Saturday, 25 February 2012

Funeral instructions from a dying crapshooter

The dying crapshooter was an actual person. The song re-works elements of "St James Infirmary Blues," which in turn is related to "The Young Man Cut Down in his Prime," to be found in the British Isles a couple of centuries ago, and the Western ballad "The Streets of Laredo" is a cousin, too.

Enough of the folk archivist. Here's one of the classic blues singers rewriting an old and well-known blues to fit the dying wishes of a man who must have known "St James' Infirmary." That transmission, from oral song tradition which crossed the Atlantic, to an old blues, to an historical character's dying wishes, back into a classic blues song by a great bluesman (who inspired one of Bob Dylan's best middle-period songs) - really rather wonderful, don't you think?

Powerful medium, the wishes of the dying about their funeral, so proceed with caution, dear reader. We won't all have a compassionate and generous Blind Willie McTell to look after things for us, or to sing over our graves.

"I started writin' the song in '29, though I didn't finish it, I didn't finish it till 1932. Mister Williams—his name was Jesse Williams—see, he got shot here on Coral Street. And after gettin' shot, I'd taken him home. 'Cause he was sick about three weeks after I'd taken him home, sick from the shot. And so he give me this request. And then he wanted me to play this over his grave. That I did.

"See, I had to steal music from every which-a-way to get it, to get it, to get it to fit. But I messed it up anyways somehow or other just to suit him. I finally played what he wanted, but he got everything he wanted but the women from Atlanta—he didn't get the women from Atlanta. 'Cause, see, it was too far for 'em to come. He's buried in New York. I'd taken him there in ambulance. Cost me two hundred—I think it was two hundred and eighty-two dollars—I think, and eighty-five cent I think the man charged me for carrying him home. But he was ill.

"His father give him anything he wanted. Give him everything he wanted but the women in Atlanta. He didn't have the sixteen women, the twenty-two womens out the Hampton Hotel—he didn't have that. He didn't have the twenty-nine outta North Atlanta. And he didn't have the twenty-six offa South Bell, that which mighta we called Hell Street. That's where he hung out at, you know, doin' his, doin' his women-lovin' time, you know.

"Jesse gettin' shot; I carried him home. I'd sit by his bedside every day, and he would tell me what he wanted. I would tell his daddy. So after he died, daddy said, well, everything he want I'm gonna get it. So he got everything about it but the women from Atlanta. So I had to play the Dyin' Crapshooter's Blues. That's what I was s'posed to name it."

("Please note: Although I transcribed this spoken introduction, the words are Blind Willie McTell's, not mine. I make no claims as to their accuracy," writes
"russianracehorse" on YouTube, so thanks to him for this riveting transcription and a fine video.)

Friday, 24 February 2012

Pants on Fire, Howling at the Moon?

I'll get back to my lupine pal above in a moment, but my point is that a very popular choice of reading (not a poem) is from Canon Scott-Holland, and it seems to me that, no doubt from good intentions, his pants are well and truly on fire fire liar liar.

OK, so I do (not often enough) the mindfulness meditation. I read the good grown-up books about mortality. I reflect long and deeply on those deaths that I learn about. I read the poems, take the long view, feel the symbols.

And sometimes I could just howl at the moon about death. I mean, how can it be? The world is all around us, we move through it and it moves through us, in ways we are only just beginning to understand. Life is an energy, our memories build and build and then. Nothing. Gone. Despite all our understanding, a huge mystery. The life closes down, a body is cared for (or not) and dealt with in a way that creates (or not) some meaning for those still alive. A bereaved person back a year or two phoned me weeks after the funeral and said "Where is he? I don't understand."

I understand, I understand. But I am not reconciled, as the poet said.

And that's why I turn now on this miserable drivel:

Death is nothing at all.
I have only slipped away into the next room.
I am I and you are you.
Whatever we were to each other
That we are still.

Death is very far from nothing at all, you old liar, with your narcotic platitudes. The most devout believer in an afterlife ("the next room...") will tell you that being separated from someone by death hurts, and that hurt has to be accommodated and lived through, and then lived with. We may still love those who have died, but that hardly means that whatever we were to each other, that we are still.

And you are not in the next room, dead dear one. You may be in heaven, you may be about to be re-incarnated, you may simply not be in existence, but you are bloody well not in the next room. If you were, I'd put the kettle on and we've have a nice chat.

I thought briefly and with contempt of the Canon's words as I helped with the funeral of a young woman recently. I was on the edge of tears myself some of the time, and I didn't even know her. And the reason I was upset - well, two reasons. One, to be honest, is a little over-tiredness, it being the season it is. But the other was because the people who'd lost the woman had the honesty, emotional truth and courage - and love for her - not to pretend. That was very moving.

It's not that particular pain that leaves me howling at the moon. It's the canonical nonsense above that does it. How can we deal with the power and mystery of death, how can we enrich our lives by understanding our mortality, if we put ourselves to sleep with this stuff?

I'm really sorry if the Canon's words have helped you recently, in a bereavement or a funeral. It's your choice, and if it works for you, I'm pleased, really I am. I also appreciate that he goes on to say more useful and true things later, about speaking of me as you always did, not being mock-solemn - but then he blows it.

"What is death but a negligible accident?"

It's not an accident, Mutton-Chops. It happens to all of us. Stop selling us a dummy, stop swerving about and dishonouring your noble profession. Listen to this mad/sane old man, holding his daughter in his arms:

"Howl, howl, howl! O, you are men of stones!
Had I your tongues and eyes, I'd use them so
That heaven's vault should crack. She's gone for ever!"

Tuesday, 7 February 2012

Shine On You Crazy Diamond - funeral anthem?

This has got a couple of plays at funerals up 'ere, as, too soon, survivors of the sixties pass from amongst us, possibly because they didn't take enough care of themselves, then or since, and possibly just lousy luck, the Grim Reaper being the cold-hearted old bastard he is.

You may feel that this is a plodding, pompous, over-lengthy portentous piece of 70s indulgence, or that it's a magnificent lament, at a kind of slow march tempo. It does brilliantly for the entry procession that Charles over on the Good Funeral Guide feels, quite rightly, should be revitalised.

By the time this came out, I wasn't much into big rock, but now I think it's a terrific funeral track, even if the departed was not a big star. Pink Floyd say it's about Syd Barret. For us, and with respect to the band and their lost founder, I don't think that matters. I think it's for every individual each of us sees as a diamond, shining out against the indifferent blackness of death, lighting up our lives before they depart.

"O dark dark dark. They all go into the dark,
The vacant interstellar spaces...."

Some of their light stays with us.

My musical moods change with the winds, but just today, it seems to me goose-flesh, tears and beauty. Shine on.

Saturday, 4 February 2012

Yoshi's Blend

Yoshi's Blend from Mackenzie Sheppard on Vimeo.

Yoshi is a cool genius with a heart as big as Honshu. Totally admirable. I think of the over-used word "solidarity." Or just - compassion.
Hat tip to the imactEDnurse for this (link in the title above) who posted it for a recently-bereaved colleague, for whom, sympathies. And respect to the film-maker - lovely job.

Friday, 3 February 2012

How Celebrancy Changed my View of the Grim Reaper

My old pal Arkayeff, who blogs most creatively and helpfully about ulcerative colitis and hypnotherapy over on:

and who looks a little like an aristo Russian duellist in St Petersburg c. 1869, asks me a shrewd question: has being a celebrant changed my views on mortality?


1. For my first few funerals, the arrival and sight of the coffin gave a little taughtening of the tummy, a tiny echo of that apprehension and foreboding that people often feel, I think, when it's one of theirs. I'm now used to coffins, funeral directors, black clothes, crematoria and graveyards, all the Grim Reaper's earthly trappings. That's a situational change, and I welcome it.

Mind you, I don't do the body care. It would be good if I could, perhaps, because I think an integrated undertaker/celebrant service is an ideal - and there are such around the country; provided they are equally good at both jobs, that's great. But: "know thyself." A bridge too far for Gloria at her time of life, I'm afraid. ("Chickenshit!" they all roared. I agree entirely...) So that's a superficial enough change in my view of the GR. His black clothes don't scare me none - though I'll keep well clear of that nasty sharp scythe for as long as possible!

2. I've learned a lot about grief - the different ways people grieve, and face their bereavement. This has helped me not just to understand intellectually that grief is natural, inevitable and that it will pass - or at least, subside and change - but to feel the truth of that. I think that's an important part of accepting one's own mortality: not to be afraid of grief.

3. I won't say that "At my back I always hear/Time's winged chariot hurrying near," because that could be interpreted as a a panicky sort of feeling. It's rather that I more fully appreciate Horace's "carpe diem." He wasn't advocating a sort of headlong desperate hedonism. "Life is short so let's get pissed/stoned/laid as much and as quickly as possble" seems to me pretty much a route to disaster. He was actually recommending that we prune our vines. Cut back on the stuff that doesn't matter. Distinguish between fantasy futures and activities, and what can be made much of from where we already are.

Live in the actual present, sieze this day. I feel that more strongly now, and in common with many people in - what shall we say? very late middle age? early old age? - I am seeking to divest myself of irrelevancies. Which sounds a bit severe, until I reflect that the essentials I want to concentrate on are e.g. daughters, grandsons, a nice glass of wine, a book to read in the opposed to "maybe I really will learn to play the guitar like Nick Drake/Freddie King/Segovia" No, you old fool, you won't!

And all that comes from encountering human mortality so often that I think more often about my own. It's made me feel the truth of a simple point such as: life and death are the same thing, they are part of each other. And within that, life can be full of delights and astonishments.

So maybe on the one hand: it has sharpened my feelings about life, made me more quickly moved by other's sufferings and griefs, but also more aware of immediate pleasures to be found now. And on the other hand: made me more accepting of the inevitability and rightness of our mortality.

It's not callous to say that the death of an 89-year-old is not a disaster and shouldn't be a huge shock (Leaving aide for now the manner of his death) It is simply accepting something as inevitable, and trying to understand its true significance.

4. It's not changed my lack of religious belief, in the way of the organised religions of the world, sects, cults and so on, but it has made me more receptive of different beliefs, and of what we rather lamely call "spirituality." Because the end of a life: the astonishing absence of a person, one minute there, then gone - this does still seem to be a baffling puzzle, even though all the rational stuff is in place. The difference between a life embodied in a person, and - a body. H'mmm. That's a big part of how the work has changed my view of human mortality. Mystery and wonder.

I daresay that's more than enough for now, Arkers! Thanks for asking. I'm grateful to the work for all these changes. "Old men should be explorers," said TS Eliot, and Yeats said that an old man was just rags on a stick unless soul clap its hands and sing. Whatever a soul is or isn't, I sometimes think I'm beginning to see what he means. And I'm beginning truly to accept the impermanence of things. On the gravestone in the pic, the names are gradually fading, obliterated by the forces of nature and the seasons.

To what shall I compare the world?

It is like the wake

Vanishing behind a boat

That has sailed away at dawn.

Sami Mazei

Thursday, 2 February 2012

A "Song" for a Funeral

Usually, if I find a video of a song/tune that might work for a funeral, I send it to the Good Funeral Guide, that runs a whole series of the same. Occasionally I put it up here.

Here's an unusual one. No vid, no pic. You'll have to look it out for yourself, if you don't have it. It is, of course, on iTunes.There is a video of the tune I want on YouTube, but good-ish though it is, it's at a 70th birthday tribute concert. The one I want you to listen to is the original, from 45 (blimey!) years ago. That is not on YouTube.

John Mayall's Bluesbreakers with Eric Clapton, the "Beano" Album:
"Have Your Heard About My Baby?"

It starts with a lovely rolling tenor sax chorus from the late Dick Heckstall-Smith, and builds and builds. Mayall's soaring vocal is quite extraordinary. The words are few, and OK, it's not really "about" losing someone through death, but "Have you heard about my baby?/Where she's gone, where she's gone, I just don't know."

Well, do we?

And straightforward stuff about she wears the crown, the suggestion that he didn't love her enough (can we ever?) and finally, imagine this at a funeral, "if you see my baby,/please tell her that I love her so." He sounds utterly helpless and desolate.

I think it'd work at a funeral.

As for Clapton. He was 21. Where did he get such savage power, such frightening intensity? It's the kind of playing that feels as though something else is in control. It still tears me up, after all these years. It is the heart of loss. It burns. It's angry. Like you feel when you lose someone for ever.

It sounds almost as though they had to pull the guitar out of his hands at the end; there's a kind of despairing crash.

Forget the hype, and the rock nonsense about "bluespower." This is the purest of music.

It grieves.

It's what we need, before we move on to the "celebrating and honouring."

You think I'm being an ageing fan, who maybe should grow up? Well, maybe I should grow up, but it's not to do with fan worship. Unless you are truly allegic to the sound of an electric guitar and you've been finally put off the blues by all the "yeah, man" stuff, give your ears a wash, as it were, and just try it, please, because I'd hate you not to feel it, if you can.

Or maybe it's just because it's in my veins, and coming to it new doesn't work at all? Well, then I'm lucky.

Wednesday, 1 February 2012

What a Celebrant Wants from a Funeral Director

..and I don't mean a shiny black car.

Honoured again to find that the Good Funeral Guide has posted something I've sent them. It's not about mindfulness and mortality ('bout time I posted on that, bit busy just lately with the sort of stuff in the photo..) it's about my wish to work more closely with undertakers, and how together we could provide much better funerals.

I do mean "honoured." You've no idea how much difference the GFG and associated commentariat has made to my work as a celebrant, and indeed to my views on mortality.

Anyway, why not nip over and have a look, and add yourself to the many thousands of readers the GFG gets every week?