Friday, 28 January 2011

Reversed expectations: a crem and a green 'un

OK, established opinion around the GFGers seems to be that woodland burials are a better way to go than crem funerals. Crems limit your time and space, they...oh, you fill in the dots. They can be dismal dumps delivering rushed and cramped ceremonies.

My experience this week might have taught me not to over-generalise. Woodland burials may be better in all sorts of ways - nicer to visit, greener (actually, I understand that there are two views on this issue - later for that) etc. But I'm only referring here to the actual ceremony itself.

It was my first visit to this woodland burial. Lovely place, I'm sure, but:

  1. Because of circs out of my control, I visited the widow the day before the funeral, so I there was very little opportunity to broaden the range of the ceremony; the widow is herself pretty ill, and had, naturally enough, little spare energy for what might be done to make a funeral a fuller event for her. I didn't feel able to suggest any more creative ideas to her.
  2. Because the widow is so unwell, the chosen plot was close to the road so she didn't have to walk far; we had an unwelcome counterpoint of tractors and and a couple heavy lorries at one point, which had to slow down to get round parked cars and then accelerated hard away - and it's a fairly quiet B road, too.
  3. The weather was cold and mizzly - except when it was actually pissing down; I delivered the ceremony as discussed and planned, but was concerned for the well-being of some of those present. I speak not of my own damp and chilled state - comes with the soggy territory, on occasion.
  4. Tricky one this - but it seems to me that funerals need to fit the people most closely concerned. As far as I could see, this one did, but it was a bit limited by what could be drawn from the family meeting - upon which, of course, one is entirely dependent. So the funeral seemed to be appropriate and good things were said about it afterwards, but I didn't feel it was a particularly profound or heightened experience for them. It was - OK.
Whereas a more-or-less bog standard crem funeral a few days later seemed to me (I keep going with these qualifications because it's so difficult to be objective) a more powerful and valuable experience, because:

  1. The woman who has died was obviously a great character, so there were plenty of excellent anecdotes about her, and she had some interesting if sometimes tough times during her life. Those close to her were not afraid to described how difficult she could be, as well as what a wonderful friend she was.
  2. The family meeting was memorable; her daughter was calm, thoughtful, sensitive, and eloquent, as well sad. I was touched by the way she was moved to tears for quite a few minutes - her husband comforted her (their recent baby helped a lot here!), she regained her compsure as we Brits like to say, and then returned to the story - she didn't once apologise for being upset - well done her. Very natural about it all, very true to herself and her mother's memory.
  3. The sun streamed in through the crem windows, the place was packed to the rafters, we had tears, and we also had real laughter - not just sad smiles, but bursts of the stuff. It seemed to me that we - the daughter and me - had got the tone right, as well as the content.
  4. Unusual and excellent musical choices (i.e. interesting, appropriate to the occasion and the person, moving)
  5. The dead woman's brother came and said a few simple words, and I read out a lovely tribute from a friend. Thanks to the family meeting, I was able to refer to other friends too, and although I did most of the talking, it did feel as though the people were as involved as it might be possible to be, given the circumstances.
  6. One woman came up to me afterwards for a few words. After she'd said something that I found encouraging, I asked "would she have approved?" An honest answer to this question can be a good way of checking on what I've just done. I got an honest answer. The woman thought for a moment, and said "Well, no, of course not. She'd rather not be dead." That's a remark I shall treasure. I stood corrected. This was a moving funeral, but not a sentimental one. I think the funeral matched the family.
So, all in all, I think we did better at the crem than at the green burial site - on this occasion. Or am I just reading back into the event my own preferences?


  1. Sounds the perfect funeral GM. I agree with what you say about natural burials sites not being better per se. What so many lack is a building to take the service should the weather be shitty. When we open our planned site, nearer every day, it will be orientated around a central fire pit. Even the worst of our British weather can be faced down for a short while to gaze at a crackling, spitting fire.
    We also took an outdoor service at a NBG this week, but the family resisted the urge to hold the ceremony indoors. We held it under the wintering oak at the bottom of the hill, the family carried the coffin up the hill, and the rain just threatened, but stayed away. A risk worth taking in the end.

  2. That's really, really interesting GM. Two things came to my mind here:
    First of all, the atmosphere created in a funeral ceremony (thanks to content and those in attendance) can be 'bigger' than the venue, which I think is the point you were making. So you can have a lovely location but the ceremony doesn't quite match it, or you can have a soul-less chapel but the ceremony transcends its surroundings.
    Secondly, and forgive me if I offend any of the wonderful 'green' organisations out there doing very good work (not my intention at all), I do wonder if the enthusiasm for and significance of woodland burials is such because it's the only other alternative we have! Don't get me wrong - I think the connection with nature, and the simplicity of green burials makes them a very fitting and desirable alternative. I may even want one myself...
    BUT I think what your excellent comments reveal, GM, is that there has to be more choice than Crematorium or Woodland. They are opposites - like Religious or Humanist, black or white - and a whole world of colour and possibilities lies in-between.

  3. Well, GM, I'm not sure that you're comparing like with like here. You did not hold funeral 2 down in the engine room at the mouth of the cremator, but in the 'chapel' (how do they get away with persisting in calling it that?) alongside (or above, as the case may be).

    Had the funerals been reversed, the relicts and grievers comprising funeral 2 might well have opted to hold a farewell ceremony in some other space first, and then to convey the body to the nbg for a last goodbye?

    Sure, natural burial suits a warm and sunny day when the beauty of the location pervades the obsequies. Some, of course (the bigger ones) have their own ceremony hall. But so long as you don't detain folk too long out of doors on a rainwashed Jan day I don't know that there's much that can rival the elemental simplicity of lowering an ex-someone into a hole.

    You make brief, dark utterance about the greenliness of some green grounds. Yes, some do welcome formaldehyde and chipboard. But there are darker clouds even than these. Many are ecologically incoherent and financially unsustainable. I'm afraid the first scandal, probably involving a nice little earner, is not far distant.

    Funeral 2 sounds wonderful. It seems to have made the crem its own and then to have transcended it. All credit to them. In that mood and number I guess they could have done the same to the Savoy Grill. Yes, it can be done!

    As for 'She'd rather not be dead,' well that's something that should inform our thinking and approach, I believe. There's no denial in that, but a very just defiance.

    Thank you for this. Much matter for a Saturday morning.

  4. So, this is what the internet is really for.
    Thanks so much, you three, for these interesting and rewarding thoughts, which will I'm sure fertilise (no, that's not a submerged insult...)my practice.

    I agree with Charles about the elemental value of holes in the ground, though he credits me with wider thinking and knowledge on the greenness or otherwise of NBGs - all I really meant was that apparently, buried remains create methane, which eventually and inevitably seeps to the surface, into the air, and etc. (This would not, I understand, happen if we buried at a sensible,compostible depth.)But I understand now that there are concerns that some NGS may not be "forever..."

    CB summarises helpfully what I was on about - transcending the surroundings. On this occasion, the NBG funeral didn't - I expect this is untypical. I've also been involved in a superb outdoor burial on private land in much worse weather. So much depends on the people involved. But CB's final point I'd emphasise - it's not polarising opposites we're after, it's what is fitting.

    Always worth the risk, Rupert, and your fire-pit sounds splendid.

    The Savoy Grill - now there's an idea.

  5. Hmmm

    Food for thought

    I had a browse and found this

    "Hertz's work argues that death is not merely a physical fact, but also a social fact. A person is not fully dead, Hertz argues, until the proper rituals have been completed. These rituals, he asserts, must effect transitions at three levels of meaning and experience. The corpse, the soul of the deceased, and society at large all have their status thrown into question by death, and funeral rituals must resolve the ambiguities in a situation where they are not, in fact, fully resolvable, though humans often wish they were, and wish that we could truly know the answers to the mystery of death."

    "Rituals of Death"

    Interesting read.


  6. Very good and interesting link, Mr A. Thank you for it.

  7. Interesting post and comments.

    Funerals are great reflectors, of the people who have died, and of those who are doing the arranging. So, when fab people are involved, they get a fab ceremony.

    The point you make about energy is also interesting, Gloria. The widow had none, due to her own ill health. That makes it difficult to deliver anything other than a gentle, kind ceremony which probably went better than you think, but didn't give that warm fuzzy glow that you were hoping for. The second ceremony had a lot of energy and, to coin an awful phrase, there was "a lot of love in the room."

    Some ceremonies carry themselves along on their own momentum, but these are the ones with lots of people, and lots of laughs. A "Two man and a dog" funeral is never going to be one that shines in the memory.

    Well done for being so adaptable and for being able to do both things so well. I'm sure that both families are very happy that you were there to look after them.

  8. What a tonic you are XP, thanks! You remind me that we are unwise to judge the effect of a ceremony on the bereaved by our own reactions.Perhaps the only working principle is just "do it as well as you possibly can."