Thursday, 19 May 2011

Mortality Dread - a celebrant glancing sunwards, however briefly

Stay with me, I'll show you a good another chew at this sombre but who knows potentially liberating topic. If you read the previous jolly instalment, this post is fear of death part II, kind of, but I'm referring to the dread we naturally tend to feel about our upcoming end, i.e. the fact of our mortality, to separate it out from anxieties about how that event (death) might come about.

Still under the influence of (and in the middle of) "Staring At The Sun" by Irvin Yalom. In the book he uses case histories from his clients who have gone through existentialist psychotherapy for symptoms which turn out to be generated by their fears about their own mortality. He also uses helpful ideas from philosophers (Epicurus, Nietzsche) which he expresses very clearly, simply and concisely; he also writes about his own fears about death (he is well over 70.)

Yalom's title comes from the Maxims of de le Rochefoucauld: "You cannot stare straight into the face of the sun, or death."

Yalom is a very humane and wise man, full of compassion and insight. He expects each of us, and himself, to be carrying around a dread of the end of our self-awareness, but he argues - no, he demonstrates most effectively - that understanding the nature of our fears helps reduce them to a manageable level - occasional anxiety from time to time, perhaps, rather than the full-on terrors that some of his clients have been suffering from. He demonstrates that to avoid or try to bury our fears about the end of our lives will distort and spoil them. It is by understanding and accepting them that we can free ourselves, and enrich our lives.

And I know that there are plenty of people out there, certainly in the blogosphere around GFG, who would tend to agree with him. I certainly do.

It took me a suprisingly long time to realise that being a funeral celebrant has helped me in this area, for maybe three reasons:

1. It's not me in the box. That was a startingly crude realisation, and it is not, of course, why I took the whole thing on. To put it less bluntly, the sadness and compassion I feel feel for the end of someone's life and the grief of those they leave behind - however temporary my feelings may be - re-emphasises the extraordinary fact of my own self-aware life, in this present moment.

2. Related to the above, there is a certain de-sensitisation effect. Not to the fact of mortality itself, but to the trappings of funerals and funeralists. When I stood watching the coffin being unloaded at the first funeral I was involved in, I felt a touch of the tension and dread I remember at family funerals at that point. I hope it doesn't sound callous to say that now I deal with funeral directors, watching coffins, etc etc with equanimity, not dread. I'm usually too concerned about getting things right, and about the family. (Of course, I'm not at what you might call the sharp and messy end of all this, as FDs are.)

3. As someone who reckons there isn't an afterlife, writing words about the things that are left behind for us when someone dies, and trying to make such words as real and as honest as possible every time, has really made me think about mortality and belief. I'm less "either/or" about beliefs, more opposed to facile polarisations, more aware of the realities of other people's lives and beliefs.

So the work has given a very great deal back to me. But it is not always comfortable, because it involves at least looking towards the sun for a bit every now and then.

Yalom ends his book thus:

"I do not intend this to be a sombre book. Instead, it is my hope that by grasping, really grasping, our human condition - our finiteness, our brief time in the light - we will come not only to savor the preciousness of each moment and the pleasure of sheer being but to increase our compassion for ourselves and for all other human beings."

If you've read any of my ramblings, you'll see at once that he could easily be writing about mindfulness meditation.

Working on funerals has helped me at least glance sunwards, and has caused me to take up mindfulness meditation, which has helped me to glance sunwards, with benefit to myself and, I hope, to those I work for. It's turned out to be a suprisingly neat and unexpected equation.

Enough. It's tedious to be told to read a book someone else raves about. WTF: read the book.


  1. What an uplifting post GM, as was part one - you've exploded the myth that 'sequels' aren't usually as good as the original!
    I completely identify with your three reasons why being celebrant has helped you. With regards to your last point, I do think that writing words of comfort and hope to remind people of what we are left with when someone dies, also have the same hopeful and comforting effect on us. Especially when, as you say, they are real and honest.
    I love how Yalom ends his book, his use of the word 'grasping' and 'our brief time in the light'. Beautiful. But it was his final line that really struck a chord - about having compassion for ourselves as well as others. That can easily get forgotten when you're focusing on the family, getting the service right, maintaining good relationships with FD's and crematorium staff, etc. The interests of others is at the heart of what we do, but we do need to be kind to ourselves, not so harsh or critical at times. Thanks for the gentle reminder!

  2. GM,
    I too love Irv, and found huge comfort and wisdom in Staring at the Sun. I feel it sits beside Sherwin Newland's "How we die" a frank account of our deaths from a doctors viewpoint that unexpectedly brings you to the same place as Irv does.
    And you must read Love's Executioner by the great man as well.

  3. Encouraging words CB, and nicely balanced bit of good sense about looking after ourselves.That's why I worry about colleagues who fill their week with funerals - can they really keep up the balance between giving each one their best shot, and looking after themselves? Maybe they can. I couldn't!

    Rupert, there you go again, recommending more essential books for my list of things I must read! Many thanks - so far, they've been invaluable.Think I might try one of Irv's novels, see if/how the wisdom transfers to fiction.

  4. Message clearly received and understood. Nipping over to Amazon now to order up a Yalom.

    Rupert's endorsement of Newland heartily endorsed.

    What a fab network we have! Thank you CB for pointing up the importance (and beauty) of compassion.