Saturday, 30 October 2010
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
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
To what shall I compare the world?
It is like the wake
Vanishing behind a boat
That has sailed away at dawn.
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?"
Tuesday, 26 October 2010
Celebrinisters who follow an established faith system presumably believe they are helping with a sacred rite that commends a soul to its God and offers the consolation of their faith to those who share it. At least, I hope they believe so, or else what's going on? But then, faith/not faith/new faith/bitsa faith, it's a rich but puzzling environment, and in many situations, I don't think we're in Kansas anymore, Toto. I'm told by a Quaker that "Quaker Humanism" is one of their growth points. But, er, humanists, according to the BHA website, don't believe in an afterlife or a God, so...h'm. All interesting and fun, too. (Good people, Quakers, I find.) But I digress. As usual. Sorry.
So why do we do it? when we have no faith conviction and no faith community office or title such as vicar, priest, elder, rabbi, imam etc. that would make it a matter of religious vocation and function?
Let's try to get the money thing out of the way - not settled, just out of the way.
There are those of us who do it because they can, and because they rely on the income, to varying extents. If they were BHA-trained, they were told, quite plainly and before they started out on the expensive training, that you can't earn a living at it even if you work flat out, the equivalent of full-time. Some of us still grumble if they feel they are not getting enough ceremonies (to generate the cash they need, though they don't always admit that) and yes Charles, it is this that can lead to fruitless and irrelevant tensions about "my" territories and "my" FDs.
In my case, a little extra hard-earned cash is welcome, but I'm lucky - it's far from essential to the running of Gloria Mansions. I could earn between 3 and 4 times as much per hour/day doing what I used to do, as a part-time consultant, so I'd be pretty stupid to do it for the money. I guess several of us who are in retirement could say the same; it's only a guess, but I think quite a lot of us were or are what's sometimes called "professional people."
This really isn't to exhibit my smugness, at least, that's not my intention! but just to make the point - plenty of us don't do it because we "have" to, financially. Some do have to, it seems, and my fear is that it may distort their practice. Sorry if that sounds patronising. Maybe they've more stamina than me - I really can't do more than two good (?effective?honest?) funerals in a week. It is tiring and draining, and on the few occasions I have done three, I've been furthered knackered by worrying more than usual that I'm going to make a mistake. If I didn't find it demanding, I'd know it was time to stop. You can't predict or control the rate, of course, but one a week with a few weeks away from it to re-charge, would suit me well.
There's nothing wrong with being paid. Religious celebrinisters are paid, often but not always, less than us. (I'm not getting any further into that one, thanks.) It is a service we are seeking to provide, and at least paying for it means if a family thinks we messed it up, they can complain. If it was a charitiable, free-of-charge thing, wouldn't people feel more inhibited from complaining if someone gets it wrong? That's how it seems to me.
And we all have the option of donating our fee to charity, or declining payment for a special case of some kind. I know that happens sometimes.
Conclusion: Some of us may well be doing it principally for the money. Maybe that pressure will grow if hard times are ahead. I very much doubt that money is the only reason for doing it, even for those of us who need to do it to pay basic bills.
So enough already with the stuff about the dosh, eh?
Thanks for sticking with an important but mostly quite boring area of discussion, next time, more psychologically interesting areas, I hope.
Sunday, 24 October 2010
Well, you have to go and see them, talk about what you do, let them see what sort of strange bird you are. After all, they wouldn't want to use you if they'd never met you and knew nothing about you, would they? (Though surprisingly often they have done just that.) So that seems fair enough. Beyond that, I'm not sure what kind of sucking up I could do if I tried, but maybe I lack imagination... One experienced trainer recommended to us that we visit local FDs each Christmas with a card and a tin of biscuits. What? Why? Surely they've enough integrity not to use me just because I give them a bsicuit selection from Liddel? (OK, even M&S) That's about 28 tins of biscuits (and cards), around here, and a lot of carbon miles too. No chance. So I ignored that advice. Doesn't seem to have damaged my work too badly. 75cl of something warming to the blokes at the local crems who work so hard and deal with people so well in such a crappy (in one case) environment, that's a different matter.
I could, of course, turn down a request for a funeral from an FD of whom I disapproved (the reverse of sucking up , I guess...) but what would happen then? Nothing untoward, provided the FD went to a celebster who was as good or better than me - and before you ask, yes, I'm sure there are very many! But not so many round here, we're thin on the ground, however we're badged. And I would do slightly fewer funerals.
Now here's an odd thing - we - at least, those of us I've met - actually want to do this stuff, find it rewarding (in other than a financial sense) and provided we are not overworking want to keep doing it. In an odd way, despite the tensions, the sadnesses and the problems, we seem to like doing it. We probably worry a bit if suddenly we aren't being contacted, even though we know perfectly well that there is probably no particular reason for it. Maybe it's not too self-righteous to say that we think our work helps people, but I think there's more to it than that.
Which brings me to the real can of worms, which is is maybe and ultimately about why we do this odd thing. I'm trying not to write excessively long posts, so I'll have a think on this topic and drone on about it next time.
Thursday, 21 October 2010
It's not that I mind at all, business-wise - I'm actually busier than I want to be at present. I just hope my replacement is better than me. S/he may well be a retired minister - risking his/her soul, far as I can see. Charles will be pleased to know that Mr Grumpy belongs to a certain national chain of FDs that he so dearly loves (not that you'd know it from the shopfront, which of course merely says "Mr Grumpy and Son." ) His rival is an independent, does a better job, is a nicer man, more empathy for families, and seems to be thriving. Sometimes the sun does shine on the righteous, it seems.
So it goes. Must be difficult managing business rivalries in such a sensitive public service. Thanks goodness we celebs are above such sordid matters......h'm. More on that later.
Sunday, 17 October 2010
But a convention is a way of doing something (wearing clothes, saying grace or not saying grace, not breaking wind in front of people unless you know them really well) that is widely accepted, or at least accepted by its audience. So doesn't each funeral need to find its own set of conventions, some of which might be new-minted (difficult....), some well-known, and some might be unusual but derived from something recognisable. If a funeral were to be totally unconventional, would the mourners recognise it as a funeral? Would this matter? Am I asking an irritating number of questions? (Yes. And by the way, breaking wind, at least audibly, is pretty generally seen as not a useful conventional element at funerals. To date.)
It's now a well-worn convention to choose pieces of music that relate to the life of the dead person. That would have been an outrageous innovation a few decades ago. Either way, conventional or not, it still works for a lot of people. The music is often the only thing that has clarified out of the emotional tumult by the time I call on people to discuss the funeral.
What is so wrong with tradition, provided it is still alive, as it were, if still helps those involved to create meanings around the end of a life? Cultures make ceremonies traditional because they work, and adapt them as/when they don't, vide the Cenotaph on 11:11 - seems to work for a lot of people, no? Some of us are reacting against traditional funerals because we feel they are no longer speaking to us, they are a short-cut. So we are trying to develop new conventions. They may become elements of a tradition, over time.
In any case, a funeral can surely be traditional in form but express the right things for the dead person and those close to her. Diana's funeral (you remember, the Princess one) was in many ways traditional, and in other ways not - e.g. her brother attacked the Royal Family, and Sir Elton John sung a song. It seemed to many people, I seem to remember, about right. (Views on the aforementioned song vary widely...)
If there is nothing new under the sun, then a unique funeral is still likely to consist of doings and words and actions that have been used before, and as soon as that happens, a convention is developing. Someone, somewhere, thought up "to celebrate a life" and a new convention was born. For some, it's now a cliche, a conventional element that is used unthinkingly, a moribund traditional element.
At a recent funeral, I was asked (well, told, really) to be sure to use exactly that formula,"celebrate her life" at least twice. For those people, it seems to mean something important. I used it, and sought to unpack it somewhat. Seemed to go alright.
Very interesting, this business of conventions and innovations. A brilliant writer and practitioner on theatrical improvisation, Keith Johnstone, in his 1981 book "Impro," pointed out that you can instantly tell "avant garde" drama because all round the world, it looks the same..! In those days, it meant taking all/most of your clothes off, maybe painting yourself white, and crawling over other actors and/or the audience... His message was that true originality isn't a matter of trying to invent new outwards, it comes from letting the innards, the works, dictate the casings, letting the essence help you find the outward form - which might be unexcitingly non-avant garde, but true, in a way an audience will instantly recognise.
Originality isn't a matter of straining for unconventional forms, it's a much more valuable exploration. Early Beethoven sounds like Haydn, I believe, but nothing else in the world sounds like Beethoven's late quartets. He couldn't, I guess, have jumped right in and said "to hell with Haydn, let's invent a different kind of quartet." The Beatles used to cover other rockers' songs very well - but only they could have made "Drive My Car," or "Strawberry Fields."
OK, ok, I know, off the point somewhat. Summary: I'm content to use traditional elements of funeral ritual and ceremony as long as they are true to what needs to be said and done, and what is true, as I've said before (wake up at the back) is a very long way from being just my decision.
So maybe I'm just a pretty unreliable revolutionary.
Sunday, 10 October 2010
Can mindfulness meditation stop me fearing my own death?
No, not necessarily, fearing death is entirely natural, a biologically inbuilt survival mechanism, and if we stop fearing death it may well mean we are about to die (of course, the reverse can be true - imminent death may well result in total loss of sphinctre control, mindless screaming, etc.) Very few are those who have no fear at all of death, even if it's only anxiety about the manner of their going.
Bugger. Let's try again: can mindfulness meditation help control or alleviate my fear of death?
Yes, quite possibly, if you are good at it.
Is it better at doing so than, say, ingesting large quantities of malt whisky and getting out of my head?
Yes, because that's a strategy that will cause you to actually feel you are near death the next morning; also, in the long run, MM is probably cheaper, and you are less likely to bore total strangers.
Isn't that exactly what you're doing now, on this blog?
Find yourself another guru, smart-arse, we're through. Next please.
Sorry. But look, I thought you said you didn't believe in gurus?
Hello, back already? No, I don't, in the 1960s psssst-wanna-buy-the-secret-of-life-only-ten-percent-of-your-salary sense, it was just a - oh, never mind. Another question?
How does MM help control your fear of death?
It's a big question - how long have you got?
Till I die.
That's the right answer. So: it works by training your mind so that it can focus on the present moment, and let the usual train of thoughts, imagined conversations, fantasies, fears, plans, memories - you know the stuff - let it all subside. It trains you to keep returning to the present. If you can manage to do this for at least part of the day, you may find it easier to remain calm, to accept things as they are, and that may include your fears about death.
There's a lot of "maybe" about your answers.
You want certainties, find yourself a snake-oil merchant.
Sorry, not very mindful of me, was it. Look what I mean is, it's actually hard work training your mind, you have to persevere, and if you don't, nothing much will happen. So, no guarantees. Also, it is a gradual process, no good sitting there expecting that in a blinding flash you will utterly change. In fact, one of the things you are likely to develop if you stay with it is an acceptance of who you are - no need to wish for blindingly sudden transformations into someone different. Though that realisation is in fact itself transformative, even though it comes without you trying to deliberately transform yourself.
If it won't make me different, what's the point.
It may change you quite profoundly, but it's a gradual growth of aspects of you that are already there, just under-used and under-valued. Bit like fitness training developing muscles you didn't even know you had. So it's all still you, but over time you may judge yourself less harshly and others less quickly, and you may be more acceptiong of yourself, your strengths and weaknesses. This can release a lot of energy and quiet happiness that was drained out of you by fighting against who you are; self-loathing is a destructive thing, is it not?
I'mc asking the questions here. Does it make you passive, dopey, easily ignored or exploited, because you are so accepting of who you are and of all those around you?
Not unless you are those things already. It can just help you to a better balance point, give you a better sense of proportion, help you to accept the things you can't change.
Say some more about mindful attitudes to death and mortality.
Let go of my lapels, please, and I'll try. I expect you can accept logically that we must all die eventually. If you are religious, or at least, if you believe in a supernatural world, a spirit world, you may think other things happen after death. If you don't, then - er - you don't. But in either case, you can't deny that however much we botox and detox, nip and tuck, take the pills and go jogging, in the end the old Grim Reaper will -
Enough already, I want you to lessen my fear of death, not add to it. Yes, OK, OK,we must all die.
Right. You are able to accept that intellectually, but find it difficult to live with emotionally. I think that living mindfully can help us to greater acceptance of our mortality, a true resignation in the face of our mortality, and that's nothing to do with being morbid.
Can we leave it there for now? These are deep matters, and I need a breather and a nice drop of Scotch.
Me too, mine's a GlenMorangie, since you asked...
Thursday, 7 October 2010
The details are medical but not opaque, the setting is the USA but much of it is translatable He deals with how bad we are (medical profession, families, the ill person him or herself) at addressing the reality of terminal illness and making good decisions about it. It's a complex business, of course, and we often worsen it. He examines what professionals have come up with to improve matters. A few quotes below to give you a flavour:
Monday, 4 October 2010
Because at one crem I work in, there is a 15 or 30 minute break between funerals, however busy they are - a policy I consider humane and helpful - this funeral was able to start ten minutes early, and it overshot its time allocation, narrowly avoiding impacting on the start of the next one. I mention these mundane matters because they matter. It's no good banging on about the rigidity of crems and the awfulness of trad ritual, and then deciding the way round it is to take time away from others - that's just selfish. The FD should have booked a double time allocation, and the mourners should have left when they saw the next family arriving. But no major harm done, happily.
The reason it overshot was because of the variety and unpredictability of input, and the fact that many of them didn't want to leave at the end. Many of the mourners, like the dead person, were involved in communal living, and in particular with a community in India. They were not orthodox Hindus (if one can be such), they were Brits and Americans who had, I guess, taken the road east in the 60s and 70s, and spent much time at the end that road. It was a religious funeral, in a broad sense - much talk of the spirit moving on, the soul being free. There were elements of nature worship in it, an identity with natural forces and a view that the holy is all around us. Much about fire and the sun. Some laughter, some tears.
There was a big board with photos and messages stuck on it, heaps of flowers all over the coffin (wicker or cane.) The minister was simply "one of them" with some sort of spiritual leadership role. There were loads of messages from friends far and wide. People spoke unusually frankly ("this wasn't a sexual relationship, but...")
I'm fine with a sense of wonder at the workings of the universe and, in good moments, a sense of identity with it, soI have a degree of spirituality, if you like. (The word needs re-defining.) But without the literal idea of spirits, because as it happens, I don't believe in another life after this one. Nevertheless, there was much in this ceremony for a NoGoder to value and enjoy.
They joined in singing little poems/songs which obviously they had sung in their community/ies, or had rehearsed. They sang well (c.f. the pain of listening to a handful of elderly people doing their best with "Abide With Me" and a tone-deaf vicar, or the horror of listening yet again to "I Did It My Way.") There was laughter as well as tears. A sibling spoke, clearly a much more conventional person, who had drifted apart from and then re-entered the life of the dead person. The words sounded simple and truthful and direct. There was some dancing, including to a famous soul music track as well as to vaguely indian-sounding chants and songs. People mostly wore bright clothes. At the end, they stood around chatting, listening to another track, some standing with their arms held up in the air.
How do I know? because I was watching and listening, unobtrusively I hope, quite fascinated whilst also looking with increasing anxiety at my watch. I was next "on."
They were what people dismissively call "hippies," I suppose. These people didn't seem to me to be weekend or part-time hippies. I'd guess they lived by a set of spiritual beliefs, which the funeral embodied, and they had stayed with the so-called "counter-culture," living their lives and following their beliefs. Some might dismiss them as pretentious, i.e. pretending to something which is not really theirs - they were not born into the culture they are apeing, they just adapt elements of it because it different and exotic, they are show-offs, etc. Maybe that's just prejudice, maybe nervous inhibition, or even submerged envy.
Whatever you think of their beliefs, they sure do know how do a funeral!
But why in a crem? Would have been much better in a different building, or under the wide sky. The only bit that jarred for me, in a way it doesn't with more restrained, "traditional" funerals, was the crem itself. They certainly inhabited it, in a way most more conventional funerals don't, but it was still the local crem.
Well, as Dave Allen used to say, "may your gods go with you." Whatever they are, even if your gods are NoGod, I hope they give you such a free-flowing, honest, participative funeral.