Sunday, 19 December 2010

Dawn, 18 December 2010.

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.

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Jools Holland and Mindfulness

As Fats Waller used to say, "One never knows - do one?" In this case, one never knows where a mindful approach will turn up. Whilst leafing idly through the Saturday Guardian colour comic yesterday, trying to avoid the revolting blandishments of adverts for luxury goods from a previous era, I came upon a Q and A with Jools Holland, ex-pop star, excellent boogie pianist, leader of what must be the only big band left in UK (hope that's wrong) and of course TV presenter of odd manner and knowledgeably eclectic approach. (Just in case you've never heard of him.) Expecting something amusing but insignificant, I was delighted to find these pronouncements:

Q: "What is the closest you've ever come to death?
A: "Last night: sleep is its brother."

To which I say - spread the word, Jools.

Q: "What is the trait you most deplore in others?
A: I wouldn't like to make judgements."

One of the effects of mindfulness meditation is to make us less hasty to rush to judgements about others. This makes is easier to see where they are coming from, to see the whole picture of our interaction with them. It doesn't mean we accept any old nonsense from anyone, just that we should observe and think before seeking to reassure our fears and bolster our prejudices - which is surely what a lot of our judgements about people are actually used for.

Q: "What's your most unappealing habit?
A: You'd have to ask people who find me unappealing."

People sometimes call that sort of response "grounded" or "centred." I feel it shows a kind of realism and acceptance; I don't think he's just trying to be a smart-arse at the interviewer's expense, though it is quick-witted. He seems to me to be saying that naturally, and particularly given his fame, there are people who find him unappealing; they are the experts in such judgements- ask them.

But the one that startled me most was this - it was his opener:

Q: "When were you happiest?
A: Paradise is the moment you are in, so right now I'm happiest talking to you."

Whole books have been written expanding on that insight. If the present moment is the only place it's possible to live, then paradise, happiness, couldn't be anywhere else. (Nor could hell, of course.) He avoids putting happiness back in the past, he avoids making it a future fantasy. His presentmomentness is quite startling. What's the point of making comparative judgments about happiness? How are you right now? OK - happy - contented. Enough. You can't really categorise and analyse happiness, can you? If you try, it will evaporate. Happy memories are, of course, a delight, and so are future happinesses - say, a Christmas visit from family - but if I start wondering if this Christmas will be better than last, will the omnipotent grandson be as much fun as he used to be,'s nonsense. Gloria, enjoy, now, the pleasure of anticipating his visit. Then enjoy his visit. Grandson will be as grandson is. A wonder.

Jools says other pleasant and entertaining things too, but I didn't expect (prejudice, I guess) to find these sorts of potted insights in a star interview. I've no idea if he meditates, but maybe a mindful approach, wherever it comes from, helps him through the madness and pressures of the music/TV business.

So thanks, Jools, merry Christmas and a boogieful New Year.

Thursday, 16 December 2010

Does mindfulness = escapism?

No - or at least, not necessarily, I think.

In Melvyn Bragg's "In Our Time," Radio 4 this a.m. they were talking about Lao Tzu and the Dao De Jing, the great classic of Daoism. (No, this isn't going to be a hippyesque ramble, promise.) Daoism was described as a teaching that involves recognising the way the universe works, and following that, rather than trying to force your way against nature. Water is a frequent symbol in the text - if you come across a boulder, then like water, flow round it, over, it under it - don't try and move it, just flow round it to get where you want to be. You won't smash the boulder, but it will in any case be worn away into a small pebble in a few thousand years. Seems a clear enough symbol to me. It wasn't originally, it seems, a god-following religion, more like a philosophy and a way of thinking and living.

Following the way of the universe is how to live in the world. The people ruled by the best rulers - those who follow the Dao - hardly notice they are being ruled and guided.

The contrast was then drawn with Buddhism, which teaches an escape from the world, from the cycle of birth, death and re-birth. (First off, you have to believe in re-incarnation, clearly, in order to escape from it!) Meditation is the technique through which this escape can be earned.

This all sounds clear and simple in outline, but of course things in human societies don't work out so simply. Buddhists have been known to be proud warriors and conquerors, (though perhaps a little less frequently than Christians and Moslems) and doubtless Daoists have retreated from the world rather than using their insights to live in it.

In any case, in our own lives, I can't see any particular conflict. Mindfulness meditation is derived from Buddhist meditation techniques. It is a training in how to live more of the time in the present moment. To achieve, or approach, a mindful awareness of the present moment and nothing but it, you do need to retreat, as it were, for an hour or so - or five minutes, even. So to this degree, a temporary escape is necessary. And mindfulness practitioners, like followers of traditional Zen Buddhist schools, often seem to favour occasional retreats, for a day or a weekend.

But the state of mind, this "presentmomentness" enables one to deal better with the world beyond the room you meditate in - to move through it a little more like the water round the boulder. It encourages tolerance, sharpens understanding of the situations of other people, helps one to keep things in perspective. It calms.

So occasional temporary bits of escapism emable one to emerge and deal with "the world" better. The little I know of the two great strands of East Asian religious philosophy and practice seem to me to work more as complementaries than opponents, if we want them to.

And in all this, there is no need (unless you want it) for god-centred religion, for dogma and scripture. No wonder a professor of religious studies sneered at mindfulness as "Buddhism-lite." He's right - and that's exactly the point. It sidesteps dogma-based argument, and says simply "if you do this, properly, your life will be better for it." You can do it and still follow a religion, you can follow it and be a nature-worshipping pagan, you can follow it and be a stroppy atheist (though if it works for you, you'll probably be a bit less stroppy, whatever your beliefs.)

So is it The Answer To Life? No, it's bloody hard work, and I don't do enough of it - but it certainly helps e.g. with the tensions, anxieties, uncertainties and sadnesses of funeral work. No, because it's part of life, not an alternative to life. We all know there's only one alternative to life, and facing that is also something mindfulness can help with.

Monday, 13 December 2010

Mindfulness in action

A click on the title above will take you the impactEDnurse blog, where Ian Miller will tell you some invaluable things about mindfulness. He's worked these thing out in the life-and-death* tensions of an Emergency Department (A&E or Casualty, for us Brits) so they come from a high-tension working life. but they apply to any working life - any life.

He recommends coming to a stop every now and then, and tells you what to do, during the pause, that will help you move on - in his context, move on without killing anyone, I guess, and in mine - well, at least not to get someone's name wrong!

Presumably like A&E nurses here, he's trying to do a truly essential job amidst all the bullsh*t about cost-cutting and efficiency drives, but he is still able to deploy humour, too (see his final line) and find the time to write an outstanding blog.

The distinction between concentration and mindfulness seems very important to me. We need both, and to confuse one with the other is easily done and very unhelpful.

Thanks, Ian.

* great to able to use a lousy cliche in a context where it's actually true.

Friday, 10 December 2010

Funeral/no funeral?

Excellent post from Charles over at the Good Funeral Guide ("Endgame," 09:12:10. If you are interested in these matters and you haven't visited Charles yet, hie thee thither without delay.) He writes about the myopic selfishness of those who say "just chuck me out with the rubbish when I'm gone," or more formally , insist on no funeral at all - with no discussion with their families before they die.

Since the point he makes is so strong and, seems to me, unarguable, I can only assume this: many people state exactly what they want to happen (during a period of time when they will not be there) because they are members of the cult of the individual ego that distorts how we look at life and death.

You can't "personalise" your own funeral, or lack of it, because you won't be there, mate. It is the world without you that will have to deal with your instructions. And whilst you may get some satisfaction in knowing what lies ahead funeralwise, as you lie there slipping away, is that not just the tiniest bit selfish, if you've not checked it out with the family? And what if you go suddenly? ("Bugger, me aorta's burst. Now about that funer......")

Your family are the only people who can make it an event that reflects you. A funeral is an event, not a script. Just as a play script isn't a play. And a non-event, when grievers may want and need one, might be a painful non-event for those you love. It isn't a smart idea, to be enjoyed by "the deceased," it's a non-idea, if your family would have benefitted from a funeral. In that case, it's a hole in their lives, an absence, a negation.

It might be reasonable, after talking it through with family, to have no funeral. But just to demand no funeral, out of your own wishes, with no consultation, seems to me a final act of the cruellest egotism. I doubt such people can face their own death with anything like equanimity, because presumably they lack resignation, acceptance of the reality of the natural cycle of life/death. If they had that insight, they would surely not follow such a destructive train of thought.

So maybe yet again, it comes down to how you view your own mortality.

A while ago, I helped with the funeral of a man (call him "Bill") who lived a fairly solitary life. With no children, and separated from his third wife many years previously, he spent most of his time in the public library
and the local pub (he was a clever man with a sharp mind.) There was no "family meeting." I met one of his pals from the local pub, in the office of the funeral director. It was this pal who'd decided that Bill should have a proper funeral, and he paid for it himself. But he didn't know much about Bill's earlier life.

Eventually we made contact with his third wife, who was very helpful and came to the funeral, though she didn't want to speak at it. The only other people there were his boozing companions, about eight of them. They were a well-weathered bunch of individuals. They carried the coffin in. One of them, who'd certainly had a stiffener or three by then (11:30 a.m...) muttered, "well,I s'pose there's a first time for everything," and in we went.

My guess is that Bill, who was a self-described atheist and a Communist, would have said "chuck me on the skip." He left no instructions about his funeral (or anything else.) His general attitude to life and to death seems to have been one of defiance.

I found the whole occasion moving. It was poignant to see how this crowd of dedicated boozers had hauled themselves into collars and ties and come some little distance; they were the only possible pall-bearers and mourners, apart from his patient and philosophical ex-wife. It was very moving to think how his old pal had shelled out to see the thing done. They'd said good-bye to a good saloon-bar friend, a bloke they described as "cussed, entertaining, bloody clever." Job done. Back to the Pig and Whistle for a straightener. Any announcements about meeting up for "refeshments" would have been superfluous...

I read them a stanza by Tony Harrison. It seemed to me to sum up Bill's defiant attitude towards death, and life:

Death’s a debt that everybody owes,

And if you’ll last the night out no-one knows.

Learn your lesson then, and thank your stars

For wine and company and all-night bars.

Life careers gravewards at a breakneck rate,

So drink and love, and leave the rest to Fate.

Thursday, 9 December 2010

Funeral music

In non-religious ceremonies that I've been involved in, if the family have sorted anything before we meet to plan things, it'll be some or all of the music they want. Generally and conventionally three pieces (entrance, reflection time, departure.) Occasionally, there is more music, especially if the dead person was a musician. Very occasionally, there is some live music. Occasionally, after the non-religious ceremony is over, there is a hymn. Very, very occasionally the people sing something which isn't a hymn. No question in my mind that the absence of congregational singing is a pity and a problem - though when I overhear ten elderly people struggling through "Abide With Me" led a minister who can't sing, the issue appears a little less cut and dried...still, it's what matters to them that matters, not my musical preferences.

For burials, there has only very occasionally been recorded music, though on one occasion we had a live singer on a sunlit hillside overlooking the sea, singing a song about living by the sea-side. Unforgettable.

In my opinion, the exit music doesn't work too well for the close family, because they are often out the door after just a few bars - though they will sometimes sit and listen for a bit. Still, it's perhaps nice (usually) for everyone else to leave to a sound other than shuffling footsteps.

There is a point of view that a lot of this personalised music is part of the cult of trivialisation and escapism about death and funerals in our society. Maybe it can be, but in my experience, it often isn't, i.e. the music is something the close family is moved deeply by. Friends too.

Here's a list of some music which I feel has been effective. Not that I necessarily liked it (not the point at all) but that it seemed to work particularly well for the people concerned, in context. And yet it's impossible to be entirely objective. I simply can't include "My Way" even if a family might have found it effective...

1. Days (Kirsty McColl, though it's originally a Kinks song) "Thank you for the days..." What could be more poignant and simpler in a funeral song chosen for a partner ?

2. The Dead Song, by Seasick Steve. ("No-one comin' back from the dead...") Very tough, very strange - we walked in to it and it gave me goose-flesh, it was so basic. For many people it's a truth, and such a hard truth to face, but such a necessary one. So it served as a good start to a non-religious funeral, and threw out a big challenge. It sounded ritualistic; not at all in the same world as Classic FM or Radio Wan....

3. Barber's Adagio. A deep unfolding sort of sadness, simple, dignified, unsentimental.

4. Layla - Eric Clapton. As Charles has noted, sometimes the words don't really fit and yet it doesn't really matter - this song is a howl of pain from beginning to end, including the screeching slide guitar (by Duane Allman) but leaving out the ponderous piano stuff in the second half. Someone who died too soon said that at her funeral there should be "no religion, no tears, and "Layla" by Eric Clapton." We managed the first and last of the three instructions. It was excellent entry music, and seemed to catch the sharpness of the particular grief these people felt about their loss.

5. Beethoven: String Quartet #13 In B Flat, Op. 130 - 4. Alla Danza Tedesca. A son used to play this beautiful and complex, dancing music with his father, and we listened to it (rather than just hearing it) at his father's funeral.

6. The Lark Ascending. Quite well-used, but for a lover of the outdoors (not just someone who enjoyed a walk, a real outdoorist) it was a gentle, consoling piece that for once justified the word "evocative." It said something about someone's life, what he saw as one of the best things in it.

7. Delius: "Irmelin" - Prelude. Little-known piece by Delius. The dead man was a Delius enthusiast and authority. It spoke for him.

8. Haydn: Symphony No. 45, "Farewell": II. Adagio. Seemed a perfectly-balance exit piece, can't exxplain why.

9. Elgar's "Nimrod." Often heard, and still and always a noble, deeply moving piece of music. As the themse swells, so should your feelings.

10. "Peace Piece," by Bill Evans. Great jazz pianist, not swinging, for once (solo.) Gentle, consolatory, draws the ear in, seemed to complement people's private thoughts and prayers.

Please, do add any examples of your own that were particularly effective. I hope you agree it's an important and interesting subject - and we need to be ready for when the family says "he didn't really go much on music - what do you suggest?" Rent-a-Theme won't do. We need to choose something that fits the unique tone and context, something that will sing out for them.

Wednesday, 1 December 2010

Three funerals in two days part II.

Well, it's not really a very good idea, and I'm certainly not bragging about it. The funerals went well, I think. I won't do it again unless the reasons are at least as pressing as they were this time.Thoughts arising:

1. I'd say it's only possible at all, if you can clear enough preparation time in advance, before any of them take place.

2. I found it very important to sequence visiting the families and assembling the scripts in the best order. You really don't want three family visits buzzing round your head with nothing written down from any of them...the first funeral was a complex and rather tragic one, and they wanted the family visit as late as possible to collect comments and tributes from as many people as possible. So although this was the first funeral to take place, I wrote it last. Etc. Boring logistics, but to get this sequencing wrong would really be disastrous. However, this means holding your nerve and writing up a ceremony the day before the funeral...having cleared the decks by writing the others first.

3. It caused me huge anxiety when it needn't have: is this really the right CD?(yes, of course, you've already checked it.) Have I mixed the names between families?(no.) Am I heading for the right crem? (yes) will the train get me there in time (yes) will there be a taxi at the station ( yes, there always is, and anyway you have some taxi phone numbers with you - so shut up, you daft old bag...) etc etc. And all this was purely because of the IDEA that I had three in two days, which was exceptional, so worrying, so, I'd better worry... Once they were written, rehearsed and ready to go, I really could have stopped worrying about the logistics. Anyway, I can't control the whole damned universe. Roads occasionally get blocked, trains break down, though not, thankfully, very often. (Incidentally, anyone got any smart ideas about what to do if your journey to the funeral becomes impossible?)

4. This worrying is not very mindful. Though the mindful looking at the coffin just before starting and putting self briefly in present moment went well all three times..

5. Huge relief and big slump afterwards, of course. Watched "East Enders" AND "Holby City," for goodness' sake....nothing like junk telly to wind down for an hour two. Plus a drop of the old Limestone Coast CabSauv.

6. Can't go hillwalking, too much snow (I'm not Sherpa bleedin' Tenzing) but will look foward to it, need some physical exercise.

So did the funerals themselves suffer because of this close run? That's the only important question. Hard to answer - I really don't think so, although here's a trap I nearly fell into: I sent a draft to the family involved in the final funeral, they changed one thing, and said it was fine, pleased with it etc. Because I was a bit pushed, I was on the verge of just printing it off. "Well, they think it's OK." That would be a dreadful abnegation of responsibility, quality control etc. They have little experience of funerals, I have quite a lot. So get on with your job, Gloria, and stop short-cutting! I checked myself, and went through it again, tweaking a couple of phrases, reading it aloud again, getting a better "lift-off."

But if I did three funerals every week, there's no question I wouldn't be doing them so well. One's mental and emotional powers get drained in this activity, and need time well away from it. Some people may be able to manage three in a week regularly, but not GM. So no, I won't lay down absolute rules about frequency when I take over, but I will certainly lay down guidelines very firmly, and interview and observe those who do take three per week regularly. And of course if they are selling the bereaved short for their own profit, they'll be next in a box.

Still waiting for the spare parts for the damn tanks.

Wednesday, 24 November 2010

Three in one week

You probably won't want to bother with this post unless you are actually interested in the funeral business itself - ethics, work-load, family/undertaker/celebrant interface etc,

Next week I've got three funerals, two on one day.
Wasn't I the one pontificating about not doing too many funerals, not long ago?
Indeed I was.

In a fairly sparsely-populated part of the UK, secular celebrants, let alone BHA celebrants, are pretty thinly spread. My usual first point of referral can't help, for various reasons to do with other areas of her life. Another celebrant I'm not too happy about referring to, because - well, never mind because why, let's just say it's not personal animosity, it's down to approach, dogmatism, that sort of thing, and that's not just my view.

Much as I value many of my BHA colleagues, I may make, for future reference, private investigations and see if there are other celebrants, maybe of the "mix and match" sort rather scorned by some BHA-ers, who would do what I might call a good job. Arrogant? Or just using the sort of discrimination and judgement I want undertakers to make about us celebrants?

Anyway, here's how this overload happened: one family member phoned me direct i.e. not through an undertaker, and when she contacted an undertaker and he suggested a nearer colleague, the lady said she'd talked it through with me and wanted me to do it. That looks a bit self-satisfied, but the fact is that once someone in this situation has talked to you on the phone, they tend to want the same point of contact, if it's been at all helpful. (If it wasn't helpful, then I'm clearly in the wrong job.) People, it seems to me, want a bit of stability amongst the emotional turmoil of recent bereavement. It could just as easily have been my colleague she phoned. I could have said "Can't do it, talk to....." I wouldn't have been happy with that. So that was the first one in the diary.

The second one is a sad story of someone who died too young. The undertaker has not worked with a non-religious celebrant before. This isn't really a good context in which to prevaricate, promise to get back to them soon with an alternative, etc. Yes or no. I said yes.

The third is much more selfish. The undertaker is making contact again after a long interval, and he is the one who apparently decided not to use me because I worked for The Competition as well. I don't know who he's been using for non-religious ceremonies, let's hope it was someone who was better than me. Anyway, I want to build that bridge again. And in any case my colleague can't do it.

It's impossible for me to be objective about motivation here. Maybe there's vanity in amongst it all, maybe there's neediness. But if we celebrants think we are doing anything of a good job, if we think the work is reasonably important and worthwhile, then we want to do the job. There are, as Rupert Callender wrote recently of his much bigger and more demanding role, easier ways of earning money, so you can forget about that as a motivation for over-loading my week.

It seems to me we should think carefully before saying "no, can't do it," if the reasons are "because it'll dominate my thinking for the next ten days, it's very tiring, the computer gives me a headache" and other whines. Similarly, we should also think hard before saying yes. I tried to do so. But it's difficult to say "no" if you're uneasy about the alternatives, and it is obviously a bad idea just to say "no" and do nothing to help fill the gap.

All this is a long-winded way of having a little worry, and explaining why I probably won't be bending your ear (can you bend someone's eye? Probably not) for the next few days.

Saturday, 20 November 2010

Bellowhead, hedonism, mindfulness

If you've been dragging yourself through these pages at all, you may have noticed my enthusiasm for Bellowhead, the astoundingly talented English sort of mad in the best sense folk band. On the DVD accompanying their latest CD (no, you have to buy the posh version to get the DVD, darlings..) which is called "Hedonism," one of them - John Speirs, I think - refers to hedonism as living for the moment. The CD has songs illustrating the many delights and dangers of hedonism, from male wish-fulfilment with a sexy and compliant landlord's daughter through to the wages of sin, and the impossibility of post mortem passion (ref "Yarmouth Town," "New York Girls," "Cold Blows the Wind.")

It's a trusim, I guess, that total hedonism tends to self-destruction (alcohol, drugs) and damage to those who do, or should matter to the hedonist ( children abandoned along with partners.) This isn't being puritanical (far from it, ooohhhhhhhhhh yesyesyes!!) it is merely to point out the paradox that sacrificing everything to the pleasures of the moment may result in many fewer pleasures of the moment, sooner or later.

But then endlessly deferred satisfaction, continual self-denial, can demonstrate the same paradox in reverse.

Mindfulness meditation encourages living in, rather than for, the moment. I'm a far from exemplary student of meditation (it's hard work, dammit!) but I have found that spending some of my time in a full awareness of the present, full acceptance of it; with avoidance of anxieties about the future, fantasies, worries over the past (all the usual train of thoughts that roll on, roll on): this presentness can yield a sort of calm pleasure about the present, in the present.

This attitude hangs on after meditation, it can become part of one's way of living in general, at least part of the time. It seems to have none of the self-destructiveness of hell-for-leather hedonism and none of the emotional and sensory constipation of continual self-denial, because it simply avoids both categories, both extremes. Simple things can yield unexpected pleasure. E.g. eating is more enjoyable if you can enjoy each mouthful, stay with it till it's gone, and stop bolting lunch at the computer or trying to impress people over dinner. (It's also easier to eat a little less, if like me, you're greedy.)

The beauties of the natural world become much more absorbing if you stop chasing after special examples of it and look at what's right there right now. If you like bird-watching, you can of course drive off to a special reserve to see a throstle-winged bark-scratcher, or you can just share a moment or two with that common blackbird right there, that unique creature in this unique moment in the garden. Here, now, nowhere else.

Well, I dunno if this makes any sense, it's notoriously difficult to write about the actual experience because it is not a concept, it is just that - an experience......but what I'm trying to describe certainly helps me avoid the extremes to be glimpsed in Bellowhead's songs. Though I have to say their music is an intensely hedonistic and absorbing experience for me! And of course a little mindless hedonism on occasion may be good for the soul, who knows??

Friday, 19 November 2010

Funeral Directors and Non-Religious Funeral Celebrants: the ideal interface

Some might say, the ideal would be if they were the same people, like the Callenders. I know of a handful-3?- out of the thirty I've worked with who, in my unassuming and modest judgement, I would say could do a good to excellent ceremony. Some of the others would in my unassuming etc, do about as well as an empty lectern. But then as an undertaker I'd be as much use as a chocolate fireguard.

So here's what, in my un- etc, the other 27 should do:

1. Find out - actively - who is available in their area to call on for non-religious funerals.

2. See if any of their colleagues have any unbiased views on the available people (given trade rivalries, that may be a bit like asking a couple of leopards which antelope they prefer for lunch)

3. Phone the celebrants and talk to them. Ask them to send in a brief and relevant CV.

4. Ask two or three of them to pop in for an interview (disguised as a chat, of course.)

5. Draw up a list of preferred celebrants and a list of those you wouldn't use if they were the only available ones between here and Hell.

6. For each celebrant's first funeral or two with you, don't pop outside to have a gasper and talk about the football/rugby/cricket/Royal Weddding etc but sit and listen/watch what goes on.

7. Discreetly get an opinion or two from family and friends, both immediately afterwards and a few days later when they've had a chance to think it through and have got beyond "thank goodness that's over."

8. Always be ready to utter to the celebrant the magic words "well done, the family were well pleased with that," not just outside the crem afterwards but days/weeks later when you know this to be true (or not), AND be ready to utter the magic words "you're fired."

9. If the celebrant belongs to an organisation (BHA, Civil Celebrants, whoever) tell them too. They have and/or are developing some sort of quality control procedures - aren't they?

It's a lot of bother, isn't it? All for a "product" you are selling that only costs, er.... £2,000 on up...

If you want any ideas on what questions to fire at celebrants, you're very welcome to ask me.

That's how, in my unassuming etc, it should be done.

OK, all pigs loaded, fuelled and ready for take-off.

Tuesday, 16 November 2010

A wedding and two funerals - and some tears...

On her blog "Don't Get Too Close to the Furnace,", Xpiry recently described a desperately sad train of events that had her doing a wedding and two funerals in rapid succession:

She refers to the fact that the work of us funeral ritualists (ministers, celebrants) sometimes take chunks out of us but that we also meet people who are inspirational even as they are leaving their lives, and it is an honour to be asked to help. She talks of her tears at one moment in one of the funerals as a "wobble." One might see it as a simple mark of her humanity. I asked a colleague of mine with years and years of experience how she managed a child's funeral (I'm dreading it.) She said "with the tears running down my face, of course."

I do hope I don't need to add that there is nothing sentimental about this. We are not talking about (with all due respect for the tragic core of the business) Princess Diana-itis. Yeah, I know, it affected me too, but there was also a lot of long-distance sentimental indulgence about it, no?

Well, we have to stay coherent, but we have also to allow ourselves to be human. Xpiry won't only have shed tears during the ceremony.

That is why we shouldn't do too many ceremonies in any one week or month. We have to hold the balance. We need a break.

And that is why I get a bit ratty sometimes - sorry - when some of our more radical friends comment on the allegedly sterile or formulaic nature of humanist funerals (by which they probably mean the funerals run by BHA-trained celebrants, who will vary, of course.) But sometimes it seems to be almost a plank of their platform for launching their own allegedly more radical ideas.

Stuff that. Read Xpiry's honest and moving post and make your own mind up. I don't care who does it, BHA or Honourable Society of Alien-Worshippers And Jedi, I want us all to have that sort of honesty and commitment.

Tuesday, 9 November 2010

Funerals and grieving - facts and fallacies

Over on impactED nurse,an excellent blog ( Ian Miller sums up some research for us under the heading "Grief: fact and fallacy." It seems to me very important for those of us who ponder how best to help grieving people to create the best possible funeral.

Nurse and psychologist Alice E Holman looked at 23 textbooks routinely given to student nurses and found in each of them at least one unsupported assertion about the nature of grieving.

"The study found that most textbooks included more than one myth, and on balance, there was very little exploration or discussion based on current evidence. She compared this to some of the actual evidence based findings surrounding the process of grieving," writes Ian, and quotes these summary points:

  1. There are stages or a predictable course of grief that individuals should or typically will experience
  2. There is a specific timeline for when grieving processes will occur
  3. Negative emotions such as distress, depression, sadness, disorganization, loss of functioning, anger, guilt, fear or emotional pain ARE INEVITABLE following a loss
  4. Emotions need to be ‘‘processed’’: expressed, worked through, acknowledged, dealt with, experienced, attended to, focused on, made sense of
  5. Lack of experiencing or expression of emotions (e.g., denial, absent grief, delayed grief, inhibited grief) indicates pathology or negative consequences
  6. Recovery, acceptance, reorganization or resolution should be reached in ‘‘normal’’ grief
  7. Failure to find resolution indicates unhealthy, dysfunctional, pathological, or complicated grief

Evidence-based Findings

  1. Not all people experience grief in the same way
  2. Some grieving people do not report feeling distressed or depressed
  3. Some people experience high levels of distress for the rest of their lives without pathology
  4. Repressive coping may promote resilience in some people
  5. Resilience, growth, and/or positive emotions may be associated with loss."
Any half-competent FD or celbster would support finding 1. But all of them suggest to me that there should be no such thing as an orthodoxy about funerals, whether it's traditional reserved British religion sans, or emotionally expressive and uninhibited new-minted ritual. No. 4 might support a stiff upper lip sort of funeral, no. 5 a particular kind of "New Age" ritual, to put it crudely.

Why does it matter? Because effective funerals respond to particular people in particular contexts. Ways of grieving are part of that context. It seems more and more important to me that celebrants outside established faith systems are transparent; we need to respond sensitively and quickly to who s/he was and what the family are like, and help them to find the ceremony that suits. How they grieve needs to be part of the construction work - what is said and done, how it is said and done. Our beliefs about what funerals should be like are best kept out of the way, other than to suggest appropriate things they may not have thought of (like "why have the funeral at that horrible old crem anyway?")

A woman said to me some months ago "you won't see me crying at the funeral; I just don't." She showed no evident signs of unhappiness. Yet she went to a lot of trouble to work up the ceremony that she thought was right, for the man she so clearly had loved, anyone could see that. See 2, 4 and 5 above.

Spike Milligan was asked in later life if he missed Peter Sellars, who died in middle age. He said instantly "Every day," and his eyes filled with tears. See 3 above. (No, it wasn't his grief for Sellars that was part of his bipolar problems, no pathology there.)

All of this might seem obvious, but those of us who theorise about "effective funerals" and who ride a high horse sometimes risk sounding as though there are "good" funerals and "bad" funerals, the latter being the status quo. How about this for a formula?

Life and character of dead person + beliefs, attitudes and context of family + nature of their grieving = mooring points for the funeral that fits.

Fits them not us - whether it's a hippy riot or a sombre restrained affair, that's their business even though it's my job.

Wednesday, 3 November 2010

"Intimate Death," and politicians.

Very many thanks to Rupert Callender for recommending to me "Intimate Death," by Marie de Hennezel. It's just arrived, and I haven't read it yet. It looks, at a flip-through, profound, enlightening and inspiring.

What I want to do now is draw attention to the Foreword. Here's how it starts:

"How do we learn to die?
We live in a world that panics at this question and turns away. Other civilizations before ours looked squarely at death. They mapped the passage for both the community and the individual. They infused the fulfillment of destiny with a richness of meaning. Never perhaps have our relations with death been as barren as they are in this modern spiritual desert, in which our rush to a mere existence carries us past all sense of mystery. We do not even know that we are parching the essence of life of one of its wellsprings.
This book is a lesson in living..."

Guess who wrote that? Not Charles of Good Funeral Guide fame, not Jonathan, or Rupert, or... not a priest, or a psychologist, or a therapist.

Would you think - politician?

It was Francois Mitterand, recently President of the Republic of France, 1981 - 1995. When he wrote the foreword, he knew, but few others did, that he was suffering from the cancer that ended his life in 1996

Now, he was a controversial figure, no mistake. But I wonder if any of our political leaders might have risen so well to the challenge, and found some eloquence outside the field of politics.

Blair was a controversial figure too. Here's my stab at his foreword:

"Hi. OK, now look. You know I'm an honest sort of guy, so I won't pull the wool over your eyes. The thing is, none of us are immortal. Yup, I know it's tough, but - life ends in death, right? We're doing what we can about this, but hey, you can do something too. I have. I've become a secret Catholic..."

OK, juvenile, I know. But he's a highly intelligent man, and his public rhetoric was often astonishingly banal, patronising even. And I won't even drag Lady "rejoice" Thatcher into the fray, that'd be unkind. She's not a well woman.

Any offers on profound words from our leaders outside the sphere of social policy and political categories, beyond the slogans and the sound-bites?

Tuesday, 2 November 2010

Hedonism: Randy Newman on the eternal consequences of ass-grabbing

The great Amercian commentator Randy Newman with an ironic take on the fears traditionally inspired by an unduly hedonistic way of living - fears of hell, hopes for heaven.

All slyly undermined by the very last line...

Hasn't anybody seen me lately, I'll tell you why
Hasn't anybody seen me lately, I'll tell you why
I caught something made me so sick
That I thought that I would die
And I almost did too

First me knees begin to tremble, My heart begin to pound
First my knees begin to tremble, My heart begin to pound
It was arrhythmic and out of tune
I lost my equilibrium
And fell face down upon the ground

As I lay there on that cold pavement
A tear ran down my face
'Cause I thought I was dying
You boys know I'm not a religious man
But I sent a prayer out just in case
You never know
Lo and behold almost immediately I had reason to believe my prayer had
been heard in a very special place
'Cause I heard this sound

Yes, it was harps and angels
Harps and angels coming near
I was too sick to roll over and see them
But I could hear them singin ever so beautifully in my ear

Then the sound began to subside
And they sounded like background singers
And a voice come down from the heavens above
It was a voice full of anger from the Old Testament
And a voice full of love from the New One
And the street lit up like it was the middle of the day
And I lay there quiet and listened to what that voice had to say

He said, "You ain't been a good man
You ain't been a bad man
But you've been pretty bad
Lucky for you this ain't your time
Someone very dear to me has made another clerical error

And we're here on a bit of a wild goose chase
But I want to tell you a few things
That'll hold you in good stead when it is your time
So you better listen close
I'm only going to say this once

When they lay you on the table
Better keep your business clean
'Fore they lay you on the table
Better keep your business clean
Don't want no back stabbing, ass grabbing
You know exactly what I mean
Alright girls - we're outta here"


"Encore. Encore."
(He spoke French)
"Tres bien
And off they went into the night

Almost immediately I felt better
And I come round to see you boys
'Cause you know we ain't living right
And while it was fresh
I wanted to tell you what he told me

He said, "When they lay you on the table
Better keep your business clean
When they lay you on the table
Better keep your business clean
Else there won't be no harps and angels coming for you
It'll be trombones, kettle drums, pitchforks, and tambourines."

Sing it like they did for me one time
Ooooh - yes, Ooooh - beautiful
Wish I spoke French

So actually the main thing about this story is for me
There really is an afterlife
And I hope to see all of you there

Let's go get a drink

Saturday, 30 October 2010

Ecstatic funerals, Bellowhead and hedonism

That extraordinary folk/crazy English band of musical genius, Bellowhead, has a new album out, "Hedonism." But my purpose is not to puff the album (it scarcely needs me to do so...) On the accompanying DVD their drummer talks about his arrangement of an old English folk song, "Cold Blows the Wind," or as it's perhaps more often known, "The Unquiet Grave." (Ballad no. 78, the Child collection.)

It's a gruesome story of a reunion between a dead lover and his living lady, and it has the cold rotten breath of the grave itself about it. Corpsebreath.

Bellowhead's arrangement is very unusual, in that after a suitably haunted opening, it's powerfully rhythmic, with a strong brass riff, whereas the song is usually done in a respectful sort of gloom. (Subtext "this is the Tradition, it's a Child ballad, so we have to be Respectful, if a bit spooky.") Well, not so this brilliant crew. But on the DVD the drummer says something particularly interesting, beyond the music.

He says that the total abandonment to grief at funerals in some cultures has about it a kind of ecstacy, and he wanted to capture that in his arrangement. Lead singer Jon Boden's vocal quality certainly has a kind of intensity about it that sits with this ambition; maybe there is something of ecstatic abandon in the arrangement, maybe it's just a highly successful and unusual one, and in any case the song isn't actually about a funeral, though it is about love/sex and death. But it's a terriffic track, and the idea stuck with me.

So: is it possible to move up the scale of grief to an abandon that is ecstatic, so that there is an intensity about it, a piercing pleasure that can move us on in our lives, without the dead person? Is that the bio/psychic function of real grieving? Through grief and pain to triumph in the power of life itself?

In which case, we're missing out a lot in many funerals in our culture. Or - maybe my ideas are rubbish here, and maybe in any case our culture has evolved ways of grieving that suit it.

A second thought from the DVD (some of which is a bit tedious, to be honest, and the rest very worthwhile): a couple of them talk about hedonism. One of them defines it as "living for the moment." Aha. Subject for future post: difference between living in and living for the moment.

Anyway - Bellowhead would be a fantastic band to have at a post-funeral party. (You'd need to be rich and hire them well in advance...) If you get a chance to see them, should such music be your thing, do try and get close to the front. You then might just find yourself living both in and for the moment.

Here's the superb CD puff: there's enough music going on, enough creative tension being released, to fill about four conventional CDs.

Anyway, what do the both of you think about intensity and its function in funerals?

Thursday, 28 October 2010

Funeral celebrants - why do we do it? part 3: search me...

I don't really know - I'm sure we have many very different conscious reasons and less self-aware motivations. If you did search any of us, I reckon you'd find a sometimes turbulent mix of motivations, some we probably only half-understand ourselves. So in no particular order, maybe we do it because:

for some strange reason we can do it, this odd thing, and because it needs doing, if people are to have more freedom and choice about how they move through an important bereavement event (i.e. so that they are aware of a genuine non-religious alternative.) That's the ideological motivation area, I guess - motivation defined by opposition to religious funerals for non-religious people.

we find it intensely interesting, the patterns of all these lives and their endings.

it flatters or completes our egos to be wanted, at a time of crisis (usually) in people's lives.

it helps us to explore our own mortality and to come to terms, to some degree at least, with the prospect of our own deaths.

following on from that: we are close to death at funerals, but afterwards we are still here, and after a successful funeral, we feel a sense of achievement, even a small victory. We've helped some people find meaning when death has taken away someone who meant a lot to them. Not a victory over death itself, of course, but over the desolationand emptiness it can cause.

we get a charge out of being close to some strangers for a short and intense period, and then we can - have to - move on; we're compassion tarts, sentiment junkies, it makes our own lives more intense.

we like the attention - it's a small-scale public event, and they sure as hell pay attention to you, even if many of them won't remember a word

we are chronic melancholics and we like hanging around graves and crems, wearing black and looking profound - sort of doing a Hamlet: "Alas, poor Yorick! I never knew him Horatio, but he sounds to me like a right geezer of infinite jest, why, his family well remember the time he..."

we're disgusted by what we see as the stifling conventions of the funeral business and we want to open it right out, because we can see a way it can be done better. That's a more developed and specific version of the first, ideological, motivation, and it derives from opposition to any type of funeral if it unthinkingly follow a "dead" tradition that denies authentic grief and mourning. (One might call this the Good Funeral Guide Clan position....?)

we're trying to work through fears of our own about death, by a kind of familiarisation therapy. (A less self-aware, less balanced, more compulsive version of the "small victory" motivation.)

Oh, and (let's be fair to ourselves): It's good to feel you've helped some people for a fee that is not extortionate, and done a good job for them. If, of course, you have done a good job...

I'm sure there are loads more clear and obvious reasons, and probably some more foggy and half-hidden motivations, too. If any celebrants of any sort other than a minister of an established religion (not being hostile, see "Why do we do it part 1") are out there, I'd be really interested, in a comment from them as to why we do this thing. So please chip in.

Wednesday, 27 October 2010

Mortality awareness - embrace impermanence

Short vid about impermanence, and the benefits for your current life of contemplating the end of your life. "If life was eternal, it wouldn't matter what you did."

Poem for you

To what shall I compare the world?

It is like the wake

Vanishing behind a boat

That has sailed away at dawn.

Sami Mazei

Is it? Beautful compressed image typical, I'm told, of one style of Japanese poetry. But the world, in itself, seems to me incomparable. Life - well, that's different. More of this anon when I get back to mindfulness, after I've trundled through "why do we (celebsters) do it?"