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


  1. Simon Ferrar, I know not who you are, but I see you were quite recently noted as a "follower" of this blog effort. Welcome, and thanks for your interest.

  2. He was right, that Horace. And so are you.

  3. Why, thank you, ma'am, and Hooray for Horace!

  4. I would say I agree with many, if not all, of those beautifully articulated sentiments GM. Especially the sharpening of the senses and not being so quick to beat myself over the head for not being fluent in French and piano playing. Aren't we lucky to have a role that is so thought-provoking? x

  5. We are really are lucky, CB. I sometimes feel as though this job has blown away a kind of emotional and intellectual log-jam! Thanks for dropping in.

  6. Embrace the moment; live in the now rather than in pursuit of regrets or hopes, respect but do not fear the black veil.

    Mortality, in this sense, is no country for old men.

    As always you are alive with thought.


  7. Thanks to you, XP and Arkayeff, for dropping by - and particular thanks for Arkers for encouraging me to think about something which it's easy not to reflect on, but which in my line of work it's important to do.

    As the Dalai Lama reportedly once said, and which I probably over-quote, "Westerners don't think about death until they are dying, and it's a bit late then."

    Although against that, I guess one could put the splendid Western stoicism of Galdstone. His last words. When the doc said that he was dying, Gladders apparently said "Dying, Doctor? That's the last thing I shall do." And expired.

    1. That of course should read "Gladstone," not "Galdstone," which as we all know is a painful and common affliction...

      See below for XP's comment, which I have rescued from the infernal machinations og Googlestuff.

  8. Stupid Gmail deleted a comment from XP, which I am now re-posting as follows:
    "Beautiful and eloquent post, GM. You are so right - it's not what this job teaches us about death that matters - it's what we learn about life.
    Thank you."
    Well, I wasn't going to miss out on a lovely comment like that, now was? Because XP's right - I've learned so much about life in this job. Thank you XP.