Friday, 30 July 2010

Guru allergy and DIY meditation failures

Here's a grossly simplified view of where my ramblings have got me, and I'm afraid, you too, if you're still with me. Me, the undersigned, hold these sketchy half-truths to be, if not self-evident, then at least worth a try:

1. It's for most of us, most of the time, a natural biological, instinctive reaction to seek to preserve our lives. This reaction can be over-ridden, for example by suicide or self-sacrifice, the latter either to the point of self-destruction or very close to it (heroic acts under fire, in crashes and accidents etc. And when people with a terminal illness say they have had enough and want to go - which I wouldn't call suicide, would you? But they probably really do mean it..)But we shouldn't be surprised by our efforts to save our own skins.

2. Does this mean we are, in advance of the event,scared of death? Not necessarily. We may be scared at the moment, we may fear the mode of death when we know it is imminent, but that doesn't necessarily send a long shadow back over our lives.

3. So what does? I think the fear of the extinction of our identities does, or at least I think it can do.The end of consciousness, of ego, of what a little while back I was calling ME-awareness. There are the stoics, the witless hedonists, the philosophers and mystics, but for most of us, with the usual mix of attitudes towards our mortality, it seems to me it is that fear that troubles us.Less the fear of death as a fact, more a dread of not being a ME.

4. So, does this matter? Seems to me it does. It's often observed that we live in an age in which a truly spiritual religiousness seems to be in retreat. I don't mean the sort of frantic, theologically ignorant and spiritually empty evangelical enthusiasm one sees on the TV in the USA (is it really like that?) - that seems to me an assertion of noisy egotism, not a diminution of it in spiritual awareness. May help some people, but it isn't what I'm looking for. I don't mean religious fanaticism put at the service of social and political ideals, like Islamism at its worst. (Er, I do realise I'm scattering generalisations with reckless abandon, I'm not looking at cause and effect, and I'm taking on rather a lot, but I'm only sketching, the oil painting comes later- perhaps..)

5. Whatever good or bad things religion has done and is doing (see no. 4 above)it has encouraged, or at least it can encourage, a transcendence of the ego, an escape from ME-awareness, that people found rewarding in the here and now (never mind whatever else they believed it was storing up in the alleged afterlife.) Perhaps that lay behind Bob Dylan's restless trawl around religions - "You gotta serve somebody," maybe that's why Richard Thompson became a Muslim for a while. Anyway. One way of weakening the hold over us of ME-awareness, at least for a while, used to be spiritual observance - prayer, meditation, contemplation. Still is, but not for so many of us.

6. I don't "believe," I don't "follow" a religion, though they can be intensely interesting and rewarding areas of enquiry and thought, let alone their cultural riches. But - I don't think it's likely that there is any full-blown supernatural world up there. So - I'll try meditation, see if that helps bring me some calm and coherence. But -

7 The Beatles nip off to India to meditate, followed by a lot of hippies - although not yours truly. Then it turns out the Maharishi, along with some other westward-facing eastern gurus,stands accused of having a very unspiritual interest in a goodly share of his disciples' incomes. One guru was remarkably interested in saving his female followers. For himself, that is. And he needed to protect his spiritual insights with armed guards and flash cars. Cults proliferated. One or two friends seemed to be driven well off their rockers by a cult or two. The Dalai Lama often seems to make a lot of sense, a good-humoured, patient, compassionate man. The reverse of a cult. But I don't actually believe in re-incarnation, nor in any literal sense in karma. I can't be a full-on Buddhist, not of his sort, anyway.

7. So, I think I'll have to go it alone, meditation in a non-religious conext free of cults fashions and fads. I open the meditation book,two or three decades ago. You know, "Teach Yourself Enlightenment," "Satori for Dummies" etc. Generally, the first chapter tells you to sit in the Lotus Posture, or at least sit cross-legged, and empty your mind. Do what? Have you ever tried it, from a cold start? The mind says very firmly "Unless you are asleep and whilst you are alive, my job is thoughts. I am continuously and always recreating your sense of self-awareness, your precious ego. Now, you do tend to lose self-awareness when you are consumed by lust, red wine or loud music, but that's not what you're after, is it?. By the way, you've left the iron on, and the Lotus Posture hurts like hell. Move. Now."

8. I can't join a Zen retreat - too chicken/embarrassed/British/atheistical, whatever. Can't do it on my own. WTF do I do now for enlightenment?

Gentle reader, that will be the subject of my next set of ramblings. Don't say I didn't warn you.

Sunday, 25 July 2010

" Hi. I'm Gloria. Are you shit scared of death?"

So it's not necessarily to do with how we face the moment of death, it's how we deal with our awareness of mortality, with the end of ME-awareness. The business of dying might be lengthy, or abrupt. In the latter case, we might hardly have to "face" it at all. In the former, we may try to shut away what we know is coming - though I am impressed, to put it mildly, by the people I hear of who plan calmly for their demise, get their affairs in order, and say goodbyes. But I'm not thinking, for the moment, of facing the business of dying. I'm more concerned at present with how we deal with the knowledge that we must die, one day, one day, one day, one day, one day, one - what, now? But I haven't quite finished, er, just have to ....

The Reaper's a Ruffian, the ultimate mugger.

Some people seem to have a high degree of acceptance and resignation. Others put it out of mind, seem hell-bent (no,not literally!) on enjoying themselves for as long as possible. I think of George Melly, who had done an awful lot of things in his life, and when the time came, turned down therapy for chest cancer, opted just for pain control, and apparently faced his end with defiance and melancholy humour.

So some people don't seem anxious about mortality, as far as one can tell. It's not something it's easy to ask people, I guess. " Hi. I'm Gloria. Are you shit scared of death?" Not a good dinner party piece.

But some people are anxious, and my working guesstimate is that for most of us it comes and goes. Not necessarily terror-scared, but melancholy-anxious, sometimes resigned, sometimes,as Wilfred Owen called one of his bleakest poems, "wild with all regrets." And sometimes deeply troubled.

I'm going to assume that most of us are in that sort blended state, not running scared, not witless hedonist, not noble saint (nor, er, sociopathic suicide bomber) waiting impatiently to die and go to heaven.

It's with you blended people I'd like to discuss ways of dealing with this mixed awareness of our mortality. The reason I need to work through thoughts and feelings in this area is firstly, because of my job as a funeral organiser and helper, a celebrinister. Well, fairly obviously,that's a job that brings you right up against grieving people, coffins, and lots of black clothes. It's not a gloomy job, and I don't think I'm a gloomy person, but it is sometimes sad (if you have any empathy at all, which you need if you're going to be much use)and it rather does raise one's awareness of mortality. And these things are not much discussed during the training of humanist celebsters, or afterwards. We work mostly on our own, and with regard to such things, default mode is "get in touch if you've any problems." That doesn't really cover it. I've no problems, but I need to think about this stuff. Because I am going to die sometime, and so are you, sugar.

The second reason is that I am in my mid-sixties (I don't post a photo because I don't want you all/both saying at once "surely not, you don't look a day over..." and because I value anonymity. Fame is such a tart.) It is, I find amongst friends, natural to begin to think it a bit more about the ending of one's life, either at a practical level (revising wills etc) and/or a more philosophical or spiritual level, as time rolls by.

A thread running through discussions from the GFG is that we shun death in our culture, hide it away, don't know how to deal with well or honestly at funerals, and so forth. I think this is often but not always true,and it must surely relate to how most, or many, of us feel about our mortality. i.e. it's not just about the fact of death, its appearances and processes (to embalm or not? etc)it's about the reality of human mortality, the fact that:

however famous we are

however much we race after wealth and ease

however much stuff we accumulate

however much we enjoy ourselves

we're gonna go.

Maybe that realisation makes the above striving feel pretty hollow sometimes?
(It's also screwing up our planetary life-support system, but later for that.)

I'm not going to turn puritan - nothing wrong with a spot of hedonism, pleasure's fine by me - but I think we need some help to drag mortality out of the closet. We'll enjoy life more if we do.

That help is my theme in future posts. Which will be less death-obsessed than this one - I'm trying to lay foundations.

If you've got this far, very good of you to stay with all this opinionated stuff, thanks. Do let us have any thoughts.

Wednesday, 21 July 2010

Ay, but to die, and go we know not where...

Let's see where I am with all this. I've been trying to get at the link between our powerful sense of personal and unique identity, which I'm calling "ME-awareness," and our unwillingness to face the fact of our mortality. I've suggested a very crude typology of response to our mortality. A couple of people have pointed out very sensibly that most of us have a mix of these responses; I'd agree with that, and add that maybe our mix changes by the day, and according to the stage of life we're at.

And, by the way, I'm using "mortality" not as a euphemism for "death," but to avoid confusion with "dying," the process itself. So, mortality as a fact about human existence, about life itself.

I'm summing up because I'm aware that this isn't a daily chat sort of blog, and should anyone add themselves to the swelling throng of my reader, it might be puzzling to be dropped into the middle of all this stuff!

In addition to the ones I've listed, here is another kind of respons: the kind of aloof stoicism, unemotional detachment, that Yeats sums up as "cast a cold eye on life, on death..." Someone who: isn't running scared; isn't trying to drown out the thought of mortality with the noise of one huge continuous party of a life; hasn't got a religious belief that involves a literal heaven and afterlife; who might or might not put service to the people and the planet to the fore but isn't trying to evade or blot out the thought of the Grim Reaper.

Such a person doesn't push out of mind the possibility of a slow and unpleasant decline via disease, isn't torn by the thought of leaving loved people behind, is someone who endures pain and unpleasantness and isn't impressed by sensual pleasure or intellectual delight. A cold fish, you might think. Such a person can contemplate his/her own death with equanimity.

I've yet to meet such a person.

I'm not sure they exist.

Because I think most of us are scared by, fight against the thought of, the Grim Reaper, at least. some of the time. That may be fear about the manner of dying, an objection to the Reaper's appalling bad manners and impatience ("The Ruffian on the Stair".) It might be a dread of personal exinction, the ending of ME.

Writers from antiquity onwards have offered consolations in the face of our mortality. But in Shakespeare's "Measure for Measure" there is a powerful passage that really shook me when I first read it. Some of the language may seem a bit remote or strange nowadays if you're unfamiliar with it, but just give it a shot. Maybe try it out loud.

A young man has just been told to resign himself to his death:

Ay, but to die, and go we know not where;
To lie in cold obstruction and to rot;
This sensible warm motion to become
A kneaded clod; and the delighted spirit
To bathe in fiery floods, or to reside
In thrilling region of thick-ribbed ice;
To be imprison’d in the viewless winds,
And blown with restless violence round about
The pendant world, or to be worse than worst
Of those that lawless and incertain thought
Imagine howling —'tis too horrible!

The weariest and most loathed worldly life
That age, ache, penury, and imprisonment
Can lay on nature, is a paradise
To what we fear of death.

Well, you can trust the Bard to get inside your head.

Shakespeare moves from the horror of imagining yourself - your body - in the cold ground, to finding no consolation at all in the idea of your soul surviving death. So Christian faith isn't helping a lot here. And I think, no doubt presumptuously, that he is not only responding to the fear that even a Christian can't be sure where his soul will land up, but also instinctively to the dread of the end of a human consciousness.The first part ends in a sort of howl - "'tis too horrible!" Any life, however dreadful, is better than no-ME.

Let's try to tighten all this up a bit (not before time, you may think.)

People deal with the fact of our mortality in all sorts of ways, and similarly they face their actual deaths in all sorts of ways, if indeed they have any time in which to do so. Something that makes it harder to do so is our instinctive dread of the end of identity, of my precious unique individual self - exit ego: the thought of no more conscious awareness, no more ME. This dread seems to me profound and irrational - after all, we all know it's going to happen, so what's the point in fearing it? "Ay, but to die, and go we know not where..."

I'm interested in ways we can lessen this dread. And that's because it may be that we can come to terms with our mortality during our lives, and face our actual deaths when they come more calmly, if we can lessen our dread of ME-extinction.It may be that we can lead richer lives, relate better to those around us, and even - have better funerals!

Next time, I'll move onto ways people have of dealing with the dread of extinction, and eventually I'll write about a way that I have come across, (and so have plenty of others) which I think can help a lot. But no missionary spiel, no snake-oil, no sales pitch, I promise.

Tuesday, 20 July 2010

If I can't take it with me when I go....

This little rant is thanks to a new magazine, via Charles on TGFG (good to see you back in action, Charles.)

Excellent suggestion, in "Eulogy," from the late Clement Freud via his daughter Emma - when he passed 70, rather than have a birthday party etc, he would invite guests round on the condition that they took something from the house away with them! OK he was famous and (presumably) rich,so he could afford it. But those of us with more modest lifestyles still tend to get cluttered-up once we are past, er, a certain age.

Hence the popularity of those private self-storage compartments we can hire nowadays. They are for the stuff you can't cram into your house. But if you can't cram it into your house, how are you going to use and enjoy it? Visit and sit in the self-storage at weekends?

"Well, it might come in, you never know." Yes you do know - if you haven't used it for four years, you probaby don't need it, or even want it much. (I'm not talking about people who are between homes, etc.)

So is our attachment to stuff we don't use but won't give away - to charity, to the four winds, to anyone - part of our increasigly tight and increasingly futile grasp on a materialist and ultimately unattainable earthly heaven, because we've stopped believing in the traditional heaven and can't face that new version of truth?

Is the smell of mortality-panic swirling in a miasma (I'm enjoying this far too much, shall have to go and lie down soon)in a miasma, I say, around the gloomy purlieus of self-storage facilities?

I'm with Clement - if you can't use it, chuck it - or better still find somone who can. Relax your grip on stuff, and you'll maybe relax your stranglehold on your life, so you can enjoy it more.

Eartha Kitt used to sing about a woman who felt that "If I can't take it with me when I go, I just ain't gonna go." Well, you can't and you will, sugar, as we all know. Maybe that's panicking us. A touch of the number 5s in my last post.

Wednesday, 14 July 2010

Crude Typologies of Mortality Awareness

In the near future, I may get a bit mystical on you, but not quite yet. For now, let's see if this crude typology of responses to our human mortality rings at all true for you:

1. I ignore my death, just shut it down and shout it out, live life to the full, don't look into the future too much if at all, live for yourself, get what you can.If I party a lot and drink too much, so what? Life's short in any case. Sex is great, who cares about relationships in the longer term? I live for my own sensual pleasure. Meet the Witless Hedonist, or WH.

2. I'm not a WH, but I do believe in living for the moment as far as possible, I don't want to think about my death, but I will act responsibly towards others whilst seeking a good time, however that's defined - it might be sailing round the world, listening to and playing music or keeping pigeons, doesn't matter as long as it's relatively harmless to others and I enjoy it. When your time's up, it's up - don't want to dwell on the idea. I'm the Thoughtful Hedonist, TH.

3. I'm not a hedonist. I think we are here to help others, be part of the great human venture, make the world a better place. I fulfill myself by working for the general good. My ambition is that when I die, the world will be a better place than if I had never lived. That'll do for me. I'll face death with that consolation in my grasp. I'm the Servant of the People, SP. (or of the Planet, if I'm as much an environmentalist as a humanitarian. After all, there are too many of us!)

4. I'm a believer in and follower of an established religion. I believe in a literal afterlife, none of your quasi-religious, ultra liberal, in my doubt is my faith-type nonsense for me. I Know That My Redeemer Liveth, I'll see Him after death, and I'll meet up with those of my family and friends who have lived well enough to pass the celestial 11+ run by St Peter's Joint Exam Board. Why should I fear death? (Though I hope it doesn't hurt too much.) I am the True Believer (TB)

5. I'm a reasonably careful and responsible citizen, not a WH, I hate the idea of death because it's a parting with all I love and care about, I dread the pain it will cause to those who are close to me, and I spend a lot of psychnic energy shutting death out of my mind. Mortality is just a polite name for death. I'm Running Scared. (RS)

Any good? No doubt there's lots more, and lots of subdivisions, but these are the ones I most frequently encounter.

Tuesday, 13 July 2010

Mortality and ME part 2

Let's say we fear the dissolution of ME-awareness as much as or even more than we fear death. One sign that this is true is the fear and loathing with which many of us view Altzheimer's - we know that self-awareness depends on memory, and that if my memory erodes away, I am no longer me. And that is what the poor souls will often say who have to look after a relative with the condition - "by the time he went, he wasn't my dad at all." Completely accurate statement.

If this is so, then perhaps an occasional escape from ME-awareness helps us to deal with our mortality? Maybe being awake but standing aside from the usual flow of connected thoughts, entering a different mental state, will help us face the idea that my identity will one day cease - as far as I - this organism - is concerned, at least. A partial version of my identity may continue in the lives of others, in their memories and their personalities, but "Me" will reach the buffers. So maybe this won't seem such a terrible thing if I can live a little, from time to time, in a state of not-me-ness.

Why bother? Says the happy hedonist.

Several reasons.

1. The Dalai Lama reportedly said somewhere somewhen, that Westerners don't think of death until they are dying, and it's a bit late then. "Maybe I'll keel over unexpectedly and suddenly, so I will hardly have any dying to do, in any conscious way," says the happy hedonist. Fair point. But if this happens when you are in later life, you will be unusual if the thought of your own eventual death does not occur to you a little more often than it used to before you keel over. Which brings me to:

2. The young, it is said, think they are immortal. Or just don't think about It and Them inside the same brackets. The old increasingly realise they are not. In George Eliot's wonderful novel "Middlemarch" Mr Casaubon is diagnosed with a terminal heart condition (or whatever they called it back then.)Eliot describes him struggling with the move from "all men must die" to "I must die, and soon." I'm going to drone on about the fear of death in another post,but my point for now is that most of us have to deal with that recognition sooner or later, whether "soon" is the result of a medical diagnosis, or simply a matter of mental arithmetic - "I've had what's probably 3/4 of my life now, and the rest of it slides merrily past, so..." Escape from ME-ness may be able to help with this.

3. The "usual train of thoughts" thing is worth pausing on a moment. It often consists of looking back on what did, didn't or might have happened. This can give rise to powerful feelings, embarrassment yet again over something that happend twenty years ago or last week. The train also includes looking forward - "must get to the shops today, what'll I do about the leaking tap," you know the stuff. (Least, I hope you do, or as Bill Hicks used to say, "Is it just me?")The train may include fantasy, wish fulfilment, etc. We won't dwell on this area because it could give rise to retrospective blushes next week - but you surely know what I mean... Now, fair play, the train of thoughts can be pleasurable, it's not all negative. It can be productive. Bach must have had a train of a particularly miraculous kind of thought when he put together the B minor Mass, ditto the band on "Kind of Blue." But the idea that stilling the train of thought, putting the mind in a different state for a while, can lead to something very valuable, is well worth looking at. So I will, soon. (This post is long enough now.)Thanks for reading this far.

Monday, 12 July 2010

Mortality and ME part 1

I suppose every individual has their own unique attitude to the fact that we are not immortal. Nevertheless, in a future post I'll try to categorise, no doubt in a banal and simplistic way, some of the attitudes I've come across, and I expect you have too. I think there some discernable types. Here, I'm after trying to say something useful about the ego, the sense that I am ME, and how that relates to mortality awareness.

The neuroscientsts, the experimenters and the writers therefrom (eg Damasio, Greenfield, Blackmore)tell us that it looks as though my (our) consciousness, my sense of being my unique self, my separate identity, is not a thing that sits inside my head and is added to or altered. They can't find "me"ness in there - maybe they will one day, though it doesn't look like it. It seems that our sense of a conscious self, separate from the world and different from everything else and everyone else in it, this "me" consciousness, is not one thing in the brain, but is continually created and re-created using all sorts of bits of brain inter-relating like mad.

So the ego itself is a construct, a set of processes. (Bear with me please, I'll get back to death and all in a bit.)It switches off, or at least winds down, at various times - obviously, or I'd never sleep, never be unaware of myself. My sense of a permanent thing that is ME is, in a scientific sense, an illusion. Not that I don't have an ego, but that it's a construct, not a permanent thing. It shifts, bends, dissolves, re-forms.

OK. If you say so. But it's still a powerful thing. I think it was TS Eliot who said that only those with a strong ego know what a relief it is to escape from it for a while. Something may be no less "real" and powerful to me because it is an illusion. Take the fact that to me Gloria M is an elegant, lively, fun-loving tolerant 42-year old, whereas in fact she's probably a grumpy old bag with attitude and many more years than that. My Gloria M's an illusion, but it works well enough, some of the time...

We escape our egos through total absorption in something, or someone, else. Late Beethoven quartet, sex, worship, being in the "mosh" pit at Glasto (to get down and dirty with the kids for a moment..)and meditation. One of the interesting things about meditation is that most people find it difficult to stay awake, even if they're not actually very tired, and yet they need to, because although sleep is an escape from the ego, meditation works because it is an escape whilst we are still awake. Very different effect.

The ultimate escape from ME-consciousness is of course - death. You may feel there is a permanent you that escapes from the body and goes on to an afterlife.I don't like polarising people's beliefs unnecessarily, but on this one we will have to differ, I'm afraid. (That's why I'm a humanist minister not an Anglican etc minister.) But in any case you might agree that a soul is not the same as an ego. OK - so: death is the end of ME-consciousness.

Gulp. That's all a bit stark, isn't it? We may be rational and "scientific" about it, talk about and indeed feel that death is essential, no life without it, all life must end, etc, but my ME-consciousness is not best pleased about that. Psychologist Dorothy Rowe says that above all we fear the dissolution of the self, actually more than we fear death itself. That seems to me to fit in with what the neuroscientists are telling us - the ME-awareness is a construct, and since we need it for a lot of our living, we will do a lot to protect it so we can construct it anew whenever it's needed. So naturally we fear death as the end not just of my life, but of ME.

Long blog posts are wearying to read, so if you're still with me, thanks, I'll pick this up soon.

Friday, 9 July 2010

Funerals and attitudes to mortality

Funerals seem to fit the family; I seem to absorb much of the family's own attitude to their loss, and the character of the person who's died. Without being consciously aware of it, I reject, modify or strengthen what you might call the "tonal" aspects of a ceremony as I'm drafting my part of it. This, of course, is a response to their attitudes towards death and dying (or "it" and "how it happens")and in a broader sense to mortality itself. I wonder if this happens with other ministers?

So if a family, who in their turn are usually consciously or unconsciously reflecting the attitudes of the person who's died, have a stoical and dismissive attitude, the funeral works its way through to being less emotive and dramatic. If they give more emphasis to their grief and their loss then..etc. The hardest ones are where their attitudes to mortality are the least formed and expressed. And sometimes this relates to their having fewer cultural resources (I mean their own education, levels of fluency in speech, awareness of their own feelings - I don't mean whether or not they listen to Radio 3.)

I don't feel it's my job to nudge the stoics towards something more expressive, because I may feel it's more cathartic, more psychically healthy. I know other celebrants and ministers may disagree, but I've worked and thought through this and I'm happy, for the moment, with this position. I guess there is an interesting difference between Jonathan and me on this, and that XPiry and I probably agree more closely. I think we are where we are in our culture, the change will be slow, necessarily, and I want to look more now at where we are with regard to attitudes to mortality. I have been encouraged to continue by some of the throng of people who look in here from time time - thanks, on I go. (And on,. and on, and on, they all cried..)

Tuesday, 6 July 2010

Onwards to mortality

I've found discussions around The Good Funeral Guide, this blog, Don't Get Too Close to the Furnace, thoughts from Rupert and Claire, Jonathan and others - all very helpful. No, that's an understatement. I've been able to refine and develop my practice as a humanist minister by thinking through, sometimes feeling through, our discussions. I think I'm at a sort of plateau now. I'm sure I'll work on and find the need once again to re-define what I do in funerals, and how it relates to my life, but for now, I feel better balanced and calmer about it all. So it's a welcome plateau. This has, I think, helped me to take part in, be part of, better funerals than when I started out a couple of years ago. I know they're better, I can see and feel it, and they tell me so. Good. Thank you all, and thanks to others who've commented, and who have read but not commented. But no, please don't go, this isn't goodbye.

Here's a position. The things that many of us feel are not good about contemporary funerals: hurried, absent-minded crem ceremonies, horrible crems, the avoidance of death and the dead, the euphemism virus ("Only sleeping?" said Spike Milligan. "Who does he think he's kidding?"), a few callous or careless individuals, the feeling that the bereaved are sometimes skating over or moving round their grief rather than going through it, for which they may suffer later, etc etc. You'll have your own list. All this needs to improve. Jonathan said recently on GFG "It’s time to turn on the lights, that’s all. Hand the funeral back to its owners, the family and the community." Yes, we need big changes. De-professionalisation may be the ultimate goal. But.

I've droned on before that we have to take other people's realities and views as every bit as valid as ours, and work with those. We may be able to extend what they think they are capable of, and what they think a funeral is actually for. We shouldn't even try to effect a revolution in funeral practice in their own front rooms! I'm not a romantic revolutionary (at least, not any more)and I think there's a lot of hard and gradual work to do, because it involves changing cultural attitudes to our mortality and our eventual deaths. So I'm a boring social democrat in the death revolution, not a Trot.

Seems to me changes will come from the work of well-integrated providers that move through from first contact with the bereaved and the body to the end of a fulfilling funeral, providers that have the sensitivity to know how far to go and what these people, here and now, might be capable of. They will transmit a new virus - "look, you can do it, I'll just help where you need me, if at all." But that will also be part of a huge change in our culture, and it has of course started, or I wouldn't be writing this and you hordes out there (!) wouldn't be reading it.

I'm going to spend a little more time now, in this blog, with its actual title, "Mindfulness and Mortality," and probably a bit less on the funeral process itself. But please don't go, I think it does and will relate to the debate about funerals - and politics, and medicine, and inheritance law, and military service, and the hedonic cycle that is ruining our planet, and - so on. Thanks for reading so far. Sorry it's not as visually lively and amusing as so many blogs - I'm just working through ideas that seem important to me and I hope to you, rathher than writing a chirpy little e-diary, or selling something - and maybe I'll try not to write such big slabs of stuff in future! Anyway, see you (I hope) soon, right here. Bloody great, the internet, isn't it?

Friday, 2 July 2010

An unexpectedly honest funeral

In what Rupert Callender called recently "this movement" (hope it is!)there have been views expressed concerning the specific gravity of people's mourning at a funeral. The movement's imperative seems to be: ministers and celebrants should encourage people not to skate over the top of their grief, not offer emollient words, not be inhibited and "traditional" yet not to be trivial and jokey either.

Whilst all this seems eminently sensible, I think there may be a lot of interesting subtexts and hidden preferences here, about: disdain for what's seen as outdated middle-class English inhibitions and reserve; a fascination with the way other cultures do death and funerals - maybe even a kind of exoticism; a desire for colour, drama, ritual in an increasiongly (some say...)homogenised culture.

We've discussed: honest vs dishonest funerals; neatness and order vs spontaneity and the untidyness of grief, of life itself; a funeral as an artefact vs a funeral as a self-defining event; audience vs participants, and so on.

Given quite a lot of agreement around the idea that our culture, outside of those with powerfully-held religious beliefs, has a dysfunctional and psychically dangerous relationship with death itself, much of the discussion has been about the role and responsibility of ministers (oh, OK, celebrants) and undertakers in leading the people to the Promised Land of funerals that are better at helping people to grieve.

I thought today's funeral was going to be one of the dishonest ones. I couldn't meet the family - I don't think any secular minister in our area could have done - and that always troubles me.Funerals can be prepared over the wires at a distance, but I think there's the risk of generating something a little etiolated, albeit efficient.

The lengthy tribute written by a daughter was affectionate, acknowledged that her dad liked a drink, and emphasised his love of comedy, comics and jokes, as well as his obvious strengths. Had just a couple of fairly conventional expressions of loss. They didn't want the curtain drawn, they wanted it to be "positive." The musical choices were relentlessly upbeat. This, I thought, will be an avoidance job, causing more pain and grief later on, perhaps. (My arrogance - how can I possibly know what is the right way for them to grieve?)

So I did what I could to balance it. I pointed out what a funeral was for - to say goodbye to a body, to enter a new world without X's physical presence, a world in which all that he means to you etc. I included a couple of poems that offered a little ballast without being "gloomy", and they seemed to go down well. The daughter's tribute went down a storm - lots of smiles, laughs, knowing looks. They really wanted to hear about his life, his jokes, rehearse family memories. For once, the cliche "to celebrate a life" seemed true.

I explained that we wouldn't be drawing the curtain but we would have a few words of committal and farewell. That went in respectful silence, a few sniffles. Final cheery song, I stepped down. They went over to the coffin. The little granddaughter touched it slowly and gently, in a thoughtful sort of way. The widow hugged her son and they sobbed for a minute or so, lots more tears, then outside - more smiles, cheerful chatter.

They got it absolutely right for them. There wasn't any avoidance going on. They wanted, and got, what is so often a lifeless cliche - smiles through the tears. There was a lot of affectionate recognition of the sort of bloke he was. They knew what a funeral is for, OK. They weren't avoiding anything. They laughed when they wanted to, they cried when they wanted to. It was, for them, an honest funeral. I'm absolutely certain of that.

I learned a lot today. The point that it's them not us; the understanding of what "a unique funeral" really means - it extends to ways of mourning and of showing grief, as well as what's said and done; the unpredictable nature of an authentic event; the uselessness of cultural generalisations when we're faced with life's lack of tidy geometry; the usually futile nature of my anxieties and preconceptions - all underlined for me.

And if it appears a family wants to avoid grief and skate over the thin ice of their loss, is it my role to break the ice? In any case, as I learned today, I may well be entirely wrong - they may be having a merry time, then crack up for two minutes, then laugh again. Wish I was more like that myself!

There can only an honest funeral for this family, and then the next one, and the one after that...and it always has to be searched for, and we have to help them find it. Maybe that takes more cultural self-effacement from us than I'd realised.

I may be an expert in funerals in one sense,(I've done a lot of them) but I'm not an expert in next week's family's needs. They will be the experts in what they need. I have to find it with them. My views of authentic funerals, honest funerals - they don't really matter very much! I have to make my own position and performance authentic, or I'll lose them. The rest is not silence - it is theirs.