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.


  1. A sunny day, the crematorium overlooks the city. The centre some way off. A different world from this still, removed place. The crematorium watches and waits, for us ants that walk the streets.

    Interesting headstones; some we found in Russian script - gleaming gold letters on black marble. In Russian one of the ways god is written equates to "BOG". Clare and I are transfixed by a grave stone with a photo etched into it. Loads of Polish, a few Russians.

    People are gathering near the entrance, some in suits, some less formal. I don't really know these people. We are here to attend April's funeral. My guts are doing that butterfly thing.

    A sombre silver hearse with an uninterrupted glass roof rolls slowly up the winding drive, the procession headed by a be-suited and be-hatted man walking ahead.

    To see the whicker coffin that contains April is a sudden shock. Another physical shock as I see my old friend - her life-long partner and their children in the car behind. I feel my eyes sting.

    The cars come to a halt, and my old mate gets out, looking like a politician now, grey hair and suit, his incredible calm. He's hugging people, and re-assuring people. He's being amazingly composed and strong.

    April was only three years older than me, we even (unwittingly) shared a hospital together last year.

    Having followed this blog, I am now sitting in a pew towards the back as one of the mourners, and I am paying special attention on the M.C.

    I am sure she is a lovely woman. She has an almost motherly aura. As we settle down she has a placid, nearly blank expression on her face - what other could she have?

    Then she makes a special smile. It is like the smile you direct at babies in prams. Its a professional smile. The whole thing takes a while to perform - as if in slow motion film. The eyes narrow and crinkle slightly. Her cheeks rise slowly in an understated way. Her head slowly nods.

    The message is - "I'm about to start" we fall silent, blank faced, I gawp at April's extremely elegant whicker coffin. My eyes are stinging a bit : naive emotion that, due to my upbringing, must be subdued. Such is our etiquette.

    I should grieve now as the service starts, but instead I press the red button in my head and go in REC mode.

    I have captured it all in my head. And I ask myself (as a result of reading this blog) who is this ceremony for?

    For me to show my sadness? To formally commit a body for cremation? To "pay my respects". For April? She is not here. For my friend and the the family. Of course.

    It's none of these. Is it because we are supposed to? Personally I am here to hug my old friend once, to be there with him. In some way to support him in a really tough moment. We have been in strange situations together, but this is the strangest.
    April was really beautiful and often rather still, and she listened, and she had a moral and political consciousness.

    They read a poem which I thought was rather good, and which I rmemebered enough of to look up later:

    Life Goes On
    If I should go before the rest of you
    Break not a flower
    Nor inscribe a stone
    Nor when I am gone
    Speak in a Sunday voice
    But be the usual selves
    That I have known

    Weep if you must
    Parting is hell
    But life goes on
    So .... sing as well
    Joyce Grenfell

    It was tough funeral because she was so young, and the grim reaper had been so cruel and unfair in selecting her. We feel as if he has sought her out, we somehow forget that it was actually weird behaviour in her cells that got her, and that there was no judgment of intelligence in that.

    SO: there is no real analysis here I'm afraid. I am just a reporter in the field. But due to your blog I am processing the experience in a different way.

  2. Dear Arkers,
    Thanks very much for this sensitive and illuminating comment. You're a good reporter.

    I'm sorry you have lost an old friend. Your point about cells - when the "alternative" idea that somehow we make ourselves ill was at its height (i.e. that somehow it is our own "fault") someone remarked with I felt entirely appropriate bitterness that viruses and rogue cells do not make moral judgements and conscious choices. Shit happens, as the philosopher said, but I guess the idea of the Grim Reaper is to enable us to rage at it in some human way.

    Interested in your point that your (our) upbringing meant that you subdued our emotional response. I spend a lot of time dancing along the line between "professionalism" and raw feeling. I can't do the job with no empathy, no feeling; I can't do the job if I'm snivelling into the mike. But I do wobble.

    The Joyce Grenfell is turning into a favourite, I'm pleased it has your endorsement.

    My guess is that April would be proud of your rather lovely two-line summary of her nature, and now my eyes are pricking a little. Pull youself together, Gloria!

    The questions you ask - why you are there - seem to me to get answered in so many different ways by so many different people. But maybe it helped you to settle on an answer - to be with your old mate, April's partner. Good answer, surely. It's taken me decades to realise (slow learner)that often bereaved people don't want us to DO anything, they just want us to be with them for a while. Other times, they want us to shop, mow the lawn, make supper. But being there, especially at a funeral, is often the best.

    We're social animals, that's how we survive, and we make meanings all the time out of the random soup around us. You made up a particular part of the meaning of that day for your mate. You were there.

  3. Just to clarify

    ". . .judgment of intelligence in that . . ." of course should be " . . .judgment OR intelligence in that..."


  4. Great post and beautiful response.

    The balancing act between crying and coping, between sharing and professionalism can, at times, be the hardest part of the celebrant's job.

    The reaction to the celebrant will be different for every person there, hence the somewhat bland smile and expression.

    I'm sorry that you've lost a friend, Arkayeff,