Thursday, 22 September 2011

The possibility of a quiet death on the Northern Line

Like any of us I sometimes find the Tube an endurance, and yet other times I can feel something reassuring about the normalness of the Tube, unless it's steaming hot and the rush hour. It was neither, though it was warm ten days ago as I was wandering up the platform in the usual mindless daze.

I came up to one of those bench seats with spaces for four people, divided by arm-rests; there was an elderly woman bending over an equally elderly chap. He had his head right back and his eyes closed. She was talking to him quietly, calling him "Bill." He was not answering. At all.

I sat down just along from them and decided to watch closely and wait to see if anything needed to be done to help. I thought he didn't look too good. A little clammy and grey around the mouth. Just as I said "Is he alright?" or something equally inane, a man came up in the uniform of one of the mainline train companies, rather more noisily efficient than me. He asked "does he need an ambulance?" "No, no, he's just feeling a little faint," she said. H'm, I was thinking, he looks more than a bit faint to me, so...

Then up came a young woman, introduced herself as someone who'd done some first-aid, and joined in the enquiries, by which time Railman had called up a Tube employee. Whilst this was going on, the elderly woman had given Bill a couple of squirts of some medicine under his tongue. No immediate effect, and she carried on trying to talk to him, telling him he'd be OK if they could get him up into some fresh air. Still no response.

Railman and Ms FirstAid agreed that they should help him get on his feet and up to the great outdoors. But Mrs Bill had already told us that he had a heart condition and a stent....

Somewhere in the morass of unconnected stuff I refer to as a memory, something went ting-a-ling. I told them I knew almost nothing about first aid, but that I didn't think they should get him on his feet, if he was having heart trouble. They conceded. Just as well, because at that point Bill began to slip gently sideways ....

We helped him down so he could lie on the platform. I was holding his head - frizzy old grey hair under my hands, an unfamiliar head, a strange and delicate little burden - and I slid my rolled-up cagoule underneath it and settled him back.

He looked marginally less ill. Railman asked Tubeman if he'd actually phoned for an ambulance - I've noticed once or twice before how people sometimes dither about that - and Tubeman double-checked that one was on its way.

Next on the scene was an off-duty policewoman, properly-trained in first aid, so we made him a little more comfortable and she took over the lead role in this little drama. He was beginning to talk a little, very quietly. When the officer asked him what his name was, he answered "William." I liked that. "Bill" was reserved for friends and wives, not strangers bending over him on the Northern Line. The old chap was still with us.

The paramedic, when he came, was excellent - huge bloke, calm, confident, all you'd hope. He checked pulse and blood pressure, asked about the medication she'd squirted under his tongue. Poor old thing, she'd given him too much of it, and it had lowered his blood pressure too quickly, hence the sideways topple. So she fretted about that. But, said the paramedic, he'd be OK, he just needed to lie where he was till his BP rose. They'd take him in just to check him over, but his heart was OK.

Our little group began to drift off. I waited until the paramedic had put a better cushion under the gentleman's head so I could retrieve my cagoule, said cheerio to the excessively grateful lady and hopped on the the next Tube. (My aim in such situations is to do what one can, and then clear off quietly rather than add to the general fuss; but I must admit to a little private vanity over having got it right about not trying to get him to his feet.)

When I squatted by William, holding his head, I was wondering why I wasn't alarmed - it was potentially a scary situation, and I'm not generally Ms Coolcumber. He might have been dying, for all any of us knew. What actually came over me was a huge sense of calm and order. I'd heard the lady tell us that he was 83, so part of the feeling was about an elderly gentleman who'd lived a good long life already. I suppose I'd have felt differently were I holding a child's head. But part of it was acceptance. Either William will come through, or he will die here on the Northern Line platform. Not your first choice of a death-bed, perhaps, but - can't explain this - it seemed OK. We were all trying to care for him. The closest person to him in his life was with him. It was OK. Life or death, A or B. Can't do more, come what may.

Of course, it wasn't me or mine who were in danger of departing this life on a Tube platform, and there was no blood, drama or big trauma to challenge us, but it was unexpected for me to feel somehow calmed by this close proximity to at least the possibility of death.

I hope and asume William shook off his fainting fit and is perhaps sitting in his armchair reading a good book, with a little glass of malt by his elbow. He hadn't, I think, actually been close to death, he had just looked as though he was. If I could, I'd thank him for the privilege of being with him and learning some more things about mortality, the fragility of life, acceptance, my own characteristic responses - and what to do if someone keels over on the Northern Line.
Provided you have that most uncool and unLondon of garments with you - a cagoul.

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,
defenceless 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.

Billy Collins

Maybe that was it. Maybe Euston looked a little more marvel-filled, post-William....

Wednesday, 21 September 2011

Sorry for everything - Karine Polwart, Tony Blair and dying.

A somewhat chilling song, perhaps, because we're so used to "sorry" mending things. No need to print the words, she sings so beautifully clearly. And maybe she has a point. People sometimes seem to expect that "sorry" covers it; in semi-theological terms, they expect forgiveness before repentance, or instead of it.

We were all enraged when the feral over-class were so poor at saying sorry for making us poorer. The present government blames the whole mess on the previous government, but I don't remember Tories leaping to rein in the boom and restrict mad mortgages and easy credit. And Mr Blair still seems to find it impossible to admit that the invasion of Iraq did not make this country safer, and he was, er, mistaken (so polite this a.m. Gloria?), and so he's - sorry. Haven't heard him do "sorry."

However, when someone is dying, or even after they've died - that's a time to say sorry and offer forgiveness for any hurt, shortcomings and omissions. Maybe we should try to develop ways of ritualising this process, so as not to leave it to chance? It's an enormously healing thing to do. And a question for you - does a sorry/forgiveness ritualisation happen in other cultures, or any belief systems?

Oh, and sorry if you don't care for Karine Polwart. Well, not too sorry - you might want to try harder, she's the business! (IMAO)

Sunday, 18 September 2011

To Be (HA) or not? A celebrant changes his spots

A funeral celebrant I know well recently sent me this, and has agreed to let me put it up here, as a matter of general interest to those occupied in what Monseignor Cowling, high priest of The Good Funeral (Guide,) describes as The Dismal Trade.

Dear xxxxxx,

I hope this letter doesn’t add to the pressures of your work as the co-ordinator for the area humanist celebrants’ network, and before I go any further I want to thank you for your help and support, and the humanity, honesty and good humour with which you have led our efforts. I have learned a great deal from you.

I think it best if I leave the BHA celebrants’ network. This is not because I have fallen off my horse on the way to market blinded by divine revelation, nor is it because of any dissatisfaction with the team, nor is it because I object to the levy etc. or even the team meetings! It is rather that the experience of working with many different kinds of family over recent years has made me unhappy with the BHA profiling of the celebrant’s belief. I’ve come to think that the beliefs of the celebrant should be of no great importance in deciding the best kind of funeral for a family.

We have what seems to me a historically unique opportunity to develop and deliver new kinds of funeral ceremonies for people of any or no faith, who don’t want a “church/mosque/temple” funeral but who still may have elements of religious belief, spiritual need, superstitions if you like. Many or most of the families I’ve worked with are not humanists, atheists or agnostics in any collected sort of way. Shades of belief, requests for hymns and the occasional prayer seem to me all part of the job. I feel we should be expert ritualists, not belief-advancers. And of course I’m more than happy to take a ceremony which is entirely atheistical.

I don’t really regard humanism as a belief position c.f. religious dogma, and to be honest I don’t like the implicit idea the BHA seems to have of using funeral ceremonies to advance both a humanist position and the Association itself. As you know, I don’t use the feedback form, partly because I don’t agree with the way it culminates in an invitation to get in touch with the BHA if people want to know more about it.

I’ve never agreed with making belief statements about humanism in ceremonies. I also have trouble with the relentless urging to improve “market share.” Sorry if this sounds whatever is the humanist equivalent of pious but all I want is for families to have whatever funeral suits them and the person who has died, whether the celebrant is a BHA person or not. I really don’t care about BHA market share. (Though as we all agree, a good funeral is an excellent way of opening people’s eyes to the alternative we offer. That should suffice.)

I will always be happy to pass funeral directors on to good BHA celebrants when I need to, or if a family asks for a specifically BHA funeral for a member. I’d be very happy to keep in touch if you or other members wish to do so.

I’m grateful to the BHA for setting me off on this road, and for training me. Although I’m afraid I still think the training could and should have been considerably better – perhaps it is now, I hope so. Please accept that as a reasonably objective view from someone who, like you I expect, used to do quite a bit of training in a former life.

So this isn’t a “splittist” effort, I neither want nor expect anyone else to agree with me or to join me in an alternative network, it’s just me being awkward. Or maybe fed up with feeling a hypocrite if someone asks me for a hymn or a prayer, and either saying no, or saying yes and then worrying about saying I’m from the BHA. I particularly dislike the practice of telling the family meeting that if they really want a hymn, then the celebrant won’t take part and will say why; one forum correspondent wrote recently “That usually changes their minds,” meaning that the family then drops the hymn. It’d certainly change my mind; I’d use someone else who showed more compassion. The practice of going ahead but declaring in the ceremony that there will now be a hymn, “but as a humanist I will not be taking part” now seems to me amusingly po-faced. There is a very large middle ground between “the vicar/minister” and “the BHA” and that’s probably where I belong.

I shall explain to the funeral directors I work with that I’m no longer in the network. But I shall remain a member of the BHA – I believe in a secular society, and I support the BHA’s actions in advancing the idea, in a context other than funerals. Sorry this is so long. To paraphrase Mark Twain’s shrewd observation, I didn’t have time to write a shorter letter; more importantly, I felt I owed you a half-decent explanation, which I hope you feel this is.

Should you be heading this way, do let me know, and a pint of the best will be on the bar for you. With gratitude from me and very best wishes for the future to you and the rest of the team,



Wednesday, 7 September 2011

The Good Funeral Guide and me

Something wot I wrote is on the Good Funeral Guide - your cursor will reveal the link on the title above - and I feel dead chuffed that it is. The GFG is a truly remarkable, invaluable ongoing achievement and I'm proud to have been a tiny part of it.

I suppose I'm showing off, really, since more people read the GFG than this 'ere blog, to a factor of about 20....