Bring on the empty corpses

Book review: Smoke Gets In Your Eyes by Caitlin Doughty

Caitlin Doughty, graduate in medieval history and author of a sunny thesis entitled The Suppression of Demonic Births in Late Medieval Witchcraft Theory, rejects a promising career in academia in favour of one as a corpse handler and incinerator of the dead.

Anticipating bewilderment she asks, rhetorically, “So, really, what was a nice girl like me working at a ghastly ol’ crematory like Westwind?” And she goes on to tell us what drew her to it. She describes a traumatic childhood trigger event. I won’t reveal what it was, of course; you need to read Smoke Gets In Your Eyes for yourself. Her theory is that she dispelled the consequent denial that insulated her from the traumatic event by confronting her fears and getting on down with corpses. As a result of this self-prescribed and gruelling CBT she is now at peace with the “stillness and perfection of death”.

More than that, Doughty is now the world’s leading cheerleader for death: “Death might appear to destroy the meaning in our lives,” she says, “but in fact it is the very source of our creativity.” This is just one of many debatable assertions she makes in this book. Death may inspire urgency and thereby rouse latent creativity, but it is doubtful whether it can put in what God left out.

Doughty is the leader of a clever, charismatic and acclaimed corpse cult, the Order of the Good Death, “a group of funeral industry professionals, academics, and artists exploring ways to prepare a death phobic culture for their inevitable mortality.” You’ve seen the Ask A Mortician video series — you have, haven’t you? She’s sassy, funny, outrageous and very likeable. She’s a brilliant performer. She spills and splashes behind-the-scenes secrets with a mischievous glee that appals and infuriates industry insiders, who firmly believe that there are Things It’s Best We Don’t Know. To this day, despite a great and growing following, she remains shunned by the National Funeral Directors Association. Her preparedness to bring down, in Biblical abundance, the murderous fear and loathing of old school funeral people takes guts. She’s outrageous because she’s also passionately seriousness.

Like so many progressives, Doughty is essentially retrogressive — in a positive way. Her prescription for the way things are is to get back to doing them the way we did. Nowadays, when someone dies, we call the undertaker and have them disappeared. This, reckons Doughty, is a symptom of a “vast mortality cover-up … society’s structural denial of death … There has never been a time in the history of the world when a culture has broken so completely with traditional methods of body disposition and beliefs surrounding mortality.”

The way to restore society to emotional and psychological health, Doughty believes, is to engage with the event and get hands-on with the corpse. She believes that “more families would choose to take responsibility for their own dead if they knew that it was a possibility.”

This is what working in a crematory teaches her: “Westwind Cremation & Burial changed my understanding of death. Less than a year after donning my corpse-colored glasses, I went from thinking it was strange that we don’t see dead bodies any more to believing their absence was a root cause of problems in the modern world. Corpses keep the living tethered to reality.”

I’m not so sure. I have in mind David Clark’s 1982 paper, Death in Staithes. The older inhabitants of Staithes, a fishing village on the east coast of Yorkshire, could easily recall the way things used to be: “When a person passed away the first thing they did was go for the board – the lying-out board,” which was kept by the village joiner. The lying-out itself was supervised by women qualified by skill and experience. These same villagers had lived through the commodification of death and the arrival of the Co-operative. To them the hands-on past is no paradise lost and they display no desire to return to it.

I question Doughty’s assertion that we suffer from “structural denial of death.” If we were to think about death some more, would it really do us any good? Yes, she says: “I don’t just pretend to love death. I really do love death. I bet you would too if you got to know him.” Elsewhere, she writes: “Accepting death doesn’t mean that you won’t be devastated when someone you love dies. It means you will be able to focus on your grief, unburdened by the bigger existential questions like ‘Why do people die?'”

Philip Larkin felt sort of the same until he hit 50. In Julian Barnes’ words, “our national connoisseur of mortal terror … died in a hospital in Hull. A friend, visiting him the day before, said, ‘If Philip hadn’t been drugged, he would have been raving. He was that frightened.’” Pretty much the same can be said about the death of another connoisseur, Sherwin Nuland, the man who wrote with spooky prescience “I have not seen much dignity in the process by which we die.” He was that frightened, too.

“Let us … reclaim our mortality,” exhorts Doughty headily. But does the dearth of corpses in our lives really distance us from death? Death was big in the lives of everyone in the past because people died at any age. They don’t do that so much now, they mostly die old, and that’s less tragic, less sensational. But death is arguably bigger in our lives than ever before because the dying spend so bloody long about it. There can be very few children who are not acquainted with a tottering, muttering relative, and very few adults who do not spend years despairingly caring for dementing, degenerating parents. They are in no doubt about what their parents are doing: they are dying a modern death, a slow and beastly death. That’s why there’s such an intense national conversation in so many countries about assisted suicide — come on, how mortality aware is that? Far from being a time of death denial, the present age has focussed our attention on mortality at least as urgently as any other because the distressing dilapidation of legions of almost-corpses starkly and terrifyingly prefigures our own end times, leaving us in no doubt that the home straight is going to be unutterably horrible. If we don’t feel we have much to learn from corpses, we learn as much as we feel we need from the living dead (ever seen a stroke ward?) and from self-deliverers like Brittany Maynard. They teach us the allure of Nembutal. We talk about this. A lot.

What people believe also plays its part in modern attitudes. Religious and spiritual-but-not-religious people are, pretty much all of them, dualists. There’s a soul and there’s a body. It’s a belief reinforced by the appearance of any corpse they have ever seen. Gape-jawed and evacuated of all vitality, a corpse speaks of the absence of self. Whoever it once embodied has gone. The corpse is not the person, so what value is there to be gained from cosseting it? This isn’t a new thing. Radical Protestantism has always taught it. Calvinist settlers in America became very careless of the ‘dignity’ of their soul-less dead and drifted into just hauling them into the forest or pushing them into rivers. In some places it got so bad that neighbours were appointed to oversee next door’s disposal arrangements and held responsible for making sure things were done properly. For these settlers, direct cremation would have been a godsend.

If I take issue with Doughty’s thesis, it is because someone’s got to. For Doughty, the contemplation of the corpse is “the beginning of wisdom.” If you are inclined to believe that, she says, “Don’t let anyone ever tell you you are ‘sick’ or ‘morbid’ or ‘deviant.’”

What does morbid mean, exactly? It is Doughty herself who has pointed out that it has no antonym. Yes, what is the word for a healthy interest in death and dying? How does it express itself? Doughty and her fellow members of the Order of the Good Death express their wisdom exotically, sharing delight in much that others would regard as macabre — transi tombs, taxidermy, mortabilia and of all sorts. All a bit goth for my taste; I think there’s more than a dash of innate morbidity here. It would be idiotic to question the charisma of the cause, because it has attracted a huge worldwide following. How does it play to Mr and Mrs Everyday-Person? It remains to be seen. All I can say is that, speaking as a detached and jaded dullwit, after 6 years of hanging out with funeral people and their charges I remain unconvinced of the value of the corpse in death rituals, and while I acknowledge matter-of-factly the inevitability of death, I hate it as much as I ever did.

If by now you need some remission from my grinding and joyless pessimism, you need to buy this book. It it touches all the right bases — funny, shocking, sad, wise. Above all, it is full of hope and purpose. It is also highly readable. It was only when I re-read it that I became aware just how beautifully constructed it is. This is the work of a highly intelligent person who has got the inspiration-perspiration balance right (1:99). What she has to say is the product of experience, a lot of it penitential. She has captured the zeitgeist. This is a manifesto for today.

ECSTASY OF DECAY №1: Your Mortician from Angeline Gragasin on Vimeo.

Poppy is hiring

Poppy Mardall is looking for her young company’s third full-time employee.

Her fresh approach to the business of funerals makes this a job more suitable, perhaps, for someone outside the industry. But she is very open to applications from those within it who feel that her philosophy is also their philosophy.

She says:

This is an exciting opportunity to become a major part of growing a small company with big ambitions. As our third full time employee, you will be in an excellent position to progress as the company grows. You will be based at Poppy’s office in Tooting, but will
frequently be: meeting families at home, running funerals, at the mortuary and out and about getting things done. Like Isabel and Poppy, you will do whatever needs doing. Standard hours: 8am-5pm but expectation to work flexibly, and beyond these hours if
necessary. Full training will be given, and support and guidance whenever needed.

If you’d like to know more, you can download the full job description here: POPPY’S Co-ordinator Job Description

Royal funeral

Not wanting to leave anything to chance, or to the event planning abilities of others, pioneering LGBT activist Jose Sarria laid out specific instructions for how his funeral would go down. His Imperial Court family — all those members of the organization that he founded when he named himself Empress I in 1965 — made it happen, and all arrived to Grace Cathedral today in San Francisco wearing their veils, crowns, and mourning garb, as requested.


Forward into the past

Most progressive initiatives in the world of death and funerals are characterised by a spirit of ‘Stop the clock, I want to go back’. 

Up in Tyneside, Michele Rutherford (DipFD) has just launched a retro initiative. It’s for those people who don’t want men in black macs taking away the person who has died, but would rather keep them at home and have them looked after there. Michele is going to look after people who have died in their own homes. 

Michele says, “Really, what Last Respects is offering is a return to the old-fashioned type of funeral, when a local woman would be responsible for laying out the deceased.  This means that someone does not have to leave their own home and we can organise all the funeral, from the cars to the service to any reception afterwards. I have no overheads, because I operate from home, and there are no ‘hidden extras’ for customers. I am offering a personal, less conventional option for funerals, as well as a bereavement aftercare service.”

I rang Michele and we had a nice chat. She’s very nice. If you feel inclined to wish her good fortune, please add a comment, or contact her:  0191 597 1872 or 07766 221 539 – She’s still working on her website. 

Full story here

Bizarre Burials tonight Channel 5 @ 10pm

I’ve been sitting on a nice email which arrived a few days ago from Back2Back, a TV production company:

I just wanted to let you know that our documentary is airing on Thursday 10th Jan, at 10pm on Channel 5.

Cripes, that’s tonight already, isn’t it? 

They add: 

Thank you so much for all your help and contribution towards the making of the programme.

By that, they mean lots of chats on the phone. The GFG acknowledges no responsibility for anything you don’t like and max responsibility for anything you do. I seem to remember they were unhappy with the sensational title, Bizarre Burials, and I seem to remember also that their intentions in making the documentary were good. 

Here’s the blurb

From themed funerals to death masks and ashes tattooed onto loved ones, discover the variety of strange and sensational ways to make your mark when you die.

Nottingham-based bespoke-coffin specialists Crazy Coffins will take on any request from skips to Rolls Royces, no matter how strange. One client, 78-year-old Malcolm, has commissioned a bright-orange aeroplane coffin as a homage to his favourite football club. He has also written his own crematorium committal song, called ‘Burn me, turn me, roast me tonight’. To his wife’s dismay, he even rehearses his own funeral.

Wendy had other plans when her mother died. After collecting her from the morgue, she took her on a four-day trip around her favourite spots before digging her grave – proof that all you need for a
funeral is a big heart and a shovel.

Death masks are not new, but they are unusual in this day and age. Nick Reynolds has made one for his mum, but he has also had commissions from the rich and famous, including Ken Russell and Malcolm McLaren. Former client Rachel finds her ex-boyfriend’s mask a powerful reminder of her loved one and tearfully reveals that she hides it in her closet.

Another hoping to cash in on the fad for fantastic funerals is self-confessed Delboy Darren Abey. His promotion campaign for his ‘Only Fools and Horses’ hearse stretches from the annual ‘Only Fools’ convention to Peckham, before he realises that life in the funeral trade is tougher than he thought.

Meanwhile, the death of Julie White’s husband has left such a huge hole in her life that she is taking the radical step of having his ashes tattooed as a portrait into her skin. It makes a huge difference that his indelible ‘cremains’ will be with her always.

As these and other peculiar partings reveal, death can be full of black humour as people find their 
own unique ways of meeting their end.

If ten to night is no good for you, you can catch it on Demand 5.

Hat-tip to Jonathan for the memory-prod. 

In jest?

Lockwood woman’s colourful funeral request – including a jester to walk in front of hearse

Funeral director Debbie Ingham dressed as a jester at the funeral of Margaret Harper

IT WAS a fitting end to a colourful life.

Lockwood grandmother Margaret Harper had only one dying wish – that no-one wore black to her funeral.

Friends and family rallied around this week to dress as brightly as possible to celebrate the 81-year-old’s life.

And funeral director and family friend Deborah Ingham stuck to her promise by leading the cortege dressed as jester.

The funeral procession turned heads in Lockwood as it slowly made its way towards Huddersfield crematorium.

Mourners then gathered at Lockwood Baptist Church – where Margaret was a member and ran the Sunday school for many years – for a celebration of her life.

Her daughter Geri Harper, 55, said: “There was a big cheer and laughter when everyone saw the procession. Someone even said ‘only at Margaret Harper’s funeral could they turn up and everyone bursts into laughter.’

“That is what she would have wanted.

“Debbie is a friend of the family and used to live next door to us when she was a kid.

“When she became a funeral director, my mum would tell her there was no way she would wear black to her funeral.

“She was even going to knit Debbie a poncho but never got around to it.

“That was her only request at her funeral, that everyone would wear bright clothes.”


Read more about Deborah Ingham here

Posted by Evelyn

The order is rapidly fadin’

Blog reader Kathryn Edwards has drawn our attention to an interesting article in the Guardian. Thanks, Kathryn. 

In it, Rosanna Greenstreet tells how her aunt Molly donated her body for medical education or research, thereby denying everyone the benefit of a funeral. Greenstreet tells us what family and friends did instead:

Molly didn’t believe in God and hated funerals, but she loved a party. So on Saturday 12 May, on what would have been her 94th birthday weekend, Stephen and Prudence held one for her. The celebration lunch was in a private room at the Michelin-starred restaurant, Chez Bruce, in south London. All Molly’s nearest and dearest came. There were photos of her through the ages and letters of condolence from her friends. It was a lovely occasion: we drank champagne as we shared our memories of Molly, and there were no tears.

Greenstreet’s father also wants to donate his bodyto Cambridge university, both for the benefit that will confer and also because it will enable him to evade a funeral. He’s written down seven reasons: 

1. Hopefully, to make some contribution to medical training

2. To spare relatives the trouble of organising a funeral.

3. To spare my estate the cost of a funeral (a “cheap” one might cost £3,000).

4. To spare possible “mourners” the trouble of attending a funeral. 

5. To avoid the hypocrisy of troubling the Anglican church to participate in a service when I have attended so few other services since I left school.

6. There is nothing that could be said or sung at a church funeral service that would reflect my views (such as they are) on life, death and fate. Anyone curious about my life can be sufficiently informed by my detailed and intimate diaries (currently 76 volumes).

7. To avoid anyone having to trouble to say anything interesting or pleasant about a life distinguished only by its lack of significant distinction – or disgrace.

Typically self-deprecating and, perhaps, peculiarly British. Anthony Greenstreet may be 83 but he’s in tune with the zeitgeist. Like an ever-increasing number of people, he can’t see the point of a conventional funeral, and his daughter is catching on to the attractions of a funeral without a body. 

Greenstreet concludes:

It’s hard to think about what we will do to remember my father when he has gone up to Cambridge for the last time. Fancy restaurants have never been his thing – he has always preferred home-cooking. Nor does he drink much – his preferred tipple is tea, taken without milk, harking back to the days when he started his career as a “humble clerk” in India. So, perhaps, when the time comes, we will sit around the kitchen table with a cuppa, make a start on those 76 diaries, and really find out what made the old man tick!

The comments under the article are worth reading. Here are some:

Mrs PunkAs

When my father in law passed away recently we respected his wishes not to have a funeral – he was non religious and wanted no public gathering so instead we hired a room at the crematorium and gave the four grandchildren an assortment of multi coloured vivid markers each. They spent a lovely half an hour drawing all sorts of stuff all over his coffin, pictures, words, memories etc. It was really good for them. It was the best send-off I’ve been to.


I’d like to be stripped of all useable parts and then squashed into an old cardboard receptacle and ploughed under at a random beauty spot.
Reduce. Reuse. Recycle.

Sandyr9 (whose father donated his body)

For my father, we reserved a chapel, placed an obituary with time and location of service, called distant friends and relatives, and had a lovely service: A minister friend presided, biblical passages were preached and discussed, and traditional hymns were played. After the service, there was a reception wherein attendees met and conversed with family. To my thinking, we had a funeral for my father.

 These sentiments are as common among Guardian readers as they are among the readers of any other paper. Each inspires the others to do something minimal or creative or alternative or all of the above. And of course, the more people exchange these sorts of views, the more they empower themselves, so that when the time comes, the more likely they are to have the clarity of mind to reject a funeral director’s conventional  offer. 

The message to funeral directors is one that Bob Dylan set to music all those years ago: better start swimming. 

Full Guardian article here


A folklorist’s funeral

There’s a very charming and touching account here of what would conventionally be reckoned the very alternative funeral of Thomas Hine, pictured above. His beautiful Leafshroud, below, was made by Yuli Somme here.

Drive thru’ funeral


Posted by Vale

They’ve been operating in Los Angeles (where else?) since 1974.

Lately though they’ve become especially popular with local gangs – many of whom are killed in drive by shootings and who feel safer behind the bullet proof glass.

Found on the web here.

A case of miserable mismatch

Spare a thought this morning for Lynda Hannah, owner of Living Legacies, a green funeral company in New Zealand with an alternative, less than rigidly formal approach to funerals. Ms Hannah likes to empower families to play their part, do what they can, take ownership. There are funeral directors of her ilk in the UK.

Perhaps, after reading about what happened to Ms Hannah, you will feel impelled to join the chorus of condemnation. Even New Zealand’s environment minister has lent his voice. Here are some facts.

Russ Travis, 21, was out speeding with his friend David Alan Te Maari when the car crashed and Mr Travis was killed. David Alan Te Maari, the driver, is now doing 6 years and 2 months for manslaughter. 

Travis’s mother, Dee Stansbury, engaged Living Legacies to be her funeral director. Lynda Hannah brought Travis’s body home in her station wagon where it was placed on a table until the coffin arrived. Ms Hannah dissuaded the family from having the body embalmed. A lot of people wanted to see the body. The room temperature rose too high. There was leakage, which Ms Hannah had warned the family might happen. When the time came to take the body to the funeral, the station wagon’s cam belt was screechy. Mr Travis’s family were furious and refused to pay.

In the aftermath, Ms Hannah observed: “It is common for grieving people to express misguided anger towards a third party because placing it where it rightfully belongs is just too painful.” She may have a point. She also observed that the family would have been better off with a mainstream funeral director.

Here at the GFG we have enough contacts in New Zealand to have been able to establish that Lynda Hannah has ten years’ worth of satisfied customers to her name and is reckoned to be a good person if, perhaps, a tad scatty. We are also aware of good ‘alternative’ funeral directors in the UK who have attracted a similar response from families who ought to have engaged a more conservative, if more expensive, undertaker. 

We sent Lynda Hannah an email of support. She tells us that, though her ordeal has been hugely stressful, she has been very consoled by the upsurge of support support she is receiving from those who know her. 

Read the newspaper story here. Check out Lynda Hannah’s website here