Tuesday, 15 January 2013

oooer! A coffin!

The fear of death is a huge subject, and here's an obvious enough thought: some of the fear may simply be unfamiliarity with death and its trappings. In our culture, each of us is very much less likely to be sitting with an elderly or ill person when they die, than would have been the case a hundred or so years ago. Each of us has to organise and go to very many fewer funerals than we would have done back then. Many many more of us die in hospital, when "everything" immediately after a death is taken care of. Inadvertently, we have shielded ourselves from the inevitability and obviousness of death. 

When I began celebrancy work, I felt a little of that same tension and sense of dread as a coffin was unloaded from a hearse that I remember feeling at a family funeral, or the funeral of a friend. This was a separate thing from a little touch of stage fright, which I still get in varying degrees, and which I welcome, because it puts me on whatever mettle I might have. (Any stage fright disappears, just as it does for actors, when I get going.)

The coffin thing is different from the stage fright, because I only felt it for the first two or three funerals, and it has now completely gone. It was the awful tremendous realisation that a body that was a person was inside that oddly-shaped box. It still is a sobering, steadying thought, and a big mystery, but the dread and the tension have vanished.

Maybe some familiarisation with the Grim Reaper's trappings helps to ease some of the more superficial fears we may have of death? Death is, in one sense, ubiquitous and commonplace, but it doesn't feel like it. 

If familiarisation with one small aspect of Reaperdom helped me, I don't know what use that is in general. You hardly want to be hanging around undertakers premises or crematoria gawping at coffins. But familiarisation with coffins may be a small step in a direction that perhaps most of us need to move in: engaging with the fact of human mortality, getting at least a little used to the idea. 

Living with the truth of our own mortality doesn't just help celebrants do their job; it enriches life itself, because it illuminates it for what it is. A bleedin' miracle!


  1. Have you read a book called "The Undertaking" by Thomas Lynch? I bet you have. I read it years ago and I found it really interesting (and funny as well at times). I remember him making some kind of comparison with undertaking and flushing Loos. He says something about how as we got plumbed in we got removed from our reality.

    Death is now an odd thing that happens in secret, and the mechanics and reality of the experience is hidden from view by a thick velvet curtain.

  2. You give me a useful prompt thanks Arkers, I must move the book firmly up my list of things to read one day when....

  3. Ooh, do read it, GM! He's a poet, too.

  4. Agree with Ms Edwards. Not so much a matter of how good it is, more a matter of how much you'd enjoy it. Hugely. Vastly. Immeasurably. It's essays, too, so, in the Gove argot, bitesize.

    I've forgotten what I was going to say, now.

  5. Ah, I've remembered. ANd before I unpack it, let me tell you that this ID thingy you have is incredibly, eyescrunchingly tricky to decipher. I've just remembered a decent response I made to a post a while back which I just couldn't copy the runes right for.

    Yes, familiarisation. Way to go. Have you noticed how cold and repellent a conventional coffin is? The way the Feb sun gleams in that sinister way on it? Beastly things. There's an undertaker in, is it, Bulgaria who has an empty coffin in his shop. You can pop in and lie in it for a bit any time you want. People like it -- it gets them used to the idea. I think you ought to propose to our indigenous undertakers that they offer the same service.

    Right, here goes...

  6. Well, thanks a lot, Mr Cowsling and Ms Edwards - The Undertaking arrived yesterday and has completely broken up my work schedule for the day....winderful stuff, just wonderful. Thanks for the gentlest yet most productive of nags.