Friday, 26 February 2010

Carpe Diem part 2

In part 1 I was worrying that maybe a fear of the dissolution of the self with no belief in an afterlife, or only a vague hope that there might be one, could be beneath some self-destructive and socially dangerous behaviour which otherwise I find hard to understand. The idea - which may be nonsense! - is that you may seize the day with a vengeance as a way of avoiding the truth about your own mortality. Blot it all out.

Here's a poem about a different attitude to "Carpe Diem." It's by a very popular Amercian poet, Billy Collins, and it seems to me eloquent and helpful in the way that good popular poetry can be.

Picnic, Lightning

It is possible to be struck by a
meteor or a single-engine plane while
reading in a chair at home. Pedestrians
are flattened by safes falling from
rooftops mostly within the panels of
the comics, but still, we know it is
possible, as well as the flash of
summer lightning, the thermos toppling
over, spilling out on the grass.
And we know the message can be
delivered from within. The heart, no
valentine, decides to quit after
lunch, the power shut off like a
switch, or a tiny dark ship is
unmoored into the flow of the body's
rivers, the brain a monastery,
defenseless on the shore. This is
what I think about when I shovel
compost into a wheelbarrow, and when
I fill the long flower-boxes then
press into rows the limp roots of red
impatiens -- the instant hand of Death
always ready to burst forth from the
sleeve of his voluminous cloak. Then
the soil is full of marvels, bits of
leaf like flakes off a fresco,
red-brown pine needles, a beetle quick
to burrow back under the loam. Then
the wheelbarrow is a wilder blue, the
clouds a brighter white, and all I
hear is the rasp of the steel edge
against a round stone, the small
plants singing with lifted faces, and
the click of the sundial as one hour
sweeps into the next.

You dig? as people used to say a long time ago - if you have a clear apprehension of your mortality it may make your life clearer, and the ordinary things you do filled with more meaning. Knowing your life will come to an end - I mean really knowing the truth of it, living with it, not just accepting it intellectually and theoretically - can help you to "look well to this day." And enjoy it.

That's surely the point of "memento mori." It was not to scare themselves that people had a skull on the desk, it was to make them realise the value of now. (Also of course to be good so they wouldn't burn in hell, but I hope you feel able, with me, to ignore that whole vicious bit of social control!)

Of course, it's perfectly possible simply to say "I'll worry about it when it happens, till then, sod it, mine's a double Jack Daniels on ice." That's saying a version of Woody Allen's joke "I don't mind dying but I don't want to be there when it happens."

Well, that might be OK if you go out like a light in your prime (though this may not be ideal for those who care about you...) but it won't help much if you decline slowly, and need some way to deal with it. It's ignoring and denying our mortality and it's a long way from Billy Collin's poem.

Whatever, we can only live in our days. Another poem for you:


What are days?
Days are where we live.
They come, they wake us
Time and time over.
They are to be happy in:
Where can we live but days?

Ah, solving that question
Brings the priest and the doctor
In their long coats
Running over the fields.

Philip Larkin

What a trap he springs on us in this seemingly innocent and simple little poem. That final image I find the very stuff of a nightmare. It scares me back into today. Something to do with the long black coats, and they are running very fast and silently straight at you, over the fields. They aren't going to ring the bell and be shown into the lounge...

Carpe diem. Look well to this day. Be mindful of the present moment. Simple to say, hard to do.

Sunday, 21 February 2010

carpe diem, or, it's Happy Hour again.

It's all interlinked, I feel - what the best sort of funeral is for person A - the story of A's life - how A dealt with her own mortality - how A lived.

If here A = me, then I can't decide on my own funeral until I've worked through some more thoughts and feelings about my own mortality. The practicalities of the funeral are very important to those who live on, (won't matter a fish's tit to me, because there won't be a "me") but deciding on these practicalities in order to spare family and friends unnecessary hassle and distress causes me to think about my own life and death.

(Oh cheer up, for God's sake! Who wants to live for ever? Do you? Are you sure? Give it some thought, use your imagination, think about how our time-limited consciousness shapes our joys and sorrows - then think of taking away the time limit.... Hah! Gotcha, I bet.)

What's the point of spring if there's no winter, and vice versa.

So I'm moving a little further away from funerals, for now at least, and looking at how we deal with our own mortality. In an earlier blog, "cast a cold eye on life, on death," January sometime in case you're interested, I had a look at stoicism. Stoicism means a lot more than just putting up with nasty things with as little fuss as possible - though that is an important gift to family and friends, of course. Classically, it involves a disregard for the pleasures of life as well as its pains, and I feel that is harder to achieve than in earlier, more physically robust and harsher times. Also, I expect that, like me, you rather enjoy the pleasures of life!

A contemporary substitute is perhaps "carpe diem," "seize the day," in the sense of "enjoy, make the most of, this day." The Latin poet Horace was not the first, surely, to have this thought, but it's his tag that is often used.

In its purest form this suggests to me living in and appreciating the present moment, rather than just following the stream of one's thoughts into past events and future concerns. So far so good - that's related to mindfulness, of which more in future posts.

"Look to this day, for it is life, the very life of life....
For yesterday is but a memory, and tomorrow is only a vision.
But today well-lived makes every yesterday a memory of happiness
And every tomorrow a vision of hope.
Look well, therefore, to this day."

(an ancient Sanskrit inscription, apparently.)

Eminently sane, seems to me. But there is another kind of living in the present which seems to me self-destructive in youth and also useless in helping us face death later in life. And "Look to this day" is not the same thought as " sieze the day."

There are, according to polls etc, many people in our fair land who do not have a strong religious belief, so don't believe in an after-life. They may live fairly noisy tumultuous lives, perhaps, haven't had the chance to mull over the Big Questions, maybe lack the tools to do so (no criticism of them intended) - and of course if they are young, they may feel they'll live for ever, anyway. (Not literally, but older people are naturally more aware of the end of life, surely.)

At a deep level, such people may be very scared of death - not the manner of it, but the end of identity, the cessation of consciousness, the finish of "Me." Well, if all you have to throw in the teeth of life, the old bitch, is your defiant sense of "Me" then that's all that stands between you and death. So of course it's scary. Not on the surface, you may appear full of life and swagger, plenty of sap and cheek, but much deeper down. So what do you do?

You carpe the old diem in a sort of witless hedonism. I stress "witless;" hedonism itself deserves a better press than it usually gets. I mean the sort of hedonism that destroys your liver a little more at each Happy Hour and thereafter till one in the morning, that causes you to drive around the land uninsured and unMoT'd a danger to yourself and others, that causes you to hurt and damage other people unneccessarily, to crash about helplessly in the grip of your own frustrations and anxieties etc.

This may look like living for today, but it isn't looking to this day, because today isn't being well-lived - how can it be if your liver is going to pack up and kill you in your early forties? If you're banned from driving for three years? If you can't face work without a nose-full of coke? Tomorrow is hardly a vision of hope for such a life.

(I'm enjoying this rant probably more than I should, but I'm not excorcising any particular personal traumas here!)

Big N very B please: I'm not blaming people who haven't had the advantages I've had, I'm not talking about their causal and societal context, I'm talking about their fear of not-being. This fear can be felt by very advantaged people, it may just be easier for them to hide it and sublimate it without crashing out.

Now if there is anything in this grotesque stereotype that is at all valid, how can such people approach their own mortality?

Answers next time. What a cliff-hanger, eh?

Friday, 12 February 2010

are funerals any good?

Following on from my last post, then:

It's difficult to make generalisations about whether funerals are any good or not, because many of us have strong feelings about them, and those feelings will vary according to beliefs, experiences etc, so let's try this: if a funeral is good for the family and other mourners, it's good, whatever it's like. Many of us who work in and around funerals seem to want funerals to be very different from how they are, we tend to want fuller, more varied, more creative ceremonies, that involve more of the mourners.

I'm not sure bereaved families always want these things themselves. A funeral ceremony belongs to the family; an officiant, be s/he a vicar or anyone else, has the function of helping the family to realise and put into effect what they want. It's not for us to try to move a family's wishes on to something we might see as more meaningful, fuller, etc. Officiants - well, me, at least - could be better at making more creative suggestions, but there is a common and growing assumption that if a ceremony is fairly restrained, dignified, delivered entirely by an officiant, that it is a poor ceremony. Not necessarily so. It's only no good if the officiant is keeping out dimensions that a family wants in, or s/he does not know how to suggest options to a family. I think we have to take our lead from the family.

I saw the joke when a comedian (Jeremy Hardy, perhaps) said that he didn't want a humanist funeral, because they come and camp out on your lawn for a week. I've taken several funerals at which the nearest and dearest just wanted an ordinary secular funeral, what Charles ("The Good Funeral Guide") calls neatly and accurately, "religious sans", that is: introduction-few thoughts on life and death - tribute - reflections - commital - conclusion and out, three pieces of music and here they are. Thanks, give me a ring if there's a prob otherwise see you out front on the day.

Seems to me that we do often short-change ourselves, we do short-circuit important emotions, we do miss the chance for something more meaningful and beautiful, possibly even something that's more fun, a lot of the time. But what many of us are pressing for actually involves re-thinking much of our common attitudes towards mortality. It's a bit late when you are discussing with next of kin a funeral that has already been booked in a week's time (people will rush into it), that isn't the time, I feel, to start re-engineering cultural attitudes towards death.

It is for people who are already on this journey in their lifetimes to ensure that their funerals, and those close to them who die before them, are not incoherent. By incoherent, I mean they do not align with the person who has died, nor with his family. I guess George Melly's funeral was coherent - he had, of course, a jazz band to play him in and out, decorated coffin, etc, but in basic format it was, I understand, quite conventional. It was at a crem. Humph too, though I understand the family had a private celebration.

I do wish more people would have a memorial/celebration event away from the crem, and just a committal before or afterwards. That would give us the freedom we want to help families explore further and feel more.

The key to changing funeral habits lies with people who are working on their understanding of own mortality, and with funeral directors/arrangers, who need to be emotionally and culturally literate enough to open out the discussion and help the family choose the right celebrant. If a big cultural change does come about, families will be choosing their own celebrants more and more, doing more things for themselves - and the role and function of FDs will change drastically.

A few FDs are there already, potentially or actually. But mostly it's still about big black cars and deafault mode solemnity. I agree that we need to reach out and help people see what a funeral could be, (not should be)but I also think we need to be sure that our disapproval of most current funerals, whether it is aesthetic or more profound, doesn't cause us to try to impose our own imperatives on others.

At present, many families don't have the cultural or emotional resources to re-invent a funeral for someone they love, because their own feelings about mortality wouild make that impossible for them. We have to tread carefully. The family arranging the funeral of a man who died at 91, a private sort of person, a WW2 veteran, with "old-fashioned" virtues and views, who was not religious ("the War saw that off for him..."), doesn't want a jazz band, a painted coffin, a green burial, candles at the points of the compass. I might, they don't.

They just want a standard crematorium ceremony, and the celebrant's job is to deliver a well-written ceremony, with as much input as the family wants, directly or indirectly. Her/his job is to help the mourners find meaning in the ceremony, and in the changed circumstances of their lives as they emerge from the (probably pretty ghastly) crem. Her job is help them pay tribute, celebrate a life, recognise everything that they still have though the old man has gone.

It is putting our cultural imperatives at a higher value than theirs to feel they really ought to be doing something very different. Religious sans may be just right for them. They may like black limos. I don't - but I'm damned if I'll allow myself to look down my nose at them, or dismiss them by saying they get the funeral they deserve. Maybe they get the funeral they actually want. Such funerals are not worthless, or meaningless, or cheap and nasty - they are certainly not cheap.

Me, I'd like to do more candles and jazz bands, memorial events not crem standard 25 minutes. Of course I would. I'd like more strong emotions, less structure, more participation. But that's me, not necessarily him and them. Our job is to serve him and them as they are today, not as we wish them to be, and work away at changing how weall view our mortality so that people will soon be saying "what the hell do I want a black limo for? He wasn't a mafioso" And "25 minutes and a few tired sandwiches? I'll have ten minutes at the crem with four people, and a proper do in the Dog and Duck, where no-one will be permitted to talk about the weather, their journey here and home again, and everyone has to offer up a memory or a thought about him. " And so on.

I think it's time I turned back to my main preoccupation in this blog, which is how we live a mortal life, but should anyone read this and comment, I'll be happy to take the comments further.

If you've got this far, thanks, and sorry to bend your ear. I'm a bit startled by how much this all seems to matter to me.

Sunday, 7 February 2010

what are funerals for?

I'll trundle a bit further down this particular branch line in my meandering journey to the heart of mortality (modest aim, I know..) because these immediate questions about funerals are important, to me and others.

Charles, in his comment on my last posting, is thought-provoking and interesting, as ever. He prompts me to ask a question: what is a funeral for? Are they as useless at achieving what they set out to do as Charles suggests? So leaving "are funerals any good?" for a blog soon, I'll look now at what funerals are apparently for.

1. Let's be direct about this - there is a body to dispose of. It needs to be put in the ground, or burned. ( The Towers of Silence/Sky Burial method is not really an option for us here and now - is it?) However sad we may feel about it, the thing is finished with. It once embodied that distinctive wave of energy we call a human life. It no longer does. So a funeral is a ceremony preceding the disposal of a body. This basic function creates a certain imperative. (Not, of course, that it is necessary to have a funeral in order to dispose of a body at a crematoriuum or a burial ground. You just need certain documents and some money! Incidentally,
will give you a lot of very helpful and independent advice about funerals, from a particular point of view, if you're looking for advice.)

2. The mourners present need to be helped towards a new relationship with that body. It has changed from an embodied life to a body that may still symbolise, very powerfully, that life, but is not any longer that person. (I've looked at this in an earlier post.) In short, mourners need to release the body and stay with the life they remember, the life that has been part of their lives and is still therefore part of them. It's time to let go of the physical thing, it can no longer be part of their lives. A body is no longer a person. That bit hurts, and a funeral has a function in relation to that hurt.

3. The mourners need a chance to relate their specific loss to wider patterns of human life and death, within a set of religious or secular concepts and emotions. They need to find some larger meanings to relate to. Few of us can actually live with the idea that a life is meaningless - humans build meanings, and someone's absence needs to be built into the lives of those present. At a more personal level, reassurances may be needed that the life that is over means something to other people, especially if it has been a humble, nondescript sort of existence. (The mourners of big-shots may have different needs at this point..!)

4. The mourners may need, may be looking for, some consolation or comfort in what the funeral means to them. This may be even more important for non-religious people, who don't believe, or at least are not certain about, meeting up in a supernatural world (a life beyond this one.)

5. The mourners need to share this event as a group. not just suffer it individually. There is grief to express; a ceremony, a ritual even, may give voice to that grief in other than purely personal, individual terms. This shared expression, in our culture, may be fairly reserved and low-keyed - we don't ullulate much - but it is still there.

6. There is a life to be informed about, perhaps to wonder at, certainly to celebrate if possible.Though not every life can be celebrated. "We are here to celebrate the life of Adolf Hitler" would have been a bad start to a funeral - I'd have wanted to celebrate his death.

These seem to me to be what a funeral is for. No doubt there are other functions one could identify?

Thursday, 4 February 2010

crematorium moratorium

If only . . . we could have a moratorium on crematorium funerals, whilst we re-design from scratch these very important places. As a mourner, you're only in one for half an hour - but I bet you can remember at least something about the place and the event long, long afterwards.

Well, with all due respect for the hard-working staff at crems, they are too often absolutely dire.

I'm afraid the ugly fact is that some (many? most?) crematorium "chapels" have as much atmosphere and aesthetic reward as a dentist's waiting room (also a place where people wait quietly and nervously for something they wish wasn't going to happen.) They are too often unsuited to a multi-faith and no faith population, on account of the large cross often fixed to the wall, or included in a window or doors.So tough, if you're Muslim, Jew, Hindu or atheist! (Not an anti-Christian statement, just a fact.)

I work at one place that the council concerned should be ashamed of, at which everybody has to work hard to hide the fact that it's a relentless conveyor belt of ceremonies on each other's heels. It's tatty, too small, and guess what? It's located next to a rubbish recycling plant. Nice work, you planners. In fact, to save public money, why not amalgamate the two facilities, hey?

I'm lucky enough to work quite often at one that is a much pleasanter environment, with a 15-minute minimum gap between the half-hour time slots and a more spacious hall - or chapel, if you prefer the usual default term - which it shouldn't be.

Say after me "audience, mourners, hall, ceremony," not "congregation, chapel, service." There, it's not so difficult, is it? Non-religious people are expected to show respect for religious beliefs (even when they may strike some of us as barking mad), it's only fair for religious believers to show some sensitivity towards a non-religious view of life, especially at an important rite of passage like a funeral ceremony. At the better of the two crems mentioned above, they always take the cross off the wall for me without being asked, and pop it back for the next Christian ceremony, all very unobtrusive. At the other one, the cross would take ten minutes to take down. It's up on the wall in a niche, and you'd need a ladder. Ten minutes? You must be joking!

Luckily, the people who work at both of my regular crematoria are outstanding at their jobs, take them seriously, and do all they can to ensure the funeral is a dignified, smooth-running event.

Here's a few simple and I would like to think undeniable facts:

1. Cremations are getting more and more popular.

As new regs come into play, they will become more environmentally friendly than they are now. We tend to assume that a burial is more ecofriendly than a cremation. I'm told that it's not as simple as it seems: burial ecogood, cremation ecodbad, isn't accurate.Perhaps this isn't the place to go into this too much, but over time a grave generates methane, I'm afraid, folks, which, apparently, does eventually get into the atmosphere. And of course graves take up a lot of space. Cremations use a lot of fuel and generate much CO2 - just the once. I think people should have what they want, I'm not selling cremation to you, but I do about 9:1 cremations:burials. Crematoria are important places.

2. Too many crems have end to end half-hour slots.

Whilst half an hour is longer than it sounds,and for most of the mourners at most funerals, it's enough, it is a bare minumum. Crems that run them end to end really need to think again - which is worse, asking a family to wait an extra day, or shoving the family into the middle of a day-long queue of hearses, coffins and unhappy people? Very often the day overuns; one over-verbose officiant, one unexpectedly large audience or late family member, and the subsequent officiants and families have an added burden. Also the poor guy running things for the crem misses his lunch break. Why do they stack up a day's funerals so tightly? Can't be the money - can it?

3. What you can actually do in a crem ceremony is limited.

See 2 above. No you can't have a slide show, or too many candles, or live musicians in any number, because there isn't time. Unless you pay double and have an hour time allocation.

4. Officiants, priests etc need a little waiting room.

("vestry" it is called, on the Christian ecclesiastical model, of course...) very welcome too. Some are OK. Some - well, it's like waiting in a broom cupboard or a stationery store, it's obviously seen as overflow space. Not a good place in which to generate afeeling of ceremony and ritual.

5. Mourners need somewhere nice to wait, out of the weather.

It really doesn't need to be like an old-fashioned dentist's waiting room.

6. How about light, well-designed modern?

Default mode for fixtures and fittings around the place - formal, gloomy, oppressive, nervously neo-Gothic. How about calming, with some ordinary flowers? OK, so cash is short for councils - but how about a lick of paint and spotlessly clean? How about pleasant toilets, not basic with a bust hand-dryer? How about not too many adverts for all the extras the crem can supply - at extra cost? How about no anonymous leaflets on any subject at all?

7. "We find it works best if..."

"that's how we do it here, you see," from staff on occasion (not at my two main crems, happily.) The only answer is "well that's not how I do it, so please watch for my signal..." because it's not your ceremony, it's theirs, and mine acting on their behalf. So - watch me. Please.

Summary: Many crems need to modernise, lighten, see the people who use them as paying customers (which they are, my word they are...) and get customer-friendly.Some crems are much better than I've suggested, of course. But crems need to provide a multi/no faith theatre for ceremony and ritual, not a lifeless derivative from an outdated idea of ecclesiastical architecture and decoration. People choose the environment for their wedding nowadays. Unless they are enterprising and want to spend time and money on it, they will find themselves stuck with the nearest crem. And sometimes that means they are very stuck.