Thursday, 28 July 2011

A Surprising Family Funeral

Having said I'd offer funeral-related stuff to the Good Funeral Guide, I'd like nevertheless like to tell you here about a recent funeral I helped with. It surprised me. I hope I didn't look quite as baffled, during the ceremony, as this bloke, and I was (of course, of course...) wearing the old whistle and flute.

I met the family - the dead man's wife, son and niece. They were a little opaque from the start, I felt, but one learns (eventually, eventually...) to shut up and listen, and wait, and prompt gently. But there was more to it than natural reticence, or their grief, which was palpable, and of the numbing and deadening sort. I'm no shrink, but one might call it depressive grief, rather than expressed grief.

As we began to discuss the sort of ceremony they wanted, I was told that they didn't want a chronological account of his life (fair enough, that can get over-played on occasion), and wife said "We don't want a tribute to John delivered by someone like you." OK, one learns that bereaved people come out with all sorts of stuff, I wasn't going to take that to heart, but as the conversation wore on I began to feel that their unwillingness to go through a funeral was expressing itself as a kind of distaste for the whole business.

They said that wife and son would speak, and there might be others. I discussed how I might introduce and conclude the ceremony, they said they'd send me copies of what they were going to say because it was reassuring for them to think that I'd have it with me in case they couldn't manage. They chose some music, and home I went. Much of the ceremony had been left pretty open. But they had booked a double time slot at the crem, so I didn't need to fuss them about how long anyone would speak for. I suggested that son and wife come up front together, maybe with other friends or family, since they were clearly nervous about the whole thing.

Nevertheless I was worried about the funeral, because I began to feel there were unresolved issues in the relationships, which maybe were inhibiting the process. It was clearly none of my business. But a bit of one of the passages comfirmed my feeling that particularly powerful regrets were swirling around.

I was told, late on, that there would be one other speaker.

In the event, there were three other speakers, five in all. Wife's address was brave and intimate, son's was excellent. There was a group of five people standing around in front, exchanging quiet words, speaking in turn; wife and son had an arm round each other. They all spoke directly to the coffin some of the time. Wife's words in particular brought on a lot of tears amongst the gathering.

I watched people looking at each other, smiling, nodding, sniffing, sobbing - this, I thought, is going exceptionally well. She has created a space in which people can release their own sadness, they added their tears to hers, the place was full of fellow-feeling, emotional solidarity; son has captured a particular kind of gratitude to his dad, the other speakers' anecdotes were getting laughs. This really is, I felt, grieving over a loss and celebrating a life, all in the space of thirty minutes. And I read, as requested, five of the man's poems. A couple of them in particular were strikingly apposite and, because of the context, moving.

When they had all sat down, I asked, on the spur of the moment, for applause: for the man, for the people who gave such wonderful tributes, for everyone who loved the man, and it rang out most splendidly.

We sang a hymn, I said some words of farewell, built round one of his poems, but we didn't have the shabby old curtain, so that people could go up to the coffin and say goodbye on the way out.

So a funeral that I thought would be really quite tricky turned out to be a family-and-friends triumph. I think largely because the man was obviously, in a quiet way, a hell of a guy, and because the speakers, especially wife and son, were so open. That'll teach me to trust people, and not to rely on first, or even second, impressions. I was suprised, relieved and delighted by what they did.

Mind you, all she said to me afterwards was: "You did alright," and she sounded mildly suprised. I wonder what she expected.

As Fats Waller used to say, "One never knows, do one?"

Sunday, 24 July 2011

Funerals and beliefs: choice of celebrants, polarised views

This is long, and a bit specialised, but I want to cover a few points about celebrancy and then leave the issue alone.

As a chronic non-joiner, there's plenty of things I don't like too much about the BHA celebrants' arrangements, and I am BHA accredited. We sometimes talk as though it's us against the rest of the world. But it's not "BHA or the vicars," there are other choices!

On the other hand, there are many good things about the network. One thing it suffers from, perhaps as a result of the above, is a crude, polarising sort of caricature, and I want to point out two examples.

It grieves me to criticise Green Fuse, an excellent organisation; or rather, to criticise someone they quote in their information. From their leaflet about training celebrants:

"the humanist model, resting on a single celebrant with minimal input from others, will increasingly be felt too controlled and directive," wrote (apparently) John Pearce, in "Pharos," the Cremation Society magazine, as quoted by Green Fuse.

I'm afraid that's a gross misrepresentation of a complex and varied situation. I take ceremonies in which I say everything that gets said, because that's what the family has requested; I take other ceremonies in which I say very little. I think other BHA celebrants would agree. I have taken ones in the middle ground, where I've worked with two or three family members who gave the tribute - hardly "minimal input." I don't think that's just me, I know that other BHA people would say the same.

So let me be plainer: what you write is untrue, Mr Pearce. There isn't one, compulsory humanist model. And there is often plenty of input - from other speakers but also including music: as well the CD player and an organist, a brass band, several pipers, solo singers, and a string quartet. And we have people handing out daffodils round the audience, we have pictures, a bottle of (sadly, unopened!) wine, candles...sometimes. If that's what the people want.

"If secular celebrants are to keep up with the demand for more participative funerals they will have to abandon their "lead speaker" model in favour of one closer to that of producer in a theatre."

Now that I agree with, provided it is what the family want. People with strong views about funerals (other than me, of course...) tend to forget that their vision of what a funeral should be may not coincide with what this family, in front of me today, actually want. My job is to help them realise what they might be able to do, by discussing, listening, suggesting. And finally, doing what they want.

I thin Green Fuse should take that statement out of their leaflet. They are too good to need knocking copy. There isn't a humanist model. There's a traditional "shape" to a secular crematorium ceremony, what Charles at GFG calls "religion sans," and many families fall back on that. They are used to it, they've seen it before, it helps them. Other families abandon it completely, or modify it considerably.

The real choice is between 1) what some BHA people rather snottily sometimes call "mix and match." That's a non- Christian ceremony, but with elements that come from the view that there is a life after death - a hymn, or a prayer, or some other religious ritual element. And 2) ceremonies which do not feature any religious ritual. That may be the real choice. (Apart from a completely religious funeral witrh a priest/minister/rabbi etc, of course.)

But look at this, from the Institute of Civil Funerals:

"Humanist Funeral: A funeral taken by an officiant of the British Humanist Association. Such funerals are entirely secular and will not include hymns or prayers, nor any spiritual reference, and there will be no reference to an ‘after-life’."

Are all humanist celebrants members of the BHA celebrants' network? Of course not. First bit of nonsense.

Clever of them to use the term "officiant," which suggests to me someone officious, dry, bureaucratic etc. Few people use the term these days - as IoCF will know! Me, groovy celebrant; you, fusty old officiant!

BHA celebrants argue and think over the matter of hymns quite a lot, because people like singing, and hymns are often powerfully nostalgic, even for non-believers. Some BHA-ers are very uneasy about this area, and would do all they could to avoid a hymn, maybe by suggesting the family talks to the vicar after all, or at least making it plain in the ceremony that this hymn has nothing to do with them... Let's call them the "contagionists," those who think a hymn is the thin end of a sanctified wedge aimed at the purity of their atheism!

Many of us are less anxious, and have the occasional hymn, right at the end of the ceremony, usually. On a few occasions, in a funeral I've helped with, a family member has said a prayer, also towards the end. It's usually because of a sharp difference in the beliefs of different family members. I always ask such families if they are sure they don't want a Christian ceremony, with a vicar or minister. If they are sure they don't, I'll do what I can to give them what they want, provided it doesn't put me in a position in which I feel inauthentic.

"nor any spiritual reference..." the IoCF goes on. Nonsense. Many of us will have quoted words by religious leaders, philosophers or writers that have a spiritual reference. The Dalai Lama on compassion, the Book of Ecclesiastes, etc.

"And there will be no mention of an after-life." More nonsense. No mention by me, perhaps, but many a time a family speaker will refer to the dead person being in "another place," or wondering "where Bill is now," and all those other wondering and puzzled statements bereaved people quite naturally come out with. Of course, I leap up with a referee's whistle and try to silence them...."Stop all this nonsense, there's to be no mention of an after-life in humanist ceremonies," I say, "or you will disrupt the IoCF's comfortable categories."

Judging from content, I'd say the purely atheist ceremonies I've taken would come out as a clear minority. Many people are (Charles again) "probabilists," or "possibilists." BHA celebrants may not always share this supernatural uncertainty, but we work with and support families who think thus.

There is one salient difference between BHA people and other secular, civil, non-Church celebrants: they do make what they believe (e.g. "only one life") a defining factor in whether they take a funeral on or not. But that doesn't seem to me a matter for criticism by other celebrants, or for feelings of superiority by BHA people. One is entitled to follow one's beliefs. I wouldn't expect a vicar not to mention God, I wouldn't expect a member of the BHA to read you the Creed.

However, personally, I don't think BHA celebrants should explain, however briefly, what "humanism" is. I agree with those who say that it is a kind of preaching, or publicising of a view - unless of course the dead person was a self-declared humanist, or perhaps even a member of the BHA. But we're not there to preach anything or convert anyone. Yet many in the BHA celebrants network expect us to do so. Many others of us (straw poll at a conference group a couple of years ago) do not, and will not. See? We vary.

I think maybe we cause resentment and attract criticism perhaps because 1) there's a lot of us; 2) BHA were the first organised set-up in secular celebrancy, as far as I know; 3) no doubt some of us are not very good - some vicars are not very good; perhaps some IoCFs are...etc

It takes, as granny used to say, all sorts to make a world. All that really matters is: that the funeral is what the family wants, and that it's a good funeral. We need a variety of GOOD celebrants on offer - that's all that matters. Trying to increase your "market share" (yuk!) by crudifying what your "competitors" (more yuk!) do, is unnecessary. It creates the wrong sort of context. BHA shouldn't do it, IoCF shouldn't do it, Green Fuse shouldn't do it. Amen.

Because the real point is that all three organisations train celebrants properly! Vive la difference, not yah boo down with you!

Wednesday, 20 July 2011

Steering This Mighty Blog and Guesting on The Good Funeral Guide

Just to let the both of you know that as a result of the generosity of Charles Cowling, future ramblings from me may occasionally surface over on under my, er , byline. (Slightly wary of using journalistic jargon, what with recent news and all.) Others of Charles' regular commentators are also chipping in, and there has already been some really excellent stuff. Not that it wasn't a very valuable blog full of excellence already, but Charles wanted to draw us in and vary it thus.

Posts from me over there at the GFG are likely to be more specifically about the nuts and bolts of funerals, ceremonies, funeral directors, crematoria, etc, whereas I shall continue to entertain you right here with light-hearted stuff about dying, meditating monkeys, mindfulness, dealing with the fact of our mortality, relevant music, OM, Cropredy, outstanding radio or TV shows, and anything else related to these things. So stick around, visit GFG, and be sure to come back. You and your comments are always very welcome indeed.

If something does appear on the GFG I shall shamelessly urge you to read it. No doubt the rush of people from over here to over there will cause the good ship "Internet" to list heavily to port. Or starboard. You have been warned.

Mindfulness meditation, "The Power of OM," Richard Coles

The Rev Richard Coles, increasingly one of my favourite broadcasters, excelled himself with "The Power of Om," last Sunday at 13:30 on BBC Radio 4. (You can find it on iPlayer if you wish.) I won't attempt to summarise the whole programme, but I will say that it is not about "hippy cult nonsense." Not sure why I keep apologising, and saying "look, this meditation stuff isn't just for hippies and toke-heads." maybe I know too many reductive control freaks, benevolent fascists etc (other than myself, of course.) So: these are the things that made me look google-eyed and slack-jawed, just like Bertie Wooster when Jeeves tells him that he has safely disposed of the violet waistcoat and the yellow spats...


1. Chanting, especially in the company of other chanters, effectively helps the brain to move into a meditative state (you know, calm, in the present moment, awake but relaxed etc.) Eastern religious contexts make something holy of a syllable, such as OM, that hits the spot, and the name of God also is, naturally enough, given that sacred definition. Hare Krishna etc. The "Mother Note" in Gregorian plainchant may have that same quality, and pitchwise, there may be a sort of "middle C" which is common ground for inducing meditative states of mind. (Big echoey cathedrals also help.) A kind of holy pitchpipe, as it were (sorry, that's me not Rev RC) But outside of those beliefs, it's as much the wavelength as the actual word that does the job.
Thus far, well known. Read on, O seeker...

2. When trained and skilled meditators sit together and make these sounds, something called "entrainment" happens in their brains, similar to the phenomenon that helps birds in flocks, or fish on shoals, move together. Because:

3. The heart's electrical signals (our hearts, not just those of starlings or sardines) can be picked up beyond the boundary of our skins, so sitting or standing close together will enhance this common purpose and create powerful feelings of unity. (No doubt a lot of other signals are also given off to help.)

4. Thus do we sync with each other, in football crowds (one reason why the so-called Beautiful Game is so addicitive?), and.... at Nuremburg Rallies. What? yes, of course, this sense of togetherness and unity can be manipulated for good or evil. But it also helps choirs to sing, orchestras to orch, etc. Anyone who sings in a choir will tell you how inexplicably good it makes you feel.

5. And a kind of entrainment is also part of why four women living in the same house will tend to synchronise their monthly cycles after a while. Yes, they really do, I can vouch for that!

(Look, all this is science, it owes nothing to cannabis sativa, OK?)

6. If you take about six breaths per minute, whilst you're sitting quietly, it will help your mind to slip into an energised but calm mental state well suited to meditation. (And of course most schools of meditation place great emphasis on using, observing, following, the breath.)

7. When Mathieu Ricard, ex-celebrated scientist and now Buddhist monk who helps interpret Tibetan Buddhism to the scientific community, was wired up to observe his brain states whilst he meditated, he was found to be in a particularly energised yet calm mental state. Skilled meditators can use these states to explore, to research, as it were, their own mental states. (see "Ten Zen Questions," by Susan Blackmore)

And there's an ex-Pogue who has set up computers using the sound of Tibetan singing bowls (more holy, or "holy" wavelengths) to create Longplayer, a sound system that will continue to generate, without repetition, his composition (not a recording - it's being composed as it goes along) for the next 1000 years. (Minus the ten or so it's been going already.)

I mean, like, wow, you know, maybe there is a music of the spheres?
All I can say is: OM.

So now will you give mindfulness meditation a go?

ps it also sounds lovely, all that plainchant and OM stuff!