Wednesday, 24 November 2010

Three in one week

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, 20 November 2010

Bellowhead, hedonism, mindfulness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, 19 November 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, 16 November 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, 9 November 2010

Funerals and grieving - facts and fallacies

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

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

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

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

Evidence-based Findings

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, 3 November 2010

"Intimate Death," and politicians.

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

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

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

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

Would you think - politician?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, 2 November 2010

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

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

All slyly undermined by the very last line...

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Let's go get a drink