Friday, 29 January 2010

A body isn't a person and a coffin is just a box - but...

Sorry it's so long - it's a big subject.

An obvious enough point to open with: the attitude towards the coffin and the body inside it at a funeral is probably different for every single person at that funeral. This doesn't mean that we should not try to make intelligent cultural generalisations about attitudes towards the body at a funeral but I think that the job in hand is to find a workable relationship at a funeral ceremony between the audience and the coffin. I think this has to take priority over any personal views I may have about changing our attitudes towards bodies at funerals.

I have taken crematorium funerals at which the bereaved family has wanted to enter not behind but alongside the coffin, carrying it or at least with a hand on the coffin, if it is on a trolley. Sometimes families will ask for the curtain (or whatever the coffin disappearing mechanism might be) not to be drawn. In my view, this can make it harder for the bereaved to leave at the end of the ceremony because there has been less of a structured farewell. But against this, for such families, comes the need they have to go over to the coffin at the end of the ceremony, stand by it, put more flowers on it, rest a hand on it for a moment and so on.

I have also taken funerals at which the bereaved family want as little as possible to do with the coffin and they are clearly much relieved when the curtain is drawn. This is not necessarily an indication of the depth of their grief, of course.

I have taken many fewer burials than cremations, but I have not observed any substantial differences in the attitude of the bereaved to the coffin (allowing for obvious translations between a crematorium plinth and an open grave.)

As a celebrant, I feel I have to walk a fine line between offering advice on the way the funeral could go and making sure that the family get the ceremony they want; after all, it is their ceremony and not mine, and my job is to help them identify and then realise their preferences.

I used to feel that differing attitudes towards bodies were only the product of religious beliefs or their absence. So a full-blown atheist might be expected to regard the body as the relic life has left behind, to be disposed of appropriately via a suitable ceremony, the body as an object, having no special significance or resonance once life has left it.

Whereas, Christianity used to be a resurrective religion, in that there was a literal belief that the dead would rise again in their bodies from their graves (see the paintings of Stanley Spencer) and therefore had, presumably, a very different attitude towards the body at a funeral. It seems to me now that most Christians don't believe that and I must say I find that a bit of a relief because I never could resist seeing such an event as a sequence from a very tacky horror flick!

In fact I can see little difference, in theory, between atheists and religious people, because if religious people believe that a spirit or soul has left the body behind, then presumably it is no longer needed, just as an atheist would say that the life has ended and the body is simply what is left over. And yet - it doesn't seem like that in practice. It's tough parting with the body in the box at funerals. If anyone is going to get upset, it'll probably be at the committal.

So I was being a little naive, about what I expect from atheists and religious people. Somehow, people have to let a body go. It's very difficult to do, because the life of the person they knew was embodied - literally, in that body. The life and the body were the same thing. The body is now a different body, and the mourners have to move towards seeing it as different - something they must let go of. They have to leave with something non-physical, with an enhanced sense nof the meaning of the life that is ended. My job is to help them do that, in the way that best suits them.

In many ancient societies, bodies were buried with the accoutrements the person used in his/her lifes, in the belief that they would be useful in an afterlife. We have a sentimental relic of this in the way some people want their loved ones cremated or buried with an object or two that mattered to them when they were alive. I am not being judgemental or unkind when I call this sentimental; I mean it literally, it is a matter of sentiment and feeling, not of any actual belief that the items will get used again.

Let me try to some up some views:
1. The box is a nuisance, because it isn't the person. The meaning of that person's life is in the thoughts - in the hearts, if you prefer - of the mourners. The box upsets people, and stops them concentrating on the life they are there to celebrate. The body inside the box is finished with. Saying goodbye to it is not saying goodbye to the person. The best sort of an event might be a memorial ceremony without a coffin, so we can concentrate on the life, not the remains.

2. A funeral is a rite of passage; the box must be part of that rite, so that people feel they have said a farewell to the person, but it is appropriate to distance the box from the mourners because it is an item in a ceremony, not the person him/herself - it represents, or symbolises, the living person. A body is not a person. So it's appropriate to have the coffin at a distance most of the time.

3. It is the person we are saying goodbye to. The box should be at the centre of things, possibly even open so we can see the person. We can't say goodbye to the person without saying goodbye to the body - after all, they were the same thing, for all the years of a life.

Well, unless you make a real effort, you'll get something close to #2 at a standard UK crematorium or cemetery. I took a funeral that was held in a village hall, with the body in a wicker coffin up front. Family speakers went over and laid a hand on the coffin once or twice; speakers spoke directly to the coffin, addressing the body by name. We then progressed to a graveyard for a brief burial ceremony (in the pissing rain, as sadly so often seems to happen.) Those people didn't actually think there was a person in the box, but it helped them say goodbye. It was a #2-type ceremony, but nicely individualised and made more human in scale. One reason is because it wasn't in a crematorium. More on crems another time.

So with respect to the excellent Mr Long*, I can see a real point, for some people, in a funeral/memorial ceremony without a body, following on from a committal (or preceding it, as above) attended by a few people only.

But whatever my views about the body in the box, my function is to tune the ceremony to the family's views and attitudes. If we want a richer ceremony than the standard #2 usually is, I think that has to come about through thought, discussion, social change etc, I don't want to force the pace with the families I work with - though Mr Long has made me think that my funerals could be better ceremonies if they sometimes offered families a little more ritual about them, and that would require some creativity and some tact on my part, not to force the pace. But I'm quite cautious - one of the blokes at one of the crematoria said to me that he'd seen it all - pagan funerals with robes and candles and flowers everywhere, people standing on the chairs, people dancing at the front. Well, I've not been asked for that yet. Though I did have a rogue piper once - but that's another story...

* blog The Good Funeral Guide, 29 January 2010.

Tuesday, 26 January 2010

mortality awareness: the upside

It seems to me that our society (i.e. Westernised industrial cultures) suffer from widespread emotional illiteracy and intellectual autism about the way we face the end of a human life. I began writing this blog because I needed to explore and develop my own ideas on this sort of topic; if anyone reads this stuff, then I hope it may be interesting, possibly even useful. It's certainly useful to me, and you've got to start somewhere, haven't you?.

We have, in the UK and in many other industrial Westernised societies, many people without any very active religious belief, who don't believe in an afterlife beyond a vague hope, and who have to deal with the fact of their own mortality. Or they don't deal with it at all. I think that if more of us had a workable relationship with the fact of our mortality, we might develop a more socially useful approach to end-of-life questions such as euthanasia and suicide. We also might enjoy life more. So the obvious paradox is: I enjoy life here and now more, by thinking quite hard, if only occasionally, about death. Not death in general - my own mortality, my life-and-death-as-one thing.

It's taken me a long time to realise that you get more out of life by having an understanding of your own mortality in your awareness; it's not gloomy, depressing or morbid, it's healthy and life-enhancing. I don't need to sit looking at a skull on my desk all day long - "memento mori" - I just needed to work my way towards accepting the absolute fact of my own mortality.

That's not to say it isn't scary at times, both with regard to how I'm going to die (perfectly well at present, thanks for asking..)and with regard to the totalitarian and absolute nature of death - I mean, the Reaper isn't a liberal, is he? He doesn't negotiate. He does not say "When you're ready," or "OK, another fortnight then, so you can say sorry to those 20 people on your list," or "well I take your point but it all depends what you mean by 'dying,' you see.." No, he's the boss: "In my office. Now."

So that makes one somewhat thoughtful and respectful. And yet reaching a better understanding has enhanced my sense of living in the present.

This journeytowards mortalityawareness probably suits people as they get a little older; we don't want kids and young people to wander round the land murmering "Alas, poor Yorick, I knew him, Horatio." At least, not more frequently than at Yorick's funeral, anyway.

Coming soon in this very blog: bodies. What do do with and about them, at funerals? I bet you can hardly wait.

Er...I mean dead bodies, of course, not the appetising Brad Pitt/Kiera Knightley kind.

Sunday, 24 January 2010

Unsure about funeral arrangements?

If you are under pressure to arrange a funeral soon, I'd recommend that you go directly to "The Good Funeral Guide," blog and website.* Then if you've time, follow the wider musings of people like me. But don't think you have to follow a standard laid down by others, and don't feel like a cheapskate if you don't do the luxury job. This funeral (yours in future, or the one you are arranging) is yours, it doesn't belong to the funerals industry, nor to celebrants like me. A good celebrant or undertaker will do, as far as possible, what you want. I repeat - you can do EXACTLY what you want, within the law, and there are a lot of people who can help you to do so. You may not know what you want, of course, in which case you should be helped to find that out, not told what is going to happen.

I hope it goes as well as it can for you.

*It's nothing to do with me, and my blog has no commercial basis - I just know it's good.

No atheists in foxholes?

Note to self: don't go on for too long on one post!These are areas of thought and belief that I need to explore with care, but I find too much text at once on a screen is pretty wearing and I expect you do too, so I will try not to ramble.

A famous American World War II general was quoted as saying that there are no atheists in foxholes. I think he's probably wrong, but I'm not prepared to visit soldiers under fire to check it out. I know that the Battle of Britain pilot Richard Hillary, when he thought he was going to die in the English Channel, was proud of the fact that he did not find himself praying, or converting himself on the spot.

Whether there are really significant differences between how atheists and religious people actually confront the process of dying is perhaps beside the point. It's surely more important to understand that each of us will do so in a unique way - My Way, in fact, to quote my least-favourite funeral song. I'm exploring ways of doing so (other than Sinatra's)

There are, arguably, two sorts of people in this world: the sort of people who like to divide the world into two sorts of people and the sort who don't. I tend to find that the latter are more rewarding company. We suffer from too much crude polarisation in our political and social discourse, especially in matters of religion and belief.

The term "atheist" is in many ways a poor one because it defines people by what they are not. You wouldn't call a historian a "non-geographer." When it comes to trying to live a decent life, being mindful of who you are and where you are, and understanding what matters to you and why, then these labels seem pretty useless to me. I probably wouldn't go any further than "I do/don't follow a system of religious belief." Enough already with the zealots, fanatics and puritans!

As a funeral celebrant, I help families to develop a non-religious ceremony and I generally avoid scriptural quotes and hymns so as not to confuse the issue. After all, I have announced it as a nonreligious ceremony, at the family's request, and if you're buying baked beans you don't want to find sardines mixed in, do you? More on this later.

Wednesday, 20 January 2010

cast a cold eye on life, on death

One response to mortality has long been a deliberate and carefully-worked out stoicism. I don't only mean the sort of "grin and bear it" response to life's temporary pains and difficulties, I mean stoicism as a way of living, and a way of facing death.

Without going too far into the Stoic school of ancient philosophers (a very worthwhile thing to do, no doubt), let's stay with the usual meanings around the word "stoical." I mean a resolute indifference to the continual ups and downs of life: comfort/discomfort, pain/pleasure, success/failure. And therefore a resolute indifference to the fact of our deaths. Keep doing what you do until you can't. Endure until it is no longer possible to endure, because it is ended.

It's a very worthwhile approach to lots of life's trials; we often seek to distinguish whingeing from real pain, making a fuss from real distress. After the Paddington rail disaster, an American who was on the train and escaped injury said he was impressed by the way people showed "grace under pressure" as they went to help others, even though they were shocked and suffering minor injuries themselves. That description of stoicism, compassion (and style, even) was moving.

Or the way those exhausted fireman went on trying to force their way up the doomed towers on 9/11 - they must have known they were unlikely to survive, to put it mildly. That sort of stoicism - endurance of desperate circumstances whilst a human duty is to be done - we at once understand and respect, even whilst doubting we could do anything like it ourselves. (Except that no-one knows how they would respond until they have to.)Do you recall the man on the capsized ferry "Herald of Free Enterprise" who made a human ladder of himself so that passengers could climb over him and escape through a window? That stuff. The right stuff.

Most of the time, you hope, you won't have to help people escape from capsized ferries, burning trains or collapsing buildings. But we all have to depart this world. Can a stoical indifference to mortality help us to do so?

Possibly, it seems to me, if that's our temperament. But cultural change influences individual ways of thinking and feeling. Stoicism related to duty - staying at your post, doing what you should, not making a fuss etc - was characteristic of imperial cultures and warrior castes. I don't mean unique to them, of course - but the Romans valued in their ruling class what they called "gravitas." Allowing for cultural translations, so did high Victorian Brits. Public schools, naval and military training, produced a warrior caste and a ruling class of people who were expected to stay at their posts and do their duty, according to various codes. We like to satirize all that stiff upper lip stuff, but that is now, not then.

Doing your duty when a broader view of human responsibility was needed, beyond duty to the Empire, produced some people who we now know were monsters. Eichmann said he was only doing his job, i.e. his duty to the Third Reich. What about his duty to other human beings? Any vile torturer could claim to be preserving public order, defending his country, doing his duty, doing his job.

Maybe stoicism as duty is difficult to sustain in a climate of moral relativity and complexity. Life is more often shades of grey than black and white, "my country right or wrong" won't really do, we all have to deal with apparently conflicting loyalties and duties. So stoicism in the pursuit of duty to one's country is not above qualification and examination. And this growth of a more flexible and relative view of duty could perhaps be part of changes in us at the individual level - we talk more directly about our feelings, we express our own needs and priorities more firmly, than we used to. We show less "gravitas," less stoical reserve.

Maybe as technological developments in, for example, heating, pain control, the manufacture of cheap warm clothing, public hygiene and nutrition, gave us more comfort, they also made "grin and bear it" a less important survival response. So perhaps stoicism at the basic daily level is less easy to deploy.

We all vary of course - someone close to me is more stoical about pain and illness than I am. I don't know if that is because things hurt her less than they do me, or because she makes less fuss about the same level of pain (though I've a sneaky feeling it's the latter.) Such things are unknowable.

Some people are perhaps more inclined to a stoical view of the end their lives, whatever their beliefs, and that may help them. I'm heartened by the families I meet who have lost someone to a painful and unpleasant illness, who tell me that "she/he never/rarely complained," "we didn't realise until the last two days how ill he really was, because he didn't tell us." This isn't just an affectionate enhancement of their view of the deceased by the bereaved family; sometimes, as in the last statement, they unintentionally supply evidence for their relative's stoicism and concern for the family's well-being.

As Alan Bennett says, "illness is a bore," but it's difficult not to talk about it. The consideration for others that generates a stoical reserve is admirable, surely - provided it's not a version of "I don't want to be a nuisance," which can, unfortunately, result in a great deal of unintentional nuisance! "But if you'd only told us, then we could have done..." Recently, some family members had a difficult job getting back from the other side of the world for the funeral because they had no idea how ill their relative was, even though they knew it was terminal.

My summary: if we can manage it, stoical indifference may help us face our own mortality, both at the level of enduring suffering, and also at a higher level of thought: facing the end of your life. But I suspect many of us may look for and need more than that. Stoical indifference, "cast a cold eye on life, on death," as Yeats ordered up for his nown gravestone, might only suit some of us.

I'm going to leave stoicism there for now - I may return another time.

Monday, 18 January 2010

in my end is my beginning

In recent years, I've learned a great deal about the variety of ways people deal with losing someone close to them; it's been moving, informative and - I hope this doesn't sound exploitative - endlessly fascinating. I want to try to share some of the thoughts this experience is giving rise to.

Organising and leading funeral ceremonies has really speeded up the development of my thinking about human mortality - not least, of course, my own. As we move away from childhood and youth, we naturally become more aware of the fact that our lives - yours, mine - will end. If we live through this growing awareness instead of trying to ignore it, it will enrich our lives.

I hope I may write things that help recently bereaved people, but I'm not a counsellor - CRUSE are the people for that. It's likely I'll pass on any sensible thoughts about the practicalities of funerals, but there is a lot of advice on the net already about How To Run A Funeral, The Good Funeral Guide etc, and much of it looks very useful. I want to take the branch lines, not the main intercity routes, and see if any of you out there find these journeys as interesting and rewarding as I do.

I think this is ultimately a serious topic, and I don't mean in the obvious sense. It may be that one cause for some of our social ills is that very many of us don't know how to deal with the fact of our own mortality. It may be that developing a more productive and calm view of the prospect of the end of one's life is increasingly important to all of us. If this is so, I'd like to be part of that, and I'd be interested in your views. Apparently the Dalai Lama once said that the problem with Westerners is that they don't think about death until they are dying - and it's a bit late then. There is a contrary view I'll go into in a future blog - but it struck me quite forcibly when I read it ten years ago.

I'm not a morbid person, so I don't intend to be gloomy in this blog, and I don't intend it to be about me. I will try to be thoughtful, and I hope not too solemn or pompous. So if the intercity route is the one that takes you thundering along from the midwife to the funeral director, welcome aboard the slow train that takes the time to meander through interesting landscapes, which may yield helpful thoughts and prompt some discussion amongst the passengers.

A Note on religion vs atheism: I'm not greatly interested any more in this argument, though I may dip into it. Why people believe what they believe, and what they do to themselves and others because of their beliefs, seems much more important now to me, than the actual internal fabric of their beliefs. I don't have a religious belief system myself, just to get that out of the way, but you won't find any crusading for or against in this blog. What I've learned from spiritual explorers - now that's a different matter. But - isn't the language of belief difficult? - neither does "spiritual explorers" mean this is a new age sort of blog.

Enough introductory generalities, down to business soon.