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?

Tuesday, 25 January 2011

Should you be awarded a Gloria...

you'd be one of a small elite who have caused scales to fall from eyes, enlightenment on matters funereal and mortality-related to spread. See a few posts back (Friday 7 January) for details, or if you can't be arsed, see below.

The Committee meets irregularly and is entirely capricious, but - a small donation will be made to a charity, because I am linking my giving this year to the awards. (Huge sigh of relief from all hard-pressed charities, applause from Mr Cameron who can see that in one bound his "Big Society" er...concept? Slogan? Day-dream? is freed by this munifence from all carpers and critics, because volunteers and charities will able to forge ahead and forge...) Sorry. Got carried away.

You may select one from:

National Trust
Macmillan Cancer Care
The local hospice
Marine Conservation Society
St Martins in the Fields (homelessness)
The Woodland Trust

All you have to do - IF you are fortunate enough to receive an award - is make your speech of thanks, and notify me of your choice. A small but useful donation will be made, I promise.

What's that? No, of course I won't tell you how much. Don't be so vulgar.

Comfort Blanket, arise - and choose a charity please, for your excellent .

Charles went for the Woodland Trust. He should be receiving an acorn any day now.

Don't forget that you can nominate someone else's post or comment anywhere on the blogosphere.

A reminder of the criteria:

  1. contributes significantly and originally to our understanding of mortality, either with "what oft was thought, but ne'er so well expressed," or with a fresh insight
  2. helps us deal with our own mortality and our fears about death
  3. comes up with significant new information about the Dismal Trade which enlightens us all
  4. helps us deliver better funerals with insights, references, writings, recommendations (music or words, ways of proceeding)
  5. makes us larf with a merry quip, gag or jape related to the Grim Reaper and his camp-followers (us lot)
  6. helps us deal well with bereaved people

Monday, 17 January 2011

Mortality and the Arundel Tomb

An Arundel Tomb

Side by side, their faces blurred,
The earl and countess lie in stone,
Their proper habits vaguely shown
As jointed armour, stiffened pleat,
And that faint hint of the absurd -
The little dogs under their feet.

Such plainness of the pre-baroque
Hardly involves the eye, until
It meets his left-hand gauntlet, still
Clasped empty in the other; and
One sees, with a sharp tender shock,
His hand withdrawn, holding her hand.

They would not think to lie so long.
Such faithfulness in effigy
Was just a detail friends would see:
A sculptor's sweet commissioned grace
Thrown off in helping to prolong

The Latin names around the base.

They would not guess how early in
Their supine stationary voyage
The air would change to soundless damage,
Turn the old tenantry away;
How soon succeeding eyes begin
To look, not read. Rigidly, they

Persisted, linked, through lengths and breadths
Of time. Snow fell, undated. Light
Each summer thronged the glass. A bright
Litter of birdcalls strewed the same
Bone-riddled ground. And up the paths
The endless altered people came,

Washing at their identity.
Now, helpless in the hollow of
An unarmorial age, a trough
Of smoke in slow suspended skeins
Above their scrap of history,
Only an attitude remains:

Time has transfigured them into
Untruth. The stone fidelity
They hardly meant has come to be
Their final blazon, and to prove
Our almost-instinct almost true:
What will survive of us is love.

Ever since I read this poem, it has seemed to me a very rare combination of clarity and profundity, a deeply moving mediation on mortality, time and love that is unequalled in anything I've read from our times. Its poise is exquisite, and the last two lines full of honesty and grace.

I had a fortunate experience recently. Like many, I'd assumed this tomb was in Arundel. Wandering round Chichester cathedral, I came upon the tomb on the Earl's side, away from the notice and the poem, which is posted on the Countess' side. I looked carelessly at the Earl, and realised that he was holding an empty glove.I was puzzled and startled, the "shock of recognition," slightly disorientating. "But hang on, that's surely...."

What a delight.

Something Larkin doesn't mention is that the position of the Countess' feet turn her slightly towards the Earl, another touching and unexpected tenderness. I think usually such figures are simply level and supine.

At a casual glance, it is all as the poet says - nothing particularly noteworthy or exceptional to a modern eye. Takes a great poet to universalise it for us.

I think it's only "almost true" that "what will survive of us is love," because of course the loved person doesn't survive. Ultimately, nothing survives, not the Colossus of Rhodes, not Berkhampstead, not the planet itself. But it seems to me absolutely true,in the way of the poem, that love survives - accidentally (you can't programme love, or predict it, or calibrate it), yet as a result of deliberate action and gesture, confirmed through the unfolding of time, and as a minimum.

Tuesday, 11 January 2011

CB's dream: funerals and mortality

Cafe mortel? (see Entirely brilliant idea. Branch near here, please Charles. I used to mention what I did with some hesitation, expecting a bit of a slump in the general conversation. In fact, much of the time, people want to know more about funerals and the work in general, and that will often lead into discussions about death. I think more and more people are finding a big sense of release when somehow there is a way for them to talk about their own mortality and how they feel about it.

I guess any celebrant will own up to a sense of heightened reality, "in tune with the truth," after a family meeting (if it's gone well) and especially, after a successful (define that for yourselves?) funeral. That's our great privilege and reward.

Chap who serviced the car today asked me about my work, and within five minutes I found out that he had an interesting view on the difference between spirituality and religion, with regard to how people view death. I hardly know him, but maybe I slip on a mask, in effect, which says "he can talk about death because he does funerals." Or rather, "he can listen to me ease my mind a bit."

Which brings me to my real point here. Over on Comfort Blanket,
there's an entirely admirable post about disseminating and accelerating the change in our culture's attitudes to funerals. This is a big subject that has been knocked around the Good Funeral Guide and its commentators a fair bit. I'll risk a few bossy points, and really I'm talking to myself (no change there, they cried) not laying down the law to one as widely trained and experienced as CB:
  1. remember to talk to people about what you do, not just the bereaved and the FDs, and tell them a few salient points, such as: there's no need to rush into a funeral; you have complete freedom of choice, from no funeral at all, through horses and plumes and carriages, to a blinding three-day party; talk to more than one FD; consider the family leading it, or at least select a celebrant/minister who will help the family do what they want - etc etc, you know the stuff. Tell 'em about the GFG and other good books.
  2. link up, on the net as we do around the GFG, and in person; strengthen and develop your own ideas.
  3. talk creatively to FDs; I need to tell more of "mine" that actually I'm OK with the odd hymn, "hippy" (I quote) rituals, bespoke events, we don't have to do the usual "religion sans," as Charles calls it.
  4. tell everyone whenever the opportunity arises (obviously, not at your nephew's christening...well, not round the font, at least) that funeral ceremonies don't have to be at a crem or a cemetery; wherever the body is to be left can but doesn't have to be the same place as the gathering where people speak of their grief, their love and their joy in having shared a life.
  5. encourage people to open up to you about their fears and feelings (if you've the time and energy - ours can be draining work, and we need to take care of ourselves, we're not much use to the local bereaved if we're exhausted, flu-ridden wrecks.)
  6. maybe form a local network of FDs, celebrants, whoever: people who are looking to create more meaningful ceremonies and rituals.
So all this is about moving forward in and around your working life. That is, I guess, ultimately an evolutionary position. I don't know of any other, really, because what happens at a funeral seems to me to be the tip of an iceberg: which is, our attitude towards human mortality. That is, I think, changing, but I don't see how we can change it deliberately and quickly, we just have to be part of the change, enabling it where we can. The bees in my bonce are beginning to buzz, so I'll totter off now, with this thought - so much of what we see as wrong with our society seems to me to stem from our refusal to live with any genuine understanding of our own mortality. That includes funerals, of course.

Monday, 10 January 2011

Joking in the Teeth of Death

Two of the bravest jokes I remember hearing by way of a f**k you to the Grim Reaper:

1) (from a recent doc.) Bob Monkhouse on Parky a few months before his death, talking about the time his doctor had to tell him he was terminally ill. "How long have I got, Doc?" "Ten." "Yes, but ten what? Weeks, months, what?"
Doc looks at his watch and says "nine, eight, seven..."

2) In 1942, three German battleships made the audacious "Channel dash" to get back to Germany. One of them was called "Gneisenau." (silent G.) The Fleet Air Arm's Fairey Swordfish was a slow and obsolete torpedo attack biplane. Six took off to attack the "Gneisenau" and the other ships. All six were shot out of the sky, and only five aircrew out of 18 survived. There was a posthumous VC. You have to try to imagine the blazing hell of machine-gun and anti-aircraft fire coming up at them as the old stringbags lumbered in.
One of the pilots was heard to say over his radio "It doesn't look so nice now."

Sunday, 9 January 2011

Who Is My Funeral For?

In my last post, Ms Refusenik comments:

"Is it just petty of me to want to design my green funeral as if I were coming to it? I mean I don't care if other people don't want want to sit through Neil Young's long and passionate "Will to Love." It was a theme song of mine for years."

She storms on with some great, high-energy stuff. I'm going to stay, in my prosaic way, with her opening question, and in that irritatingly liberal way, I'll start my answer with a question: "Who is my funeral for?" because to answer that question is to answer hers too, it seems to me. And there isn't one answer for all.

I guess in belief systems around the world, the answer used to be, and sometimes still is, "my funeral is for me." That's because death rites had to be performed right, or the soul would not get off on its journey, or would not have what it needed for that journey - be that an entire terracotta army, or just a few cooking pots, or pennies on the eyes to pay Charon, the boatman who rowed you over the River Styx to Hades. Less dramatically, they simply had to be performed right to fit the religion of the dead person, so Christians needed to be buried in a churchyard, and if (soldiers) they couldn't, then you sanctified the ground around them with a rudimentary cross, and the appropriate scriptural words.

But with all due respect to the mighty Neil Young, (or Mozart, or Miles, or The Clash, whoever you want ringing out over your shroud/coffin) I don't think not playing the right music will imperil anyone's soul-journey to the after-life. Though many who believe in an after-life would feel that the right prayers need to be said to help the soul depart.

Such considerations don't apply in my own case, because it seems highly unlikely to me that I've got a soul bound for another place, in any literal or real sense. That being the case, I shan't be looking on, or offended if the "right" things don't happen. My own feeling is that the funeral will not be for me. There will be no me. Some of the funeral may be about me as I was, but my funeral will be for those who were close to me.

It's so that an extraordinary psychic change can happen in those present - the pain of releasing a body into the ground or the fire allows the true meaning of a life to come through for those present, not necessarily on the spot, but certainly afterwards. Our lives are em-bodied. We have to free their meaning from the awful constrictions and claustrophobia of grief by saying farewell to that body - properly.

It hurts, whether you're listening to Neil Young or The Sex Pistols, it hurts no matter how much you celebrate the life that was lived. It hurts more if something awful has happened, if the person was young, etc. But even for an 87-year old who keels over quickly and doesn't suffer, if she mattered to you, you feel the sharpness of grief. Then you can take forward what the life means to you. Least, that how it seems to me.

If I had The Sex Pistols played at my funeral, just for the sake of a gesture, The Long-Suffering One would be upset. They aren't from the era of our youth, they have no resonance for us, they were culturally interesting maybe but neither of us listen to them with any pleasure. Or to choose something more likely, if I thought it would be amusing, and arranged for "Always Look On The Bright Side of Life" from "The Life of Brian," I don't think my family would be amused. Or comforted, or helped. Some might, not mine - even though I hugely enjoy the movie. (Of course it's not blasphemous, does anyone still think so?)

If Ms Refusenik has her Neil Young, what will it do for those there? Well, if it was a theme of hers for years, surely at least some of those attending would recognise that, smile, sob, mutter "that's so her, and at full volume too. Rock out, kid" or whatever. And seems to me it's the same with all elements of a funeral. Look for the resonance, the association, the words that enable the grief to flower and the funereal cramps eventually to subside.

It would be odd, at best, to have my funeral according to some plan of mine, that meant nothing to those who were there, even if it would have meant something to the me who isn't any more.

No, it's not petty to plan it as though you were there, Ms R. - maybe that will ensure it means something to those who will be there? And may it be a long, enlightened and happy time off.

Friday, 7 January 2011

You might win a Gloria

I hereby institute the award to be known as a "Gloria."

(I find no point in being bashful about naming the awards, ladies and gents.)

Glorias will be awarded to anyone and everyone who at any time on this or any other blog I frequent:

  1. contributes significantly and originally to our understanding of mortality, either with "what oft was thought, but ne'er so well expressed," or with a fresh insight
  2. helps us deal with our own mortality and our fears about death
  3. comes up with significant new information about the Dismal Trade which enlightens us all
  4. helps us deliver better funerals with insights, references, writings, recommendations (music or words, ways of proceeding)
  5. makes us larf with a merry quip, gag or jape related to the Grim Reaper and his camp-followers (us lot)
  6. helps us deal well with bereaved people
I will highlight the contribution that earned the Gloria on this blog, and sometimes by comment on the blogs of others. Charles has won the first Gloria, for

I can hear mutterings already about a singularly deserving candidate, but rest assured that the committee is currently considering the award of a Lifetime Gloria.

Incidentally, Glorias can be won more than once by the same person.

Anyone may nominate anyone else, by comment here or by email to me. Anyone is welcome to draw my attention to blogs and web-pages where potential Gloria-winners are at work.

Correspondence will not be entered into, legal proceedings ditto.

The judge's decision (note position of apostrophe please) is final, but bloggers and commenters may well be asked for a view.

The prize? No glittery bauble, no vulgar fat cheque - the honour of being glorified by Gloria and celebrated by her myriad reader. (-s, on a good day.)

We often read a lot of guff about "internet communities." Let's see if we are one, or if we fall apart in jealousy and discord at the prospect of winning/losing this magnificent honour.

A Chilling View of Ageing and Mortality?

Bit of a challenge for you

What do we have here?

a) a fear of ageing and death powerfully but unpleasantly expressed? (i.e. it's the "screaming" he writes of, before he himself reaches that stage - which he never did, he died at 63.)
b) a brave look at truths most of us would avoid?
c) an acceptance of our common human mortality ("well, we shall find out") which he forces on us by the power of his craft?
e) a celebration of life, the "million-petalled flower of being here, " an image that itself suddenly and unexpectedly blossoms in the middle of an otherwise bleak poem - the contrast being the point?
f) a retreat from the sort of maturity and acceptance that would have enabled him to deal with his own mortality, i.e. in a way perhaps it's an emotionally immature viewpoint (not necessarily "his," of course.)
g) nihilistic snivelling?
h) all or none of the above?

Probably not a good choice for a funeral.....

Any reactions to the poem, and musings on ageing and mortality, very welcome, as always.

The Old Fools, by Philip Larkin
 What do they think has happened, the old fools,
To make them like this? Do they somehow suppose
It's more grown-up when your mouth hangs open and drools,
And you keep on pissing yourself, and can't remember
Who called this morning? Or that, if they only chose,
They could alter things back to when they danced all night,
Or went to their wedding, or sloped arms some September?
Or do they fancy there's really been no change,
And they've always behaved as if they were crippled or tight,
Or sat through days of thin continuous dreaming
Watching the light move? If they don't (and they can't), it's strange;
Why aren't they screaming?

At death you break up: the bits that were you
Start speeding away from each other for ever
With no one to see. It's only oblivion, true:
We had it before, but then it was going to end,
And was all the time merging with a unique endeavour
To bring to bloom the million-petalled flower
Of being here. Next time you can't pretend
There'll be anything else. And these are the first signs:
Not knowing how, not hearing who, the power
Of choosing gone. Their looks show that they're for it:
Ash hair, toad hands, prune face dried into lines -
How can they ignore it?

Perhaps being old is having lighted rooms
Inside your head, and people in them, acting
People you know, yet can't quite name; each looms
Like a deep loss restored, from known doors turning,
Setting down a lamp, smiling from a stair, extracting
A known book from the shelves; or sometimes only
The rooms themselves, chairs and a fire burning,
The blown bush at the window, or the sun's
Faint friendliness on the wall some lonely
Rain-ceased midsummer evening. That is where they live:
Not here and now, but where all happened once.
This is why they give

An air of baffled absence, trying to be there
Yet being here. For the rooms grow farther, leaving
Incompetent cold, the constant wear and tear
Of taken breath, and them crouching below
Extinction's alp, the old fools, never perceiving
How near it is. This must be what keeps them quiet:
The peak that stays in view wherever we go
For them is rising ground. Can they never tell
What is dragging them back, and how it will end? Not at night?
Not when the strangers come? Never, throughout
The whole hideous inverted childhood? Well,
We shall find out.

Wednesday, 5 January 2011

Comfort Blanket

A delightful idea interestingly pursued by a thoughtful and interesting celebrant/counsellor. Hie thee thither, would be my suggestion.
And thanks to bloghawk Charles for putting me on to it - you see, that is what Cowlings are for! (in case anyone was wondering...)

impactED nurse on mindfulness

A very useful summary from Ian Miller. Whatever your work/life context, I can't see that IM's medical context invalidates anything of what he and his sources say about mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR). Indeed, it helps validate it. If it works in the furiously busy emergency department of a large Australian hospital....

Happy New Year - might this be the year you try MBSR? If you need it - not everyone does, of course, though I would think it could enhance anyone's life, if only because of the way it helps you consider your own mortality, as well as helping you progress round the M25 without wanting to kill too many of the other drivers.