Our role in their wishes

We noted The Sun newspaper’s report on a floral tribute this week, pointing a mild gosh-look-at-this finger at a family’s ambition to let funeral wishes be carried out – to the perfumed, petalled letter.

However, it was the throwaway inclusion of another story, further down the page, that caught our eye. Moving on past the report of a Royal Artillery sergeant’s coffin being transported on a gun carriage – de rigueur perhaps – The Sun has a picture of a JCB at the head of a funeral cortège with a coffin secured carefully in its bucket.

A little background research revealed that Tony Law had always worked with plant machinery. As a digger enthusiast, he’d not only specified the mode of transport to his own service but also had his wishes extended by the family: instead of traditional, low-key or formal dress, everyone wore hi-viz jackets to mark the occasion. ‘Tony Law’s Last Ride’, they said.

Happily, in most situations these are far from being seen as irreverent gestures. They are endearing; a little eccentric, perhaps; but intended without malice to bridge the gap between the absent character of the person who has died and people who are coming together to commemorate that person’s unique life.

Flowers, saying ‘BARSTARD’? Traditional limousines on the one hand, but a bright yellow JCB to carry your coffin? It may not be the done thing to suggest it up-front without knowing the family’s background, but if the situation is the right one then – for a good funeral – these gestures are not out of place.

However, specific wishes like these may cause significant dismay, pain even, if they are set out in a funeral plan but not shared in advance. Karen Anstee’s short film, Rachel, brought this into sharp perspective last year. Anstee’s 10-film explored the relationships between religion and family: Rachel had rejected her conservative Jewish upbringing for a more bohemian life and wanted her ceremony to reflect those life choices. Rachel’s family wanted to reclaim her body for burial in the traditional way, and the story unfolds to reflect both points of view.

In the 21st century, diverging preferences are becoming more common. Families are, sadly, more dysfunctional than they once were. Couples of all ages may come together from different cultural backgrounds and pass on new traditions or beliefs to their children. Whereas, once, intimate rites of passage served to bring families and communities together at a difficult time, today the expression of individuality has the potential to stimulate conflict.

Nowadays the expected form for a funeral may bear little or no resemblance to the unique, individual service or ceremony that’s requested either by a partner, a close family member, or – prior to their death – by the persons who have died. And as a result, funeral directors and celebrants may find themselves in a difficult situation.

Questions, then.

We hear much, still, about the importance of making a Will and ensuring it’s valid and kept up-to-date. What more could we do to reappropriate the term ‘funeral plan’, or is it too toxic to contemplate?

Would it not help us all if we could encourage the solicitors or Will-makers we know, locally, to include detailed funeral arrangements as a part of that process, and to highlight the benefit of communicating these details in advance? Or would that be too complicated in itself?

And should we consider ‘how to tell people what’s happening’ guides as an integral part of the information we all provide – or do you do this already?

Wise words

ru-callender

Ru’s opening words to the assembled guests struck a chord with many who were there, so we thought we’d put them on the blog for the whole world to read. Over to you Rupert.

“Welcome everyone to the Good Funeral Awards 2016!

It started off, as so many good things do, in a sweaty basement in Bournemouth, and has grown into this glamorous Metropolitan lunchtime bunfight.

My name is Ru Callender and I should be standing here with my wife, Claire – sadly, she’s got flu. Together, we run The Green Funeral Company in Devon, and we used to be the Enfants Terrible of the undertaking world. Self taught, stubborn, scruffy, we still use our family Volvo instead of a hearse – but as we’ve been doing it for 17 years, we’re probably just terrible…

Today is a genuinely unusual mélange of the alternative and the conventional funeral world, and it has probably taken longer than the Good Friday agreement took to get everyone in the same room.

You are here because someone thinks you’re great. Let that sink in.

Even if you asked them to.

This gathering is largely due to Charles Cowling and crew of the Good Funeral Guide, and also to the original renegade masters, the Natural Death Centre, both of whose organisations dared to believe that ordinary people could deal with the gritty detail of death, the truth about what happens to our bodies, that a deep, internal understanding of death is part of our birthright, part and parcel of being human.

And what they did – brace yourself, maybe have a glug of wine to steady yourself here, was to treat the public as adults, to include them in a conversation about the one thing that will happen to each and every one of us.

They presumed, as we all should, that people can handle more than the protective narrative that is fed to them.

They were right.

It was thought wildly radical then, now it just seems honest and transparent.

I said funeral world because I refuse to use the word industry. Making computers is an industry. Fashion is an industry. Even getting fit is an industry. I don’t decry industry. It’s necessary.

But death is a true mystery, and working with it should be a vocation, a real calling, and if you’re not meant to be here, if ego, or an understandable search for meaning in your life has misled you here, then death has a way of calling your bluff. You are either initiated, in or out.

This work, the real work of dealing with death and loss is not glamorous, however closely it nearly rhymes with sex, however interesting it makes us appear to those who unfortunately have to work in jobs they hate to pay the bills, and that matter little.

This work, done properly, is incredibly stressful.

It’s exhausting, frightening, physically, emotionally and existentially challenging, but it is also deeply, deeply rewarding.

Burn out is a real risk, or worse, an unconscious hardening of your outer emotional skin – these are the risks you face depending on whether you fully engage with it or not.

Breakdown or bravado. Truly a metaphor for our times.

So, if you work with death – florist, celebrant, undertaker or chaplain, particularly if you are new to it, you really have to let it in.

Go deeper.

Feel it. Fear it. Don’t pretend to love it , because the only thing worse than death is not death – and then, if you can, let it go.

 

This world is also open to all.

Undertaking is completely unregulated, and should remain so in my opinion, not just because no amount of qualifications can teach you what to say to the mother of a dead child, that is an instinctive language that rises unbidden from the heart, but also because we are all amateurs when staring into the abyss, all professionals when faced with a dead body.

And they are OUR dead, yours and mine. We are all funeral directors eventually.

It is a shared mystery and your guess as to what it means, and your actions as to what to do are as valid as mine, or the Church, or the Humanists.

Nobody knows for sure.

The mechanics of what needs to be done are easy, I promise. Keep bodies cold. Put them in a suitable receptacle. Carry them, bury or burn them.

The rest, the words, the rituals, the how we do this, you KNOW, deep down what is right for you. You know.

 

But here I am, bringing you all down at a funeral award convention – I should get a prize for that!

But just indulge me one last time before we start bringing on the champs, and this celebration of the real change that has happened gets underway –

Euphemisms.

They cover the kitchen floor of bereavement like a spilled cat litter tray.

They protect no-one, they fool no-one, they confuse children. They are well meaning, but they are wrong.

I’m only going to take on one here, and I apologise if anyone has to amend their speech or their website as a result.

Loved ones.

Not everyone is loved, some because they have led sad, lonely lives, others because they did bad things.

They die too. They need funerals and their families are broken, and the depth of their pain makes the phrase ‘Loved one’ seem like a jeer.

Just saying.

So call them the dead, the dead one, the dead person, anything other than ‘loved one’. Call them by their name!

I know it’s awkward, but it will spare you the look of contempt you get when you say it to the wrong person.

Lecture over.”

The modern funeral is a grief-bypass procedure?

Stewart Dakers is a 76 year-old voluntary community worker with a weekly column in the Guardian. He wrote a piece in last week’s Spectator about funerals. Here’s a taster:

Funerals ain’t what they used to be. Today’s emphasis is more on celebrating a life past than honouring the future of a soul. While I am not averse to a celebratory element, the funeral is morphing into a spiritually weightless bless-fest. This was brought home to me last week at the funeral of Enid, a lady I knew only through our mutual attendance at bingo in the community centre.

I was uncomfortable from the moment we gathered outside the church, where my sombre suit set me apart from the Technicolor crowd of family and friends. The atmosphere was more akin to a wedding, even a hen do, than a funeral, the air drenched in perfume and aftershave. Inside, there was pew-to-pew chatter, wall-to-wall music (Robbie Williams’s ‘Angels’, inevitably), not a single moment of silence, and not a single sacred song, let alone a prayer (an inaccurately mumbled Lord’s Prayer excepted). There were two readings, one by a grand-niece of perhaps eight, snivelling, bless, a poem about being only next door; then a nephew offering a eulogy, the main point of which was that his aunt had been a keen gardener ‘and she will plant her flowers in heaven’.

I know I shouldn’t sneer. Religion, the Anglican version anyhow, is a broad church with a wide liturgical spectrum. But I could not help feeling that such celebration missed the point. It somehow connected with a virtual life rather than a real death. It was spiritual displacement activity.

You can read the rest of the article by clicking here.

A eulogy sandwich is not enough to nourish grief

As Jenny Uzell embarks on a series of posts which will consider the knotty question, What Is A Funeral For? it’s worth reflecting on what has been a game of two halves, funeralwise, in the last fortnight. Two people have expressed contrasting approaches to a funeral.

First, there was Dave Smith, who arranged the funeral of his daughter, Hannah, the 14-year-old who committed suicide after being bullied online. Desperately sad though this was, Dave wanted the funeral to celebrate Hannah’s life, and he asked mourners and relatives to wear colourful clothes, onesies, her favourite garment, in particular,  to reflect Hannah’s joie de vivre.

The church was decorated with purple and white balloons, photographs of Hannah, and a poster that read “Be Happy for Hannah”. Purple was Hannah’s favourite colour. Her coffin was purple. Her father did not want her to travel in a hearse, so he brought her himself in a blue Audi 4×4. The coffin was carried into church to In The Air Tonight by Phil Collins. The service was conducted by the Church of England vicar, the Rev Charlie Styles, who described the proceedings as informal and relaxed. Four hundred people came.

Hannah’s was a very zeitgeisty funeral, highly personal, focussed on positives. There were tears, yes, and there was also laughter.

At the other end of the scale, over in Ireland, the bishop of Meath, Dr Michael Smith, courted howling and outrage when he restated the Catholic church’s doctrinal ban on the personalisation of funerals. He outlawed eulogies. This embargo seems to be restated in a newsworthy way in a more or less five-yearly cycle. Since compromise is impossible, it is one that looks set to keep on coming round.

The good bishop’s rationale for resisting what he calls the dumbing down of funerals accords with Catholic dogma. In his words:

“The context of the funeral Mass in the church should be focused entirely on the celebration of the Eucharist. What we’re trying to do is focus on the essence of the Christian funeral rite. The essence is, of course, two things. One is to support the family, through prayer and the community, but also the other function of it is that we support the person on their journey to salvation. What we are trying to do then is maintain the integrity of the Eucharist.”

Can’t argue with that, can you? If you want to belong to the club, them’s the rules.

Both Dave Smith and the Bishop of Meath have very clear ideas about what they think a funeral should aim to accomplish, and how it should achieve it.

But the good bishop has other things to say about funerals that may be relevant to all of us. He says:

“I suppose that people’s understanding when they hear about a funeral is that they focus entirely on the funeral Mass but the rites of Christian funerals begin long before that. You have the vigil for the deceased, the wake house and the removal and, of course, the prayers of commendation at the graveside. So we’re saying look, there are opportunities for family members who want to pay a personal tribute to the deceased.”

He’s got a point, hasn’t he? Why do we feel that farewelling and remembrancing have to be packed into brief, bulging crem slot, leaving so much to be said in short order that, in order to get the biography recited and the grandchildren named, a celebrant must, with one eye fixed on the clock,  zoom through a script at 360 words per minute, ruthlessly fading the music for prayer and/or reflection on the way?

Why do we place so much of a burden on the single event of the funeral ceremony? After all, there’s the time before it, as the bishop says. And there’s time afterwards — oh god, all that time afterwards.

That’s the time we need to focus on.

Secularists are neglecting to develop a case for the introduction of practices and rituals either side of the ceremony which might promote both good remembrancing and, also, the emotional health of bereaved people. This is probably why no celebrant association has made a public statement in support of the e-petition calling for statutory bereavement leave. That they haven’t is nothing short of astounding.

The Jewish practice of sitting shiva is a brilliant example of the sort of practice I’m talking about. For seven days following the funeral, the close family take a complete time out — stop the world, I want to get off: “The mourners experience a week of intense grief, and the community is there to love and comfort and provide for their needs.” Find more here.

Jews mourn in a structured way for a year. Shiva is followed by three weeks of schloshim, a less intense mourning period, followed by further regulated re-entry into the world. 

Like all rituals rooted in belief systems that have developed over hundreds of years, Jewish mourning is characterised by a thicket of impedimental ordinances, many of which strike outsiders as completely bonkers or, where gender equality is concerned, utterly unacceptable. For all that, the degree of difficulty they present is at the heart of the solace they offer. My friend Graham is presently saying the mourning kaddish daily for his father. It’s a short enough prayer. Translated, it reads:

Magnified and sanctified be God’s great name in the world which He created according to His will. May he establish His kingdom during our lifetime and during the lifetime of Israel. Let us say, Amen.

May God’s great name be blessed forever and ever.

Blessed, glorified, honored and extolled, adored and acclaimed be the name of the Holy One, though God is beyond all praises and songs of adoration which can be uttered. Let us say, Amen.

May there be peace and life for all of us and for all Israel. Let us say, Amen.

Let He who makes peace in the heavens, grant peace to all of us and to all Israel. Let us say, Amen.

Graham could mutter this while he waits for his kettle to boil or just think it as he brushes his teeth. But he’s not allowed to do that. No, he’s got to leg it down to the synagogue and recite it every day without fail at teatime in the presence of a minyan, a quorum of ten adult males. As a result, it rules his day. Everything is built around it. If he’s away on business he has to contact a synagogue before he’s even booked his flight in order to assure himself that there’ll be a minyan ready and waiting for him. Graham’s a man who has not been as observant as he might have been, in the past, but he’s doing his bit for his Dad, whom he loved. It’s hard work, he says, and it’s doing him a surprising amount of good.

Unglamorous work, isn’t it? Saying kaddish doesn’t fit with all those culturally untranslatable fun customs Brits get so bedazzled by, like the Dia de los Muertos (nobbut a lot of facepainting and larking about over here). Kaddish reminds us that mourning is a matter of hard yards.

The eulogy sandwich served up by celebrants is all very well in its way, but it’s not enough to nourish grief.

POSTSCRIPT: Jews are pro-eulogy. Here’s the halakhic ordinance:
Delivering a proper eulogy (hesped) is a major mitzvah. The mitzvah is to raise one’s voice and to speak heartrending words about the deceased in order to arouse the weeping of the audience, and to mention his praises … If one is negligent about the eulogy of an upright Jew one does not live long and is worthy of being buried alive.

It is forbidden to exaggerate excessively in praising the deceased. However, one is permitted to exaggerate slightly, as long as one does not go too far. If the deceased had no good qualities, one should not mention his character … If one attributes good qualities to someone who did not possess them at all, or excessively exaggerates the good qualities he had, this causes evil to the speaker and to the deceased.
Source

Is ceremony dying?

Posted by Richard Rawlinson

This seems a strange question just after economically-challenged Britain has hosted the Olympics, a no-expenses-spared ceremonial games that unites nations in celebration of sporting prowess.

But as the cult of individuality nibbles away at established social conventions, more and more people seem to be caring less for ceremony on a more intimate level. It didn’t seem particularly surprising when a woman of my acquaintance announced on facebook she’d just had a quickie marriage in a register office, adding friends would be invited to a bash some months after the honeymoon. I’ve also attended a memorial drinks party several weeks after a no-frills committal to which only family were invited to the crematorium. As we tucked into canapes, the only significance of the occasion was that we all knew the reason for being there, and our conversation reflected this fact.

Even those who opt for ceremony can sometimes offer reasons other than a deep emotional or spiritual need to mark a profound rite of passage. Some admit to getting little satisfaction out of the ceremony itself, saying it’s just the bourgeois thing to do—and a means to the end of gathering people together for that social jolly afterwards.

It goes without saying there are many ceremony options available, though more for marriages than funerals. If a register office is deemed too sterile to get married in and you don’t want a church ceremony, you can choose any number of venues from a beach on a paradise buy cialis online melbourne island to an aristocratic stately pile. If a crematorium is deemed too soulless for your funeral plans, the alternatives are more limited.

Some non-religious folk opt for a church funeral followed by a brief committal at the crematorium, seeing this as the best way to do justice to the dead through words and music before the final farewell. However, while some liberal churches allow risqué eulogies and secular music, traditional churches remind us we’re in a house of God. When in Rome…

Some again opt for graveside ceremonies in woodland cemeteries, seeing this as solving the time problem of the crematorium, but with natural surroundings which might appeal more than incense-scented churches, with their icons making visible religious purpose.

Meanwhile, others are opting to get the cremation over with swiftly so they can plan a ceremony with the ashes rather than the body. This can, of course, be anything from the aforesaid memorial party, with urn of cremains in attendance, to something more ritualistic such as the scattering of ashes in a favoured, natural beauty spot.

Time and money are important considerations in life, and both can be found more readily with pre-planning. But there’s more to meaningful ceremony than advance scheduling and financial planning. Whether it’s a hit-the-spot celebration-of-life speech or a requiem mass, providers must provide, and receivers must be open to their cathartic potential. It’s a two-way process. Or is apathy as relevant a consumer choice as any other?

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.”

Source

Read more about Deborah Ingham here

Posted by Evelyn

First impressions

By Richard Rawlinson

You want celebrants to say good things well, but how do you want them to dress? If you’re opting for a civil funeral, do you want them business-like in a dark suit or to join in any sartorial theme requested by the departed? If you’re opting for a religious funeral, do you prefer traditional vestments or those favoured by the more progressive clergy?

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.

 Mykeff

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