about Funeralcare, principally because its press officer promised to write to allay those doubts. The fact that he resolutely hasn’t means, of course, that doubts persist.

From time to time, they flare up. They did this morning when Dan rang to tell me that, in the ancient kingdom of Fife, John Gilfillan, funeral director at F-care’s Lochgelly and Cowdenbeath branch, has taken to giving local primary school children lessons in road safety. He gives them luminous badges for their uniforms and warns them to be on their guard. The enterprise is supported by Fife Constabulary.

It’s a laudable and community-spirited thing to do — except that Mr Gilfillan wears his undertaker’s garb to school. “I don’t want to frighten them with talk of funerals,” he says.

So why the shuddermaking kit, John?

“I don’t go too deeply into things, or the consequences of road accidents, because there are wee kiddies there,” he says.

Hunh? Pshaw!

Charles Cowling

At yesterday’s funeral I invited people in the audience to have their say after they’d listened to tributes from the family. I tried to make it easy. I gave them time to think about it in advance, acknowledged that speaking in public is hard, invited them to speak from where they were sitting and reminded them that the only thing that mattered was getting it right for their dead friend.

Hardly anyone spoke. I had made an elementary error: I had supposed that their primary medium for expression is words.

Like many secular celebrants, I set great store by words. For me, they say it all. I also know that they often come over as so much blah-blah-blah – and that that may not necessarily be a bad thing. Blah can be just what people need so long as it is served soothingly warm – ask any Anglican vicar. “Death is nothing at all…” is warm blah. So is “Do not stand at my grave and weep”. To me, they’re blurry and worthless – but that’s my private problem.

For those times when words are likely to fall short, there are eloquent alternatives. There’s

· saying by doing.

· music

· dance

· saying by doing nothing

I remember planning a funeral with a family, fruitlessly trying to get them to tell me about their dead mum. Very little came until they explained that, as a family, talking was something they just didn’t do. Words, to them, were just so much blather. After some thought, I suggested lighting candles. They weren’t at all the sort of people who like lighting candles, I reckoned, but they leapt at the idea.

On the day of the funeral, I set up my stand, lit a tall candle in the centre and called people forward to light a satellite tealight. Normally, only a few come. On this occasion, everyone did – maybe thirty of them. The array of flames looked very pretty beside the coffin, where they spoke more eloquently than words.

Later in the ceremony, as I recited the solemn words of the committal, I heard a loud, alarming clunk, followed by chuckling in the audience. Afterwards, I discovered what had happened. The heat given off by the massed tealights had toppled the tall candle in their midst. Near-disaster for me but, for those there, the memorable, hilarious highlight of the funeral. It was typical, they said, of their mother to do that.

Words are unlikely ever to court disaster so long as they have been checked for precision and cleansed of ambiguity. Saying by doing, though, can be tragic-comically perilous. I’m thinking of the deplorable incident of the dove (symbolic of the soul of the dead person) which, when released, flew inside the crematorium for warmth, could not be chivvied out, and had to be shot. I’m thinking of another dove which, when released, was all at once attacked by a sparrow hawk. As the horrified mourners gazed up, bloody feathers fluttered down on them. I am thinking of the balloon which settled, miles and miles away, in the horns of a £50,000 prize bull. Enraged, the bull burst its fence, charged into a road, was hit by a car and had to be destroyed. These are all true stories.

A piece of music can be eloquent, but only when it is exclusively associated with the dead person. Music so often fails to be effective because those listening to it have their own, private relationship with it.

Dance could be eloquent, but mostly not in embarrassable Britain. Hippy-dippy. Toe-curling.

“It’s amazing / How you can speak / Right to my heart / Without saying a word” sings Ronan Keating. Silence can be defined as saying by doing nothing at all. Quakers do this very expertly, but hardly anyone else. If you invite people to sit in silence and contemplate, all they’ll do is wait. To remedy this, the custom is to fill the silence with music and invite people to do two things at once: think and listen. Doesn’t work. They still mostly wait.

Presently, funerals give the eyes little to do. Innovation is afoot. We now have Colourful Coffins, which I love. On its way, with us soon, is the multimedia review/celebration of the dead person’s life – words, music, slideshow, film clips. Louise Harris is doing pioneering work at Sentiment Productions. See her work here. I believe that the multimedia presentation is going to have a transformative effect on the way we do funerals once crems and other venues have installed screens, projectors and sound systems. I can’t wait.

Back in the here and now, I am chewing over the second lesson I learned from my mute mourners. I had wholly overlooked the fact that they had already done the most eloquent thing they could do for their dead friend. It was this: at some inconvenience to themselves they had made the effort to come to his funeral.

All the bells and all the whistles in all the world cannot speak more meaningfully than simply being there.

Charles Cowling

There’s a lot of eco-angst out there as the banks go bust and the economy takes on the aspect of a clown car. At times like this I thought bankers threw themselves out of windows, the useless idiots. What’s stopping them?

It’s an ill wind that blows nobody any good. House prices are freefalling and prospective first-time buyers are revving their chequebooks.

Spare a thought for sellers as they mourn their lost equity, poor wee thingies.

Message to sellers: there’s always someone worse off than yourself. Yes, really. Like people who have sell a house after someone’s been murdered in it. Nothing depresses prices like notoriety.

To people at this disadvantage I can recommend this blog. It’s a testament to the power of positive thinking, full of good tips. Here’s one:

When a potential buyer reports being upset about the fact that a person was murdered and the body thrown into the closet, comment instead about the ample space inside the closet; how there’s lots of room for shoes and accessories.

Here’s another:

A negative comment concerning how no one responded to the victim’s screams can be answered by showing how much privacy there is in the home and how playing loud music is unlikely to disturb the neighbors.

With undimmable optimism, our blogger even proposes a Plan B in the event of insuperable reluctance among buyers:

Rent the death house to a family of Satanists so they can improve their social standing amongst other devil worshippers.

In general, positive thinking is delusional. It can’t conquer cancer; it can’t even find you a parking space.

It may well, though, be efficacious in the littler matter of selling your house. Make up a murder. Demonstrate how that highlighted its best features. You may even get all your equity back.

Charles Cowling

A ceremony to mark the end of a marriage. A funeral for a marriage.

What do you think?

The concept comes to us from (I think) Australia, the country which pioneered the secular funeral ceremony. One practitioner in this field is Jennifer Cram. I wonder how may others there are?

Of course, if you’re into the business of celebrancy, it makes sense to expand your portfolio by devising as many sorts of ceremony as you can dream up. Jennifer does ceremonies for: ‘the loving commitment of partners who are not marrying; the naming and welcoming of a child into the family; renewal of marriage vows for couples celebrating staying married; the end of a relationship; reaching puberty or maturity (wise-woman ceremonies also known as croning); launching of businesses or other ventures…’ She even does relinquishment ceremonies for parents giving a child up for adoption. She’s staked out her patch.

Obviously, it’s funerals for marriages that interest us. And, do you know, whatever your incredulity is telling you, there’s actually lots of symmetry with funerals for dead people (she’s jolly clever, is Jennifer). Without using the word liminality once, here’s what her marriage funeral addresses: ‘issues of endings, separation, and letting go (disappointment, anger, sadness, fear and trying to achieve closure); issues of acceptance, forgiveness, becoming open to new beginnings and new possibilities.’ To get the whole picture, click here.

For what other emotional thresholds might you devise a funeral ceremony?

The death of youthful dreams and ambitions, perhaps…

Do say!

Charles Cowling

No one writes about death and funerals with greater wisdom, wit or feel for words than the poet-undertaker Thomas Lynch.

Is that point of view disputable? I think not. But go on, dispute it all the same. Where healthy debate is concerned, there is harmony only in discord.
Following on from my last post, here’s, if you don’t know it, Tom’s poem In Paradisum. I hope he won’t be copyright-sensitive if I quote it in full. It’s in his collection Grimalkin and Other Poems.
It makes me wonder if there are any funeral workers out there who have had similar thoughts — or even supernatural experiences?
In Paradisum

Sometimes I look into the eyes of corpses.
They are like mirrors broken, frozen pools,
or empty tabernacles, doors left open,
vacant and agape; like votives cooling,
motionless as stone in their cold focus.
As if they’d seen something. As if it all
came clear to them, at long last, in that last moment
of light perpetual or else the black
abyss of requiems and nothingness.
Only the dead know what the vision is,
beholding which they wholly faint away
amid their plenary indulgences.
In Paradisum, deducante we pray:
their first sight of what is or what isn’t.
Charles Cowling

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.

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The Good Funeral Guide Blog

Charles Cowling

Wherever dead people go they are freed from time. It’s our apprehension of this that adds to our sense of their elsewhereness and convinces us that they will not be coming back. It adds to the mystery, too. It is difficult to conceive of timeless existence, much easier to explain death in terms of annihilation.

For afterlifer John Donne “there shall be no darkness nor dazzling, but one equal light; no noise nor silence, but one equal music; no fears nor hopes, but one equal possession; no ends or beginnings, but one equal eternity.” I find that poetically meaningful, but I’ve no exact idea what it means.

Close friends and family of just-dead people can similarly find themselves existing in a different time zone, detached, surveying the rushing world around them with anything from bemusement to anger. It’s an idea that I try to incorporate into my funeral ceremonies on the grounds that it’s useful to hold up a mirror to mourners’ feelings. It used to take me far too many words to get my meaning across, and far too many blank-eyed responses impelled me to cut down. Now I say something like, “For the time that we are here this morning, time stands still for you, for a while, and this place belongs entirely to you and to [name of dead person].”

On Friday I went to the funeral of a former work colleague. I was there for her and her only, but it was, of course, impossible also not to backseat drive the ceremony.

The celebrant, a humanist, opened proceedings with a reading about time. I didn’t recognise it, and now I shall have to write and beg him to share it. It said what I have always sought to say.

He went on to conduct the ceremony in what I thought was an exemplary way. I would say enviable as well but I am too aware of my shortcomings to suppose that I could ever be as good as him.

His words were apt. He dressed the dead person in her best light, and why not, on this day of days? It was a happy likeness.

Outstanding, though, was his manner. It was utterly unhurried. In the context of a crematorium this was all the more remarkable because crems are tyrannised by clocks. He detached us from all sense of time even though he was on a tight deadline. What’s more, he detached himself from himself and came across as a person of no interest to us. To perform that well, ego free, unself-conscious, and thereby give the stage wholly to our dead friend, was an extraordinary accomplishment.

I am tempted to draw the conclusion that the hallmark of a memorable funeral is a forgettable celebrant, and the hallmark of a meaningful funeral is a serenity which derives from a sense of time suspended. It’s a bit pat, you’ll have your own view, and it may not do for every funeral, but I think there’s something in it.

The name of the celebrant I heard is Leslie Scrase. If you live close to Bridport, in Dorset, I commend him to you.

Charles Cowling

If there was a conference organiser of the year award, it would go to Julie Dunk – technical officer and conference manager of the Institute of Cemetery and Crematorium Management – and her partner, Blue. The reason, probably, why there is no such award is that Julie and Blue would win it every year.

 

Two days ago I dropped in on the ICCM conference. What a bundle of fun, you may ironically think – and to your surprise you’d be right. Any gathering of any branch of the death industry is as cheery as it has every right to be, and the cem-crem gang are no exception. Thank you for inviting me, Julie!

 

I went principally to listen to Sandy Sullivan talking about Resomation, the new alternative to cremation. Here’s a process which has been already been smothered in horror by the gutter press. They want to boil dead bodies, they say, then flush them down the drain. It’s not actually like that at all. And it rather overlooks the fact that cremation entails setting fire to dead bodies and flushing them up chimneys.

 

I missed Sandy. I nattered too long to the excellent Sandra Thomson, and couldn’t get into the lecture hall without creating a disturbance. Later, talking to crem managers, I discovered a lot of interest, and a desire to find out what precisely is in the liquid that is disposed of.

 

I wanted to meet memorialisers because that’s what I’m researching at the moment. I talked to the lovely people at the FG Marshall stand, and I had an engrossing chat with Jenny Gregson of BRAMM. I hadn’t known till she told me that the reasons people prefer shiny granite headstones are because the surface is easy-clean and they look forever new. Age shall not weary them nor the topple testers condemn.

 

So many of the good guys and gals of the funeral industry were there, including Wesley Music, who have done so much to improve the quality of funeral ceremonies, and are looking to instal multimedia display equipment in crems, a move which will be transformative. Paul Sinclair, the motorcycle funeral man, was there. He is a rare bundle of utter professionalism and great good humour. Time spent with Paul flies by.

 

Krysia from the indefatigable Institute of Civil Funerals was there, and it was she who taught me most. She objected in the most passionate terms to my unkindness in this blog to Adrian Pink of the British Institute of Funeral Directors. And while I am happy to contest Adrian’s professional judgement in supposing that a vast parade of hearses makes the funeral industry more approachable (Krysia disagrees with me implacably), I am not happy to think that I may have given him offence because I gather he is an extremely nice man who really is working as hard as he can, from the very best of motives, to make a difference.

 

Krysia’s word is good enough for me. Adrian, I apologise unreservedly. And I ask you again to talk to this blog and tell us exactly what you are striving to achieve. Here’s a very good opportunity for you to reach an audience of ordinary members of the public who would, I believe, be very interested to hear what you have to say.

 

 

 

 

Charles Cowling


It was very good to hear yesterday from Donna Belk, a home funeral pioneer and enabler in Texas. How I like that term ‘home funeral’ — preferable by far to the UK term ‘DIY funeral’ with all its associations of bodge, muddle, panic and a late night visit from the emergency electrician.

Not that many people in the UK sideline the deathcare professionals and arrange their own funerals. A lot of the early natural death zeal seems to have subsided. In the US the movement is healthy and, it seems, in good hands. “The home funeral movement.” says Donna, “is definitely gaining more attention.” See here.

She goes on to say: “Some people view it as an extension to hospice. We’ve had quite a bit of success in introducing it to hospice organizations in our area.”

I’d love to know more about how UK hospices are joining up end of life care to funeral planning, and empowering carers. I am hoping that someone at St Christopher’s, who have questioned whether funerals are ‘the missing link in palliative care’, is going to ring me up and tell me.

Watch this space, enjoy the videos — and thank you for writing in, Donna.




Charles Cowling

In general it’s irresponsible, contemptible, to adopt the role of helpless bystander. We don’t like helpless bystanders. Their body language is all wrong, so are their faces.

Sometimes, though, you’ve just got to be one. When the plumber calls I serenade him with cups of coffee and ingratiating solicitude, then vamoose, trusting and helpless. What more can I do?

Expertise tends to be exclusive. Helping hands are clumsy hands. Leaving it all to the expert is not always the same thing as abdication.

There’s a rule of thumb here. Where inanimate objects are concerned, helpless bystanding is cool. Let the experts get on with it. You don’t need to be there for your toilet when it discovers it’s got to have a new flush mechanism. You don’t need to explore with it how it feels about that.

Animate or recently-animate creatures are different. We wouldn’t drop Nan off at A & E and say, “Call us when she’s fixed.” She needs us. We need, too: we need to do what we can for her. We can’t do anything medical, but we can do lots emotionally and spiritually.

The well and the sick and the dying and the dead need us. When they fall into the hands of experts, the body mechanics, we can find ourselves relegated to the role of helpless bystanders, powerless petitioners for information. Expertise bigs itself up by doing this to us.

There’s a lot of it about. We need to reclaim our complementary role; re-empower ourselves.

Just published is Gentle Dying by Felicity Warner, a book which tells us exactly how we can do that with the dying.

She talks about the loneliness of dying people, disconnected from their family and friends by their lack of engagement, which manifests as denial. She talks about “switching the focus from trying to make them [the dying] better to making them feel comfortable and safe”, and the undesirability of “the heavy-handed use of drugs” which “may mask the dying experience”.

Once, communities knew how to help people die. As dying became medicalised, communities lost that knowledge. Ms Warner wants, in this book, to return this knowledge to the community and create a modern paradigm.

There is a new-ageiness about this book which is likely to deter a good many potential readers. There’s a lot about essential oils and crystals. As we lie dying, Ms Warner tells us, we are likely to feel “a chill spreading up through the chakras”. No. Only those who are in touch with their chakras. What % of the population are they?

My recommendation: suspend your scepticism, if any. In so many ways this is an excellent book. Ms Warner has worked with the dying. She offers much very sound practical advice about preparing ourselves for our own deaths, and for helping others to die a death which is “Beautiful, dignified and inspiring.” Her “Ten very simple tips if you are sitting with anyone who is dying”, for example, are utterly down to earth.

Ms Warner heads up the Hospice of the Heart, where she teaches healthcare professionals and carers her gentle dying method. She also trains “midwives to the dying” – people who work alongside the body mechanics on the unquestionably far more important areas of the patient’s emotional and spiritual needs. It’s good to see. This blog extends its best wishes and its admiration.

It’s an interesting irony that, as our own Natural Death Centre lies dying, the natural death movement in the US, inspired by the NDC, has already taken Ms Warner’s pioneering work further and joined up death midwifery to home funerals. If you’re interested, check out the work of Jerri Lyons and Beth Knox, and Jennifer Bingham and Donna Larsen. There are others.

It’s women who are leading the way – of course. And, yes, there’s a danger it’s all getting too feminised and exclusive of blokey men. If this work is to prevail, each needs to move closer to the other.

Charles Cowling

Co-op Funeralcare are always on the lookout for little PR stunts to get a pic + 75 words into the local paper — heart of the community stuff: a little sponsored run here, a coffee morning and open day there, and sixty quid raised for charity. Nothing wrong in that. No one ever got successful by hiding their light under a bushel.

But this blog has its doubts about Funeralcare, principally because its press officer promised to write to allay those doubts. The fact that he resolutely hasn’t means, of course, that doubts persist.

From time to time, they flare up. They did this morning when Dan rang to tell me that, in the ancient kingdom of Fife, John Gilfillan, funeral director at F-care’s Lochgelly and Cowdenbeath branch, has taken to giving local primary school children lessons in road safety. He gives them luminous badges for their uniforms and warns them to be on their guard. The enterprise is supported by Fife Constabulary.

It’s a laudable and community-spirited thing to do — except that Mr Gilfillan wears his undertaker’s garb to school. “I don’t want to frighten them with talk of funerals,” he says.

So why the shuddermaking kit, John?

“I don’t go too deeply into things, or the consequences of road accidents, because there are wee kiddies there,” he says.

Hunh? Pshaw!

Charles Cowling

At yesterday’s funeral I invited people in the audience to have their say after they’d listened to tributes from the family. I tried to make it easy. I gave them time to think about it in advance, acknowledged that speaking in public is hard, invited them to speak from where they were sitting and reminded them that the only thing that mattered was getting it right for their dead friend.

Hardly anyone spoke. I had made an elementary error: I had supposed that their primary medium for expression is words.

Like many secular celebrants, I set great store by words. For me, they say it all. I also know that they often come over as so much blah-blah-blah – and that that may not necessarily be a bad thing. Blah can be just what people need so long as it is served soothingly warm – ask any Anglican vicar. “Death is nothing at all…” is warm blah. So is “Do not stand at my grave and weep”. To me, they’re blurry and worthless – but that’s my private problem.

For those times when words are likely to fall short, there are eloquent alternatives. There’s

· saying by doing.

· music

· dance

· saying by doing nothing

I remember planning a funeral with a family, fruitlessly trying to get them to tell me about their dead mum. Very little came until they explained that, as a family, talking was something they just didn’t do. Words, to them, were just so much blather. After some thought, I suggested lighting candles. They weren’t at all the sort of people who like lighting candles, I reckoned, but they leapt at the idea.

On the day of the funeral, I set up my stand, lit a tall candle in the centre and called people forward to light a satellite tealight. Normally, only a few come. On this occasion, everyone did – maybe thirty of them. The array of flames looked very pretty beside the coffin, where they spoke more eloquently than words.

Later in the ceremony, as I recited the solemn words of the committal, I heard a loud, alarming clunk, followed by chuckling in the audience. Afterwards, I discovered what had happened. The heat given off by the massed tealights had toppled the tall candle in their midst. Near-disaster for me but, for those there, the memorable, hilarious highlight of the funeral. It was typical, they said, of their mother to do that.

Words are unlikely ever to court disaster so long as they have been checked for precision and cleansed of ambiguity. Saying by doing, though, can be tragic-comically perilous. I’m thinking of the deplorable incident of the dove (symbolic of the soul of the dead person) which, when released, flew inside the crematorium for warmth, could not be chivvied out, and had to be shot. I’m thinking of another dove which, when released, was all at once attacked by a sparrow hawk. As the horrified mourners gazed up, bloody feathers fluttered down on them. I am thinking of the balloon which settled, miles and miles away, in the horns of a £50,000 prize bull. Enraged, the bull burst its fence, charged into a road, was hit by a car and had to be destroyed. These are all true stories.

A piece of music can be eloquent, but only when it is exclusively associated with the dead person. Music so often fails to be effective because those listening to it have their own, private relationship with it.

Dance could be eloquent, but mostly not in embarrassable Britain. Hippy-dippy. Toe-curling.

“It’s amazing / How you can speak / Right to my heart / Without saying a word” sings Ronan Keating. Silence can be defined as saying by doing nothing at all. Quakers do this very expertly, but hardly anyone else. If you invite people to sit in silence and contemplate, all they’ll do is wait. To remedy this, the custom is to fill the silence with music and invite people to do two things at once: think and listen. Doesn’t work. They still mostly wait.

Presently, funerals give the eyes little to do. Innovation is afoot. We now have Colourful Coffins, which I love. On its way, with us soon, is the multimedia review/celebration of the dead person’s life – words, music, slideshow, film clips. Louise Harris is doing pioneering work at Sentiment Productions. See her work here. I believe that the multimedia presentation is going to have a transformative effect on the way we do funerals once crems and other venues have installed screens, projectors and sound systems. I can’t wait.

Back in the here and now, I am chewing over the second lesson I learned from my mute mourners. I had wholly overlooked the fact that they had already done the most eloquent thing they could do for their dead friend. It was this: at some inconvenience to themselves they had made the effort to come to his funeral.

All the bells and all the whistles in all the world cannot speak more meaningfully than simply being there.

Charles Cowling

There’s a lot of eco-angst out there as the banks go bust and the economy takes on the aspect of a clown car. At times like this I thought bankers threw themselves out of windows, the useless idiots. What’s stopping them?

It’s an ill wind that blows nobody any good. House prices are freefalling and prospective first-time buyers are revving their chequebooks.

Spare a thought for sellers as they mourn their lost equity, poor wee thingies.

Message to sellers: there’s always someone worse off than yourself. Yes, really. Like people who have sell a house after someone’s been murdered in it. Nothing depresses prices like notoriety.

To people at this disadvantage I can recommend this blog. It’s a testament to the power of positive thinking, full of good tips. Here’s one:

When a potential buyer reports being upset about the fact that a person was murdered and the body thrown into the closet, comment instead about the ample space inside the closet; how there’s lots of room for shoes and accessories.

Here’s another:

A negative comment concerning how no one responded to the victim’s screams can be answered by showing how much privacy there is in the home and how playing loud music is unlikely to disturb the neighbors.

With undimmable optimism, our blogger even proposes a Plan B in the event of insuperable reluctance among buyers:

Rent the death house to a family of Satanists so they can improve their social standing amongst other devil worshippers.

In general, positive thinking is delusional. It can’t conquer cancer; it can’t even find you a parking space.

It may well, though, be efficacious in the littler matter of selling your house. Make up a murder. Demonstrate how that highlighted its best features. You may even get all your equity back.

Charles Cowling

A ceremony to mark the end of a marriage. A funeral for a marriage.

What do you think?

The concept comes to us from (I think) Australia, the country which pioneered the secular funeral ceremony. One practitioner in this field is Jennifer Cram. I wonder how may others there are?

Of course, if you’re into the business of celebrancy, it makes sense to expand your portfolio by devising as many sorts of ceremony as you can dream up. Jennifer does ceremonies for: ‘the loving commitment of partners who are not marrying; the naming and welcoming of a child into the family; renewal of marriage vows for couples celebrating staying married; the end of a relationship; reaching puberty or maturity (wise-woman ceremonies also known as croning); launching of businesses or other ventures…’ She even does relinquishment ceremonies for parents giving a child up for adoption. She’s staked out her patch.

Obviously, it’s funerals for marriages that interest us. And, do you know, whatever your incredulity is telling you, there’s actually lots of symmetry with funerals for dead people (she’s jolly clever, is Jennifer). Without using the word liminality once, here’s what her marriage funeral addresses: ‘issues of endings, separation, and letting go (disappointment, anger, sadness, fear and trying to achieve closure); issues of acceptance, forgiveness, becoming open to new beginnings and new possibilities.’ To get the whole picture, click here.

For what other emotional thresholds might you devise a funeral ceremony?

The death of youthful dreams and ambitions, perhaps…

Do say!

Charles Cowling

No one writes about death and funerals with greater wisdom, wit or feel for words than the poet-undertaker Thomas Lynch.

Is that point of view disputable? I think not. But go on, dispute it all the same. Where healthy debate is concerned, there is harmony only in discord.
Following on from my last post, here’s, if you don’t know it, Tom’s poem In Paradisum. I hope he won’t be copyright-sensitive if I quote it in full. It’s in his collection Grimalkin and Other Poems.
It makes me wonder if there are any funeral workers out there who have had similar thoughts — or even supernatural experiences?
In Paradisum

Sometimes I look into the eyes of corpses.
They are like mirrors broken, frozen pools,
or empty tabernacles, doors left open,
vacant and agape; like votives cooling,
motionless as stone in their cold focus.
As if they’d seen something. As if it all
came clear to them, at long last, in that last moment
of light perpetual or else the black
abyss of requiems and nothingness.
Only the dead know what the vision is,
beholding which they wholly faint away
amid their plenary indulgences.
In Paradisum, deducante we pray:
their first sight of what is or what isn’t.
Charles Cowling

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.

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